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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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