26 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, blog editor at Asymptote. You can follow her on Twitter at @kojensen.

For more information on the Women’s World Cup of Literature, click here or here. Also, be sure to follow our Twitter account and like our Facebook page. And check back here daily!

This match between Tatiana Lobo’s Assault on Paradise (translated by Asa Zatz) and Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is really a battle between the epic and the subtle. Representing Costa Rica we have a novel depicting the Conquistadores and the Church invading Central America in the early 1700s, and may I just say that I’ve rarely encountered such a larger-than-life opening (entitled “Pa-brú Presbere dreams of Surá, Lord of the Nether World”!!)

Here’s a random sentence from the very first page, which is almost written as if God herself were the narrator:

The fire slowly expired and the shadows fell, the darkness good for thinking and meditation but not about the external things that anguish us in the officious light of day, rather about the secrets of the womb.

In contrast to this opening from “above,” The Happy City—a novel in two separate yet connected sections, representing Spain—begins very much from below, with the first pre-adolescent main character, Chi-Huei, spying on his father and his aunt from a garden (yes, this boy is witnessing something in a garden; need I say more about where the story is going?):

From the bushes, a chorus of crickets rose up, monotonous and precise, drowning out the hum of the traffic and the neighbors’ voices issuing from open windows. The sultry summer atmosphere oozed with the sweet, acidic scent of the loquats, and Chi-Huei liked to stand beneath the tree, breathing in the strangeness of the night, although he was not aware of its mute vibration just now.

As mentioned, The Happy City consists of two sections, and both of them follow a pre-teen (in the first section it’s Chi-Huei, while the second section is dedicated to his friend Sara) discovering the disturbing complexities of the adult world. This novel is written with a sharp clarity, which Assault on Paradise at times fails to achieve. The “epic” nature of the latter almost forced me to keep a notebook in order to remember certain characters and events—which some readers like, I just happen to not like it—and that earns Spain a goal during the first half of this match.

*

In the second half, however, Costa Rica takes revenge. Although The Happy City covers some steps towards sexuality, it doesn’t stand a chance against the intriguing misadventures of main character and admirer of women Pedro Albarán from Assault on Paradise. Just take a look at this opening sentence for chapter two, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book:

Bárbare Lorenzana and Pedro Albarán arrived at the city of Cartago at the same time, slept under the same roof, made love to the same woman, and had not spoken to one another for the past ten long years.

Pedro’s encounters include—but are not limited to—La Chamberga the innkeeper; a local prostitute called The Mother of Travelers; Agueda, wife of an officer in the army; and finally, a mute native woman who embodies the culture that Pedro Albarán’s compatriots seek to terminate. Well done, Pedro. You’ve scored a goal for Costa Rica.
With a score of 1-1, here comes the divine FIFA-like corruption scandal: I’ve decided to leak an out-of-context quote from an email sent to me by fellow judge Meredith Miller, who scandalously allowed Costa Rica to win over Brazil last week. Here’s what she wrote about Assault on Paradise:

Don’t get bogged down by all of the names or disoriented with the mythology in the opening pages.

Well said, Miller. The truth is, Assault on Paradise is epically ambitious in many ways, but it also manages to enthrall the reader with its clever use of low-brow humor combined with an elevated language when the story calls for it. Costa Rica scores the final goal of this match, because reading Assault on Paradise is an utterly entertaining and unique experience.

Costa Rica 2, Spain 1

*

With only one match left to come, we can speculate a bit on what the quarterfinals will look like. Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has clinched a bye, and unless Texas wins by 5, or Delirium by 4, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will automatically advance to the semi-finals as well. The rest of the seedings are still a bit in flux, with the current standings being Australia (+3), Costa Rica (+2), and Cameroon (+1). Tomorrow’s winner could finish anywhere in there . . .

Speaking of tomorrow, the last match of the second round will be judged by Hilary Plum and feature Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (Mexico) against Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia). And following that, we’ll be able to specify who faces who in the quarter- and semi-finals.

17 June 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Mythili Rao, producer for The Takeaway at WNYC.

For more information on the Women’s World Cup of Literature, click here or here. Also, be sure to follow our Twitter account and like our Facebook page. And check back here daily!

What a brutal match. These two novels hold nothing back. Read in succession, it’s hard to take in their fight for narrative supremacy without flinching. These are books about the hard truths of life we don’t wish to discover—but are nonetheless powerless to shield ourselves from.

**

First: South Korea’s effort. It’s easy to underestimate Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. It’s a slight volume—roughly as tall and wide as my outstretched hand and only 103 pages long. But the anguish and desperation of those pages lingered in my mind long after I finished reading. The novel follows an unnamed young woman who, when the story opens in 1988, is employed as a temp worker in a dead-end clerical position at the university. Despite her college credentials, it’s the best job she can get. It’s better than her second job, serving food, mopping floors, and washing dishes at a restaurant behind the Plaza Hotel; and it’s much better than the factory job she works screwing caps of dye onto tubes during the university’s summer break. In any case, father has been imprisoned and her mother drinks too much to hold a job, so the important thing is simply that she work. And work.

While her serious older brother scrimps and saves to make the journey to Japan (where he plans to work for a janitorial service cleaning sewers) and her bright little sister daydreams of completely reinventing herself as a lesbian, Nowhere’s narrator drifts from job to job in a state of exhaustion. Between shifts, she goes to see her boyfriend Cheolsu. His flat aspect perfectly complements her own numbness:

He just looked blank sometimes. While everyone else was tormented by a restless anxiety, like the dizziness you feel on a spring day, which made them question what they were doing with their lives, Cheolsu was yawning and working on a crossword puzzle. He knew how to accept the tedium without the ennui.

The dramatic heart of this book is built around an unforgivably frigid winter day when the narrator goes to visit Cheolsu on the army base where he’s completing service. After riding bus to the subway and then another subway to another bus, she’s told Cheolsu has left the base for training exercise. So she heads back out into the cold on another bus, carrying a bag of chicken Cheolsu’s nosy mother has entrusted her to deliver to her son. He’s not there. When she at last finds Cheolsu—back in at the headquarters she first visited—he can’t understand why she’s so delayed. The visit ends disastrously.

The narration fast-forwards a decade from there. There’s a parade of other jobs, and a smattering of new coworkers, acquaintances, and would-be lovers—but it’s as though everything began and ended in 1988. The narrator’s feeling of dislocation and hopelessness persists and softly, steadily, deepens through the book’s haunting close. In Sora Kim-Russell’s translation, Suah’s prose is cold and acrid. “Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one,” the narrator concludes. When I emerged from the subway after reading Nowhere’s final page, it was a 70 degree June day but an icy chill ran through my heart.

**

Enter Spain. The Happy City takes a no less deadly but measurably more complex approach. Elvira Navarro’s novel, set in Madrid, is divided into two parts. The first opens, similarly, with a young man trapped by economic circumstances beyond his control. Chi-Huei spends his early days with his aunt in China; when as an elementary-schooler he’s finally reunited with his immediate family in Spain, he’s suspicious of these strangers. As he grows, his feelings toward his family only become complicated. His mother and grandfather run a restaurant that’s supposed to ensure their future; broken by his time in a Chinese prison, Chi-Huei’s father does his best to simply comply with his headstrong wife and father’s wishes. For his part, Chi-Huei is trapped by the weight of familial duty. After Navarro describes the intimate contours of a recurring argument between Chi-Heui and his mother, she leaves the young protagonist with a bleak discovery:

Every day of his life since had arrived had been a hymn to work, to money, to efficiency—a hymn he had to sing through his excellent grades at school and his help in the kitchen and the aspirations he was required to have for the future. And all as thanks for what they earned him in good faith and with all their love, believing that this and this alone was their duty, the restaurant-rotisserie in which they all worked for aspirations that were not his own and that, to his utter disgust, were quite the opposite, though he wasn’t able to specify what this opposite was.

The second part of The Happy City follows one of Chi-Huei’s neighborhood friends, a precocious, secretive girl named Sara who becomes fascinated by a homeless man she encounters on the street. They have something powerful in common: Her imagination, like his, rejects boundaries. Sara’s parents grow alarmed when the learn of her fascination with this vagrant, but when they ground her, she only grows more obsessed. Nothing in her world is more interesting than this man who lives on the edges of society. Sara and the homeless man begin wordlessly stalking each other; eventually, they strike up a friendship.

It’s a chaste relationship, but a thoroughly corrupting one, all the same. Sara’s interest in the homeless man leaves her no time for girlish pursuits. She ignores art classes and is bored by her friends. In The Happy City’s final scene—a confrontation between Sara’s parents and the homeless man in the bar where she has been sneaking afternoon visits over potato chips with him—Navarro again demonstrates an uncanny talent for depicting the layers of tension that build up in family life. As Sara’s parents enter the bar, “They walk with the full weight of duty upon them, staring hard at the ground, and I suppose they know that I look at them, and that I am terrified.” As Sara’s father addresses the object of his daughter’s fascination, she becomes the conversation’s translator—and in doing so, learns something about her own limits.

**

In the end, The Happy City is the winner of this match, 3-2: Nowhere to Be Found’s best efforts simply couldn’t match the combined power of Chi-Huei and Sara’s forceful and sharply aimed narratives. After two beautiful, hard-earned goals per team, in stoppage time, Spain comes through with one more taste of net to win the game.

*

Next up, Spain’s The Happy City will face off against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise on Friday, June 26th.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Emily Ballaine, and features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky up against Thailand’s The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva.

27 November 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

The news has been worse than usual this year, so I’ve been particularly thankful for books that make me laugh. Here are some of the funniest contenders – in what I’m sure is just a coincidence, they all take place in the 1980s and involve either children or Soviets or both.

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is narrated by a little boy named Orestes who lives in a very small, very poor town in Mexico. His father’s favorite activity is cursing the police, while his mother spends most of her time making quesadillas to feed Orestes and his numerous siblings (all similarly named after figures of Greek tragedy). When the family’s two youngest children, the twins Castor and Pollux, disappear, it sets off a chain of wild events that culminates with the appearance of some extraterrestrial visitors.

But before the aliens get involved, Orestes runs away to make his fortune, and so the book becomes a kind of sad, but hilarious, parody of a poor boy’s rags-to-riches story. Villalobos’ novel, originally titled Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (“If we lived somewhere normal”), criticizes a system of poverty and corruption that is, of course, not limited to Mexico, all while delivering lines so colorful and surprising that you can’t help but laugh.

Another tale narrated by a clever, resourceful, and chronically poor child, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) moves the scene to Angola. The novel is populated by a cast of odd, lovable characters, including the eponymous Soviet, called Comrade Gudafterov by the children for his habit of greeting everyone with a solemn “Gudafter-noon,” no matter the time of day. Though there are moment in the plot when things seem to be getting dangerous, nothing really terrible actually happens, and we are left with an unusually vivid sense not only of the Angola of Ondjaki’s own childhood, but of the general texture of childhood itself. Stephen Henighan has done a particularly fine job conveying the range of Ondjaki’s style – the Soviet’s comically broken Portuguese and the narrator’s fleeting moments of poetry, for example, seem to arrive in English with equal ease.

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov (translated by Katherine Dovlatov) is not narrated by a child. Rather, our hero is Soviet version of the superfluous man – poor, highly sensitive to literature, perpetually drunk, and somehow badly equipped for life. After a divorce and at the end of his rope, he arrives one summer at Pushkin’s country estate, looking for work as a tour guide. His ensuing adventures are punctuated by witty-one liners worthy of a vodka-soaked Oscar Wilde (“Are you good friends [with Mitrofanov]?” someone asks the narrator, who replies, “I’m good friends with his bad side.”), but overall, the novel owes more to Bulgakov, whose humor builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the entire situation is absurd. The book, like all my favorite Russian tales, is a tragicomedy, one of the saddest and funniest to appear this year.

9 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.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by New Directions.

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Few contemporary writers are as conceptually imaginative or as willing to acknowledge their debts as Enrique Vila-Matas, which comes as a breath of fresh air, especially to those of us reading in the United States, where literary insularity is the norm. Each of his books to be translated thus far—Montano’s Malady, Bartleby & Co., Never Any End to Paris, and our subject here, Dublinesque—takes as its starting point a book or writer and from that point delves into clever, incisive examinations of what it means to be a modern reader.

Dublinesque (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean) is concerned with a pivotal moment in the history of literature: what Vila-Matas refers to as the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. It is, as one might expect, an elegy. The plot follows the downward trajectory of an exemplar of that unfortunate species, the literary publisher, whose battles with alcohol and entropy (personal and professional) constitute the lament at the heart of the book. Riba, whose career has long since dried up and whose days are spent in front of a computer, grows convinced that in order to exorcize his demons, he needs to hold a funeral for the age of the printed book. There is no better place for this than Dublin, he reasons, because Joyce’s masterpiece was the culmination of the printed book. And so he begins to plan this funeral, all while battling his own personal demons and obsolescence.

Like Vila-Matas’ other books, this is one is melancholy, focused like the others on exhaustion—it’s also a rain-soaked and haunted novel. Dublinesque nevertheless manages to maintain a degree of levity. This is due to Vila-Matas’ wistful humor and his vast knowledge of literature: the book is full of allusions, references, cameos, and digressions on such figures as Robert Walser, Juan Carlos Onetti, Emily Dickinson, Julien Gracq (!), and, more centrally, Joyce and Beckett. In typical fashion for Vila-Matas, there are also references to fictitious writers who leave the reader pining for more. Nothing impresses so much as the range of Vila-Matas’ reading and his ability to weave into his narrative strands from other works, a technique that helps to bolster his occasionally patchy plots.

To be honest, I found the thin spots in the book endearing in a way, as if Vila-Matas littered his book with trapdoors into which a reader might fall. Of all the books on the longlist, Dublinesque is the most reflexive and its concern with the state of serious literature, where it’s heading and how it got here, makes it worthy of winning this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Aside from the Borgesian idea of a book that details the literal present, there is not a Borgesian or magic realist moment in this recent novel from Latin America. Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have done a good job of eradicating the myth that literature from south of the border is solely populated by spirits and two hundred year old patriarchs, but another brand of fiction has cropped up in its place: narco-literature. Down the Rabbit Hole may qualify as such, though only in the sense that it takes place largely in the secluded palace of Yolcaut, Tochtli’s paranoid criminal-emperor father. Though this is the setting, and though there are mentions of violence, they are filtered through the lens of a small child who relays events in a simplistic manner, allowing the reader a glimpse into the life of a narco unburdened by the machismo voice of a typical narrator.

This is not to suggest that Down the Rabbit Hole lacks in machismo. There are few women in the book save for the “mute” servants and prostitutes who exist on the outskirts of Tochtli’s view. More than once Tochtli places male behavior into the simple polarities of macho and faggot. To be macho is to take things “like a man”; to cry at the sight of two animals being killed is to be a “faggot.” This dichotomy, effortlessly understood and accepted as law by a child, does not offend the reader as, they are constantly reminded, these are the thoughts of an unusual storyteller in an unusual situation. By employing a child to tell this story, Villalobos allows his readers to accept the violence, sex, and dirty dealings that exist on the periphery of Tochtli’s obsessions: hats (he has a vast collection), samurais, and Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, which he longs to add to his personal zoo. Just as the reader is ready to accept these as the quirky, charming interests of a young boy, Tochtli reveals his other obsession: differing methods of turning people into corpses (he mostly admires the French for their guillotines). Tochtli’s narration gives the reader a view into an ugly world without the usual genre gimmicks of the narco-novel or police procedural. The effect is infinitely more unsettling.

I must admit I had reservations about Down the Rabbit Hole. I have tired of child narrators. This, however, is miles away from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Here we have a naive view of a terrifying world where few are trusted and everyone is a potential traitor; here we have innocence on the verge of corruption.

The slim number of pages aids in the success of the book; a longer version might have seen the concept grow tiresome. But no moment of the novel takes the reader out of its world and the rising action and denouement that might have felt tacked on to a lesser novel feel natural here. At just 70 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole strikes quick, leaving a strong impression.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which is translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and available from FSG.

This is a book I first heard about a while back when the innovative and amazing And Other Stories announced that they’d be bringing it out in the UK. Really glad that it found a U.S. publisher, and given FSG’s recent publications of Spanish-language literature—books by Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Roberto Bolaño—this fits right in.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s review:

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

“Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.”

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Click here to read the entire piece.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of FSG’s Work in Progress weekly newsletter (which is maybe the best publisher newsletter out there), has an interview with Rosalind Harvey, co-translator with Anne McLean of Oblivion by Hector Abad and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and solo translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which just came out from FSG (and came out from And Other Stories last year).

Down the Rabbit Hole is fascinating for several reasons, not least because it’s told from the perspective of a child. How did that affect the experience of translating the book?

For me the voice is the most important aspect of translation (and literature in general, I think), whether it’s a child or an adult narrator. When the voice is clear and strong and believable enough to remain in your mind, that’s your starting point. I read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but mainly I was just listening out for Tochtli’s voice and trying to recreate it in English. [. . .]

Are you generally a reader of books in translation, either from Spanish or from other languages? How do other books in translation inform your own work, if at all? Are there any translators you particularly admire?

I do read quite a lot in translation; I try to read books written in Spanish in the original, and translated books I have admired in the last year or so include All The Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, and a Swedish thriller called Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Joan Tate. Obviously I admire Anne McLean a great deal and she taught me a lot about how to translate, and I also admire Suzanne Jill Levine for her creativity and humor (she has a great book about translating Cabrera Infante which I recommend), and the great Edith Grossman is incomparable.

It’s generally acknowledged that literature translated into English gets fairly bypassed by readers. Do you agree? What do you think can be done (or is already being done) to bring translations further toward the forefront? Why is doing so important?

Yes, it does happen but only because they aren’t given access to it! Things are looking up though—I know for a fact that there are interested and varied audiences for translation after having done three translation-related events this year in the UK, which were all very popular and elicited some really interesting responses. I think we need to translate and publish more of a range of writing: good literature is wonderful, but difficult or avant-garde work is not for everyone and so I’d like to see more Estonian chick lit, Indonesian thrillers or Bolivian erotica. People read that stuff as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, so bring it on! As a reader I would say that reading translation is no more or less important than reading a literature, but as a translator I guess I say that reading translations can give you a broader vision of the world and of people and emotions, making you more aware of the huge differences but also similarities between people. Good literature from anywhere can do that.

On a related note, why is translation important to you, personally? What delights you about the work you do?

Translation is important to me as someone who’s always loved words, language, and wordplay in particular. I love punning, and playing around with words, and I always have ever since I learned to speak. When I was younger I want to be a writer, and translation is a form of writing. It is also often said that it’s the closest form of reading, and I love the chance my work gives me to really get inside a text, as well as getting inside a character’s head, and to be intimately involved with the creation of a book.

Here the complete interview here.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque, which Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey translated from the Spanish and is available from New Directions.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. His novels have been translated into eleven languages and honored by many prestigious literary awards including the Prix Médicis Etranger. He has received Europe’s most prestigious awards and been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Here is part of his review:

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Once a successful publisher of important works and great authors, Riba has since closed his Barcelona-based publishing house and finds he has little to look forward to in either his personal or professional affairs. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, he despairs his increasingly solitary milieu, marked as much by his failing marriage and tenuous abstention from alcohol as by his constant lamenting over his lost career. Intrigued by the concept of the hikikomori (a phenomenon prevalent in japan, characterized by individuals, usually male, whom have chosen for themselves a life of extraordinary isolation and social withdrawal), perhaps as an explanation for his own existential malaise, Riba’s own life begins to resemble that of an awkward outcast, marked by an internet addiction that consumes as many as fourteen hours in a single day.

