As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._
The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White and published by Overlook
This piece is by Berlin book person, Amanda DeMarco, who is the brains behind Readux, a literary website with “reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.”
“All of the people in this book are alive or were at one time,” begins Albert Thelen’s foreword to The Island of Second Sight. However, they “appear subject to greater or lesser degrees of personal disjuncture, similarly the sequence of events has undergone chronological rearrangements that can even involve the obliteration of all sense of time. In case of doubt, let truth be told.” This is a book, then, with a troubled relationship to reality and an untroubled one to truth. That is, one that claims the ultimate authority of the storyteller.
Just as in his own life, the author’s alter-ego Vigoleis arrives on the island of Mallorca in 1931 with his wife Beatrice, and the pair flee the increasingly inhospitable political climate in 1936. The degree to which the intervening five years hew to Thelen’s biography is debatable; as is the book’s position in the cannon. Lauded as one of the great works of twentieth century literature, The Island of Second Sight is not only under-appreciated abroad (it was first translated into English 57 years after its original publication), but also at home, where its status is rather that of a cult classic, absurd for a book of its stature.
Vigoleis and Beatrice travel to Mallorca because they believe that Beatrice’s brother Zwingli is dying there. Instead they find that he’s been incapacitated by the unstoppable sexual powers of Pilar, a particularly beautiful Spanish prostitute. Thus begins the Vigoleis’s long engagement with putas, whom he greets with the same shoulder-shrugging cheer as the rest of the turpitude and degeneration he encounters on the island, as well as in his own mind: “The philosopher Scheler had been right after all, when he responded to the Archbishop of Cologne, who had accused him of unvirtuous conduct, by asking His Eminence if he had ever seen a signpost that had ever gone in the direction it pointed to.”
Before Vigoleis, too, succumbs to Pilar, she mercifully kicks the couple out and they drift from one absurd lodging and low-paid occupation to the next, two bohemians at the mercy of fortune, never far removed from the moans and wails of the cathouse. A growing gaggle of locals, emigrés, and vacationers populate the story as Vigoleis and Beatrice settle into Mallorcan life. Therise of fascism paints a thickening black streak through the story, whose shadiness is otherwise derived from the more quotidian excesses of various human appetites and failings.
In other reviews, you’ll read about Thelen’s quick-witted Nazi-mocking, including one magisterial scene in which Vigoleis, working as a tour guide (called a “Führer” in German, literally a “leader”) deludes and delights a gaggle of German tourists by narrating their tour with lies that aggrandize the Teutonic tradition. The Island of Second Sight is also praised for its numerous literary allusions, as well as for the diverse intellectuals of the day that Vigoleis comes into contact with and lampoons.
None of these are the reason that The Island of Second Sight should win the Best Translated Book Award 2013. What does make it worthy of the prize is its sheer linguistic fecundity and the contribution it makes to the tradition of narrative. Vigoleis is one of the true great incarnations of the storyteller. He’s very nearly a shape-shifter, and he employs his art not only on rightist tourists, but also lonely heiresses, local functionaries, and first and foremost on the reader.
Vigoleis is so garrulous, clever, and original that you will willingly follow him down any cow-path he cares to tread. Which is every path that offers itself. At 736 pages, discursion is the novel’s mode, and it is hard to say what is plot and what is tangent. Multiple, extended scenes dedicated to the attempted and ultimately counterfeited nonconsensual consummation of the miscegenational union of a purebred Pekinese and a lapdog of impure lineage? Journeys back into childhood, into the Middle Ages? The story of the joke that cost Unamuno his life? Ever-deepening reflections on the failings of Catholicism? On the writings of Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose writings Thelen translated from the Portuguese in real life? On the philosophical significance of the donkey? Why not.
Perhaps even more interesting are the recursive discursions, that is, the ones that themselves reflect on the nature of narrative. Thelen refers to Vigoleis in the third person, except when he doesn’t, for example, when pulling back to comment on his own storytelling prowess, which hazily bleeds into Vigoleis’s as we reenter the stream of the plot. Rumor, translation, transcription, letter writing, note-taking, testifying, confessing, lying for personal gain, lying for sport—every manner in which a story can be transmuted and transmitted has its day in The Island of Second Sight.
The text is as rife with neologisms as archaisms, rhetorical devices as well as low puns, enriched by a sprinkling of words from the six languages Thelen spoke. The book is a lexicographical treasure that particularly delights in the description of all that is base. Beatrice’s debauched brother Zwingli is even the editor of a poly-lingual dictionary of obscenities, to which Vigoleis is naturally a helpful contributor.
That translator Donald White has managed to capture the book’s riotous linguistic profusion is a small miracle. Let me cite one of the innumerable jewels that dot the novel: Vigoleis describes a period of uncharacteristic domestic harmony: “Wherever one looked, it was a scene of peace and concord. It was as if the word puta had been struck from our dictionary.” A paragraph later, Don Darío, fellow lodger and exploiter of Vigoleis’s half-baked business ideas, disrupts this rare bliss. Why? “. . . it was only an American millionaire who had enraged my putative business partner.” Of course, if harmony is puta-free, then an angry man is putative.
This is a book whose form echoes the copiousness of the chaotic, shifting social order it depicts. Filthy, generous, good-natured, manipulative, The Island of Second Sight is an utterly, amply, completely human book, and that is why it deserves to win the BTBA.
We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. (Netherlands, Overlook)
Willem Frederik Hermans is a good example of a classic author who probably should’ve been translated years ago, but for some reason, was only recently picked up by Harvill and Overlook. Now, his two big books—Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles—are available to English readers.
The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature has a good deal of info about Hermans on their website, including this rather interesting bio:
Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors. Before devoting his entire life to writing, Hermans had been teaching Physical Geography at the University of Groningen for many years. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style led to a court case as early as 1952. His caustic pieces were compiled in Mandarijnen op zwavelzuur (Mandarines in Sulphuric Acid, 1963), which was reprinted with additions a number of times. It is Hermans’s belief that in order to survive people have to create own reality. It is inevitable that all these experiences of reality will collide. Language is essential to create order out of chaos and plays an important role in this process. In his essays on Wittgenstein, Hermans studied this problem in depth. In his novels and stories Hermans places his characters in a world of certainty for themselves but equivocal for the reader. It is in this field of tension that the intrigue in De tranen der acacia’s (Acacia’s Tears, 1949) and in De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) develops. Although stories such as Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding) and Paranoia have a surrealistic tendency, Hermans’ novels The Darkroom Of Damocles, Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep), Uit talloos veel miljoenen (From Countless Millions) are more realistic or satirical and everything in his rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author’s pessimistic philosophy.
Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.
The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.
The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book. The NLPVF also has an interesting page about this novel, and its lasting importance:
The story of Osewoudt’s fateful wanderings through the ‘sadistic universe’ (the title of one of Hermans’ essay collections) is extraordinarily gripping. Is Osewoudt hero or villain? Or is he a psychopath, driven by delusions? The Darkroom of Damocles is composed of sharp, suggestive and relentless sentences, and its ambiguous ending is debated by critics to this day. It is the impossibility of ascertaining whether Osewoudt was on the ‘right’ side or the ‘wrong’ side – the moral issue of the Second World War in a nutshell – that makes Hermans’ novel as breathtaking now as when it was written a decade after the war.
Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review has a really nice review of this book that’s worth reading in its entirety. He’s a big fan:
Hermans’ isn’t so much anti-heroic novel as un-heroic. It offers a remarkable picture of the Dutch experience in World War II, and of the difficulty faced by the individual trying to contribute to society. Osewoudt is not even particularly incompetent — a girl sent over from England shows how spectacularly wrong things can be done — and he even makes some contributions (though, as murder, they’re of a decidedly ugly sort), but certainty and a type of competence, as manifested by Dorbeck, prove not to be much better.
Unsentimental and brutally honest, with both a sense for the absurd and a sharp wit, Hermans hasn’t written a sympathetic story, but it’s impressive, nevertheless — grandiose, even, especially in capturing some specific Dutch types. The characters — including Osewoudt, his German captor, his uncle, and the women in his life — are also very nicely realised, and the plotting is excellent. De donkere kamer van Damokles is both war-time thriller and metaphysical mystery. It leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, but it’s a worthwhile ride.
Here’s a little nugget from the London Book Fair:
Introduced by agent Ed Victor as a “publisher to his core,” Peter Mayer, former head of Penguin and who now runs both Overlook Press and Duckworth Press, was presented with the Trilogy Lifetime Achievement Award at a lunch during Tuesday’s London Book Fair. (via The Winged Elephant)
Overlook does a good number of interesting works of international literature (such as Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing), and it’s good to see Peter Mayer get some of the recognition he deserves.
To be frank though, this viewpoint troubles me a bit:
Mayer, who began as a publisher of mass market paperbacks and became known for publishing some on publishing’s most respected authors, said it is important to publish not only serious books, but dangerous books and commercial titles as well. He noted that it was his decision to publish a series of Sudoku books that will permit the publication of more worthwhile works well after the Sudoku craze is over.
Sure that’s true, but it’s only one path to reaching the goal of publishing great books. A nonprofit press with proper funding by individuals and foundations can focus solely on “worthwhile works” without having to succumb to doing books just to make money. One could even argue that chasing the next bestseller and veering away from one’s initial mission can spell doom for a literary press. (Even in this statement, there’s an implicit assumption that “good” “worthwhile” books can’t sell . . . I’d rather presses stick to the dangerous books and forget chasing the commercial dollars.)
The Winged Elephant has an excerpt of the new Kharms book that, like most of Kharms’s writing, is short, precise, hysterical and fantastic.
This is all I can comfortably quote here without violating free use rules:
One day Orlov stuffed himself with mashed peas and died.
When a story opens like that, you just have to keep reading. And you can do so here.
Now if they’d only get rid of the lame cartoons, I’d really like the New Yorker. Anyway, on top of the Kunkel review of Robert Walser, this week’s New Yorker includes some pieces from the OBERIU-founding, grand-absurdist Daniil Kharms.
Any Kharms books, stories, excerpts you can get your hands on are definitely worthwhile, and this November, Overlook is releasing Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who also runs the very interesting Ugly Duckling Presse. UDP may be the best source for European poetry—especially of the more avant-garde variety.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .