16 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

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
Nightboat Books

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.

DMLetters 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.

Now, this probably won’t register immediately if you don’t read or speak Portuguese (or Spanish), but what Hilst is doing here is playing repeatedly with the word “oco,” such that you get a string of those “hollows” (“ocos”) one after the other, as well as other rhymes, assonances and consonances, a veritable seemingly untranslatable—into English—music, through the words that she uses: os cocos (coconuts), toco (stump/stub, also: I play, touch), troco (I exchange), etc. In fact, the “o/ou” (OH) and “u/o” (OOH) sounds appear in sentence after sentence, sometimes in a string of words, so that even when you don’t exactly get the “hollow,” you get the sound that embodies it. This is the work of a true poet, and someone incredibly attentive to language. There’s also a great deal of polysemy here at the phonemic level. So this was a huge challenge: how to bring this into English, since it will by necessity be lost? I had to find an equivalent but distinctly English music, and realized that English does have musical resources of its own that would work. But it wasn’t easy, and when I felt I’d figured it out, I was exhilarated. There are many such moments, but this remains my favorite, and I could read the Portuguese aloud over and over. It’s amazing how she pulls it off.
My translation:

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.
 
DM: You’ve a new collection of fiction publishing soon, some of which is set in Brazil. Have the two projects—your translation of Hilst and your writing of Counternarratives—overlapped in any way? Or did they largely run parallel to one another? 

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.

6 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

6 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

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
Arcadia Books
£11.99

....
The Indian
The Indian by Jón Gnarr
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .

Read More >

Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories
Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .

Read More >

Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

Read More >

The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >