The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Emily Shannon on Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, which was translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar, published by Archipelago Books late last year, and most famously given as a gift to President Obama by Deniz Baykal, a member of the Turkish parliment.
Emily—a former intern at Open Letter—opens her review:
In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.
Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.
Click here for the complete review.
Our latest review is of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa.
It’s a pretty interesting and strange book. Here’s the opening of my review:
As Percival Everett states in his introduction, Djibouti author Abdourahman Waberi’s first novel to be translated into English is particularly interesting for the way in usurps not just our expectations, but much of what we have come to believe constitutes a novel:
This is where In the United States of Africa Waberi has inverted the globe and has managed as well to turn over the writing. By this act of inversion he has allowed us to see the absurdity of any kind of oriented globe. This novel holds a mirror up to the planet and questions the direction of spin, whether gravity is a pulling or pushing force, whether upside-down writing is even writing at all. (From the Introduction)
Although it gets much more complex as the novel advances, the primary reversal—exchanging the industrial-financial history and prejudices of Africa and the rest of the world—is a simple conceit to cotton onto and one that Waberi has a lot of fun with. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Yacuba, a “flea-ridden Germanic or Alemanic carpenter” who has fled AIDS-ridden, poverty-stricken Europe in hopes of a better life in the much wealthier and cleaner United States of Africa. Through Yacuba we’re introduced to a world where Quebec is at war with the American Midwest, where the “white trash” of Europe speak an undecipherable “white pidgin dialect,” and where the African media fans the flames of intolerance:
“Surely you are aware that our media have been digging up their most scornful, odious stereotypes again, which go back at least as far as Methusuleiman! Like, the new migrants propagate their soaring birth rate, their centuries-old soot, their lack of ambition, their ancestral machismo, their reactionary religions like Protestantism, Judaism, or Catholicism, their endemic diseases. In short, they are introducing the Third World right up the anus of the United States of Africa. The least scrupulous of our newspapers have abandoned all restraint for decades and fan the flames of fear of what has been called—hastily, to be sure—the “White Peril.” Isn’t form, after all, the very flesh of thought, to paraphrase the great Sahelian writer Naguib Wolegorzee? Thus, a popular daily in Ndjamena, Bilad el Sudan, periodically goest back to its favorite headline: “Back Across the Mediterranean, Clodhoppers!” From Tripoli, El Ard, owned by the magnate Hannibal Cabral, shouts “Go Johnny, Go!” Which the Lagos Herald echoes with an ultimatum: “White Trash, Back Home!” More laconic is the Messager des Seychelles in two English words: “Apocalypse Now!” [click here for the rest.]
Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.
Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:
I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.
Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”
And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]
Our latest review is of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi.
Niloufar is an extremely talented translator and performer, and runs the very impressive Translation Project, which promotes contemporary Iranian literature through a variety of media. A great example of what they do is the Icarus/Rise performance, videos of which can be found on the site.
Peter Conners, the author of Of Whiskey & Winter and Emily Ate the Wind, as well as a forthcoming memoir entitled Growing up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. He’s also an editor and marketing director at BOA Editions. More info about all his projects can be found on his website.
Peter’s review of Belonging is very enthusiastic:
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.” [. . .]
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. [Click here for the rest.]
Larissa Kyzer’s write-up of Danish author Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf is the latest addition to our review section.
It’s fitting that Larissa would be the one to review this—in addition to reviewing for The L Magazine and working towards her Master’s in Library Science, she’s also studying Danish.
Fogtdal is the author of twelve novels (_The Tsar’s Dwarf_ is the first to be translated into English), and also writes a very entertaining blog. His rant about Michael Phelps was pretty funny and here’s an entry from his recent reading tour:
My last stop was Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York. Scandinavia House is the mecca for Scandinavian con artists coming to the US. It’s owned by the governments of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. It’s a stylish place in stylish concrete. Actually, it used to be the East German embassy, but when DDR ceased to exist, the Scandinavian countries bought it.
“Are there still hidden microphones in the ashtrays like in the good old days?” I ask my host.
Kyle shakes his head. He doesn’t think so, but then again, what does he know? Well, maybe more than he wants to admit. Kyle’s name is Reinhart, that sounds pretty East German to me.
I decide to pull down the shades and interrogate the man.
“Who’re you working for, anyway?” I demand to know. Kyle laughs. He is actually from Minnesota and has lived in Kulhuse in Denmark. If you’ve never heard of Kulhuse don’t feel too bad; no one else has.
In terms of the novel, Larissa’s review if quite positive and makes this sound really interesting:
During a recent reading at the Scandinavia House in New York City, Danish author Peter Fogtdal explained some of the circumstances that led to the creation of his twelfth novel (and first to be translated into English), The Tsar’s Dwarf. Having set out to write an account of the ill-fated meeting between Denmark’s King Frederik IV and Russian Tsar Peter the Great from the latter’s perspective, Fogtdal had something of an epiphany. “How could I write from a Russian perspective, if I’m not Russian?” And so, he explained, he “did the only natural thing: I wrote a novel from the first person perspective of a Danish female dwarf.”
If the complications of believably rendering a voice so different from oneself weren’t enough, consider the circumstances of the novel—Sørine Bentsdatter, the titular character, is gifted to Peter the Great during his visit to Denmark in the early eighteenth century. Alternately treated as a grotesque oddity and a beloved pet, Sørine is forcibly taken to Russia, where she acts as a jester for the Tsar and Tsarina, is committed to a cloister where monks employ whips and bloodletting in order to free women of their evil spirits, and is eventually shipped off to the Tsar’s Curiosity Cabinet, where she is displayed alongside embalmed bodies, reptiles, fossils, a trained bear, and all manner of “human subspecies and deformities.” [Click here for the rest.]
Holding a reviewer’s copy of 2666 in public was like brandishing the newest Harry Potter at the playground three months before the on-sale date. Half a dozen eager strangers who’d heard about the book spoke to me while I was reading it. [Ed. Note: I’ll second that, although it’s worth mentioning that this wasn’t the open-top Porsche bookish guys hoped it would be.] Bolaño has particularly captured the imaginations of younger readers because his work is rather like a video game or a set of nested webpages, stories within stories with many apparent authors, and little sense of predetermined purpose.
I’ll second Michael Orthofer’s opinion—this book is going to be “this season’s literary juggernaut.” (In case you’re wondering, Michael gave it a A+.)
It seems fitting that we run this review of Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner right after the Le Clezio announcement, and while Bragi Olafsson (our Icelandic author) is on his reading tour.
Larissa Kyzer—who reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo for us last month—wrote this review of the first Halldor Laxness book to be published in translation in quite some time. Published by Archipelago Books, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is considered Laxness’s “first major novel,” and it’s great that this is now available to English readers.
Over the past week, Bragi’s talked about Laxness quite a bit, about how incredibly funny his works are, and how contemporary Icelandic writers struggle to get out from under his shadow of influence. A few of Laxness’s other books are available in paperback—including Independent People—but for those who haven’t read Laxness, this seems like a great place to start.
This is a dumb joke, but when I read the first line of Jeff’s review — “In the world of Hungarian literature, of Kertész and Krúdy, of Konrád and Krasznahorkai, how can a writer stand out?” — I thought the obvious answer was to have a last name that started with a ‘B’ . . .
Our latest review is of Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories edited by Jorge F. Hernandez and published in collaboration with the NEA’s Big Read program.
Shortly after arriving in Rochester with the goal of creating Open Letter, I was flipping through the Ray-Gude Merlin Agency rights list and came across Horacio Castellanos Moya. I immediately e-mailed Nicole Witt only to find out that New Directions had already purchased the rights to Senselessness.
As a publisher I was disappointed for being late to the game . . . As a reader I was thrilled that this book was going to be available in the near future, and based on the description in the rights guide, I knew this was going to be an amazing book.
The year is only half over, but so far, this is my pick for the best translation of 2008. It’s a stunning book that’s been praised by the likes of Roberto Bolano and Russell Banks. Even more exciting (disappointing from the publisher angle?) is the fact that New Directions is going to be doing more of his works, including She-Devil in the Mirror, which is Francisco Goldman’s favorite.
Our latest review is of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. This is the third Ferrante book Europa has published. The first—The Days of Abandonment—is part of this year’s Reading the World program and helped launch Europa Editions a few years back.
This review is written by Monica Carter, who works at Skylight Books in Los Angeles—one of the best independent bookstores in the country. (And one of the few that’s expanding . . .) She’s very dedicated to promoting international voices and independent presses, and will be reviewing more for us in the near future.
Our latest review is of Dario Franceschini’s La Follia Improvvisa di Ignazio Rando, which is available in Italian from Bompiani, but has yet to be translated into English.
As reviewer Lucinda Byatt notes, Franceschini’s first novel, Nelle vene quell’acqua d’argento received several prizes, including the Premio Opera Prima Città di Penne and Premio Bacchelli, so he’s got a growing reputation . . .
Our latest review is the first of two Antonio Lobo Antunes reviews we’ll be posting over the next couple months. (The other being What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? forthcoming from W.W. Norton.)
I’ve been a fan of Antunes’s for years, and since this review is a bit mixed (it really is a great achievement, it’s just that some of his later books are stronger) I thought it would be useful to write out my personal ranking of the books of his that have been translated into English.
At the top of the list is Act of the Damned followed by The Inquisitors’ Manual, then The Natural Order of Things, The Return of the Caravels, and finally An Explanation of the Birds. Fado Alexandrino is also available, and I’m hoping to read this over the next few months. (It’s a big book that, unfortunately, is designed in such a way—oversized, text crammed on every page—that isn’t all that inviting . . . And speaking of unappealing things, I really wish this author page on Grove’s website had been redesigned sometime in the past decade. Yikes. Really doing an “obscure” foreign author no favors.)
Our latest review is of Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, the fourth Reading the World 2008 title to be reviewed on Three Percent. This was highly anticipated and totally lives up to the hype.
Our latest review is E.J.‘s piece on Yan Lianke’s Serve the People!, which is translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and is a Reading the World 2008 title. Sounds pretty interesting. And racy.
Our latest review is a not entirely positive piece on Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool.
This week’s fiction reviews at Publishers Weekly includes a couple reviews of translations worth noting.
They gave a starred review to Victor Serge’s The Unforgiving Years, which is forthcoming from New York Review Books, and is a title we’d very much like to review here. The PW reviewer summed it up by stating, “Serge remains sophisticated even during the book’s more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision.”
Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen is coming out from Dalkey Archive Press in November, and is a book I helped acquire, so I’m personally interested in seeing how this is received. It’s a big, ambitious book about physics, neo-Nazis, Holocaust stories, and fakes, and although the review is primarily positive, the reviewer has a few reservations.
The novel strains to tie together loose ends, but the big convoluted twists and outlandish ending may be part of the point. This is an ambitious, epic literary debut, and it’s not surprising that Verhaeghen, in trying to orchestrate a familiar epoch, falls short of Gravity’s Rainbow and Underworld.
Our latest review is of Lars Saabye Christensen’s The Model, his latest book to be translated into English.
This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (which can be found here) has exactly 0 reviews of books in translation.
There is a review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin’s new book about Zimbabwe though, and a review of Ondaatje’s latest Divisadero, which Erica Wagner favorably reviews, and which sounds interesting:
Divisadero is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. Ondaatje is a writer who likes to blur form . . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .