6 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you use the Facebook or the Twitter, you probably already know this, but the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards were handed out on Friday as part of the PEN World Voices/CLMP “Literary Mews” series of events.1 And you probably know that Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions were the two winners for poetry and fiction, respectively.

Thanks to underwriting from Amazon.com, George Szirtes, Sean Cotter, László Krasznahorkai, and Nichita Stanescu will each receive a $5,000 cash prize.

I want to personally thank Jill McCoy of the European Society of Authors for kicking off the event by talking about Finnegan’s List and to Esther Allen for adding some thoughtful and interesting comments (as is to be expected, I mean, duh, it’s Esther Allen). Also, a large Internet round of applause should go out to Bill Martin and Michael Orthofer for making the actual announcements—thanks guys!

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the two titles, here’s a bit more info:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

And from Bromance Will’s2 write-up of why this book should win:

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA. [. . .]

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom.

If you haven’t read this, buy it NOW. There is a paperback version coming out soon, but god damn is the hardback gorgeous. Buy it because quality printed books are somewhat of a rarity and should be preserved and glorified.

*

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

And from judge Russell Valentino’s write-up:

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

Speaking of things that are beautiful, this is the third Archipelago title to win. Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston won in 2012, and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein won in 2009. Seeing that only 11 titles have received this honor, that’s incredibly impressive. Congrats to Jill Schoolman—the publisher of one of the greatest publishers of international literature there is!

And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing info about the 2014 BTBAs in approximately one month.

1 Which, especially for a test-run, was remarkably successful. I sold more than 15 books in the first hour and a half, and only brought back a handful of units.

2 Will Evans was an apprentice here last year, and as a result is launching Deep Vellum, an indie press based in Dallas dedicated to doing awesome literature from around the world. He has a few titles in the works that I know about, but the only think I should really mention here is that he’ll be publishing Sergio Pitol as one of his first authors. For more information, you should follow his Twitter account: @DeepVellum. And if you’re at BEA this year, you should meet with him. Will has the rare ability to make the most jaded professional excited about books and publishing once again. We need people like him in this field.

22 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

Russell Valentino is the chair of Slavic Studies at Indiana University, editor of The Iowa Review, founder of Autumn Hill Books, and translator of eight literary works from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. Oh, and he’s also received two Fulbright-Hays research grants and two NEA Fellowships.

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

And because of poems like “Knot 33. In the Quiet of Evening””:

I thought of a way so sweet
for words to meet
that below, blooms bloomed
and above, grass greened.

I thought of a way so sweet
for words to crash
that perhaps grass would bloom
and blooms would grass.

Finally, it should win because it’s ambitious and humble at the same time. This may smack of the poetry version of wine label verbiage, but I don’t know how else to express it, and I don’t mean it ironically. Though it’s true that such a combination settles with a surprising tingle upon the palate, and leaves one stimulated long after.

8 April 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.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm, and published by Metropolitan Books

This piece is by BTBA judge Bill Marx, who also runs Arts Fuse, a great source for criticism and commentary on a range of art forms.

In A Thousand Darknesses, her critical study about how literature manages to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, critic Ruth Franklin asserts that “every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality.” One could apply that claim to the literature about the pitiless existence in the death camps of the period as well, the Russian gulags. Romanian writer Herta Müller’s masterpiece, The Hunger Angel, describes life in a Soviet forced-labor camp right after the war through a powerful, almost uncanny, melding of imagination and first-hand testimony. Beautifully translated by Philip Boehm, this is the finest volume I have read so far by the Nobel prize-winning author, and I have no doubt that it is a canonical work because it meets Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted demand for literature. What’s more, it does so despite the odds—transforming stale pieties and images about the era’s inhumanity into news that stays news.

Back in the early ’60s, critics such as Ted Solotaroff already felt that all that could be said about the horror had been said: “By now there have been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary history and objective analyses tell us everything we need to know about the ghettos and prisons and death camps; no survivor need feel compelled to assume the burdens of testimony to the degradation, torture and murder that reiterate through these accounts and finally dull and deaden consciousness of their import.” So much more has been revealed since then.

So how does The Hunger Angel expand our consciousness of this well-worn material? Partly because it deals with what had been a repressed part of Romanian history, an episode that the authoritarian Ceaușescu regime did its best to keep a secret. After the war, Romanians with a German background were sent off to Soviet work camps, where thousands died. Müller explains in her afterword that “the deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s fascist past.” She wanted to write about this hushed-up injustice, and spoke to a number of elderly survivors about life in the camps, developing a special relationship with the poet Oskar Pastior. There was talk of a collaboration, but when Pastior died Müller fashioned the material into a novel that evokes, amplified through her distinctive creative vision, the man’s playfully stark poetic sensibility.

The book creates the consciousness of seventeen-year-old prisoner Leo Auberg through his meditations on objects (in his past as well as in the camps), minimalist contemplations of horror that are pungent, sardonic, poetic, humorous, acidic, and heart-breaking. Along the way Müller invents words to describe the dehumanizing experiences that beset the narrator, a compelling language that, according to translator Boehm, evokes “the displacement of the soul among victims of authoritarianism.” The value of such an inspired articulation of historical witnessing is summed up near the end of the book: “Little treasures have a sign that says, Here I am. Bigger treasures have a sign that says, Do you remember. But the most precious treasures of all will have a sign saying, I was there.”

6 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.

The Lair by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Oana Sanziana Marian and published by Yale University Press

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

“Next time I kill you, I promise. The labyrinth made of a single straight line which is invisible and everlasting. Yours truly, D. This Borgesian death threat, assembled from words cut out of the newspaper and sent to Peter Gaspar, an exiled Romanian professor in upstate New York, opens up the labyrinthine plot of Norman Manea’s novel, The Lair. In this elaborate, mysterious portrait of three exiles struggling to adapt to their adopted countries, nothing is what it seems and no lines are straight. The most serious threats are the unstated ones.

Augustin Gora was the first to leave Romania. Granted asylum while in the United States on a Fulbright, Gora was able to establish himself in academia with the help of an older eminent Romanian émigré, Cosmin Dima, a literary stand-in for Mircea Eliade. But Gora has withdrawn completely to his lair of books, his “cell of papyrus” where “the past is present and the present is an echo of the past.” To Gora’s surprise, his ravishing, inscrutable wife Lu had refused to leave Romania with him. When she does show up in America years later, after Ceacescu’s fall, it is with Gaspar, now her lover.

The three form an uneasy love triangle that is soon overshadowed by the cryptic threat. Against his better judgment, Gaspar reviewed Dima’s memoirs and exposed the “Old Man’s” fascist sympathies and support for the Iron Guard in the 1930s, a red rag to Romanian nationalists at home and abroad. Not long after, a fellow émigré and former disciple of Dima’s is shot dead and the threatening postcard arrives in Gaspar’s mail. Gaspar begins calling Gora obsessively, mulling over the possible significance of minute details. Former students are drawn into the investigation—perhaps suspects, perhaps innocent bystanders—as is campus security, the state police, and the FBI.

The Lair is by turns hypnotic, baffling, and intoxicating. It is a fascinating novel of ideas whose characters are on unsteady ground, having lost their footing in the Old World and not yet found an intellectual hold in the New.

15 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s RTN title The Days of the King by Filip Florian. This was translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth and will be coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next month.

See this post for more info on Florian, and click here for an extended preview of The Days of Kings.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

The Days of the King is a slim volume of dense and full worlds and sentences. The basic plot concerns the dentist Joseph Strauss of Berlin who is called to relocate to Bucharest in order to serve as dentist to captain of dragoons Karl of Hohenzollern who is about to become the prince of the United Principalities of Europe. But the most remarkable thing about this novel is author Filip Florian’s churning prose that moves along at a rapid clip through his use of listless yet list-like sentences that amazingly find no shortage of commas to join their innumerable clauses. Take this single sentence for example, as the dentist Strauss talks to his cat Siegfried on the train to Romania:

“Herr Strauss, who in the middle of the previous winter, in January on the eighth day of the month, had turned thirty, was saying all kinds of things, he was not telling a story, he was no longer chirring away meaninglessly, he was merely saying that he wanted to get out of a rut, that there was a whole host of titties in the world, in any case many more than eleven, that everything was numbingly monotonous, that beer and schnapps were good, but wine is not to be sniffed at, that every town is full to bursting with stripy, spotted, black and white, gray, yellow, plump or lean, squint-eyed, and lame cats, cats of every shape and size, that a fire that robs you of mother and sister goes on roasting your heart forever, it dries you and smokes you like pastrami, that there comes an hour, all of a sudden, when nothing binds you to anyone anymore, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and boundless plains it is possible to be born again, that to be dentist to a king is not the same as draining the pus from the mouth of a captain of dragoons, that a wife means children, that a new country is a new place, and a new place is a new opportunity, that games of whist can be played anywhere at all, that the present looks like a lump of shit and that the future might, with the mercy of God, look better, that a wife means a mother, that a young tomcat has seed enough to fill the earth with kittens, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and a boundless plain there might not be a heaven, but nor can it be hell, that geese saved Rome, that the land where they are headed is called Romania and that there will likely be plenty of goose liver there to fry with slices of apple, black pepper, and onion, that a wife is a sister, that no road is without return, and that a wife means a woman, not just any woman, but one who comes out of an angel’s or a devil’s egg.”

The very next sentence is “And so on and so forth” as if there could possibly be anything more to talk about to your cat.

Click here to read the full review.

15 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Days of the King is a slim volume of dense and full worlds and sentences. The basic plot concerns the dentist Joseph Strauss of Berlin who is called to relocate to Bucharest in order to serve as dentist to captain of dragoons Karl of Hohenzollern who is about to become the prince of the United Principalities of Europe. But the most remarkable thing about this novel is author Filip Florian’s churning prose that moves along at a rapid clip through his use of listless yet list-like sentences that amazingly find no shortage of commas to join their innumerable clauses. Take this single sentence for example, as the dentist Strauss talks to his cat Siegfried on the train to Romania:

Herr Strauss, who in the middle of the previous winter, in January on the eighth day of the month, had turned thirty, was saying all kinds of things, he was not telling a story, he was no longer chirring away meaninglessly, he was merely saying that he wanted to get out of a rut, that there was a whole host of titties in the world, in any case many more than eleven, that everything was numbingly monotonous, that beer and schnapps were good, but wine is not to be sniffed at, that every town is full to bursting with stripy, spotted, black and white, gray, yellow, plump or lean, squint-eyed, and lame cats, cats of every shape and size, that a fire that robs you of mother and sister goes on roasting your heart forever, it dries you and smokes you like pastrami, that there comes an hour, all of a sudden, when nothing binds you to anyone anymore, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and boundless plains it is possible to be born again, that to be dentist to a king is not the same as draining the pus from the mouth of a captain of dragoons, that a wife means children, that a new country is a new place, and a new place is a new opportunity, that games of whist can be played anywhere at all, that the present looks like a lump of shit and that the future might, with the mercy of God, look better, that a wife means a mother, that a young tomcat has seed enough to fill the earth with kittens, that beyond an empire, three mountain ranges, and a boundless plain there might not be a heaven, but nor can it be hell, that geese saved Rome, that the land where they are headed is called Romania and that there will likely be plenty of goose liver there to fry with slices of apple, black pepper, and onion, that a wife is a sister, that no road is without return, and that a wife means a woman, not just any woman, but one who comes out of an angel’s or a devil’s egg.

The very next sentence is “And so on and so forth” as if there could possibly be anything more to talk about to your cat.

But Florian’s sentences are analogous with the way his novel twists and turns through its various moods and subjects. Foremost, the amount of history in this book is astonishing, with seemingly all the political machinations concerning Romania of the late nineteenth century packed into dense passages throughout the book. For those, like me, who may be slightly less than enthused to encounter so much political background in the course of their reading, Florian’s rapid-fire prose is both a help and a hindrance as it moves the reader quickly through these sections, but can make it easy to get lost amid all the commas. (There is a helpful guide to Romanian political and religious history in the back of the book.) But set against these passages Florian also includes the poetic writings of Siegfried the cat, who passionately inscribes his missives into the backs of upholstered armchairs with his claws:

From that huge belly, my love, know thou, fifteen kittens will emerge, her belly has swollen to the size of a barrel or a sack of lentils. I awake before down and I wait, I keep watch, the miracle might happen at any time, from beneath the quilt there wafts soft breathing, sleep will not be denied, the kittens lie curled up they stir and they grow, yet another night vanishes without them emerging, yet another day arrives on tiptoes, I divine it, soon the coffee will be boiling in the pot, the dogs will be barking outside, [. . .]

All of this—the thoughts of Joseph Strauss as he heads to a new life in Romania, the political climate with which the former captain of dragoons and now Prince must face, and even the mystery of human birth to a cat—all presented in Florian’s rambling prose, conveys an overwhelming confrontation with information, that distressing phenomenon that comes about with the dislocation which begins this story, that is forced upon the dentist, the king, and the cat. What seem like intensive history lessons may bore at times, but they also arouse sympathy for the prince. It is true that Florian demands an obliging and enduring reader, but he has created a book that contains the worlds of thought for those readers who are willing to confront them.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Hotel Europa, which was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press in Patrick Camiller’s translation from the Romanian.

Dalkey has published several Tsepeneag novels, including the wonderfully complex Vain Art of the Fugue, and the less than amazing Pigeon Post and The Necessary Marriage. It’s nice to see Dalkey keeping on with Tsepeneag (as with a lot of the authors that are part of their “canon”—more on that in a later post), although based on Monica’s review, it doesn’t sound like this is one of Tsepeneag’s best works.

Before getting to the review, I should mention that Monica is a contributing reviewer for us (special thanks to the New York State Council on the Arts for supporting this program) as well as a member of the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee. She also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

Here’s the opening of her take on Hotel Europa:

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.

So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.

The novel that the author is writing focuses primarily on Ion and his various friends. Ion is a Romanian student living and reacting to the turmoil that Romania undergoes in the late eighties who, naturally, questions the world around him with all the mistrust youth can muster:

Ion knew there were all kinds of rumors about the events in Timisoara, but he was not very trusting by nature he told himself that general alarmism and excitement of those days did not yet justify speaking of what might, pompously, be called a “revolution.” “A heap of mashed potato doesn’t just explode all of a sudden!” he like to repeat to anyone who would listen.

. . . Maybe Mihai is already there, in one of the groups discussing Timisoara and the tens of thousands killed.

This is immediately followed by Tsepeneag’s intrusive narrator who comments on what he just wrote:

Even the Paris papers, and especially French television, were quite alarmist: they quoted figures that now seem off the wall, but at the time, in the heat of the moment, we’d all lost our critical faculties. Logical thinking only served to make the horrors more plausible. The climax came when the TV news showed pictures of bodies dug up in Timisoara: the abnormally pale infant on its mother’s sallow belly, the corpses, all sewn up with wire, or so it seemed to me . . . Really harrowing.

It’s true that Marianne, more Cartesian than the general run of the French journalists, was skeptical from the beginning.

But the conceit of author as intrusive narrator doesn’t quite work here. As soon as the reader becomes involved in any way with the story of Ion, he is pulled out by the real life events of the author. This could be done to pitch-perfect effect if there was more delineation between the fiction of that the author is creating and the fiction that the narrator is creating. It becomes bothersome because there is nowhere for the reader to ground herself, except by planting one foot in each world hoping that one will prove solid and real, the story in which she should be invested. One could surely draw parallels between this disjointed dream/nightmare effect of the narrative with the political upheaval in Romania and much of Eastern Europe during that era. But it doesn’t come through clearly enough and that struggle gets lost in the overpowering oscillation between author and narrator. And although this may be the point, at some point the reader has to be indulged, not merely the writer’s creativity.

When Tsepeneag allows the narrator to become philosophical about the story he is writing, it is in one way a relief to the reader because we glimpse a bit of what he is trying to do, but simultaneously distracting and wishing the book were either a novel or a writing guide, not both:

Maybe I should give Ion a little lecture about the function of the narrator, the mysterious intermediary between myself and him, between him and the reader, that voice which fills (or whose task it is to fill) the acoustic space of the novel, and without which you might think that nothing could exist. No, he’s not the author. The author is like the Holy Spirit: full of ideas but invisible, inaudible. He pulls all the strings, it’s true, but whose strings? I mean, he needs characters even if they are miserable puppets . . . And all those creatures, who aren’t human beings—that’s why they’re called characters!—need a voice in order to exist, in order to express themselves. That’s what the narrator is: a voice! A voice that seeps through all the interstices of an unstable, evanescent construction built out of words and meanings. As in a dream, the narrator’s voice cannot be located; it gives the feeling that it can burst out anywhere—unreal and ubiquitous. Of course, from time to time we seem to hear the voice of the characters. But that’s an illusion. In reality, it’s just the narrator: he dubs in all parts, not only their speech but also their thoughts. Concealed somewhere among the props, he’s the one who thinks aloud.

This provides an explanation to what he is doing, but unfortunately, it takes almost five hundred pages to let this idea play out. And aren’t readers of fiction cognizant of this fact going in it? I respect the idea of presenting both worlds created by the writer as being funneled through the narrator who is undeniably, the writer. The reality is that this novel is too splintered and although we may get his point, we don’t enjoy it. It becomes a convoluted fiction of what a writer is. At times, I was enamored with his prose and his everyman meets highbrow style is accessible. At other times, I was so frustrated with his melding of worlds and his obsession with delivering this to the reader with realizing that it was working against itself. Sometimes a writer has to abandon his own creative designs for the sake of the work, not in spite of it.

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Herta Müller’s The Passport, which was translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and rapidly reprinted by Serpent’s Tail last fall when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Monica Carter is one of our top reviewers and a great champion of world literature. She’s on the fiction committee for the Best Translated Book Award, works at Skylight Books in L.A., and runs the always fascinating Salonica web site.

Here’s the opening of her review:

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

“In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.”

Click here to read the full review.

And that’s it! Have a great weekend—see you back here on Tuesday!

2 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

No one quite captures the alienation of the dispossessed like Herta Müller. The Romanian-born German Nobel Laureate delves deeply into the subconscious of people suffering from the emotional and political ramifications of living life under a communist dictatorship and gives us characters whose only hope is to find a way out. Having lived through the Ceausescu dictatorship, Müller’s ability to convey the confining limits of village life under Communism is unique and unparalleled. The Passport is a shuddersome and compelling work comprised of image-laden depictions of the repressed desolation and understated anguish of the town’s inhabitants. The central protagonist, Windisch, is the town miller who wants nothing more than to escape to West Berlin with his wife and grown daughter.

Through the short, nonlinear stories, or more aptly, histories, Müller infuses the narrative with symbolism, dream sequences and superstitions. The apple tree, used as a fear-inducing specter, could represent the Communist regime devouring the freedoms of those who live by its rule:

In the morning night watchman didn’t lie down to sleep. He went to the village mayor. He told him that the apple tree behind the church ate its own apples. The mayor laughed. The night watchman could hear fear behind the laughter. Little hammers of life were beating in the mayor’s head.

This is the typical eerie passage from Müller. As her terse and poetic style provides a haunting rhythm and distance, the dour reality of town life coupled with the characters’ desires to become part of the West sets an ominous tone the builds as the novel progresses. Nature itself is portrayed as a character, and its different elements make repeated appearances that are both fanciful and surreal:

“The owls have no peace, and the water has no peace,” says Windisch. “If it dies, another owl will come to the village. A stupid young owl that doesn’t know anything. It will sit on anyone’s roof.”

The night watchman looks up at the moon. “The young people will die again,” he says. Windisch sees that the air just in front of him belongs to the night watchman. His voice manages a tired sentence “Then it will be like war again,” he says.

Throughout the novel, Windisch is a sad and anxious character. A miller without money or much else searches to obtain passports from a local for himself and his family. Unable to achieve this, he endures a bleak existence not only without respect from his wife, but also resigned to her bouts of vitriol. Their freedom rests on their daughter’s sexual favors with the village militiaman and priest. This knowledge, as horrific as it is, seems like the only way out of their plodding existence that is surrounded by death and time.

Müller allows the reader no sense of redemption, constructing the same hopelessness created by a totalitarian government. Our Windisch rides through the town on his bicycle and through his eyes, everyday objects morph into phantoms that disturbs the reader. Müller is a master of a direct and breviloquent prose that heightens the harsh realities of Windisch’s life and the lives of all those imprisoned by Communist rule in Romania. Perhaps not her best work, but a startling novella that limns a world of heartbreak and obsession and the tragedy of desperation it can create.

24 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eight days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Lightwall by Liliana Ursu. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. (Romania, Zephyr Press)

Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I want to publicly thank him — and all the poetry judges — for helping provide info about all of the BTBA poetry finalists.

The Romanian poet Liliana Ursu’s wonderful new volume, Lightwall, continues to establish her reputation as one of the foremost living Central European poets. This is her fourth book in English: previously she worked with legendary Romanian translator Adam Sorkin and poet Tess Gallagher, to marvelous effect, and this time she is lucky again to collaborate on the translations with Sean Cotter, who has also written a fascinating introduction to the book. The results in English are full of power and grace. Ursu’s poems are sometimes mythic, taking place in an imagined landscape; at others, they are full of everyday details, but always viewed through her particular pleasurably tilted lens. In this latter way she is, as Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun justly calls her, “an archeologist of light.” Ursu’s poems are built structures in which light, aka consciousness, or seeing, bounces pleasurably and strangely around.

The poems of this bilingual edition continue to exhibit Ursu’s idiosyncratic transformative imagination, but also include more details of everyday life in America, where she has spent significant time over the past decade, teaching and writing. “Waiting for Hurricane Isabella to Pass” for instance begins with the lines:

On my table: The Art of Poetry, Lives of Egyptian Saints
and the coffee from Starbucks I drink every morning
with eyes lost to my American window.

This is a perspective somewhat familiar to any reader of contemporary American poetry, but also more confident and stranger in its distance. And when the second stanza begins “

I also talk to an old tree
whom I address as ‘Your Majesty,’

we feel in the presence of a European, contemporary poetic perspective, one that is, like this entire terrific book of poems, very exciting and welcome.

8 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Wow. Michael Orthofer was right and Romanian-German author Herta Mueller has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the Associated Press:

Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.

The 56-year-old author, who emigrated to Germany from then-communist Romania in 1987, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled “Niederungen,” or “Lowlands” in English, which was promptly censored by her government. [. . .]

In 1987 she emigrated to Germany with her husband two years before dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe.

Mueller’s parents were members of the German-speaking minority in Romania and father served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

After the war ended, many German Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union in 1945, including her mother, who spent five years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine.

I’m sure Entertainment Weekly won’t be the only publication to run a “Herta who? These books sound depressingly complex” sort of article, but rather than revisit that sinkpit of an argument1 (thankfully this year there was no controversial statement from Horace Engdahl to really piss off the U.S. literati), I thought I’d just post the PW/_LJ_ reviews of all of her books that have been translated into English. I remember reading about The Land of Green Plums when it came out, but admittedly, I never got around to reading it . . .

Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, published by University of Nebraska Press)

Mueller, who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums, is considered one of the most gifted contemporary German-language writers, a claim this newly translated collection of stories would seem to prove. Once again, Mueller takes us back to Communist Romania. But unlike her previous work, Nadirs is a very personal book, as much about Mueller’s own family sagas as it is about the inescapable scars of communism. Perhaps the most pertinent word to describe this dainty collection is contradiction—the narratives portray what is real and undeniable in a surreal and almost absurd way, yet the seemingly unadorned storytelling demands the maximum concentration from the reader. Originally published in German ten years ago, this book was well worth the wait; it is an important achievement in contemporary Eastern European literature. (Library Journal)


The Passport (translated by Martin Chalmers, published by Serpent’s Tail)

This English-language debut by a Romanian-born West Berliner is remarkable for its stylistic purity. Muller’s angry tale of an ethnic German anxious to emigrate from his stultifying Romanian village is relayed in deceptively straightforward sentences (“Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good”) that pile up in striking patterns (later, “the second snow came. . . . The hedgehog stabbed”). Intently focused prose animates the parochial town with its corrupt power brokers, gamey folk songs and a tree reputed to have eaten its own apples, as well as the problematic relations among the central character, his embittered wife and their nubile daughter, who, like her mother before her during the war, is forced to grant sexual favors to men of privilege. (Publishers Weekly)


Traveling on One Leg (translated by Valentina Glajar and Andre LeFevere, published by Northwestern University Press)

For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan’s friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene’s largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene’s anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland’s hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children “eerie because they’re still growing,” will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images. (Publishers Weekly)


The Land of Green Plums (translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Northwestern University Press)

Five Romanian youths under the Ceausescu regime are the focus of this moving depiction of the struggle to become adults who keep “eyes wide open and tightly shut at the same time.” Through the suicide of a mutual friend, the unnamed narrator—a young woman studying to become a translator—meets a trio of young men with whom she shares a subjugated political and philosophic rebelliousness. The jobs the state assigns them after graduation pull each to a different quadrant of the country, and this, as well as the narrator’s new friendship with the daughter of a prominent Party member, strains their relations. The group manages to maintain its closeness anyway, through coded letters bearing strands of the sender’s hair as a tamper-warning. As the friends begin to lose their jobs and grow weary of being followed, threatened and pulled in for semi-regular interrogations, each one thinks increasingly about escape. Terrifyingly, the narrator finds herself changing into a stranger: “someone who keeps company with misery, to make sure it stays put.” Making her American debut, Muller is well-served by the workmanlike translation; though her lyrical writing falters badly at times (such as the baffling, repeated metaphor that gives the book its title), it also soars to rarefied heights. Most importantly, few books have conveyed with such clarity the convergence of terror and boredom under totalitarianism.


The Appointment (translated by Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse, published by Metropolitan)

The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by the Romanian secret police). The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret police; she has been caught sewing notes into men’s suits destined for Italy, with the desperate message “marry me” along with her address. Accused of prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason), she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is holding on to her sanity. This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker. The sharp generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout as are some lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of human adaptation and survival under oppression.

One last “I-will-beat-the-horse-dead” comment: Of the five books of Mueller’s available in English, four of them are published by university or independent presses. That sounds about right. And might be one of the reasons American publishers/media get all pissed about American authors not receiving the award—the money is flowing into the pockets of the small guys for once.

1 Or at least not revisit it too much: Really, why do Americans want the obvious American writers to always win? Isn’t this like rooting for the Yankees? What fun is it when UNC wins the NCAA tournament every other year? None at all. Fuck that noise. It’s much cooler when an “obscure” (by American standards at least) author is given such a great honor and has her/his books launched into bookstores across the country and into the hands of readers everywhere. It’s like Stephen Curry bringing Davidson to the brink of History. Besides, this isn’t a popularity contest—it’s an honor bestowed on a talented writer. Just let the patriotism go and use this award as a chance to find out about writers you don’t already know. (All that aside, my money’s on Thomas Ruggles Pynchon for 2010.)

18 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest entry in The Guardian‘s series of short stories about the transformations of Eastern Europe post-1989 is Stelian Tanase’s Zgaiba, translated from the Romanian by Jean Harris. (Who runs the Observer Translation Project, which is the best source online for information about Romanian literature.)

So far, this is probably my favorite story in The Guardian series. Like the Clemens Meyer piece, it focuses on a dog:

Zgaiba died Wednesday at 17:26 – his head smashed in. A car travelling at a high speed killed him in the middle of the street. The sound of the blow kept ringing in Vivi’s brain. The driver never stopped. He must have heard a thud under the body of the car, there under the right front wheel. He floored the accelerator, and remoteness swallowed him. Vivi lost track of the car at the end of the street. Tsak tsak tsak: He went on shooting the images reflexively. That was the thing. Horrified. Zgaiba. Images on the sidewalk. The dog didn’t drop right away. He was hurled a metre along the curb. He didn’t bark. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t let out a sound. Time stood still. It took Vivi a moment to come back to his senses. Zgaiba: images on the pavement – his eyes fogged over; his big eyes, stunned. In a state of shock. His tail lowered, his ears pricked. Vivi went on looking at the dog’s coffee-coloured spine there among the iron spears of the fence. Tsak, tsak, tsak. Zgaiba had started heading back to the gate that had let him out earlier. He had crossed the street. He had nearly slipped into the courtyard. He gazed into the familiar place without understanding what hit him. From dying to collapse, the whole scene lasted an instant. Right before Vivi’s eyes.

Vivi had been taking a cigarette break. Between smokes, he went on snapping pictures of Zgaiba, who he’d spotted down in the street. His favourite character. He had hundreds of clichéd snaps of the dog. Vivi himself was up in the attic at the time. He was looking at the cold weather, the cornices across the street. He’d been developing yesterday’s pix for an hour. Failures, without éclat, flops, dumb mistakes: he had spoiled ten rolls of film. Irritated, tired, Vivi had picked up the camera and started taking pictures of Zgaiba bumming around the area – it relaxed him, tsak, tsak, tsak – when the car had appeared. A shiny black body. With headlights on. Evening hadn’t fallen yet. There was a dirty ashen light. Overcast sky. It’ll snow, Vivi had told himself earlier, with his elbows on the sill. The blow to the brain flashed into being – unforeseeably – after that.

Stelian Tanase’s Auntie Varvara’s Clients came out from Spuyten Duyvil press a few years back, which sounds interesting, but is retailing on Amazon for $40? Bit cheaper to check out this special issue of the Observer Translation Project that is dedicated to Tanase and contains an except from the novel Dark Bodies.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The most recent addition to our review section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Memory Glyphs: 3 Prose Poets from Romania, which was recently released in the U.S. by Twisted Spoon Press and is translated from the Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivanescu, and Bogdan Stefanescu. Like all TSP books, the book itself is really elegant, and the contents aesthetically interesting.

In his preface, translator Adam Sorkin explains a bit about the collection:

First of all, the title of this anthology was lifted from the Radu Andriescu prose poem that closes the book, “The Aswan High Dam.”’ To me, the image suggests a major preoccupation of the prose poem, an esthetic amalgam as it were carved of blocks of words (as in the root of “glyph,” from the idea of cut or incised grooves or sacred symbols or script). In contrast to verse, the prose poem is a formless form, oxymoronic, with both lightness and heft, a chiseled, lapidary, elliptical poetry I have long admired. Not surprisingly then, the impetus for this anthology was my own, as was the choice of poets.

Daniela Hurezanu—who herself is a translator from both French and Romanian, and has even translated W.S. Merwin into French—wrote a fantastic review of this book that opens:

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Click here for the complete review.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Popescu’s self-mythologizing creates a sort of urban mythology grounded in self-mockery, a paradoxical world of antiheroes and sad clowns. Thus, “Anti-Portrait: A Psalm by Popescu” starts like this: “No, Lord. Neither more nor less, neither too much nor too little. And not quite Popescu.” Or, “Poetry”: “The earliest literary efforts of the poet Popescu date from the tender age of seven.” In the same poem we are told that Popescu wept so much in his youth that “they had to install a miniature urinal to collect the precious stones” that developed at the corners of his eyes.

Iustin Panta’s pieces are structurally unusual in that they combine verse poetry and prose within the space of the same poem. In the literal sense, the space of his poems is often enclosed—a room in which various objects come into focus—though several poems are about waiting for the train or the bus (one could write a treatise about Romanian poems revolving around the thorny topic of “public transportation”). Many of his poems refer to a “she” and are dialogues between “she” and the narrator. Of the three authors, Panta is probably the most cerebral, as his pieces are sometimes paradoxes or conundrums.

In “A Feminine Thought. A Feminine Thought?” pondering the difference between the breasts of a woman suckling a baby and her breasts laid bare otherwise, he concludes that the baby “continues” the breast and thus nullifies its voluptuousness. The woman is thus nullified too, proving to be “a fraud, a plagiarism,” like a fake painting one would examine under a magnifying glass. The infant is compared here to a magnifying glass revealing the breast’s “true nature,” so to speak, or rather the fact that its voluptuousness is really an illusion. But Panta goes on to challenge the true nature of this very thought by saying that this feminine thought, “seen through the magnifying glass! (itself, in turn, fake)” is also a falsehood.

Radu Andriescu’s prose poems are probably the most “poetic” in this collection in the sense that his style is more focused on its literariness and on artifice. Places and household objects are often the subject of his writings—a terrace, a stove, the wrought-iron winding stairs of his house, his neighborhood, whose depiction rivals that of a Turkish bazaar: the streets are crowded

with cardboard Poles and manic writers, with plumbers cloaked in a miasma of mercury vapors, with starched paunchy senators, with mutant garages turned into candy shops or fruit markets, their plaster hanging on spiderwebs . . . with decrepit geezers only thirty years old . . . apartment buildings nearly hidden by weeds and university dorms as dreary as a comb caked with dandruff . . . with stores soaked in cheap draft beer and artificially colored syrup masquerading as wine, both red and white, with Turkish delight and stale pretzels to bite, with nonfat yogurt, cellophane, bottles, foil, paper, with the flight of clouds, heaps of vacant days, whole wastelands of lost hours, a mixture of tar and cola, books and dust . . .

The sentence goes on for two and a half pages, a dazzling stylistic feat against what Andrei Codrescu once called “tight-ass minimalism.” Like Popescu, Andriescu too builds a mythologized universe replicating the real world in which he lives, and appears as a character in one of his poems. As I happened to read at the same time with this collection Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman), I realized that this objectification of the author is not infrequent in Eastern Europe. Altenberg too is a character in his own pieces: he is called Peter, he is a writer, and many of his scenes—often entirely in the form of dialogues—are sketches of everyday life.

Altenberg (1859-1919), a Viennese-Jewish writer whose admirers include Kafka, Musil and Mann, calls his pieces—which in this country are referred to as “prose poems”—“sketches.” His sources of inspiration are said to be the “feuilleton,” a lyrical form of journalistic prose that was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Sketch” was also a term used by Romanian writers (let’s not forget that until 1918, Transylvania, the Western part of Romania, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the early twentieth century. The master of the sketch was Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) whose pieces were mostly dialogues (incidentally, Caragiale is the most famous Romanian playwright) written in a mood that would fall into the category of the absurd from a Western perspective (It is no accident that the French playwright of Romanian origin, Eugène Ionesco, was strongly influenced by Caragiale).

Paradoxically, although Romania is a very Francophile culture, and Romanian is the only Romance language in that part of the world, what we could call the “Romanian prose poem” is less influenced by the French tradition of the prose poem, its beginnings being closer to various forms of journalism (lyrical or satirical)—still practiced in Romania, where the most common profession among writers is that of journalist.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Observer Translation Project is a relatively new website featuring news, reviews, and samples from and about Romanian authors. From the About Us page:

We highlight a “pilot” author each month. This is the place to learn about Romanian writers, find updates on Romanian writing abroad, read CV’s, take a look at covers published in countries around the globe, check out the bibliographies, dip into author photos, search our steadily growing archive, and discover essays that put Romanian writing in context. Look for single author fiction issues every month, with free-wheeling updates in between. OTP translates into English, Dutch French, German, Italian, Spanish and Polish, with room for guest languages on board.

And this month’s feature author is Ştefan Agopian, whose work is described as follows:

Agopian’s novels and short fiction build a world in which the real illuminates the imaginary and where the opposite is equally true. It’s no accident that the most frequently heard remark in Agopian’s world—“I don’t know; I imagine“—reverberates on political, historical and metaphysical plane. In Agopian-land, the denizens of a place much like 19th Century Romania inhabit a zone recognizable to Western readers as a desperate Wonderland where Borges and Pynchon would feel at home. In this mind-space anyone is free to conclude that “even if the facts aren’t true, that really has no importance.”

Overall, there’s a healthy amount of information available on this site, including samples from a host of authors, a list of forthcoming translations from the Romanian, synopses of a number of Romanian books, and reviews/essays.

Definitely worth checking out, both for the features listed above and for the blog, which tracks information about Romanian literature.

5 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Literary Saloon:

We missed their announcement from a few weeks ago, but Jennifer Schuessler recently mentioned it at their Paper Cuts weblog: The New York Times Book Review is now available in Romanian, the only international edition of the NYTBR, licensed to Editura Univers and with a print run of 40,000 to start off with.

And from Shelf Awareness:

Anthony Frost, a new English-language bookshop in Bucharest, Romania, “has become popular among students, academics and expats, especially for its fair pricing system—which sees English-language books on sale for the same cost as in the West,” the Diplomat Bucharest reported.

As to the name?

Why “Anthony Frost?” Co-owner Vlad Niculescu said it’s the name of a friend who helped foster the three owners’ collective passion for English. “He doesn’t know we’ve named the bookshop after him yet. It may be a surprise.”

Both of these things are kind of cool, although I wish this was more of an equal flow and a Romanian book review was being translated into English along with more Romanian lit. (Well, we’ve got our eye on a major, major Romanian work for Open Letter, but I’ve got to keep that under wraps for now . . . )

Regardless, maybe Sara from NYRB is wrong about 2008 being the “Year of Hungary” . . . it just might be the “Year of Romania,” thanks in no small part to the awesome job the people at the Romanian Cultural Institute are doing to promote Romanian art.

....
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Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

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Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

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A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

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Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

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Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

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