21 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eighteenth (almost 3/4 of the way to the end) Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Unforgiving Years“http://readingtheworld.org/nyrb.html is the second book New York Review Books has published, the first being a reprint of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Richard Greeman translated this, and wrote a very interesting preface that begins:

Unforgiving Years is at once the most bitter, the most cerebral, and the most poetic of Victor Serge’s seven novels. It was first published in France in 1971—twenty-five years after the author’s death—and has never appeared before in English. The setting is World War II, and Serge pushes realism to the modernist limits of hallucination, presenting extravagant, terrifying, poetic visions of men and women prowling the debris of a self-destructing mechanical civilization.

The novel is broken up into four section or “symphonic ‘movements’” each of which is quite distinct in terms of time and place. The first takes place in Paris, where D has just broken with the Communist Party and is expecting retribution. The second is in Leningrad, where D helps defend the city. Part Three is set in Germany, and the final section takes place in Mexico.

Edwin Frank wrote a nice piece about Serge for the NYRB newsletter a while back, closing with a few lines that convinced me that I had to read this book:

The book has an epic scope—it is a picture of a planet in convulsion—without foregoing the detail of everyday life or a sense of the moment. It is a spy story and a war story and (several) love stories, gripping and terrifying, passionate and thoughtful, while the men and women in it—they include secret agents, true believers, philosophers, artists, and assassins—are at once larger than life and powerfully alive.

14 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the seventeenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

One of the best selling points for Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is the quote on the back from the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau:

This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the Army, and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.

This kind of negative attention is a publisher’s dream . . . As explained in the flap copy, when this book was written in 2005, it was deemed “unpublishable by China’s state-run publishing houses.” Thanks to the interview, this quickly became a cult classic.

Sexual insinuations in the jacket copy doesn’t hurt either:

Serve the People! is a beautifully told, wickedly daring story about the forbidden love affair between Liu Lian, the young, pretty wife of a powerful division commander in Communist China, and her household’s lowly servant, Wu Dawang. Left to idle at home while her husband furthers the revolution, Liu Lian establishes a rule for her orderly: whenever the household’s wooden “Serve the People!” sign is removed from its usual place on the dinner talbe and placed elsewhere, Wu Dawang is to stop what he is doing to attend to her needs upstairs.

E. J. wrote a long review of this back some time ago, ending with:

And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
the-lovers-apart-which-makes-their-eventual-coupling-more-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.

Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.

11 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the sixteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Following on yesterday’s post about Peter Nadas, comes today’s RTW feature on another Hungarian author worth reading—Peter Esterhazy. Esterhazy is considered to be one of the most influential Hungarian writers of the twentieth century, and one of the more experimental. A number of his books—including A Little Hungarian Pornography and She Loves Me—are available from Northwestern University Press.

Celestial Harmonies (Ecco) is his most recent book to be published in English, and focuses on his family history.

The Esterhazys, one of Europe’s most prominent artistocratic families, are closely linked to the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Princes, counts, commanders, diplomats, bishops, and patrons of the arts, revered, respected, and occasionally feared by their contemporaries, their story is as complex as the history of Hungary itself.

The book is a massive 846 pages and pulls sentences (or a word or two) from over a hundred different authors. As Judith Sollosy states in her introduction:

Indeed, Celestial Harmonies is monumental in scope. The author pays tribute to his father not by reductionism (“this is what my father was like”) but by expansion (“my father was all fathers and all men whose lives collided with Hungarian history”). He is a monster, and he is an angel, but above all, he is a man wrestling with the meaning of God. At least, this is one of the recurrent themes of Book One, which the father leaves ambling along, bent, like a straightened-out saxophone, his head lowered to prevent him from banging it into the heavenly spheres.

What’s not mentioned in this paperback edition is any mention of Esterhazy’s follow up, Revised Edition, which is an “appendix” to Celestial Harmonies. After writing Celestial Harmonies, Esterhazy found out that his father was an informer for the secret police, causing him to write an entirely new history . . . Unfortunately, Revised Edition hasn’t been translated into English, and I haven’t heard about anyone working on this . . . Which is too bad—taken as a pair, these two books would be fascinating to read one after another.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the fifteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Although a couple of Elias Khoury’s other books were published in English a number of years ago, it was Archipelago’s edition of Gate of the Sun that really brought him to the attention of American readers. Frequently compared to One Thousand and One Nights, Gate of the Sun is a sprawling, epic novel. (And is now available in paperback from Picador.)

Yalo, on the other hand, is a different sort of book. From Jeff Waxman’s review:

Elias Khoury’s new novel, Yalo—out earlier this month from Archipelago—is a deep examination of truth and memory set against the gritty backdrop of post-war Lebanon. The book’s premise appears to be simple: in the first pages, it becomes apparent that the title character has been arrested for rape. Rape is a simple crime, with simple motives. In this story, however, nothing is as simple as it first appears. Yalo’s greatest crime may not be rape, Yalo may not be guilty, and Yalo may no longer even be Yalo.

Even better than this positive review is the opening of the book itself:

Yalo did not understand what was happening.

The young man stood before the interrogator and closed his eyes. He always closed his eyes when he faced danger, when he was along, and when his mother . . . On that day too, the morning of Thursday, December 22, 1993, he closed his eyes involuntarily.

Yalo did not understand why everything was white.

He saw the white interrogator, sitting behind a white table, the sun refracting on the glass window behind him, and his faced bathed in reflected light. All Yalo saw were hallos of light and a woman walking through the city streets tripping on her shadow.

Yalo closed his eyes for a moment, or so he thought. This young man with his knitted eyebrows and long tan face, his slender height, closed his eyes for a moment before reopening them. But here, in the Jounieh police station, he closed his eyes and saw crossed lines around two lips that moved as if whispering. He looked at his handcuffed wrists and felt that the sun that obscured the face of the interrogator struck him in the eyes, so he closed them.

The young man stood before the interrogator at ten o’clock that cold morning and saw the sun refracted on the window, shining on the white head of the man whose mouth opened with questions. Yalo closed his eyes.

Yalo did not understand what the interrogator was shouting about.

There’s also an interview conducted by Bill Marx with Elias Khoury on the PRI’s World Books webpage.

1 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the fourteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

I’m really not sure how to write a mini-review of War and Peace. . . I know I’m going out a limb here, but I’m pretty sure most of our readers have heard of this Leo Tolstoy. But in a way, that’s what’s cool about RTW—the mix of contemporary voices and true classics.

What’s amazing to me is how much attention such an enormous, dense retranslation received when it came out last year. Part of the reason was the controversy over the quality of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation, part of it was the New York Times Reading Room discussion. (I remember Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum Bookshop telling me that it was impossible to keep this edition on the shelf during this book club.)

It didn’t hurt that a second edition of War and Peace “original version” according to the publisher—came out at the same time.

But generally speaking, I think this is a testament to the fact that there is a large group of readers out there who are interested in the classics. They’re interested in reading the “Great Books” regardless of how much they weigh . . .

Richard Pevear puts it best in the opening to his introduction:

War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.

1 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the thirteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

One of the first books to receive a NEA International Literature Award, Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like is also one of the few works of contemporary Greek literature to be published in the States over the past few years. (She’s also one of the few authors I’ve stumbled across with a Red Room page.)

This book—translated by Karen Emmerich—is a collection of 13 stories that interweave and intertwine in a way that’s playfully metafictional and quite intriguing. (None of the descriptions of this book really do it justice, so instead, here’s a bit from the author’s “Clarification of What I’d Like”:

My original objective was to write a few short stories to supplement the twenty of so I’ve published here and there in the past few years. When I started to write, the old stories didn’t fit in anywhere—they scurried back to the anthologies they’d come from. So a new objective took shape: to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as of their fictional writer.

This game is evident in the openings of the first two stories. The first is the title-story, “I’d Like”:

“Now! He’s alone!”

Vandoros is standing across the room from us, scratching his reddish beard. With his leather gloves and penetrating gaze he looks just like a fox.

“What are you waiting for?” I hiss.

My husband loosens his bow tie and crosses the room in his characteristic bouncing gait. He’d come up to me just like that, years ago, at a movie theater in Athens. “Don’t tell me you liked that film,” he’d said then. No, but I had liked his peculiar blend of awkwardness and chivalry.

And then from the second story, “A Slight, Controlled Unease”:

“Now! He’s alone!”

Vandoros is standing across the room from us, scratching his reddish beard. With his leather gloves and penetrating gaze he looks just like a fox.

“What are you waiting for?” I hiss.

I’m waiting to see where you’ll take it. The characters don’t convince me, with their gloves and their penetrating gazes. Give me a story. I want to dive in and splash around in the sense of a story. I’d like, as you say. What an idiot: I choose a book by its title.

We will be running a long review of this title in the not-too-distant future, but I definitely think it’s worth checking out. And hopefully one day, Michalopoulou’s other titles will make their way into English as well.

27 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the twelfth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. (Almost half-way!) Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

According to Contemporary Japanese Writers, Vol. 1:

Yoko Ogawa is one of the stars of Japanese literature who is anticipated to be “the next Haruki Murakami.” Of her works, over ten have been translated into French. In France, she is as popular as her predecessors Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima.

The Diving Pool is her first title to be published in English, and came out from Picador earlier this year. (I reviewed it a few months back.) This is a collection of three novellas, including “Dormitory,” which was my favorite for its creepy, ambiguous quality. (Even the flap copy description for this story is great: “A woman nostalgically visits her old college dormitory on the outskirts of Tokyo, a boarding house run by a mysterious triple amputee with one leg.”)

Stephen Snyder is one of the best Japanese translators working today, and he did a marvelous job with this book. I know that before leaving Picador, Amber Quereshi signed on a few of Ogawa’s titles, all of which Snyder will be translating.

The next one—The Housekeeper and the Professor—is due out in October, which is written up in Contemporary Japanese Writers:

Hakase no aishita sushiki (The Gift of Numbers) marked a transformation within Ogawa. It is a tale about the kind and affectionate relationship between a math professor—whose memory lasts only eighty minutes as a result of injuries he sustained in a car accident—and his housekeeper and her child. A beautifully written masterpiece, it attracted an overwhelming number of readers in Japan. The warmth with which the author runs her eyes over these characters, and the delicacy with which she portrays them, succeeded in making Ogawa’s world into something more expansive and enchanting.

The title of hers that sounds most interesting to me though is Hotel Iris:

Fans were split on the sensual, sadomasochistic world inhabited by an old man and a girl in Hotel Iris. It also proved controversial when it was translated into French; even the well-respected newspaper Le Monde criticized it as being merely erotic. In the story, the girl feels sorry for the old man’s deteriorating body bound for death, and motivated by a certain sense of masochism, she gives herself to him.

26 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eleventh Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Like a number of other online literary commentators, I’ve been blogging the hell out of Bolano’s 2666, talking it up as one of the “Big Books of BEA,” and one of the most anticipated galleys of the year. (Which really does still trip me out. Amid all the talk of how Americans don’t like foreign literature, shy away from dead authors, don’t like tildes, etc., etc., some schlubs at BEA steal the mock-up of the three-volume paperback from the FSG stand, which, granted, was very pretty, but was filled with blank pages.) I’m more than half-way done with this, and yes, it really is amazing.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to overlook the fantastic Bolano books New Directions has published in favor of 2666 and The Savage Detectives. All of the ND books—By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, and especially Last Evenings on Earth—are a testament to Bolano’s range and ability.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is no exception. This is one of my favorite titles from this year’s group of Reading the World books. I still giggle about the idea of recommending this to public radio listeners, since the title is somewhat misleading. Or not really—this is an encyclopedia of fascist writers, magazines, books, publishers, etc. But it’s all invented, and not at all the weighty, serious tome that the title suggests.

I wrote a review of this a few months back, and rather than re-heap the praise, I’d rather just reprint one of my favorite sections:

That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.

25 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the tenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from “World Books.”:http://www.theworld.org/pod/worldbooks/wbpod5.mp3

New European Poets is a perfect example of the type of books Reading the World was created to promote. Over 300 large pages of poetry from more than 45 countries/regions (including Sapmi!) and a few hundred poets. The breadth of this anthology is impressive and admirable, and taken as a whole this is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in reading (or publishing) European poetry.

The introduction by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer (the two primary editors who were assisted by twenty-three regional editors) is very interesting, especially the explanation they give of the goal of the anthology:

Our goal in putting together this anthology was not to pretend to present a comprehensive view of European poetry today—that would be impossible. Europe has nearly 750 million inhabitants and, depending on how you count, more than forty languages. In organizing an anthology simply of one nation’s poets, it’s difficult enough to determine, without the benefit of hindsight, which writers are important and will one day be influential. An anthology of European poets presents a whole host of additional problems—questions of national representation, translations, intranational languages and identifications, the politics of national boundaries, and so on. Nonetheless, we felt that it was important to bring this wholly imperfect endeavor to an American audience for three primary reasons: (1) the trajectory of European poetry has continued beyond the European poets known to an American audience; (2) culturally and historically Europe is radically differnt than it was just a few decades ago, and thus a reexamination of Europe’s poetry seems due; and (3) American poetry readers and poets seem to be less engaged with European poetry than they once were, which is a shame.

Right on.

16 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the ninth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

At the RTW party at BEA, there were a number of booksellers and reviewers raving about this title. In fact, the fifteen free copies that FSG sent to give away were gone before the second bottle of wine was opened. (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but this really was one of the hottest RTW titles.)

With all the attention being paid to China—the Olympics, human rights abuses, etc.—it seems like there’s been a genuine upswing in interest in reading titles by Chinese writers. Especially dissident Chinese writers such as Ma Jian, whose work was banned by the government following the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue.

Politics and foreign cultures aside for the moment, the plot of this book sounds pretty intriguing:

The novel explores how fear and ignorance generate a lethal amnesia that undercuts individual freedoms and social bonds. The story weaves together a documentary chronicle of the students in [Tiananmen] square with a nightmarish tour through the consciousness of a protester, Dai Wei, who is shot in the head during the crackdown. Throughout the novel he is in a comatose state, trying to make sense of what happened as his mother struggles to keep him alive. (from The World)

A very interesting interview with Ma Jian and his translator, Flora Drew, can be found on the World Books section of PRI’s “The World” website (a section that is becoming more and more impressive everyday).

Ma Jian’s has a few provocative comments on the Olympics:

I believe that Western leaders should not play into the ruling party’s hands and collaborate in this big propaganda show. If they do, the Olympics will be a true farce because the party will have made Beijing into the cleanest prison in the world. All the undesirables, the mentally unstable people, all the dissident writers will have been detained and arrested before the event, so the atmosphere of openness will just be a charade, a piece of theater in which Western leaders will play their part.

But also has some interesting things to say about his novel:

The World: Your novel “Beijing Coma,” which centers on the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square, depicts the rebellion against the government as farcical rather than heroic. By showing how much went wrong with the demonstration, the book appears to undercut the struggle for freedom in China.

Ma Jian: For me, the events in Tiananmen Square are not romantic so I don’t wish to romanticize them. I see them as a tragedy, a tragedy because these young students had no idea of their own history, they had no memory, so when they stood up for what they understood to democracy, human rights and freedom they didn’t know what these terms meant or how to effectively bring them about in reality. And because they had grown up amid political indoctrinization they had no other reference points, no other models to follow, so when they achieved a certain level of power they turned into a miniature Communist party, with all the infighting and bickering that maneuvering for power brings.

I think it’s great that Bill Marx interviews both the author and translator, giving the translator a chance to talk about some of the difficulties/joys of translation. (It was at the Goethe Institut event last week that someone related a Peter Constantine quote that “A translator is someone who is always running into problems.”)

For instance, I find Flora Drew’s comment on the “most difficult challenge of translating Beijing Coma into English” rather illuminating:

The Chinese language doesn’t have tenses, so the past, present, and future intermingle because the language makes it easy to jump about fluidly in time. But capturing that expansive experience of time becomes tricky in the English language, where you also have to maintain a solid backbone of chronology. My goal was to retain Ma Jian’s sense of ambiguity and timelessness while also making the story understandable to an English-speaking reader.

6 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eighth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

Feverish and hallucinatory, this early novel of Antunes centers around a psychiatrist who participated in the war between Portugal and Angola and hates the practice of psychiatry. Very intense, vitriolic, and occasionally funny (well, at least in one section), this novel is very representative of Antunes, especially early in his career before he became more comfortable with varying his tone, working in more black humor, etc.

I wrote a full review of this back when it came out, and stand by my statement that it’s not his best book. (This recent review in Quarterly Conversation echoes those sentiments. It really is like Faulkner without the funny.)

Ben Lytal’s review in the New York Sun is more forgiving:

But finally, in the long haul of Mr. Antunes’s demanding and effectively overwritten screed, we realize that his narrator is hallucinating, flopping from one memory to the other with such radical accompanying sensory disorientation for the sheer bitter irony of it. To go a little crazy: It’s his ultimate rebellion against psychiatry — or at least it’s his weekend release. Typically Portuguese, perhaps, the literary art of Mr. Antunes turns his point-blank negativity into a refined, self-consuming protest: the psychological novel that can’t believe in itself.

Nevertheless, Antunes is an amazing writer—one of the most important Portuguese writers of all-time, and one of the most talented working today.

There is another book of Antunes’s coming out this fall— What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? which is coming out from W.W. Norton in September. And as a special bonus, Antunes is going to be coming to America for the first time in years. He’s going to be in New York—at NYU and the NY Public Library, I believe—around September 22nd, and will be in Washington D.C. on the 26th. I’ll post more about this—including the flap copy—in the near future, after I start reading the book. . . .

27 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the seventh Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

Europa Editions started in 2005 as the English-language counterpart to Edizioni e/o, one of Italy’s most important publishing houses. Europa primarily publishes literature in translation, although they do do some English books (such as Steve Erickson’s latest) as well. And although the overlap isn’t 100%, Edizioni e/o is in the unique position of being able to publish a particular title in both Italian and English. (And with the recent creation of Sharq/Gharb, e/o’s latest publishing venture, you can add Arabic to that list as well.)

Anyway, one of the first titles Europa published was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which did remarkably well and helped create a legion of Europa Editions fans. (It’s remarkable how popular Europa is with booksellers. Their books have a distinctive design, are very literary, and manage to find a readership. And now that Europa will be distributed by Penguin it looks like they’re about to jump to the “next level” so to speak.)

Ferrante’s an interesting figure. According to the Europa website, she is “one of Italy’s most important and acclaimed contemporary authors, [but] has successfully shunned public attention and kept her whereabouts and her true identity concealed.” (There’s not much more available online either . . .)

As described on the Europa website, The Days of Abandonment

tells the story of one woman’s headlong descent into what she calls an “absence of sense” after being abandoned by her husband. Olga’s “days of abandonment” become a desperate, dangerous freefall into the darkest places of the soul as she roams the empty streets of a city that she has never learned to love.

Considered somewhat scandalous in Italy, the shocking and straightforward tone of this novel really appealed to readers all over the world. And it’s not hard to see why based on the opening paragraph:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

(The first four chapters are available online.)

I might be wrong, but I think this is the most successful book Europa has published to date. And it’s a perfect Reading the World book—definitely worth checking out.

And if you like The Days of Abandonment, or if you’ve already read it, you may want to check out Ferrante’s latest, The Lost Daughter, which was reviewed over the weekend in the Seattle Times. (The review includes this selling line: “The Lost Daughter, is about as sentimental in its view of parenting as a Mother’s Day card inscribed in battery acid.”)

22 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Doubling up on RTW book posts today . . . This is the sixth title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

One of the great things about Reading the World is that it’s a blend of new books by authors most Americans haven’t heard about (see earlier post on The Corpse Walker) with classic titles like Don Quixote that are some of the greatest books ever written.

This can be one of the great downsides to trying to write about all the RTW books though . . . What does one say about Don Quixote that hasn’t already been said? Is there really a need to summarize the so-called plot? I will say that the new translation by Edith Grossman is fantastic, and that if you haven’t read Don Quixote this is a perfect opportunity to lose yourself in the wonderful, weird, endlessly entertaining world of knight-errant Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. In a way, this may well be the perfect summer-reading, beach book . . .

Or, well, you could always just watch the movie:

Not sure this was ever released here, which may be for the best. As I said when I first wrote about this, the cleavage shot at :30 is pricelessly ridiculous, and the reference to “producers who saw Shrek“ is tongue-in-cheek not funny. But “I Fought the Law” may be the supreme craptastic moment of this trailer.

This is one case where I have no qualms about saying that the book is way, way better than the movie.

22 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the fifth entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. (We’re 20% of the way there!) Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

The Corpse Walker is one of the few titles in Reading the World history that’s nonfiction. Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich was part of the program a few years back (the same year it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction). Similar to Voices, Corpse Walker is a collection of oral histories. In this case, Liao Yiwu interviewed twenty-seven ordinary Chinese citizens from the “bottom of Chinese society: people for whom the ‘new’ China—the China of economic growth and gloablization—is no more beneficial than the old.”

With a good writer as interviewer, these sorts of books can be incredibly interesting and enjoyable. And in this case, thelist of people interviewed sounds fascinatingl:

Here are a professional mourner, a trafficker in humans, a leper, an abbot, a retired government official, a former landowner, a mortician, a fen shui master, a former Red Guard, a political prisoner, a village teacher, a blind street musician, a Falun Gong practitioner, and many others [. . .]

Liao Yiwu himself is a pretty interesting guy. According to the flap copy, he spent four years in prison for writing an epic poem condemning the killings on Tiananmen Square.

This book has been getting some good media coverage the past few days, including an interview with the author on NPR and a review in the San Francisco Chronicle that ends with this bit of praise:

Liao’s interviewees, most of them having no place in the official history nor voices that can reach a wide audience, prove to be among the best storytellers from the country. Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao: Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.

And the translator of the book—Wen Huang—is interviewed by Bill Marx on the new The World website. (More on the new website in the coming months . . . )

The World: Are works of non-fiction regularly censored in China?

Huang: “The Corpse Walker” was published and banned in 2002. But today a growing number of non-fiction works are published without interference from the police, even though some of these books criticize corruption in the government. In fact, books about the lives of real life people are enormously popular today — true stories sell well in China. But the government’s heavy hand, via self-censorship among publishers, still influences what is printed. If an author tackles a sensitive topic and publishers feel that the government would disapprove, they market it as fiction. So you have a paradox: on the one hand, more non-fiction is available, on the other, censorship continues because publishers are reluctant to print anything that might be seen by the authorities as threatening China’s economic stability, its carefully maintained image of wide spread economic prosperity.

There’s also an interesting bit in the interview on the difficulties of translating this book:

Still, some parts of Liao’s book were not translatable. The reason we picked 27 stories out of the 60 in the Chinese version was because of cultural reasons and the challenges posed by the speaker’s dialect, which in some cases was impossible to translate. There was one interviewee who talked about prisoners, drawing on a particular language that inmates use when torturing each other. It was a very interesting story but I gave up on it because I couldn’t capture its flavor in English.

19 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the fourth entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

With the release of The Nimrod Flipout a couple years back (another Reading the World title), Etgar Keret started receiving heaps of praise as one of the great young Israeli writers. He’s hip, young (just over 40), and his stories were featured on This American Life and Selected Shorts and in Zoetrope: All Story. And he’s been blurbed by such diverse writers as Salman Rushdie, Clive James, Neal Stephenson, and Amos Oz.

(This isn’t to say that Keret wasn’t already building a reputation pre-Nimrod. The first book of his to appear in English translation was The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories, which came out from St. Martin’s in 2001.)

This new title— The Girl on the Fridge —is actually a collection of early Keret stories that sound as odd and surreal as the ones in Nimrod Flipout.

Here’s the FSG description:

A birthday-party magician whose hat tricks end in horror and gore; a girl parented by a major household appliance; the possessor of the lowest IQ in the Mossad—such are the denizens of Etgar Keret’s dark and fertile mind. The Girl on the Fridge contains the best of Keret’s first collections, the ones that made him a household name in Israel and the major discovery of this last decade.

And the book has been getting pretty good reviews. Just yesterday in the New York Times Joseph Weisberg gave it a mixed review:

From the beginning, the most unmistakable aspect of Keret’s style has been the length of his stories. Averaging about three pages, each presents a single fully formed incident, often surreal. In one of the stories in “The Girl on the Fridge,” a man waiting on the street hears from a passerby that the buses are all dead. When he goes to the central bus station, he sees “hundreds scattered all over the place, rivulets of fuel oozing out of their disemboweled shells, their shattered innards strewn on the black and silent asphalt.” The story manages to be both whimsical and deeply serious, a flight of fancy built around an image from the very real world of suicide bombings. [. . .]

If you haven’t read Keret, start with his 2006 collection, “The Nimrod Flipout.” It shows him more fully in command, better able to connect his style to the emotion that lies beneath.

After reading that book, you’re likely to be a Keret fan, maybe a big enough one to wonder how his singular talent first took shape. That’s the time to read The Girl on the Fridge.

So it looks like there are two Keret books to read . . . And although it’s a ways off, in January, this title will be the featuring Words Without Borders/Reading the World book club book.

For more info on Keret, he was interviewed on All Things Considered a couple weeks back, and the segment is available online.

16 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the third entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

After waxing rhapsodic about the PEN Walser Event, I don’t think I have much to add as to why one should read Robert Walser. He was an amazing writer who had a huge influence on European literature.

Cobbling together a bio of Walser from the NYRB, New Directions, and Univ. of Nebraska books in front of me is pretty fun:

Robert Walser (1878-1956) left school at fourteen and wrote numerous short pieces, essays, and a few novels. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Walter Benjamin, and W. G. Sebald. In fact, Robert Musil, reviewing Franz Kafka’s first book of stories, described Kafka as “a special case of the Walser type.” And Hermann Hesse stated, “if [Walser] has a hundred thousand reader, the world would be a better place.” In 1933, Walser entered an insane asylum and supposed abandoned writing, claiming “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”

The Assistant is Walser’s second novel, and the third to appear in print. (Jakob von Gunten and The Robber are available from NYRB and Univ. of Nebraska, respectively, and The Tanners is forthcoming from New Directions.) It’s the story of an inventor’s new assistant and his experiences with the Tobler family as it slides towards ruin.

The novel is charming and funny, and written with a really captivating tone. (Captured perfectly by Susan Bernofsky, who has translated a number of Walser works.)

Here’s a short sample:

The morning after the night of celebration, Joseph had a look at the “Marksman’s Vending Machine” down in the office, since this invention, after all, merited his attention. To this end he took up a sheet of paper upon which one could read and see the detailed description of this machine with its sketches and the instructions for its production. So what was the story of this second Tobler brainchild? [ . . . ]

The Marksman’s Vending Machine proved to be a thing simular to the vending machines for candy that travelers encounter in train stations and all sorts of public gathering spots, except that the Marksman’s Vending Machine dispensed not a little slab of chocolate, peppermint or the like, but rather a pack of live ammunition. The idea itself, then, was not entirely new: it was a concept that had been honed and refined, and cleverly translated to a quite different realm. In addition, Tobler’s “Marksman” was significantly larger than most vending machines, it was a tall, sturdy structure of one meter eighty in height, and three-quarters of a meter across. The girth of the machine was that of perhaps hundred year old tree. [. . .] The entire thing was practical and simple. [. . .] But there was more! This vending machine had the additional virtue of being connected to the sphere of advertising, in that a circular opening located on the upper part of the machine displayed a new segment of a neatly painted advertising disk each time a coin was introduced or the handle of the lever pulled.

I’m particularly excited that next month, The Assistant will be the first featured title in the Words Without Borders/Reading the World online book clubs. These book clubs have been slightly revised from past years and will include more regular participation of the translator, and a more complete “reading guide” featuring author bios, interviews, online resources, and the like. There will still be a monthly discussion, led in this case by Sam “Golden Rule” Jones, who, among other things, runs the fantastic Wandering with Robert Walser website. If you’re interested in Walser, this is a great opportunity . . .

15 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s post, here’s the second round-up of this year’s twenty-five Reading the World titles.

Since The Post-Office Girl was reviewed in today’s NY Sun by Eric Ormsby it seems like the perfect book to feature next.

Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 into a wealthy and privileged Viennese Jewish family. He went to the best universities; he traveled widely. A member of that fabulous generation of Viennese intellectuals and artists, which included Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler, Zweig became a best-selling author, producing biographies (of Erasmus, Dickens, Casanova, and others), plays and poems, essays, short stories, and a dozen novels (his “Beware of Pity” and the brilliant novella “Chess Story,” also translated by Mr. Rotenberg, have already appeared from NYRB Classics). He settled in Salzburg but was forced to emigrate in 1934 after the Nazi rise to power. He went first to London, then to New York, finally taking refuge in Petrópolis, just outside of Rio de Janeiro. It was as though he could not run far enough or fast enough. Thomas Mann declared proudly from exile, “Where I am, there is Germany.” As a Jew driven from his homeland, Zweig could never assume so grandiose a stance: The Austria he had so brilliantly personified no longer existed except in memory, and from that there was no escape.

This particular novel was published posthumously and centers around Christine, a young woman working at a post-office who is suddenly swept up into the world of wealth and glamor . . . at least for a short period of time.

We’re going to be posting a long review of this in the near future, but I’ll leave off here with one of my favorite “X meets Y” comparisons from the all-time master of master of this construction:

Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s haunting and hard-as-nails novel [. . .]

14 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since Reading the World 2008 is almost here—it technically runs through the month of June, when bookstores across the country display twenty-five translated titles (warning pdf) from fifteen different presses—I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight each of these books on the site.

And there’s no better place to start than with Columbia University’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, which was translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan. This is especially relevant, since PRI’s “The World” just interviewed Michael Berry about the translation. (More on that below.)

First, here’s a description of the book from the Columbia UP website:

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”—a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication-only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

Publishers Weekly gave this a starred review, calling it “A beautifully constructed cyclical narrative,” and “impossible to forget.”

And it’s worth noting that several of her other books are available in English.

The interview with Michael Berry is quite good, especially this description of the book:

The World: In what ways will the novel surprise Western readers?

Berry: I think many readers may be surprised by the initial absence of characters and story. In their place is a beautiful essayistic section depicting various facets of the city: the longtong or labyrinth-like alley neighborhoods, the pigeons that soar through the Shanghai sky, and even the abstract rumors that float through its back alleys.

It is only later that the author brings us into the world of her protagonist Wang Qiyao, whose story begins at a film studio, the place where dreams are created. While this opening sequence may come as a surprise for some readers (and may even account for the lack of enthusiasm many U.S. publishers initially displayed for the book), it is a beautiful piece of writing and, more importantly, those essayistic sections are what really tell us that this is not just the story of Wang Qiyao, it is the story of her city – Shanghai.

As the novel progresses, other surprises come via the brilliant way in which Wang gradually reincorporates these essayistic sections back into the body of the novel, interweaving them with the characters’ stories, until the reader discovers that they are actually one organic whole. The reader will also be enchanted by the novel’s structure, which revolves around three distinct eras in the heroine’s (and city’s) life and the powerful resonances that echo across time.

....
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