La Grande – Juan Jose Saer, translated by from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Argentina,
Open Letter Books
Juan Jose Saer was a towering figure in Argentine literature. Over the course of his decades-long career he carved out his very own Argentina, a lovely provincial city named Santa Fe and its environs. He also developed his very own literary style, something that deals with the trappings of genre and that leads to very engaging plots and stories—plus unforgettable characters—yet that is also highly, highly philosophical and experimental, in the way of other Argentine greats like Julio Cortázar and Ricardo Piglia.
As with the work of William Faulker and Roberto Bolaño, you can think of Saer’s fiction as all of a piece. There are things that link most of Saer’s great novels—places, people, themes—and La Grande is very much the summation of a career. It is the biggest, longest, most complex novel he produced, and it brings many of his principle characters all back together. It was the last thing Saer ever wrote, a book he didn’t quite finish before he died at a young 67 from lung cancer in 2005, but that feels very complete in the state it reaches us.
This introduction may make it sound like you need to be versed in Saer to approach La Grande, but this is not the case. The book is self-contained and utterly satisfying and complete on its own terms. What is it about? Well, it is about the good life, the very material pleasures and joys that we must remember to always make time for on this Earth. It is also a deeply philosophical work about who we are and what we are doing here, although Saer is never jargon-y or butchering or even so much as dull when he gets into philosophy. It’s also about the literary avant-garde, about seductions and affairs between men and women, about marriage and getting a second chance at life and love.
In other words, it’s a novel written by a master novelist who has lived a very rich life and is prepared to put it all down on paper one last time. Thanks to Open Letter we will continue to receive many more installments of Saer for years to come, so there will be many, many more chances for him to win the Best Translated Book Award, but La Grande should really be the one that gives him the honor. It’s just a simply great book, something that will live with you for a week or two as you read it, and then a thing that you will then recall fondly forever after you’ve finished it. It makes you feel more alive to read it, and it makes you want to enjoy life, whether you do that by consuming a fine wine, chorizo, and carnal pleasures (as do Saer’s characters) or whether you prefer other of the world’s delights. Once you’ve had your fill of earthly pleasures, La Grande then instructs you in how to contemplate it all, to give your life that spiritual, philosophical outlook it also needs to have. It also happens to have one of literature’s great last lines (it may be a good thing that Saer never got to complete this work), and it really does feel like a book that gives us our best shot at understanding just what life is and how we should live it.
So, really, there are many worthy books on the BTBA longlist, and this year it feels like there are many more titles in the running than usual, but La Grande really deserves it. It should win.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
Things Look Different in the Light and Other Stories – Merdardo Fraile, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain
For most of us, Things Look Different in the Light arrived late in the game. My own copy wasn’t delivered until after I’d already sent in my longlist picks. But I’m grateful that it’s on the longlist now, because this collection of stories has turned out to be so delightful.
In a year of many excellent short stories — and many Spanish-speaking male writers — Medardo Fraile holds his own. Ali Smith writes in her introduction that “generosity runs through Fraile’s writing like electricity, or like light and flowers do, but always in the knowledge that flowers wilt and light is a matter of darkness.” Light is indeed a key word in Fraile’s work. Most of his stories describe entirely ordinary events — a man attends a party, two women grow old, a sign painter makes a mistake — but Fraile casts a light that makes them suddenly surprising, touching, or insightful.
One of my favorite stories is “Child’s Play,” in which two ageing sisters try to ward off the approach of blindness and death by filling their apartment with light. They gradually extend their chandelier until it takes up almost the entire living room, its arms touching the walls and nearly reaching the floor. “In the evening,” Fraile writes, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light.
Fraile’s writing is often like this: filled with strings of marvelous metaphors, gentle humor, and light. He’s sympathetic to his characters, even or especially when they’re faintly ridiculous, and this generosity protects his stories from falling into sentimentality.
Fraile’s light touch does not, however, preclude him from addressing serious or sorrowful themes. In the story “Reparation,” a couple is robbed of their fortune while travelling by train. A few years later, the wife dies, and her grieving husband decides to become a beggar, living on charity until he has received reparations for his loss. “What one person robs another person begs,” he reasons. “Wherever there are thieves there must be beggars.”
Fraile died quite recently, in 2013. Though he was recognized throughout his life as one of Spain’s greatest writers, Things Look Different in the Light is his first publication in English. Anglophone readers too often have to wait for wonderful books; I’m glad we no longer have to wait for Fraile. Margaret Jull Costa has outdone herself with this beautiful translation; the Best Translated Book Award prize would be fitting recognition of her work, as well of the many hours of reading pleasure this book has brought me and others.
Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Mexico
Coffee House Press
Early in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, she offers an explanation — of sorts — for the format of her book, a format that exists if not in service of her style, than alongside it, a fellow-traveler on the book’s quest.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.
This is a stand-alone paragraph, in its entirety, set apart from its predecessor and successor by several line breaks. And so the book unfolds in a series of observations and stories contained in paragraphs that more often that not relate to each other, but not always, much like the way the human mind functions. Its both trite and lazy to assert that this fracturing of ideas is a grotesque symptom of contemporary society, that we’re all beset by so many forms of media, by so many voices and concerns and assaults on our attention that we’re incapable of focusing on any one thought for more than a few minutes. And it’s especially trite and lazy because it presumes that people in different times and places were passive lumps of clay for whom the notion of multi-tasking, even intellectually if not physically, was an outright impossibility. It also smacks of nostalgia. All of which I say in order to say what I what to say about this book: it is all things. The structure and style, the jumping back and forth between past and present, accomplishes something mesmerizing: it paints a truly believable and empathetic and insightful portrait of life. It grabs hold of and dissects and analyzes life in all of its multifaceted glory and misery and whatever falls in between. But do not allow yourself to believe that this is a novel merely about contemporary life. No. It’s a novel about life. Full stop.
As fractured as I’m perhaps suggesting this book is, I want to make it clear the book as a whole doesn’t feel the slightest bit fractured. The paragraphs, as the book progresses, talk to each other. Stories from the narrator’s youth in New York unfold in between observations and stories of her current situation, mostly the detailed descriptions of her domestic life and how it informs not only her writing, but her ever-evolving outlook on the world at large. At one point she tells the story of Ezra Pound stripping down a poem from pages and pages of lines to what would eventually become “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s touching and literarily charming (I am a total sucker for anything related to Pound) and offers what might qualify as a manifesto in the context of this book: the idea that adornment or imparted symbolism or anything along those lines should be excised without mercy, so as to get to the heart of the thing. She follows through on her manifesto by not overpopulating the book, by keeping the narrative trajectories fairly straightforward. The result is that the important characters, the important places, have space to assert themselves, to become well-rounded and memorable. This idea also allows for stories to be revisited and re-positioned as new memories are injected into the narrative, creating, in the end, a story that has itself morphed over the course of the book, a story that comments on itself, saying, it seems: this is life; no more, no less.* * *
The following is taken from another brilliant book, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which she, too recognizes the inherent beauty in the quotidian. And I’m including it here in support of my argument on behalf of this book because, well, because why not.
The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.
In the first sentence of this post, I mentioned the book’s quest. Here’s the thing: although there is a quest, there is no quest to or for any specific thing. No objective, no overarching morality, no ambition beyond the one that’s sitting front and center: a masterful demonstration that life and art are—or at least can be, and should be more often than they are allowed to be—quests without destinations, without endgames.
It’s no easy feat to do this with such captivating ease, and that’s why I believe this book should win.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Talking to Ourselves – Andrés Neuman, Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Argentina
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award – but why it doesn’t. That would be a silly query, however, as Neuman’s novel is an outstanding accomplishment in every regard. Despite being a mere 150 pages, Talking to Ourselves offers a rich and rewarding reading experience the likes of which are difficult to discover in a book two or three times its length.
Neuman, born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, has already garnered international acclaim and a number of prestigious awards (including the Alfaguara Prize and Spain’s National Critics Prize). When he was merely 22, Neuman’s debut novel, Bariloche (as yet untranslated into English), was the only finalist for the Herralde Prize – losing out to Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris (coincidentally, a fellow longlist title for this year’s BTBA). Neuman likely first garnered the attention of English readers via the effusive praise of the late Roberto Bolaño.
The Chilean’s claims rang more than true when Neuman’s spectacular Traveler of the Century was published in English translation in 2012. Traveler of the Century, a nearly 600-page epic of beauty, wonder, politics, poetry, love, and translation, could not be more dissimilar from Talking to Ourselves. In fact, it’s marvelous to think that these two exceptional books were even written by the same hand (or imagination, for that matter). Whereas Traveler of the Century was a weighty novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a succinct look at illness, loss, literature, and familial bonds.
Writing in the voices of three disparate, but unifying characters (a wife/mother, husband/father, and their 10-year old son), Neuman captures the individual personalities and nuances of the trio with impressive dexterity. As father and son embark on what may well be their last journey together (on account of the elder’s terminal cancer), each of three characters strives to share their innermost thoughts – at least with themselves, if unable to do so with one another.
While Talking to Ourselves is a doleful work of fiction, it radiates a warmth and authenticity that is entirely compelling. Both Neuman’s lustrous prose and his keen insights into the inner world of the individual (and, ultimately, the questions of life, love, and death itself) meld with his natural gift for storytelling – resulting in a novel that is so beautiful, so sad, so brilliant, that one cannot imagine a single sentence out of place. It’s simply that good.
Talking to Ourselves was the very first book I read in 2014 and 51 weeks later, there wasn’t another title that had moved or captivated me so entirely. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation reads fluidly and their efforts in rendering three distinct voices is in and of itself a merited accomplishment. Andrés Neuman writes gracefully and his compassion, intellect, and sheer love of storytelling are evident on every page. Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, perhaps most of all because it does everything masterful fiction ought to: it dazzles with prose, affects our minds, touches our hearts, and, not least, reminds as that the stories we may think are ours alone are, in fact, the same the world over.
…a question only kids ask themselves for real, and then we sick people ask it again: is it okay to lie?, is it okay to be lied to?, a healthy grown-up won’t even give it a thought, the answer seems obvious, right?, we learn to tell lies the same way we learn to talk, they teach us how to talk and then how to be quiet, I don’t know, like when you play football, for example, first you kick the ball and then, unless you’re stupid, you learn not to kick it, to move around tricking the other players, kids lie too, of course, I lied all the time when I was a kid, but, what I’m saying is, until you get to a certain age, you think it’s wrong, that is the difference, I don’t think we grown-ups are any worse, you know?, every kid contains the beginnings of a possible son of a bitch, this much I know, it’s just that kids, and perhaps we adults are to blame for this, start by dividing the world into good and evil, truth and lies, the only time it’s okay for them to lie is when they’re playing, then it’s allowed, so kids become grown-ups when they play, sort of the opposite of us parents, we play so we can be kids again, well, and then you grow up, and you lie and are lied to, and it isn’t wrong, until one day, when you’re sick, you begin to worry again about lies, you worry about them every time you talk to the doctors, your wife, your family, it’s not a moral question, it’s, I don’t know, something physical, deep down you’re scared stiff of the truth, but the idea of dying with a lie scares you even more, lies help us to carry on living, don’t they?, and when you know you aren’t going to carry on, you feel they’re no use anymore, do you know what I mean?
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal, Translated from the Spanish by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres, translated by Norman Cheadle, with the help of Sheila Ethier, is a standout among the Best Translated Book Award finalist in quite a few ways. Most obviously, it’s the biggest in the bunch – nearly seven hundred pages, and a brick of a book. It’s also the oldest title in the running: despite how many deceased authors are featured among the finalists (ten of the books are by authors who have died) all the titles are nevertheless post-World War II publications (in their original languages) – a rare occurrence for the BTBA longlist – and this 1948 publication is the oldest of the lot. But size and age are the least of the reasons why Adam Buenosayres should win the Best Translated Book Award.
What is this book?
Adam Buenosayres is a largely autobiographical novel set in 1920s Buenos Aires – a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Marechal was part of the vibrant developing artistic scene. It clearly owes a debt to Joyce – Cheadle suggests it is: “the first Joycean novel to be written in Spanish-language literature” – and with the action covering just the span of a few days, concentrated entirely all across one city (Buenos Aires), and employing a variety of styles and approaches, it does resemble Ulysses. It is a roman à clef, city homage, and philosophical novel – a great period- (and place-) piece that’s also a superior literary work.
Why should it win the Best Translated Book Award?
1. Julio Cortázar – BTBA-longlisted for his sublime Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – hailed the book as: “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature” in reviewing it in 1949, and it is widely recognized as one of the great novels of modern Latin American literature.
2. A character closely based on Jorge Luis Borges features in it. Borges was part of the same crowd in the 1920s, and Marechal’s thinly-disguised versions of him and other notables (notably Xul Solar – who provides the cover-art for this very good-looking volume) offer often amusing insight into these famous artists. Bonus: Cheadle notes that: “Borges never forgave Marechal for his caricature as Luis Pereda and refused even to acknowledge the novel’s existence.”
3. It offers a remarkable city-portrait, a definitive one of 1920 Buenos Aires, as impressive as Joyce’s of Dublin.
4. Marechal’s narrative is playful and varied – maybe not quite to a Joycean extent, but he certainly mixes it up here. As Marechal piles it on, the amount of material can get exhausting, but the sheer inventiveness – and the humor – consistently impress and entertain.
5. This edition – the presentation of the novel-in-translation – is exemplary. Some of the longlisted books present just the translated texts themselves – which is often enough, or even preferable. After all, it’s the text that counts, and a best translated book should be able to stand well on its own. Adam Buenosayres comes seriously annotated: there are close to seventy pages of endnotes (along with a helpful introduction), and a nine-page bibliography. That, and the fact that it’s published by a university press (McGill-Queen’s University Press), might worry readers into thinking that it’s a dryly scholarly edition. Anything but, I’d suggest: obviously, given the time and place it is set in and the autobiographical elements, some background (which the introduction provides) helps in understanding the text basics, but the novel can be read and thoroughly enjoyed without worrying about the details behind everything. On the other hand, that added background layer – of who the characters are based on, historic circumstances, and local/period trivia – do make considerably more of the book, and here the endnotes are invaluable. Cheadle’s work here is a model of academic (yet still approachable) rigor, the endnotes very detailed – about the smallest detail – and thorough.
6. Norman Cheadle’s – with the help of Sheila Ethier – translation truly is a superior work. This is one of those works where it is clear that the translator has engaged with the material not just for a few months but over a much more extended period of time. As the endnotes, and Cheadle’s other writings about Marechal, demonstrate, Cheadle has immersed himself in the author and the work for many years, and he has come to know it thoroughly. His translation reflects his great understanding of and familiarity with the author and the work. Despite the challenges the novel poses – from the use of dialect and the variety of forms Marechal plays with – the translation manages also to be an artistic and not just academic success – an exuberant, comic, and clever rendering.
7. Adam Buenosayres is one of these tries-to-do-almost-everything/magnum opus books. On a longlist that features so many short-story collections and where even many of the (more-or-less-)novels are extremely slim (Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, Letters from a Seducer, 1914, Works) it stands out as a very different kind of work (with only Saer’s La Grande anywhere in the same league). For those who like their books big, expansive, far-reaching, Adam Buenosayres is the obvious choice.
8. It’s just a wonderful read and reading experience.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
It almost feels unfair to make anyone compete with Julio Cortázar. His fantastically irreverent novel Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires was originally published in 1975, and yet it has more life in its bones (or rather, in its sixty-nine pages) than many works of our own time. Subtitled “An Attainable Utopia,” Fantomas is at once a tongue-in-cheek response to the violence of the late twentieth century and a serious critique of corporate and governmental oppression.
The book opens with “our narrator” (later revealed to be Cortázar himself) on his way to his home in Paris. On the train, he reads a comic book starring the masked hero Fantomas, whose latest mission is to stop a band of anti-culture terrorists from burning down the world’s great libraries. After our narrator’s arrival in Paris, the borders between life and comic strip rapidly collapse: Fantomas himself comes crashing in through the narrator’s window, and Cortázar must help him realize the magnitude of this global problem — at least, when he’s not lusting after the superhero’s miniskirt-clad assistants or being yelled at on the phone by a convalescent Susan Sontag.
These conversations with Sontag — all carried out over “that technological decapitation known as the telephone” — are half comedy routine and half sadly prescient analysis. At one point, the narrator presents the difficulty of their task: “Susan, the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.” She responds:
Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too — it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…
David Kurnick’s translation is nimble, confident, and pitch perfect; like Groucho Marx, he always gets the right amount of syllables for the joke. (One dialogue, between the narrator and Sontag: “‘But this isn’t going to be easy, baby.’ ‘No shit,’ said Susan.”) Fantomas isn’t just a marvelous read, though; as publisher Semiotext(e) presents it, it’s also a marvelous object. The book is nearly half images, and far from interrupting the flow of the text, they define it. Pages from the narrator’s comic books, bleary mass-reproduced photographs of urban landscapes, and a hilarious sequence of drawings by the lovechild of Goya and Gorey, whose central figures are all identified as the shapeshifting Fantomas, are indispensable to the storyline and account for a good deal of its jaunty charm.
That a “lost” work can waltz in so unexpectedly and become such a formidable contender is, I think, testament enough to its quality. For its intellectual honesty and sheer panache, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires deserves the Best Translated Book Award; moreover, I suspect it’s a title its competitors would be able to lose to with grace.
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery – Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Bellevue Literary Press
One of three titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist to feature more than one translator (Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves [which I’ll be writing more about next week] and Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres being the two others), Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – both of whom helped render Halfon’s earlier book, The Polish Boxer, into English (with the help of three other translators). Since BTBA’s inception in 2008, no Spanish-language work (in either the fiction or poetry categories) has ever taken home the much-coveted prize. Curiously – and disproportionately – some 43% of the fiction awards have gone to books translated from the Hungarian (with László Krasznahorkai having won twice, of course). For the 2015 award, eight of the twenty-five longlisted fiction titles were originally published in Spanish. With so many great books in contention for this year’s honor, perhaps 2015 will see BTBA’s first Spanish-language award winner.
Born in Guatemala City in 1971, Halfon has written about a dozen books, yet only The Polish Boxer and Monastery have yet made their way into English translation. In 2007, Halfon was named to the prestigious Hay Festival Bogotá39 list of young Spanish-language authors of great promise (along with fellow BTBA longlister Andrés Neuman). Despite being a relatively young writer, Halfon and his work have already attracted wide praise and considerable acclaim. As a one-time semifinalist for the Premio Herralde, a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and winner of the José María de Pereda Prize for Short Novel, perhaps Halfon may soon add a BTBA win to his shelf of accolades – as Monastery is well deserving of taking home the 2015 fiction award.
Composed of eight short stories, Monastery reads more like a single novel than it does a disparate collection of tales. As with its predecessor, The Polish Boxer, Monastery follows the travels of its semi-autobiographical narrator (himself named Eduardo Halfon, in keeping with the tradition of so many other self-referential Spanish-language novelists) as he alights into settings and scenarios that unfold on multiple continents. Halfon (as both author and narrator) delves into themes of individuality, personhood, and the oft-mysterious relationships that connect us to one another.
With an almost palpable reverence for meaningful experience and understanding personal history (whether his own or that of his characters), Halfon effortlessly braids lyrical language and keen observation to form a moving, reflective, and humbly resounding work of fiction. Monastery’s unassuming stories are themselves rewarding, but in collecting these far-flung moments into a single pastiche, they symbiotically meld into a rich, animate narrative – not unlike the way life itself is captured in the amassing of singular and often serendipitous occurrences and interactions.
Monastery, with its beautiful prose, vibrant imagery, and singular outlook on the abundance of individual and shared experience, deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award. As an ambassador of both worldly wonder and sublime storytelling, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, despite its brevity, is truly a marvel.
You travel a lot, he said suddenly, as he looked over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and so I remained silent, watching him sitting there in front of me, on the other side of a black metal desk. He couldn’t have been twenty. His face was beardless, dark brown, gleaming. His green khaki uniform fit him too tightly. He seemed unbothered by the beads of sweat that ran slowly down his forehead and neck. So you like traveling, he mused without looking at me, in the contemptuous tone of a new soldier. I considered telling him that all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless. But I didn’t say anything. Through the open door I could make out the noise of motorcycles, trucks, vans, a ranchera being sung on a transistor radio, thunder in the distance, swarms of flies and mosquitoes and men shouting offers to buy and sell Belizean dollars. Revolving in the corner, an old floor fan simply circulated the humid afternoon jungle heat. ~from “White Sand, Black Stone”
As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.
We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.
As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:
We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.
We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.
Who is Eduardo Torres? That’s the question Augusto Monterroso asks in his novel Lo demás es silencio, a detailed depiction of a small town intellectual’s life—his childhood, courtship, working maturity, and retirement—filled with typical Monterrosian wit, charm, and innovation. Although there is no beginning, middle, or end to the story, the scenes from the life of Eduardo Torres blend together seamlessly to create for the reader a wide-ranging view into the life of this man. More of an in-depth character study than an actual story, the novel is nevertheless engaging and flows neatly from one part to the next.
Written in a manner utterly distinct from that of a typical biography, Monterroso makes use of a range of literary categories to build his character. A brother’s memories shed light on his upbringing. An old love letter, found and recorded by his young secretary, gives a glimpse into his adolescence. An interview with his wife tells of their day-to-day relations and routines. A friend recounts Torres’ interactions with the populace of his village. Essays by Torres, as well as responses to and critiques of these essays, also appear, providing the reader with a more intellectual portrait of the man, supplemented by a collection of quotations and aphorisms Torres is noted for coining. The crowning section of the book is an addendum, commenting on the “biography” itself, also written in Eduardo Torres’s voice. What is most amazing about this fictional construction is not the variation of literary styles but rather the change in tone that complements each separate narrator. Monterroso writes as if he really was compiling a biography from numerous sources, yet at the same time manages to convey a sense of unity in his characterization of Eduardo Torres.
To the discerning reader, Monterroso is a witty author, writing a book that is perfectly matched with his style. The subtle commentary he weaves in about his own writing is couched so that at first glance it seems to be that one of his characters is remarking on something entirely unrelated, and yet upon review becomes what it really is. There are several instances throughout the book that are deserving of a second glance and thus a hearty laugh. Monterroso’s style makes Lo demás es silencio more than just a character study. It is instead an utterly enjoyable and entertaining read, perfectly suited to a summer afternoon.
Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) was a Guatemalan author considered to be one of the central figures in the “Boom” movement. Almost all of his books are collections of short pieces, including the story “The Dinosaur,” considered to be one of the shortest stories ever, and reproduced below as translated by Edith Grossman:
“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”
Lo demás es silencio (La vida y la obra de Eduardo Torres)
by Augusto Monterroso
Inventive, playful, and moving, Vila-Matas’s second book to be translated into English is an amazing accomplishment, expanding the idea of what qualifies as a “novel” while also serving as a sort of manifesto for literature. The book’s main theme is laid out in its opening paragraph, which is a somewhat veiled reference to Vila-Matas’s earlier book Bartleby & Co.: “At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.” On a trip to Nantes to visit his son Montano, the narrator starts obsessing about his own “literature-sickness,” which he eventually terms Montano’s Malady. Unable to think about anything but literature and his sense that modern man is killing literature, the narrator does anything he can to uncover a “cure,” eventually finding relief by having sex with his wife at the end of part one. This is where the book really starts to get interesting . . . The second part of the book invalidates all that came before, explaining that it was a false-diary, a new novella by the author, who is a famous Spanish writer. This second part—a “dictionary” of authors who wrote famous diaries—gives way to a lecture the narrator give in Budapest on the diary as literature.
Throughout these formal and stylistic changes the basic points of the author’s story remain—his trip to Nantes, to Buenos Aires, his friend/rival Tongoy (who looks like a vampire), and his strained relationship with his wife. As with Bartelby & Co., underlying the narrator’s erudition and literature-obsession is a well of loneliness, a void that reading and writing tries to fill. And in the case of this novel, the narrator’s obsession and search for a cure to his “malady” is spawned by the growing sense that literature itself is on its deathbed, under attack by “cretins, lousy, dead writers cum civil servants.” These are “people who copy what has been done before and lack any literary (though not financial) ambition,” constituting a “plague even more pernicious than the plague of publishing directors working away enthusiastically against the literary.”
The thing that saves this book from becoming a screed against people who watch too much TV and laugh at dumb jokes is the voice of Vila-Matas’s narrator. Warm, funny, self-effacing, obsessed, and a tad paranoid, the reader is sucked into his world after only a couple of pages, quickly growing to sympathize with this curious figure. Similar to Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, this title will live on for years as a high-water mark of literary creativity.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
235 pp., $14.95 (pb)
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