After recalling a “strange, striking dream he’d had in the hospital when he fell seriously ill two years ago,” Riba decides to set about planning a trip to Dublin. The impetuses for this excursion are many, not the least of which is an opportunity to stage a funeral for the age of print and “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” The date Riba sets for this requiem is none other than June 16, the very day on which James Joyce set his Ulysses, and commemorated annually as “Bloomsday.” With plan in place, Riba enlists the company of three writer friends to join him and his venture in the Irish capital.

Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.

Riba’s wife, Celia, a museum employee and recent convert to Buddhism, shares her name with the title character’s lover in Beckett’s Murphy. As well, the rocking chair in which Riba spends much of his time in Dublinesque’s final section is an allusion to the same piece of furniture in which Beckett’s Murphy whiles away many of his days. A character resembling a young Ceckett makes several mysterious appearances and leads Riba to seek out his identity, in hopes of, perhaps discovering that this fellow is the unknown, genius writer for whom Riba has been searching for his entire career. While in Dublin, Riba delves into a Beckett biography by James Knowlson (presumably damned to fame), shortly after remembering the surprise of reading a novel that featured “a character who’s a real person.”

Riba’s fascination with (and seemingly extensive knowledge of) Ulysses figures prominently into the story, as well. Riba makes repeated mention of the modernist novel’s sixth chapter (“Hades”), wherein Leopold Bloom and others attend a funeral for Paddy Dignam. It is during the funeral scene that Bloom encounters the mysterious Macintoshed character, much as Riba espies the young Beckettian man during his requiem for “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” Vila-Matas was himself one of the founding members of “The Order of Finnegans (La Orden del Finnegans)” (a society comprised of a small number of other Spanish writers “with the sole purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses”).

Riba’s “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text” is worked playfully throughout the novel, especially given Vila-Matas’s decision to employ the Joycean and Beckettian allusions that shape the narrative in which Riba lives. “Dublinesque,” the Philip Larkin poem from which the novel draws its name (about a prostitute’s passing funeral), is but another example of the way Vila-Matas incorporates actual literature into his dirge of the forsaken art. Riba, perhaps resulting from his compulsive need to bring the imagery and incidents of that formative dream (or premonition?) into reality, begins to wonder whether his own life has come to resemble not merely a work of fiction, but the entirety of literature’s arcing curve itself, from great heights to pitiable ruination:

Only he—no one else—knows that on the one hand, it’s true, there are those serious slight discomforts, with their monotonous sound, similar to rain, occupying the bitterest side of his days. And on the other, the tiny great events: his private promenade, for example, along the lengths of the bridge linking the almost excessive world of Joyce with Beckett’s more laconic one, and which, in the end, is the main trajectory—as brilliant as it is depressing—of the great literature of recent decades: the one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Beckett).

While Riba laments the passing of the print age, with its celebration of and devotion to the duality of the writer/reader relationship, he, like the era for which he mourns, must endure the perils and hardships that inevitably accompany so splendid a fall from grace (his career, his marriage, his health). That Vila-Matas so adeptly created a work of fiction that simultaneously considers the current state of both publishing and literature (as well as the respective roles of author and reader alike), while allowing the novel itself to serve as a comment on the very subject, is nothing short of a dazzling accomplishment. Vila-Matas, under the guise of fiction, seems to make the case for a future in which the importance of good writing and meaningful stories are afforded their due attention, while the relationship between author (or publisher) and reader is enlivened anew and bolstered for posterity.

Enrique Vila-Matas is undoubtedly one of the finest Spanish authors at work today and Dublinesque offers for display his profuse literary talents. With sharp, distinct prose and often unexpected humor, Vila-Matas is indeed a compelling writer. As a complement to the four books already available in English, one hopes that many more of his two dozen novels (as well as his collections of essays) will soon find their way into translation. Vila-Matas’s writing, in addition to providing fantastic stories and striking insights, is consistently amongst the most original work being produced today, and stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the banality and bankruptcy of what all too often now passes as popular literature: “the Gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.”

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