Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki, Translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Hennighan, Angola
At thirty-six years old, Ondjaki is one of the most prominent figures in Angola with a stream of diverse works to behind him to solidify his status as a mainstay African writer. Not to mention his list of awards: winner of the 2013 Jose Saramago Prize, an Africa39/Unesco City of Literature 2014 African Writer Under 40, a Guardian Top Five African Writer 2012, and winner of the Grinzane Prize for Best Young Writer 2010. His novel is the little novel that could. It came up slow on the judges, but it won’t leave. It’s a tough sell amongst the Cortázar, the ubiquitous Ferrante, the brilliance of the Hrabals, the seriousness of the Echenoz, or the linguistic leaps and narrative complexity of Can Xue. Admittedly, I am reluctant to get excited about a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps I am too old with too much cynicism. But that is what is beautiful about this novel – despite the historical setting of the civil war that lasted decades which would cause any country’s citizens to be cynical, especially their artists, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is light, almost effervescent, a testament to the true nature of resilience and hope.
Why should it win?
1. Rarely does a novel make me laugh out loud and I often question the mental state of reviewers who say “this book kept me laughing out loud,” but these few lines got me.
We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with American imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.”
2. The originality of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is present in his characters, in his scenes and in the overall narrative. It’s fun. It’s fun book to read but not in a “guilty read” type of way, but in a stylized, well-crafted literary way. The unnamed narrator’s cast of characters is unique and refreshing. Residing on Bishop’s Beach in Luanda, there’s Granmas, Soviets or “blue ants”, Comrade Gas Jockey whose gas pump is just water, Comrade Gudafterov because of the way he says ‘good afternoon’, and Pi. The way the narrator explains how a friend arrives at a particular is always entertaining:
That was how he got his name, Sea Foam, there on the shoreline of Bishop’s Beach, where there was a huge blotch of white foam deposited by the breaking waves to ensure that the water merely lapped against the sand. Only if you walked far out did you lose your footing. There the foam disappeared, but closer in, where we also liked to pick up pretty seashells, it was just clean white foam, completely white as you looked to the right and the left, with Sea Foam’s body making a dark stain in the whiteness.
“Oye, niños, es el cabello del mar… The hair of the sea, do you understand? I mean, hahaha…” He went under for a second, dipped all of his hair in the foam awash with sand and shattered seashells, came up almost breathless and then puffed a like a little whale. “I mean…I’m just a louse in the white hair of the sea.”
4. The voice is so winsome. We don’t know the narrator’s name, but his voice just captivates with its loss of innocence and his love for his friends and his Granma. Yet, it never becomes syrupy or sickening. It is simply poignant:
And I stood still.
It wasn’t only the fingers or the toes, the legs or the head and the eyes, that liked to look one way then the other. It was the stillness itself. Within me. The voice that speaks within me had nothing to say, or else it wanted to practice silence just like that.
Still from not thinking.
To feel the evening? To await a signal from the wind, a whistle like a segregated conversation taking account of the fact that the birds cried in a far-away and I could hear them? Wanting to hear mysterious sentences from Granma Catarina? Contemplating the things of Bishop’s Beach that I thought I alone saw?
Inventing minutes that were mine within the minutes of time?
Growing up with a heart and body that were fleeing from childhood? “Is someone running behind the child?” Granma Nineteen was in the habit of asking. Was time pursuing me with a body to frighten me? I felt the whole world there in the small square of Bishop’s Beach.
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is one of those rare charming novels full of spirit, humor and the craziness of politics and power’s effect on its victims. It’s not often that a gem like this can be delivered through the voice of a young boy in such a whimsical way. The styles of Ondjaki and Hennighan are simpatico and deserve the Best Translated Book Award for this redemptive and enchanting work.
John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book?
John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?
JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:
E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.
And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.
The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.
One of the complaints I get from time to time—about both Three Percent and Open Letter—is our lack of poetry coverage. This is primarily my fault, since I rarely ever read poetry. Probably some sort of reading deficiency, blindspot, or problem with my soul, but, well, there you have it. (It’s not as if this is my only flaw! Even my best-friend could provide a list as long as a summer day.)
To try and make up for this, Open Letter is launching a poetry series (one book a year, starting in February or thereabouts) and below you’ll find a poem that I came across in the new issue of Zoland Poetry. (BTW, the new issue isn’t actually featured on the website . . . yet. Whoops. There is a mention of the pub date—March 23rd—but that’s it. I can confirm that yes, this really does exist, and that it’s filled with good stuff.)
“Invented Memoir” by Manoel de Barros, translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey
I leaned into the morning the way a bird leans and a vision appeared: the afternoon running behind a dog. I was fourteen. The vision must have come from my origins. I don’t remember ever seeing a dog outrun the afternoon. I made a note of it anyway. Such leaps of the imagination are what make our speech more beautiful. I made a note in a phrasebook. By this point, I was already saving visions like this one. I had another that month, but first I should tell you the circumstances. I transported parts of my childhood between the kitchen wall and the yard. I pretended to put a yoke on the frogs behind our kitchen. We understood each other well. I fixed things so the frog’s skin matched the color of the ground. It seemed right, since they were of the ground and grimy. One day I said to my mother: A frog is a piece of the ground that jumps. She said I was mixed up, that a frog isn’t a piece of the ground. Now that I’m older, I think of the prophet Jeremiah. He was so distraught at seeing his Zion destroyed and dragged through the fire that a vision came to him in his home: even the stones in the street were crying. Later, calmer, writing to a friend, he remembered the vision: even the stones in the street had cried. It was such a beautiful sentence because there was no reason in it. He said this.
Félix Ventura, an albino, is an antique book dealer and a ‘seller of pasts,’ or genealogist as he tells strangers, who fabricates impressive genealogies for those Luandans who feel that their social station demands a more elevated (or more politically correct, given the bloody and recent revolutionary past of Angola) family history. As Félix says:
“I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature,” he told me conspiratorially. “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.”
Félix’s closest friend (well, really more of a silent interlocutor), and the narrator of the story, is a gecko who lives in his house. The gecko-narrator is a reincarnated human being, who, in addition to telling Félix’s story, provides details of his former life, and, in short chapters, the details of his dreams.
One day, Félix is approached by a photojournalist and war photographer who asks Félix to not only create a past for him, but to create a new identity for him as well. Somewhat reluctantly, Félix creates the identity ‘José Buchmann’, providing the newly dubbed Buchmann with a passport, driver’s license, several photographs of his parents and a detailed family story.
Despite Félix’s admonitions, Buchmann travels to his ‘ancestral home’, seeking evidence of the truth of the fictions that Félix has created. Things begin to take a darker turn when Buchmann comes back with that evidence.
The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.
My enthusiasm for The Book of Chameleons is tempered somewhat by the ending. The hazy, pleasingly bewildering atmosphere that Agualusa generates in the first three quarters of the book, which could have sustained me for a long time, is squandered a bit by an ending that happens too quickly, and perhaps too perfectly.
However, I think José Eduardo Agualusa is definitely a writer worth following, especially in light of his excellent Creole, and I’m hopeful that Arcadia, and Daniel Hahn, will continue to bring his books to an English speaking audience.
The Book of Chameleons
José Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
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