This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Small in size and epic in scale, Moonstone is Sjón’s fourth novel to be translated into English from the Icelandic. The setting is 1918 Reykjavik and besides a Europe on the cusp of war, a global influenza epidemic has reached the city. Mani Steinn, the main character, is a young man attempting to survive the threats, both seen and unseen, which arrive from every direction of the city and world. Steinn is also a homesexual at a time when being queer was not only unacceptable, it was unfathomable. Steinn finds solace and companionship in the quiet escape of movies, their titles sprinkled cleverly throughout the novel that make clever nods to periods of time as well as art movements.
The cinemas themselves are seen as breeding grounds for corrupting the imagination of the young as well as eventually becoming sites of the flu contagion itself. The writing is lucid and sharp, and the translation by Victoria Cribb elegant and restrained. It was the first Sjón novel I had read and I found it particularly moving. Certain scenes from the book, fumigating a cinema with chlorine, the main characters sheathed in black, stayed with me for weeks. As well as powerful, Moonstone is an exercise in precision, never falling into pretension when it would be all too easy.
Mixing sex and history, even cinema, Moonstone is an inspiring novel that explores the ways dreams and imagination inform our realities while quietly showing a Europe on the edge of apocalypse. Although fiction, the book is something very personal to the author and which only announces itself on the final page. Wonderful indeed.
I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog (and podcast) a million times, but every spring I teach a class on “World Literature and Translation” that features somewhere between eight and ten recently published translations. Although the individual arrangement of ideas and books shifts every year, the overall structure and goals of the class remain the same: to explore what we mean by calling something a “good translation,” and how to we evaluate works of world literature.
As a mechanism for getting students to participate in class discussions, I force them to act as if they were a jury for a major literary award: the “Best Translation of LTS 206/406 Award,” I guess. This process opens up a wide array of topics, such as how to evaluate books from a literary culture you know nothing about, whether it’s better to focus on the quality of the book itself or the translation, and what politics of award giving should be considered, among many others.
Schedule permitting, I try and spend one class day discussing each title, providing a literary and historical background, discussing how the work is put together, looking for gaps (or the lack of them) between the way the book functions and the presence of the translation, and then follow that up with a Skype conversation with the translator. It’s a really fun class—especially since I tend to include books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.
I like posting the books I chose here, partially because I want to show off what titles I’m able to include in this class, but also because these books tend to end up influencing what I write about on the blog during this time. This year, I’m hoping to make that more specific, and write a post a week about the book under discussion. In fact, starting next Tuesday (in an insanely long essay that I’ve already written), I’m going to post about the books that I’ve been reading in preparation for the class. Things like Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino, Translating Style by Tim Parks, and Literature Class by Julio Cortazar.
I’ve never conceived of it in this way, but teaching this class creates a sort of feedback loop about how I read. It’s pretty self-indulgent, but I’m curious to see how my thoughts about literature morph as I work my way through these books, reading (or rereading) them with an eye to trying to convey something interesting about them to a group of undergrad students. If I were using books that I’ve read a million times—or better, written articles about—I don’t think this project would be very interesting at all. But given that there’s next to no critical material available about the majority of these books, there’s a sort of precariousness to every class. And for me, personally, I think about books the best when I’m trying to write about them.
Inevitably, I’ll get too busy with garbage work to keep up with this, but for now, I’m going to try. And if you want to play along at home, listed below are all of the works of international fiction we’ll be reading for class.
The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Moonstone by Sjón
Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov
The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai
Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon
Frontier by Can Xue
If you’re really interested and want to see my syllabus, let me know—happy to email it along!
We’re down to the last three longlisted titles, so we’re going to have to cram these in before Tuesday morning’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists. I’ll be writing the first two, Bromance Will will bring it home tomorrow evening.
The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)
It’s not surprising that Sjón’s books read like musical compositions. A lyricist, member of the board of the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and sometime singer, Sjón has been involved in Iceland’s amazingly creative music scene for some time now. In my opinion, this is why his earlier novel The Blue Fox works so well. The prose is concise, the voices play off each other incredibly well, and the book’s underlying architecture help it to do more in 100 pages than most authors pull off in 300+.
The Whispering Muse is a different sort of book: there’s a stronger, more linear plot (in 1949, Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander obsessed with the influence of eating fish on the Nordic peoples, is on a boat with Caeneus, who entertains the passengers of the boat with his stories of the Argo and retrieving the Golden Fleece); the passages are a bit longer, less immediately poetic; and it’s a bit funnier. That said, it’s distinctly Sjónian.
Most of the humor derives from the fussy speeches of Valdimar Haraldsson, former editor of Fisk og Kultur and author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, who just won’t stop talking about how a diet rich in fish is the recipe for Nordic superiority:
In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish. And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms. [. . .] The same was true of the aboriginal settlers of Scandinavia, who followed the edge of the ice sheet when the great glacier began to retreat at the waning of the Ice Age. Instead of following in the footsteps of the herbivores and the predators that preyed on them, they kep tot eh seashore, benefiting from the easy access to food.
It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and shore are endowed.
Vadimar is a great protagonist/narrator precisely because he’s such a drag to listen to and be around. He’s funny—in a pathetic sort of way—but also annoying as shit. (Which is why everyone would rather listen to Caeneus’s tale.) That’s a hard thing to pull off, and one solid reason why Sjón deserves this year’s BTBA.
A lot of the other reasons I think this should win are personal. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I love Iceland and would give anything to retire there (or start Open Letter’s Reykjavik office). Great people, music, books, and hamburgers. What more does one need?
And Sjón? One of the kindest, most down-to-earth, wonderful writers I’ve ever met. He was responsible for getting Can Xue into the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to give him this award.
Plus, this was the only “original” book of the three that FSG brought out last year, a publishing plan that helped launch his career in the States and ensures that his future books will be desired and supported by a healthy group of fans. The matching covers and simultaneous release was a bold move on the part of FSG, and I love to see an innovative, literary press get rewarded for things like this. So, go Iceland!
The article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives about the Iceland Literary Festival (along with a video interview with Kristjan B. Jonasson, the head of the Icelandic Publishers Association) will go live tomorrow morning, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put together a short write-up of some of the interesting contemporary Icelandic writers I met at the festival last week. This is obviously an incomplete list, but if you’re at all interested in finding out about Icelandic literature, it will hopefully serve as a good starting point:
More information about these and other Icelandic authors can be found at the Icelandic Literature Fund website (Agla at bok at bok.is is the person to contact for sample translations, etc.) and the Fabulous Iceland site that was set up to promote Iceland culture in advance of their being Guest of Honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.
The longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has (finally!) been announced. Here you go:
There’s only two points of contact with the Best Translated Book Award longlist, Celine Curiol’s Voice Over (which made our shortlist) and perennial Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlister, and sometime prizewinner, José Eduardo Agualusa, whose Book of Chameleons we nominated—My Father’s Wives has yet to find an American publisher, I think.
Overall, it’s a strong list, and if you want more info we have reviews of a few of the books from the longlist:
Only two! Looks like we have some work to do.
Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.
Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:
I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.
Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”
And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]
I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk. . .Read More...
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