5 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced Friday, Mia Couto has won this year’s Neustadt International Prize for Literature:

Gabriella Ghermandi, who nominated Couto for the Neustadt Prize, said of him, “He is an author who addresses not just his country but the entire world, all human beings.”

Couto is the first Mozambican author to be nominated for and to win the Neustadt Prize. He is considered to be one of the most important writers in Mozambique, and his works have been published in more than 20 languages.

Born in 1955 in Beira, Mozambique, Couto began his literary career in the struggle for Mozambique’s independence, during which time he edited two journals. Raiz de Orvalho, Couto’s first book of poetry, was published in 1983. His first novel and the novel that was the representative text for the Neustadt, Sleepwalking Land, was published in 1992 to great acclaim and is widely considered one of the best African books of the 20th century.

Couto is known for his use of magical realism as well as his creativity with language. In her nominating statement, Ghermandi wrote, “Some critics have called Mia Couto ‘the smuggler writer,’ a sort of Robin Hood of words who steals meanings to make them available in every tongue, forcing apparently separate worlds to communicate. Within his novels, each line is like a small poem.”

This year, Couto also received the 2013 Camões Prize for Literature, a prestigious award given to Portuguese-language writers.

Sleepwalking Land is available from Serpent’s Tail, and is definitely worth reading.

ALSO worth checking out though is The Tuner of Silences, which came out recently from Biblioasis.

Translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, here’s a synopsis:

Mwanito Vitalício was eleven when he saw a woman for the first time, and the sight so surprised him he burst into tears.

Mwanito’s been living in a big-game park for eight years. The only people he knows are his father, his brother, an uncle, and a servant. He’s been told that the rest of the world is dead, that all roads are sad, that they wait for an apology from God. In the place his father calls Jezoosalem, Mwanito has been told that crying and praying are the same thing. Both, it seems, are forbidden.

The eighth novel by The New York Times-acclaimed Mia Couto, The Tuner of Silences is the story of Mwanito’s struggle to reconstruct a family history that his father is unable to discuss. With the young woman’s arrival in Jezoosalem, however, the silence of the past quickly breaks down, and both his father’s story and the world are heard once more.

20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

The Misters tend to think like this, taking a roundabout approach to get to a strikingly obvious (if not entirely realistic) conclusion, in so few words from Tavares that the simplicity of the writing adds punch to the simplicity of the thought. Mister (Paul) Valéry, for instance, another denizen of the neighborhood, wears a black shoe on the right foot and a white shoe on his left foot. Upon being told that his shoes are “switched” he puts a white shoe on his right foot and a black shoe on his left foot. When he is told again that his shoes are switched, he determines that this must be wrong, since if it was incorrect the first time and he reversed it, it must now be correct, since the inverse is the opposite of the wrong original, making it right. With this in mind, he no longer worries about whether his shoes are on the correct feet—so long as they are the opposite of their inverse, they’re fine.

Now, it took me as many almost as many words to explain that chapter (“The Shoes”) as it took Tavares to write it. That is the beauty of his writing, Roopanjali Roy’s translation, and of this book itself: the simplicity of the ideas mirrored in the simplicity of the writing. The style seems like it belongs in a book for children (it reminded me pretty strongly of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth), its language simple and straight to the point, creating an entertaining counterpoint to the absurdity of the content. In his introduction, Philip Graham mentions that his eleven year old daughter and her class in school loved Tavares’ writing: “I was mightily impressed by how even young children could be moved by Tavares’ writing, even though they certainly didn’t have a clue who Juarroz,Valéry, or the others might be.”

This is where I get a little uneasy. Based on everything else mentioned above, I want to say that I loved the book—and I did like it a lot—but I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to because, like Graham’s daughter, Hannah, I didn’t have a grasp on who the models for the Misters really were. And unlike those children, while I found the stories were enjoyable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing glaringly obvious references to the Misters’ philosophical views or prevalent themes in their works, which kept me slightly uncomfortable for the duration of the book. That being said, the pathological need to know ALL OF THE BACKGROUND!!!! before I go into reading something is a long-standing personal hang-up of mine, and perhaps because of that this book wasn’t the best way to introduce me to Tavares’ writing. I wish that I could have enjoyed it the way that those children did, but I was nagged the entire time by that feeling of missing something, and I’m sad to say that it diminished my potential enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I went into this book expecting the wrong things, but that’s not to say that I was disappointed. On the contrary, the project that Tavares underwent in creating the stories and the characters in The Neighborhood is staggering both in terms of its inception and its execution; the entire project had thirty-nine total inhabitants squished into Caiano’s map by the time that this translated collection went to press, all famous figures repurposed by Tavares’ clever hand. The short stories are enjoyable in their absurdity and profundity, simultaneously provoking smiles and making the reader think, “That’s ridiculo– wait, uh, actually . . . that kind of makes sense. I think.” Perhaps for people like me who need to know everything going in, this book is not ideal, but for someone who’s familiar with Italo Calvino, Paul Valéry, Roberto Juarroz, Robert Walser, Karl Kraus, or Henri Michaux and can appreciate the homages to them (or a reader who is able and content to just take the stories as they are) The Neighborhood is a delightful collection from one of Portugal’s most striking modern literary talents.

20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on The Neighborhood by Gonçalo Tavares, from Texas Tech University Press.

Hannah is one of our Open Letter interns this summer (and a recent student of Chad’s), and in addition to helping copy edit manuscripts, keeping the mail situation in check, reading submissions, and patiently ducking as we test the new darts for the office dartboard, she’ll also be contributing to the Three Percent reviews during her stay with us.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions

This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.

Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).

Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.

In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:

I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.

Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”

Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.

So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:

Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.

If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.

The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”

If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:

I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.

There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.

A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.

(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).

20 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Joseph Walser’s Machine by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil and published by Dalkey Archive Press

This piece is by avid reader of literature in translation Tiffany Nichols, who runs this Tumblr account.

Gonçalo M. Tavares continues to be the master of allegorical fiction. Here, in Joseph Walser’s Machine, the hands, machines, and the desire for normalcy within an unnamed city are the images of modernity in response to war.

Joseph Wasler, a generic machine operator, conducts his life with order and precision until one day his sleeve is caught in the machine he has been operating for years, resulting in the loss of his index finger. The first reaction to this event is the apparent betrayal by the machine that Wasler has grown to know more intimately than his wife. The last reaction is the importance of the index finger, which was lost in this fleeting moment of distraction, in controlling the weapons of war and human destruction—guns. As Wasler’s boss, whom has a greater intimacy with Wasler’s wife than Wasler himself, states:

It’s the finger that pulls the trigger, the finger that’s essential for shooting . . . [the machine] took from you your most useful finger, the one that shoots, the finger that performs a final contraction just before someone in front of you disappears. The machines were mocking you, my dear fellow. We should be wary of the machines, I’ve told that before. Their malice is far too precise. We’ll never be able to achieve anything like that, ourselves.

This conclusion shows the area of Tavares mastery in storytelling—irony which is only obvious after Tavares decides to reveal it to the reader. Tavares has the innate ability to provide the typical triumphal human response, but shows how it is epically flawed by the larger world. Here, when Walser lost his index finger, shortly thereafter, he found a metal ring to add to his collection of metal (or discarded machine parts). After careful measurements, “research,” and recordation, Wasler concluded that the metal ring was a part of a machine, precisely a gun, that would never be able to fire again because Wasler held an essential piece of its body. In this Wasler found his own resistance to the war occurring around him—disabling machines through collection of their essential parts. However, it is never confirmed whether the ring did in fact come from gun. All Wasler knows is its size and that a women found it in a doorway of her building.

It is not until the end that Tavares reminds us that the index finger is the most essential part of the human body in times of war, as it is the only appendage that can pull the trigger leading to a readily noticeable and permanent mark by an individual in the mist of the attempt maintain normalcy despite the random and often secretive causalities of war. It is here at the end of the tale, that Tavares breaks the reader’s concentration and focus on the machines, with their interchangeable parts able to continue on despite their operators being injured in the process of their operation—similar to war—and reminds us that humans instead house the most effective means to perpetuate or disable a war—our own index fingers.

This precise capture of the inter-workings of human behavior and thought and their interaction and undue attributed importance of machines will lead to conversations and discourse for years to come. Each Tavares novel encountered will create such a response.

25 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Next Tuesday, March 5th, at 10 am(ish), we will be unveiling this year’s BTBA Fiction Longlist. This year’s judges—click here for the complete list—did a spectacular job selecting the 25 best works of fiction in translation published last year.

In contrast to years past, this time I recommended that the nine judges agree on 16 titles, then each pick one “wild card”—a book that they personally love, but that didn’t make the list selected by the group. My hope—which seems to have worked—was to diversify the group of finalists a bit, allowing books that didn’t get quite as much play to get some attention.

That said, looking over the complete list of fiction titles, there are a few books that I thought for sure would be on there, but aren’t. So, over the next five days I’m going to highlight some of them. This isn’t to say that I disagree with the list of finalists—I think it’s pretty spectacular, and damn, is narrowing it down to 25 books a difficult task—just that I think there are a few other titles that deserve some sort of honorable mention. And besides, for those of you playing along at home, this list of non-BTBA books might give you some clues as to what did make it . . .



The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araujo (Nightboat Books)

I wish I could write a review of this book. I read it a few weeks ago along with Água Viva by Hilst’s friend and compatriot Clarice Lispector, and was struck by a) how well these two books go together, and b) how no one writes like Lispector and Hilst wrote. These are books that blow apart the nature of fiction and how to represent consciousness, and do so in a way that is mesmerizingly strange and beautiful.

