14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on César Aira’s Conversations, translated by Katherine Silver and out from New Directions.

After a wild World Cup of Literature ride, what better way to wind down or frustrations or victorious cries than to talk about them (or bite each other over them)? And because I lack the attention span to get all existential and tie the title of Conversations to something deep and meaningful—and because I happen to have a bit more self dignity than usual today: just look at the brightly colored word bubbles bleeding into each other. Aren’t you mesmerized?

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

In typical Aira style, we go from hyper-intellectual propositions to absurdly hilarious arguments of “logic” that are deeply rooted in the protagonist’s psyche. For example, a view of the protagonist’s reaction to the friend’s view of the film:

[I]f he did not understand the difference between the actor and the character in a movie, he was an imbecile. And if he was an imbecile, I had no choice but to lose all intellectual respect for him, and which was worse, it meant that our conversations were wiped out as far as everyone about them that was good and gratifying for me. . . . In order to appreciate the magnitude of my disappointment, I should explain just how important conversations are for me. At this stage of my life, they have become the single most important thing. I have allowed them to occupy this privileged position, and have cultivated them as a raison d’être, almost like my life work. They constitute my only worthwhile occupation, and I have devoted myself to enhance their value, treasuring them through their reconstruction and miniaturization on my secret nocturnal alter. Hence, if I lose the day, I also lose the night.

From here, the novella quickly strays from “reality” and into a further level of Aira’s imagination without the reader noticing—also typical Aira. As more and more facts of the cable movie are described between the protagonist and his friend, and the protagonist continues to present bias comments of his allegedly correct interpretation of the facts, the reader suddenly finds himself watching the movie. Here the novella has shifted from the conversation to the action of the film. The film itself is incredibly unrealistic [other world being, toxic algae, secret caves, CIA] but somehow seems more realistic than the conversation among the friends. Perhaps Aira makes this shift to allow the reader to choose which party has the correct interpretation, or Aira is playing a game with the reader on the boundaries of reality. Adding to the seamless commingling of the conversation and the movie events are the protagonist’s concessions to what he maybe missed when taking a break himself. The protagonist eventually admits: “All you had to do was blink and you were lost.” Here Aira causes the reader to ponder whether the exploration of the unrealistic sheds light onto reality.

As for the translation itself, Conversations is another Aira brought to us through Katherine Silver. Her translation is beautifully composed in that I often forgot that I was reading a translation, and instead felt as if I were navigating Aira’s inner most thoughts at the point of their conception. What is particularly interesting about this translation is the premise of the text—each person can take a set of facts and interpret them differently based on their perception. So one is left to wonder whether this happened in the translation of the text from Spanish to English. I believe this question is exactly what Aira was going for, i.e., the reader should now perceive the world in a way that leaves them to question the thoughts and ideas they missed resulting in variations of interpretation. But, isn’t this inquiry an inherent byproduct of translation? “Everything is fiction. . . . Or: everything is reality. Which is the same thing.”

In closing, I agree with Owen Rowe’s statement, “An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept,” appearing in the last Three Percent Aira Review. Everyone has a lens through which he or she perceives the world and Aira expertly exploits this fact in each of his works.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction by Mario Bellatin, translated by David Shook, and out from Phoneme Media.

Most people can appreciate high-quality writing with a good (literary) prank, and most people can appreciate a finely cultivated mustache. And when you have both, and it stems from these guys:

you obviously and absolutely cannot go wrong. Not much more needs to be said as an introduction for either Mexican author Mario Bellatin or translator David Shook, other than that both are incredibly accomplished, and another review of Bellatin’s work is here and David has the coolest mustache and reviewed for Three Percent before. So, without further ado, here is a bit of Chris’s review:

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I am honored to have ushered Mario Bellatin’s biography of the great Shiki Nagaoka, a writer and artist almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, into English for the first time, and it is my hope that this new translation begins to redress his under-acknowledgement as a major influence on contemporary world literature. Bellatin’s highly stylized study is the most important work on the author to appear since Pablo Soler Frost’s 1986 monograph, Possible Interpretation of [untranslatable symbol], notable for its pedantry, perhaps best evidenced by the average (mean) tally of semicolons per page: 47.”

This is how translator David Shook begins his preface to Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction. However, Nagaoka never existed; Shook is just going along with a joke which, according to a New York Times article, originated at a writer’s conference years ago. When asked about his favorite writer, Bellatin answered that it was a Japanese author who had an unusually large nose and wrote a highly-influential novel in an untranslatable language. The audience members believed the Mexican writer, so Bellatin decided to write this “biography.”

Nagaoka’s story begins with his birth, which was difficult because of his nose. The two midwives who assisted his mother thought his large appendage was a “punishment” for his aristocratic family’s “excessive enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of foreign ideas.” At an early age, he wrote hundreds of stories (mostly about “affairs related to the nose”) and later experimented with writing stories in multiple languages. Besides literature, Nagaoka was also interested in photography. His combined love of literature and photography later resulted in the book Photos and Words, which “heavily influenced” Juan Rulfo, the real-life writer of Pedro Páramo. However, his early investigations into photography resulted in an unsolved murder which, according to a “certain Mexican writer,” is mentioned in the untranslatable novel.

Following that incident, Nagaoka joined a Buddhist monastery and lived there for 13 years. During this time, he attempted to write “a large novel” that was originally going to be a “masculine version” of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji but somehow ended up being a Japanese version of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At the same time, his nose became so big at one point that he needed someone to hold it up for him during meals. As if his troubles during mealtimes were not bad enough, the other monks, despite the rules of the novitiate, would taunt Nagaoka and play with his nose.

After being expelled from the monastery, Nagaoka set up a kiosk to sell rolls of film and develop them. One of his customers was a famous Japanese writer. Oddly enough, Nagaoka was not interested in this writer’s works but rather in his photographs of bathrooms. These photographs inspired Nagaoka to compose “his most solid work,” Photos and Words, which was popular enough to be translated into English by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.

