This match was judged by Hilary Plum—you can learn more about her writing and editing at her website or on Twitter at @ClockrootBooks.
The stands are packed on both sides, tension palpable. Mexico’s entry into this year’s tournament: Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft, in Samantha Schnee’s endlessly sly translation. The novel kicks off in 1859, in a lightly fictionalized version of the Mexican/Texas border, along the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande (depending on where you’re sitting) and in the twin cities—or, a Mexican city and a sad Texan excuse for one—of Matasánchez and Bruneville. As the title reminds us and the novel renders in profound detail, this border was drawn in bloodshed and greed: land that is now the state of Texas had first belonged to Mexico, until the Republic of Texas was declared in 1835, for among other reasons the desire to legalize slavery, which was counter to Mexican law. In 1846, Texas joined the U.S., resulting in the war of 1848 that our textbooks know as the Mexican-American War, but which could just be called a U.S. invasion. The US declared a new, more southerly border and land north of it was redirected into American hands—i.e.: stolen. Amid all this, the conflicts with and among the American Indians who were either of or had been relocated to the region continued. If this sounds like a highly complex geopolitical moment in which to set what seems to be a comic novel, you’re right on.
On one dusty high noon in July in Bruneville, the sheriff/mediocre carpenter of Bruneville insults Don Nepomuceno, son of a prominent Mexican family. Shots are fired, conflict ensues—an intricate and bloody chain of consequences that our narrator relates with relentless Pynchonian inventiveness. The pace is fast, the tone witty, the speed may be manic but this novel won’t lose its cool. When I picture this team, its game is soccer as spectacle: moves showy as hell, hairstyles unprecedented. Each short passage in Texas zips into the next, into and out of the lives of a massive cast of characters, ever precise but never not flip. Boullasa’s form of procedural improvisation is her own, though one thinks too of Aira and Bolaño: this is art along the high-tide line, style poised, glittering, mid-crash, before exhausting itself. Through the snap and pizazz of the prose, the horrors of this conflict surface; we recall how close we are to the landscape through which Cormac McCarthy’s Judge raged, the kid with his mindless taste for violence.
Daring, even absurd, Mexico’s game starts strong: Boullosa’s nonstop stand-up routines, winking and shapeshifting, take us to halftime with a 2–1 Mexican lead.
We turn then to the Colombian side, where Laura Restrepo’s Delirium sets a quite different pace: a fluid elegance, a taut lyricism that, we’ll come to see, can both give and take real devastation. The achievements of Restrepo’s novel—in Natasha Wimmer’s translation—are curiously hard to describe. Its structure is more conventional than Texas’s, without really being conventional; setting the two novels side by side illuminates how Restrepo, too, is playing with genre, though more quietly, so that the reader may almost not notice. The novel is centered on Agustina, a young Colombian woman of upper-class background who is deep in an episode of—one could call it delirium, or madness, or mania: in any case she is far from reality. She has spent her life, as we’ll learn, in and out of such episodes, while also believing herself, perhaps being believed by others, to possess visionary powers. Agustina is a sort of absent center, then—even though she is one of the novel’s four narrators, sometimes referring to herself in the first person, sometimes in the third, she also constitutes its vital mystery. What has caused the new and terrible instance of madness in which we discover her in the novel’s opening scene? This is the question her lover, Aguilar—former professor of literature; current dog-food salesman—sets out to answer, and which seems to drive the book’s plot, against the background of 1980s Bogotá. Aguilar narrates the course of this search, while Agustina’s sections are set during her childhood, amid the layers of secrecy and oppression that make up her deeply patriarchal family. Agustina’s grandfather, a German musician obsessed with a young student, occupies the third, haunting narrative strand; the fourth belongs to the propulsive voice of Midas McAlister, Agustina’s one-time boyfriend and a money launderer who may have just run dangerously afoul of cocaine king Pablo Escobar.
The novel seems, then, to be driven by suspense, infused by noir: a madwoman, a mystery, a detective on the hunt. Yet gradually—no spoilers here—Restrepo sets aside the simplifying logic of cause and effect and refuses any expectation of easy resolution. One narrator yields to the next, ongoingly, and the instability of each character’s story reflects a greater instability, a vulnerability intimate to each voice and yet which also belongs to the societal and political moment—drug traffickers running the nation, guerrillas claiming the highways, bombs detonating downtown—in which they live. In Wimmer’s translation, Restrepo’s syntax is capable of swift architectural feats (you may think of Sebald), suddenly building a world that is half-reality, half-dream, and just as quickly replacing it with another, each creation given life by a vivid sensual glimmer or an offhand flash of her intelligence.
The match is a tense one; both teams play at the top of their games. In the stands you all should have Texas in one hand, Delirium in the other, not able even to pick up your beer till you’ve finished reading. It could go either way, but today, since I’m the judge, I see Colombia pull away in the game’s second half, a greater range of moves at its disposal. Texas is so insistently various and vaudevillian that it becomes, in its way, consistent, and loses a bit of momentum: all short fast passes, less chance of the long desperate lob toward goal, of sinking to one’s knees on the field. We end with a hard-fought 3–2, victory Delirium, in what has surely been another incarnation of the beautiful game.
There we go! All six countries in the quarter- and semi-finals have been decided: Germany, Canada, Cameroon, Australia, Costa Rica, and Colombia. (Very much different from the actual semifinals!)
In terms of pairings, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine gets the top bye and will play the winner of Assault on Paradise vs. Delirium. Oryx & Crake gets the other bye and will face off against the winner of Burial Rites vs. Dark Heart of the Night.
More info soon about these final match-ups. For now, enjoy today’s actual Women’s World Cup quarterfinals . . .
This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by P.T. Smith, a freelance critic. You can follow him on Twitter at @PTSmith_Vt.
Each World Cup traditionally has a Group of Death—a group where more teams are good enough to make it out, and deserve to, than the tournament structure allows. With Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft (trans. Samantha Schnee) going up again up against Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby (trans. Siân Reynolds), France vs. Mexico is without a doubt a Group of Death match-up. I finished both days ago, spent Sunday thinking about both, over and over, and came to no conclusion as to which was better. Even as I write this, though I am leaning one way, I’m not certain of the outcome.
Not only are both books rewarding reads—books I’ve been meaning to and was damned happy to get one final motivating push to get to—but the match-up itself is fascinating. There are ways the two are entirely different. Stylistically, Texas is lush, with prose to dwell over and descriptions to pause and appreciate. At points it gracefully drifts from realism. It is a slow book, expansive, full of anecdotes, allowing tangents to cover the history of a just introduced character. Because it inhabits as many citizens of the border towns Bruneville and Matasánchez as it can, time passes slowly, backtracking to retell events from a new angle.
Apocalypse Baby does not drift. It propels forward, hardly taking a breath. These sentences are not meant to be reread to be understood or appreciated. But this isn’t a criticism or dismissal of the prose. Writing sentences that are straightforward but exciting, that keep a book thrilling and give engaging characters depth is a skill, and Despentes is damn fine at it. Her characters’ biting and cynical jokes hit again and again. Sometimes, you just want to read a book quickly, and in the hands of someone with her skill, that doesn’t make it lesser than a book meant to be read slowly. Apocalypse Baby looks to entertain first and make you ponder its ideas or aesthetics second, whereas Texas switches those motivations. Each achieves both of these goals.
Even in the ways the books are similar, they differ. Both books have an attention-getting character who is an outlaw of sorts, someone others tell legends about. Texas has Nepomuceno, a vaquero who shoots an American sheriff hassling a local drunk and then leads his men in battle against Rangers. Apocalypse Baby has the Hyena, an aggressive beast of a woman, whether in her sexual pursuits or in her breaking down someone’s lie, and a detective who has worked as a debt collector and an information-gatherer for assorted groups and agencies. Yet, neither book spends that much time from either character’s perspective. Instead, the third-person omniscient perspective moves from person to person, letting us see vastly different consciousnesses, seeing the same events and people in new ways, ways that change your perceptions.
Where they differ in this is scope. Apocalypse Baby’s only first-person narrator gets the most pages, but the handful of other characters create a whole world: a semi-successful writer, an Arab teen, a rich French housewife. They get their own chapters, significant chunks of time. Texas’s scope is massive. Many more characters are inhabited, and they are more varied—the owner of a whorehouse, a priest’s wife, a hat shop owner, a madman preacher with a talking cross, a tree, a bullet, the dead, another rich housewife, far from home this time—and the switches happen continually, each stay brief.
In doing this, the contestants are accomplishing the same thing . . . but different again. They capture a culture in conflict and flux. The border of Mexico and the US is shifting, with the latter taking more and more, whether through economics or outright violence. Apocalypse Baby shows modern female perspectives, diverse in tone and sexual attitude, almost combating each other: the apathetic, schlubby narrator, invisible to most people; the superficial woman who knows the power of her sex appeal over men and is willing to sell it; the Hyena, absurdly confident lesbian who sexualizes every female she meets. It also lays out the frightened older culture of France, the power of the Internet, and the young, angry youth.
The fourth referee has held up the sign indicating three minutes of stoppage time, and I’ve still hardly said enough about these books. Plot? Texas: the battle for freedom in the collapsing US-Mexico border, the story of the victims, the bystanders, and the aggressors. Apocalypse Baby: two detectives, one hapless, the other a bit of a charming madwoman, hunt down missing a teen across Paris and Barcelona, a teen lost in her culture, not fitting in with any group, her loneliness and desperation, desire to please others, especially men, to live up to something, putting herself at risk.
Stoppage time passes. We’re onto overtime. This too, passes. So to the ending no one likes: shootouts. There’s something else these books share: flaws. These too are different. Texas is shaggy. It is loose and messy at times. Some pieces don’t connect as they could. It can drag. Apocalypse Baby’s ending loses itself. It changes scope, takes a turn towards a big ending that doesn’t fit with what came before. It doesn’t have what worked so well: the small-world tensions that speak to the larger world. Suddenly, too much happens, too many strings are made to tie, when really they don’t.
So here it is. Down to the fifth shooters. Texas’s flaw suits it. That messiness, those bits of boredom, they are part of what happens with ambitious books. But Apocalypse, in its commitment to the thrills, to the drive of plot, to the fun of genre, must stick the ending. At times, the book is excessive, like its outrageous orgy scene, and if any of that is a flaw, the orgy is not, then it is a flaw that suits it. A flawed ending, and it is hard to criticize without revealing, simply fails a book of Apocalypse’s style.
Texas wins in penalty shoot-outs, as Apocalypse misses its final shot. So, read Texas.
But do yourself a favor, appreciate a book that lost, that could beat many others in the tournament, fucking read Apocalypse Baby too.
Next up, Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft will face off against either Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (England) or Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia) on Saturday, June 27th. Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hal Hlavinka and features Cote D’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo going up against Norway’s The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann.
I don’t think this particular monthly write-up needs any real explanation—it really is a “cheesy Thanksgiving post,” complete with holiday cheer and unwanted gifts—so let’s just get into it. (Also, I think it’s going to be really long.)
Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Deep Vellum)
Full disclosure: Bromance Will started Deep Vellum after spending a summer apprenticing at Open Letter and I’m serving on his board. THIS PLUG IS TRANSLATION PUBLISHING INCEST! (Pub-cest? Hmm . . . that sounds too drinky.)
But Bromance Will is one of people in the world I truly appreciate. He’s spirited, brilliant, indefatigable, scrappy! I love that Deep Vellum is showing up on all the best lists (Flavorwire’s 5 Small Presses Who Are Changing the Face of the Industry, Entropy’s Best of 2014: Presses) and that their first list is going to be distributed by Consortium. I love texting Bromance about obscure Danish authors, books we both want to read, and basketball. (Yes, Will went to Duke and is a Duke basketball fan.) It’s also amazing that he’s in Dallas and tearing it up. Outsiders, unite! He’s been featured in every Dallas publication ever—at least twice—and is helping light a spark in the Texas literary scene. The world is a better place because of him and Deep Vellum.
That all said, I mostly just love his moustache.
A few months ago, some friends were talking on Twitter about the publication of Texas: The Great Theft, Will’s first book, and they were joking about growing out their moustaches to celebrate. Well, I’ve never ever grown out shit, and although it probably looks ridiculous, I decided to join in—but beardo style.
That beard is for you, Bromance!
Also, I hope a million people buy this book and subscribe to Deep Vellum. Five years from now, Deep Vellum will be one of the major players in indie publishing. I’m sure of it. Just watch this video.
Learning Cyrillic by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Dalkey Archive)
Although things have gotten very strained post-2007, I have to admit that I really value the time I spent at Dalkey Archive. Without John O’Brien there would be no Open Letter. I don’t agree with everything he does and says, but he built an amazing organization from scratch and has published some of the most important authors of the twentieth-century. Dalkey has seemingly been around forever, and it’s almost too easy to take them for advantage, but imagine a reading culture without these authors: Gilbert Sorrentino, Flann O’Brien, Harry Mathews, Marguerite Young, etc. etc. And the new books that Dalkey is doing—like their Korean Literature Series—is going to appear just as foundational in a dozen years.
This past week, the literary community lost Allan Kornblum founder of Toothpaste Press, better known as Coffee House. A loss like this is always sad, but it’s great to see Coffee House in such great shape, thanks to the work of Chris Fishbach. The way that great publishers inspire new generations of great publishers is reassuring about the future of book culture.
Also, David Albahari’s Götz & Meyer is an incredible novel, as is Leeches. I can only imagine that his stories, collected here in Learning Cyrillic, are equally captivating and obsessive. These all focus on immigrant life, something that writers from the former Yugoslavia excel at writing about. A definitely must read for December.
Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon (Black Cat)
Everything about Iceland is amazing. We’ve gone on about that before, at length. But the thing I’m most excited about in terms of Iceland is going back next September for the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.
Not too long ago, I was reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (which, aside from part 5, is incredible), and there’s a section about the Reykjavik Festival and visiting Halldor Laxness’s house. Everything about this was so specific that I assumed Mitchell had been there. So I texted the Festival’s director and found out that, no, he hadn’t ever been invited, but that he’d just confirmed that he’ll attend in 2015.
As it turns out, my 40th birthday is just a couple of weeks after the festival, and I’ve been secretly planning to take some wild “over the hill” party trip—and Iceland fits this perfectly. So if anyone wants to go hang out with David Mitchell, Teju Cole, all the greatest Icelandic writers—like Bragi Olafsson, Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Kristin Omarsdottir, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson, Sjon—AND rock out with me, you should come. Iceland is the most magical country in the world, and if you’ve never been, you’ll be absolutely stunned by how gorgeous the country and the people are.
USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov, translated from the Russian by Andrea Gregovich (Fiction Advocate)
The other week I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea Gregovich during the “Editor Speed Dating” part of the American Literary Translators Conference. Over the past year or so, ALTA has gone through a ton of changes. Their president had to step down. The organization left the University of Texas at Dallas, where it had been for basically it’s entire thirty-seven year history. This led to Russell Valentino taking over and Erica Mena being appointed managing director. A consultant was hired. And now, although there’s a lot to do and a lot that could be done, the organization’s future seems as bright as ever.
The conference is the keystone of ALTA’s activities, and if you have any interest in translation—being a translator or publishing books in translation—you should come to the upcoming conferences in Tucson, San Francisco, New York, and Austin. I’m serving on the conference committee and helping with all of the programming—panels, workshops, roundtables and the like.
One of the new additions at this conference was the “Editor Speed Dating,” and I have to say, this went even better than I expected. When I first agreed to participate, I assumed it would be four hours of explaining why I haven’t replied to someone’s submission, or, why we’re just not interested. Instead, this was set up as three fifteen-minute meetings with three early-career translators, each of whom sent me two pages of a translation they’re working on along with two specific questions. (Questions about how to get something published were banned.)
Andrea met with me to talk about a story and novella collection she’s working on. In particular she wanted to know if there’s an optimal mix of novellas and short stories, since she’s picking pieces from a writer’s entire career. It was an interesting conversation, as were the other two that I had. And if anything I said even helped a little bit, then great. That’s what ALTA is really all about. Meeting colleagues who can help you out immediately and in the future. And in a field like this, that’s incredibly vital. I’m so glad that ALTA didn’t just keep its shit together during this transition period, but actually is in a position to do more, better.
My Mother-in-Law Drinks by Diego De Silva, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Europa Editions)
This book sounds fun . . . kind of like Thanksgiving mimosas!
It’s too bad that the jacket copy for this includes no information about the mother-in-law or her drinking patterns. Although maybe that’s the trick . . . Now I’m just projecting about this laid-back, finely preserved mother-in-law who gets a little loose with the liquor. I like it. This book is fantastic.
Also, Flavorwire should do a list of the best books featuring drunks. I would include The Last Days of My Mother on a list like that along with some of the other main go-tos.
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen (Knopf)
It’s sad that out of all the books on this list, I can already guarantee that this one—which is one of the weakest, most assuredly—will sell roundabout 10,000 times more copies than the rest combined. Haruki “The Young Adult Juggernaut” Murakami strikes again!
In terms of giving thanks, I also have to give a shout-out to Drew Magary for writing such entertaining columns and “hater’s guides” His weekly Jamboroo, which comes out every week during the NFL season and features a series of jokes, thoughtful commentary, and cutting observations, is the inspiration behind my writing these monthly overviews. But beyond that, his book on parenting, Someone Could Get Hurt, is brilliant and funny in that way that rings too true if you are also a parent. (Son using toothbrush on his penis? CHECK.) His piece on What Happens When a 35-year-old Man Retakes the SAT?, is filled with quotable bits, but the hater’s guides and “Why Your Team Sucks” series are the best. That’s where some of my favorite insults come from. Like, when he said about Buffalo, “there’s nothing to do there but eat and marry someone you don’t love.” BASH.
Captives by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Jean Harris (New Directions)
I’m glad that New Directions and Yale keep putting out Manea books. Although I haven’t gotten to any of these yet, I know he’s someone I should read, and I’m thankful that when I finally do, there will be a plethora of titles to enable my bender. (A bender like what I’ve been on with David Peace, whose Red Riding Quartet was so much better than I thought possible, or the one I plan on going on with Muriel Spark.)
This novel of his sounds particularly up my alley given the shifting p.o.v. and other narrative devices Manea uses to articulate the crazy complications of life in Romania’s fascist/communist past:
Divided into interrelated sections—narrated in first-, second-, and third- person voices—Captives explores the social and psychological conditions of postwar Romania: a loss of identity, a complicated sense of guilt and trauma from having survived the fascist government during World War II, and the rise of communism.
Skylight by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Saramago is another author with enough books in print to justify a bender. If I’m counting right, he has eighteen titles available in translation—two-thirds of which came out in English after he won the Nobel Prize.
Skylight is funny to me since it was “lost” in a publisher’s office for decades, rediscovered, and finally published in 2011. Have you ever been in a publisher’s office? Holy shit is it disgusting. So much paper, so much correspondence, so many unread manuscripts and magazines and journals and cover letters. I’m surprised that we don’t hear of five to ten accidents a year featuring editors and the raccoons hiding in their paper empires. I’m thankful that no one ever comes to visit our office.
But on a more serious thank you note: I really want to thank Nathan Furl and Kaija Straumanis for working so hard at Open Letter. There’s not a lot of money—or glory—in nonprofit publishing, but both are incredibly committed to the press, and put up with a lot of shit in their jobs. Also, all our authors, translators, interns, and graduate students deserve some praise. They’re all spectacular people, and I’m especially impressed by all the students who have come through our program so far. Each and every one is more talented than I am, and that’s a pleasant sort of intimidating.
The Wall by H. G. Adler, translated from the Germany by Peter Filkins (Random House)
Growing up, I absolutely loved superhero comic books. I’m not sure why, exactly, although I think a lot of it was a sort of warped wish-fulfillment in which I fed my imagination with scenarios that I could later co-opt for my own personal superadventures.
Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now though, and absolutely loving it, I’ve realized what an impact comic book narrative structures have had on my life. The way that this show unfolds—which is sort of comic bookish, but only if run through a Stanislaw Lem novel—keeps me engaged week in and week out, with two-character scene following two-character scene playing ideas off one another in a sort of lock-step manichaeism. It’s interesting to see how the show had adopted various comic book tropes, but in ways that are much more twenty-first century, and which point to legit societal issues (like the idea that the world won’t be able to support humankind fifty years from now). It also fucks with the viewer’s beliefs on a regular basis, creating a noirish spy world in which the viewer can buy in and play along with the principle characters. I’m half-embarrassed to admit it, but thank god for this show. Without it, I’d have almost nothing to watch on a weekly basis. (And yes, I am one of those old school people who likes the wait between episodes, the anticipation, the joy in being caught up.)
The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran by Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Feminist Press)
There are too many good books to read. Or at least books that I wish I had the time/mental energy to read. (Which is an actual issue for me these days. I have a bunch of samples I should be evaluating, and a number of books I want to review, but I’d rather read David Peace and A Naked Singularity and enjoy my evenings instead of stressing myself out trying to evaluate everything and come up with new synonyms for “really interesting.” Publishing is a full time job, and when I’m not reading for work at home, I’m checking my emails and pressuring myself about every facet of my job. That’s not healthy.) But I am thankful that there are way too many books. I fear a time when I have only my own words and ideas to entertain and stimulate me. That would be the worst! I’m so glad that every month I have more titles that I want to include on this list than I actually can.
The January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders is now available, and has a number of really interesting pieces. This issue’s theme is “The Work Force,” which is elaborated on in the little intro to the issue:
Whether loathed or loved, work provides both livelihood and identity; and in times of economic depression and shrinking labor markets, jobs assume even greater importance, determining both personal and political stability. Whether reinventing themselves in a new economy or sticking it out in an old one, the characters here demonstrate the variety of the international work force.
Here’s a list of the pieces that most caught my eye:
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—“report to the occupational reclassification department,” which wouldn’t reclassify many people. (I’m writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we’re talking about businesses—their holy name, “business“— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else’s general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
(Translated from the French by Alison Dundy and by Emmanuelle Ertel)
The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.
Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.
(Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee)
The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.
Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.
I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.
So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.
(Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball)
At nine a.m. the few people standing around on the subway platform are watching the news on the screens provided by the Barcelona Channel. The trains comply scrupulously with the minimum-service laws. They are running half-empty and many seats are unoccupied, which would be unthinkable at this time of day any other day, when occupancy approaches that of sardines in a can.
In front of the Goya Theater, at the top of Joaquín Costa, there are fewer whores than usual. Perhaps in keeping with the minimum-service notice. The overwhelming majority of shops are closed: from supermarkets to cosmetics stores, including bakeries and auto-repair shops. On Sepúlveda a charcuterie uses the old ploy of keeping the metal gates half-open, so that if a client shows up they can serve him, but if a picketer shows up they appear to be closed. In contrast, the local bar is open, which even the strikers are grateful for. “You’re very brave,” one of them says to the owner of the establishment, as he drinks his beer. “It’s not about bravery. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” On the sidewalks lie piles of uncollected garbage in enormous black bags, some of them split open. A beggar pisses on one of them, and when he’s finished he lies back down on his piece of cardboard.
(Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman)
As always, it’s worth checking out the whole issue . . . including the so-so review of Zone.
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 3 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re featuring Spanish author Sonia Hernandez. Samantha Schnee translated her story “The Survivor” for this issue.
Since Samantha Schnee is one of the founding editors of Words Without Borders, and the translator of Sonia Hernandez’s “The Survivor,” makes this as good a post as any to point out that Words Without Borders is maybe the best place to visit for more stories from Spanish-language novelists. I’m pretty sure any and every person reading this is already familiar with their site, but in case you’re not, it’s worth noting that WWB is fricking awesome. Not just for their new content (a new issue comes out every month), but for their extensive archive, which becomes more and more impressive all the time as these authors move from being discovered by WWB, to getting U.S. book deals, to becoming cult and cultural phenomenons. And the WWB archive can be searched and sorted in dozens of ways, including by country.
Sonia Hernandez is featured on the Granta website where she talks about the writers she currently admires (James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Enrique Vila-Matas, Melania G. Mazzucco and Siri Hustvedt), her literary criticism, and her sort of adverse relationship to the Internet:
Do you have your own web page?
No – I find it dangerous how easy it is for writings from the personal sphere or literary gossip can become published on the Internet.
Yes, yes it is easy. And dangerous. But anywho . . .
That same link also has a very short piece by Stewart O’Nan about Hernandez’s story:
“The Survivor“’s a funny story, and I don’t mean just comic, something that made me laugh as I found myself agreeing with its logic, though I did that more and more the deeper I got into it, but funny in the way it’s put together, that initial metaphysical heaviness – since we’re talking about existence and its lack of meaning – giving way as the narrator goes from person to person like Chekhov’s sadsack hack driver, trying to find someone close to him who finds his life of value, to the running cosmic joke, at once pathetic and terrifying, that he might as well have died, or perhaps not even lived (his great achievement providing affordable couches for the asses of Spain). It’s a tale of dis-ease that leaves the reader chuckling uneasily. We’ve survived it, yes, but now we have to do something with the rest of our lives.
And to give you a taste, here’s the opening:
I should have died six years ago. On 16 July 1999. That’s what Dr Castro said. A medical doctor. Marisa, my wife, was with me and she stared furiously at the doctor, as if the woman said I had been dead for six years. Perhaps that’s what she actually said, and I misheard her. My mind went blank. There were a few seconds of silence, like those moments of uncertainty when you awaken in someone else’s bed. In a way, I was awakening to a life that wasn’t mine.
Dr Castro half smiled. She’s a rather unfortunate woman, physically: too skinny, a sharp nose, large but glassy eyes. News like that should come from a more attractive woman, or a man, a corpulent, taciturn physician who would leave no room for doubt. ‘What I mean is that you’re very fortunate,’ she added. I’m very lucky, according to my physician.
After a few more instructions about my upcoming endoscopy and prescribed echocardiogram, we left her office. Marisa began to babble nervously, on the brink of a hysterical outburst, the kind she usually has when things don’t go as she’s planned. For a moment, I felt guilty; this vague, confusing terrain where Dr Castro had dumped me was a great inconvenience to our life together, a life which had cost us so much effort to build. I supposed that for Marisa it must have been a huge problem, not to know whether or not her husband had died, or worse, not to understand why I hadn’t died according to plan on 16 July 1999.
Suddenly, I realized that the logorrhoea, the rhetoric, the flattery and the timid reproaches that poured forth from my wife upon exiting the doctor’s office were nothing more than words intended to fill my mind – my immediate memory – to prevent me from dwelling on that strange diagnosis which had made me into a rebellious patient. My other memory – the mediate, or deep, or whatever it’s called – was different. There the lights were still off, that sense of strangeness of a hotel bed, the descent into an abyss – they weren’t melodramatic but made no sense. Marisa was livid about the doctor’s lack of tact, and repeated her rather pragmatic question, ‘Why on earth would she tell you that now? The accident and the operation belong to a very difficult chapter in our lives, why would she want to torment us with the possibility of what might have happened?’ Few people survive an accident like the one I had and, according to Dr Castro, no one survives an operation with complications like that.
Marisa decided that after the visit with the doctor, I wasn’t fit to go to the factory, so we went home and let the day run its normal course. I went to Pepe’s bar for a while, spoke with the regulars and put a coin or two into the slot machine, nothing special. I thought about telling everyone what the doctor had told me, to see how they’d react, but I stopped myself because it would have legitimized the joke she made at my expense. It was later that night, as we were watching television, that I began to think about the past six years, a gift of sorts from Providence, God, science, chance or my body. I realized that the whole time, I had been living irresponsibly. It’s a fact that after the operation Dr Cabrol, the surgeon, had said the situation was touch and go. And the days in the ICU were nothing but a fog, followed by a convalescence in our apartment in Altea before returning to real life in September. I went back to work against doctors’ orders because at the time I was indispensable at the factory. After years of toil and misery, we had finally managed to become one of the main sofa manufacturers, and I couldn’t leave everything hanging, especially after my brother Ramón had washed his hands of the business, more concerned with discovering Taoism and the truth of Zen. Returning to work was the first of my mistakes. For some strange reason, my body insisted on continuing to function; in other words, I had been given what’s called a new lease on life, and I wasted it among feathers, foams and wooden frames.
Aaaannnddd, if you’ve missed it the first 17 times, by subscribing to Granta today you’ll receive this issue—a 324-page trip through the minds and words of 22 of today’s best Spanish-language novelists—totally free. A $16.99 value!
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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