Our release of The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov is only a few weeks away, and Publishers Weekly has already run a splendid and starred review (and our first starred review in PW, at that):
A hilarious blend of absurdist, futurist and surrealist sensibilities, this new (and only complete) translation of Ilf and Petrov’s novel . . . is a highly animated tale of a con artist’s journey through the cities and hinterlands of Soviet Russia. . . . It’s an invigorating journey through innumerable paradoxes, dreams and burlesque routines, and though it’s intensely chaotic (at times to dizzying effect), this is a finely translated edition of a triumphant literary experiment.
Jessica Cobb (whose internship at Open Letter just ended) has added a review of Iqbal Al-Qazwini’s Zubaida’s Window, which came out last year from The Feminist Press, translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira.
According to The Feminist Press, this novel the first in English by an Iraqi to focus on the 2003 invasion. Sounds like a very interesting book, in part because Al-Qazwini has led such an interesting life:
Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.
Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.
Click here for the full review.
Our latest review is of Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s Machine, which came out last year from MacAdam/Cage.
Larissa Kyzer—who’s reviewed a number of Danish and Scandinavian books for us—makes Adolphsen (and his work) sound really interesting, and, for lack of a better word, condensed:
Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.
You can read the rest by clicking here.
Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm. . .Read More...
It’s an all-Hungarian, all-Karinthy day . . .
Monica Carter—who runs Salonica World Lit, sells books at Skylight in L.A., and is on the Best Translated Book Award committee—wrote the review of this Kafka-esque tale of a linguist stuck in a country where he doesn’t understand the language and can’t figure out how to escape.
Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. The narrator, Budai, takes the wrong door at the transit lounge and instead of going to Helsinki for a linguistics conference his final destination is an unknown city with an unknown language, an unknown nightmare.
Karinthy gives us no reprieve from the beginning. Budai is dropped off at an overcrowded hotel where, after he realizes he is not in Helsinki, decides that he will stay there until the next morning when he can go to the airport to catch a flight to Helsinki. And that’s when the never-ending lines begin. We wait with Budai in a long line until he finally reaches the ticket counter. After attempts to communicate with the receptionist in several languages—French, English, Finnish, Russian and German—he receives a room key after sacrificing his passport. And to another line we go with Budai, this time for the elevator. He spots a sign on the wall, written in the native language, that he attempts to find an identifying factor between this language and others—Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese and Latin, but without any success. [Click here for the rest.]
We just posted a review by Monica Carter of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Alison Anderson.
Monica works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and runs the phenomenal blog Salonica — Exploit. Explore. Examine., which is dedicated to international literature. She recently visited Paris, and has a series of posts reviewing Parisian books (including Toussaint’s The Bathroom, Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and Queneau’s _The Last Days). Definitely worth checking out on a daily basis. . . .
Well, in terms of the review of Barbery’s novel, here’s the opening of Monica’s review:
Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, her sophomore effort after a well-received debut Une Gourmandaise (The Craving), is the perfect introductory foray into those neophytes who consider the world of translated fiction intimidating. It is erudite while being accessible, intellectual as well as sweet, stylistic without pandering to the reader. And all this would seemingly make for a perfect novel that has not only sold well in Barbery’s native France, but also will sell well here in the United States. If you are looking for prototypes of “commercial novel,” look no further than this. [Click here for the rest.]
The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Nina Shevchuk-Murray on Yuri Andrukhovych’s untranslated novel Twelve Loops.
Andrukhovych does have a couple of books out in English — Recreations (Canadian Institute of Ukranian Study Press) and Perverzion (Northwestern University Press). (I believe another title was scheduled to come out from Spuyten Duyvil Press, but I’ll be damned if I can find it on their website.) Born in the Ukraine in 1960, Andrukhovych is the author of numerous novels, short story collections, and books of poetry, most recently The Secret and Instead of a Novel, a novel made up of interviews. He’s also the co-founder of the Bu-Ba-Bu poetic group, which stands for “burlesque, side-show, buffoonery.” (In Ukrainian this makes more sense.)
Nina Shevchuk-Murray is a former editorial assistant at the University of Nebraska Press and a Ukrainian-born poet and translator whose work can be found in a number of literary magazines. She is the co-editor, with Ladette Randoloph, of The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers (U of Nebraska P, 2007).
Here’s the opening of her review:
In the socio-cultural milieu of his native Ukraine, Yuri Andrukhovych has achieved the kind of status that demands that his name be followed by “himself” every time it shows up in print. His previous novels Recreations and Moscoviad are two important reasons for this recognition, and Twelve Loops is yet another work that assert Andrukhovych’s authority—and talent—as Ukraine’s national mythmaker.
Twelve Loops features some familiar topography: readers will recall Chrotopil’, the setting of Recreations, and, of course, L’viv, the city at the center of Andrukhovych’s fictional universe. In Twelve Loops L’viv attracts two artists, the Austrian photographer Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen and, sixty years earlier, the Lemko poet Bohdan-Igor Antonych, with lethal and inexplicable magnetism. You can find the rest here.
Our latest review is of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives, which was recently published by Archipelago Books.
Frequent reviewer Monica Carter wrote this piece, which opens:
One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape. She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.
Click here for the rest.
We wrote about Kis’s Mansarda when we first heard about it a while back when we first heard about Serbian Classics Press, thanks to Michael Orthofer. At long last, we now have a review written by Erik Estep, a librarian at East Carolina University.
It’s a really slow day around here . . . I’m still out of the office, and E.J. just left for his summer vacation. But right before leaving he wrote this review of Yesterday’s People by Goran Simic, a book that he liked quite a bit, and which came out recently from Biblioasis, my new favorite Canadian publisher. In addition to doing a number of interesting translations, Biblioasis is also responsible for CNQ (the most recent issue of which was focused exclusively on translation) and is bringing out the Idler’s Glossary by Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell later this fall.
A master of metafictional writing reminiscent of the French nouveau roman writers of the ’50s and in particular Marguerite Duras, Greece’s Amanda Michalopoulou invites us to view the world of one story presented through a prismatic lens of all its characters in I’d Like, a collection of thirteen gritty and poignant short stories.
I’d like . . . to know why there isn’t more of Amanda Michalopoulou’s work translated into English. Having just finished this collection, I am left with an unsated craving. The kind of craving that has a hope of being satisfied in the near future, but until then, I must content with “A Slight, Controlled Unease.” This is the title of the second short story in Michalopoulou’s collection, which focuses on a writer struggling with herself to write a short story:
The sun disappearing behind the clouds, the outdoor space heaters, the first drops of rain falling on the awning—they all heighten the impression that everything is happening both inside and out. In my heart and in the street. Why else would it start to rain just when I can no longer hold everything in? These parallels make me feel a slight, controlled unease.
And that’s what Michalopoulou accomplishes—showing us things, people and situations inside and out. In this story we see a writer lamenting her own ability as she reacts to passages she has just written. The next story, “Pointe,” begins with a passage the main character wrote in the second story and delivers to us the finished short story. This may seem confusing at first, rendering a sense of literary vertigo, but the nuance and precision of voice and character make the reader feel acclimated immediately. One story metamorphosizes into the next and it’s up to the reader to figure out how. Frankly, I like this kind of challenge. Micahlopoulou doesn’t underestimate the reader. Instead, she expects us to participate as a reader and make us aware of the relationship between writer and reader. As a reader, I always felt Michalopoulou was in control and totally aware of my presence, even winking at me in “Dad and Childhood” where the main character remembers going to a child psychologist who encourages her to read:
I like short stories best. They’re written on a more human scale. Novels seem like desperate attempts at control, and poems like attempts at grandeur. Essays I can write myself, if necessary.
