22 August 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Tom on vacation, Chad recorded a special episode of the podcast with Heather Cleary and Jason Grunebaum, both of whom have a book on the National Translation Award longlist. They talk about Sergio Chejfec’s “The Dark,” Uday Prakash’s “The Girl with the Golden Parasol,” air shows, the future of the American Literary Translators Association, and other non-sports related topics. (Seriously, this is a sports-free podcast.)

As an added bonus, there’s a short conversation Chad had with Uday Prakash about his collection “The Walls of Delhi.”

Read More...

27 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:

Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.

This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.

In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.

This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.

Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)

14 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.

Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.

The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:

The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.

For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.

4 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The reviews are one of the standard features in every issue of Quarterly Conversation. and there’s a ton of great pieces in this new issue. These are just a few of the highlights.

Taylor Davis-Van Atta on Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese, translated from the Norwegian by Sean Kinsella and Self-Control, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz:

Self-Control, Sæterbakken’s follow-up to Siamese, centers around Andreas Feldt, a middle-aged man who, filled with an intense and unknowable sense of desperation, is driven to test the validity of his existence and its influence on others around him. The novel opens with Feldt sharing a meal with one of his two estranged daughters. During this encounter, without “the slightest notion of an appropriate thing to say,” Feldt inexplicably claims that he is divorcing his wife. This lie seemingly has no effect upon the daughter, but it has a profound impact on Andreas. Confused and disoriented by his own lie, as well as by his daughter’s indifference to the news, Feldt wanders back out into the world, engaging in a series of encounters with acquaintances, family members, and strangers in which he aggressively tries to exercise influence, if not control, over the lives of others—and over his own life.

At the heart of Self-Control is Feldt’s pervasive repression. We never learn precisely what he is repressing, but its traumatic nature is betrayed by his preoccupation with a missing girl whose disappearance is continually mentioned in the headlines. Feldt clearly identifies with her disappearance—perhaps with her invisibility, perhaps merely with the tragedy of her likely fate—and in fact it is the only conduit through which he seems able to experience his world. Toward everything else he is stubbornly reticent.

Feldt’s outbursts, then, are unpredictable, violent and ultimately impotent, serving only to make him increasingly aware of his own powerlessness. There are only two options Feldt seems to recognize: he can either fully identify with intolerable despair, the cause of which he refuses to locate, or he can resign himself to invisibility. The novel’s big reveal—the only piece of information that matters, in a way, to the novel and its narrator—is withheld until its final words, but the revelation does not provide clarity or resolution; quite to the contrary, the book’s ending complicates Feldt’s choice, along with all that we have come to understand about him.

In stylistic counterpoint to Siamese, the prose in Self-Control is intentionally flat, featureless. The novel is essentially unquotable, its slow narrative an often painfully meticulous depiction of the very smallest operations of Feldt’s consciousness, most of which he’s unwilling to acknowledge, and of the suffering he experiences in avoiding pain. Like a Cassavetes film, Self-Control unfolds scene by scene with characters trying desperately to express forces inside them that they cannot account for, or, in Feldt’s case, even acknowledge. Sæterbakken’s ambiguous characters change with every page; they refuse easy patterns of behavior that would make them too recognizable, too untrue. They are often repugnant, but Sæterbakken saw such honesty as part of the duty of art and literature.

And one of my personal favorite reviews, Madeleine LaRue on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz:

Although Shishkin’s prodigious talent has been recognized for many years in his native Russia, as well as in Germany and France, until now English readers have only had access to “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” That story, translated by Leo Shtutin, appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year, and was, to my mind, easily the best in the collection. Maidenhair more than lives up to its promise; beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz, it is a fierce book from a sharp and generous mind.

There are, roughly, three narrative lines which structure the novel: in one, a nameless interpreter (Shishkin’s alter-ego), who works with asylum seekers in Switzerland, writes letters to his absent son, “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” In another, two voices of unknown or unstable identity engage in a series of questions and answers. In the last, a Russian singer named Bella Dmitrievna records her life, and most of the twentieth century, in diaries which the interpreter will eventually read when he attempts to write her biography. With these three strands, Maidenhair weaves its tangled braid, although contained within it are also a dizzying array of historical digressions, philosophical preoccupations, parables, letters, jokes, and literary allusions.

I hesitate to describe the book as “universal” lest this imply that its themes, or its treatment of them, are banal; they are not. On the contrary, they are wonderfully inventive. So when I say that Maidenhair is universal, I mean that it wants to constitute a universe — or perhaps a map of the universe that is the same size as the universe itself. [. . .]

Shishkin has been described as the heir apparent of the great Russian novelists, and indeed, there are times when he seems to have taken the best from each of them. From Tolstoy he has inherited a sense for the epic; from Dostoevsky, spiritual acuity and a social conscience. He takes Nabokov’s remarkable linguistic flexibility but none of his arrogance; like Chekhov, he looks on humanity with humor and compassion. Shishkin’s Baroque turns of phrases seem written out of necessity and joy rather than pretention; he respects his readers, he delights in language, and he does not need to show off.

Eleanor Goodman on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein:

In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.

Xi Chuan was born in 1963, just after the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward, and was a small child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lucky and talented enough to be one of the few children able to go to school at the time, he later went on to major in English at Beijing University. As translator Lucas Klein explains in his exemplary Translator’s Introduction, in the spring of 1989 Xi Chuan lost two close poet friends, Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, both of whom were also Beijing University students. Following on the heels of that trauma were the events in Tiananmen, which Xi Chuan participated in and suffered from. The pain of his friends’ deaths and the disillusionment he experienced after the government crackdown discouraged him from writing for nearly two years. When he resumed, his style had changed considerably from the Imagist Western-influenced Obscure Poetry exemplified by poets such as Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian. He moved toward a more philosophical and less lyrical prose poetry that contrasts with his earlier shorter, often nature-inspired work. His most recent poems play with ideas of paradox, inheritance, and the past, present, and future of civilization.

These are large themes, and Xi Chuan knows how to write large poems to encompass them. [. . .]