But I’m really not sure how to write about Hilst . . . This book is basically about a widowed woman who lives under the stairs in her house, has masks hanging in her window, and tries to scare all the kids by yelling crazy shit at them. And if that’s not enough to get you interested, just check out this wild prose:

look Hillé the face of God

where where?

look at the abyss and see

I don’t see anything

lean over a bit more

only fog and depth

that’s it. adore HIM. Condense mist and fathom and fashion a face. Res facta, calm down.

And let’s see now which sentences are appropriate to speak when I open the window to the society of the neighborhood:

your rotten asses

your unimaginable pestilence

mouths stinking of phlegm and stupidity

enormous behinds waiting their turn. for what? to shit into saucepans

armpits of excrement

wormhole in hollow teeth

the pig’s woody

The Obscene Madame D is 57 pages of that: a mess of beauty and obscenity describing life and god and death and sex. It’s like Celine filtered through the mind of a bipolar woman.

So how do you even approach or explain this? What is Hilst up to?

Well, over at Triple Canopy you can read “Crassus Agonicus,” a shorter piece of Hilst’s, which also features a really interesting introduction:

In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.

Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money. The second installment, Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos—here excerpted under the title “Crassus Agonicus,” in English-language translation for the first time—has more in common with the work of Ariana Reines and Helen DeWitt than that of E. L. James. Disguising a work of art as a trashy potboiler is a special sort of perversity for an author, and Hilst’s forcefully, grotesquely avant-garde novels are as devious as they are unsavory. What they do best is not titillate but muddy the customary distinctions between pornography and art, between the pulpy best seller and the literary novel.

In this regard, Hilst’s Obscene Tetralogy, as it became known, was an affront to the vulgar demands of the mass market and likewise to the values of the surprisingly prudish Brazilian literary scene. “Crassus Agonicus” in particular is a “fuck you” to both kinds of readers, but also a veiled love letter—a contradictory expression befitting the great passion Hilst felt for the audience she courted. As she insisted: “I wanted to be consumed before I died.” And by breeding her own style of transgressive, erotic literature with the seedier conventions of pornography (bestiality, infantile sexuality, and incest), she succeeded in making something so controversial it could not be ignored.

Anyway, The Obscene Madame D is definitely worth checking out (not to mention, purchasing this book will help Nightboat—a really quality small press), even though it didn’t make this year’s BTBA longlist.

14 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lastest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by frequent contributor Jeremy Garber on José Saramago’s Raised from the Ground, which just recently came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Portuguese.

I assume that Saramago needs no introduction, but in case you’re completely unaware of this particular Nobel Prize winner, you should definitely purchase The Collected Novels of José Saramago, available exclusively in ebook form and collecting twelve Saramago novels and one novella—all for $36! Or $16 on Amazon. (Sorry haters, but really, that’s an insane bargain that needs to be shared.)

Speaking of Amazon and Saramago’s signature writing style, here’s a brilliant Amazon customer review from Ms. Pigglewiggle (no comment):

You get all of Saramago’s major stories of this collection, but there are no paragraphs, no quotation marks, and no periods—just a neverending series of commas. It’s very difficult to follow the story and keep track of who’s speaking!

Yeah, honey, that’s what we call reading.

Anyway, here’s part of Jeremy’s review:

One of the late nobel laureate’s earlier novels, Raised from the Ground (Levantado do chão) was originally published in Saramago’s native portuguese in 1980 but has only now been posthumously translated into English by Saramago’s long-time translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Set in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the novel follows three generations of the Mau-Tempo family on the Latifundio (a large, mostly agrarian estate) as they toiled away in the wheatfields. Despite enduring rural poverty, financial insecurity, class divisions, punishing labor, and the punitive caprices of overseer, church, and state, the Mau-Tempos sought to lead fulfilling lives only to be thwarted often by any number of seemingly ceaseless hardships.

Saramago’s own grandparents (Jerónimo & Josefa) were illiterate and landless peasants and served obviously as inspiration for both Raised from the Ground’s plot and its lively characters. in his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather as “the wisest man i ever knew.” during the same speech, in talking about this very novel, he continued,

“and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.”

Raised from the Ground is one of Saramago’s most plaintive and personal tales, with strong characters as much at the whim of external forces as any in his other novels.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the late nobel laureate’s earlier novels, Raised from the Ground (Levantado do chão) was originally published in Saramago’s native portuguese in 1980 but has only now been posthumously translated into English by Saramago’s long-time translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Set in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the novel follows three generations of the Mau-Tempo family on the Latifundio (a large, mostly agrarian estate) as they toiled away in the wheatfields. Despite enduring rural poverty, financial insecurity, class divisions, punishing labor, and the punitive caprices of overseer, church, and state, the Mau-Tempos sought to lead fulfilling lives only to be thwarted often by any number of seemingly ceaseless hardships.

Saramago’s own grandparents (Jerónimo & Josefa) were illiterate and landless peasants and served obviously as inspiration for both Raised from the Ground’s plot and its lively characters. in his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather as “the wisest man i ever knew.” during the same speech, in talking about this very novel, he continued,

and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.

Raised from the Ground is one of Saramago’s most plaintive and personal tales, with strong characters as much at the whim of external forces as any in his other novels. Beginning in the late 1800s and spanning the better part of a century through the coup that deposed Salazar, the story follows the family’s generations as each strives to overcome the past and seek for themselves a life easier than the ones their forebears knew. Forever facing the misfortunes and daily humiliations that marked their years (including the ongoing threat of violence and imprisonment), the Mau-Tempos endeavored, and, quite literally, labored for their lives.

Of all of his novels, it is within Raised from the Ground that Saramago most thinly veils his opinions about politics. as individuals (including one of the Mau-Tempos) attempt to organize on behalf of Latifundio workers throughout the region, they are met with immediate repression and draconian reprisals. When the tenets of communism begin to gain in popularity, both the state and church implement tactics of fear and oppression to stifle the growing opposition. Saramago shades his novel with allusions to actual historical events including, most notably, the Carnation Revolution that ushered in an entirely new era of Portuguese cultural and political life.

Throughout Raised from the Ground, Saramago explores many of the themes that would so singularly characterize and bring great acclaim to his later works. His unique grammatical and prose stylings are present, but are somewhat less masterfully asserted as they would come to be in subsequent novels. In more ways than one, raised from the ground bears similarity to the writings of John Steinbeck, a fellow author for whom the politics of labor were not so easily divorced from everyday life. Raised from the Ground is a beautiful, however sorrowful, novel the likes of which Saramago was so adept at creating. From his humble beginnings to the pinnacle of literary accomplishment, Saramago appeared to approach his life with dignity, compassion, and a yearning for justice—three qualities to be found in abundance within this timeless tale of the human condition.

Although most of his books have been available in English for some time, there still remains a fair amount of as-yet unrendered works well deserving of translation (including poetry, diaries, short stories, a children’s book, and at least two novels). Earlier this year, Claraboia, a “lost” Saramago novel written nearly 60 years ago, was published for the first time (in both Portuguese and Spanish) and is likely slated for an English translation. Fans of his remarkable career that have not yet done so are strongly encouraged to seek out Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’s 2010 documentary José y Pilar, a gorgeous, touching film about Saramago and his wife, Pilar del Rio.

Every day has its story, a single minute would take years to describe, as would the smallest gesture, the careful peeling away of each word, each syllable, each sound, not to mention thoughts, which are things of great substance, thinking about what you think or thought or are thinking, and about what kind of thought it is exactly that thinks about another thought, it’s never-ending.

*beautifully rendered into english by saramago’s long-time translator, margaret jull costa

1 October 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Chad W. Post and Kaija Straumanis talk with Philip Graham — a co-founder and current nonfiction editor of “Ninth Letter,” author of several books, including “The Moon, Come to Earth:Dispatches from Lisbon” — about Portuguese culture and literature, specifically the works of Gonçalo Tavares, whose book “The Neighborhood” is coming out this month with Philip’s introduction. (Which will appear here on Three Percent in the near future.)

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22 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This summer has been a crapton of busy. There’s the normal publsihing10bookswiththreeemployeesOMG sort of daily adrenaline rush, and on top of that, and on top of working with a half-dozen interns and apprentices, this summer has been consumed by planning and planning and fretting over and planning the American Literary Translators Association conference, which will be taking place here in Rochester on October 3-6. And if you’ve never tried to organize a conference, well, don’t. (Kidding, ALTA!) It’s a wonderful experience—especially if you like that feeling of being perpetually behind with everything . . .

Anyway, all that is to explain why I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to Three Percent as I would’ve liked. And why I haven’t been able to read as many new books as I would like. Which is why, rather than writing up long posts about all the new books I love, I’m going to start writing weekly posts about new and forthcoming and recently released books that I want to read.

I’m going to start today with five books from the Iberian Peninsula. This might seem a bit random, but I’ve always had a thing for Barcelona and for Antonio Lobo Antunes. Plus, this summer I was lucky enough to speak at the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and fell back in love with all things Iberian.

You might think I’m kidding, but when I got back, I bought a case of Spanish wines, bitched up all the chorizo dishes, and checked out all the Iberian-related books, such as The Basque History of the World, which I would be reading RIGHT NOW if I didn’t have two Open Letter books to proof, one to edit, and a Korean manuscript to evaluate. Ah, publishing!

Sticking with the Basque interest (they have their own breed of cows and pigs and sheep! they invented their own shoes! their language is loaded with ‘x’s and ‘k’s! and has no word for “Basque,” just for “Basque speakers”! so unique, so interesting!) the current book on my nightstand is Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which comes out in September from Graywolf Press. This is the third Axtaga book Graywolf has published (Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son being the others), and maybe the least Basque of the three—it’s set in the Congo—but it’s new, and is about corruption and things evil, which makes for good beginning-of-the-school-year reading.