Part of the allure of I’d Like is Michalopoulou’s ability to shift a character from a self-reflective nostalgia to the grittiness of the present. These characters have nowhere to hide whether in one story they are a lover and the next they are a sister and the next they are a mother. In the title story, “I’d Like,” the wife of a writer yearns to have the inspiration as a painter she once had:
Do you remember how insatiably I used to paint? I devoured the paper, chewed on my brushes. My feet never hurt in museums—I forgot they even existed. I could live for days on a single croissant; I believed that time and despair would never touch me. Can you tell me why art drives a person crazy when it promises so much? We should have known that things would end up here. In a room in the same hotel, twenty years later. The same rococo table, the blue checked bedspreads and the basket of apples from the management, with peels so many different shades of red they look painted? Why do people assume that art corrects the failings of life?
There is also the hypnotic repetition of objects, characters, places and phrases woven beautifully and poetically throughout the collection. The repetition of phrases in particular reminded me of a crown of sonnets where the last line of the sonnet becomes the first line of the next. Michalopoulou doesn’t adhere as strictly as that to any form, but the repetition gives this collection of short stories an interconnected yet amorphous feel as if all the characters are floating in the same pool skimming each other as they drift. The wife in the title story becomes the subject of discussion between two sisters, Stella and Christina, in “I’d Like (Orchestral Version).” Stella becomes the writer of “I’d Like” and the two women are the daughters of the wife in that story:
“You think I am an idiot? The wife who’s an awful painter is Mom. And the husband who walks like an elephant is Dad. Instead of him being in advertising, you made him a failed writer”
“What do you mean?”
“A childless middle-aged couple. If they hadn’t had us, they’d be dragging themselves along together just like that. Isn’t that what you were implying, Stella?”
There are many implications throughout I’d Like, but the reader should be forewarned to not take them seriously. Just when I thought I knew how the stories connected, I was proven wrong by the next one. Karen Emmerich’s translation superbly resonates with Michalopoulou’s intentions. Emmerich has won several awards for her translations and this should add to her list. I can only hope that she will be able to translate the innovative and lofty works of Amanda Michalopoulou in the future. Not only is the work itself deserving, but also we are deserving of reading such quality postmodern literature.
In today’s globalizing world, solving international conflicts by violence is becoming increasingly impractical and unpopular. Nonviolent methods must be based on mutual understanding, which is an important part of any relationship. It is primarily in this vein that Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 2008), edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa, is a worthwhile and valuable read. The book provides an enlightening sample of storytelling from the people of one of the world’s hotbeds of international conflict of the last two or three decades. It provides an intimate introduction to people in and from Iraq.
One aspect in particular that goes a long way towards achieving this intimacy is the inclusion of an essay introducing each author, in which the editor has outlined the author’s work as a whole and briefly described and analyzed the stories selected. These essays are appropriately brief and informative as to familiarize the reader with each of the authors presented. As a whole, the book sheds light on a place that has long been construed as dark and alien, and effectively brings this distant place a little bit closer.
The book would not have this effect if the content were not worthy of literary merit. All of those presented are talented writers; some are not particularly memorable, but several authors in particular stand out as brilliant craftsmen and –women whose ability to breathe life into their prose is truly surprising, and a great pleasure to read. Among these are Mahdi Isa al-Saqr, Mayselun Hadi, Jalil al-Qaisi, and Samuel Shimon.
Al-Saqr is a prolific writer whose work, produced over the course of about fifty years beginning in 1954, has been translated into six languages. His stories have a dreamlike quality; Waiting is the depiction of an old woman’s fantasy come to life. Breaking Away is a subtler meditation on escape from the real into the world of dreams, or the converse, the bringing of dreams into the real world. Both of these, as well as Morning Exercises, are well-constructed, complete fictions. His fourth piece, A Dreamer in Dark Times, is a selection from a novel titled The Witness and the Negro, a selection which inclines the reader to read the novel itself. Al-Saqr has written three volumes of short stories and five novels to date.
Mayselun Hadi is a more recent author, born in 1954. Of her three pieces selected here, Outage is the best, reflecting the state of war which makes up most of Hadi’s subject matter, according to Mustafa. The absence of tangible violence in the story, and the sense of suffocating darkness, truly and effectively convey the debilitating fear of the characters without resorting to overt symbolism or blatant proselytism:
He gave a broken, nasal laugh and put down the lantern next to her. He relaxed in the dark, lying back to watch the pattern that the lantern made on the ceiling. She put out her hand and slowly felt his features. It was late at night, and she wondered why the power cut happened. She touched the rim of his prescription glasses and then his unshaven face. She almost asked him something, but she didn’t. (p.76)
A third war story, and in my opinion one of the best stories in the book overall, is Jalil al-Qaisi’s Zulaikha. The story recalls the horrifying yet poignant war scenes of Hemingway, a touching scene of human bonding in bondage and a microcosm of the struggle of an oppressed people against their oppressors. The feeling of attachment between the two strangers in a cage, attachment simply because of their common predicament, is strongly evoked.
Samuel Shimon’s story, The Street Vendor and the Movies, stands out in several regards. Foremost it is the longest story in the anthology, and as a result it seems that despite its being the only of Shimon’s work in the book, it seems to give the reader a closer familiarity with the author than any other. This may also have to do with the strength of the writing:
That particular picture spurred an argument one day between me and Khajik over silent and sound films. You like silent movies, he said, because you’re the son of a deaf and mute father. That day I found a piece of rope and planned to strangle that mean Armenian boy, but Ibrahim did not think that was a good idea, especially when my dad was trying to get a job at Umm Khajik’s bakery….I also had a pang of guilt because Khajik’s dad used to give me a whole dinar at Christmas. Not last Christmas, though, because he had passed away just the week before. (p.139)
Rare is the writer who can see the world through the eyes of a child and convey it thus on the page, and Shimon’s success in this venture is reminiscent of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close on a much smaller scale.
My one complaint with the book is the editor’s decision to include excerpts from a few novels. I feel that the selections from novels are among the book’s weakest, and this must only be because they are small pieces of a larger whole, pieces which do not stand on their own in the context of short fiction. While I was intrigued by one of these selections (al-Saqr’s A Dreamer in Dark Times) to read the whole work, on the whole I believe that the collection would be stronger if the excerpts had been left out, and perhaps replaced by some more work by those authors who are less represented or some more authors.
On the back cover, the book is described as “the first anthology of its kind in the West.” Specifically referring to Iraqi fiction, this is true (although there are several available volumes of translated Arabic literature such as The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, translated and edited by Denys Johnson-Davies). This book’s unique quality of being Iraqi in origin is primarily what makes the book a most worthwhile read. The material is good too; while a few of the authors are not particularly noteworthy, all of the pieces are well written and well translated, and a few stand out as gems to be pursued and appreciated further.
Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology
edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa
Syracuse University Press
200 pages, $22.95
Our latest review is of Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu’s Secret Weapon:Selected Late Poems (recently released by Coffee House) and was written by Annie Horanyi, who has been interning with Open Letter and has serving as the managing editor for the review section.
This collection sounds really interesting, and if you’d like to know more about Romanian poetry, the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York is organizing an event featuring 10 contemporary poets to take place around the same time as PEN World Voices. (I can’t find the details on their website—I’ll post an update as soon as I find out the where, when, who, of this.)
Our latest review is of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch, which was one of our Top 10 Best Translations of 2007.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review had a review of the latest of Handke’s novels, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, to be translated into English. It’s not so positive:
Handke’s didactic refusal to let us make of his book what we will, his sedulous effort to keep us dizzy and confused, is, more than anything else, a way of infantalizing his readers. By the time we’re done, we’re feeling so put upon, so talked at, that it’s difficult to respond with anything but adolescent sullenness.
Our latest review is of Isaac Rosa’s Another Damn Novel about the Spanish Civil War!. Interesting sounding book from an interesting young writer, and besides, anything with an exclamation point in the title must be awesome.
Another Damn Novel about the Spanish Civil War! provides an interesting take on the nature of writing and revision. On its most immediate level, Another Damn Novel is simply a re-release of Isaac Rosa’s first novel The Bad Memory, which was published when the author was just twenty-five.
Flawed, yet engaging—at least in the opinion of the author himself—The Bad Memory takes place in 1977 and tells the story of Julian Santos: a man hired by a mysterious widow to ghostwrite her war criminal husband’s autobiography. Santos’s search into his subject’s past leads him to discover the secret town Alcahaz, which has been erased from all official records, and causes him to relive his experiences as a child during the Spanish Civil War.
What distinguishes Another Damn Novel from its predecessor, and makes the book a fun read, is that in this re-release, each chapter closes with an anonymous reader’s disparaging but humorous criticism of Rosa’s writing style and techniques that can be extended and seen as a critique of mainstream, realistic writing as a whole.
No character, word, or quote is safe from Rosa’s scathing self-criticism. This anonymous reader rips apart every aspect of the novel, wittily revealing interesting insights into the writing process and shortcomings of conventional novels. He jokes about the Moleskine journals that “writers” can’t live without, the author’s inability to create believable female characters, and the author’s habit of constructing whole chapters around bizarre words chosen at random from an encyclopedia.
For example, here’s what the anonymous reader has to say following a chapter in which the protagonist—through luck and a series of coincidences—discovers the town he’s been searching for:
Fate, the easy way out for bad writers. Chance, the unforeseen, a turn of luck, deus ex machina that in this case is aided by infallible intuition, by a hunch that helps the journey move along. Fate fatefully reveals the fateful existence of Alcahaz through a photo that fatefully falls from a book chosen by fate (well, actually, a photo prettily “born from the womb of the book”). And if fate isn’t enough, the protagonist’s resolute intuition enters the game, the hunch that there is something curious about this place, accented by the widow’s revelation that her husband’s voice “lightly trembled” upon speaking the name, and that “he became furious, he told me to shut up, he lost his temper.” Hmm, how curious, the protagonist will think, we imagine him raising an eyebrow and stroking his beard. What infuriated him and made him tremble upon speaking the name? Hmm, hmm, there could be something here, we shall see, we shall see. [Translation mine.]
Although Rosa jokes in the introduction that the impertinent critic is trying to “sabotage” his work, the re-writing of The Bad Memory becomes the central aspect of the novel. But it would be too simplistic to portray this as just a clever exercise in metafiction. Instead Rosa’s desire to rewrite his first novel reflects the novel’s plot (Santos’ ghostwriting of the war criminal’s autobiography) and explores Spain’s desire to rewrite its own violent past.
By drawing so much attention to his “bad writing,” Rosa runs a risk of alienating his audience. Who really wants to read 200 pagse of a crappy novel just to enjoy some snarky comments? But by linking up to the Spanish tradition of Civil War novels with a narrative that’s actually compelling, the still up-and-coming Rosa mostly avoids this problem, creating a book that—as a meditation on the nature of authorship, as a story about the Civil War—can be enjoyed on several levels.
Another Damn Novel about the Spanish Civil War!
By Isaac Rosa
432 pp., 20,50 euros
Our latest review is of Georges Simenon’s The Engagement, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis.
This book will be the featured book in the September Words Without Borders/Reading the World Book Club. I will help moderate this discussion along with Mark Binelli, the author of the amazing Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, which is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in years. (Mark also writes for Rolling Stone, is hated by Britney Spears, and is incredibly funny. Which are even more reasons to participate in the book club . . . )
I’ll post more info on the book club as the time grows nearer. In the meantime, if you’re interested in participating, you should pick up a copy of the book. It’s short, captivating, and fun . . .
Herbert, who won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1995, is a titan of not only Polish poetry, but of twentieth-century European poetry. His celebrated alter ego, Mr. Cogito, ranks as the one of the most original characters in modern poetry.
Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within. . .
Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be. . .
“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other,. . .
A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where. . .
Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs,. . .
In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as. . .