But Klein’s ear rarely fails him. He captures both the music and slightly anachronistic feel of the original Chinese in the early poem “In the Mountains”: “Dusk congeals over the hungry cliff / excess dusk presses onto my tent / sunlight walks by on stones.” Xi Chuan abandoned this youthful style, and Klein—a scholar of contemporary and Tang dynasty literature—not only keenly identifies this and other more subtle shifts, but also manages to convey the changes convincingly, allowing the reader to come away with a sense of the arc of Xi Chuan’s artistic development. He comes up with lines that resound beautifully: “look to life’s last station / when the long-deceased song passes on again and red Persian asters / assemble in the distance like a chorus of birds.” The sound play of “life’s last station” and “song passes on” moving to “Persian asters” to “birds” builds a lovely alliterative scene that in sheer beauty momentarily surpasses the music of the original. So much is sacrificed in translation that a translator must identify and seize these fortuities wherever he can, and time and again Klein does exactly that. Xi Chuan’s verse could not have been better served in English.

Andrea Lingenfelter on Mo Yan’s Pow!, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt:

The announcement on October 11 that Chinese writer Mo Yan had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature was met with delight in some quarters and despair in others. The hand-wringers have focused on Mo Yan’s politics—or rather their perception of Mo Yan’s lack of political consciousness—and talk about this has dominated editorial pages in the West, rather than talk about his art. In recent weeks, the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Romanian author Herta Mueller, characterized Mo Yan as a Communist Party hack and called the award “a catastrophe.”

Mo Yan’s politics are somewhat oblique, by design, and a read of his most recently translated novel, Pow!, shows that comments like Mueller’s are wide of the mark. Shot through with politics and history and translated by the masterful Howard Goldblatt, Pow! adds to the growing list of Mo Yan’s rollicking and ribald novels available in English—all translated by Goldblatt, who has championed Mo Yan’s work for decades and continues to do the author great justice in his earthy and vivid translations. [. . .]

Part fable, part fictionalized autobiography, Pow! is told from the point of view of the not altogether reliable Luo Xiaotong and hinges on the transformation of his home village from a farming community to Slaughterhouse Village. There’s more money in meat than in crops, and the entire village has found new prosperity as a center for the killing and butchering of animals from the surrounding countryside. The narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is as famed for his ability to judge the weight of livestock just by looking at them as he is for his incorruptibility—he refuses any and all gifts from livestock sellers, even something as trifling as a cigarette. He shows less self-control in sexual matters, however, and a good portion of the novel details the privations suffered by the narrator after his father runs off with another woman, the sexually supercharged Aunty Wild Mule, a favorite consort of village headman, Lao Lan. Luo Tong and Lao Lan’s rivalry over Aunty Wild Mule is an ongoing source of conflict in the novel. [. . .]

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?

And what of Xiaotong, the common man? He’s impotent. Pow! reaches its climax in a fantasy act of vengeance in which Xiaotong fires 41 shells at Lao Lan. Xiaotong lays waste to the village and slaughterhouse, but after each salvo Lao Lan emerges, Rasputin-like, virtually unscathed, until the very end. Lao Lan is a scion of the gentry who ran the village in dynastic times, and the narrator stresses this continuity. If Lao Lan exemplifies official corruption (and hence much of what’s wrong with the Chinese Communist Party), then official corruption will be hard to eradicate, at least not without destroying much of the country with it. It’s not clear from this book whether Mo Yan thinks that would be such a great loss.

Brad Johnson on Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary:

The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.

To read The Planets is not so much to implant oneself within its narrated world as it is to discover oneself in this world’s orbit. Whereas in Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, the reader is invited into not merely the narrator’s world but his very perception of it, The Planets is distinguished by the ambivalence of its intimacy—the holding of its reader at arm’s length, in an abeyant proximity. The result is a work less immediately familiar than foreign. In a time where the pace of life has hastened to an informational blur—the world at our keyboarded fingertips and on our cable televisions, with so much available knowledge that we now question its purported power—it is precisely Chejfec’s ability to inhabit the immediacy of both known and unknown, common and strange, that makes his work so timely.

The immediacy of the familiar and the foreign informs, as well, the friendship between the narrator and M, the ponderous duo at the core of The Planets. Remaining nameless—“M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters”—they navigate Buenos Aires as though on a dual trajectory. Not merely inseparable in the banal way many childhood friends are described, they considered themselves so linked that the identity of one was unthinkable without the other. In recognition of this they exchange photographs, whereupon “M’s photo” accurately describes both the photo of himself and the one given to him by the narrator (and vice versa). Being and identity, they muse, are not steady-state givens, to hoard behind the closed doors of one’s consciousness. They are, rather, intermittent occurrences, dependent on, if not wholly determined by, the perspective of those who bear witness.

There are also great pieces on Karl Knausgaar’s _My Struggle, Gail Scott’s The Obituary, and Amal Al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation worth checking out, among many others. So be sure to read all of this issue and support QC however you can—it’s one of the greatest literary resources out there.

14 June 12 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Heather Cleary, translator of Chejfec’s The Planets, which is just out now from us, on her experience in translating the book and what Chejfec’s language might mean:

Holding the reader at arm’s length from the medium of its telling (the early image of the narrator attempting to read a newspaper and seeing only splotches of ink comes to mind), The Planets is therefore marked by a certain—productive—dissonance. That is, it strikes a minor note. For this reason, among others, translating the novel was not so much a matter of pulling a text or pushing a reader, but rather one of situating the work at a remove from colloquial English that was comparable to its relation to colloquial Spanish. Because from this vantage point just beyond the familiar we can observe, through the narrator’s dance with the shadow of his lost friend, the fundamental unnaturalness of the natural.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It seems like almost everyone I talk to is a big fan of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated by Margaret Carson). It got a ton of press when it came out last fall, and was even longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards.

Well, this summer (June to be exact), we’re going to be bringing out The Planets (translated by Heather Cleary), one of his earlier books that focuses on the Dirty War period in Argentina’s history. Although, seeing that this is a Chejfec book, it’s kind of more about the telling of the telling of a story of a friend of the author who disappeared and may have died in an explosion. It’s as masterful as My Two Worlds, and maybe even a bit more expansive.