Sticking with the corruption theme, the other book that arrived recently that caught my eye is Peter Bush’s new translation of Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, which originally was published in Spanish in the 1920s. According to the NYRB press materials, this was “the first great twentieth-century novel of dictatorship, and the avowed inspiration for Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.” That’s some pretty fine company to be keeping, and with Peter Bush’s involvement, I’m totally sold. It’s also interesting that Valle-Inclan—who was born in Galicia—wrote a book about a revolution in Mexico.

Switching gears from writers writing about places other than their homeland, Jose Saramago—whose posthumous output is approaching L. Ron Hubbard levels—has a new book out: Raised from the Ground, a novel set in a southern province of Portugal and featuring the Mau Tempo family, a family that resembles Saramago’s own grandparents. I’ve never been a huge Saramago fan, although I do enjoy reading his books for entertainment (along with those of Joyce Carol Oates, which sounds like a slight to both authors, but truly isn’t), but I’m really excited to read this, since it came out in 1980, long before the Nobel Prize and hopefully before he started relying on the sort of smug narratorial tone that infests his more recent works.

As a sidenote, the Saramago is the second book on my Iberian love-list that’s translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Not-so-coincidentally, I just finished reading The City and the Mountains by Portuguese author Eca de Queiros, which was ALSO translated by Costa. This was the first Queiros book I’ve read in full, and although it’s not perfect, it’s really interesting and has led to my adding a ton of his titles to me “to read bookshelves,” including “The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes,” which is available from Tagus Press in Gregory Rabassa’s translation. This bit of the jacket copy is exactly why this is the next Quieros book I’ll be picking up:

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes—ostensibly letters, with an arch introduction—actually ranges widely and revels in many forms of discourse. In this singular work, originally published in 1900, one finds meditations, dialogues, observations, grand shifts in tone, occulted ironies, pastiches, lampoons, and and underlying hilarity throughout.

Another linguistic reveler of sorts—and a fellow Portugese writer—is Goncalo M. Tavares, who is best well know for his two series: The Neighborhood series, one bit of which will be coming out from Texas Tech later this year; and “The Kingdom” series, which consists of four volumes published by Dalkey Archive—Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine. I read the first two right before meeting up with him in Lisbon, and really, really loved Jerusalem. (Learning to Pray is great, but not quite as great as Jerusalem.) In Lisbon, organizers Jeff Parker and Scott Laughlin were both high on Joseph Walser’s Machine, the most recent book in “The Kingdom” to be released. I’m a whore for trilogies and series, especially series of this sort, which don’t follow in a linear fashion, but interlock in a more interesting, complicated fashion. Something like Kjaerstad’s Wergeland Trilogy which is built from three different narrators with three different takes on Jonas Wergeland’s life, and structured in three very different ways. Or the Joyce Cary trilogy that NYRB reissued a way back. Anyway, Tavares’s “Kingdom” is more like that than like a sort of space opera trilogy featuring all the same characters. Sure, some character reappear in Tavares’s different books, but the connections between the books are more thematic and tonal than anything else. But I’ll write more about this after reading Joseph Walser’s Machine and the final book in the series.

That’s it for this week . . . Next week I’ll write about a book I want to read to be able to not understand it. This will make sense . . . Promise . . .

20 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by me— Aleksandra Fazlipour — on José Saramago’s The Lives of Things, which is available from Verso Books.

Here’s a bit of my review:

Imagine a world where objects, utensils, machines, or installations (OUMIs) take on lives of their own, independent of their owners. A world where skin grafted to the palms of our hands identifies us as a particular category, A-Z, that grants us absolute power over others (those below us) or renders us perfectly subservient (to those above us). Now imagine a world—perhaps a different world, or maybe the same as before—where cars in effect solder themselves to their drivers, demanding more gas. And then another (or again, perhaps the same), where chairs fall in stop-motion triggering irreparable brain damage in those who sit in them, where the two parts of a centaur’s body (human and horse) are constantly in dispute with one another. Sometimes subtly horrifying and always appropriately absurd and comedic when the situation demands it, José Saramago drops us in to those worlds in The Lives of Things. Or that one world, depending on how you look at it . . . because the settings Saramago creates are not that far of a departure from the world we live in.

At times it is difficult to wade through the nonchalant, matter-of-fact, thickly piled on descriptions the Nobel Prize-winning author utilizes. His prose is richly colorful, descriptive and frequently verges on shocking without being excessive. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading the same paragraph over and over again, luxuriating in the gorgeous, strange yet precise word choice but without being stuck. Giovanni Pontiero does a laudable job translating Saramago’s discourse from Portuguese to English without sacrificing any of the sly humor or the lush detailed description.

Click here to read the entire review.

20 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Imagine a world where objects, utensils, machines, or installations (OUMIs) take on lives of their own, independent of their owners. A world where skin grafted to the palms of our hands identifies us as a particular category, A-Z, that grants us absolute power over others (those below us) or renders us perfectly subservient (to those above us). Now imagine a world—perhaps a different world, or maybe the same as before—where cars in effect solder themselves to their drivers, demanding more gas. And then another (or again, perhaps the same), where chairs fall in stop-motion triggering irreparable brain damage in those who sit in them, where the two parts of a centaur’s body (human and horse) are constantly in dispute with one another. Sometimes subtly horrifying and always appropriately absurd and comedic when the situation demands it, José Saramago drops us in to those worlds in The Lives of Things. Or that one world, depending on how you look at it . . . because the settings Saramago creates are not that far of a departure from the world we live in.

At times it is difficult to wade through the nonchalant, matter-of-fact, thickly piled on descriptions the Nobel Prize-winning author utilizes. His prose is richly colorful, descriptive and frequently verges on shocking without being excessive. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading the same paragraph over and over again, luxuriating in the gorgeous, strange yet precise word choice but without being stuck. Giovanni Pontiero does a laudable job translating Saramago’s discourse from Portuguese to English without sacrificing any of the sly humor or the lush detailed description.

The stream-of-consciousness nature of the prose truly lends itself to the six short stories catalogued in this slim book, immensely complementing the twisting storylines. In some cases, the details constrain the reader, forcing them to look at the story in a very specific way. Saramago makes it very easy to overlook the bigger picture in favor of fixating how tiny actions—a man sitting down in a chair that breaks over the course of 25 pages, freezing midair, within the simply titled “The Chair”—contribute to a larger whole. The descriptions are so matter-of-fact, detached to the point of even sounding callous, that if the narrator’s voice was not so strongly developed and persuasive, it would be difficult to take the his side when he states, “Fall, old man, fall. See how your feet are higher than your head.” But the voice is convincing, and although it is never explicitly described why this “old man” deserves to “fall” the reader gets the sense that this tragedy is deserved.

In other stories, the strangeness of the depictions force the reader to reconstruct their idea of society in favor of the one Saramago presents. Take this excerpt from the story “Things” for example:

There was a time when the manufacturing process had reached such a degree of perfection and faults became so rare that the Government (G) decided there was little point in depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B and C) of their civil right and pleasure to lodge complaints: a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing industry. So factories were instructed to lower their standards. This decision, however, could not be blamed for the poor quality of the goods which had been flooding the market for the last two months. As someone employed in the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR), he was in a good position to know that the Government had revoked these instructions more than a month ago and imposed new standards to ensure maximum quality. Without receiving any results.

It’s easy to read any of these short stories the first time through, double-take at the end and think, Is that what all those descriptions, all piled up, really were describing? Is that even possible?. And the easy answer is yes. Because, looking at the highly detailed (sometimes neurotic) descriptions, the paragraphs that go on for pages, the dialogue that is separated only with a simple dash, and the circular logic that truly defines these short stories, it is easy to forget that Saramago’s work was largely influenced by the atrocities of his times. As Pontiero details in his foreword to the book, three of the stories—“The Chair”, “Embargo”, and “Things”—are “political allegories evoking the horror and repression which paralyzed Portugal under the harsh regime of Salazar.” And yet, with or without the political context, the book is the kind of read that ensnares you, drawing you into its world and forcing you to see things a particular way—Saramago’s way—while you compulsively turn the pages. Realizing that the worlds that Saramago creates are not huge departures from the world he lived in adds a new dimension of power to the prose, which could easily stand out on its own.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, which is translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin and is available from New Directions.

Here is part of her review:

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Click here to read the entire review.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Just as the space surrounded by four walls has a specific value, provoked not so much because it is a space but because it is surrounded by walls. Otávio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both. . . Besides: how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and soul?

This startling metaphor is remarkably precise: haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, “enclosed” by a loved one, albeit protected? Don’t the structural walls of relationships also compromise our identity, defining us with a substance that is not ourselves? Add to these astute insights Lispector’s radical writing style, which mirrors the process of thinking – much like in Woolf’s The Waves. Though nominal events do take place in the text – Joana’s father dies; Joana goes to live with her aunt; Joana attends boarding school, gets married, and leaves her husband – inner mental life constitutes the book’s central concern. Fraught with dense introspection, many pages are devoted solely to Joana’s philosophical quandaries:

. . .She asked herself many questions, but she could never answer herself: she’d stop in order to feel. How was a triangle born? As an idea first? Or did it come after the shape had been executed? Would a triangle be born fatally? Things were rich. – She would want to spend time on the question. But love invaded her. Triangle, circle, straight lines. . . As harmonious and mysterious as an arpeggio. Where does music go when it’s not playing? -She asked herself. And disarmed she would answer: may they make a harp out of my nerves when I die.

Indeed, Joana is a beautiful thinker, but the wilderness of her imagination also isolates her from others. Other characters perceive her with confusion, sometimes labeling her “evil” or “unfeeling”: “She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her,” her aunt says. On the other hand, her husband, Otávio, is baffled by the fatal mix of attraction and repulsion Joana arouses in him. Nonetheless, he can’t deny the way she profoundly impacts his life: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.” A sort of irony emerges in the push-pull attitude Joana exhibits toward relationships, alternately embracing others for the comfort they promise and rejecting them when they burden her.

I question whether the actions and emotions Joana unleashes are really “evil” – they’re intense, for sure, but I think Joana is better described as amoral. And it’s precisely this lack of conventional mores that allows her to imagine and discover so much: because she moves through life without needing to label anything ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ Joana can think unrestrained. No thought or feeling is taboo for her, even if it proves her animal nature. If a man devouring meat allures her, or if contrived human “goodness” disgusts her, she’s not embarrassed or afraid to report it with gritty impartiality:

. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.

. . . she had seen a greedy man eating. She had secretly watched his bulging eyes, gleaming and stupid, trying not to miss the slightest trace of flavor. And his hands, his hands. One holding a fork with a piece of bloody meat (not warm and quiet, but very much alive, ironic, immoral) skewered on it, the other twitching on the tablecloth, pawing it nervously in his urgency to eat another mouthful already. . .The ferocity, the richness of his color. . . A shiver had run down Joana’s spine, with the sorry cup of coffee in front of her. But she wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards if it had been out of repugnance or fascination and lust. Both no doubt. . . As if she were watching someone drink water only to discover her own thirst, profound and ancient.

As difficult of a heroine as Joana is, and as difficult as Lispector’s prose may be – sometimes verging on abstraction – there’s something deeply relatable about both: a deep yearning to understand and to be understood permeates the text of this book. Beneath the surface of her words, Joana is deeply self-conscious, frustrated with her ability to say what she actually means. Wearily, she repeats:

‘Yes, I know. . . The distance that separates emotions from words. I’ve already thought about that. And the most curious thing is that the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say. Or at least what makes me act is not, most certainly, what I feel but what I say.’

This is the challenge, which Moser points to in his introduction, that forms the crux of the book: to capture “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself;” to successfully unite words with meaning and emotions. This linguistic struggle parallels Joana’s own psychological struggle to make herself understood in relation to others, while simultaneously preserving her individuality. Should she exist alone, full-fledged – like a solitary word – symbolizing only that which she contains in her own form? Or should she attach herself to other layers of meaning – people, beliefs, or God – which will necessarily plaster themselves over her own essential meaning?

Joana’s conundrum, though complex, is common. Haven’t we all been bound in the archetypal struggle of communication at some point? “Try to understand my heroine, Aunty, listen,” Joana says. “She is vague and audacious. She doesn’t love, she isn’t loved. . . However what Joana has inside her is something stronger than the love that people give and what she has inside her demands more than the love people receive. Do you understand, Aunty? I wouldn’t call her a hero, as I promised Daddy myself.” Yet Joana is a heroine of sorts: as much as she might defy our expectations, she’s brave enough to tell the truth. By maintaining her selfhood to the last, Joana gives us something deeply real. Though the truth may not be convenient or comfortable, those who have the courage to tell it are the real heroes.

5 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week 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.

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar, translated by Thomas O. Beebee

Language: Portuguese

Country: Brazil
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press

Why This Book Should Win: Texas Tech’s “The Americas” series has been quietly putting together a fantastic list of Latin American authors, and this would thrust them (deservedly) into the spotlight. Plus, Scliar died last year, and for some reason that makes me feel like he deserves some special recognition.

Kafka’s Leopards is a short (96 page) novella that happens to be one of the most entertaining books on this year’s longlist. It centers around the character of Mousy, who, when he was growing up near Odessa in the early part of the twentieth century, got involved with a group of Trotskyites, mainly through the influence of his radical friend Yossi. (As you do. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to participate in a revolution?)

In fact, Yossi had met THE Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky had entrusted him carrying out a secret radical act. But when Yossi comes down with a terrible illness, he asks Mousy to stand in for him, and travel to Prague where he’s to meet a revolutionary writer who will give him a message that will explain what he’s supposed to do next.

Anyway, novella-length story short, Mousy loses all the necessary information on the train (revolutionaries are so disorganized) and tries to puzzle out what he’s supposed to do. Which leads him to calling up a one Franz Kafka and asking for the text.

Lots of mistaken identity mishaps ensue, but Mousy is eventually given Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” aphorism which he believes he’s supposed to interpret in order to fulfill his mission. In a slick move that draws attention to the situation of translation in an interesting way, Mousy can’t read this and takes it to a old Jewish man at a synagogue who interprets it for him:

He outlined the story in Yiddish. Mousy learned that the leopards broke into the temple and drank the contents of the sacrificial chalices to the last drop; that this was repeated so often that in the end everyone knew it would happen, and that finally the scene became part of the ritual.

Naturally, more mishaps occur, and the adventure-story aspect explodes as Mousy tries to makes sense of this aphorism in a way that connects the text with the city of Prague with the Russian Revolution. Told with a deftness that is both sincere and light with comedy, this part of the novella is extremely fun to read, and must’ve been fun to translate as well. (Goes without saying, seeing that this award focuses on the “best translations,” but Thomas Beebee’s translation is very admirable, mostly for the way in which he emphasizes the sort of joyful, playful tone that runs throughout this book of constant failures.)

To make this more interesting, it’s worth nothing that Mousy’s story is really only the subplot . . . The novella has a frame narrative involving one of Mousy’s relatives, and their revolutionary troubles in 1965.

For such a quick, enjoyable read, there are a lot of levels to this novella that make it a rich, rewarding work. I’ll let Thomas Beebee explain via this bit from his wonderful introduction:

In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to The Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly take by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted.

On top of all these serious reasons for why this book should win, it’s also a beautiful edition, and Irene Vilar—who edits the whole series—is a wonderful advocate for international literature: two more valid reasons why we could be crowning this book as the 2012 champion on May 4th.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting next week, we’ll be posting all of the content for our Read This Next title on Thursday. You’ll get the extended preview, the translator interview, and the review all at once, giving you plenty of material to read over the weekend . . .

We were planning on implementing this change this week, but, well, since I was responsible for most of it, we’re a day behind. (So typical, I know.)

Anyway, this week’s book is The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes, one of my personal favorite authors. Rhett McNeil translated this from the Portuguese, and Dalkey Archive Press is publishing it on September 20th.

This novel is one of Antunes’s best, and features four narrators: Carlos, Rui, and Clarisse, and their mom, Isilda. A once wealthy, prestigious family, everything fell apart for them in Angola during the War of Independence, and the three kids ended up returning to Portugal and leaving their mother behind. Most of the book takes place on Christmas Eve in 1995, as Carlos waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner.

Click here to read an extended preview, which is from the middle of the book, and focuses on Rui, the challenged youngest son of this once well-to-do family. It’s a great section, and one that does a great job in illustrating Antunes’s unique style.

Also available is an interview with Rhett McNeil:

RM: I expected that the process of translating this book would be frustrating at times, given the complexity of the language, the constant repetitions with variation, the abrupt changes in narrative voice and story line, etc., but it was surprising to me how emotionally exhausting it was. As you say, this is an extremely dark book, in which hatred and regret and resentment permeate nearly every aspect of the characters’ lives, from the macro-level of the post-colonial political situation in war-torn Angola to the micro-level of the family and the individual psyche. For some reason, the act of bringing this stuff over into English, of saying these often hauntingly sad things for the first time in English, really took it out of me emotionally, even more than it had when I read the book. Perhaps grappling with the meaning and rhythm of each phrase (there aren’t really sentences in any proper sense in this book) and giving it some sort of tangible existence in English made me something of a co-conspirator with Antunes, giving linguistic reality to things that normally have only a vaguely defined, purposefully hidden existence in the dark recesses of consciousness. Certain phrases or images would stick with me for a few days as linguistic puzzles or experiments in literary form, as I tried to find the best way to express them in English; by the time I decided on a final form, the full import of the phrase, the aesthetic or emotional impact of a given image or line would hit home. The image of a child shot dead, collapsing into a “crumpled heap” on the ground, “like an overcoat slipping off the hook of a coat-stand,” for instance.

And finally, here is a link to a full review of the novel.

As I mention in the review, I actually just wrote a really long piece about Antunes for Quarterly Conversation—one that does a better job of discussion what’s most interesting about Antunes’s work. I’ll definitely post about that as soon as it’s published.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Splendor of Portugal is the tenth book by Antonio Lobo Antunes to appear in English translation, and the seventh that I’ve reviewed. Which, in some ways, makes this difficult to write. Not to mention, I just wrote an epically long piece on Antunes for a forthcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation. It was one of those articles that I poured all my thoughts and ideas into.

But flipping through my marked up copy of Splendor of Portugal, which first came out in Portugal in 1997 and is coming out in Rhett McNeil’s caustic, accomplished English translation later this month, it’s pretty easy to get all excited and want to share the brilliance that is Antunes’s writing.

Of his more recent novels (and yes, I know that 1997 isn’t all that recent), Splendor of Portugal is one of the most accomplished and well-constructed. It’s got all components of a traditional Antunes book: vitriol against Portugal stemming from the Portuguese Colonial War, a solitary man too damaged to connect with his family and wife, a family that’s totally broken, all told in a polyvocal fashion that jumps around all over in time and place.

There are two primary plot lines grounding this novel. The first takes place on December 24, 1995 in Portugal, where Carlos—the oldest son of a once well-off family—waits for his brother and sister to join him for dinner. Of course, he hasn’t spoken to either them in fifteen years after having sent Rui, his emotionally challenged younger brother off to live in a home, and having chastising his sister for her taking of wealthy lover after wealthy lover. But, with his relationship with his wife all but dead, and a stash of unopened letters from his mom (the kids left her behind in Angola when they came back to Portugal), he decides to reach out to them.

Here’s a bit setting that up that also highlights the sort of “all at once” style Antunes uses throughout the book. Carlos is “talking” to his wife:

until the smoke dissipated, Lena reappeared little by little with her fingers outstretched toward the breadbasket

“You haven’t seen your siblings in fifteen years”

so that all of a sudden I was aware of the time that had passed since we arrived here from Africa, of the letters from my mother, first from the plantation and later from Marimba, four little huts on a hillside of mango trees

(I remember the regional administrator’s house, the store, the ruins of the barracks shipwrecked and sinking in the tall grass)

the envelopes that I kept in a drawer without showing anyone, without opening them, without reading them, dozens and dozens of dirty envelopes, covered with stamps and seals, telling me about things I didn’t want to hear, the plantation, Angola, her life [. . .]

His mother’s letters reflect the other main narrative thread, which recounts Isilda’s story in Angola after the kids leave, covering the period from July 24, 1978 through December 1995, when things go from bad to worse to even worse.

If this novel is about one thing, it’s about the complete falling apart of society, a family, one’s life. It is entropy written novel sized. It is bleak, occasionally funny in a sick way, and very poetic. As you can see in the quote above (or in the long excerpt at Read This Next) the punctuation is pretty damn unique, and the book just simply flows, pulling you into the heads of its various characters and throwing events from various points in time at you, along with phrases from other characters, minor forays into the consciousness of yet other characters, etc.

This sounds daunting, but as Rhett says in this week’s interview, it is a book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. Part of the fun of reading Antunes is being swept into his world, and puzzling things out as you go (like, who is Carlos’s real mom?).

The one drawback to this book—the same drawback to most of Antunes’s books—is that once he establishes his technique, it remains pretty much unchanged throughout the novel. Part of the brilliant of The Sound and the Fury is the range in tone and style between Benjy’s part and Jason’s. It’s like four completely different consciousnesses expressed on the page. In Antunes’s works, he frequently uses that general technique of having each character speak their piece, but they all do so in very similar ways. The content, the individual tragedies, are all unique, but the style of presentation doesn’t change from Carlos to Rui to Isilda to Clarisse. It’s an effective strategy, one that poetically paints the portrait of these four people, but it can come off as a limitation in a 500+ page book.

That all said, you should read this. And Fado Alexandrino, The Land at the End of the World, Act of the Damned, and The Inquisitors’ Manual. Antunes is one of the greatest living writers and it’s a fantastic situation that so many of his works are available in English.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s Read This Next title, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique by Goncalo Tavares, which is translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Click here for the complete review, and click here to read an extended preview of the book.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Tavares does not mince words in this novel. His style is severe and technical. It appears to mirror the mental processes of Lenz himself, ruthlessly rational, but as the book progresses, the style seems to convey more of a sense of scrutiny. It is a mockery of itself, a meta-commentary on its own insufficiency, as we simultaneously see Buchmann himself degenerate from illness.

To elaborate, take first that Lenz often likens himself to a hunter, who remains calm and collected while instilling a hysterical fear in his prey:

A good hunter proceeds in this way, and with just two or three of his well-placed steps in the middle of the forest he will be able to instill the second year in the fleeing hare, the decisive fear. And it will be out of this par that the hare will really begin to hurry, to race off at full speed, but a speed without order or objective, recalling those little mice locked in cages that run inside of wheels, turning them with their feet; movements that are very quick indeed, but in a category of motion that might be described as the speed of someone just trying to keep going, so different from the speed of someone who wants to advance.

It was only when—in his role as hunter—he realized that he could strike this second fear into the hare that Lenz Buchmann became completely convinced that the animal would not escape him. His many years’ hunting had taught him that this second terror—unlike the first—has only detrimental effects for the quarry: it is illogical, almost suicidal. The first fear, being instinctive, makes the quarry flee in a direction away from the hunter—any intelligent living creature would do that. The second fear, however, once it invades the organism being pursued, completely disorders the strategic system that all living creatures have, and can bring the quarry around in a circular route ending up—stupidly—five meters from the hunter’s weapon.

For Lenz, a technician, prey is marked by illogicality, which is a stupidity. As he comes down with cancer, and slowly his faculties begin to go, until all he is able to do is hold a piece of paper on which his father’s name is written and read it over and over again, Tavares does not loosen his prose. We see it clearly when spittle drips down Lenz’s face. He cannot kill himself because he has let himself get too far gone, and Tavares’ prose stands strong as a reminder of the irrational hyper-rationality that fueled Lenz’s ambition, his frightened flight from insignificance, which brings about his demise.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To support this week’s “Read This Next”: title, we just posted an interview with Daniel Hahn about his translation of Goncalo Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique:

Lily Ye: In Learning to Pray, the tone of the book seemed to me to be very severe, perhaps in reflection of the personality of the protagonist, Lenz Buchmann. Would you agree with this assessment, both in your translation and in the original, and how did it affect the process of translation? That is, how did you find translating this particular style of writing?

Daniel Hahn: Yes, it’s severe—it’s very chilly and cynical, and generally I think a pretty bleak place to be. There’s one sense in which this made it a difficult translation job (though not in the sense meant by your question, I think)—when you translate a book you live in it much more intensely, and naturally for a much longer period, than if you’re simply strolling through it once as a reader, and when a book is sown through with views as toxic as those found here, it doesn’t make it an altogether pleasant place to be living. That said, he’s a brilliant writer, and translating brilliant writing is always more enjoyable than translating mediocre writing, unsurprisingly.

Your question I guess is more to do with style, though, and that was certainly difficult to get right. It’s one of the hardest books I’ve worked on in terms of making sense of the structure of complicated sentences, sometimes very imprecise and sometimes very sharp-focus; this also meant that it benefited from a pretty significant edit once I was done, from a rigorous editor who approached it simply as an English-language reader—the result, I think, might be pulling away from my draft and producing something a little smoother for English-language readers.

You can read the entire interview here.

17 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next featured selection is Goncalo Tavare’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, and available from Dalkey Archive Press at the end of the month.

E.J. wrote about Tavares a couple years back when he won the Portugal Telecom Prize for Jerusalem. He included this bit about the “Neighborhood” books, which really should be available to English readers:

We found out about Tavares at Frankfurt and got our hands on a few of his “Neighborhood” books—some of which have been translated into English by TransBooks in India (What kind of audience is there is in India for Portuguese translations . . . into English?). Each book in the series is a small collection of short stories inspired by literary and artistic figures. The ones we have in English are Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry, Mister Henri, and Mister Juarroz. It appears that the neighborhood—represented in an illustration on the back of the books by a sketch of a set of buildings with arrows telling you which building, and which window, each person lives in—is ever expanding, but so far includes, among others, Calvino, Kafka, Walser, and Woolf.

They’re incredible little books, and the stories remind me a lot of Augosto Monterroso’s. For the most part the stories are very short—some are only a few lines long—and fable-like, and some of the stories feature the writer/artist as main characters.

Jerusalem came out from Dalkey in the fall of 2009 in Anna Kushner’s translation to a lot of great attention. It’s great that they’re also doing Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, which, as mentioned above is translated by Daniel Hahn.

Daniel is a great translator who I had the chance to meet at the Salzburg Global Seminar on translation a few years ago. He’s most well-known as a translator for his work on Jose Agualusa, and is currently an interim co-director (with fellow Salzburg alum Kate Griffin) of the British Centre for Literary Translation in East Anglia.

Later this week we’ll be posting an interview with Daniel, but for now, you can read an extended preview of Learning to Pray, which is described below:

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion. Soon, however, Buchmann’s ambition is no longer content with medicine, and he finds himself rising through the ranks of his country’s ruling party . . . until a diagnosis transforms this likely future president from a leading player into just another victim. In language that is at once precise, clinical, and oddly childlike, Gonçalo M. Tavares—the Portuguese novelist hailed by José Saramago as the greatest of his generation—here brings us another chilling investigation into the limits of human experience, mapping the creation and then disintegration of a man we might call “evil,” and showing us how he must learn to adapt in a world he can no longer dominate.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Fr. Grant Barber on Cain, the latest Jose Saramago novel, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston. That last biographical fact is one of the reasons his review of Cain is so interesting. (That and the fact that Grant is a very good reader.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

I’ll grant that Cain has flashes of funny stuff in it. In Genesis after Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden they have children who go off to marry people who live elsewhere; no getting around that. So Saramago casts that idea, in all its implications of “hunh?,” using his style of long run-on sentences held together by commas. In Cain adam and eve are speaking in a back and forth with the angel guarding the entrance to the garden:

They sat down on the ground and discovered that the angel azael wasn’t one to beat about the bush, You are not the only human beings on earth, he began, Not the only ones, exclaimed adam, astonished . . .

. . . Then eve asked, if other human beings already exist, why did the lord make us, As you know the ways of the lord are mysterious, but, as far as I can make out, you were an experiment, Us, an experiment, exclaimed adam, an experiment to prove what, Since I do not know for certain, I cannot tell you, but the lord must have his reasons for keeping silent on the matter . . .

