30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Leeches by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Language: Serbian

Country: Serbia
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: For seven reasons.

Today’s post is by Vincent Francone, a regular contributor to Three Percent, and an author, reviewer, and reader for TriQuarterly Online.

My original intention was to write 25 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated Book Award. Though it is a damn good book, I could not think of 25 reasons. Numerology plays a part in the strange, gripping story, so I decided to take 2 and 5 and combine them into 7. So I give you 7 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated book Award:

1. Because everyone loves a 309 page paragraph.

(Seriously, despite the absence of paragraph breaks, the prose is fluid, breathless, and engaging. Albahari’s story flows from event to event not turning back onto itself, as in the novels of Bernhard, but pushing forward and moving the story of one man’s descent into the surreal underworld of anti-Semitism and conspiracy further away from reality, taking the reader along the many twists and turns.)

2. Because Ryan Gosling made anti-Semitism sexy.

(As mentioned above, the plot of Leeches revolves around anti-Semitism. The narrator witnesses a seemingly random event—a woman getting slapped—and from that moment becomes embroiled in conspiracies both real and imagined, largely dealing with the opposition to Serbia’s Jews, all while the neighboring cities swell with the nationalism that would erode Yugoslavia. By focusing on a different aspect of ethic, um, pride other than the Serbian campaign of the 1990s, Albahari creates a story that seems larger than the war itself. I am not one to look at the author’s biography as a means of understanding a work of fiction, but knowing that Albahari is of Jewish descent allows one to analyze Leeches, and its focus on anti-Semitism, as a synecdoche for the horror of ultra-nationalist politics.

As for the Ryan Gosling reference, well . . . he’s everywhere these days, and very much one of the top Googled public figures. So maybe his performance in The Believer will somehow rub off on Albahari’s novel, garnering the book some additional attention. [And while I’m at it, I’d like a billion dollars.])

3. Because Dan Brown proved conspiracies = $.

(The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons got people reading. I have not read these books [the movies sufficed] but I assume the reason for their popularity rests in the conspiracies Brown weaves over the course of several pages. Assuming I am correct, Leeches ought to make bank. There are many conspiracies and interconnections that boggle both the narrator and the reader. And, like that damn Da Vinci book, there are strange symbols. Well, one really—a triangle and some circles. When the narrator tracks down an old friend to assist with the decoding, the answers are not the illuminating sort, but rather answers that only raise more questions. Sorry to keep harping on poor Dan Brown, but unlike his pot boilers, the conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, numerological and symbolist deconstructions do not shed much light. The technique is less about immediate rewards and more about creating a tone of uncertainty and fear.)

4. Because a Serb has not won in some time.

(They’re due.)

5. Because there’s dope.

(The narrator of Leeches smokes a lot of hash and marijuana, leading readers to wonder about his reliability. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Albahari’s narrator begins to appear particularly unreliable as he sees signs everywhere, often after consuming a large amount of weed. The reader cannot help but wonder about the state of the narrator’s mind. Sure, there are validations of his increasing paranoia, but even these very chilling events are tinged with a sort of skepticism that comes from other characters [the narrator’s best friend appears rather blasé about it all] as well as the story itself, which is rather outrageous. Maybe the paranoia is justified? Sure, there are very real reasons why the narrator ought to fear for his well-being [threatening graffiti, angry letters, a late night beating] but as the reader walks in his shoes one can’t help but ask: is some of this just drug-induced paranoia?)

6. Because the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has not gotten enough fictional representation.

(This can be debated, of course, but to this reader the events of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars don’t get enough attention. Or, I should say, they may get plenty of attention—I am sure there are scores of novels and poems on this subject that I do not know of—but these books don’t seem to land on the BTBA list. Nothing against the great writers of the French language, but don’t we think it’s time to look at another side of Europe?

Anyway, this book, as stated above, is not the In the Land of Blood and Honey realist portrait of life during wartime that one might expect. Rather, the fractured reality that consumes the narrator seems to best mirror the reality of such unimaginable atrocities. The events of Leeches take place one town over from the real war, yet the characters don’t seem concerned—they are too busy getting high and falling into Kabbalist rabbit holes. From this skewed [lack of?] vantage point, Albahari constructs his compelling story, one that may not directly focus on Serb aggression and nationalism but, nonetheless, is informed by the events of the 1990s.)

7. Because I say so.

(Nothing more to add. Just give Leeches the award.)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by contributing reviewer Monica Carter on David Albahari’s Leeches, which came out last year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt1 in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

David Albahari ia one of the lucky few Serbian writers who has had a number of his books translated into English. I first discovered him through Northwestern University Press some years back, after they had published Bait and Words Are Something Else. Götz and Meyer is a masterpiece, and a book I wish I could’ve published, and Leeches, as you’ll see in Monica’s review, is an ambitious, complicated, interesting work.

Here’s the opening to Monica’s review:

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

To read the full review, simply click here.

1 Yes, it’s time for the routine “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website sucks” post. I feel like I’ve already screeded all the screed I can screed about this screedy-ass site. So instead, I’m just going to post a question to HMH’s higher ups or anyone who works on their website. Starting here, at the main home page, can you walk me through all the clicks needed to find the book page for Leeches? Explain in full in the comments section below. (As an added incentive, the first person to accomplish this wins a free Open Letter book. Ok . . . go!)

17 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Memory is the greatest liar.” – Leeches, David Albahari

For his follow-up to Götz and Meyer, Serbian David Albahari plunges forward in time to Belgrade, 1998. Another war is going on, although the nameless narrator is not directly involved, he becomes increasingly aware of the proximity of the Serbian-Yugoslavian war. Yet, instead of writing about those events, he chooses to write incendiary pieces about Anti-Semitism in a weekly column for local paper, Minut. This obsession with Anti-Semitism begins with an incident along the Danube: he witnesses a woman being slapped by a man.

He is drawn to follow her, but doesn’t find her. He continues his search day after day, until he responds to a message in the personals section that he believes was written by the mysterious woman. Instead, he is given manuscript of a book, The Well, by an old man in the same spot where the woman was slapped. After taking the envelope, he waits to read until later that evening. The first sentence reads, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread.” From there, it leap frogs from historical narrative to a history of dreams to a variety of Kabbalistic exercises. He then digresses into a life devoted to finding the woman as well as figuring out the message of The Well.

He eventually finds the woman, Margareta, and becomes involved in some type of mystical relationship with her. His preoccupation with Anti-Semitism grows from its mention in the manuscript. He realizes, after searching the city for the circles and triangles and their symbolism in connection with mathematics and Kabbalah, with each time he that opens the manuscript, it changes. Throughout his process of figuring out the manuscript, he meets several people who are key characters to the novel as well as solving his mystery put forth by The Well. Meanwhile, as his essays become more provocative about Anti-Semitism, he receives threats, has human feces left at his doorstep and is kidnapped. Ultimately, he equates the struggle for identity of Jews with his own struggle for identity as a Serb.

In terms of symbolism, there is so much going on it is difficult to dismiss any of the symbols. The apple makes several appearances, along with the color yellow, the eponymous leeches, numbers, shapes, and even words and language:

Sometimes so many words are on the floor that I have to lift my feet high as I cross this sparsely furnished room from end to end. One of these days, it occurred to me, I might slip on a squashed word, fall, and lie there, buried under the detritus of language, an no one would find me until we started to decompose, the words and I, one corpse next to the others.

Not to mention the exploration of Kabbalah and Judaism. Along with the interpretation of symbols, are the ideas and images presented in his dreams, which illicit even more thought because it is delivered to him in a surreal consciousness of his dream state.

What makes all this seem less daunting is Albahari’s narrative style and the conversations he has about the incidents with his friend, Marko. Because the story is told in a conversational, quotidian style, the fact that it is a 300-page paragraph actually enhances the continuity of the tale. The pot-fueled discussions with his friend Marko add humor and a stability that serves as a touchstone for the narrator and also the reader.

Despite the focus on the Kabbalah, Judaism, numbers, shapes, words and conspiracy theories, the novel is about the loyalty to identity when another force attempts to erase it from history, the malleable use of memory and to the ever-changing aspect of language, as illustrated here:

The Belgrade Hebrew scholar Eugen Verber first elaborated on the notion of the manuscript as a living organism, which, as I just said, said Margareta, the interpreters and translators had already ascertained. According to Verber, the author of the manuscript had based the text on the Kabbalistic techinique of bringing to live nonliving matter, hence creating a golem, which had been modified in such a way that the text itself came alive, was designed to be self-sustaining but not also physically mobile. In other words, the manuscript was not a bizarre ambulatory creature, but it did possess the capability of refashioning itself, as if it were searching for the most apt structure for its meaning.