Here’s the official jacket copy:

When he reads about a mysterious explosion in the distant countryside, the narrator’s thoughts turn to his disappeared childhood friend, M, who was abducted from his home years ago, during a spasm of political violence in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s. He convinces himself that M must have died in this explosion, and he begins to tell the story of their friendship through a series interconnected vignettes, hoping in this way to reanimate his friend and relive the time they spent together wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.

Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets is an affecting and innovative exploration of mourning, remembrance, and friendship by one of Argentina’s modern masters.

Anyway, if you want an advanced copy, click below and you could win one through the GoodReads Giveaway program. This contest closes on Monday, so enter right away . . .


Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec

The Planets

by Sergio Chejfec

Giveaway ends April 30, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Argentina Independent, Joey Rubin has an article about five “exciting new Argentine novels” that have recently been translated into English.

As a huge fan of Southern Cone literature, the fact that there’s quality contemporary works coming out of that area isn’t that surprising, but it is almost shocking to realize just how many great Argentine books are being published in the States . . . Here are the five titles that Joey focused on, with short clips from his descriptions:

Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli: Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by [Andrea] Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. [. . .]

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro: Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. [. . .]

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman: Neuman, who has written poetry (‘No sé por qué’), short story (‘Alumbramiento’) and travelogue (‘Cómo viajar sin ver’), created in ‘Traveller of the Century’ a novel that is at once contemporary and historical: set in Restoration-era Germany, it discusses sexual mores and intellectual disputes in a distinctly modern way. Praise from writers like Roberto Bolaño long ago boosted his reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, but more than acclaim or ambition, it’s the clarity and grace of Neuman’s prose that has earned him high standing among fans. [. . .]

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec: First published in Spanish in 1999, ‘The Planets’ was written during the fifteen-year period when Chejfec lived in Venezuela, a temporal and cultural dislocation important to the text. As ‘My Two Worlds’ used ambulatory reflection, ‘The Planets’ uses the act of remembering to elevate a simple story into an elegant register. It’s a mode of literature difficult to master, but worthy of celebration when done right. [. . .]

Varamo by César Aira: A novel kind of about a Peruvian man who takes up the homemade art of fish embalming, and also kind of about a very slow city-wide car race, and also kind of about the makings of a classic Central American poem, and yet somehow also not about these things at all. ‘Varamo’ is as strange, and as compelling, as Aira’s best work. In fact, it may be Aira’s best work. Or his worst. You’ll have to read all his books to know for certain.

9 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Mookse and the Gripes, Trevor Berrett posted a really interesting interview with Margaret Carson, the translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (among other books):

A “walking” book, when I finished My Two Worlds I wrote, “It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot).” It’s a slow-burner, but in the time since I finished it has only grown in my esteem. My Two Worlds is only just over 100 pages, but it took me some time to read because of the many layers and switch-backs not just in the global structure of the book but alaso in each sentence. The translation is a marvel. [. . .]

Q: What were some of the particular challenges of translating Chejfec’s work?

A: What sets Chejfec’s work apart from other fiction I’ve translated is the density and complexity of his sentences. There’s no coasting along; every sentence demands an intense scrutiny and a parsing through of meanings and possible translations. When I was working on My Two Worlds, I had to ask Sergio a million questions, to the point where a gloss on the book could be made from the Q&As in the emails that went back and forth

At the same, I noticed how crucial the “little” words were in qualifying the narrator’s ruminations, such as “I can’t be sure” or “anyhow” or “whatever,” the whole panoply of verbal stutters in English that express doubt or hesitation. Even these formulaic expressions needed to be sorted through and weighed in the English translation.

Q: Some of the pleasures?

A: The biggest one? That was when I reached a certain moment in the revision and could read long stretches of the novel as a novel, I mean, I could step back and enjoy the scenes as if it were any book I’d just picked up. You then flash back to an earlier stage when your draft was a mess, full of brackets around those phrases or sentences that resisted translation . . . So it was utterly gratifying in the end to feel myself being gripped by the story as would any other reader.

And throughout the project, it was a real joy to work with Sergio Chejfec. As I said, Sergio spent an enormous amount of time answering my questions, either in emails or in person. I don’t think he ever imagined his novel would be subject to the kind of microscopic scrutiny it underwent. I asked him once about what it was like to be translated and he said it was like a parable by Kafka; he had to offer his explanation to the Guardian of the Other Language so that the door would open. If that was the case, I loved my Kafkaesque role in this endeavor!

The response to My Two Worlds has been amazing. It’s the first translation I’ve done that’s made a perceptible ripple. Chad Post and the staff at Open Letter Books have done an exceptional job at getting the novel out there to the right readers, and it’s a thrill for me to read reviews or commentaries that quote from the translation itself.

Be sure and read the whole thing. And My Two Worlds. It really is a spectacular book . . .

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 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.

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Margaret C. Carson

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: Because of all the great stories surrounding how it was discovered and published. Also because fellow BTBA-er Enrique Vila-Matas said that it “paves the way for the novel of the future.” That’s some solid praise.

I was just at the AWP conference where I ran into a lot of people who were big fans of this book. (They were especially excited to get their hands on The Planets, his next book, which comes out from Open Letter this summer.) And at least a few of these Chejfec fans asked how we discovered him. Sure, he’s the author of 13 books, and teaches at NYU, but neither his prolific career, nor his proximity to Rochester had anything to do with how this book came to be published.

Back a couple years ago, Scott Esposito linked to a year-end roundup post from the always interesting (and martial arts inflected) blog Hermano Cerdo in which Enrique Vila-Matas gushed about My Two Worlds and compared Chejfec to both Sebald AND Walser. That’s serious, eye-grabbing company.

Anyway, I posted about this on Three Percent and almost immediately thereafter I received an email from Margaret Carson about how she had just translated a piece of this for an upcoming issue of BOMB Magazine. She sent it along, we all fell in love, and quickly decided to sign on three books of his . . .

Everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee immediately recognized the importance and beauty of Sergio’s writing. This is one of those novels with a very simple plot—a writer at a literary conference in Brazil wanders around looking for a park and thinking about his upcoming birthday and the not-so-wonderful reviews his new book has been receiving—that is utterly dependent upon the quality of the writing and the atmosphere created.

Or, as Vila-Matas says in his introduction:

I begin as I’ll end: adrift. And I begin by wondering if novels have no choice but to narrate a story. The answer couldn’t be simpler: whether they intend to or not, they always tell a story. Because there’s not a single intelligent reader who, given something unique to read, even the most hermetic of novels, would fail to read a story into that impenetrable text. [. . .] If I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts, rather than novels. My Two Worlds, for instance, is above all a book that reminds us that there are novels with stories, but there are also not-so-orthodox novels—Chejfec’s are in this camp—though these may also contain stories. The story in My Two Worlds isn’t easy to summarize because—as it true for all his novels—what’s important seems merely an excuse to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental.

That goal—“to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental”—can be found right off the bat in the opening paragraph of the novel:

Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, while I was visiting a city in the south for two days. I couldn’t really understand why I’d agreed to go there, not knowing anyone and having almost no idea about the place. It was afternoon, it was hot, and I’d been walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except its somewhat musical name, which by my criterion made it promising, and the fact it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. I thought it impossible for a park that large not to be good. For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, wehre the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

One last little story that seems so very Chejfec-ian: Last spring, Sergio was on a PEN World Voices panel with me about “The Publishing Revolution.” We talked about any number of subjects, but a lot of time was spent talking about book discovery, about how to get your book into the hands of the right reader at the right time, especially in this increasingly digitally driven world. We used My Two Worlds as an example, about how we were planning on promoting it on GoodReads, through websites and interviews and all that.

After the panel ended, Sergio wandered over to Housing Works to browse around. Inside, he overheard this young man going on and on to a friend about this book he had just read and that had completely blown him away. Naturally, the book he was raving about was My Two Worlds, and he ended up spending a nice bit of time chatting with Sergio about it . . .

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include this initially, but watch the video below to hear Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec discuss the book, the translation, and the book in general.

17 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, this took place a few months back, but because of Apple updates, program incompatibilities, forgetfulness, and other excuses Nate generated, it took until now to produce the video from the Reading the World Conversation Series event with Sergio Chejfec and Margaret Carson, and moderated by E.J. Van Lanen.

Sergio’s My Two Worlds came out last summer to a good deal of critical acclaim. And Margaret’s translation was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magnificent” and “should be treated as a significant event.”

For fans of Chejfec, we’re bringing out his next book, The Planets, this June . . . You can preorder by clicking here, or you could simply but an Open Letter subscription and get this, Children in Reindeer Woods, My First Suicide and more . . . (End promotional plug.)

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has posted a six-question interview with Margaret Carson, translator of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which has been gathering a ton of praise. (Coincidentally, I finished reading his next Open Letter book—The Planets—while at MLA and can assure his fans that this is just as good. Very different book, but if you liked My Two Worlds, you won’t be disappointed.)

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting new books I read last year was My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. The book raises quite legitimate comparisons to authors like Sebald and Walser, and its brief 100 pages are made expansive by intricate, precise prose. The book concerns the reflections made by its unnamed narrator over the course of a short walk through a park in some unnamed Brazilian city. What is perhaps most striking about this walk is the haze of thought that Chejfec creates within it. Reading, we sense some sort of meaning at the core of this thought, but that meaning stays elusive. It is from this movement between meaning and absence that the book derives its power. [. . .]

Scott Esposito: That’s interesting that you were taking on specialized vocabulary and knowledge to help the translation of this book. In my opinion, that strengthens the Sebald connection that I and others have established to Chejfec’s work, since a mastery of various minor forms of 20th-century knowledge was so essential to his project. Relative to other things you’ve translated, did you feel that Chejfec’s language placed more demands on your English?

Margaret Carson: Yes, language and its nuances are extremely important to Sergio, and part of the challenge of translating My Two Worlds was exploring equivalent words and phrases for the English version. Many of the descriptive passages take delight in visual minutiae, as for instance the appearance and texture of the path the narrator follows into the park, or the workings of the large fountain whose spray of water gives him the first inkling of Kentridge’s dotted lines. It was tricky to keep these and other passages moving in the English; what feels effortless in the original breaks down as soon as you begin to translate it. Often sentences would flash back to life again after a few key words were in place; it’s a joy to run wild in English and find such a wealth of possibilities.

In the midst of working on this translation I became won over by words that on previous projects I would probably have rejected as too obscure. For instance, a word that appears a few times at the end of the novel, “disyuntiva,” could be translated more commonly as “crossroads” or “dilemma”; but in choosing “disyuntiva” Sergio chose a word that strongly implies a choice between two options, and so “disjunctive” was really the best equivalent in English. Similarly, the adjective “lacustre,” which occurs twice in the novel, gave me pause; should I use the almost unheard-of cognate “lacustrine”—“of or pertaining to a lake or lakes”—or should I try something more familiar, such as “lakelike”? In the end I decided to keep the stranger word, “lacustrine,” completely justifiable, I thought, since “lucustre” is fairly strange in Spanish as well.

On the whole, I tried to stick quite close to the original, not just in word choice but also in preserving the length and density of the sentences. I had to search for models in English to give me an idea of how to structure and balance the clauses and sub-clauses that, as Enrique Vila-Matas points out in his introduction to My Two Worlds, seem to test the elasticity of the sentence itself. I was happy to discover that the long literary sentence en English is not a relic from 19th-century, and that many contemporary writers—among them Lynne Tillman, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace—provided excellent models that helped me carry over this essential part of Chejfec’s style.

Read the entire interview by clicking here.

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.

First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)

Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:

A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.

The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.

This is a book that must be read to understood.

But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):

My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.

The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.

We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:

What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.

Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.

I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.

*

Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.

Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.

Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.

Finally, to bring this all back to Scott Esposito, he has an entry at the always fantastic The Millions Year in Reading feature. And one of the books he includes? Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .

28 November 11 | N. J. Furl | Comments



Our second (and final!) Reading the World Conversation Series event of the fall is happening in just a few days. As always, it’s taking place in Rochester, NY. So, if you’re in the area, you’d better check it out—lest all your friends go without you and bond intimately over the great time they all had (true story).

Here are the rousing details:


Reading the World Conversation Series:
Sergio Chejfec & Margaret B. Carson

DECEMBER 1, 2011
Thursday, 6:00 p.m
Plutzik Library in Rare Books & Special Collections
Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester
(Free and open to the public.)

Sergio Chejfec is the author of a dozen books, three of which are coming out from Open Letter Books: My Two Worlds (available now), The Planets (2012), and The Dark (2013). Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas singled out My Two Worlds as one of the “best books of the year.” The English edition has been universally praised, with Publishers Weekly saying Margaret B. Carson’s “magnificent translation” should be “treated as a significant event.”

My Two Worlds is a novel about an author walking through a city in the South of Brazil. As he wanders, this unnamed narrator thinks about his walk, about his new book (which isn’t getting very good reviews), and about his life (his birthday is a few days away).

Chejfec and Carson will discuss this novel, literature, and the process of translation.

(Sponsored by The Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation)

Visit this event on Facebook
Or over at the Open Letter site

(This event is presented by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Guernica there’s a fantastic interview with Argentine author Sergio Chejfec, whose My Two Worlds (translated by Margaret Carson) is getting a lot of great publicity, and whose The Planets and The Dark (both translated by Heather Cleary Wolfgang) will be coming out from Open Letter in the next couple years.

Guernica: I only read My Two Worlds in English, and so I don’t have much to compare it to. What did you think of the translation?

Sergio Chejfec: I thought it was excellent. Margaret [B. Carson], the translator, lives in New York, and over many months we would meet up and talk about it. My questions for her were very open because translation is necessarily a flummoxed process, and, really, what’s at stake is so much more than simple, didactic or denotative meaning. The question is how to make the translation not only faithful, you know, because the meaning of the text depends on so many other things. There are other texts that need a denotative, literal, “faithful” translation, sure, if only in order to revive a certain type of tone, or vibe, that permeates the text. There are others that require more originality in order to revive this sort of range, tone. Margaret’s translation really illustrates this—she revives a tone that at times requires some instances of literal deviation from the original. It doesn’t happen very often. But she needed to access certain very difficult, very Spanish ways of saying things, she felt, because there are certain paragraphs that are argumentative, or pointed, and secretive. And she needed to find a way to access this. [. . .]

Guernica: In your reading at McNally-Jackson, you spoke about this idea—the idea that the text “walks.” It meanders a bit, it strolls, it creates the tone in this way.

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, definitely—and I know Margaret at first was a little apprehensive about this. She was wary of standard English, of “literary” English. She wasn’t sure how to use it—with all its stops and starts, and its specific phrasings, to “walk” in the same way the Spanish did. So she worked in anticipation of this idea, realizing that it would be crucial to capture this effect in the translation. She felt that the language had to be at once literary and conversational. But the English narration was so successful thanks to her work, her skill. Because it happens in the original as well—I’m not sure if you can speak of a native, or innate link between walking and narrating. But there’s definitely an idea of flux, right? An idea that the narration functions more than a mere description of a particular action, but as a reflection of it, too. The narration itself can be seen as an instance of a reflection, or a reflection of an instance. The elements of language that work together develop, or provide an illusion, that is partial, sort of like features on a face: at one point it’s superficial, a surface reality, but at the same time they work to convey something of greater depth. Anyway, the idea was to do away with the idea of a fixed “thesis” or “argument” and instead let the argument unfold, meander. There is, again, this idea of flux, of flow.

This is a long, fantastic interview, and it’s definitely worth reading it in its entirety. And if you’re in the Rochester area, Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec will be here on campus on December 1st for the next event in our Reading the World Conversation Series.

13 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The next event in The Bridge Series will take place this Thursday, September 15th at 7pm at McNally Jackson, and will consist of a discussion about the writing, translation, and editing of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

We just brought out My Two Worlds, the first of three Chejfec books that we’re planning on publishing. Here’s the jacket copy:

Approaching his fiftieth birthday, the narrator in My Two Worlds is wandering in an unfamiliar Brazilian city, in search of a park. A walker by inclination and habit, he has decided to explore the city after attending a literary conference—he was invited following the publication of his most recent novel, although, as he has been informed via anonymous e-mail, the novel is not receiving good reviews. Initially thwarted by his inability to transpose the two-dimensional information of the map onto the impassable roads and dead-ends of the three-dimensional city, once he finds the park the narrator begins to see his own thoughts, reflections, and memories mirrored in the landscape of the park and its inhabitants.

Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, an extraordinary meditation on experience, writing, and space, is at once descriptively inventive and preternaturally familiar, a novel that challenges the limitations of the genre.

We also included this in Read This Next, so you can read an extended preview here.

Sergio, Margaret, and E.J. are all very brilliant and entertaining, so be sure to come out to McNally Jackson this Thursday at 7 to hear them discuss the making of this fantastic novel.

And while you’re there, be sure to buy a copy along with some other book. That bit of support makes these events possible and keeps beautiful stores like McNally Jackson chugging along. And if you can’t make it, well, then you should just take out an Open Letter Subscription.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a short review by Julianna Romanazzi of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson and coming out this month from Open Letter.

My Two Worlds was a Read This Next selection a couple months back, so please click here to read an extended excerpt.

This is one of three Chejfec books we’ve signed on, with The Dark and The Planets forthcoming. It’s also worth noting that Sergio and Margaret will be doing a few events this fall, including one at McNally Jackson on September 15th and one at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Julianna was a summer intern who, on the final day, told me I’ve been pronouncing her name wrong the past few months. Of course, now I can’t remember if it’s Julie-annnna or Julie-ahna. But it’s one of the two. Seriously, Julianna was a great intern, fantastic occasional poster, and quick learner, seeing that she only had to sit through two of my “why don’t you kids understand how to make logical Excel spreadsheets?!?!?!” rants. (And seriously. The future is in the hands of people who can’t organize data in spreadsheet form. Shudder.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

Click here to read the entire piece.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

At first frustrated by his difficulty transposing a map’s two-dimensional representations to the three-dimensional world, the narrator eventually arrives at the city park he has been searching for. Coming up on another birthday and in between novels—the last of which an anonymous email tells him is doing poorly—the narrator sets out to find a sanctuary and further than that, a sense of self.

Trying to blend in and acting almost suspiciously casual, he seeks to become one of the denizens of the park, to be one of its natural and habitual citizens though it is his first time in the Brazilian city. As the narrator further weaves himself into the park’s framework—mimicking his bench partner, speculating on the nature of swans, faking familiarity in an interaction with an elderly woman—the two halves of his experience begin to come together. The reconciliation is not within the narrator’s adjustment to the park around him, but as it becomes clear in the landscape’s mirroring of his memories and impressions the narrator reconciles the gaps between his inner and outer perceptions, one no longer separate from the other.

Chefjec’s setting of the park situates his tale in a world within a world, with the quiet nature scenes and somnolent people sheltered from the city outside. In a subtle balancing act My Two Worlds conjures the art of mimicking itself and is an impressive foray into a new contemporary literary style.

22 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on yesterday’s post about the conversation between Sergio Chejfec and Margaret Carson about My Two Worlds, this week’s Read This Next book, today we just posted an interview originally published by the Fric-Frac Club, and translated from the French by Christie Craig. You can read the complete English version here and to give you a taste, below is an interesting excerpt:

Fric-Frac Club: What will you do when people stop reading books?

Sergio Chejfec: Hard to say, especially because I think I live in that time. People are always on the brink of stopping reading, but what withal, they do go on reading. So to say, there are books that get read. Many titles or a few, each so in its own measure or not : but they do get read. And still, I have the impression that there are a great many more books without readers. Titles forgotten, authors forgotten or else unknown, and so on. It’s as if reading sustains itself precisely by ‘non-reading’, as if it needed ‘non-reading’ to cast its own silhouette and to go on choosing books to rescue or discard. This is why I don’t suppose I’d go about things very differently than I do already, if the whole world stopped reading. I think I’d only react by a change of emphasis: when everyone has stopped reading and when that day comes as premised by the question, just as well, the time to begin to read will have come.

FFC: First literary memory (or emotion)?

SC: My first literary emotion is of a private and defeated sort. I was a very and consistently bored child (I think this was a common thing for my generation, at least it’s what I’ve got to think). One day, it occurred to me to send a fictitious postcard to my mother : it would be written by a sister she had never heard of, who would announce therein that she had numerous revelations to disclose : a dark and scandalous family past, a very sad past, and so on, a real melodrama. In order that the story seem truer, I had to send the card from another country: Paraguay. During my childhood, Paraguay had been for me an exotic country (it was by way of Paraguay that my parents had come secretly into Argentina, after the Second World War). The text was written and I was ready to go buy the postcard at the corner bookstore, on which to to copy it out. But once there, I realized that they didn’t sell postcards for Paraguay, and more problematically even, that I could not send a card from Paraguay! These obstacles proved insurmountable, I had to resign myself finally to the plan’s failure.

I don’t know if there’s some lesson to be taken from this story, or whether to consider it a major defeat. I think that today I would not assign so much importance to details, which seemed so essential then to the making of a credible story. But it was the first time I wrote a fiction and I still remember my anxiety on the walk to the bookstore, in search of a postcard for Asunción del Paraguay.

FFC: What are you reading at the moment?

SC: At the moment, I’m reading a good many of Adalbert Stifter’s novels. Just one after another. They’re very strange novels, simple plotting, with perfectly archetypal characters, practically fairytales even. But the landscape within which the stories develop (almost always a natural landscape, whose depiction occupies nearly the entire narrative) is described in such meticulous detail that it becomes completely anti-bucolic, counter to the author’s apparent interest in the bucolic. It’s just this stupendous attempt at converting natural landscape into a kind of artificial copy of the natural.

Read the entire conversation here.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next focus on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson), we’re going to be running two interviews with Chejfec. Up first is a conversation he had with Margaret Carson about My Two Worlds. This is a great intro to the book, it’s origins, and what makes this novel so interesting.

Margaret Carson: I’ve heard the novel described as the story of a man visiting an unnamed city in Brazil who walks to a park and wanders around its interior. It’s that, but it’s also so much more. If someone asked you what My Two Worlds was about, what would you say?

Sergio Chejfec: I don’t think there’s much more to add. I would say that the walk itself allows this character to have thoughts related to his past and his milieu (social, historical, cultural, etc.), and that as he keeps walking, he recovers experiences related to themes such as one’s heritage, city landscapes, urban conditions in the Third World, the Holocaust, representations of nature, etc. But the truth is, I’m uneasy with these kinds of lists because I don’t believe they describe what in my mind is essential: the story wants to depict the development of a thought, and the main character finds excuses or reasons in what he sees to become reflective. But he’s also aware that he lacks strong opinions, and that it’s hard for him to arrive at any definitive conclusions. I’d say the novel is an attempt to navigate through interconnected episodes, stories in miniature, small in scale. It’s as if these scenes were simplified to the extreme, like cells of possible scenes that weren’t developed.

MC: Could you talk about how you began work on the novel? Did you start with a certain idea or plan? How did the novel evolve?

SC: I don’t have much faith in linear stories. My novels don’t move ahead because a crisis or enigma has been resolved, or because of a more or less conventional development of a drama or action. Since I don’t tell “stories,” my novels are planned differently. They start with simple situations (in this case, for example, a walk through an unknown park) and they narrate a sequence of events that occur within that frame. The idea behind My Two Worlds was to write an essay about turning fifty. As I say at the beginning, two books by writer friends had come out, both dealing with this theme, but with different results. And I wanted to “fight” a bit with them. I wanted to offer my version of turning fifty, and then devote myself to discussing their books and how they talked about their fifty years. But in the end that plan came to nothing, because I began to think it was enough to offer my version, or maybe because after I’d done that, I no longer wanted to mark my differences with them, since they were obvious. And something else is essential: from the outset I conceived of this novel as reflexive, or essayistic. It’s a fairly habitual characteristic in my books.

You can read the complete interview at the Read This Next site.

20 June 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

This week’s Read This Next selection is My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, an Argentinian author who currently resides in NYC. My Two Worlds is his first book to be translated into English (it’s on sale in August, published by us), although it’s his most recent work, which is, mysteriously, how things tend to work in translation—I’m the editor of this book, and I’m not even sure why it works that way.

So, rather than tell you why we chose this book for RTN, I suppose it might be more interesting to talk about why Open Letter chose to publish Chejfec, or since I don’t really remember anymore why, specifically, we signed on Chejfec (so far, we’ve signed him for three books, My Two Worlds, The Planets, and The Dark), at least say a few words about why his work appeals to me, and for that I’m going to start backwards, in an awkward place, the place where you reveal things about an author that make him sound difficult, or not salable, and then move away from that toward something slightly less awkward, to the place where potential readers might be found.

The awkward place, then: Sergio Chejfec is a writers’ writer. When I show Spanish-language writers our catalog, or talk about our new or upcoming books, they inevitably stop me at Chejfec’s name—and by they I mean a handful of writers, and by inevitably I mean each member of this handful; that is, they, inevitably; but, to be fair about my confessional fairness, this small sample is a distinguished one—and say something like, “I adore Chejfec.”

Well, what does that mean then, that people who practice at a high level have this sort admiration for one of their fellows? In this case, I think, it means that he does something with his writing that seems magical to them, magical even to people who are familiar with all the tricks and who are themselves in the process of mastering them. For example, and here I hope we’re starting to move toward the less awkward place, but slowly: My Two Worlds, Chejfec’s most recent book, the representative sample of everything he has learned to this moment in his writing life, is a one-hundred-page novel about a walk in a park.

Now, I’m a fan of the ‘walk in a park’ genre of novels (why shouldn’t the walk in the park be a genre?). My favorite is Moo Pak by Gabriel Josipovici, but Chejfec outdoes even Josipovici in his boldness. Rather than a series of conversations that take place over several days at the same park, as in Moo Pak, My Two Worlds is about a single walk, in a single park, on one day, and it takes place almost entirely in the head of its narrator. There are no other interlocutors, except us.

Well. I did say we’re moving slowly toward less awkward.

But what is magical about Chejfec is what he is able to do with this thinnest of threads. It’s what his narrator inhabits during this brief journey, how he imagines himself into the lives of those around him, the digressive reflections that this walk inspires in him—on writing, inheritance, travel, war, on pedal boats. It’s that he’s able to conjure a compelling narrative out of what is almost an anti-narrative—or anti-novel, as Enrique Vila-Matas calls it in his introduction. That he’s able to create this propulsive forward motion out of stasis, out of sitting on a park bench, and with such style, such beautiful style.

This near-magical ability of his is what drew us to Chejfec. And we hope you’ll go over to Read This Next to get a feel for what he’s capable of doing.

5 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I was going to wait until our manifesto was available online (PEN said it’d be up by last Monday . . . maybe I’m missing something?), but I’ll just jump ahead and tell a quick story or two about this panel that took place last Thursday.

As part of PEN World Voice’s first “Working Day,” Anna Moschovakis of Ugly Duckling Presse, DW Gibson of Mischief + Mayhem, David-Dephy Gogibedashvili, Sergio Chejfec, Eugene Ostashevsky, Jon Fine from Amazon.com, and myself all got together to talk about the forthcoming/ongoing “publishing revolution.” Our conversation was expertly guided by Joshua Furst, who can’t be praised enough for mostly keeping us on track and helping create our manifesto.

Just to provide a bit of background, the “Working Day” panels were limited to only PEN Members and were designed to address a particular issue and issue a Manifesto/Plan of Action.

So, our charge was to write the manifesto for the publishing revolution. Which is as quixotic as it gets.

Nevertheless, the panel was really interesting and evolved into a conversation about who owns the Internet the role of publishers now and in the future. I’m oversimplifying here (it was a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation that could’ve gone on for an additional 3 hours), but we ended up focusing on the role of the publisher as curator and as entity that helps connect readers with the right book out of the infinite number of books that will soon be available. (Very oversimplified.)

We talked a lot about the role of the Internet, not just as a conduit for distribution and publication, but as a place for developing communities of authors and readers. Richard Nash was quoted and alluded to.

What’s funny-awesome is that upon leaving, Sergio Chejfec (whose My Two Worlds is coming out in August) wandered over to the Housing Works Bookshop. He was browsing around, heard some guy talking to a woman about this book, this really cool book, this book he’s been carrying around all week, this book that she has to read, this book called My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec . . . Sergio walked over, introduced himself, and they ended up talking for a while. And to continue the series of circular circumstances, as it turns out, this reader is one of Josh Furst’s students . . . Such a nice ending to our mostly digital conversation. Something things happen in meatspace. Sometimes readers find writers in a totally coincidental fashion . . .

21 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so I didn’t get to writing up all the things I wanted to this week, but before taking off for Amsterdam and the Non-Fiction Conference (see next post), I thought I’d share our Summer 2011 catalog.

With a little luck, I’ll highlight each of these next week, with excerpts and the like, but for now, here’s a list of all five titles along with links to their Open Letter pages, where you can find cover images, jacket copy, links to excerpts, author bios, etc., etc.

  • Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excellent collection of Monzo’s stories, and the second book of his that we’re publishing. Next up: 1000 Morons.

  • Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson, with an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas

This is the first of three Chejfec titles we’re publishing, the other two being The Dark and The Planets. First came across Chejfec in a post by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading linking to a recommendation at Hermano Cerdo written by Enrique Vila-Matas about how totally awesome this book is. (Or some similar Spanish phrasing.) We then went on to buy the rights to all three books thanks to a brilliant excerpt that was in BOMB magazine.

  • Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And the second Open Letter book in which guinea pigs are subjected to uncool things. I get the strangest reaction from friends when I try and describe just how funny the narrator’s guinea pig “experiments” are. Like the one with the record player. Or the stove. Or the bathtub. . . . Um, yeah. But seriously, it’s hysterical—mainly because of the voice of the befuddled, clueless narrator. And we have some awesome promotions in mind for this . . . none of which involve the harming of physical, living guinea pigs. Promise.

