3 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Recently I found out that, contrary to my past belief, I’m not 1/4 Polish, but 3/4 Polish (or Prussian, or whatever—most everywhere my family is from has changed hands over and over and over) and have since been on a bit of a Polish pride kick, mostly related to soccer players like Robert Lewandowski (Dortmund’s still perfect on points!), and, after he shut down the dreaded Tottenham Spurs and then trolled their fans, Arsenal’s keeper, Wojciech Szczesny.

All of which is a long and unnecessary way to plug soccer and lead-in to the fact that I received a copy of Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Kopenhaga this morning and am really digging this book.

First, here’s a bit about Wróblewski from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction:

Born in 1962, Polish poet, playwright, and visual artist Grzegorz Wróblewski has lived in Copenhagen since 1985, “far from Poland and far from Denmark” (in his own phrase). Kopenhaga, a collection of prose poems based on his experiences as an emigrant, was published in Poland in 2000. [. . .]

Wróblewski at once exemplifies and complicates the notion of an émigré writer introduced by Joseph Brodsky in “The Condition We Call Exile.” In his 1987 essay Brodsky describes the émigré writer as a person who perpetually looks backward and as a result fails “to deal with the realities of the present of the uncertainties of the future.” Like Brodsky’s typical writer in exile, Wróblewski clings to what is most important to him, his native language, which has suddenly turned from being his “sword” into his “shield.” His lyric narrator in Kopenhaga seems to be in a state of permanent disquiet; he is vulnerable, anxious, self-estranged. We observe his tendency for psychological extremes, his morbid fascination with death and decay, his crippling paranoia and “cosmic loneliness.” But Wróblewski’s self-imposed exile in Copenhagen, which continues to this day, can also be regarded as a kind of metaphysical luxury.

On the subject of “death and decay,” here are a couple of Wróblewski’s prose poems that particularly grabbed me:

You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.

And:

A long and eventful life? The doctors make no bones about it . . . Your blood cholesterol: 350. You must go on a diet immediately. Reduce your intake of alcohol and start playing sports again. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. If that’s the case, then don’t change a thing. Within three, four years you can expect your first, possibly fatal heart attack. Mind you, though, you still have a chance for a long and eventful life. The Amazon Jungle? Numerology? Sheraton Everest Hotel? Think abou tit!!! It’s all up to you. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. (I think there is a lot to be said for spiritualism, quite a lot, in spite of much imposture. H.G. Wells.)

Going back real quickly to Gwiazda’s intro, here’s a nice bit for all the translators and translation students reading this:

Like most translators, I often found myself confronting aspects of the original text that remained stubbornly untranslatable—I mean interjections (which Roman Jakobson called the “purely emotive stratum in language”), idiomatic and onomatopoeic expressions, clichés, puns. For example, my translation of the phrase “Ołowiany tornister duńskiego narodu”1 only partly succeeds in reproducing Wróblewski’s brilliant reworking of the common Polish metaphor—the literal rendering would have been “Danish nation’s lead satchel.” I was also eventually unable to fully convey the double meaning of “pieczony kurczak przeistacza się szybko w różowego pawika”2—in Polish “paw” refers to “peacock” but also, in a slang phrase, to the act of vomiting.

There’s also a bit about the challenges of dealing with a “linguistically heterogeneous text” that reminded me of things that Esther Allen has talked about previously. But rather than quote that here, I think you should just buy the book and read the intro.

But I’ll end with one last fun opening that will sort of seal the deal on why I would be a fan of this collection:

You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)

1 He translated it as: “A collection of national hang-ups!”

2 Translated as: “Roasted chicken soon turns into flying vomit!”

26 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.

But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.

There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!

I love both of these books, and you can buy them from your local independent bookstore, from Amazon, from B&N, or directly from us: click here for Children, and here for Suicide.

However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

Stasiuk’s stylized anti-narrative offers a series of episodes in which the narrator travels to Dukla—a small town in the Carpathian Mountains in southeast Poland—and then returns to his hometown, the name and location of which the reader never learns. The narrator usually travels alone, and when he breaks his habitual solitude he offers the reader no formal introduction to his companions. These secondary characters—we never learn if they are the speaker’s friends, family members, or lovers—exist on the road to Dukla only as first names or lonely initials. The narrator pays more attention to revealing Dukla’s inhabitants, a population inseparable from the landscape. Like a trick of the light, the narrator’s voice transforms commonplace events into a series of visceral, charged experiences:

In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking. The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents. The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles. In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on them. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum. Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging. It was pure movement and ideal, purified space. Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path. The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.” The girl froze immediately. Now all of them were gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.

The narrator never speaks explicitly about how he feels about what he sees. He does not overtly acknowledge the melancholy he evokes or note the powerful influence of nostalgia on his interpretation of the world around him. These moments—distilled to their essence—seem to move him physically, prompting his journeys to and from Dukla. And yet the narrator insists that he returns to Dukla simply “to observe it in different kinds of light and different seasons.” In spite of these assertions, his affected reminisces provide clues that the speaker is looking not for something that is happening but rather for something that happened a long time ago.

The road to Dukla is paved with details. The reader is challenged to move quickly from episode to episode, coming to her own conclusions about these highly descriptive but emotionally unqualified images. The straightforward reporting is punctuated by subtle manipulations of language: Repetition, unusual images, and shifts in tone hint at the feelings of a narrator who stubbornly resists self-expression. Bill Johnston’s skills shine as he helps the reader stay afloat on the narrative’s stream-of-consciousness. Johnston develops the narrative voice by tweaking common language, retaining the lovely oddities of Stasiuk’s metaphors without straining the clarity of the prose. For example, the scene at the bus station makes a refrain of the word “empty,” but pushes the word’s descriptive ability by applying it to an action: “Her mother was staring emptily ahead.” The book’s language insists on passivity; the girl isn’t swinging her legs; her legs are just swinging. The sense of emptiness is furthered as the description continues with, “Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging,” here Johnston utilizes uses the passive voice and makes “nothing” the very subject of the sentence. And yet in the midst of all this nothingness The novel provokes the mind’s eye with striking images that Johnston beautifully captures: A “helpless pendulum” and a family “gazing into the navel of afternoon emptiness.”

Dukla is a verbal representation not only of landscape and light but also of seasons and time. As the narrator travels, his mind wanders back and forth along the years in parallel journeys to the Dukla of the past and a Dukla that exists only in the realm of possibility. For example, as he sits on a crowded bus to Dukla the narrator envisions the train that “should” exist instead. He invokes specific objects and brand names that act as relics of Dukla’s past lives, adding his own idealism to conjure an image of a train so real that it begins to seem less a daydream than a possibility:

The cars would absolutely have to be dark green, faded, and old . . . Everything as it once used to be, like in a transparent dream where ribbons of time and memory are superimposed on one another like a consolation for a too-short life. Cigarettes with a mouthpiece instead of a filter, in hard cardboard boxes with a sphinx on the lid, or with no mouthpiece, but pressed flat, like the Hugarian Munkás brand. Pants had to be pressed and appropriately wide, while in the pocket of your jacket there should be a flat bottle with an inscription on its bottom reading: Baczewski Distillery of Vodkas and Spirits, Lwów. And a Panama hat. What else? Probably the line should end in Dukla. Right next to the place where there’s a bakery kiosk now; the rails come to a stop at a huge wooden buffer on iron girders. Beyond that there’s nothing.

The reader is transported from the “fact” of the narrator is sitting on a bus traversing an imaginary rendering of Dukla to the “real” Dukla in the present day. The passage closes with a single ambiguous statement all the more striking for its contrast to the delicate specificity that precedes it: “Beyond that there’s nothing.” Is Stasiuk telling us that there is nothing beyond the imaginary train station, or that there is nothing more to the narrator’s fantasy? Or that the bakery is at the city limits? The open-ended comment challenges the reader to engage with the text—given all that this town seems to represent for the narrator, what does it mean if there is nothing beyond Dukla?

Is Dukla, as the speaker insists again and again, a novel about light? Perhaps. A reader might be tempted to embrace light as a symbol, but if she approaches the novel with this intention she is in for a difficult task. Stasiuk forces the reader to see through the speaker’s eyes, moving from scene to scene—and year to year—as quickly as the light shifts over the market square in the heart of Dukla. The novel speaks to Stasiuk’s influences in Polish and international literature—an almost cynical realism that echoes Maciej Hłasko and a stream-of-consciousness denial of linear storytelling reminiscent of American beat poets. Dukla uses light and, just as importantly, the requisite darkness that is light’s inexorable consort, to create a character whose thoughts offer inclusive social commentary and a meditation on isolation, a fascination with change and a nostalgic mourning as the familiar is eradicated, and a outlook on his country that becomes a relentless seed of realism in the mind of a dreamer. According to the narrator—and perhaps Stasiuk himself—light is the only reality because it allows us to see.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lastest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Claire Van Winkle on Andrej Stasiuk’s Dukla, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Claire is the first of three students (so far) of Susan Bernofsky’s who have written reviews for Three Percent. I’ll be running the others over the next few weeks, along with all the reviews I’ve been hoarding and need to get up here . . . So expect to be inundated with tons of reviews of interesting books.

Here’s the opening to Claire’s review of Dukla, the latest Stasiuk book to make its way into English (thanks to the amazing Bill Johnston):

Andrej Stasiuk, one of Poland’s foremost contemporary authors and founder of Wydawnictwo Czarne press, has led a life as complex and colorful as his writing. He was born in Warsaw in 1960 but left his hometown at age 26 to reside in the secluded city of Czarne, where he discovered the provincial beauty of rural Poland—a beauty that would serve as a characteristic landscape for his poetry and prose. Stasiuk was a dedicated participant in the Polish pacifist movement. His ardent opposition to compulsory military service led to his arrest as an army deserter; the year and a half he spent in prison inspired a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron (1992). It was this collection that brought Stasiuk to the fore of the Polish literary scene. Since the publication of The Walls of Hebron, Stasiuk has touched every genre, gaining popularity as a travel writer, poet, and novelist. His writing has a distinctive lyrical style, describing modern Poland through impressionistic portrayals of its small towns and the people who inhabit them. Stasiuk’s White Raven (1995; translated by Wiesiek Powaga, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) won the Kultura and Koscielski prizes and has since been made into a film. In his 1997 novel Dukla, presented in English by award-winning translator Bill Johnston, Stasiuk guides the reader through Poland’s landscape with the deft observational savvy of a seasoned traveler and a richness of imagery that exemplifies his poetic voice.

In Dukla, Stasiuk speaks to his reader through the voice of an unnamed narrator whose eccentric descriptions of the world around him echo the author’s avowed mission to illuminate Eastern Europe in print. But while his miniature epic certainly paints a picture of the land and offers insight into the changes that have taken place through the twentieth century to the modern day, the quirky narrator of Dukla insists that he is only interested in talking about light.

You can read the full review by clicking here.

28 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish

Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago Books

Why This Book Should Win: Bill Johnston really deserves to win this award. Especially as the only translator with two longlisted titles.

Today’s post is by Sean Bye, an amateur translator of Polish and Russian, and artistic co-director of the Invisible Theatre Company. He is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he studied Polish language and literature. He is based in London.

Magdalena Tulli’s In Red tells the story of the tiny, fictional town of Stitchings, in an imaginary region of Poland under Swedish occupation, where it is winter all year round and the sun only rises for an hour or so around lunchtime. The book takes us from the start of the twentieth century through to about the 1930s, as Stitchings is first occupied by the Germans in World War I and then finally in an independent Poland.

In Red toys with the idea of a small town as a world unto itself where nothing ever changes, like the local textile factory, run by generations of identical fathers and sons, all named Sebastian Loom. The story of the book, to the extent that it has one, is of this equilibrium being interrupted. As the book winds its way through the history of Stitchings the town becomes literally unrecognizable, out of nowhere developing a balmy climate and a bustling port. Main characters are born and die practically without comment as the story moves from one character to the next, each of them with their own rich, almost standalone story and most of them coming to a grisly end. One story flows into another following a logic that seems at once natural and inscrutable. The sense of poetic drift is emphasized by the book’s magic realist style. Bullets circle the earth before killing, soldiers are marked for death by small strands of red string that drift from a young woman’s embroidery, and the weathercock on the town hall is tied with a tiny, silver string to a lucky star in the sky.

In Red is an intensely visual book, overflowing with rich images and picturesque tableaux that round out the portrait. The reader in the end is left with the feeling of having completed a grand epic in 158 pages, of knowing the town of Stitchings and its people inside and out, a town where the topography of people’s lives is as dark and labrythine as that of its streets. Nothing is ever entirely as it seems in Stitchings, and as the book draws to a close, the reader is left with the feeling that this book may not have been what we first thought it to be, either—a neat little turn that made me eager to come back to it. I read the book with the Polish original in one hand and Bill Johnston’s translation in the other—Johnston works wonders with Tulli’s knotty, complex prose. He is to be commended for bringing this little masterpiece to us in English in such consummate, effortless style.

11 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Archipelago

Why This Book Should Win: I taught this in my class last year, and all of the students loved it. Do you even understand how rare that is? That’s some serious power.

This piece is written by Amy Henry, who runs the website The Black Sheep Dances.

Words bring everything out onto the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away . . . Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words?

Szymek Pietruszka talks endlessly, conducting an inner monologue that never takes a break. An all-around badass who is beloved by all, he’s played many roles: resistance fighter, fireman, policeman, civil servant, and farmer, all while remaining an insatiable ladies man with a penchant for vodka, dancing, and fighting (usually in that order). He has stories to tell—some deadly serious and some not—but all told in a restrained voice that doesn’t ask for pity.

As Stone Upon Stone begins, he’s working on a tomb, obsessing about the details of construction but not explaining who it is for. The tomb and its obvious ties to earth and death form a theme that is lighter than one would imagine. As he studies the other memorials in the cemetery, he makes note of their flaws, as some are too showy, too cheap, or in once case, too tall:

When you stand underneath it it’s like standing at a gallows, and you have to tip your head way back like you were looking at a hung man. What does it have to be so high for? You can’t look at death high up like that for long. Your neck goes stiff. Looking up is something you can only do to check the weather . . . Death draws you downward. With your head craned up it’s hard to cry even.

Myśliwski writes in a style reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, wherein earth and family and history are intermingled; yet as a protagonist, Szymek is witty and naughty and far chattier than Hamsun’s Isak. One scene shows Szymek as a policeman, searching the countryside after the war for contraband weapons:

“We’ve had enough gunfire to last us a lifetime . . . Our Lady up there in that picture, they can be our witness—we don’t have any guns.”

