29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Robert Walser’s The Walk, which comes out from New Directions next week, and was translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. (The joint translation set-up is explained in Phil’s review.)

Phil was an intern here way way back, and is now working at the Plutzik Foundation, where one of his tasks is to run the foundation’s blog, A Fistful of Words. If you’re not familiar with Hyam Plutzik, I highly recommend checking out this post that Phil wrote for The Paris Review. And while you’re reading Phil’s writing, be sure and check out his personal blog, Gloomy Grammar, where he recently wrote a post about another New Direction book, Antigonicks, Anne Carson’s rendition of Sophokles’s Antigone. (Since when did we start spelling “Sophocles” as “Sophokles”? This is disorienting. Not sure I approve. Although, “Cyklops” is a pretty rad spelling. Ikarus. Hmm.)

Here’s a bit from Phil’s review:

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Click here to read the entire piece.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Elsewhere in the speech the narrator lays out the argument that walking is his way to observe, experience the world, gather “reports” and scenes which will serve as fodder for his other occupation. The above paragraph is a good example of the rhetorical gusto that is frequent in Walser’s work, usually in the service of irony. In a preface, Bernofsky describes the “straight-faced and earnest” quality of this and other works of the later-period Walser, as a contrast to the “thickly layered ironies of the Berlin period that preceded it;” in The Walk, such bravado is actually part of the narrator’s personal conflict. Early in the story he declares, “On account of this haughty bearing, this domineering attitude, I shall soon, as will be learned, have to take myself to task.” But, despite his verbose and aggrandized tone, the writer and walker narrating The Walk is, the reader feels, sincere in his belief that one cannot write if one does not walk, and that the writing justifies the walking.

Unfortunately, a writer cannot be writing while he is walking, and vice versa. When he wants to take a break, to stop writing, what does he do? “Relax in brief respite,” says the narrator. “Writers who understand their profession at least a little take the same as easily as possible. From time to time they like to lay their pens aside a while.” The novel begins at the start of his walk: “I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.” Writing and walking, however codependent, are to some extent irreconcilable pursuits. And one may have one’s preference: our narrator “loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.” (The pun on “shade,” intended or not, seems to wink at the reader by alluding to the “phantoms” of the writing room. Whether or not a similar pun occurs here in the German I cannot say, but that need not matter for my enjoyment of it in the English I am reading. More, again, on this, in a moment.)

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Would I have noticed and paid so much attention to these distinctions had I skipped the preface? Perhaps not. A preface or introduction offers context for the work about to be presented, which may or may not be helpful. My enjoyment of the book was no less for having read Bernofsky’s preface, my grasp of the philosophical and emotional complexity of the narrator no more certain (The Walk is, to be sure, a difficult book, for all of its 90 pages). But—less enjoyable, more certain, than what? I only read the novel and its preface in the one order. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to save the preface till afterwards. But I will also warn the reader that in detailing some of Walser’s revisions, Bernofksy spoils the ending of the book, the power of which is partly (not entirely) thanks to a delayed reveal. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the experience—I still read the book twice in one weekend, to my increasing pleasure and puzzlement—but it might have been omitted, or the Preface relocated to an Afterword.

There’s more to be said about this book as a translation and as a novel. Concerning the latter, Walser’s humor is unrelenting, which makes the inward-turning ending all the more poignantly sad. Among the narrator’s hilarious apostrophes to dogs, or to no one in particular concerning the heavenliness of children, there’s a weird scene in which the narrator is threatened with force-feeding by a matronly Frau Aebi. That this turns out to be Frau Aebi’s joke is, to me, actually more disturbing than the forcefeeding itself would have been, which reinforces my sense that Walser is deliberately experimenting with irony and sincerity.

As a translation, this may become an important book for the unusual case which the text presents. Depending on its reception by critics better qualified than I, perhaps it will help to advance or complicate the ongoing debate concerning reading and review practices for translated works. On May 3, Bernofsky contributed to a panel discussion on the very subject in the PEN World Voices Festival, in which she expressed her opinion that translations ought to be judged according to their success as a piece of writing in the target language, to an extent independent of the original. Her respect for Middleton’s text of The Walk, without which one imagines she would have retranslated the work entirely on her own, further demonstrates her position.

Lorin Stein, a translator and editor of the Paris Review, was also on the panel at PEN. He took the very different view that translators ought to be less visible and “minimize the damage” to the original which all translation must necessarily cause, perhaps in that it strips from the work its original sound. Stein also posited that translation adds an apparatus to a work, which publishers, editors, and translators ought to minimize (for instance, Stein insists on not printing his own name on the jacket of his published translations) in order to deliver the work and its author unadorned to the reader. Bernofsky’s preface, including the revision and translation history of The Walk, is an elaborate and complicated apparatus to be sure. But, to reiterate, the jury is out as to whether I think it enriched or detracted from my experience of the book. I’ve had one experience of The Walk for which I am very glad. Other readers will, I hope, have theirs.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Review Section”: is a piece by Phillip Witte on Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, which is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from New Directions.

Phil is one of our regular reviewers, and one of our former interns. As mentioned in the review, he also interned at New Directions, and is currently working for the Plutzik Foundation, where he’s running their poetry blog, A Fistful of Words. (Definitely check out the blog—Phil’s a great writer and great person and this deserves more attention.)

I believe Marias has a new book coming out in the not-too-distant future, but some unnnamable agent (as in, his name should never be spoken out loud for fear of repercussions sinister and royalty related), sold the rights to this (and some of the ND backlist) to a Big Six publisher. So forget that book and read While the Women Are Sleeping and Your Face Tomorrow. And trade ND editions of his earlier works (Dark Back of Time is a personal favorite) on the black market.

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Click here to read the full review.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Though the book is not all ghost stories, it does include several, featuring narrators or protagonists enmeshed in their own strange dilemmas of love and selfhood which are complicated by the sudden incursions of a spirit from beyond the grave. “One Night of Love” has its protagonist, who complains of his wife’s lack of interest in lovemaking, discover love letters addressed to his late father from a woman who claims that she is already dead as she writes. The narrator then receives a letter from his dead father’s dead lover, importuning him to exhume his father’s body and cremate it, in order that his spirit will be released and can join her. As the narrator quibbles with himself over whether to hide the letters from his wife, her sexual interest in him mysteriously starts to grow. Another story, “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” tells of a young girl who, out of charity, reads to a lonely old woman every day, and before long they are visited by a bullet-ridden ghost who turns out to be the Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, coming just to listen quietly to the girl read.

I’m finding it difficult fun to paraphrase a Marias story, they’re so gently off-beat and beautifully constructed. And Marias is bursting with affection for his very human, very living protagonists, as boring and morally repugnant as they might be, which might make my descriptions a little less morally ambiguous than the stories actually are—and challengingly, illuminatingly so, if you’ll pardon all the adverbs. “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban,” my personal favorite, tells of Derek Lilburn, an Englishman “of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past,” who begins a new teaching job in Madrid on a short-term professional exchange program. He arrives at his new school, where he is given the simple task of locking up the school every Friday night. The first night he is to perform this chore, he is warned to pay no heed to Senor Santiesteban, the ghost who, every single night, bursts out of the school office, takes seven steps over to the hallway bulletin board, tacks up a letter of resignation addressed only to a “Dear Friend,” takes eight steps back into the office, and falls still. Oddly, this ghost is not to be seen, only heard. And no one knows who he was in life, or what he is resigning from, or why: the letter, identical every night, is enigmatically reticent of circumstantial details. Lilburn makes it his personal mission to solve the puzzle, despite the warnings of his superior, Mr. Bayo, who has been down the investigational road and found that it only leads one to admit in frustration that the mystery is unsolvable. The bored and boring Lilburn is undeterred, and shares every tiny discovery with the wearily patient Mr. Bayo, until, finally outdoing his superior, Lilburn finds a way to truly know the ghost—by becoming him, in a strange way that has nothing to do with death.

The private contemplation of death by the living preoccupies many of the stories in this book, but not all of them: see “An Epigram of Fealty,” which tells of a rare book dealer in London who is harangued by a beggar claiming to be John Gawsworth, King of Redonda; or “Gualta,” a brief tale narrating one man’s descent into total ruination after meeting his doppelgänger at a business dinner. The title story, which is the first and longest in the collection, sets the stage for meditating on the imagination’s encounter with death, but it features nothing of the supernatural either. Told from a voyeur’s perspective, the story is strongly reminiscent of Lolita: it depicts an overweight middle-aged man, Viana, who has subscribed his life to his passionate desire for Inès, the daughter of his close friends, whom he meets when she is only seven years old. Now she is twenty-three and they have been living together for five years, to the ruin of his friendship with her parents. He videotapes her body with microscopic attention every day “because she is going to die,” he says, and he wants to have a visual record of her last day on Earth. The narrator watches this videotaping take place on the beach, and then meeting Viana one night beside the hotel pool, he listens to the fat man’s tale. My next thought as I read is that Marias owes much to Nabokov’s sense of narrative play as well—from the first image in the story of the narrator spying on his fellow sunbathers on the beach through his wife’s straw sunhat, this playful seriousness continues through the story’s final lines:

Both were sleeping, that’s why they didn’t wake up or come out onto the balcony, Luisa hadn’t died in my absence, however long that had been—I’d forgotten my watch. Instinctively, I glanced up toward the rooms, toward my balcony, toward all the balconies, and on one of them, I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet toga and heard it call to me twice, saying my name, as mothers say their children’s names. I stood up. On Inès’s balcony, though, whichever it was, there was no one.

The texture of the collection as a whole may seem uneven, but this is hardly a detractor. The ten stories here are dated across a period of more than 30 years, the earliest being “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga,” written (according to the Author’s Note) in 1965, when Marias was just fourteen years old (“be kind, please,” he beseeches his readers). The story is narrated by a man on his deathbed who continues to be able to see and hear but is unable to move or speak, “alive and well” mentally even as his body has ceased to function. A certain lack of maturity in the writing comes across at times with a coarse brashness, a mix of youthful courage and naivete in the tone that can be highly entertaining:

At six o’clock on the evening of the 22nd, when the fever intensified, I tried to get out of bed, but fell back against the pillow, dead. . . . I couldn’t speak or move or open my eyes, even though I could see and hear everything going on around me. My mother-in-law said:

“He’s dead.”

“May he rest in peace,” chorused the others.

Certainly it is the weakest story in the collection, so one wonders why Marias chose to include it. My guess is that it is at the very least to demonstrate that certain themes and meditations that set the writer to work in youth may keep him busy many years later. By including this story along with the much more mature “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” (dated 1998), with “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiestaban” (1975) and other stories from the mid-80s falling in between, the book offers us a glimpse of a long range of Marias’s life in writing.

The final and perhaps greatest pleasure in the book, however, is found in rereading and discovering that the work is not quite what you thought it was—it’s not the stories only, it’s the soft surprises that burst from Marias’s delicate prose (via Margaret Jull Costa’s rendering in the way that I like best in a translation: she gives the feeling that what you’re reading is decidedly not English, though you can’t point to exactly why it feels that way, as her English at the same time feels perfectly natural—Chris Andrews’s translation of Cesar Aira’s Ghosts is another example of English prose that dexterously retains some flavor of the original Spanish). As I’ve gone back over the book in composing this review, in order to describe these ghosts and enigmatic perusals of death, this is the kind of thing I find—the most careful, disquieting attention to a curious scene:

The young man took some time to reappear—perhaps ghosts go into mourning, for who else has more reason to or perhaps they are still wary, perhaps words can still wound them—but he did finally return, attracted perhaps by the new material, and he continued to listen with the same close attention, not standing up this time, leaning on the chairback, but comfortably installed in the now vacant armchair, his hat dangling from his hand, and sometimes with his legs crossed and holding a lit cigar, like the patriarch he never, in his numbered days, had the chance to become. (from “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps”)

Everyone probably already is, but I’ll say it anyway: Read Marias, read him again, and read him again.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Phillip Witte (former Open Letter intern, current New Directions intern) on Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae, the sixth of Hoffmann’s books to be published by ND. I think this is the only work of fiction I’ve ever come across with no page numbers . . .

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

“At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.”

Click here for the full review.

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.

Note the first two parentheticals, which clarify the two uses of “we.” Early in the book, Hoffmann advises us that he will often be referring to himself in the first person plural. He maintains this distinction vigilantly, on the one hand rendering the “royal we” so humorously, and obviously, obsolete, but also bringing around a fresh aspect of self-scrutiny: the simple, almost constant reminder that he is using the same pronoun for two subjects stresses the importance of his own life in relation to his life together with his family.

Next, note the grandiloquent generality of “reading things in them that make the heart tremble,” against the minute twentieth-century contextual analogy, “as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic strip character.” Such range of figuration is characteristic of Hoffmann’s writing in Curriculum Vitae, a sharp specificity as of the latter which justifies the appropriate use of the former. Consider this range of figurative device along with the next point: “One could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another.” In one sense, it may be Hoffmann’s own solution to Finnegans Wake. In another, this is one among countless aphoristic conclusions about life, about language, spirituality, writing—all of the biggest concerns of this writer’s existence. It is a conclusion that seems more a restatement of the problem, an unsolvable riddle, than an answer: it is like a zen koan, which is a significant point to which I will return. But philosophical bombshells like this one would surely misfire without being carefully juxtaposed against equally weighted statements of utter mundanity and real-world particularity of the final sentence, set off in its own paragraph, about instant coffee with sugar. Because this book is a condensed picture of a life, where the particular way one’s wife takes her coffee carries just as much existential weight as the crises of faith which keep one awake at night.

This is the entirety of section 34 of the book. There are one hundred sections, all of a similar length, and there are no page numbers. The book is thin, the margins wide, and the prose, as is evident in the above passage, exceedingly light. It can be read in a single (perhaps lengthy) sitting, such as a long train ride or an afternoon off in the park. It has the feel, reading it, of a book of aphorisms, or of zen koans, the latter which must be no coincidence because the author, Yoel Hoffmann, is Professor of Japanese Buddhism at Haifa University. His travels and studies in Japan are treated at length in the book, although it may be inaccurate to use the term “at length” at all. Textually speaking, there is nothing “at length” about the book, and yet the material carries the reader into realms far beyond the text: realms of humor, family life, travels, varying religions and peoples, and childhood in a distant past.

I realize that I have described the book above as a condensed picture of a life. According to the back cover blurb, it is “part novel and part memoir.” This is an accurate description: the subject is Hoffmann himself and his memories. But it is also part other things which fall into no easy categories. The book resists my simple description, and Hoffmann himself would surely scoff at it. He writes,

If I were able (by means of a deeper covenant than that which exists between author and reader) to fall on people’s necks and say to them Come, let’s sit while the tea is steeping, then drink, and you’ll tell me about your lives and I will tell of mine, I’d toss this manuscript into the trash and do precisely that. In such a world the law would forbid the making of fiction.

In no way is the novel driven by the usual devices one associates with fiction and novels: there are no motivating conflicts, no themes, and the “characters” do not exactly invoke the sympathies that generate a reader’s interest. It would seem that the book is more the memoir, with its frequent tone of reminiscence and reflection. But then again, having finished it, I cannot say I have a clear picture of the life of Yoel Hoffmann. It is largely autobiographical, but one could hardly call it an autobiography. This, I think, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. A reader may only be interested in an author’s memoiristic novel or novelistic memoir if that reader were already familiar with the author’s other work; I can certainly say that this is my first experience of the work of Yoel Hoffmann and as far as I can tell, it is as good a place to enter this Hebrew writer’s not inconsiderable oeuvre as any other (this being the sixth of his books to be published by New Directions, in English translations by Peter Cole). Indeed, I am eager to dig into some of his other works.

Part novel, part memoir, part neither, Curriculum Vitae is a frolicking dive into the self of the writer, where he finds his life’s collected works in the form of unsolvable riddles that, like a good zen koan, taste like wisdom and provide as much entertainment and satisfaction as the reader cares to draw from them.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.

Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:

I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.

Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”

And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk. . .

Read More...

29 August 08 | Chad W. Post |

Bulgarian filmmaker Angel Wagenstein is the author of three novels, the first of which is Isaac’s Torah, originally published in Bulgarian in 2000 and now available for the first time in English from Handsel Books in a brilliant translation by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova. A good indicator that a book is a significant achievement is the sheer volume of conversation topics to which it can give rise in literary analysis; that said, it is difficult to know where to begin. So, with shameless unoriginality, I will begin with the cover.

This book features something which was once common (think of the earliest novels: Tom Jones, for instance) but has fallen out of use in novel-writing: a cover-page tagline: “Isaac’s Torah: A novel, concerning the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld through two world wars, three concentration camps and five motherlands.” No more accurate and concise description of the novel can be given. Here we are given the setting in history and the protagonist’s condition, as well as a hint, suggested in that epic-scale term, “five motherlands,” of the turbulent scope of the story within.

To me, concentration camps were the first words to jump out at me and I’ll admit, I had some initial apprehension about tackling a heavy piece of Holocaust literature. But my worry was immediately dissuaded by the narrator Isaac Blumenfeld’s sense of humor; author Angel Wagenstein’s uncanny ability to portray, in vivid prose, the voice of a rambling reminiscent telling his story over a coffee on a Sunday afternoon; and of course, translators Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova’s success in transferring intact that voice across the language gap. And in book 4, I was relieved of guilt, as the narrator gives a nod to my apprehension:

And now, please, save me from the memory, heavy as a hundred-ton cast-iron mold, and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you, and that you are already maybe even fed up with.

In this way Isaac Blumenfeld excuses his circumvention of the horrible weight of the Holocaust in the awesome, epic narrative of his life. But to return to the tagline, there are two other, equally-weighted subjects to the matter of this book: the two World Wars and the five motherlands. Blumenfeld’s trip and tumble through these wars, camps and countries forms the body of a seamless narrative, laced with humor, tragedy, wit and wisdom.

Of humor, there is no shortage, despite the equal-quantity dosage of tragedy. As Wagenstein notes in his Acknowledgements, “through [Jewish jokes and anecdotes] my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” Blumenfeld himself maintains a sense of humor even in the face of almost certain death, such as in this passage from book 4, in which he is so far avoiding persecution by pretending to be Polish:

The whole business was about some big boss of theirs who’d been shot in the streets of Warsaw, and now they were looking for a hundred Poles as hostages. You know how it goes: if the assassins do not surrender themselves the hundred Poles will be shot in legal and fully understandable retribution. Now, I ask you . . . what was better—to remain a Pole or admit I was a Jew? . . . In the one case, as well as in the other, I’d end up, as the saying goes, pushing up daisies, but I personally preferred to be a Polish Jew—a sweeper in the New York subway.

And throughout the novel, Blumenfeld compares, with ironic wit, real-life atrocities, all-too-human insanities, and plain misfortune, to a wealth of little fables, jokes, and anecdotes.

The thing I find most intriguing about this book is its construction by the author, Wagenstein, as almost the work of another “author,” Blumenfeld. As Wagenstein points out in the passage he has included “Instead of a Foreword,” the work “is nothing more than a conscientious transcription of another’s memories and reflections,” which fact makes him, in a sense, a translator himself, not between languages, but from oral narrative to page. The careful balance of digression, rambling, and non sequitur—the trappings of the oral narrative—against elegant, discursive prose constructions is impressive. While reducing his tangible presence in the overall picture, Wagenstein provides a fine glaze of craft as the vessel in which the narrative is delivered from the storyteller to the reader.

Angel Wagenstein’s novel is an important monument to the lives of those who suffered the horrors of the two World Wars and all those wars’ extenuations, but rather than a lamentation of Blumenfeld’s, and the Jewish people’s, loss, it is a celebration of his and their lives. As uplifting as it is tragic, Isaac’s Torah is a great contribution to the literature of the period, the Wars, and the Holocaust, and to world literature as a whole.

17 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen |

Every so often, a tiny corner of the world, little seen and little heard in recent times by the rest of the globe, produces an artist whose voice speaks out to all of us, whose work displays such competence and quality as demands immediate attention. Lyonel Trouillot of Haiti is a novelist of such caliber. He is also a poet and essayist, and in 2004 his book Street of Lost Footsteps was a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize (trans. Linda Coverdale).

Coverdale now brings us Trouillot’s 2002 novel, Children of Heroes, a small but powerful showcase of Trouillot’s diverse talent. The author’s uses of style, voice, and plot structure cohere to form a little book that is much more than the space between its covers. A captivating work of art, the book reads as a miniature epic, a tragic journey, and poignant love story.

The novel takes place in Haiti, where an abusive husband and father is murdered by his two children. It follows their subsequent journey through their overcrowded city evading capture, and their final surrender after three days. While it is narrated in the first person by the younger of the children, Colin, the main figure of the story is truly Mariéla, his older sister, for she is the object of all of his affection; he loves and idolizes her. It is in this respect a tragic romance story as well.

The construction of the narrative is inventive and carefully assembled. The events documented spiral out from the murder itself, tracing what happens after it chronologically while simultaneously doubling back further and further into the past before the murder, and occasionally leaping ahead into the future beyond the three days that could be considered the novel’s real time-span. There are several techniques Trouillot uses to make you feel disoriented as you read, and this is foremost among them. This disorientation reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not to say that the book is confusing: in reading it, I never felt lost or confused, except in the first few pages, where a bombardment of narrative and character information is a bit overwhelming at first:

It must have been noon when we began to run. We could have put up with the smell for a lot longer, but when Mariéla saw the mailman coming, a guy who never failed to have a drink with Corazón and reminisce about the legendary greats of boxing, she dumped our savings out of their jar and, warning me not to lose them, slipped the coins into my pocket, then told me to run without stopping until I was out of the slum.

The relevant information identifying these characters comes gradually, settling the picture and further elaborating it as the novel grows and fleshes out.

The second technique of disorientation is use of chapters unbroken by paragraphs: that is, the text itself is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, but there are no paragraph breaks within them. All dialogue is embedded without demarcation, which is less confusing than one would expect, and at times—particularly in the question game scene—incredibly powerful and effective:

Are they going to lock us up? I mean in a prison or a reformatory? I don’t know. Yes, probably. And will we be locked up together? I don’t know. But we’ll always be together. And Joséphine, what will she think? Maybe she won’t see things the way others will, since she’s all alone now? Joséphine, she won’t think anything, she’ll just stick with suffering and let God think for her.

This lack of identifiers allows you to ascribe these questions and answers to any combination of Colin or Mariéla; the narrative present (having never actually occurred, they could be Colin’s addition in recounting the events long afterward) or the narrative past (having actually occurred at the time of the events and recounted verbatim); and actual conversation or introspection.

In refraining from the use of paragraphs, Trouillot strikes a fine balance between rambling and concision. This is the most immediately tangible device of many he uses, the result of which is a small but densely packed narrative, a miniature epic which does not belabor any point, never drags, and is finely orchestrated to travel in two directions at once while these directions remain parallel: one backward, and one forward, in time from the sparking event of the murder.

Finally, Trouillot tells you a great deal simply by the careful development of a very specific narrative voice. The voice is far more mature than the narrator’s character, suggesting either a great passage of time between the events and the narration (the past tense is used throughout); a blending between the character narrator and an outside narrative voice; or both. In a more minute instance, the chapter in which the aftermath of the murder is related to Colin and Mariéla by Colin’s friend Marcel is delivered with greater maturity, omniscience, and immediacy of reflection than expected from the young Marcel:

The mailman had arrived early, because he enjoyed having a little glass with Corazón even though it was against regulations. . . . Such a good-looking man, A little violent, true, but you can’t choose your temperament, and he didn’t deserve to end up like this. It was in the mailman’s interest to appear shaken by his discovery: people expecting letters were pissed off at him for pitching the mailbag into the pond.

Again this suggests a blending with, or perhaps filtering through, an outside (or significantly later, i.e. more mature) narrator.

Children of Heroes is a small epic, a moving journey, a little treasure-trove of captivating and inventive storytelling. Author Lyonel Trouillot has used every tool at his disposal to demonstrate an enormous talent. This is a book to be widely read and enjoyed, and this is an author who deserves greater attention and praise.

17 June 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In today’s globalizing world, solving international conflicts by violence is becoming increasingly impractical and unpopular. Nonviolent methods must be based on mutual understanding, which is an important part of any relationship. It is primarily in this vein that Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 2008), edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa, is a worthwhile and valuable read. The book provides an enlightening sample of storytelling from the people of one of the world’s hotbeds of international conflict of the last two or three decades. It provides an intimate introduction to people in and from Iraq.

One aspect in particular that goes a long way towards achieving this intimacy is the inclusion of an essay introducing each author, in which the editor has outlined the author’s work as a whole and briefly described and analyzed the stories selected. These essays are appropriately brief and informative as to familiarize the reader with each of the authors presented. As a whole, the book sheds light on a place that has long been construed as dark and alien, and effectively brings this distant place a little bit closer.

The book would not have this effect if the content were not worthy of literary merit. All of those presented are talented writers; some are not particularly memorable, but several authors in particular stand out as brilliant craftsmen and –women whose ability to breathe life into their prose is truly surprising, and a great pleasure to read. Among these are Mahdi Isa al-Saqr, Mayselun Hadi, Jalil al-Qaisi, and Samuel Shimon.

Al-Saqr is a prolific writer whose work, produced over the course of about fifty years beginning in 1954, has been translated into six languages. His stories have a dreamlike quality; Waiting is the depiction of an old woman’s fantasy come to life. Breaking Away is a subtler meditation on escape from the real into the world of dreams, or the converse, the bringing of dreams into the real world. Both of these, as well as Morning Exercises, are well-constructed, complete fictions. His fourth piece, A Dreamer in Dark Times, is a selection from a novel titled The Witness and the Negro, a selection which inclines the reader to read the novel itself. Al-Saqr has written three volumes of short stories and five novels to date.

Mayselun Hadi is a more recent author, born in 1954. Of her three pieces selected here, Outage is the best, reflecting the state of war which makes up most of Hadi’s subject matter, according to Mustafa. The absence of tangible violence in the story, and the sense of suffocating darkness, truly and effectively convey the debilitating fear of the characters without resorting to overt symbolism or blatant proselytism:

He gave a broken, nasal laugh and put down the lantern next to her. He relaxed in the dark, lying back to watch the pattern that the lantern made on the ceiling. She put out her hand and slowly felt his features. It was late at night, and she wondered why the power cut happened. She touched the rim of his prescription glasses and then his unshaven face. She almost asked him something, but she didn’t. (p.76)
A third war story, and in my opinion one of the best stories in the book overall, is Jalil al-Qaisi’s Zulaikha. The story recalls the horrifying yet poignant war scenes of Hemingway, a touching scene of human bonding in bondage and a microcosm of the struggle of an oppressed people against their oppressors. The feeling of attachment between the two strangers in a cage, attachment simply because of their common predicament, is strongly evoked.

Samuel Shimon’s story, The Street Vendor and the Movies, stands out in several regards. Foremost it is the longest story in the anthology, and as a result it seems that despite its being the only of Shimon’s work in the book, it seems to give the reader a closer familiarity with the author than any other. This may also have to do with the strength of the writing:

That particular picture spurred an argument one day between me and Khajik over silent and sound films. You like silent movies, he said, because you’re the son of a deaf and mute father. That day I found a piece of rope and planned to strangle that mean Armenian boy, but Ibrahim did not think that was a good idea, especially when my dad was trying to get a job at Umm Khajik’s bakery….I also had a pang of guilt because Khajik’s dad used to give me a whole dinar at Christmas. Not last Christmas, though, because he had passed away just the week before. (p.139)

Rare is the writer who can see the world through the eyes of a child and convey it thus on the page, and Shimon’s success in this venture is reminiscent of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close on a much smaller scale.

My one complaint with the book is the editor’s decision to include excerpts from a few novels. I feel that the selections from novels are among the book’s weakest, and this must only be because they are small pieces of a larger whole, pieces which do not stand on their own in the context of short fiction. While I was intrigued by one of these selections (al-Saqr’s A Dreamer in Dark Times) to read the whole work, on the whole I believe that the collection would be stronger if the excerpts had been left out, and perhaps replaced by some more work by those authors who are less represented or some more authors.

On the back cover, the book is described as “the first anthology of its kind in the West.” Specifically referring to Iraqi fiction, this is true (although there are several available volumes of translated Arabic literature such as The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, translated and edited by Denys Johnson-Davies). This book’s unique quality of being Iraqi in origin is primarily what makes the book a most worthwhile read. The material is good too; while a few of the authors are not particularly noteworthy, all of the pieces are well written and well translated, and a few stand out as gems to be pursued and appreciated further.

Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology
edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa
Syracuse University Press
200 pages, $22.95

....
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