This new collection by Can Xue (who has also been published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale, and Conjunctions) is the first Chinese title to come out from Open Letter. She’s a very interesting, unique writer who reminds me a bit of Rikki Ducornet. The stories are a bit surreal, surprising, and, at time, disorienting in a very pleasurable way.

We published Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje last fall to some good attention. She’s a stark, interesting South African writer, and in the end, I think Book of Happenstance is an even better book than Cronje . . .

More all next week . . .

30 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tomorrow kicks off a killer 11-day trip for me: first to NYC to pick up a rental car and three authors/transltors (Bragi Olafsson, Margaret Carson, and Sergio Chejfec) and drive them to Scranton, PA, then from there to Frankfurt, and then back in Rochester on October 11th . . . I’ll still be posting on occasion (mostly about TOC Frankfurt, and other Frankfurt goings on), but while I’m loopy drunk exhausted, so we’ll have to see how coherent these posts are . . .

But the main point of this post is to tell you about the Pages & Places Festival taken place in Scranton, PA this Saturday. I don’t know too much about the festival itself, except to say that novelist Joanna Scott participated a few years ago and loved it, and the line-up of events looks really solid.

I’ll be there with the above named authors/translators and translator Steve Dolph to kick off the festival with a 9am panel entitled “The World on our Bookshelves: The Import of Literature in Translation.” We’ll be talking about a few books—_The Ambassador_, Sixty-Five Years of Washington, and My Two Worlds—and also about the process of translating, publishing a translation, and promoting international literature as a whole. So if anyone’s in Scranton, I hope you come by and say hi. Should be a fun panel . . .

The full list of panels can be found here. I’m particularly excited about “The Brain & Culture: How Advances in Neuroscience are Changing the Way We Imagine Ourselves,” but they all look really interesting.

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t think I received a press release about this, but the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation has been awarded to Roanne Sharp for her proposed translation of La Mayor by Juan Jose Saer. Which is fantastic—we’re actually publishing three Saer books over the next few years, but not this one. . . . At least not yet.

The award is given to a young (under the age of 30) literary translation for a proposed project. Each year the prize focuses on a different language (last year it was German), and following the announcement, the translator is “employed” for a four-month period to complete the project. (This is one I can’t wait to read . . . )

In addition to Roanne Sharp, there were two honorable mentions this year:

  • Rosemary Peele for her proposed translation of Viaje olvidado and Autobiografía de Irene by Silvina Ocampo

and

  • Emily Toder for her proposed translation of Tres poemas y una merced (o cuatro poemas desplazados) by Sergio Chejfec. (Another author we’re going to be publishing . . .)

Congrats to Roanne Sharp at the runner-ups, and I’ll be sure to make an announcement about submitting work for the 2010 award as soon as the info is available.

30 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned on Conversational Reading, the new issue of Hermano Cerdo is now available.

Included in this issue are articles on Juan Jose Millas’s El Mundo, on Sergio Chejfec’s Los incompletos y Mis dos mundos, and on Daniel Sada’s Casi nunca, which will be published by Graywolf.

29 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just a reminder that BOMB’s special event for the 10th anniversary of its “Americas Issue” is taking place tonight at the King Juan Carlos Center at NYU (53 Washington Square South).

The event starts at 6:30 and includes readings from two great Chilean poets—Raul Zurita and Nicanor Parra—and their translators, Anna Deeny and Liz Werner, respectively.

In addition Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec and his translator, Margaret Carson, (both of whom I met the other night, and who got me very excited about My Two Worlds, the Walser meets Sebald novel that Vila-Matas wrote about) will also read, as will Chilean novelist Lina Meruane.

Hope to see you there . . .

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just so happens I’m going to be in New York for this, and will definitely be attending:

Thursday, January 29
Reading & Launch Party Reception
6:30–8:30pm

Co-sponsored by NYU’s MFA Program in Creative Writing in Spanish

Contributors to BOMB 106 read in both Spanish and English. Featuring the work of two of Chile’s leading poets: Raúl Zurita (in a rare U.S. appearance), his translator Anna Deeny, and Nicanor Parra, as read by his translator Liz Werner.

They are joined by the acclaimed Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec and his translator, Margaret Carson, reading excerpts from Chejfec’s first work to appear in English, My Two Worlds, and the fresh, new voice of Chilean novelist Lina Meruane.

There are lots of reasons to attend, not the least of which is the fact that Sergio Chejfec and his translator, Margaret Carson, will be there. Scott Esposito brough Chejfec to my attention, after Enrique Vila-Matas named Chejfec’s Los incompletos his book of the year, and compared Chejfec to Walser and Sebald. . . . Coincidentally (in an awesome way), an excerpt of Chejfec’s work is in the BOMB’s latest “First Proof” supplement.

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I first found out from Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading that Hermano Cerdo — the fantastic Spanish-language blog about literature and martial arts — is running an incredible Books of 2008 series of posts.

They’ve asked a wide range of authors and editors (mostly Spanish, although not entirely) to name the best book(s) they read this year. (Like The Millions’ Year in Reading these don’t have to be new books.)

I’ve been slowly working my way through all these posts and recommendations, but the one that caught Scott’s eye was Enrique Vila-Matas’s recommendation of Mis dos mundos by Sergio Chejfec

Chejfec es un escritor argentino (Buenos Aires 1956), tal vez no muy conocido, pero autor de libros tan recomendables como Los incompletos (Alfaguara 2004). En Mis dos mundos desarrolla la crónica de un paseante, de un caminador, en la línea de Walser, Magris o Sebald. Incorpora un sorprendente humor dentro de la densidad germánica de una historia casi inmóvil en la que cuenta básicamente la reflexión sobre el desconcierto general de un viajero extraviado, inteligente y con buena disposición (a todas luces inútil) para acoplarse en un mundo que no parece hecho para él.

In my opinion, when Vila-Matas compares another writer to Sebald and Walser, it’s worth paying attention . . .

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