Although there are some parts of the novel that could seem too technical or informational about mathematics or the Kabbalah, Albahari manages by the ardent nature of his style to keep us locked into the story. Albahari is an inventive and exhaustive writer, not only looking at the story but what lies pulsing beneath the symbolism of the words used to tell the story. His analysis of images and signposts doesn’t scratch the surface, but scrapes the floor, walls and corners until there is nothing left for us to imagine. A read of originality, Leeches triumphs in helping the reader to see that what we know and how we know can change at any moment. And then again.

14 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Valley Advocate just published an excellent article about Vladislav Bajac, author of Hamam Balkania and director of Geopoetika, a most amazing Serbian publishing house. In addition to publishing the best of the best of world literature, Geopoetika is also the home to SPIT (Sebian Prose in Translation), a new government-funded program to translated Sebian works into English and find publishers around the world to bring out these books in their respective countries.

(For more info, you can check out this post about the launch of the series. And for first hand knowledge of the awesomeness of the SPIT lit, buy The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara.)

Drew Adamek’s profile of Bajac is wonderful, and worth reading in its entirety. Below are a few interesting excepts:

SPIT is an attempt to introduce the English-speaking world to Serbian literature. Supported in part by the Serbian Ministry of Culture, Bajac hopes to expose the global literary community to the challenging and innovative literature being produced by Serbian authors by publishing five translated selections of Serbian literature in English-speaking countries each year. The goal is to showcase the diversity and quality of Serbian authors, and for Serbian writers to become part of the global literary conversation. The first book to hit the American market will be Hamam Balkania, available in March, 2012.

SPIT faces many road blocks to entering English-speaking markets: media coverage of the 1990s wars damaged Serbia’s international reputation, sufficient funding is always a challenge and the works are not intended to be the type of blockbuster popular fiction that dominates so much of today’s publishing industry. Perhaps most daunting, not just for SPIT but international literature as a whole, is that only 3% of the books published annually in English are translated from a foreign language, according to the University of Rochester Three Percent Blog. [. . .]

Q: You took some very bold narrative risks in your most recent novel, Hamam Balkania. You write at the beginning of the book that you are pursuing the question of identity and you use both present and past-tense, first person and third person narrative voices, as well as dual storylines—one set in the present and one set in 1500s Ottoman empire—to find answers. How did you come to weave such a complicated story to answer such a difficult question?

A: I was very aware of the risky path I wanted to go. In the book, I am talking about exploring the ideas of spreading identity and of mixing cultures. I asked myself what would happen if I could put in one novel, very literally, the historical side of the story and the present side of the story. I wanted to say that there are different ways to show the issue of identity and mixing cultures. It sounds like it could be a very kind of artificial work but I said okay, I’ll take a risk.

I always tried to write on the issue of identity by showing one person going his own way but this book is connected to many more historical characters and living persons. I used historical persons as examples that living within two cultures or religions was possible. I wanted to say that this is the proof; they lived that life.

But the contemporary side of the book was a way of saying that this issue is still there- everywhere, absolutely everywhere. What is the conclusion? I don’t know the answer, but I wanted to make it a part of the game.

This risky way was a bit brave because it included other difficult issues as well: addressing the very negative myths about Serbs who became Muslim [during the Ottoman Empire]. There is this idea that they are traitorous, for example. It is still a big issue in the Balkans, in the Ex-Yu, in Serbia today.

I think I reached something that I have never reached before in any book I wrote. However, the book is not only written by the author, it is written by the reader as well. You can’t say that you’ve finished the writing of the book until it is read well.

The consequences of those ideas are still unknown to me, which I like. [. . .]

Q: What is the philosophical idea behind the SPIT (Serbian Prose in Translation) Program? How did you decide which books to include?

A: We started this with the very humble idea of “let’s try to show what we have.” And if we have any reactions from the world, we will be more objective in understanding our own literature. That’s a question not only on the quality of our literature but of our identity as well. Until we compare ourselves with others we do not know who we are.

We choose primarily the books that we think are good literature. Then again, we choose books as different from each other as much as possible to show a wide cross section of Serbian literature.

What we’ve come to understand from SPIT is this: not that we are one of the best literary nations in the world but that we are interesting enough. The positive critical reaction to the styles and the poetics among Serbian authors shows not only that we are different within the larger literary world, but also that we are different among each other. You have nations whose literature is all very similar. Okay, it’s dangerous to generalize but you know what I mean.

This is not the case with our literature; diversity is the main characteristic of literature in Serbia. We still have more books to show the world, even though this is a small country, with a small number of people. We feel that we are equal to other cultural nations, including the United States. That’s why our work must be shown to the world.

I am not talking about getting famous bestsellers; that is an entirely different kind of writing. But we have to try to get into these markets because our so-called “heavy mental” literature deserves to be read as well. The financial mathematics might not be there but the numbers of readers are.

The literal meaning of the word SPIT is a joke too. It’s like being named an ambassador. You never know when a politician says to someone, I am going to make you an ambassador, is it a praise or is it a punishment? Because it sounds like praise, but then again, it says I don’t want to see you around here. You are expelled from the country, kind of in a nice way. So SPIT is in the very same way a joke in that, “these are the authors we spit out.”

You can read the entire piece here.

1 October 08 | Chad W. Post |

Serbian Classics has published a long-awaited English translation of Danilo Kis’s first novel, Mansarda. Kis, one of the most critically praised writers from the former Yugoslavia, made his reputation with the novels Garden, Ashes and Hourglass. A collection of short stories centered around the Stalinist purges of the ‘30s, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, caused him a great deal of trouble from the Yugoslav government, which was very vigilant about the slightest criticism of the Titoist regime. This is an irony that Kis probably appreciated since Stalin and Tito were great political enemies. Mansarda, however, is a different kind of novel which is more introspective and less political than his later works.

Mansarda seems very much like a first novel with the bohemian protagonist Orpheus, a thin stand in for Kis himself, experimenting with a variety of styles to tell his story of a self- conscious young artist struggling to find his place in the world. “Mansarda” means “a small attic loft,” and this is where most of the important action takes place. In keeping with the novel’s themes, the loft is decorated with symbols and artwork from Greek mythology. Orpheus shares the loft with his best friend and alter ego, affectionately dubbed “Billy Wise Ass” but later revealed to have the more common name Igor. The loft functions as a boy’s clubhouse crossed with a creative womb as Orpheus and Igor debate art, philosophy, poetry, and love.

The object of Orpheus’s affection is the beautiful Eurydice, who remains elusive. To clear his mind, Orpheus travels to the mythical Bay of Dolphins to gain knowledge from the natives about their rather extreme mating rituals. Males have to slash their wrists to prove their love for their mates which reflects Orpheus’s almost suicidal desire for Eurydice. His immature desire reveals a madonna/whore complex; later, Eurydice literally works as a pornographic model.

More than a love story, Mansarda is also about the creative process and an artist’s quest for authenticity. Orpheus seems to be aware of the limits of the traditional narrative. Indeed, Kis has Orpheus express himself using many different forms including poetry, music (the lute features prominently), mythology, and even menu items from an inn he and Billy Wise Ass own. He puts dialogue from Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg into his characters’ mouths. There are stories within stories, poems within poems, and a story with more than one telling. In the first version, a sailor merely finishes his meal at Orpheus’s inn and leaves; during the second and more interesting one, he accidentally shoots himself with the “house pistol.”

Inevitably, the novel collapses in on itself, as Orpheus is revealed at the end to be the author of Mansarda. This move into meta-fiction makes sense since this is Kis’s first novel; by pulling back from the narrative, Kis allows the reader into the mind of an artist at work. Orpheus’s variety of storytelling techniques are dazzling and represent a young mind trying to incorporate much of its precocious learning into a first novel. It can also represent the polygot nature of Kis’s homeland. Kis grew up in Vojvodina which is the most diverse province in the former Yugoslavia.

Mansarda is an excellent book. Kis writes in a simple and clear style which highlights his complex and rich ideas. The introduction by John K. Cox helpfully places Kis within the wider context of twentieth-century European literature, and the footnotes explain some of the more esoteric details. One caveat: Cox does not provide a translation for the extensive verbatim passages from Thomas Mann’s novel. Even though this is an intellectual novel, Kis never takes himself too seriously. There are many puns and witty asides that serve to puncture Orpheus’s self-importance. Some feminists might be upset with Kis’s portrayal of women because they are merely stage props in Orpheus’s mind. Orpheus even physically assaults a lower class woman, and it is played off lightly. That criticism aside, this book is highly recommended for both general readers and those interested in filling out their collection of Kis’s works.

....
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