Another amusing bit is when god changes appearance from the first congenial companion at the start of adam and eve’s existence to formal, three-tiered crowned fellow, described so clearly that Saramago must have this sort of image in mind:

Saramago was a communist and atheist. He was a harsh critic of the predominant Roman Catholic church of his day, place, and time. An earlier novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was published not long before he was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize—much protested by the Vatican. That novel, with a somewhat lighter touch than Cain, casts “scandalous” aspersions on who Jesus was by imaginatively exploring his life outside of the scripturally accounted-for years. That such ground has been well trammeled already takes away from the sense of naughty audacity; see forays into such territory by Pullman and Frey, whose books landed with something of critical thud. Where other reviews of Cain have gone astray is in portraying Cain as also anti-Christian; it is not. Instead it is much more anti-Jewish-foundational-text.

Time travel allows cain to witness horrible events reported in the Hebrew scriptures teased out in all of the stories’ troubling implications. One example suffices: cain speaks with abraham after abraham had bargained with god not to destroy sodom and gomorrah if a few righteous men were found living there; apparently abraham failed. After the destruction is complete, cain points out to abraham that there must have been many, many innocent children who also died. abraham then puts his head in his hands in sickened despair.

cain and Saramago are correct: there would have been many innocent children who would have died. That is, assuming you take the story as historical reportage. Whatever the point of the story was in its original telling—by my best lights it is a condemnation of those who break the laws of hospitality (not a condemnation of homosexuality)—the key is the heroes, the protagonists. Think any action film: the hero goes about battling the villains, cars crash in chase scenes into other drivers and pedestrians who are maimed and killed, or warrior combatants with no name or back-story falling left and right around the antagonists. They are throw-away props for the story.

So I come back around to my initial question: what are stories for? Saramago repeatedly uses those of Hebrew scriptures to cast them as literally true in all of their gory, disturbing implications, to show god as evil. If you grant that these stories were not recorded as if by an on-site video camera would capture, then they are instead participating in myth making written by people over a thousand years after the ostensible events. This is storytelling to find identity and truth for a people. The Hebrews who were writing down these stories were doing so after having been repeatedly, brutally conquered by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians . . . as they would have themselves done if they had the economic and military power. Their reasoning goes as it does for all conquered people wishing to retain identity and self-respect, “we are a chosen, unique people.” Every tribe, religion and nation has such tales.

Religion gets used as a scapegoat for the evil things done in its name. Behind the parade of horrors performed in the name of the holy is an impulse common to human behavior. The Khmer Rouge did what they did in the name of right political thought; ditto Stalin. Humans are capable of doing things that are sublime—the arts, selfless sacrifice for others—as well as the most vile.

Literature used polemically to skewer religion, or anything for that matter, can sound brittle. Saramago’s writing here comes down to, in my evaluation, the same sort of strident tone as found in any other fundamentalist writings, religious, political or scientific (Dawkins, Harris et al.). Saramago might be aiming for the tradition of Rabelais; I find this book to be closer kin to LaHaye. I’ll take my religion, and my literature, with ample room for ambiguity, gray areas, room to explore and ponder, permission to find where I and the holy might find one another. I follow Jesus, and he mostly spoke in parables.

Now, if you really want some funny, satirical writing that takes on religious matters, try Stanley Elkin’s The Living End. The protagonist is condemned to hell because God hears his first thought on entering heaven: “it looks like a theme park.” My signed, first edition of this novella has pride of place wherever I move.

12 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press in Thomas Beebee’s translation from the Brazilian Portuguese.

As Lily recommends in her review, you should definitely read this piece by Thomas Beebee and then read this preview of the book. Scliar is one of the past century’s best writers, and it’s awesome that Texas Tech is making more of his work available to American readers.

Click here to read Lily’s piece on this short novel.

12 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I was going to write a review of Kafka’s Leopards by the recently deceased Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar, and then I got around to reading the piece that translator Thomas Beebee wrote for us on Scliar, his writings, and Kafka’s Leopards and realized that there was not much enlightenment that I could offer on any of these topics that Thomas had not already covered. So I come to you today, humbly, from a place of little knowledge, and suggest that you read Thomas’s wonderful piece on all things surrounding Kafka’s Leopards and then go ahead and read the book itself.

Running at under 100 pages, Kafka’s Leopards tells the story of Mousy, the logistics of which you can basically read from start to finish on the back of the book, but which is told with much more love on the part of Scliar. In brief, Mousy is a Brazilian Jew who is summoned to carry out a plot on the part of Trotsky which involves going to Prague and receiving and decoding a text. Mousy manages to mess this up and instead ends up with a short text from Franz Kafka himself, concerning leopards.

Mousy is a sympathetic character who can fall in love with a woman from a smile, and who is fiercely dedicated to the ideals of the Communist movement, but in whose whole life there is but this one seminal anecdote which overwhelms with its intrigue and its hijinks. This is the story of that anecdote, and its brief return to the limelight later in Mousy’s life.

Quite frankly, there is no reason not to read this book. Scliar entertains and moves the readers as much as he may perhaps dwell on the idea of the transmission of messages, the interpretation of texts (read Beebee’s piece for more on this!). He is never heavy-handed, and in fact, handles the character of Mousy as gently as such a character must be handled. We can practically feel the sweat beading on Mousy’s forehead, the warm heat building with anxiety, as well as the pride that swells up within him when he has carried out part of his mission correctly, or so he believes. Scliar writes to a perfect length, not letting the story going any longer or shorter than is necessary; and in the interest of not exceeding the book in length, I will simply conclude that reading this book was a pleasure and I would highly recommend it as a quick end-of-summer read.

11 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In support of this week’s Read This Next title—Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar—translator Thomas Beebee wrote this essay about the man and the novel:

The extended European setting of Kafka’s Leopards is adventuresome for Scliar, but Kafka’s Leopards is a frame-tale connecting Porto Alegre in 1965, Brazil’s southernmost metropolis, with Bessarabia and Prague in 1917. Scliar’s depictions of the Jewish-Brazilians of Porto Alegre have repeatedly emphasized the transatlantic connection between Old World and New that we see in this text as well. The author himself has categorized much of his fiction as belonging to the “literature of immigration.” The title story of the collection A Balada do Falso Messias (The Ballad of the False Messiah) opens with two Russian Jews conversing on board the steamer that is carrying them to Brazil, expressing their relief at no longer having to fear annihilation in a pogrom. Benjamin Kantorovitch, the protagonist of Kafka’s Leopards who moves from the Old World to the New, and his family could be on the same ship; they are certainly fleeing the same set of circumstances.

Brazilian prose fiction has been shaped by authors who write about their own region or city: Machado de Assis for Rio de Janeiro, José Lins do Rego and Rachel de Queiroz for the Northeast, Jorge Amado for Bahia, João Guimarães Rosa for Minas Gerais, Márcio Souza for the Amazon, João Almino for Brasília, Érico Veríssimo for the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, and Moacyr Scliar for Porto Alegre, the largest conurbation of that state and one that has welcomed many immigrants, including European Jews. In one sense, Scliar fit the regionalist mold, setting many of his longer texts in the Porto Alegre neighborhood of Bom Fim, where he himself had grown up as the son of immigrants from Russia. And that focus on his Jewish neighborhood made Scliar the first Brazilian author to give the life of Jews in Brazil a central place in his fiction. Like Amado and Guimarães Rosa, Scliar added elements of magic realism to many of the events he wrote about, but he owed these techniques more to the work of Franz Kafka than to precursors in Brazil or Latin America. Allusions to, and even direct citations of, the Czech-Jewish author’s work abound in Scliar’s fiction, culminating in the appearance of Kafka as a central character in Kafka’s Leopards. Before embarking on these portrayals, Scliar studied medicine and continued to work most of his adult life for the government health services of Brazil—again, something of a parallel with Kafka, who worked for an insurance company during the day and wrote through the night. Not surprisingly, the body and its ailments figure in many of Scliar’s works. The interior monologue of the aging protagonist of The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes (A Estranha Nação de Rafael Mendes) begins with an assessment of his bladder. Naturally, in Kafka’s Leopards the tuberculosis of Franz Kafka, one of the great invalids of world literature, receives a telling description from the knowing perception of another Jew, a resident of one of the Russian shtetls that were the origin of many who eventually settled in Bom Fim. In Kafka’s Leopards, tuberculosis becomes a bond between Yiddish-speaking Benjamin “Mousy” Kantorovitch from the Bessarabian shtetl and the sophisticated, German-speaking urban Jew Franz Kafka:

“Kafka looked at him fixedly. Suddenly he started coughing. A small, dry cough, subdued but persistent, alarming. Mousy shivered. He knew that cough: it indicated, he knew this for sure, tuberculosis—the specter that joined the pogroms in terrorizing Jewish villages. Kafka did not live in a village, but he had all the markings of a victim: the thinness, the pallor, the cheeks colored slightly red. In addition to the cold of the frigid little house that couldn’t be good for a tubercular. An immense sorrow took hold of Mousy, the same sorrow as would possess his mother if she were in his shoes: you’re sick, Kafka, very sick, that cough is not a laughing matter, it’s not a fiction, it’s tuberculosis.”

[. . .]

In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth About Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to the Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly taken by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted. Kafka, we might say, is also as disguised for Mousy, as he was for many of his Prague colleagues and contemporaries, almost none of whom recognized him as a literary genius: only decades later does Mousy realize that he was lucky enough to receive a text from one of the giants of world literature. In Brazil, the material text given to Mousy by Kafka becomes an object of exchange, as Mousy urges his fugitive nephew Jaime to sell it to an antiquarian in São Paulo, and a sacrificial object devoured by the leopard-like chief of police in exchange for Jaime’s freedom. In his study of the puzzling relationship between writing and secrecy, Frank Kermode uses Kafka’s parable to illustrate the paradoxical and unstable difference between “insiders”—those with a special status or knowledge that enables them to grasp the hidden meaning of a text—and clueless “outsiders.” The leopards represent the penetrative aspect of hermeneutic interpretation, the temple the reserve of meaning that the cryptic text always holds in reserve. The leopards are able to “break open” or “divide the word” of the text—except for the fact that they have now become part of it. Outsiders become insiders become outsiders again. Such is the alternation of blindness and insight in Scliar’s novella.

Click here to read the whole piece. And click here to preview Kafka’s Leopards.

9 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week at Read This Next we’re featuring Kafka’s Leopards, a short book by celebrated and prolific Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar that’s translated from the Portuguese by Thomas Beebee and forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press.

This book is one of strange misunderstandings, attributions of vital meaning to coincidence, that create the central story of interest in the protagonist’s life. Mousy is a tailor who always insists on cutting left sleeves a little shorter so that it is easier to read a wristwatch, much to the chagrin of his customers. Entrusted with a secret mission, one originally issued by Trotsky himself, Mousy heads out to Prague and bumbles his way into the life of Franz Kafka.

Fittingly, this title originally caught the eye of translator Thomas Beebee as he was looking through a shelf Portuguese books and glimpsed Kafka’s name on one of the spines. This week we have an introduction to the novel from Beebee himself, and a full review on Friday.

In case you’re not familiar with Scliar already, here’s a link to his obituary, which includes reference to the whole “Max and the Cats” and “Life of Pi” controversy:

‘‘Max and the Cats,’‘ about a Jewish youth who flees Nazi Germany on a ship carrying wild animals to a Brazilian zoo and, after a shipwreck, ends up sharing a lifeboat with a jaguar, achieved fame twice over. Critically praised on its publication in 1981, it touched off a literary storm in 2002 when the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for ‘‘Life of Pi,’‘ about an Indian youth trapped on a boat with a tiger.

Mr. Martel’s admission that he borrowed the idea led to an impassioned debate among writers and critics on the nature of literary invention and the ownership of words and images.

“In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me,’‘ Mr. Scliar told The New York Times. ‘‘An idea is intellectual property.”

I hesitate to even mention that, since it would be much better if Scliar were known in this country for his great works—The Centaur in the Garden, The War in Bom Fim—than this controversy. But it is kind of interesting, and it’s always fun to besmirch overrated novels . . .

Anyway, click here to read the beginning of Mousy’s trip to Prague and the misfortune that begins the whole jumbled series of events.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and available from W.W. Norton.

Antunes is a long-time favorite of mine. I really love his novel Act of the Damned. And Fado Alexandrino. And The Natural Order of Things. And this book. Also very much looking forward to reading The Splendor of Portugal, which Dalkey Archive is bringing out this fall, and which arrived in the mail earlier this week.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. He’s an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and, in his own words, “a keen bibliophile.” He’s also very interested in Spanish and Latin American literature, and mentioned in the past that he’d like to someday improve his Spanish and try his hand at translation.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

The novel is grounded in the present, as the narrator sits in a Lisbon bar late at night, talking to a woman he plans later to take back to his seedy apartment for early morning sex. His means of seduction: a graphic, unvarnished recollection of his service in a back-lands army base in Angola ten years or so earlier. Three-quarters of the actual novel consists of these recollections, although by the conclusion the action has moved more into the present. Each short chapter contains paragraphs of long associational sentences. At its heart the effect is of past and present, inner and outer not collapsing together as much as mutually relating, informing.

I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and the thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.

The past—childhood waits for Christmas morning in oversized pajamas (we know that the narrator sleeps naked in the African heat)—tied to the future by the same disembodied eyes. The narrator ties the political to the personal, segueing by naming the idealists of the world—the Che Guevaras and Allendes—in the same sentence and train of thought to the sex that he will soon have with his listener, one without illusions: to commit oneself to even the shadow of love will be to give into the futility of the idealist who scares the world to the point of martyrdom. He draws repeated analogies to the waste of the doomed war to the masturbatory routine that he shares with the other officers each night in their compound huts. His one connection to a native woman ends when the secret security force takes her away to a prison after gang-raping her.

The African woman becomes the country devastated by the colonialists. The newly-arrived narrator reacts to his first fatality by taking the body into his own hut, his own couch, and claiming to the curious orderly that the man is not dead, just napping; soon that corpse metaphorically expands as it putrefies to overtake the whole country. The woman in the bar—sweet talked into bed by graphic memories of fatal wounds, blood, viscera—becomes the face of a society which had condoned this war, and now lives in an enervated state. The narrator fails in his first attempt at coitus, only to have a “successful” second outcome after begging to try again, with his partner faking it. She will now put on make-up and the same clothes and go to work, exhausted by no sleep, the constant flow of alcohol, and the words: an the ordeal she has kept through the night. The woman reflects the country, the society, and the night her history.

But I make it all sound so cookie-cutter, when it is not. Antunes the psychoanalyst understands how metaphors grounded in the inner psyche (mostly id here, certainly no super-ego), and in the particulars of life—a man, a woman, personal histories and the specifics of reality—also weave in the culture, history, and traumas of society.

I’m not sure I can hear the news of an African—or Latin American or Middle Eastern—country dealing with the paroxysms of colonialist histories without flashing on this novel. Antunes in engaging the personal also does so with the political, in effective language which must have been both a challenge and satisfaction for Costa to have translated.

*

Addendum: I’d like to hear from translators—Costa, Wimmer, Grossman, all women—how they cope with engaging so intensely with texts that have such graphic and violent images of violence against women. It seems to me one thing to pick up a novel I’m interested in, which I can set back down or not continue; it is another to engage so deeply with a work, to get not just the word’s meaning, but also tone, nuance. I suspect it causes nightmares.

14 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I somehow missed it when this first appeared online, but here’s a link to my review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, which has been newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and brought out by W.W. Norton.

Antunes is one of my favorite authors, so expect Grant Barber’s full length review of this book to appear on this site in the next week, and I’ll be writing a much longer Antunes piece for the fall issue of Quarterly Conversation.

Back to the subject at hand, I just want to say that The Land at the End of the World is one of Antunes’s absolute best books. I also love Fado Alexandrino and Act of the Damned, but if you’re looking for a place to start with him, this one is probably the best.

You can read the whole review over at Bookforum’s website, but here’s a bit from it:

Antunes’s later novels—Act of the Damned and Fado Alexandrino in particular—are equal parts Céline and William Faulkner. The plots are more labyrinthine, the novels more polyphonic. It’s as if the kernel of Antunes’s rage has crystallized into a complex design, more nuanced in its depiction of Portuguese society, one that requires more engagement on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the tapestry of voices, plots, and viewpoints.

Which is why The Land at the End of the World is like reading Antunes’s novelistic template. It’s very straightforward: Over the course of an entire night, a psychiatrist/writer, back from the war, gets wasted in a bar while seducing a (silent) woman with his tales of anguish and hatred. It advances through a series of rants, grotesque metaphors, and repetitions that lay bare his shortcomings, while making him sympathetically bleak:

I think I lost her in the same way I lose everything, drove her away with my mood swings, my unexpected rages, my absurd demands, the anxious thirst for tenderness that repels affection and lingers, throbbing painfully, in the form of a mute appeal full of a prickly, irrational hostility.

10 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received this call for support of the Portuguese translation programs and thought some of you might be interested in knowing about this and/or signing the petition. It goes without saying that this sort of support is invaluable. Without organizations and programs like this, the publication of literature in translation would be in even worse shape than it already is. OK, off the soapbox . . . Here’s all the info:

The DGLB (General Directory to Books and Libraries) in Portugal will cease to exist as an independent entity and is to be integrated into the National Library of Portugal. The fate of its various support programmes for the Portuguese language has not yet been announced. Without such programmes, the Portuguese language, literature and culture will be of more difficult reach for many foreign publishers and readers all over the world.

We’d like to ask all of you to sign a petition in favour of the DGLB in order to put a stop to this development.
Below, you’ll find the English version of the petition which you can sign under the following link.

Thank you very much for your help and support.

It’s times like these when every voice can make a difference.

Yours sincerely,
Jordi Roca

English version of the petition
_______________________________________
To: Dr. Gabriela Canavilhas

Minister of Culture, Portugal

We are aware of the Portuguese Government’s project to eliminate the DGLB (General Directorate for Books and Libraries) through a merger with the National Library of Portugal, thus depriving the indispensible autonomous management of an institution that has always successfully performed the difficult and meritorious mission of promoting reading in Portugal and disseminating Portuguese literature throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

We would like to emphasize that the DGLB is a highly regarded institution among its fellow culture-related entities in Europe and it is with great trepidation and concern that we are addressing you with the hope of preventing a measure that could have negative consequences on the international projection of the Portuguese language, literature and culture. The elimination of the DGLB would have a limiting impact on people such as editors, translators, educators, university researchers and students, and organizers of literary festivals and cultural events. Despite being far from Portugal, they have always put forth effort in the unending task of making the world aware of the vitality and richness of the Lusitanian idiom. It is undeniable that without the support of the DGLB, much of what has been accomplished up to now would not have been possible, but it is also evident that without this support, everything that is about to be done will only be able to be accomplished to a lesser extent and with a lower impact.

Given that purely cultural interests in times of economic crisis are not considered pertinent or a priority for those who govern, we would like to bring to your attention the positive repercussions that, in economic terms, a clear and proficient cultural policy can have. We feel, for example, that the novels published and translated abroad may have contributed much more to the country’s tourism industry than the advertising done in order to make potential tourists aware of Portugal’s attractions. How many Portuguese writers would have never made it into the libraries of Europe without the support of the DGLB? How many literary festivals and university conferences would have had to do without the presence of Portuguese poets, essayists and novelists?

Obviously, we are aware of the fact that due to the current economic situation, painful sacrifices are necessary in all sectors. We feel, however, that an economic crisis is not resolved through cultural impoverishment and we are convinced that the government has the duty to adopt more efficient measures than a simple, drastic and indiscriminate cut in public funding. The risk, in this case, is that an imprudent policy could make the country and its culture invisible.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

3 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson H. Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)

When I picked up Anonymous Celebrity over the summer, I fell in love from the first page. I was already a huge fan of Brandao’s from the time when I was at Dalkey and we reprinted Zero, but I think this might be an even better book.

Centered around an unreliable narrator obsessed with the idea of becoming famous, Anonymous Celebrity reads more like a scrapbook than a novel, teaming with information and jokes, switching tone on every page, forcing the reader to come to terms with the manic, slightly unhinged mind behind it all. And by “slightly unhinged,” I mean willing to murder the “Lead Actor”—who supposedly looks just like our narrator—so that he can take over all of L.A.‘s roles.

All the various sections, such as the “Rescuing the Anonymous” bits to draw attention to the nearly-famous (like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway) are brilliant. The manuals for how to be famous and the gallery of characters extremely fun. But it’s obvious as you move through this book that there’s something going on underneath to decipher. The entire narrative is steeped in lies and delusions, constructing a wonderful game for the reader to puzzle through. All is clarified by the end (maybe a bit overclarified), but along the way the writing is brilliant, the posturing and the bittersweet appeal of celebrity is palpable. Rather than go on and on, I suggest reading the full review I wrote earlier this summer and checking out this long quote that captures the energy of the book:

GODDAMMITT! 24 HOURS WITH A FAN?

The network forces all its stars to go on TV and promote all sorts of crap on women’s talk shows if we have a free morning. Those shows don’t really attract big audiences, but they sell dozens of new products every day—nobody even knows where they all come from. Vitamins, impotence cures, salves for herniated disks, hemorrhoids, and bursitis, remedies for high blood pressure, depression, gastritis, muscle pains, obesity, anorexia, bad breath, gas, sinusitis, mycosis, inflammation of the testicles, yeast infections, hangnails, ingrown toenails, parasites, rheumatism, indigestion, erysipelas, impetigo, shingles. Being a shill earns me next to nothing, but the network rakes it in.

This week, however, my duty is to spend twenty-four hours with a fan who won a day with me thanks to a contest that was held for the studio audience of one of these talk shows—bussed in to applaud our cheerful celebrity endorsements.

I have no choice. It’s part of my contract.

She’s going to be positioned in my home so as to best witness my waking up, stretching, pretending to smoke my first cigarette (everyone thinks I’m so unhealthy, so contemptuous of health trends, and I have to keep the myth alive), getting up, brushing my teeth, taking a shit, having breakfast, going to the studio, memorizing my lines, putting on my make-up. Maybe she’ll even watch me having a quickie behind the scenery with some needy starlet, make-up artists, or costumer—once I even had a cleaning lady; there are some really hot lower-class girls around if you know where to look. I hope she likes the idea. That would be exciting.

She’ll stand there with her mouth wide open watching me perform, taking a little break, yelling at some fellow actor who’s not setting the right comedic or dramatic tone, yelling at the lighting people, slamming the door in some reporter’s face.

She’s going to watch me running to the bar, having a shot of scotch, then a dark beer, then some grappa, port wine, a few shots of the Havana firewater (the sugarcane booze from Minas that costs around seventy-five dollars per bottle). Then I’m going to bring her to my dressing room: Room 101. Two contiguous rooms, as the building plans say, well-appointed (All Sig Bergamin or Chico Gouvea designs).

She won’t forget this day in a hurry.

I’ll be a cherished memory until she dies.

9 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. (Portugal; W. W. Norton)

For years, Antonio Lobo Antunes has been one of my personal favorite authors, and Act of the Damned one of my all-time favorite books. So I was really excited when his most recent title — What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? — made our Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist.

It’s also fantastic that Antunes won the 2008 Juan Rulfo Prize and honored at a ceremony that took place a couple weeks ago at the Guadalajara Book Fair.

Rather than describe this really inventive, hallucinatory, mesmerizing book myself (everyone should read this—it’s one of those books that teaches you how to grasp it as you read. And the way the incomplete sentences/thoughts/memories weave together is very musical and complicated in a gorgeously artistic way, despite the fact that a great amount of pain and suffering is at the heart of this novel), I thought it would be more interesting to published the introduction that Robert Weil of W. W. Norton—Antunes’s current English-language editor—gave at the recent Juan Rulfo ceremony:

It is tremendous honor to give this introduction on behalf of Antonio Lobo Antunes, whom I publish in the United States. Hailed as one of our greatest living writers, regarded by a burgeoning number of exuberant critics as the most brilliant novelist of his generation in Europe today, Antonio Lobo Antunes, has given us an astonishing body of work, well over 20 novels and memoirs. Prizes and literary accolades surely are impressive enough, but Lobo Antunes has more: that rarest of gifts – a genius to make us understand what it feels like to be human, to render both love and sorrow on the printed page. He is a man whose stories somehow enable us to transcend our own everyday existence, a man whose own search for compassion awakens the compassion that sleeps within all of us.

How do I describe Antonio Lobo Antunes’s writing? For those of you who have already had the thrill of reading him, you’ll know that his language will mesmerize, if not overwhelm your sensory system with an almost hallucinatory power. If literature were music, Antonio would be a composer of swirling symphonies, or intensely deep operas, with themes plucked from Verdi’s tragedies and soaring cadences resembling Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. For those of you who have not yet had the privilege of reading him, his books, suffused with the raw truth of everyday life, and often tinged with an inescapable feeling of sadness or loss, ring with a voice, a music that is his alone. His pages, you’ll discover, boil with seductive rhythms. His dazzling literary tropes and leit motifs define the very essence of this Portuguese master. Trust me, when you take the plunge, his language, will forever emblazon itself into your memory.

It is then not surprising that Lobo Antunes, born in Lisbon under Salazar’s dictatorship in September of 1942, yearned as a boy to be a poet. His novels, as much as they are stories, are also strings of poetic words, indescribably beautiful, that transcend the conventional forms of modern fiction. Each is, in fact, a rare necklace worth beholding. In reading his novels, be it early ones like Memoria de elefante or Os Cus de Judas, or a more recent one like Que farei quando tudo arde?, we discover breathtaking phrases and somersaulting paragraphs that prove Lobo Antunes has a sorcerer’s ability to bend and twist the rules of time: he can retrieve the universal memories of a childhood lost; compress time or make it stand still; exhume the murky past and graft it seamlessly onto the present as if it had never gone away. He replicates the wild and unpredictable patterns of human consciousness right there on the page, not the way, say, a Victorian novelist like Henry James might want to harness the unruliness of life in a lady’s corset. No, Lobo Antunes presents life just as the brain really perceives things: memory and imagination, cognition and literature, suddenly collide and merge into one.

Read More...

7 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The shortlist for the Prêmio Portugal Telecom de Literatura em Língua Portuguesa was recently announced and is made up of the following books:

Bom dia camaradas, Ondjaki (Agir)

Cantigas do falso Alfonso el Sábio, Affonso Ávila (Ateliê Editorial)

História natural da ditadura, Teixeira Coelho (Iluminuras)

Jerusalém, Gonçalo M. Tavares (Companhia das Letras)

Macho não ganha flor, Dalton Trevisan (Record)

O outro pé da sereia, Mia Couto (Companhia das Letras)

O paraíso é bem bacana, André Sant´Anna (Companhia das Letras)

O roubo do silêncio, Marcos Siscar (7letras editora)

O segundo tempo, Michel Laub (Companhia das Letras)

Por que sou gorda, mamãe?, Cintia Moscovich (Record)

Aside from the e-mail I got from the Ray-Gude Mertin Agency (which represents six of these titles), I’m having a hard time finding any coverage of this Prize in English. (No surprise.)

The rules of this Prize are a bit complicated as well . . . Seems that this Prize is awarded to the best book written in Portuguese and published in Brazil last year, that was originally published outside of Brazil between Jan 1, 2003 and Dec 31, 2006. The winner receives approx. 56,000 euros.

The link above does have descriptions of all the shortlisted titles, and I highly recommend using the Google translator to check these out. I’m particularly intrigued by this book:

Why I am fat, mother? – Cintia Moscovich

It deals with the auto-image crises of the gordinhos. It hates the food that the fattening, but loves the food that gives pleasure to it. These ambiguities are exceeded gradually, gram the gram, garfada the garfada one, chapter the chapter.

4 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The September Issue of Words Without Borders is now online and features Portuguese writing from Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil, “with Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Rosa Alice Branco, Alexander Cuadros, Mia Couto, Manoel de Barros, Augusta Faro, Rubem Fonseca, Teolinda Gersao, Milton Hatoum, Conceicao Lima, Alberto Martins, Joao Melo, Ondjaki, Paulo Polzonoff, and Ana Paula Tavares, set to a soundtrack provided by DJ Spooky.”

And the Reading the World Book Club for September is underway. Along with Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!), I’m co-hosting this, and we’re going to be reading/discussing Georges Simenon’s The Engagement.

....
I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >

The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >