10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

The central axis of the book is a road: Calle Bonorino, with a rich neighborhood of apartments and shops at one end and a shantytown at the other. Maxi, a high schooler from the rich end, helps the trashpickers and cardboard collectors from the shantytown cart their booty home. His foil is Cabezas, a police inspector gone rogue after his daughter is killed:

The gulf between the two men was evident in the forms of their respective enterprises, which although superposed were incompatible. Maxi’s was linear, an adventure open to improvisation, like a path disappearing into the distance. The inspector’s enterprise, by contrast, resembled the deciphering of a structure.

Add in drug dealers (“proxidine” gives its user the sense that all distance has been abolished), rich families employing shantytown maids, and a suspicious priest, and all the elements are in place for a glorious and confusing mess. At the climax, in an epochal rainstorm, details are literally flooded out.

So much for the plot. But geography is not just a metaphor in Shantytown; the characters themselves can’t see details clearly. Maxi seems to be emotionally dulled or turned inward, perhaps on the autistic spectrum; he tells his love interest (although even that is weirdly deflected, in a mirror): “Either you think about other people, or you pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t do both at the same time.” Aira the narrator can, though—and he frequently puts the narrative on hold for thematic mini-essays:

Outsiders never went there [the shantytown], for a number of reasons, which all came down to one thing: fear. It’s true that there was no real reason why outsiders would want to go there in the first place. But that was a part of the fear. And fear is the key to all places: social, geographical, even imaginary. It is the matrix of places, bringing them into existence and making it possible to move from one to another. Being or not being in a place depends on a complex system of actions, and it is well known that action engenders and nourishes fear.

It’s this narrative perspective, self-aware but never cheaply ironic, that makes Aira such a blast to read. Aira has written scores of short novels in Spanish; New Directions has published nine translations so far, with a tenth due later this year. Aira fans thus get to witness the larger adventure of Aira’s narrative invention itself—and this book in particular has a lot to say on that theme. Late in the novel, Cabezas feels trapped: “He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where?” Aira’s compositional technique—never changing anything once it is set down, only adding later deflections and specifications—is referred to as “flight forward”; I’ll bet this is the source of that phrase.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Aira’s claim is similar:

People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it’s still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it’s not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn’t have given it any more thought: you’ve been thinking it out since you were born.

Aira’s worlds always have something of the noir to them. We’re always trying to decipher the structures, get things down in black and white; we’re often frustrated, yet still compelled to follow the thinnest, most unpromising narrative thread towards a distant possible exit. At least there aren’t always bodies piling up.

The world is full of moral ambiguity, with no clear good or bad. Stiffs (and occasionally corpses) continue to pile up left and right. That’s just the daily news—hell, it’s the whole world, whether it’s a geopolitical or a neighborhood clusterfuck. So the narrative voice is what makes The Mongolian Conspiracy and Shantytown noir? But the pull of the voice applies to César Aira’s other novels, to half the books I read—it doesn’t even have to be a tale of crime, just something human and murky, with a faint light of hope.

Maybe noir doesn’t really mean anything after all. Maybe nothing does. Maybe that’s the whole point.

10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is the continuation of a larger piece by Owen Rowe, today on César Aira’s Shantytown, translated by Chris Andrews, out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. As already mentioned, this is the second part of a combined review (the first part was on Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy). All I can say is that the cover for Shantytown is super, super cool.

Here’s the beginning of this part of the review:

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

4 November 13 | Chad W. Post |

Before getting into this month’s list of recommended translations—which is kind of long, mostly because I couldn’t decide on which titles to cut—I want to follow-up a bit on last month’s post about our trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Actually, to be more specific, I want to talk about Germans singing karaoke. The book fair itself was fantastic. We met with dozens and dozens of people, found at least a half-dozen books we want to publish, and ate a year’s worth of currywurst. (I also drank all of Surhkamp’s wine at their swanky party. And heard a lot of details about the current court imbroglio, most of which I can’t write about here.)

As it turned out, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the L.A. Dodgers on the final night that we were in Frankfurt. Most everyone reading this knows about my love for the Cardinals (and my heart-wrenching disappointment that they lost to the fucking Red Sox), and seeing this was the playoffs, I had to find a way to see the game. Luckily, right next door to our hotel was O’Reilly’s, an Irish Sports pub that also specializes in karaoke.

Although our waitress referred to it as “that singing shit,” I was sort of excited about the mixture of baseball and karaoke. Karaoke is one of those great moments when you get to publicly witness people overvaluing their skills. People generally think of themselves as the exception to the rule—ask all the stock traders in the world if they’re above average or below average and 75% of them will claim to be “above,” something that’s statistically bullshit—but rarely put that out of such obvious display.

Of course, this being Germany, I was expecting ALL the Bon Jovi and Guns n’ Roses, and possibly the ‘Hoff. But NO. NOT EVEN ANY ABBA. We were treated to exactly none of that. Instead, we got a totally different array of shitty music: multiple Billy Joel songs, a Dolly Parton finale (sung by a tone deaf guy who was a regular), and even NICKELBACK.

What was even more interesting than the bizarre song choices (“9 to 5”?? Has this ever been sung at another karaoke bar?) was the way in which German karaokers over-annuciate all the lyrics. There was no slurring or mumbling when the one dude belted out “WOAH-OH-HO-OH. FOH ZE LON-GEST TIME.” It’s as if they were adding in syllables to make sure that each word was fully articulated.

No where was this more apparent, and disturbing, than in the rendition of “How You Remind Me.” Listen to the “video” to remind yourself of a) how fucking terrible this song is, b) that the chorus to this song is “Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no / Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no,” and c) how Mr. Linkin Park trips from vowel to vowel with a bit of fierce in his voice.

That was not at all how it was sung that night in Germany. Instead of the sort of growl that’s a Nickelback trademark (cough), everything was as clean and orderly as possible (cough, Germans). So we got something like this:

It’s not like you to say so-HREE
I vas VAYting on a dee-fer-RENT sto-HREE
Zis time I’m me-STAY-ken
Foh hending you a haht vurt brea-KING
And I’ve been VRONG, I’ve been down,
Been to ze bot-TOM ov EH-VE-REE bottle
Zeez faif VURDS in my head
Scream “ah vee ha-VING fun yet?”

And this guy didn’t just sing one time and then give it up. He went up there TWICE. Oh, karaoke.

Red Grass by Boris Vian. Translated from the French by Paul Knobloch. (Tam Tam Books, $15.95)

Boris Vian was amazing. It’s a true shame that he died at such a young age (39), in such a tragic way (supposedly, he snuck into a premiere of the movie version of I Spit on Your Grave, stood up, yelled, “Those are supposed to be Americans? My ass!,” and died of a heart attack). It’s hard to imagine how many great works he would’ve produced had he lived to the ripe old age of Philip Roth.

Tam Tam Books—which is run by Tosh Berman, former buyer at Book Soup, and is dedicated to making Vian’s works available to English readers—is in a perfect position for a Vian resurgence, what with a new movie version of Mood Indigo coming out this year, and this newly translated novel sounds spectacular:

Red Grass tells the story of Wolf, an engineer like Vian himself, who, with the help of Saphir Lazuli, a mechanic, has devised a bizarre “machine” with which he hopes to annihilate old inhibiting memories.

More exciting than the plot is the Vian language which,

undergoes unexpected subversions, as new concepts, sports or occupations are invented, such as “rednecking,” “bloodsport,” and “thigh climber.”

Thigh climber!

Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (Two Lines Press, $14.95)

Two Lines, which comes out of the Center for the Art of Translation, is one of the best, and longest-running, journals for literature in translation. When they announced last year that they were going to expand into doing books, this seemed like a natural, and exciting, evolution.

This collection is pretty intriguing. Littell, whose Kindly Ones was a huge deal in France, but not so well received in most other countries, followed up his gigantic novel with four short books he wrote for the Montpellier publisher Fata Morgana. Exploring “sex, love, and memory,” this 178-page book provides a nice entry to Littell’s prose.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. (Other Press, $29.95)

This book is beautifully produced. Two perfect paperbacks in a slick slipcase—this is one of the best designed volumes I’ve received all year.

Hannah Vose wrote a fantastic review of this book for us, so be sure and check that out for more info on the book itself. (She’s very convincing about how worthwhile this book is.)

Sticking with book design for a second: Have any of you seen S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst? HOLY SHIT. I knew this was going to be a multi-media sort of experience, but the product itself is pretty stunning—just look:

And, in typical Lost fashion, there are lots of real-world “clues” that tie into the book, including this website, and these radio broadcasts.

I’m totally getting sucked in . . . It’s like Lost all over again . . . Such a sucker for these sorts of games . . .

Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap. Translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins. (Milkweed Editions, $16.00)

LAP! As is noted in the bio page to this collection, Ngo Tu Lap got his Ph.D. from Illinois State University where he interned at Dalkey Archive Press. Both Nate and I were there during that time, and remember a number of Lap stories. (And the fact that he totally knows how to rock a black leather vest.) My favorite was when he cooked us all a traditional Vietnamese dinner, then implied that it contained dog . . . It didn’t, but shit, for a second there I think most of us bought it . . .

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (New Directions, $14.95)

Tom and I talked about this book on one our recent podcasts, including the fact that Tom got the estate to chance the reference to the “FBI agent” to a “CIA agent,” which makes a lot more sense in the context of the plot.

We also talked about the word “fucking.” There are more “fuckings” in this book than in any other book I’ve read recently. Although there are a lot of times that this is used to illuminate the way the protagonist’s mind works, I’m sure it’ll be a bit overwhelming to some readers.

That said, I really appreciated Francisco Goldman’s blurb stating that this is, “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.” Reminds me a bit of Toby Litt’s blurb for Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza, which he refers to as “headfuck fiction.” More blurbs need to include the word “fuck.”

Shantytown by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (New Directions, $13.95)

Sticking with ND’s November releases for a minute, Shantytown is the ninth book by Aira that they’ve published. I haven’t had a chance to read this one—Will Vanderhyden is working up a review for us and took the only galley that arrived—but I love using his books in my World Literature class. They’re all readable, enjoyable, and work in a similar way: At some point early on, Aira gets to believe in one unbelievable thing (in Ghosts it’s the existence of ghosts, in The Literary Conference, it’s the impossible to render description of the treasure and how it’s found) and then is free to do basically anything in the text. (Such as having huge silkworms come out of the hills.) This is a great set-up for talking about what translations have to accomplish . . .

The Combover by Adrián Bravi. Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. (Frisch & Co., $7.28)

Including this here both because Frisch & Co. deserves some praise, but also because of this line:

A hilariously dark tale in the tradition of César Aira, The Combover confirms Bravi’s unique status among Italian contemporary writers.

So, if you love the nine Aira books New Directions has put out, you should definitely check this out.

Also, it involves Lapland. LAPLAND.

Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova. Translated from the Bulgarian by Olga Nikolova. (Open Letter Books, $12.95)

Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, Olga Nikolova spent a few weeks in Rochester working on this translation and learning about the American publishing scene. As part of her education, on her last day here, we decided to take her to Taylor’s, a “cougar club” which just so happens to be managed by Cuban author José Manuel Prieto’s brother. So, a literary cougar club? Anyway, as it turned out, Olga’s last night in town corresponded with the “What Women Want Weekend”—a frightening thing that involved hundreds of middle-aged women descending on Taylor’s to meet the University of Rochester’s a cappella group, the Yellowjackets. (Who appeared on NBC’s The Sing-Off.) Those kids barely made it out alive . . . But man, what a shit show! All the awkward dancing, the walk-by ass grabs, the make-up and hair! It was a thing that can only be experienced, never described. And Olga absolutely loved it. The way I remember, she almost “accidentally” left her passport behind so that she would be stranded in Rochester, frequenting the Taylor’s every weekend . . .

Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, the first ten releases.

A few years back, Dalkey Archive announced that they had received a massive grant from the Literary Translation Institute of Korea to publish 25 Korean books. The first 10 come out this month, with the remaining 15 due in 2014.

I recently served as a judge for South Korea’s biennial translation contest, and ended up reading all 11 books published in English translation in the past two years. There’s more to say about those books and that contest, but for now, it’s worth noting that Dalkey, in one day, almost exceeded the total number of Korean books published over the previous two years. That’s what funding and determination can do!

Of the ten books that are coming out now, the four that caught my eye are: A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and Other Stories by Jung Young-moon, translated by Yewon Jung, Inrae You Vinciguerra, and Louis Vinciguerra; One Spoon on This Earth by Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee; When Adam Opens His Eyes by Jang Jung-il, translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges; and At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho, translated by Christopher Joseph Dykas.

If you’re interested in learning more about the series, and these ten books, you should really download this PDF sampler, which includes excerpts from all of the books.

The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev. Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio. (Dalkey Archive Press, $15.00)

Sticking with Dalkey for a minute, this book sounds wonderful:

A bitingly funny twenty-first century satire, The Maya Pill tells the story of a mid-level manager at a frozen-food import company who comes upon a box of psychotropic pills that’s accidentally been slipped into a shipment. He takes one, and disappears down the rabbit hole: entering the mind of a Chinese colleague; dreaming that he is one of the rulers of an ancient kingdom; even believing he is in negotiations with the devil. A mind-expanding companion to the great Russian classics, The Maya Pill is strange, savage, bizarre, and uproarious.

I’m also intrigued by this title knowing that Carol Apollonio was one of Bromance Will’s professors at Duke. (And speaking of Bromance, it’s not too many more months before I can start including Deep Vellum titles on this list.)

Eucalyptus by Mauricio Segura. Translated from the French by Donald Winkler. (Biblioasis, $18.95)

Number one reason to read this book? Stephen Sparks of Green Apple and the BTBA blurbed it:

Well-executed, with a cinematic quality and keen visual sense . . . Segura locates the political through the personal in a way that is uncommon.

That’s it for now . . .

....
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