24 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Shaun Randol. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The record for the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup match belongs to Hakan Sukur of Turkey. Eleven seconds into the 2002 match against South Korea, Sukur capitalized on a mistake in the backfield and with a left-footed shove put the ball in the back of the net. The South Koreans were stunned and so was Sakur, who could think of no better celebration than to sit his ass down in the middle of the field.

That was the fastest World Cup goal, until now.

In this contemporary literary skirmish, Chile scored so quickly anyone observing or playing in the game didn’t have time to question what happened. As if by magic—before the whistle even blew—Chile was awarded a 1-0 lead. Nobody questioned this advantageous start, not the coaches (authors), not the referee (me), and not even the fans (readers). It just was, a fact however strange, accepted just as Clara del Valle Trueba’s family readily accepts her telekinetic and clairvoyant powers in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

Not even the Dutch players (the narrative) questioned Chile’s pre-game’s goal. Here’s Herman Koch’s striker (the narrator) caught on tape during the warm-up (page 7, that is):

No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking—in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1-0.

But it was neither magical intervention nor Dutch defeatism that gave Bolaño the edge. Those in the stands with sharp eyes might have seen near the scoreboard a dark figure operating on behalf of the mafia group known as the Literati. Television cameras panned the crowd looking for baying fans and paused on the visages of Jonathan Lethem, Susan Sontag, Colm Tóibín, and James Wood, all of whose blurbs appear on the cover of By Night in Chile.1

So there it is. Ninety minutes on the clock, By Night in Chile with its foot firmly on the ball ready to kick off, starts with a one-goal advantage.

CHILE: 1 – NETHERLANDS: 0

So who is this superstar team? By Night in Chile, the first of Roberto Bolaño’s stories to be published in English, is the deathbed confession of poet, priest, and literary critic Father Urrutia. Propped up on one elbow, Urrutia recalls the life of a respected, but not central, figure of Chilean intellectual life, a priest and man of letters who did little to stand up to the despotism of Augusto Pinochet. The audience—the priest to this priest—is treated to an ambling narrative that includes a journey across European to visit priests engaged in falconry, a stint teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his lieutenants, and a warm friendship with a critic with the literary name of Farewell. (There is very little discussion of Urrutia’s priestly duties in the Opus Dei sect.) Neruda makes an appearance here and there; the first time he appears Urrutia finds the poet-god staring at the moon, “murmuring words I could not understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment.” Several other literary figures are mentioned, but the theme remains firmly fixed on Urrutia’s atonement before he slips into the darkest of nights.

On the other side of the pitch is Koch’s sixth novel, The Dinner, which also takes place over a single evening, told from the perspective of one of the husbands, Paul Lohman. Two married couples meet at a one-percenter’s kind of restaurant in what appears to be a routine, privileged performance of dining, conversation, witticism, and maybe the exchange of an actual good idea, before wiping dessert from the corners of their mouths, paying an exorbitant check, and heading back to the safety of a home in a well-to-do neighborhood. Appearances are deceiving, though, for we soon discover something more sinister is afoot, that there is a very troubling matter to be discussed. A deadly matter, in fact. Turns out—spoiler alert—that the sons of the married couples are involved in a murder in which the whole country, having seen the grainy footage caught by a security camera, is lamenting the downfall of social democratic society and the wasted lives of the youth. Of interest to the diners is not the chef’s special, but rather how to handle the situation. One of the fathers, it turns out, is a soon-to-be elected prime minister.

FOUL! Why the hell would you discuss such grave matters in such a very public place? This ref issues the World Cup of Literature’s second yellow card. Koch’s striker is booked for negligence.

Flying Dutchman (1887) by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Action resumes . . .

By Night in Chile is lean, with no fat, like a well-hewed body of a professional soccer player. Chile plays consistently from page one to the closing line. As expectant spectators we become increasingly convinced victory is in reach, though often just out of reach. Next drive. Next shot! Bolaño’s prose methodically drives forward, building an offense from the back, searching for the opponent’s weak points, and willing to take the time do so. Chile entices with dazzling tales of forgotten popes of yesteryear, priests with falcons, and a dictator’s studious mien. These short plays accomplished with solid teamwork promise a big payoff. And is there any better literary sendoff than “And then the storm of shit begins”? This book wants it.

Contrast Chile’s steady pace with that of The Dinner’s, whose ball play looks more like pinball than futbol. The Dutch team passes the ball around, one side to the other, lots of crosses and middle-field possession and even the groan-inducing pass-backs to the goalie. This makes for lengthy possession but limited progress. Occasionally the midfielders and fullbacks boot the ball into the penalty area, but with little aim. It’s as if the strategy is to get a goal by force (at best) or by a lucky deflection (at least!). Back stories, flashbacks, and tangents seem to exist to kill time rather than further the plot. By page 50 I just wanted Koch to get on it with it already.

Moreover, despite the fact Koch is fielding at least four star players with another couple potential stand-outs on the pitch, there is very little character development. The narrator receives the most attention, but it is of the self-flattering kind. There’s no teamwork here and the play looks a little sloppy.

HALFTIMECHILE: 1–NETHERLANDS: 0

Hail to the translators! Both By Night in Chile and The Dinner are ably translated by Chris Andrews and Sam Garrett, respectively. Chile’s pacing is a steady march to a politically damning climax, and its Andrews who keeps us on track. Garrett, too, maintains a consistency of voice, ensuring that the matter-of-fact prose mirrors the matter-of-fact thought process of the troubled narrator.

#namethetranslator

BEGIN SECOND HALF

In the second half of the game it’s as if neither team left the field for a break. The strategies remain consistent into the backend of each narrative, though the Dutch team plays with more aggression. The narrator—Lohman—reveals a darker, violent past, which always seem to somehow involve his son. A visit to suspected child molester in which “the curtains, I noted, were already drawn.” The threatening of a store clerk with a bicycle pump. The bloodying of one of his son’s teachers:

Then I punched him squarely in the nose. Right away there was blood, lots of blood: it sprayed from his nostrils and spattered across his shirt and the desktop, and then on the fingers with which he pawed at his nose.

Lohman’s violent tendencies are made apparent with these flashbacks, served in bite-sized portions over the course of The Dinner. This is the only character development the audience will see, and it’s thin gruel.

It is Chile who scores in the 79th minute and it is a beautiful goal. Upper ninety, one of those near-impossible shots. Though the Dutch goalie can see the shot from where it’s launched 25 yards out, he doesn’t even bother to jump. We’ve all seen this shot coming; it was just a matter of time before it was revealed.

Here Urrutia is visited by men who very easily convince the intellectual to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so he can better know his enemies.

What do you understand? asked Mr. Raef, with a frank and friendly smile. That you require me to be absolutely discreet, I said. More than that, said Mr. Raef, much more, we require ultra-absolute discretion, extraordinarily absolute discretion and secrecy. I was itching to correct him but restrained myself, because I wanted to know what they were proposing. Do you know anything about Marxism? asked Mr. Etah, after wiping his lips with a napkin.

. . . Who are my pupils? I asked. General Pinochet, said Mr. Etah. My breath caught in my throat. And the others? General Leigh, Admiral Merino and General Mendoza, of course, who else? said Mr. Raef, lowering his voice. I’ll have to prepare myself, I said, this is not something to be taken lightly.

No, not lightly at all, but still taken. Bolaño’s coaching strategy shines.

CHILE: 2 – NETHERLANDS: 0

In the end, the play by The Dinner is inconsistent and lacks finesse. Not even a flying Dutchman — that is, an attempt at a clever closing — can give Netherlands a consolation goal. Koch’s closing is too quick, too clean, too simple. The most important loose end is handled so far off the field it’s in the locker room, and this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the spectators. Sure the ball pops over the Chilean goalie’s head in the final minute of play, but it’s a half-hearted trick shot that glances off the post and bounces out of bounds.

From the 79th minute on, Chile is relentless against its opponent. The strategy toward which they have been playing all along is coming to a head, for By Night in Chile is a fierce, blistering argument against Chile’s intellectuals who were meek in the face of the atrocities committed by Pinochet’s regime. Coach Bolaño sends a very clear message not just to the other team, but to all of his compatriots who refuse to play with such courage: shame on you.

In Chile, Maria Canales, married to an American (Jimmy), hosts soirees for Chile’s intellectual and cultural elite. In her home is hidden a dark secret, to which every guest has stumbled on at least once and said nothing. They return, instead, to the party again and again, feigning ignorance, remaining mute.

. . . he opened doors and even started whistling, and finally he came to the very last room at the end of the basement’s narrowest corridor, lit by a single, feeble light bulb, and he opened the door and saw the main tied to the metal bed, blindfolded, and he knew the man was alive because he could hear him breathing, although he wasn’t in good shape, for in spite of the dim light he saw the wounds, the raw patches, like eczema, but it wasn’t eczema, the battered parts of his anatomy, the swollen parts, as if more than one bone had been broken, but he was breathing, he certainly didn’t look like he was about to die, and then the theorist of avant-garde theater shut the door delicately, without making a noise, and started to make his way back to the sitting room, carefully switching off as he went each of the lights he had previously switched on. And months later, or maybe years later, another regular guest at those gatherings told me the same story. And then I heard it from another and another and another. And then democracy returned, the moment came for national reconciliation . . .

Here is the final and damning goal.

Untitled (1942) by Roberto Matta

FINAL SCORE: CHILE 3 – NETHERLANDS 0

1 The Dinner’s best blurb comes from The Wall Street Journal: “A European Gone Girl . . . A sly psychological thriller.” If that’s true, then I have no desire to read Gone Girl.

——

Shaun Randol is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing, editor in chief of The Mantle, and an active member of PEN American Center and the National Book Critics Circle.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


15 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the ten finalists for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction have been announced, it’s worth taking a look back at the reasons “why these books should win” according to the judges and other readers. Below is a list of all ten finalists, with links to their individual write ups along with a key quote from each.

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Horses of God is narrated from beyond the grave by one of four childhood friends who wrench an existence in the Sidi Moumen slums in Casablanca. They form a soccer team that competes with teams from the other slums and dream of a soccer as a vehicle to escape from the squalor, violence, and unemployment. However, their fate is changed when they are attracted to a religion that offers them guidance and purpose, and training in martial arts.

Their choices and decisions transform them from lives of despair to religious extremism, and ultimately to become suicide bombers. The book is based on the 2003 suicide bombings at Casablanca’s Hotel Farah.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book TwoBlinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

There is something about Elena Ferrante as a writer that is difficult to ignore. She never misses a beat. Her novels, as varied as they are, don’t waver; they are consistently thoughtful, provocative, smothering and honest. This novel was my personal pick to be put on the longlist. She has been brilliant for so long and deserves the Oscar. Her brilliance isn’t limited to her mechanics, her finesse or her creativity as a writer, but it’s her willingness to continually address the psychological machinations of women who have very unfeminine feelings.

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

How to describe a book as affecting and unusual as Tirza I could cobble together a few puffed-up jacket blurb superlatives—something like, “Hilarious Disturbing Subtle Horrific Masterpiece,” or maybe “Psycho-Cultural Familial Catastrophic Tour-De-Force.” But no, the best way to proceed in this instance is to accept that, confined to this meager space, I won’t be able to do justice to this irreducible book.

So I should start by admitting that I was totally unprepared for Tirza. To be honest, I would be scared to meet the person who is prepared for it. Two paragraphs in, I understood the caliber of writer I was dealing with. By the second page I had already laughed out loud. And from then on I was hopelessly immersed in the pathetic, compelling world of Jörgen Hofmeester.

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle so far, and I’m almost certain that I like Vol 2 the best. I hate comparisons of My Struggle to Proust because they always end up being purely superficial, but I’m going to make another superficial comparison for reasons that I hope will be evident: I kind of liken this volume to the second volume of Proust. Nine out of ten people adore Within a Budding Grove the most of all volumes of Proust because it’s the love volume. Proust is using all of his talents to describe love at its most rapturous and incandescent phase, and he’s processing it through his own memory, which of course makes it even more romantic and memorable. Not to mention, love stories tend to make for great narratives, another thing that makes the second volume of Proust much easier to read and more memorable than other volumes. There’s a certain sort of immediacy there that’s hard to match with any other kind of story.

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

Krasznahorkai, like Beckett, writes like a pilgrim whose temple has been destroyed, who owns nothing but the bruises on his feet. To our astonishment, he shows us that the concerns we thought we had left behind — how to make art as an offering and a plea to the gods, for example — are in fact terribly modern. As we journey through the seventeen chapters of Seiobo There Below — each of which displays remarkable erudition, pathos, and humor — we come to understand the urgency of our spiritual predicament, the poverty and despair that we have chosen and that is beyond our power to undo.

But even there at the edge of the apocalypse, Krasznahorkai offers us two beaten pearls of hope.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

In that narration, what impresses me most is the ambiguous specificity of the writing. Rey Rosa demonstrates a profound mastery of negative capability, all the more impressive given the diversity of his subject matter. He manages to evoke a world of complexity—Latino tourists and unquestioning locals, economic migrants and drug peddlers, and even French residents not all too far removed from their colonialist fore-bearers—with the sparsest of prose. His depiction of post-colonial Tangier, significantly evolved from the Tangier of his mentor Paul Bowles, is pitch perfect and rings true to my years in Morocco. For an author relating a story about the mutual incomprehension of cross-cultural encounters, Rey Rosa shows just how much he really gets people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Occasionally, a quarter page exchange will distill the essence of hour-long conversations I’ve had with French people or Hispanics, or Moroccans.

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

That’s already one reason why this book should win the BTBA: it blows our (pre-)conceptions of Arabic literature out of the water. It certainly did mine. Sure, I’ve made my way through Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a variety of the translations of Arabic novels from the past decades, but I never managed to get much of a sense of anything earlier than, say, Tawfiq al-Hakim. Sure, there’s always the Arabian Nights, but that stands so distant and apart from everything else that it feels entirely separate. Arabic fiction – in translation – always seemed to be twentieth (generally later-twentieth) and twenty-first century fiction, much of it strongly shaped by so-called Western influences. And then I pick this up and get an electrifying jolt, finding a mid-nineteenth century literary work that is as radical and inventive as any modern novel. I thought I had a decent sense of modern Arabic literature, and suddenly I found myself exposed to a whole new layer underlying it all, throwing a whole new light on all of it.

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

In its rough outlines, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (translated by Paul Vincent) sounds like the a great genre novel—time-travel! possession! conspiring monks! But like other great modernist works—this one was originally published in 1932—it uses its subject matter as a means to play with expectation and certainty. It is a strange book, at times difficult to follow as it shifts between characters and centuries, but it is also something of a page-turner. It brings to mind Joseph Conrad, but without quite the same ponderousness, and somewhat remarkably, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

15 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

All 25 titles on the 2014 Fiction Longlist are spectacular, so I’m sure this was a pretty brutal decision making process. Anyway, here are your final ten books:

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

11 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The wait is over. Listed below are the twenty-five titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting each and every one of these as part of the annual “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” series. It’s a fun way of learning about all of these diverse titles, and hopefully finding a handful that you personally want to read.

Speaking of diverse, I want to use this post to point out a couple of interesting facts about this year’s list:

  • Twenty-three different publishers have a book on this list, which is unprecedented;
  • There are translations from sixteen languages on this year’s longlist;
  • This year’s longlisted authors are from twenty different countries.

That’s a pretty solid spread. Not to mention the vast differences between these books: On the one hand there’s Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her, a slim, exquisitely crafted Cahier; on the other, there’s Antonio Muñoz Molina’s gigantic In the Night of Time. There’s the two-volume slipcased A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and Stig Dagerman’s short story collection, Sleet. There’s a very unconventional Arabic work from the nineteenth century just now being translated for the first time, and there’s a novel about an execution from Mo Yan, the other Nobel Prize winner on the list.

Overall, it’s an excellent list, one that will be really tough to pare down . . . But that’s the job for this year’s brilliant judges: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books. I want to personally thank them all for their hard work.

But this is just the beginning—on April 15th we’ll announce the finalists for both fiction and poetry, and in the meantime, stay tuned to read about each and every one of the following “best translated books” of 2013.

Also, a special thanks has to go out to Amazon’s giving program, for once again making $20,000 of prize money available for the winning authors and translators.

I’ll post information about any and all celebrations for the BTBA 2014 here as soon as things are arranged. In the meantime, here we go . . .

Best Translated Book Award 2014 Fiction Longlist

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)

Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Knopf)

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)

Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)

Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)

City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Geert Mak’s In Europe, which came out a few years back in Sam Garrett’s translation from the Dutch.

In Europe is a book that’s been on my “to read” pile since 2007 or so. As Jessica mentions, it’s a huge book, but one that (based on the first 40 pages and her review) is incredibly engrossing. I know this got some decent attention when the hardcover came out, but I feel like it’s a book that deserves even more than that . . . Especially now that it’s available in paperback1.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

“Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 And yes, I know the cover image we’re using is from the hardcover, but the paperback version totally sucks.

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.

The dense, brick-like nature of this 834 page tome might appear intimidating to potential readers, but they would be mistaken to associate length with an overburdened, dense, and potentially dull narrative. In Europe possesses a unique structure that strengthens its readability. Each chapter finds Mak in a new European city, at a different point in European history. He finds himself in Versailles in 1919, on Normandy’s beaches in 1942, in Berlin in 1945, in Chernobyl in 1986. In each city Mak’s historical journey elucidate readers in the finer points of German mythology, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Paris’s architecture, and poverty in London. Mak’s shrewd impressions and historical lessons are drawn from first person interviews with people whom “history left behind,” and shies not away from pasts that the powers that be would rather the world forget. Each country or city’s relationship and attitude towards its too-often insalubrious not-so-distant history is a theme that is consistently explored throughout the sinuous narrative. The dead bear no markers, and history is swept off the front stoop.

Every country and every political movement prefers to write a history that makes it feel comfortable, a portrait in soft pastels, a story that does no violence to the self-image. The losers are usually unable to paint any portrait whatsoever. They simply fade away, and their story is eradicated along with them . . . the dead have been hidden away beneath the soil, without a single marker. ‘Forget’ is the motto here. No one wants to rake up the past.

A laundry list of the insurmountable horrors permeating Europe in the first half of the twentieth century in the form of World Wars I and II, communism, and Stalinism comprise nearly two-thirds of the narrative. Far from being off-putting and too much for the reader to bear, Mak’s skillful narrative pacing and storytelling acumen lends In Europe a warmth and sympathy that belies the barbarity which haunted Europe in its darkest days. Mak’s vivid, descriptive language saturates and stimulates one’s senses. From Bielefeld, Germany—Anne Frank’s birthplace—Mak describes the sleepy German village as he found it in springtime:

Half-timbered villages smelling of fresh buns and newly ironed aprons. They are still there, unchanged, the rocks upon which Germany stands. The forests have their first light-green haze, the fields are brown, farmers are out ploughing everywhere, on the village square the little soldiers in the bell tower creak the hours away.

Mak’s eloquent language is no less stirring when he turns his attention towards the scars Europe’s two world wars and struggles against communism left upon the people and the land; he individualizes and puts a human face on the collective suffering of millions of people, such as he does with the Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne Frank. The result is a poignant reminder that out of the millions dead, were individuals, families.

The Frank family home at Ganghofstrasse 24, is still standing, marked by a massive stone monument dedicated to the city’s young people—‘Her life and death, our duty’—and the same trees around it, now thick and old.

Following the end of the Second World War, Mak turns his attentions towards Russia and the Eastern Bloc, adroitly exploring the nuances of East versus West. Describing the aftershocks that befell Eastern Europe following the end of communism, from Gdansk and Moscow, he explores an almost-taboo subject: the quality of life has significantly decreased for Eastern European citizens since 1989. Slowly, the myth of the West is replaced by the reality of the West.

The collapse of the wall did not bring prosperity to huge numbers of Eastern European families, but rather shortage: at home, in the schools and hospitals, in every area . . . this clearly was not the ‘transitional period’ spoken of so widely in the West, but a decline in almost everything essential to daily life: salaries, benefits, food supplies, health care, education, government services and public safety.

As Mak cruises though Europe, though history, and out of the twentieth century—literally, on a ship christened the Marla—he ruminates on the impending European Union and all that unification implies and entails, on its shores and across the pond. Stating that “Europe’s weakness, its diversity, is also its greatest strength,” he reminds readers, lest they become complacent in Europe’s recent economic successes, that “Europe only has one chance to succeed.”

While at first glance, In Europe seems a daunting literary undertaking, it ultimately succeeds in documenting Europe’s tumultuous twentieth century with a sensitivity, deftness, and artfully engaging narrative that propels readers forward, through the years. With Mak as their guide, readers are privy to an unparalleled insight into the hearts, minds, and stories that defined a continent for a hundred years.

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