But you only needed to reach behind the Our Lady or the Lord Jesus and pull out a pistol. You’d look in the stove, and inside there’d be a rifle. Have them open the chest, and there under a pile of headscarves, rounds and grenades.

[. . .] Not many people got fined, because what were you going to fine them for. It was the war that brought folks all those guns, the war was the one that should have been punished.

As he relates the story, he tells what the guns (pulled from dead soldiers) end up doing in the villages, as from that point, it appears no dispute is too small not to be handled with gunfire. Szymek’s wickedly wry, and the humor takes an edge off what is deeply painful. Similarly, he describes the pride of his hard-won officer’s boots that the villagers admire. Yet without self-pity, he describes loaning those to his younger brother to wear to school, because his search among the dead bodies around the countryside failed to turn up another pair. He notes that no matter how isolated the corpse, the paths to it were wide from the human scavengers. Horrific, but told matter-of-fact.

Foreshadowing is never used; instead, a sort of reverse takes place. When he suffers a deeply personal loss, he looks backward, making a connection with his family’s traditional sacrifice of bread to the land to ensure future crops. As a child, he mocked it, thinking that the bread should be eaten instead. Of course, he did sneak some of it to eat. Now, given his adult experience, that bread becomes all the more symbolic.

Aside from what he’s thinking, he relays conversations from everyone from his father (who compulsively overreacts to everything) to the village’s Sure Thing, a batty woman who undresses and seduces while complaining about inventory shortfalls (she’s kind of adorable). One memorable conversation is with his hated childhood priest, one who named him in sermons “when he needed a bad example that wasn’t from the Bible.” Now nearing death, the priest wants to talk about forgiveness:

“Of course, it’s said that whoever you absolve, their sins will be absolved, whoever you deny, they’ll be denied. But can I really be certain who deserves forgiveness and who doesn’t? What I’d most like to do is to absolve everyone, because I feel sorry for everyone. But do I have the right to use God’s mercy as my own mercy, even when I feel great pity towards someone? Does God feel that pity? It’s true his mercy is without limit. But I have no idea how what I’m allowed to do relates to that boundlessness?”

Without affectation, Mysliwski ties in the religious faith of the people, the irrationality of war, the endless needs of the land, and the stubborn, often foolish, nature of the villagers that keep charging ahead when the past might suggest they delay a bit. Many of the most important details are not laid out in a narrative form, but hinted at in a sidelong view, with some points being mentioned only in a passing conversation, leaving the reader to put together exactly what has happened with his parents and three brothers and their farm.

They say that when a person’s born, the earth is their cradle. And all death does is lay you back down in it. And it rocks you and rocks you till you’re unborn, unconceived, once again.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on the Read This Next feature of Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, we now have now posted an interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston about this novel.

Bill is an amazing translator and reader, and this interview is filthy with interesting insights into both the translation process and Tulli’s work as a whole. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Here’s an excerpt:

LY: So do you think in her progression towards a more traditional narrative style, she’s losing something, or do you think that this is actually highlighting the unusualness of her writing?

BJ: Well, to me Flaw is the first overtly personal book that she’s written. It’s about a square in a bourgeois area of an unnamed city where a streetcar runs around the square in a circle. Over the course of the single day, refugees start to emerge from the streetcar and gather in the square. The people living around the square don’t know what to do with them and end up herding the refugees onto the little lawn at the center of the square and telling them they have to stay there. And at one point, one pregnant woman gives birth on the square. The baby’s delivered, but in the confusion the baby goes missing. It just disappears. One of the recurring devices in the book is that Tulli says of a particular character, “it could be you, it could be me,” and basically says about this baby: “it could be me.” It was at that point that I realized how personal the book is for Tulli. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and I think there’s a degree of trauma that can be read into all of her writings, but especially Flaw. This is a book about how one deals with “the unwanted,” what Mike Davis calls “surplus humanity,” but it’s also a book about Tulli herself. This was the first time I had seen her overtly present in one of her own books, not hiding behind the mask of a rather sort of pedantic narrator, which she often draws on. I see that very much as a progression.

And has she lost anything? I think Dreams and Stones is a really beautiful book. It’s very much a book of ideas, but it’s also a book of poetry for me, a book of images of extraordinary vividness. But I don’t think she loses that. Her style is always incredibly precise. When you sit down and start to translate something, you really quickly start to see whether the prose has been put together carefully, and in Tulli’s case there’s an extraordinary precision in her choice of words, in the choice of sentence structure, in the exact positioning of perspective mediating between the writer and the narrator, in the characters and so on. And I think that follows through all of the books. When I’ve shown Tulli drafts of the translations, we’ve had very long discussions about very precise phrasing. In fact, she’s even changed some of the original phrases for the English translation. I’m always a little worried that somebody’s going to sit down and compare the two versions and say this is a bad translation. There are some differences between the Polish and the English, but that’s because Tulli decided she should have written it differently. She’s known for revising her own work a great deal, so with each of her books I’ve had to make sure that the version that I’m working with is in fact the most recent version. It’s a little scary when you’re getting into a translation and somebody says, “Oh by the way, this new revised version just came out . . .”

So she’s very much a stylist in the mode of Flaubert, very concerned about word choice, and punctuation and sentence structure and so on, and I think that’s something that remains throughout all four books.

LY: Do you think this makes the process of translating her more difficult, or more enjoyable?

BJ: Both, definitely. For me, as a translator, difficult is enjoyable. Usually. When it’s a good challenge. As a translator I love writers who are very precise and creative with language. Who are not just telling a story in a kind of workmanlike fashion, but really revel in the material with which they’re making their stories. Tulli is very much in that mode. She’s extremely difficult, so it’s a slow process, but a very rewarding one when it finally comes out. It helps to have translated her other three books, because even though each book has a particular narrative voice, there’s still kind of an authorial—I hesitate to use the word “spirit” because of Douglas Robinson—there’s an authorial kind of underlying voice or discourse that can be traced from one book to another. Not that it goes any faster, but maybe I feel a little more confidence. Also, having corresponded so much with Tulli, as I’m working I can hear her comments, saying It’s not that word it’s this word and Could we not do it this way? or Do we have to have to have this syntax? and I think that helps.

Read the whole thing here.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, this week’s Read This Next book, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and coming out in September from Archipelago Books.

Lily comes to us from the University of Chicago by way of Jeff Waxman’s glowing recommendation. Expect to see her name on Three Percent a lot over the next few months, since she’s managing the Read This Next project.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

Click here to read the full review.

8 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.

The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.

Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.

The book begins:

Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that’s as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself.

As the book continues, there is indeed a feeling of drifting off into sleep, and emerging in a dream of Tulli’s writing, filling the landscape before you. Her seemingly easy mastery of language assists in transitioning you from scene to scene without you ever having noticed. There is a poetry in her language that shifts from the figurative to the literal so seamlessly that it is easy to forget what is description and what is action:

For Guards Street took its shape from the sinuous melody of the taps played every evening on the bugle. The instrument’s golden sounds soared into the air and wafted over the roofs of the apartment houses. But on the far side of the market square they dropped at once with the labored flight of a stunned bird.

From one sentence or paragraph to the next, I often realized new surroundings with no recollection of how I got there—such is the fluidity of her writing. Of course, this sometimes made for a bit of confusion, but as I had the text in front of me, I could go back and re-trace my steps, but this very act is part of the trap of the town that Tulli has put together.

In this town, rings that seemed lost forever are found once again, a dead husband refuses to die so that his wife cannot remarry—nothing leaves Stitchings, it is its own microcosm. And so it is shocking when Natalie Zugoff, a singer brought for the town theatre, appears near the end of the book, when you are sure things must be wrapping up. Understanding the nature of the book, however, as forcefully compelled by the long life of an entire town, that we have such a late introduction to a merely human character becomes unsurprising. In a way, Tulli has made something of a difficult trap for herself as author by writing a town that refuses to be wrapped up.

As the book comes to a close, Tulli must return the narration to a direct address to the reader, for there is simply no other way to end the book. It is an authorial address to both the reader and the narrative voice of the novel:

If you wish to leave Stitchings, do not hesitate for a moment: you have to do it between the capital letter and the period, without clinging to any broken-off thought, without waiting for the final word.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next book is In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and coming out from Archipelago Books in September.

In Red is the fourth Tulli book to come out from Archipelago, following on Dreams and Stones, Flaw, and Moving Parts. The jacket copy from their site isn’t overly informative, but does provide a bit of an outline:

In this latest groundbreaking novel, Magdalena Tulli creates a world that is unreal, yet strangely familiar and utterly convincing. Set in a mythical fourth partition of Poland, In Red is full of dreamlike descriptions of the town and its inhabitants; its power lies in Tulli’s evocative, almost hallucinatory use of language.

Here’s a bit from the introduction Lily Ye wrote for the RTN site:

Miniature in size, and coming in at less than 160 half-sized pages, In Red should not be overlooked. We chose this book precisely for the compact strength Tulli employs in activating language and her enthralling power to quickly induce a vision of a truly fantastic world. This translation by Bill Johnston showcases Tulli’s mastery of metaphor and the measured control of her prose.

This book marks the beginning of Tulli’s transition into a more narrative style of writing. Her first book Dreams and Stones, which won Poland’s Koscielski award for promising writers under 40, has been described by Johnston, her primary translator, as more of a prose poem than a novel. Her latest work, Flaw, already shows her developing a more linear narrative. In Red strikes somewhere in between the two, making for a delightfully surprising read throughout.

Click here to read an extended preview of In Red. And we’ll be posting an interview with Bill Johnston tomorrow, and an full review of the book on Friday.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and available from Archipelago Books.

Kaija Straumanis is a grad student in the MA translation program (MALTS for short) here at the University of Rochester. She’s currently in Latvia, “partying like an Eastern European” (?!) and trying to find the perfect work of Latvian Literature for Open Letter.

I assigned Stone Upon Stone for the “World Literature & Translation” class I taught last spring. It’s 534 pages long. I initially thought there was going to be a silent coup, with everyone griping about all the stuff they have to do for other classes . . . But no! Everyone loved the novel. (Or almost everyone—I’m remembering this with an optimist’s viewpoint.) And with good reason. This is my early favorite for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award due to Szymek’s incredible voice, and Bill Johnson’s amazing translation. This is a stunning book—one that is very easy to get sucked into . . . Those 534 pages fly by as if it were a novella! (Well, OK maybe not fly, but still.)

Here’s the opening of Kaija’s review:

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

This is something that can be credited to translator Bill Johnston, who through interviews and discussions on the translation of Stone Upon Stone communicates the utmost care and consideration that went into his translation of the novel. This is not a text you could chuck into something like Google Translate and get back even a modicum of the introspection and linguistic qualities necessary to make Szymek Pietruszka “happen.” Stone Upon Stone is a work that would demand the complete understanding of its narrator—possibly even demanding becoming one with the narrator—and judging by the final product, Johnston has done this mammoth read due justice.

And although the book appears massive, it reads surprisingly quickly. The borderline stream-of-consciousness narrative style runs a full circle course through Szymek’s life, and the narrative voice is simple, conversational, and easy to follow. It’s like pulling up a stool at the bar in your hometown next to that oddly endearing (and rather inebriated) story-teller who everyone knows and who oozes faux modesty and a lingering scent of cabbage pierogis.

It was the same when I was older and I’d go caroling with the other boys, no one would agree to be King Herod, because death cut Herod’s head off and no one liked to be killed. So I was always Herod, because I preferred being king to being afraid of death. We had a real scythe, one that was used for mowing, not a fake one with a wooden blade. When death cut your head off with a real scythe you felt death was real, too, and not Antek Mączka dressed up as death in a white sheet. Especially because each time I was killed the blade of the scythe had to touch my neck, not just knock my crown off . . . There was just that one time Antek Mączka brought the scythe down and nicked my till I bled, so I took his scythe away from him and kicked his ass and he didn’t play death anymore.

Even though the entire novel may at first seem like nothing more than one tangent after another, there is a method to the rambling madness. Each chapter heading is closely connected to everything that falls under it. For example, the chapter “Brothers” looks not only at Szymek’s relationship with his own brothers, but also looks at his dealings with a pack of vengeful brothers from next door, and even at the greater “brotherhood of man.”

It is precisely the things that determine Szymek’s douchery—and the similar or complete opposite actions and reactions of those around him—that make Szymek more realistic, easier to relate to, and ultimately more human and even likeable. Instead of seeing him for the demigod he makes himself out to be, we get to know Szymek as a man who has lived through the struggles of pre- and post-ward Poland, dealt with the hardships of rural Polish life, family struggles, personal gains and losses. The more Szymek talks himself up, the more he undoes his facade. And the more the mask is undone the more it becomes clear that this is less the story of one man and more the reflection of human kind. Of course it helps that any hint of overbearing life lessons or preaching is ushered out by Szymek’s outlook on the world, which is an odd combination of life-loving cynicism and matter-of-fact morbidity. Pair this with flawless delivery and you get a novel that, although at times contains less palpable content and themes of death and suffering, warrants many outbursts of laughter at Szymek’s anecdotes. Sure, he may be a self-absorbed, quasi-alcoholic jag who represents human suffering, triumph and mankind as a whole, but he’s your self-absorbed alchy jag, dammit, and you just can’t help but love him for it.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, the Instytut Ksiazki announced that this year’s Transatlantyk Award was to Vlasta Dvořáčková, who translates Polish literature into Czech.

Vlasta Dvořáčková is the most important Czech translator of Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert. Ever since having studied Polish Literature at Charles University in Prague – in the complex circumstances of a communist state and widespread censorship – she has promoted Polish literature and culture, including authors that were blacklisted. She has performed an invaluable service in her publishing and popularizing of modern Polish poetry, both before and after 1989. Her contribution to the popularization of the classics of Polish literature is also inestimable, as her translations include Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, Henryk Sienkiewicz and Adam Mickiewicz. Dvořáčková has won the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Poland. In 2009 she received the translation of the year award from the Czech Translators’ Association for her rendering of recent volumes by Wisława Szymborska (Moment, Colon, and Here). She also translates from German and English.

The Transatlantyk is an annual Book Institute award presented for outstanding achievement in the promotion of Polish literature in the world. The Award Chapter selects the winner; it is made up of Ireneusz Kania, Xenia Staroshyelska, Beata Stasińska and Olga Tokarczuk. The head is the Director of the Book Institute. The award includes 10,000 euro and a statue. The winners to date have been: Henryk Bereska (2005), Anders Bodegård (2006), Albrecht Lempp (2007), Xenia Staroshyelska (2008), Biserka Rajčić (2009), and Pietro Marchesani (2010).

25 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, the penultimate event in this year’s Reading the World Conversation Series took place and featured Bill Martin (former Literary Program Manager at the Polish Cultural Institute and translator of Lovetown) and poet Piotr Sommer (Continued) discussion Piotr’s work, some general Polish poetry trends, etc. Attached below you can watch the event in its entirety.

On a related note, Wednesday is the final RTWCS event of the year: Thomas Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin will be here to talk about Funeral for a Dog. All the details can be found here. More plugging of this come Wednesday, but I’ll guarantee that it’s one of the liveliest RTWCS events to date. And, seeing that sex sells, I’m just going say that all the ladies in attendance will swoon . . . Hear that ladies? SWOON. So you bring the smelling salts and we’ll bring the hot literati.

12 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Sunday, the Northern California Book Awards took place, and David Frick won for his translation from the Polish of Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities. In honor of this accomplishment, we’re going to spend the day here at Open Letter with “a billion barrels of beer.” No, but seriously, we will.

If you want more info on A Thousand Peaceful Cities, you can read this tipsy post, or click here for the jacket copy, an excerpt, etc.

And for the next week (through 4/19), anyone who signs up for a new subscription will receive a free copy of this book.

For the handful of you who didn’t immediately click over to the Open Letter ordering page, you might be interested in knowing that in Poetry Translation category, John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis won for their translation from the Greek of Maribor by Demosthenes Agrafiotis.

Here’s a link to the official page at Post-Apollo Press, and below is a brief description that I swiped from “SPD”: (where you can order the book):

Demosthenes Agrafiotis’s Maribor is a book of thoughts, impressions, expressions and reflections from his travels to Hesperia (Western Europe) in the period 1980-90. The book is concerned with the constantly elusive identity of Europe as a geographic place, as a cultural gamble, as a historical problem, as a horizon for the future of humankind. “Maribor gives us both artifact—of the ephemera of communication, institutions, power—as well as blueprint for imagining an ‘alphabet of the future.’ A master of the contemporary hermetic, Agrafiotis can bring to light in one stroke both the evanescence and endurance of the writing on the wall“—Eleni Stecopoulos.

11 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last month, Open Letter published its first work of poetry in translation:1 Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings, translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. It recently received a very nice review by E. C. Belli in Words Without Borders:

With Lodgings, translator Benjamin Paloff has made an important contribution to the body of Polish poetry currently available to readers in English. Complete with a translator’s note, a conversation between Sosnowski and Paloff, and poems that span Sosnowski’s entire career to date (1987-2010), Lodgings offers an unusual glimpse into a polyphonous, expansive, and chameleonic strain of Polish poetry. The poems included are pulled from nine of Sosnowski’s collections (including Life in Korea, A Season in Hel, Lodgings, and the most recent poemas), and they are presented, with two exceptions, in their original order.

In an interview that appeared in the Chicago Review in 2000, Polish poet and translator Piotr Sommer called Sosnowski “maybe the single most exciting younger Polish poet” for “breathtaking and very innovative” work that displays a “rich cross-fertilization of influences.” Sommer also explains that the New York School poets and OULIPO were “an important part of [Sosnowski’s] literary tradition and reading experience.” And indeed, what American readers of Lodgings will find is a poet openly in conversation with myriad writers—French ones, such as Mallarmé, and Roussell, but more importantly with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, John Berryman, James Schuyler, and Elizabeth Bishop. [. . .]

It is a daunting task to carry over into English Sosnowski’s language, which is a language marked by abrupt shifts in register and suggests an obsessive and ongoing rumination on various literary influences. Paloff has rendered a superb, tonally consistent volume, and has effectively stretched the barriers of his own language.

So, to celebrate this release—and excellent review—we’re giving away 5 copies to the people who “Like” us on Facebook. To enter yourself in this drawing, simply click here and either “Like” or comment on the post about giving away copies of Lodgings . . .

(And let this serve as a very soft sell for Wednesday’s RTWCS event featuring Piotr Sommer and Bill Martin, who will be discussing Polish poetry in translation. More info tomorrow.)

1 We are planning on doing one work of poetry every year. Next up: The Smoke of Distant Fires by Eduardo Chirinos, translated from the Spanish by G. J. Racz.

4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:

However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.

Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).

There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:

This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.

Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.

It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)

Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jennifer Marquart of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia in Danuta Borchardt’s new translation, which is available from Grove Press.

Jennifer Marquart has contributed to Three Percent in the past and is an aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate.

Witold Gombrowicz is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and is most well known for Ferdydurke. One of my favorite (apocryphal) anecdotes about Gombrowicz is about how one day in Buenos Aires he was ranting about Borges to his friends (the two authors didn’t really get along), and one of them interrupted to ask if he had ever even read Borges. “Pfft. Why would I waste my time reading that crap?”

On a more serious note, a number of Gombrowicz books have been either retranslated or reissued over the past few years, including: Ferdydurke, Cosmos (hardcover from Yale is OP, paperback from Grove due out in September), Polish Memories, Bacacay, and A Kind of Testament. All are worth reading . . .

Here’s the opening of Jennifer’s review:

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside.

Click here to read the full review.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside:

Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish off the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics . . .

Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.
But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.

All of it—was insignificant . . . as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.

The memory of the worm-crushing resurfaces later in the narrative as Fryderyk’s obsession with his own perverse games intensifies. This excerpt exemplifies the delicate balance between controllers and controlled, through the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language constructions. Just as mundane events can represent something greater, so can the linguistic construction of the text. In trying to preserve the dream-like and often stilted world Gombrowicz narrates, Borchardt makes very liberal use of ellipses. In this scene, Gombrowicz has grown anxious over the trip he is going to take with Fryderyk:

Travel there? The two of us? I was beset by misgivings, difficult to express, about the two of us traveling . . . because to take him there with me, to the countryside, so that he could continue his game, well . . . And his body, that body so…”peculiar”? . . . To travel with him and ignore his untiring “silently-shouting impropriety”? . . . To burden myself with someone so ” compromised and, as a result, so compromising”? . . .

In the previous English translation (from the French) the ellipses are present, but the word choice in Borchardt’s translation accentuates the text’s repetitiveness bringing the sense of anxiety to a new level of confusion and internal anguish. In the Alastair Hamilton translation this excerpt reads:

Should we go? Both of us? I had fearful doubts about the journey . . . What take him so that he could continue his game don there, in the country? . . . And his body which was so…so specific? Travel with him regardless of his “obvious but hidden indecency?” . . . Look after somebody so “compromised” and therefore so “compromising” . . .

Borchardt’s disturbances in the flow of the work may seem off-setting in the context of this review, but coupled with the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases throughout the text she brings forward the nuances of Gombrowicz’s masterful prose. In this isolated psycho-thriller, where anxiety runs high within a small group of people cut off from the terrors around them, obsession and terror still rule.

2 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s is mostly made up of something I wrote some time back.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated by David Frick

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Open Letter
Pages: 143

Why It Should Win: Because we published it; it was one of Kirkus‘s top 25 books of 2010; “by a billion barrels of beer!”

To be quite frank, Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the BTBA because he’s the best writer about the joys and long-term terrors of drinking . . . And by drinking I don’t mean in-moderation-three-drinks-a-week-in-gentrified-social-company sort of drinking, I mean the full-on-drink-away-your-life-savings-on-grain-alcohol sort of drinking.

But it’s not like Pilch’s novels are moral sludges about the dangers of excess boozing—instead, they find that perfect balance between depicting the allure of a good buzz and the waves of fear and regret that accompany a true bender.

This is more true of The Mighty Angel than A Thousand Peaceful Cities, but last spring, when proofing this book, I wrote a post (while “tipsy”) that I’m still pretty proud of, and does a decent job of explaining the differences and similarities between the two novels while capturing the drunken vibe and overall awesomeness of Peaceful.

In other words, this post specifies exactly why A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the 2011 BTBA for fiction.

What follows is a number of excerpts from that post. (What? I was expecting to be living in a series of snow-carved tunnels for the foreseeable future, so planned ahead. Not my fault that this “snowpocalpyse panic” was brought to you by the egg, dairy, and bread industries.)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a much different book from The Mighty Angel. The narration is a bit more complicated, flipping in focus between young Jerzy and his coming-of-age experiences and the endless banter of Mr. Traba in a way that builds in complexity and insight as the book progresses. By contrast, Mighty Angel, itself an intensely powerful book, is much more confessional, direct, singular in voice and presentation.

Re: Jerzy’s adolescent adventures, one of the best bits in the book is when he describes the “angel of his first love” and his attempt to connect with her. She lives across the way in an apartment above a department store that looks down on Jerzyk’s bedroom window. So he puts a sign up that says “WHY DON’T YOU SMILE?” Finally, he catches her eye:

Now it was I who waved to her. I let it be known that I am here, that I consent to everything. I sent her missives to calm the air. I soothed her fury with the help of a mad alphabet of incoherent gestures. Finally she noticed me, and she stood stock-still. Now I slowly pointed my index finger at myself, and then I reached both hands out in her direction, which was to signify: “I will come to you right away, and I will allow you to make sport of my young and virginal body.” But she, to my great amazement, shook her head no, and she turned her unparalleled hand down, in the direction of the display window of the footwear section, which was covered with a green grating. I repeated my gesture. She doesn’t understand, I thought—or maybe she just doesn’t believe her own dumb luck.

Charmingly innocent acts like this are offset by Mr. Traba’s (I keep wanting to type “Uncle Traba,” because he is such an uncle figure, always at the kitchen table, schnapps in hand, pontificating) long-winded, hilarious, and world-wise diatribes that range from randy bits about his virginal maid (who, “departed this world intacta [. . .] In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous . . . “), to his desire to accomplish something memorable before he dies, namely, assassinating of the Communist leader of Poland.

What I ran into tonight was the boozy thread that connects Jerzy’s blossoming and Traba’s insanity with The Mighty Angel. And it became clear that if there’s one thing that Pilch excels at, it’s writing about the pernicious effects of alcohol.

Here’s a bit from the moment when young Jerzyk is drawn into Traba’s assassination scheme. In typical Polish Pilch fashion, they indoctrinate him with a drink:

And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of juniper berry vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear it in my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, I could grind Wladyslaw Gomulka [the person Traba wants to assassinate] to dust.

Ah yes, the first drunken pleasures. That moment before the bars of overwhelming neediness, the sad solitary nature of a really wicked hangover, the desire to repeat just to keep repeating, to try and recapture that first moment. That’s what Traba seems to have lived through. That’s why he knows he’s on his way out and has to do something impressive and meaningful before the booze catches him.

One Sunday, Jerzyk decides to forgo church in favor of booze. Too young to be served at a bar, he heads to Traba’s house and finds his quasi-hero, his Quixotic-hero, in a state diametrically opposed to the figure of the jolly man who talks too much and punctuates his speech with the energetic expression “By a billion barrels of beer!”

Mr. Traba lay on an iron bed, which was standing in the middle of a huge chamber that was even larger than our kitchen. Except for the bed, and the bottle that was standing by the bed, there were no pieces of furniture or any other objects, nothing. Just the numbed vastness of the waters, the castaway adrift in the middle, and a bottle full of disastrous news. Blood oozed from Mr. Traba’s cut forehead. Saliva flowed from his lips as they parted again and again. The green army pants he wore were completely soaked. The room was in the grip of the deathbed odor of a body that was passively floating in all its substances, although it was, in fact, filled with only one substance. Mr. Traba said something, whispered, gibbered nonsense, but at first I wasn’t able to catch even a single word, not even one intelligible sound. Still, I strained. I mobilized my secret talent for guessing words that had not yet been spoken, and after a moment—to tell the truth, after a very long moment—I knew more or less what it was about. The key word in Mr. Traba’s delirious narration was the word “tea,” and the entire narration was about love. It was the sentimental complaint of a man lamenting the fact that he couldn’t drink tea at the side of his beloved, since she was drinking tea at the side of another. The whole thing abounded in innumerable digressions, unintentional interjections, and unintelligible ornaments. Perhaps the general thrust of the lament—that drinking tea at the side of one’s beloved was the single dream in the life of a man—was a too-incessantly-repeated refrain, but, taking Mr. Traba’s state into consideration, everything came out amazingly fluently. After all, it was as it always was with him: the sense of his story was the basic, and perhaps the only, tie linking him with the world. The beloved’s name didn’t come up even once. Perhaps I wasn’t able to guess it, or perhaps I didn’t want to guess it. I produced a white handkerchief from the pocket of my Sunday clothes. I poured a little vodka on it from the bottle standing by the bed. I applied the dressing made in this fashion to Mr. Traba’s forehead, and I wiped the slowly drying blood.

The contrast between Jerzyk’s present possibilities (the “angel of his first love”) and the fucked past of Traba that is corroded, ruined by his unending drunkenness is what struck me so hard. The effects of drink isn’t a unique theme in literature—and this may not even be a very unique treatment—but the way this book unfolds, with Jerzyk’s innocence coming under the power of this always-blasted, comically-unhinged, potentially-dangerous man, is quite powerful and compelling. ATPC is the perfect companion to The Mighty Angel. And not just for the way you can trace back Jerzy’s drinking obsession . . .

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Andrzej Stasiuk’s Fado, which was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

The book’s gotten a lot of nice attention already, and Stasiuk is considered one of the most interesting contemporary Polish writers. (And his wife runs a really fantastic publishing house. I actually met her in Germany a couple months ago at a special hearing on translations.) Stasiuk has a few books available in English, including Nine, which came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a couple years ago. (Although I can’t find a listing for a paperback edition, which is weird and shitty.)

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and has written reviews for us of books by Peter Handke, Roberto Bolano, and Amos Oz, among others.

Here’s the opening of his piece on Fado:

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past.

Click here to read the full review.

20 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”

Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”

Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past. Here he is describing a gathering of youths in the main town of his home county:

You can hear shouts, curses, sometimes the sound of breaking glass. Occasionally a police car appears and for a moment there’s calm. Then the police drive off and the party starts up again. Someone throws up, someone cuddles someone else, someone goes into the store for another can of beer. Groups move from one car to another. It’s a little like a caravan encampment where cars play the roles of both horses and tents. From time to time someone drives off and a short while later returns. Because these young people have cars, but they don’t have anywhere to travel to in them. Or perhaps it just doesn’t occur to them that they could actually go somewhere.

As good as he is on such details, Stasiuk is equally at home in the realm of the analytical and the abstract. For example, contrasting the lives of Central and Eastern Europeans under communism with those of Western Europeans, he writes of the former:

[W]e practiced something that might be called pathological cosmopolitanism. We lived in our cities and countries in appearance only, because for us they were fictitious entities. They did not exist in and of themselves. Real life happened elsewhere, in the West. Our world was unreal. We had to make it so, because otherwise we would have had to despise it. Attempts to render our world more real resulted in sorry expeditions into an idealized past, or a hazy millenarianism that proclaimed the imminent arrival of a miraculous hybrid—the three-headed dragon of social equality, universal prosperity, and absolute freedom.

Stasiuk also takes occasional detours into the personal, including an essay on his daughter’s growth from childhood into adolescence and another on his own childhood trips to his grandparents’ farm (where, incidentally, tools and household utensils were used and repaired as long as humanly possible, so perhaps Stasiuk comes by his respect for remnants of the past genetically). And in a further departure, he gives us an essay on the importance of Pope John Paul II in the lives of his Polish compatriots, which contains a remarkable meditation on the Pope’s impending death:

In this idiotic world where old age has become outlawed, where sickness and weakness border on the criminal, where anyone who lacks the strength to produce and consume becomes an outcast, where failure and destitution are acceptable only in television reports from distant lands, he had the courage to die with millions watching; he had the courage to show us his wasted body, his face constricted with suffering, his dragging feet, his death throes. This was his last lesson, at a time when he could no longer speak.

The overarching subject of Fado is the encroachment of the present upon the past, and the past’s mighty struggle to hold its own in the face of the modernizing forces that threaten to obliterate it. And yet, despite—or perhaps in keeping with—his loving acts of preservation, Stasiuk voices pessimism about the ability of past ways of life to survive:

Perhaps this is what the future will look like. Our homelands, our countries, will vanish, as mental or cultural points of reference. Poland will disappear, Italy will disappear, France will disappear. Why not? More and more things are disappearing and more and more new ones are emerging in their stead. What will remain is Fiat, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nike, and Johnny Walker. Then Fiat and Ford will disappear too, even Nokia will disappear, and their more perfect future incarnations will arrive, to which we will pray in turn for consolation and hope.

It’s entirely likely that in such a way the West will finally join with the East. The homelessness of all the mental emigrants will in the end become our common home.

Even if so, this book is an important contribution to shoring up the fragments of Central Europe’s past against their eventual ruin.

13 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch. Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston. (Poland, Open Letter)

The Mighty Angel is a difficult book to talk about. Although, ironically, this glass of wine is totally loosening me up. BTW, I’m writing this on Saturday night—not completely inappropriate time to be drinking. But seriously, how can one relate humor, the joy that comes from reading about a writer (named Jerzy) who is a life-long alcoholic and spends most of his time either getting out of rehab or going on the bender that will send him right back? How can a novel that relates—in painfully true to life detail—story after story of people hitting rock bottom, of people destroying their lives for another drink, another high, another lost night, how can a novel with this much pain and pathos also be incredibly fun to read?

It’s Pilch’s genius to be able to craft a narrative that’s both honest and deceiving. That doesn’t pull punches when exposing his character flaws, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he might be writing himself better, so to speak. That by putting these things down, by conveying them in a way that you can relate, that you can see the problem, that if he can do that, he can cure himself.

The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spend a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.

This sort of honest humor runs throughout the book and creates a very untrustworthy narrator. One who always believes salvation is right around the corner in the form of one girl or another who will serve as his caretaker and will cure him. And every time he ends up right back in the alco ward . . . Which makes the ending of this novel so intriguing and conversation-provoking . . .

Bit of bio info on Jerzy Pilch: he is the author of sixteen volumes, including His Current Woman (published by Northwestern University Press some time back), A Thousand Peaceful Cities (forthcoming from Open Letter), and My First Suicide and Other Stories (also forthcoming from Open Letter). Pilch’s works have been nominated for the NIKE Literary Award on four occasions, with The Mighty Angel winning the award in 2001. One interesting tidbit about Pilch is that he’s a Lutheran—obviously pretty unusual in Poland—and includes a lot of Lutheran stuff in his novels.

But going back to The Mighty Angel, I think the best place to end this post is with this observation by the narrator: “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

10 September 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Last week they announced the shortlist for the prestigious NIKE Award, which will be awarded on October 4th. The shortlist:

  • The Flypaper Factory, Andrzej Bart (WAB)
    The writer narrates the imaginary Łódź trial of Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the Judenrat in the Łódź Ghetto.
  • Bambino, Inga Iwasiów (Świat Książki)
    Iwasiów ponders on the identity of the German and Polish town and presents a panorama of the whole of People’s Poland, from World War II until 1981.
  • Gestures, Ignacy Karpowicz (Wydawnictwo Literackie)
    A new novel from the author of Niehalo [“Uncool”] and Cud [“The Miracle”]. Grzegorz arrives in his provincial native parts to see his ill, aging mother and realizes they have little in common.
  • Ostrogski Palace, Tomasz Piątek (WAB)
    The author himself says: “It’s a book about someone trying to disentangle himself from being a thing and returning to humanity, being reborn. Having a choice in life.” Personal memories are mingled here with essays and the fantasy of novels.
  • Queen of Tiramisu, Bohdan Sławiński (Jacek Santorski)
    The protagonist of Bohdan Sławiński’s novel is Peter, or rather Petey—a delicate, sensitive and tender person. The thoughtful boy gets involved with a mature, well-off married woman.
  • A Song About Dependences and Addictions, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki (Biuro Literackie)
    A new book of poetry from the author of the volumes Kamień pełen pokarmu [“A Stone Full of Nourishment”], Dzieje rodzin polskich [“A History of Polish Families”], winner of the Gdynia Literary Prize.
  • Turul Goulash, Krzysztof Varga (Czarne)
    Varga’s previous novel, Nagrobek z lastryko [“Terrazzo Tombstone”], was about Polish history and symbols; now, in this volume of essays, Varga turns to the Hungarians.

I’m disappointed that Jerzy Pilch’s March Polonia didn’t make the cut (he was on the longlist), but they seem to have a pretty good cross-section of work represented here.

Go to culture.pl for more information.

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Haven’t found the full list online yet, but apparently the longlist for this year’s NIKE Literary Award (the most prestigious literary award in Poland) have been announced. I’ll post an update when I find the full list, but for now, I can say that both Bambino by Inga Iwasiow and Poland Marches On by our own Jerzy Pilch are on the longlist.

And both titles are published by Swiat Ksiazki, who notified me and sent along sample translations . . .

Here’s the info on Jerzy Pilch’s book (which sounds a bit mental, and a bit like The Master and Margarita):

The protagonist – the writer’s alter-ego – has just turned fifty-two. This compulsive seducer decides to find himself a woman on his birthday. She should be different from all his lovers to date. And there have been more than a few … Just when it seems as though his search is all in vain, he gets a text message from the Devil Incarnate himself, inviting him to a ball. Legends are circulating about this party: an out-of-this-world orgy, the Rolling Stones are to be singing, and they’re keeping a zombie in the cellars of the castle… But this is just a small taste of what really is going on there! Our protagonist accidentally finds out that the local residents are planning to attack the estate that day. And this is just the start of a wild, dream-like tale.

And a short excerpt:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit of Storytelling, Amen. On the eve of my fifty-second birthday I decided that the following day I would meet a new woman. This thought had been rattling around in my brain for a long time, but it had only gradually been assuming its definitive key.

I was not undertaking a frivolity; this was neither a game not a wager. I was not giving myself an easy task—my serious and ambitious intention was, within the next twenty-four hours, to meet, get to know, and seduce an intelligent, slim girl just shy of thirty years old and at least six feet in height.

I wanted to offer myself an intensive birthday present and I wanted to test whether I could afford to offer myself an intensive birthday present. On the surface I was in good shape, but I felt that the monster dwelling inside of me was beginning to die. People still regarded me as a rogue, but in essence I was relying on reputation alone. Appearances to the contrary, cynicism was never my strong suit; the irony and instrumental nature of my stories about women had once served to conceal the wrongs I did them. Now, I used the remnants of cynicism, the remains of irony and a show of instrumentalism to mask my despair and my longing.

And a bit about Iwasiow’s Bambino

Bambino is a story about people and a place, or rather places. One of them is the Bambino snack bar, where the four main characters meet. Another is the whole of Szczecin and the surrounding area, a city that has been badly churned up by history, to which people from various parts of Poland made their way after the war. We follow the fortunes of the four heroes from before the war up to 1980. Marysia was born into a large family in the south-eastern borderlands (now Ukraine). After the war, she and her entire family were repatriated to Poland, where they were given a home in a Pomeranian village. She was the only one who managed to get away to the city, where she became a nurse. There she met Janek (and married him), a bastard from a village near Poznań who was abandoned by his mother and later tried to get his own back for years of humiliation by choosing to work for the security service, which ultimately led to the collapse of their marriage. Anna comes from Gorlice, which she left to escape an overly strict mother and a stepfather who didn’t care about her. She had a hard time finishing her studies, and got married late in life, purely for practical reasons, to a merchant navy captain who is older than her. Ula is a German by origin, and is the only one of the main characters to have been born in Szczecin. Because of the war, she almost entirely lost contact with her family, which meant that she has stayed in the city, trying to live like an ordinary Pole. Her not very ardent relationship with Stefan, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and the only man she has ever wanted to be with, was cut cruelly short by history, as Stefan was forced to leave the country in 1968.

And excerpt:

MARIA, BORN 1940

Maria carries it inside her, I swear. An image of the journey, but not only. Something that happened in the course of it. Something left far behind her. Like all the others, she has this something inside her, the threads run together, the genes, they intersect, various things can arise from this combination, and I want to find out who they are – perhaps it is actually my story, but it could just as well be not mine or anyone else’s. I want to rummage in the pictures, carbon copies and waste paper. There’s nothing to hold on to, no album, no diary, no central concept, apart from need. There are just disconnected stories instead, whatever someone has made up about himself. About the person he is. And a life, quite simply, his or whoever’s, past and continuing. That’s all we have on the subject. Centrifugal motion, stealing up from behind, the same thing but with no prospect of the same thing. The mother of all such lost illusions – that’s Maria.

I’m starting with Maria, because her name attracts me. All women are called EveMaria. This one all the more so, as if she were made out of her name straight off from the start, more than Eve, naturally, less marked out, or chosen from the crowd, but then no one ever promised her that. No one did, in naming the girl, yet that’s just what she longs for, to be designated. Thoughtlessly giving a girl that name is a way of tempting and inviting fate. It means she is marked out for sure, but let us not forget that Maria is a common name in this situation. It is sure to be the name of every third heroine whose life began in the circumstances that interest me, the ones I regard as a part of the image of the journey. Quite simply, our grannies often had that name. I’ve got nothing to be proud of, because we’ll see what happens to those names and to them further on. They were only brought here in 1957. They were brought here. They were brought by train, but first someone gave permission, issued documents and stamped their decision on them. First came their and those people’s hesitation, the decision was just about to be made, but then the hand was withdrawn, the circle turned, and they went on standing by the same fence. Until that final moment. And it wasn’t at all funny or heroic in those – of course, nowadays we say “cattle” trucks.

17 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Earlier this month Gazeta Wyborcza announced the longlist for the 2008 Nike Prize, which is awarded to the best Polish book from last year.

The website is less than helpful—every time I click on the “more” button about the prize, I’m brought back to the same opening page and the fragmented statement—and totally in Polish, but what I can decipher is pretty interesting. There are twenty finalists and the winner will be announced in October. Starting earlier this month, the site started highlighting a finalist a day, which is a pretty nice feature.

Here’s the longlist in all its untranslated glory:

  • Lidia Amejko: Żywoty świętych osiedlowych
  • Jacek Dukaj: Lód
  • Paweł Huelle : Ostatnia Wieczerza
  • Jerzy Jarniewicz: Znaki firmowe
  • Urszula Kozioł: Przelotem
  • Ewa Lipska: Pomarańcza Newtona
  • Małgorzata Łukasiewicz: Rubryka pod różą
  • Ewa Madeyska: Katoniela
  • Andrzej Mandalian: Poemat odjazdu
  • Piotr Matywiecki: Twarz Tuwima
  • Włodzimierz Nowak: Obwód głowy
  • Jerzy Pilch: Pociąg do życia wiecznego
  • Janusz Rudnicki: Chodźcie, idziemy
  • Mariusz Sieniewicz: Rebelia
  • Andrzej Sosnowski: Po tęczy
  • Bronisław Świderski: Asystent śmierci
  • Andrzej Szczeklik: Kore
  • Małgorzata Szejnert: Czarny ogród
  • Olga Tokarczuk: Bieguni
  • Krzysztof Varga: Nagrobek z lastryko

Great to see Jerzy Pilch on this list (we’re publishing The Mighty Angel next April), and we just got a copy of Pawel Huelle’s Castorp (a finalist for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) in for review.

I’l post more useful, reliable info about the individual titles as soon as I can find it. (Google Translator sucks as much as Babelfish with the Polish. See: “Contemporary American prose, it is impossible to describe, but fragmentary. Zwielokrotniła so much that the world is not literally.” Yes, yes Zwielokrotnila is that much.)

10 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got a message from the Polish Book Institute that Bill Johnston (translator of numerous Polish authors, including Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, another Open Letter book about drunks that we’ll be publishing in Spring 2009) has won the first ever Found in Translation award.

He won for his translation of Tadeusz Rozewicz’s New Poems available from Archipelago.

As pointed out in the press release about the award, this isn’t the first honor for Rozewicz’s book—it was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry.

Bill is a really incredible translator and perfect example of how someone can help promote a particular country’s literature in translation.

He has translated the classics – J. Słowacki, B. Prus, S. Żeromski and Witold Gombrowicz. His splendid translations of books by authors such as Magdalena Tulli and Andrzej Stasiuk have also allowed American readers to become acquainted with Polish contemporary literature. Bill Johnston is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Second Language Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington (USA).

The Found in Translation award was established last October by the Book Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and W.A.B. Publishers. The winner receives 10,000 PLN (almost $5,000) and a three-month Book Institute scholarship.

9 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From The Guardian:

A Polish writer is on trial for murder after writing a crime novel in which he closely detailed the facts of a real-life killing.

Investigators claim Krystian Bala, 33, a travel writer, journalist and author, even sent them a copy of his popular novel Amok in which he gives a detailed account of a murder, in order to draw attention to it. But suspicious police thought his account too close to the murder of a man whose body was found near a weir on the river Oder in December 2000.

27 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Somewhat surprisingly, this weekend’s New York Times Book Review has a full-length review of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems, which was a RTW book this year.

And I can’t disagree with David Orr’s opening sentiment:

. . . it’s impossible to know which country has the best writers, let alone the best poets. Even so, if cash money were on the line, you’d find few critics willing to bet against Poland. Since 1980, the Poles have two Nobel Prize-winning poets, 34 pages in the “Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry” (11 better than France, a country with 25 million more people) and enough top-flight artists to populate dozens of American creative writing departments, probably improving many of them in the process.

....
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >