This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)
“There is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” This high praise of Argentinian Silvina Ocampo’s writing came from Jorge Luis Borges, who also made the distinction that it was her condition as a poet which exalted her prose. To the English-speaking world, Ocampo has become known through her short stories as a writer of the surreal, the fantastic, and the grotesque—while Silvina Ocampo, published by New York Review Books and translated by Jason Weiss, is Ocampo’s first collection of poems to appear in English.
Upon reading this collection—and “discovering” Ocampo’s poetry for the very first time—I was struck by the ease with which Ocampo shifts between the quotidian and the dreamlike. These shifts sometimes occur between poems, sometimes within poems—even within lines—guiding the reader through equal amounts of personal desperation and wild mythology. In “The Infinite Life”, for instance, the poem begins in a seemingly realistic present where the speaker ponders the meaning of life as well as life after death—but soon enough, the reader meets Atropos, the Greek goddess of fate and destiny “with her black butterfly face”; a winged horse which “passes like a beam of light through glass”; the distant empire of China and the monks in Tibet; victims of witchcraft, and the “lustrous Mediterranean.” Then, the reader is suddenly pulled back into a familiar reality:
It will not be the same river over the mud,
the burning of trash nor the cart,
the dogs in the suburban nights that
lose their way beside a cruel blond boy.
Yet just as the reader thinks she’s back on solid ground, Ocampo takes her on a new journey in the very next couplet:
There will be no queens of Egypt, nor coins
preserving their likeness, nor will there be silks.
The poems that enchanted me most, however, were Ocampo’s earlier work from 1942—arranged in the first section of this collection under the title “Enumeration of My Country.” This entire section consists of poems describing Argentina’s vast and stunning landscapes in such rich detail—and with such a powerful, almost forceful, voice—that the reader might be led to believe these poems were, in fact, written by some kind of deity. The result? I am left awestruck by both Ocampo’s Dickensonian authority as a poet (I was pleased and not at all surprised to discover in Weiss’s introduction that Ocampo’s final book of poetry was not her own writing but translations of six hundred poems by Emily Dickinson) as well as Weiss’s capacity to render Ocampo’s utterly unique poetic voice.
This past weekend, my kids and I finally watched The Incredible Hulk—the final Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that we had to see to be all caught up before Avengers 2 comes out in May.
After the ultimately disappointing Hulk ended, my son wanted to binge on the new season of Doctor Who, which is available through our Time Warner On Demand service. This pissed his sister off in all the ways, since she’s generally offended when she’s not in charge of the situation, and especially when it involve the Doctor. (She says it a snotty British accent every time.)
Fast-forward through ten minutes of “But you ALWAYS get to choose” and “Stop being a brat,” “You’re the one who’s annoying. ALWAYS.” “Please, you two, it’s just T—” “DAD! HE punched me!” “But you just slapped his face.” “Because he was being annoying.” “AAARRRRGGGGHHHH!” And we finally agreed upon Spider-Man 3 because Aidan remembered loving the Sandman, and Chloë likes movies in which primary characters die.
So I went to Netflix. No Spider-Man 3. Amazon Prime Instant Video Extravaganza? Nope, not there. Time Warner’s Movies On Demand didn’t have it either. None of the systems that I subscribe to had this available for streaming.
Keep in mind that this is the shittiest of all Spider-Man movies, recent reboot included. It’s a total disaster with too many villains, a way too heavy reliance on random coincidences, and Peter Parker dancing all sinister-like after the black venom suit poisons his soul. (If you don’t believe me about how bad this movie sucks, listen to this episode of How Did This Get Made? or read Sam Raimi’s admission that he cocked this movie up.) This is not a Godard film, this is not art, this is barely entertainment, this isn’t something—given all the various media things I subscribe to and pay for—that I should have to really search for.
Which brings me to my old-man-yelling-at-the-trees point: If one of the significant outcomes of streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, etc., is a precipitous decline in pirated media, then studios and labels should make everything available there. This isn’t to criticize Four Tet or others who pull their stuff from Spotify on moral-financial grounds—I have issues with them, but this isn’t the article for that—but rather the creators who are already part of the system.
It used to be so much easier when you could just go to Blockbuster . . . Or when the local libraries were open every single weekend . . . It just seems ridiculous to me that my latest laptop doesn’t even have a built-in DVD player, that I pay $100 a month for cable and Netflix and Spotify and whatever, and that I resort to trolling bittorrent sites looking for a pile of crap that will finally shut down the argument my kids are having.
Oh, and thankyousoverymuch Swedish government for shutting down The Pirate Bay and making it more difficult for me to fill in the large gaps in all the services I pay for.
That’s what I became fixated on this past weekend while waiting 14,000 agonizing minutes for Spider-Man 3 to download: I used to use torrent sites and Napster and whatever just to get whatever new piece of media I was interested in. Album review sounds interesting? Swipe the album from Demonoid. I never watched a single show on actual TV, but instead downloaded all the episodes—with commercials trimmed out, naturally—and binge watched them all at the end of the season.
Part of the philosophy behind à la carte schemes and streaming services is premised upon the belief that, given a reasonably-priced, convenient option, people will pay for things that they would otherwise download illegally. (One could make the argument that cheap ebooks are helping curb some book piracy, although there are probably a billion people who don’t steal digital books because reading just isn’t part of their life.) For the most part, that has played out in my life. I watch TV via On Demand, which I assume is better for networks and their advertisers than if I just download the torrent. I listen to Spotify non-stop, and only ever download something if it’s not available there for an extended period of time. (I’m not opposed to bands holding out a couple weeks before making it available via streaming services.)
I’m more than willing to play this subscription sort of game instead of Napstering my library, so, please, Big Studios, make your awful (and good!) movies available on these services. My kids and my migraines will thank you for it.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello)
I didn’t think about it until this very moment, but this book fits in perfectly with the situation described above . . . First of all, as you may already know from listening to the Three Percent podcast, my reading resolution for 2015 is to read more books from non-European, non-American (North and South) countries. Of the 80 books I read last year, only 8 were from African/Asian/Middle Eastern countries. That’s appalling, And my ratio of female to male authors was . . . well, embarrassing. (Only 25% of the books I read were by women.) But now I can read The Vegetarian, which fits both categories! And it’s translated by one of my favorite people, Deborah Smith. (Who will hopefully become your favorite translator when Open Letter kicks off its Korean literature series.)
Furthermore, this book—which sounds absolutely wild, with a woman deciding to become a vegetarian (essentially impossible to do in Korea), causing a rift with her husband, and eventually transforming her into a tree (?)—would fit in perfectly with my spring “World Literature & Translation” class. (I’ll post the syllabus at some point—it’s a pretty amazing list of books the students will be reading and translators they’ll be talking with.) As is destined to be, Portobello has sold the U.S. rights to The Vegetarian to Crown, so although they had the book listed on Amazon for preorders, it’s now only available in used editions. And Crown doesn’t list the book at all, so I can’t imagine it’s going to be formally launched here for some time.
Which means that my students will have to be ingenious in acquiring this. UK-based friends who can ship it over, or finding an e-version on the darknet. Or buying a used copy, bribing the library to get more than one in stock, borrowing mine. We’ll definitely figure it out—I’m determined to use this book—but it could all be so much easier . . .
The Guard by Peter Terrin, translated from the Flemish by David Colmer (MacLehose Press)
Speaking of things that took a while, I just double-checked, and we made an offer on The Guard in 2010. Then again in 2012, after MacLehose won world rights and was looking for a U.S. publisher. Once he started distributing in the States that offer no longer made sense, and a few years later the book is finally going to be available to all of you! Publishing is so slow and frustrating sometimes. Back in 2012 my enthusiasm about this book would’ve converted ten thousand readers!
This really is a brilliant piece of strange fiction. The opening section has a lot of strong Godot tones to it, what with two guards patrolling the parking structure of a possibly abandoned building. They never leave, since there may be a war going on outside, or perhaps the world has already been destroyed, so instead they stay loyal, doing their jobs diligently. Until . . .
I think fans of Volodine and contemporary quasi-sci-fi in that vein will really enjoy this. And hopefully some other reviewers will jump on this. (I haven’t received a galley, but I assume they’re out there somewhere.)
One other thing: The cover up there on the left is for the UK version, the one on the right for the U.S. Seriously. What the shit? I think maybe they were trying to sell U.S. readers on this by making it look like it’s been made into a movie? Too bad it just looks like the cover you’d see on any number of self-published “thrillers.”
Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Penguin Press)
Galera was one of the most interesting writers featured in Granta’s special issue on “Best Young Brazilian Novelists,” so it’s great to have one of his books fully translated into English.
In addition to that, I’m excited to read this book because a) Galera has translated David Mitchell into Portuguese, and b) the main character, seeking information about how his grandfather really died, has a neurological condition that prevents him from recognizing faces. I know a girl with mild prosopagnosia and I think it’s kind of fascinating. You could make a terrible _50 First Dates_-esque movie out of this condition, or something way, way cooler . . .
Tesla: A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pistalo, translated from the Serbian by Bogdan Rakic (Graywolf Press)
Similar to my love for Philip K. Dick, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading about Tesla and his life. His life and mind are fascinating, and have inspired a few great books, including Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else and Jean Echenoz’s Lightning. It will be interesting to see how Pistalo’s portrait of Tesla fits in with the others.
And, in case you aren’t convinced of the awesomeness of Tesla, I give you this:
Silvina Ocampo is one of those authors who a lot of Latin American literary enthusiasts have heard of, but probably never read. I mean, her stories have been published, but my sense is that she’s always been overshadowed by her sister Victoria (founder of the journal Sur and publisher of Borges and that generation of Argentine writers), by her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and by other (primarily male) Argentina writers of the mid-twentieth century. Which sucks, and is thankfully being somewhat rectified by NYRBs two publications: a comprehensive selection of her short fiction, pulling stories from her seven collections; and the first volume of her poetry to ever appear in English. This is huge, this is classic, this is worth getting your hands on.
If you’re not yet convinced, here’s a selling line from Jorge Luis Borges’s preface to Thus Were Their Faces: “In Silvina Ocampo’s stories there is something I have never understood: her strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty.”
Frog by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Viking)
This is the first book Mo Yan has published since winning the Nobel Prize, and I’m very interested in seeing how the critics and readers react to it. In contrast with Pow! this seems to be more of a critique of China, focusing on a midwife who proves her loyalty to the Communist Party by performing late-term abortions and making everyone in her village adhere to the one-child policy. I haven’t read much of Mo Yan’s work, but what I have read is much more literary, stylized, playful, and interesting than a straightforward social critique. Regardless, he is a prose-master, and this book seems like as good a place as any to getting in to his oeuvre.
God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger (HarperCollins)
I read a chunk of this way back when, at a time when Dimitry sent this to us on submission. He compared it to José Saramago with a plot more in the Graham Greene mold. In terms of the prose, “it’s English mixed with French and hip-hop slang, befitting my Haitian-Brooklyn and former rap music editor roots.” And damn, it really is a great book. But at the time—and still, I suppose—we were focusing on translations, whereas this was written in English, and didn’t feel like we could adequately promote a book like this with our existing reputation.
Dimitry and I stayed friends though (in part through our joint love of Arsenal—GO GUNNERS!), and I have to admit, after seeing on Facebook all the promotions he’s doing for this—NY launch parties, events with Francisco Goldman, interviews on NPR, blurbs from Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, a review in the New York Times—I’m really glad we passed on this. Obviously HarperCollins can do more for a book than Open Letter, and it makes me smile to see all the great things that are happening for God Loves Haiti and Dimitry.
This is the sort of book that I think I could get our Rochester book club to read, and one that I will be personally reviewing on Three Percent—fulfilling a promise I made to Dimitry some years ago.
The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé, translated from the Afrikaans by the author (And Other Stories)
And Other Stories continues to impress, book after book, and this story collection from this new voice in South African fiction is no exception. Here’s a bit from Damon Galgut’s introduction that both explains the title and gets at what makes Naudé’s writing interesting:
It’s ironic that a writer like Naudé, who uses words with elegant exactness, should find them so obstructive, but he does. “You’ve talked enough,” one character is told. “Talking is over.” What will replace speech, in this instance, is violence, but in other stories the implications are gentler: “You should learn to do without words,” a character says. “There are better things.” He means dance, which is another sort of language. Or maybe music will lead to the truth. And if that doesn’t work, even harmony can be broken down: a noise machine, which speaks with hisses and roars and bands—maybe that will do the trick.
But how can there be an answer, if we don’t even know the question? Like their central characters, the stories seem to begin and end in mid-air. Who will finish writing them for us? The birds, Naudeé tells us. A bird trapped in a house eventually flies out, leaving shit “on the interior walls, like crooked letters. Like Eastern calligraphy. Maybe that is an ending.”
Maybe it is. But in order to understand, you would have to speak in impossible symbols. It is this missing resolution, cryptic letters written in bird-shit, that embodies the mystery at the heart of these narratives. Cool and intelligent, unsettling and deeply felt, Naudé’s voice is something new in South African writing.
Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (Burning Deck)
I do an awful job of including poetry on these monthly preview write-ups, partially because I feel way out of the loop in terms of contemporary international poetry, and partly because I never know what to say about these books. (Not that I never go on tangents or rants or anything . . .) I’m going to do a better job of including poetry, especially when it looks like this:
And is described like this:
Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas are poems “staged” on the page. A simple vertical line of 3 inches separates what Forte calls the stage and the wings. The poet explores the potential of this form with multiple typographic games, calling on different registers of the language, different poetic techniques and, in the second part of the book, by “fixating as minute-operas” 55 existing poetic forms (come out of various poetic traditions or more recently invented by Oulipo, the famous French “Workshop for Potential Literature.”)
The Dark Ship by Sherko Fatah, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers (Seagull Books)
This is probably the heaviest book I could’ve chosen to end this month’s column . . . A young Kurdish boy growing up Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, witness to the atrocities that defined that era, a boy who is then captured by jihadists and ends up joining them before narrowly escaping to Germany . . . Not exactly a laugh a minute, but then again, not all art that you experience should be, at least in my opinion.
Speaking of, Nick Horby kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest with his recent statements, no?
Nick Hornby, the bestselling novelist, has argued readers should put down difficult books immediately if they are not enjoying them.
Battling through them, he said, would only condition people to believe reading is a chore, leaving a “sense of duty” about something you “should do”.
Instead, Hornby argued, reading should be seen more like television or the cinema, and only undertaken as something people “want to do”. [. . .]
“My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving.
“And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it.”
He added: “Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do.
“It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour.
“It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.”
This is definitely something I think Tom and I should talk about on the podcast. In one sense, I agree with Hornby—being forced to read something you hate isn’t going to make you want to read more, and at the same time, a lot of readers will quite enjoy books that are “difficult” and find “easy” ones to be the ones that are a chore to get through. (Not to mention, my like for superhero movies and shows is pretty well-established, so it’s not like I do nothing but read Important, Challenging Texts all the time.)
On the other hand though, there’s a fine line between “enjoyment” and “uncomfortableness,” and I suspect a ton of readers hearing his advice will conflate the two and stop reading any and every book that has a character they “can’t relate to.” There is a path leading from his statement to a cotton candy world in which you only read things that reinforce your prejudices, and that sort of scares me.
Also, the comparison with TV is a bit strained, since your brain on TV is different than your brain on books, which is a part of the reason why watching TV is so “easy.” Even when a TV show is a slog, or “difficult,” you can passively let the boring parts drift by, and suddenly it’s over. The way TV and books are consumed is different, in my opinion. I guess I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to flippant comments like this because I’ve seen the way readers feel intimidated by even the most straightforward of books, and enabling them to constantly avoid anything that might seem like “work” to them could lead to an even more vapid culture. “Fuck The Catcher in the Rye! This isn’t as fun as the Kardashians! TV RULES!”
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:
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.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .