11 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

For the next several weeks 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 Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush. (Catalonia, Peter Owen)

The set-up of The Enormity of the Tragedy sounds like a dirty joke for the Viagra generation: Ramon-Maria wakes up one morning with an “indefatigable erection.” After many “experiments” trying to “relieve” his condition, he goes to a doctor and finds out that his erection is a symptom of a rare and fatal disease that leaves him with two months to live.

But one of the things that makes this novel so interesting is the fact that it doesn’t devolve into penis jokes and sexual set-pieces. Instead, Monzo focuses a lot on the “tragedy” in the title, treating Ramon-Maria situation—his fatal condition and the fact that his stepdaughter plots to murder him—in a straightforward, natural way. Monzo’s warmth as a writer ensures that the book is still funny, it’s just not the sort of slapstick comedy of errors that the initial description seems to point to.

Before reading this, I had read a couple Monzo stories, but that’s it. (Not much has been published in English, although in the interest of full disclosure, Open Letter will be publishing Benzina and Guadalajara over the next year.) This book blew me away though. Peter Bush’s translation is wonderful, and the way that Monzo crafts his story—playing Ramon-Maria’s attempt to “live large” (pun only half-intended) over his last few months against the adolescent struggles of Anna-Francesca. As the novel progresses and the plot becomes more complicated, everything builds to an inevitable conclusion that is also a bit shocking. And definitely not the punchline to a dirty joke.

When this first came out, I wrote a full-length review, which included this passage that does paint a decent picture of the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

In terms of Monzo himself, he’s considered one of the best contemporary Catalan writers. He even gave the opening speech when Catalan was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. This speech is another good example of his playful, self-referential style:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo is an important writer, both for his novels and him many short story collections, and truly deserves to be on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist.

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

An import from Peter Owen, Pushkin’s Second Wife and Other Micronovels is Yuri Druzhnikov’s latest book to be published in English and the latest addition to our review section. It was translated from the Russian by Thomas Moore and came out earlier this year.

The review is written by Irene Minkina, a student here at the University of Rochester who has been interning for the press this past semester.

Druzhnikov’s most famous novel is Angels on the Head of a Pin, but this sounds pretty intriguing as well, especially since it’s not a novel, and not stories, but a collection of “micronovels”:

Yuri Druzhnikov is most well known for his novel Angels on the Head of a Pin (2003), which was included on the University of Warsaw’s list of the top ten Russian novels of the twentieth century. Though six of his books have been translated in English, he has not received as much critical attention as other contemporary writers such as Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Pushkin’s Second Wife and Other Micronovels (2007) is Druzhnikov’s collection of ten “micronovels,” a term which Druzhnikov explains in the postcript, stating that “in the twenty-first century this new genre has acquired legitimacy, filling a niche for a genre in which large-novel ideas accumulate energy in the space of a mere thirty pages.”

[Click here for the rest of the review.]

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

Yuri Druzhnikov is most well known for his novel Angels on the Head of a Pin (2003), which was included on the University of Warsaw’s list of the top ten Russian novels of the twentieth century. Though six of his books have been translated in English, he has not received as much critical attention as other contemporary writers such as Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Pushkin’s Second Wife and Other Micronovels (2007) is Druzhnikov’s collection of ten “micronovels,” a term which Druzhnikov explains in the postcript, stating that “in the twenty-first century this new genre has acquired legitimacy, filling a niche for a genre in which large-novel ideas accumulate energy in the space of a mere thirty pages.”

In this collection, Druzhnikov explores the psyche of Russians before and after the collapse of communism, using Russia’s political situation as a background for the broader exploration of the influence of daily challenges and struggles on the human mind.

The first micronovel of the collection, “Pushkin’s Second Wife,” explores the life of Diana, a museum tour guide:

Diana was in love with Pushkin, selflessly . . . She was absolutely certain that Pushkin belonged to her personally and she to him as well, of course. Her love for him and devotion to him brought energy to her life and gave her happiness of always being with him—day and night. But here in the real world she stepped into her communal flat, unlocked the door to her room and was all alone.

Diana, who feels disconnected from everyone around her, begs an artist to cut her life-sized Pushkin out of a piece of plywood. When Pushkin comes home with Diana, she treats him like a lover, imagining entire conversations and interactions with him. She finds comfort in this wooden figure who feels more real to her than anyone else in her life. Her solace, though, is constantly disrupted by people mocking and ridiculing her, which reminds her of the emptiness and inadequacy of her daily life.

This “micronovel” was impressive in its exploration of the human need to fantasize and imagine a different life, especially when the world around them is chaotic and unforgiving, yet the repetitive nature of the story was slightly disappointing. Druzhnikov’s lengthy descriptions of Diana’s devotion to Pushkin are rather excessive and unnecessary at times, which is ironic considering this is a “micro” novel. (A 100-page “micronovel,” but nevertheless.)

His shorter “micronovels” are much more poignant and compelling, especially when Druzhnikov weaves stream-of-consciousness passages into his writing. The shorter stories are very diverse in their subject matter. In “The Man Who Read Me First,” a middle-aged man meets the wife of his former boss, a censor at a Russian newspaper, and is forced to revisit his complicated relationship with a man whose job was to restrict his ideas. In “The Death of Tsar Fyodor,” an elderly actor who is extremely attached to his job in the theater has an identity crisis when the theater director begins to faze him out of the company. In “Money Goes Around,” a cab driver brings his daughter Masha to work. As they drive people around, a cynical discussion about money ensues, and Masha’s curiosity and interest in the power of money in the world is set against her dad’s criticism of the process of monetary circulation. The balance of description and dialogue makes this one of the strongest works in the collection.

Druzhnikov lets the conversations among the characters speak for themselves, forcing readers to think about their meaning without tying them up into general, tidy conclusions. However, on a larger scale, these works are, at least in part, used to expose the failures of the Soviet Union, and Druzhnikov’s writing can feel propaganda-esque at times. Though it may be difficult to move past this weakness of the work, it is also important to recognize its strengths: Druzhnikov’s skillfully explore the ways in which individuals continue to cope in the midst of confussion, oppression, and corruption, and the ways in which interpersonal relationships change and develop in the midst of national chaos. Aside from the utilitarian feel that sometimes surrounds these “micronovels,” this is a thoughtful and interesting work that is worth a read.

3 August 07 | Chad W. Post |

As described in the jacket copy, the plot of The Enormity of the Tragedy reads like a start to a dirty joke: Ramon-Maria, an aging trumpet player, wakes up with an indefatigable erection. Hilarity ensues. But actually it doesn’t. Not to say the book isn’t funny, or that the set-up couldn’t be treated as such, but that’s not what Monzo’s up to here. Parallel to Ramon-Maria’s story—which isn’t all sexual fun and games, since as it turns out, his erection is a symptom of a rare disease leaving him less than two months to live—is the story of his stepdaughter, Anna-Francesca, who steals from him and is plotting his murder. (And—spoiler alert—does eventually push him off the roof of their decaying mansion.)

Monzo treats all of this—Ramon-Maria’s sex and death situations, Anna-Francesca’s affair with a teacher and quest for revenge—in a very straightforward, fairly believable fashion. Ramon-Maria goes for a second opinion, which eventually confirms the first. He takes out a mortgage so as to “live large” for the last few weeks of his life and to provide his stepdaughter (to whom he never speaks) with cash at least. Anna-Francesca stresses about sex, about boys, about flirting with her friend’s lover. Under the surface, crazy shit is going on though, both in terms of the plot and in the emotional lives of the characters.

It’s Monzo’s understated humor and naturalistic approach to the subject, which, to me, is the most intriguing facet of the book. A lesser author could’ve relied upon one-liner after one-liner, exploiting the enormity of the absurd situation, whereas Monzo focuses on the tragedy. (It’s no wonder the book opens with an epigraph from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.) This book is much more about the inability of humans to connect than it is about penis jokes. Sex plays a role in this—women are sort of overwhelmed by Ramon-Maria, his stepdaughter is afraid of “going all the way”—but the loneliness of the characters is exacerbated by the fact that they don’t even bother to try and connect with others. Several times it’s referenced that Ramon-Maria and Anna-Francesca don’t mind living together too much, since they can go weeks without seeing each other. Neither have any relatives, close friends, etc., and when Ramon-Maria dies, no one really cares. The ending lines kind of sum up the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

My biggest problem with the book is the fact that it feels like the publisher really rushed this. Peter Bush is a top notch translator, and for the most part the book reads really well. It’s riddled with typos though, and one more pass through would’ve made a huge difference. (That and—on a selfish note—Peter Owen should sell the rights to his books to an American publisher instead of distributing them via Dufour. Peter Owen books aren’t really available through stores in this country, and this one, a 222 page paperback retails for $29.95!!)

That said, I hope more Monzo books are translated into English. He’s so well known and respected for his short stories that I feel like we’re only getting a partial picture of a major European writer.

28 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

I feel like I really should read Anna Kavan if for no other reason than that she legally changed her name to one of her characters.

I’ve heard from others that Ice is the best place to start. Too bad Peter Owen’s U.S. distribution is total rubbish and cheap paperback editions of his books cost about $20.

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