Still, despite the book’s popularity, Nagaoka lived in a modest house and didn’t take his writing career seriously, although he continued to write in notebooks, one of which had a giant nose on the cover. “At the end of his life,” the narrator writes, “he embraced the idea that, realistically, the size of his nose had determined his existence.” Some of these recorded memories appeared in a posthumous work called Posthumous Diary, which inspired a French cult-like group called the “Nagaokites” to further investigate his work. However, “in his final years, Shiki Nagaoka wrote a book that for many is fundamental. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in any known language.”

Bellatin is obviously having a lot of fun telling this story, and he never tries to hide the fact that it’s a prank. He also slyly pokes fun at the audience members who originally bought the story about Nagaoka. In one scene, while in a state of dementia, Nagaoka throws his manuscripts into a bonfire, which nearly destroyed a forest near the monastery. “Only the timely action of the rest of the monks, who were woken by Shiki Nagaoka’s anguished screams, reduced its consequences to a circle of singed forest. On that occasion, Shiki Nagaoka lied. He said that the fire originated from the passion he had put into his prayers.” Later, the narrator informs us that at the time, the monks didn’t question this.

Following the biographical portion of the book are 30 pages of photographs by Ximena Berecochea. While these photos appear in a section titled “Photograph Documentation of Shiki Nagaoka’s Life,” most of them consist of objects and locations mentioned in the book. Only three of them contain the author, but they were either manipulated to hide his nose or taken from a distance. In fact, the funniest photo is Nagaoka’s fifth grade graduation photo: Only a circle on the faded right side of the photo indicates Nagaoka’s appearance in it.

While it may appear that Shiki Nagaoka is a joke that has gone on for far too long, it is actually worth reading, thanks to Bellatin’s skill as a writer and prankster. Also, the actual text is only 43 pages, so that in one sitting you can also enjoy what the audience of the writer’s conference heard (and believed) so many years ago.

2 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Andrea Reece on Iosi Havilio’s Paradises, translated by Beth Fowler, and out from And Other Stories.

Here’s the beginning of Andrea’s review:

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider and prepares us for the struggles and alienation that are to follow: “Jamie died at the start of spring”. With this flat, factual statement, we enter the world and life of the narrator, both of which we very early begin to suspect carry on around her entirely without her agency.

Jaime, the narrator’s partner and the father of her small son, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a freak accident while changing a tire at the side of the road. At his wake, she knows no one besides Jaime’s brother, Hector, and his family. She is acutely conscious of being an object of curiosity for many of the mourners and is unsure how to behave in the midst of all the strangers. Her memory of Jaime as she pays her last respects is oddly disconnected and remote . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

2 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider and prepares us for the struggles and alienation that are to follow: “Jamie died at the start of spring”. With this flat, factual statement, we enter the world and life of the narrator, both of which we very early begin to suspect carry on around her entirely without her agency.

Jaime, the narrator’s partner and the father of her small son, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in a freak accident while changing a tire at the side of the road. At his wake, she knows no one besides Jaime’s brother, Hector, and his family. She is acutely conscious of being an object of curiosity for many of the mourners and is unsure how to behave in the midst of all the strangers. Her memory of Jaime as she pays her last respects is oddly disconnected and remote:

“. . . that rough man I fell in love with unintentionally and with whom I fell out of love without realising it. I can still feel him jerking about on top of me, like an animal, impotent at times, insatiable at others.”

Life as a widow in their previously shared home in the rural village of Open Door—itself home to a lunatic asylum and standing smack bang in the middle of a large plot of land earmarked for a country club and golf course development—rapidly degenerates, an unrepaired leaky roof deteriorates and renders the house virtually uninhabitable, the water pump breaks, the telephone is cut off . . . until one day an eviction notice is served and the narrator and her son, Simón, find themselves in a taxi clutching a few possessions and heading for a new life in the city of Buenos Aires.

Survival is the name of the game, but the two arrive in the city to find it flooding so bad that its inhabitants can only cross the street with the help of a rope to guide them through the rising floodwaters, scenes described by the narrator as a “rehearsal of apocalypse.” With difficulty, they find a cramped room in a seedy hotel and try to adjust to the sudden and bewildering acceleration of the pace of their lives in this utterly foreign city environment. The narrator reacts to the strangeness, as throughout the novel, by taking refuge in the visual and in her acute powers of observation of her surroundings that take in the tiniest detail—here she carefully lists all the items of food in the hotel fridge labeled with their owners’ name, and tries to imagine what the owner is like. She also has a sharp eye for interpreting the physiognomic and gestural signs that people tend to use to appraise others. Her first encounter is with Iris, a Romanian woman, native of Transylvania, who becomes her friend. Iris is described as a woman with

“. . . very blue, alarmed-looking eyes, a broad back, from rowing or swimming, a violently uneven fringe . . . She looks at me suspiciously, side-on, almost with contempt, wrinkling her nostrils as if I smell bad or she’s about to attack me.”

Iris kick-starts the narrator’s new life by pushing her into a job in the reptile house of the zoo where Iris herself works. None of the jobs that the narrator subsequently finds is the result of her own efforts. She is buffeted through a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, and sounds in this unfamiliar environment without seemingly controlling her life’s direction, as if caught in the eye of a tornado. A retinue of weird, marginal, or diseased characters parade across her field of vision and her only refuge from insanity seems to lie in her keen powers of description and her ability to encapsulate a character with a sometimes lacerating, sometimes wryly humorous, but always carefully aimed, simile. Here are a handful of her observations to whet the appetite:

  • “The man is dark, thirty-something, with leathery, porous skin, his hair spiked up with gel like a porcupine. . . . As the minutes pass, I come to realise that his hairstyle is a perfect reduction of the other parts of his body, his small, nervous mouth, fidgety hands, which cross and uncross at least a hundred times during our meeting, strong shoulders, as if he lifts weights between sentences.”
  • The security man at the zoo with the “fat, soft wart that lengthens his lip like a sleepy, sprawling beetle.”
  • Tosca, a character with “a head that seems the size of two” who is “more than just fat, she’s pure, inflated volume.”
  • “The boy with a cyclops head, index finger in his nostril.”
  • “He’s one of those skinheads who shave to disguise premature balding, to seem harder or more virile.”

The carnival of bizarre characters descends into the grotesque and the absurd when the narrator gets a job administering morphine to Tosca, a grossly overweight woman who is dying of cancer. The narrator’s environment takes on the nightmarish, ghoulish tinges of a 19th century travelling circus complete with outlandish characters or a hall of mirrors with its endlessly repeated series of misshapen reflections. Meanwhile, and not entirely surprising under the circumstances, the narrator’s sleeping world and waking fears are dominated by snakes, which she tries to obliviate by drawing endless sketches of the reptiles to deaden their symbolism and turn them into mere lines on paper. The reader is drawn into this powerful, and all too real, living nightmare. The narrator herself is conscious of her alienation and the absurdity of her surroundings, and finds the solution in passivity. Not the kind of passivity where one has lost control, but the kind of passivity that never had any control in the first place. Fatality is her answer to the big questions:

“Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”

And also to the small ones:

“Sounds good,” I say quite sincerely; the truth is, I can’t think of a better option.

It is no accident that, of all the characters, it is the narrator who has no name; she doesn’t have any use for one—she takes no active role in her destiny, she resigns herself to her fate, and submits to the bossiness of others; life for her is “just a question of luck” in which she chooses to “improvise and see what happens.”

Halfway through the book, the narrator meets up with Eloísa, a former friend who first appeared in Open Door. A domineering, partying drug addict, Eloísa is someone the narrator would rather have kept in her past. The dominant/domineered relationship between the two women occupies a large part of the second half of the book and leads the narrator, again without her agency, toward another new, unplanned life, announced in the very last sentence.

This sparkling novel is full of contradictions. The narrator lives on the outer limits of existence, at survival level. Yet strangely, this does not seem to concern her. However, her inner musings, through their biting, well-placed and often humorous observations of others (including animals, which she barely differentiates from humans) seem to put her on a higher intellectual plane than her social circumstances would appear to suggest. Havilio thus uses his narrator as a vehicle for a wider commentary on the human condition, which questions whether we are really as free as we think we are—what do we control and what controls us?

The title of the novel is, of course, the ultimate paradox—the narrator’s surroundings are very far from being any kind of paradise, unless paradise can be limited to the snake in the Garden of Eden (and even then . . .). We only discover three-quarters of the way through the book that the title refers to paradise trees that are prevalent in Argentina, have toxic berries and whose bark is believed to supply the antidote to poisoning from the berries. Yet another paradox!

And because I am a translator and believe that no translated work remains entirely that of the original author, but becomes a filter through which we see the original work, and indeed a piece of literature that must stand (or fall) in its own right, a word of praise for the brilliant Beth Fowler. She has produced a sparkling piece, with a grasp of tone, voice and register that captures the paradoxes between the narrator’s thoughtful and evaluative inner world and the rough-edged characters and dire circumstances that surround her. Slang is often particularly hard to translate in a believable way without either overusing the f-and c-words, or, conversely, without toning the whole lot down too much, but here it works wonderfully and there are even some inspired lexical choices. My favorite word in the entire book has got to be “carked,” as produced by Tosca, the cancer sufferer who receives the morphine injections:

“You thought I’d carked it, didn’t you? It’ll come, girl, it’ll come, you need to have a bit of patience.”

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J.T. Mahany on Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden, and out next month from Open Letter.

Carlos Labbé was one of Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has quickly become a Name to Know in the world literature sphere. Both Carlos and translator Will Vanderhyden, along with Andrés Numan, will be at the University of Rochester April 22nd for a Reading the World Conversation Series event. (If you’re in town then, definitely, definitely join us!)

Incidentally, Will (a.k.a. Willsconsin) and J.T. (who wrote the following review) were cohorts in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and not only brought to the table their skills as translators, but also brought amazing projects to the press (Open Letter will also be bringing out Labbé’s Locuela in a few years, in Will’s translation, and Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven in J.T.‘s translation next year).

Enough UROC and Open Letter promotion—all you really need to know is that if you’re a literary nerd boy or girl, Labbé’s work will be right up your alley. Here’s the beginning of J.T.‘s review:

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

Do you remember how many times we discussed that Wittgensteinian way of looking at things? And how many times we talked about idealism? That objects don’t exist, dear Sabado, only words, which build and break, build and break.

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on. Like in the scene where Alicia is on the beach and encounters the journalist; we’re given information, but it doesn’t immediately appear to be of much help or use:

In that moment she should’ve begun telling him about the Vivar family, about her childhood, about Boris Real, the longing, Bruno, her father’s chemistry laboratory, the woman, the sirens, the hadón, the bloodless body of James Dean that’d given her nightmares until she was thirteen; yet all three of them sat in silence.

The most “coherent” plot of the novel consists of the wealthy Vivar family, and the disappearance of their two children, Bruno and Alicia, from the beach between the small towns of Navidad and Matanza, in Chile’s sixth region. An investigative journalist, who had recently done a human interest story on the Vivar family, tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but the most he can conclude is that the Vivar siblings abandoned their abusive parents to travel the country, accompanied by their uncle Francisco Virditti, or perhaps the investment banker Boris Real, or perhaps the Congolese thereminist Patrice Dounn. The mysterious experimental drug called hadón—said to cause intense feelings of hatred—might also be involved, or maybe it’s just a myth.

What makes Navidad & Matanza great is its ambiguity, its ethereal quality. By the end you wonder if you’ve even read a novel at all, or a jumbled collection of confused notes, or a set of disconnected events dictated by the rolling of dice. This short work makes you question again and again the reliability of its narrators, right down to their overlapping and multifaceted identities. It’s packed with clues, and definitely warrants a second read-through, which will only serve to bring out more tidbits you might not have noticed the first time around, bringing the myriad ends a little closer together. And yet . . . Do the connections between people, places, and things really exist, or is it only in your head? The question of what really happened lingers in the air, begging to be played with, but promising no concrete answers.

“Literature is a lie. Embrace the wind.”

7 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, and forthcoming from Knopf.

Pron was one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has already made an impression with this, his American debut. And thus we move quickly back into the review world, back in the zone of being on-schedule. So enjoy the review, it’s good to be back in the swing of things, and the apostrophe in the title is not misplaced: the line is from the Dylan Thomas poem “I Fellowed Sleep.” So there.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.

Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.

For the rest of the review, go here.

7 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis |

Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.

Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.

The narrator eventually uncovers that the man’s sister was not only one of the disappeared, but was led by his father into political activism. The attempt to recover her by recovering her brother, this transference, has moved onto the narrator himself, now trying to prevent his own and his father’s disappearances. We see again that collective victimhood, swallowing anyone it can. The way this ghost of history and violence stalks through the novel is compelling, and at Pron’s most convicted and skillful, you can feel its encroachment. It is unfortunate that Pron suffers from uncertainty about how to move with a project he is obviously deeply invested in. Because he is dealing with history, both of the country and of his family, with the blend of fiction and non-fiction, there is uncertainty. It is not the uncertainty of the reader, or of a writer questioning how to blend the two, but the uncertainty of a writer unsure if he should. It’s one thing to blend fact and fiction to stare down a culture’s identity, and another to devote a work to questioning the morality of blending the two—but to be unable to choose and not center the complication itself, to want both, weakens to the work.

The collection of newspaper scraps, indented as long quotations and written in reportage style in a claim to non-fiction, make up the significant portion of the My Fathers’ Ghost and this too is unfortunate. They are not only less interesting to read—in fact boring, repetitive, at times—they don’t cut to the quick of Pron’s themes and concerns, precisely because verisimilitude lurks over them. Though they are a necessary core for the novel’s structure, Pron thrives, both in style and substance, in the rest of the book, where fiction takes over.

This structure, of a confused young writer obsessed with a crime and pouring over the evidence, any detail—the number of inhabitants of a town, latitude and longitude coordinates, etc.—possibly mattering, the failure of police, a haunting sense of lurking violence, all point to influences, most pointedly detective novels, and, endorsed by Pron himself, Bolaño. The influence of Bolaño is strong, but Pron is talented enough not to let it dominate. There is no singular moment that is a recognizably specific Bolaño moment or a sense of mimicry, and it is likely the honest comfort with this influence that allows it to work naturally, and for differences, even responses, to spring up. For all of the ways that Bolaño’s characters swing between obsession and detachment, they aren’t usually detached from their obsessions. Pron’s narrator is and moves his investigation through a near fugue state, his obsession separate from him. He only follows, hoping the fugue will clear.
On the other hand, the connection with crime stories is, surprisingly, given Bolaño’s openness to the genre, one the narrator, and seemingly Pron, rejects, even as it swallows him and the novel: “the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the convictions that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book.” This of course is true not of most crime stories, but only of the simplest, the laziest—the type seen in television procedurals. Not only that, but the fight against this mode of the genre, the celebration of the lost detective with no answers, has been ongoing for decades at least, so there is nothing interesting in openly acknowledging it as if it were new and it becomes a claim to complications that aren’t there.

In the end, the novel becomes, for a large middle section, too dependent on a strategy that is neither interesting, nor something that Pron or the narrator seem to believe in. As much as there is little belief in the form, Pron shows a lack of trust in his own clarity, or in the reader. The numbered micro-chapters are not fully sequential. In the first of the novel’s four parts, numerous numbers are skipped, to show the narrator’s fractured memory, but we see this already, and are told it. Later, in the throes of his investigation, the narrator falls ill, and feverish, the numbers skip again, or repeat or backtrack, but again, we know he is losing clarity, and there is no specific reason for each interruption of order.
Yet it should again be emphasized, clarified, anticipated in future books, that when Pron moves away from blocking out his narrative around these newspaper clippings, when he focuses on fiction that’s based on non-fiction rather than non-fiction playing itself off as fiction, My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain gets deepest into its own questions, and finds multitudes. Pron’s narrator wonders how to take on the national identity of Argentine when he has seen the symbols of that identity abused, used “so many times in circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that we didn’t have anything to do with and didn’t want to have anything to do with.” This feeling is so overwhelming that he includes a World Cup1 victory in the same sentence as a war. He wants to be able to embrace an Argentinean identity at the same time as a writer’s identity, while “That a writer could be Argentine and living is a fairly recent discovery.”

The explorations of such questions, some of which fall away as the focus tightens on the newspaper clippings, are more crafted, more affecting when Pron gives his writing free reign, unburdened by the sense of obligation to the idea of “how it actually happened.” In an early passage, Pron’s narrator ponders his relationship with his parents, trying to find how to compare, describe it, and comes to: “Children are policemen of their parents, but I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along well with my family.” In one moment, the focus is his direct relationship with his parents, in the next a simile goes awry and takes him in a dangerous, fearful direction, plunging to the past. The obliqueness, the potential strangeness of fiction, gives reason both to read deeply, and to invest in Pron’s mission of uncovering Argentinean history—personal, familial, and political: a childhood game of killing frogs becomes both the child’s version of unknowingly participating in the violence of his country and the adult’s attempt to reconcile; the fever dreams give us images such as a transparent fish, with a “fistful of autonomous organs with no center of command,” which we cannot do anything but associate with our narrator.

My Fathers’ Ghost is an effort to tell a story that has previously been passed over in silence, while knowing that this secret knowledge is not one of power or liberation, but one that comes with danger and suffering: “You don’t ever want to know certain things, because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Pron’s desire is to fill the silence, not with noise but with clarity and truths. Near the end, the narrator reminds of us inheritance, “My father had started to search for his lost friend and I, without meaning to, had also started shortly afterward to search for my father.”

This inheritance is not only of a search for what has been lost, but also a complicated relationship between the lost, what happens when the lost is found, and the consequences of expression. When talking with his sister, the narrator attempts to gently mock their father for always going out to start the car alone instead of waiting for the kids. The mocking ends when his sister reveals the truth, and the debt that the son owes the father: “journalists were getting killed by car bombs; he went out alone every day to start the car to protect us.” Added to this debt, which came into existence only with revelation, is the narrator’s belief that his choice must be “the truth” or “a compassionate lie,” with the latter being one of escapism and blindness. There is also, and it is glimpsed at times here, a form of lie, fiction, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the truth. That power is compromised in My Father’s Ghost, a compromise established in Pron’s decision to give his parents veto power over his book. Those glimpses into a deeper soul for the book give one hope that Pron’s next work will be more decisive, expand on seedlings planted here, and for an American reader, give hope that a young American writer can speak to the silences that have overlaid the American atrocities of the last decade.

1 The appearance of an unnamed Maradona, an “obese caricature of a soccer player,” in an airport, wearing a T-shirt with himself on it, is a nice moment of literature and soccer overlapping, a call to Three Percent’s upcoming “World Cup of Literature”.

5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Flower & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography by Mario Bellatin, translated by Kolin Jordan, and out from 7Vientos.

Since the site is about a week behind in posting reviews, I thought we’d start back in with a short and sweet one by Vince. We were at AWP in Seattle last week (we had a blast seeing all those familiar faces, as well as making a new set of new superfans!), and it’s been a bit tough coming back from the jet-lag. Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect. Within these quick glimpses, the reader encounters a writer with a prosthetic leg who becomes obsessed with a literary agent’s daughter, a scientist who synthesizes a drug that results in the deformation of hundreds of newborns, a woman who, abandoned by her husband, abandons her child in a most violent manner, and a man referred to as the “Autumnal Lover” for his predilection for the elderly. This collection of oddities comprises a larger tale, though each is compact enough to stand alone. The ideal reader will take them all in, though the book begs for a second viewing where each flower can be examined as a self-contained planet among the larger universe.

It doesn’t take long to get used to the abrupt shifts from story to story before Flowers comes to an end (sort of) and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography begins. And this is where things get very strange. The novella centers on the writer Mishima, who may very well be the long dead Yukio Mishima, though this Mishima exists post-suicide and is headless. Is it so bad to be headless? One only gets a sense of this late in the story, when the narrator confesses that, to Mishima, the worst aspects of this is the “lack” which he must carry with him, conjuring up both Lacanian ideas and Washington Irving’s famous horseman. This Mishima is also, we are informed, the author of several books that savvy readers will recognize as belonging to Mario Bellatin (most notable: Beauty Salon, a fascinating novella that shares more than a few traits with Mishima’s Illustrated Biography). Is this self-reflective literary criticism, meta-autobiographical fiction, or just plain old hijinks? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as the prose is elegant and engrossing in its directly stated fashion (thanks be to Kolin Jordan) and the ideas are about as exciting as any one might find in literature today. Reflecting on the purpose of writing, Bellatin offers a damn near perfect thesis: “Mishima realized that this mechanism might consist of using a terrible universe as a shield against what that very world produced.” This is why writers write and why readers seek their works. The mirror reflects the horrors of the world, but in the hands of writers like Bellatin, the mirror distorts just enough to offer escape. But we’re never really free from the truth.

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.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Owen Rowe on The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernai, translated by Katherine Silver, and 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. This is technically the first of two reviews (hence the Aira reference in the first paragraph), and Owen’s Shantytown review will run Saturday or Monday to keep it all groovy and together. But for now, here’s the beginning of the Bernai half of things:

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

For the rest of this first part, go here.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

Filiberto García is Bernal’s antihero, a ready-to-retire police detective who’s never quite broken out of low-level cleanup (i.e. killing) assignments for one corrupt government department or another. The KGB, in Mongolia, has heard rumors of a Chinese conspiracy to assassinate the US president on his upcoming trip to Mexico City. The Americans and Russians both send agents to uncover the plot, and García is assigned to be their local guide. Or as he puts it, “Now I’ve been promoted to the Department of International Intrigue. Holy shit!” The world-weary government thug thus finds himself called out day and night to try to pick apart the threads of a delicate geopolitical clusterfuck. Meanwhile, he’s made his first emotional connection since forever with Marta, a girl from Chinatown who may herself be implicated in the plots and counterplots—but to sleep with her, he’ll first have to get a chance to sleep at all.

There are some fantastic set pieces, like the conversation where the Russian and the American compare memories of the coups and conspiracies they’ve staged around the world, while the Mexican listens on in envy—he’s only ever been involved in home-brewed trouble. The Russian asks, “An electrical cord is very effective. Don’t you think so, Filiberto?” and that sends García into a reverie worthy of Sam Peckinpah:

It was in Huasteca, and I was carrying out orders. Puny old devil who spent the whole day in his rocking chair on the porch of his house. The Boss gave the order. I came up behind him with the cord. . . . When he stopped moving, I put him in a coffin we had brought, and we took the main road out of town. The best way to carry a body discreetly is in a coffin. A laborer coming down the road with his oxen even doffed his hat when he saw it. Then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, the fucking old man started kicking. Like he wanted someone to notice. We had to lower the coffin, open it, and give him another squeeze with the same cord. Fucking rowdy old man!

Francisco Goldman, in his Introduction, says “the real action [of The Mongolian Conspiracy] springs from its language.” The narrative often slips directly inside García’s thoughts as he tries to piece together a moral stance from the shit surrounding him. Like the distinction between mere “stiffs” and a real “corpse” (the kind of body that might once have harbored a soul): “Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them as if they were children.” The old killer begins to suspect he has a heart after all. Or worry that he’s had one all along.

But Bernal’s García doesn’t quite hang together as a voice, for all his vigorous cursing. The language stumbles from the stiff and formal to tough-guy talk that would make Philip Marlowe blush, without (to my ear) settling into a vernacular consistent and believable for the time and setting. I don’t fault translator Katherine Silver—I’ve seen her skill at a remarkable range of registers in other works—so I wonder whether Bernal was just a little out of his depth. It must have been a tough assignment, an insider-turned-outsider inventing a language for someone who is just crossing that line himself. There’s no doubting why its plot and characters make it a “revered cult masterpiece,” but forty-five years later the lasting punch of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be not in its own language, but in the language it paved the way for, from Roberto Bolaño to Álvaro Enrigue and . . . “César Aira“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9592.

5 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Katherine Rucker on The Missing Years of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated by Nick Caistor, from New Vessel Press.

Katherine is another of the students in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, whose name you may recognize from this recent post asking for any information on non-Argentine Spanish lit. In addition to bringing some very interesting samples into our Plüb Translation Workshop, Katherine has a knowledge of whiskeys not to be trifled with (being raised in Kentucky), and owns a baby donkey back home.

Here’s a little bit from Katherine’s review:

Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.

It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”

Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.

It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t:

I think he saw his work as something too personal, a kind of intimate diary, an illustrated autobiography. Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story. To recount his own experience in one never-ending mural. He was content with painting his own life, he had no need to show it. For him, living his life was to paint it.

What Miguel and his brother don’t find among the scrolls in the shed is one of a painting, which seems to have been stolen. Miguel has reason to believe that this particular scroll was the same one he vaguely remembers being slashed by one of his father’s friends during a whiskey-fueled, though otherwise inexplicable, duel. As it turns out, Salvatierra’s “missing year” was a little more intriguing than anyone wants to expect of their docile, artistic father.

Mairal’s prose, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, reflects the missing painting: honest, powerful, haunting. In a mere 116 pages, the reader confronts the truth and mystery of the things that we leave behind. The novel seems to rely on the principle of omission—Mairal doesn’t so much tell his readers everything as he does leave them wondering.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is ultimately satisfying despite its loose ends, beautiful despite its sometimes ugly themes.

29 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, out from FSG.

Andrés Neuman has quickly become an in-house name here at Open Letter/Three Percent, and, as Jeremy hints at in his review, everyone either can’t wait to get started on reading him, or can’t wait to keep reading him. Andrés will also be at the University of Rochester at the end of April for our Reading the World Conversation Series event.

Jeremy has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com, and is a great source of reviews in general and reader of world lit. Here’s a bit from his review:

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding your immediate attention.

Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of short stories, nine collections of poetry (not including the volume that assembles a decade’s worth), a selection of aphorisms and literary essays, and a travel book about Latin America. Oh, and he translates poetry into Spanish. And writes a regular column. And maintains a very popular literary blog (which, unsurprisingly by now, was named one of the best in Spanish by an El cultural survey). All of this and yet he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday.

Roberto Bolaño, always the veritable critic, arbiter, and champion of literary prowess, in an essay entitled “Neuman, Touched by Grace” (collected in Between Parentheses), offered the following non-hyperbolic sentiment:

Among young writers who’ve already published a first book, Neuman may be the youngest of all, and his precocity, which comes studded with lightning bolts and proclamations, isn’t his greatest virtue. born in argentina in 1977, but raised in andalusia, andrés neuman is the author of a book of poems, Métodos de la noche Night Methods, published by Hiperión in 1998, and Bariloche, an excellent first novel that was a finalist for the most recent Herralde Prize.

The novel is about a trash collector in Buenos Aires who works jigsaw puzzles in his spare time. I happened to be on the prize committee and Neuman’s novel at once enthralled—to use an early twentieth-century term—and hypnotized me. In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. you pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

“There’s a lot of horribleness [she] refuses to countenance,” I agree with what Helen Garner writes in one of her novels, “but it won’t just go away.” In fact the job of horror is to do the opposite: to resurface. “So somebody else has to sort of live it.” By avoiding the subject of death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little. “Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose.” And feeds it. “It drives madness into the soul.” Like one truck driving into another. “It leaches out virtue.” Leaves it barren. “And makes a mockery of love.” And there are no more clean embraces. Here all of us fall ill.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

We all live in an ellipsis.

While missing her husband and son terribly (and worrying incessantly about their well-being), Elena, per the fragility of her immediate existence, allows herself to be courted by Mario’s doctor—an affair that first excites, but later disgusts. As she records her daily interactions within her journal, she also discovers parallels within the books she reads (which include, it must be mentioned, the likes of César Aira, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Javier Marías, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’connor, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Virginia Woolf, and others), excerpting them in her diary as if to corroborate her own interior state—or, at the least, to help make sense of its ceaseless tumult.

Work, work. That’s all I know how to do. You have to be very sad to hate vacations. You are so responsible, people tell me. They can go to hell. I look for things to be responsible for because I can’t be responsible for myself. Sometimes I think I don’t deserve to be a mother. Sometimes I think I had a child in order to stop myself from jumping out of the window. Sometimes I think I should have been the one who got ill. Sometimes I think about being fucked hard. Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.

Foolish it would be for the reader to look for answers pertaining to the existential dilemmas of life and love. Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito)—but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.

When I see a couple kissing, believing they love one another, believing they will endure, whispering into each other’s ear in the name of an instinct to which they give lofty names, when I see them caressing one another with that embarrassing avidness, that expectation of discovering something crucial in the other’s skin, when I see their mouths becoming entangled, the exchange of tongues, their freshly showered hair, their unruly hands, fabric rubbing and lifting up the like the most sordid of curtains, the anxious tic of knees bouncing like springs, cheap beds in one-night hotels they will later remember as palaces, when I see two fools expressing their desire with impunity in broad daylight, as though I weren’t watching them, it’s not merely envy I feel. I also pity them. I pity their rotten future. And I get up and ask for the bill and I smile at them askance, as though I had returned from a war which the two of them have no idea is about to commence.

With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.

Short of the inebriated automobiler who Bolaño feared might one day rob us of his wordsmithing savvy, the literature of our adolescent century may well indeed belong to Andrés Neuman (as well as Gonçalo Tavares, assuredly).

Enjoy life, do you hear?, It’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you’ll see, my head hurts yet I feel good, it’s hard to explain, and go traveling on your own once in a while, and try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me?, men who don’t care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen, and if you already agree you don’t need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they’ve never been, you’ll love more when you’re old, I thought of my father the moment we got down from that truck, our true love for our parents is posthumous, forgive me for that, I’m already proud of the things you’re going to do, I love the way you count the time on your fingers when you set the alarm clock, or do you think I don’t see?, you do it secretly, under the covers, so I won’t know you have difficulty working it out, I’m going to ask you a favor, whatever happens, whatever age you are, don’t stop counting the time on your fingers, promise me, octopus.

28 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Copies of Navidad & Matanza arrived in the office on Friday, so we’re finally able to give away 20 copies via GoodReads. All the information about the contest is below, but first, a bit about about the book itself, starting with the greatest blurb we’ve ever included on the front of one of our titles:

“Carlos Labbé’s [Navidad & Matanza] begins to fuck with your head from its very first word—moving through journalese, financial reporting, whodunit, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler, Nabokov to David Lynch.”—Toby Litt

Even putting aside the very compelling statement that this book is going to “fuck with your head from its very first word,” that’s quite a line-up of influences . . . All of which are completely accurate.

This isn’t an easy book to describe—there are a few related storylines, one involving scientists making a drug of hate, and another about their attempt to play a “novel-game” in which they take turns creating a story (a game that Labbé actually played and that we’ll post more about later), which all ties into the disappearance of two children . . . Here’s my best attempt at formally describing this novel:

It’s the summer of 1999 when the two children of wealthy video game executive Jose Francisco Vivar, Alicia and Bruno, go missing in the beach town of Matanza. Long after their disappearance, the people of Matanza and the adjacent town of Navidad consistently report sightings of Bruno—on the beach, in bars, gambling—while reports on Alicia, however, are next to none. And every clue keeps circling back to a man named Boris Real . . .

At least that’s how the story—or one of many stories, rather—goes. All of them are told by a journalist narrator, who recounts the mysterious case of the Vivar family from an underground laboratory where he and six other “subjects” have taken up a novel-game, writing and exchanging chapters over email, all while waiting for the fear-inducing drug hadón to take its effect, and their uncertain fates.

A literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman, Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is a work of metafiction that not only challenges our perceptions of facts and observations, and of identity and reality, but also of basic human trust.

For the Spanish literature obsessed out there, you may recognize Carlos Labbé’s name from Granta’s special “Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue from a couple years back. Not only was Labbé included, but an excerpt from this book was in there. (But in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.)

If you missed that issue, you can read an excerpt from the book on our site, where you can also just pre-order the book if you don’t want to fool around with this GoodReads contest stuff.

But if you are up for trying to win a free copy, here’s how you enter:


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé

Navidad & Matanza

by Carlos Labbé

Giveaway ends February 10, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Contest closes on February 10th, so enter today!

22 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Jan Pytalski on María Rosa Lojo’s Passionate Nomads, translated by Brett Alan Sanders, published by Aliform Publishing.

Jan (a.k.a. Janek) is a current student in the MA in Literary Translation Studies at the University of Rochester, and hails from Great Poland (where the potato was invented). As a Fulbright scholar and Eastern European, his duties include playing on our Literary Folk indoor soccer league team, teaching us how to make paçzki, and introducing us to some great Polish literature. He’s also a great lover of world literature in general. This review is one of several we’ll be posting in the near future, written as assignments by Chad’s Intro to Publishing students. Here’s the beginning of Janek’s review:

Passionate Nomads, by Argentinian writer María Rosa Lojo, comes to us from Aliform Publishing in a riveting translation from its Spanish original by Brett Alan Sanders. And before I get into the book’s details, allow me to first make a quick and rather bold statement: if these roughly 250 pages of prose lack anything, it’s proper marketing and getting word about it out there. Consider this an executive order, if you will, to dig deep into your pockets and buy a copy.

Behind the publishing of Passionate Nomads is also a passionate story. Sanders received a grant to translate the book, but due to external circumstances had to make a rather dramatic decision and in the end used the grant to actually publish the book. Now, if that’s not passionate enough for you, I don’t know what is. Ursula K. Le Guin blurbed the book and wrote:

Passionate Nomads is a most extraordinary addition to the literature of the New World . . . Lojo evokes a profound fantasy of the real—not a rewriting of history, but an imaginative recall and understanding of what has been forgotten, cannot be remembered, and yet must be remembered.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

22 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Passionate Nomads, by Argentinian writer María Rosa Lojo, comes to us from Aliform Publishing in a riveting translation from its Spanish original by Brett Alan Sanders. And before I get into the book’s details, allow me to first make a quick and rather bold statement: if these roughly 250 pages of prose lack anything, it’s proper marketing and getting word about it out there. Consider this an executive order, if you will, to dig deep into your pockets and buy a copy.

Behind the publishing of Passionate Nomads is also a passionate story. Sanders received a grant to translate the book, but due to external circumstances had to make a rather dramatic decision and in the end used the grant to actually publish the book. Now, if that’s not passionate enough for you, I don’t know what is. Ursula K. Le Guin blurbed the book and wrote:

Passionate Nomads is a most extraordinary addition to the literature of the New World . . . Lojo evokes a profound fantasy of the real—not a rewriting of history, but an imaginative recall and understanding of what has been forgotten, cannot be remembered, and yet must be remembered.”

The story of Merlin the Magician, his protégé Rosaura dos Carballos, and a modernized, Argentine version of Baron von Münchausen in the character of Lucio Victorio Mansilla melts genres and poetics, leaving you enchanted. Lucio escaped Heaven. Yes, you read right: he was bored and disappointed (no wonder, as his particular Heaven was filled with stage props) and felt like there was a lot to be done “downstairs.” He got the basics right. Indeed, before he knows it, a line of disgruntled characters—from former lovers to tribal chiefs of Ranquel Indians, some in the flesh, some in spirit—hold meetings with Lucio to explain a thing or two to our hero:

He came to make us sign the peace treaty that afterward no Christian chief respected. He knew and he didn’t say. He wrote a book where he portrays us as he thought to see us, and they gave him prizes for that long story and even across the sea they found out about our lives and customs and many gringos must have laughed about what we learned from our parents and they from theirs back to the first days.

There are others too. Rosaura, a daughter of a noble fairy and a common practical joker, goblin, and vagabond— trasnos —and Merlin, the famous magician who in the 20th century does just as well as in medieval times—managing his real estate and navigating the new reality:

As usual, the ancient Scottish blood that circulates through Merlin’s no less ancient veins guided him with blind instinct to attaining the best financial bargain with that first enemy of the soul invented by bored theologians: the World, which is driven by the mercenary law of gold.

We hear Lucio’s voice through his letters:

Friend Santiago: It has been more than a hundred years since, with winged pen, I set about writing you those letters that became so famous and dealt with my audacious visit to the Ranquel Indians. If at the time I counted on your envying my trip—I tried, in the friendliest fashion, to rile you—I’d rather not even imagine what you would feel now were you to find out where I am, and in what sort of company.

We also get Rosaura’s voice through her manuscript, which recounts the entire trip; and Merlin’s, who chimes in whenever (and however) he feels like it. The author is masterful with her language, her use of different voices, and this rare art of fluid transitions—a painless back-and-forth jaunt from one engaging narrator to another. You don’t feel deprived, you don’t think, “Shit, just when it was getting interesting I have to deal with this guy’s problems for the next 30 pages.” No, Passionate Nomads feels good all the way. I’m sure there’s a more literary way to put it, but to me it felt like a time when you’re listening to a really good story—let’s say by the fire, and let’s say that this fire is located somewhere in the Argentinian Pampas where the icy, crisp air and the dry, low brush are all painted with nice, pastel-colored strokes and just the right amount of detail. That’s how it felt to me.

I don’t speak Spanish, so I read only Sanders’s translation. His rendition of Rojo’s novel comes to life, the dialogues flow, but feel a little alien, too. There’s no doubt we hear voices from a different land, different time, and often a different dimension. It’s detailed—Sanders made sure to save what should be saved in the original. So, if you care to indulge in a little metaphor with me, we—the readers of translations, literary vagabonds, or trasnos —get exactly what we’re striving for: a variety, something distant brought a little closer, an alien conceit showed and explained a little bit by our learned friend.

Passionate Nomads is also, to some extent, a historical novel. Sanders made sure all of us ignorant fellows will learn something about Argentina, its people, and its history. He has provided readers with extensive endnotes, and I like to have them, so I praise them. Just as much as I admire Sanders’s ear for dialogue, I appreciate the hard work put into the research for those endnotes. They’re not too detailed, and in my mind, give the right amount of background for all that happens in the book.

An adventure story, comical and full of spunk, but also nostalgic and reflective— Passionate Nomads is all of that. But aside from the plot, it’s simply beautifully written and translated.

An insatiable sorrow rises in my throat, no longer for myself but for those I loved so much and who kept dying, for the imperfect and turbulent world that I nevertheless loved and that died with them and with me, for the grand, pure words we all take upon ourselves to bury when our life exhausts and corrupts them.

16 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a special post from Katherine Rucker, a MALTS student here at the University of Rochester who is doing an independent study with me on Latin American literature. As you’ll see below, she’s planning on doing sample translations—and reader’s reports—from a bunch of underrepresented Spanish language literatures. Problem is, she’s having a tough time finding interesting, contemporary, untranslated books from some of these places.

Once I realized that I’d never really translated anything by an author who wasn’t from Spain or Argentina, I decided to do a sort of choose your own adventure Spanish class this semester. It’s basically an independent study where I’ll only read books from Spanish-speaking countries that are less represented in translation. But first I’ll have to choose some books. Beyond the usual challenge of finding books that are both a) good and b) have translation rights available, I found that it’s actually damn near impossible to find any kind of book from countries like Nicaragua. Or Costa Rica. Much less Panama.

Granted, part of this might have to do with the actual number of books coming out of those countries. (At one point in my Internet-crawling I realized that what I was looking at wasn’t a “Best Books of 2013” list, but actually a list of “All the Books Published in This Country Last Year”.) The more I looked, the more I became convinced that this has a lot to do with the framework of publishing throughout most of Latin America–namely the fact that most of the publishers are incredibly out-of-touch with the modern methods of reaching a wider audience . . . by which I mean the Internet.

As an example, I found a book I wanted to read from Uruguay. It was on one of the only publisher’s websites I stumbled on that wasn’t hard to look at and actually seemed functional. They even had a decent catalog. Great. I figured I could just order the book online—but every search I did brought me back to the same publisher’s website . . . who wanted me to either send them a message or give them a phone call saying which books I wanted and then come pick them up from their office. Shipping was extra, and they only shipped within Uruguay.

I guess what I might be experiencing here is something that other translators have confronted before: even if I’m actively seeking out books from a particular countries, I’m going to have a hard time finding them. And if I’m not actively looking for them, I’m never, ever going to find them—and books that are invisible to translators stay invisible to everyone else, too.

So unless someone wants to fly me to Uruguay for Spring Break, I’ll keep sorting through bad publishing websites, trying to find something promising. But since I know you all wouldn’t be reading Three Percent if you didn’t care about promoting translation, I’ll go ahead and say that I’d love to hear from you. If you’re the biggest fan of Bolivia’s best-kept secret, if you’re a translator or publisher with a giant library, or even if you just happen to be a bit better at googling than I am, I’d love it if you helped me find some books from these under-translated countries. I’m eager to see what we’ll find.

—Katherine Rucker (krucker [at] z.rochester.edu)

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on this woman, Sonsoles, though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He’s alone, average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

As Javier stalks Sonsoles, he sees and falls in love with her teenage sister, Rosana. He begins to lie his way into her (Rosana’s) life. Javier and Rosana meet, chat, and meet again, and eventually they find their way to a swimming pool, where Javier has something akin to a religious experience when he sees her in her bikini. Finally, when Javier decides the pranks have gone far enough, he takes Rosana to a quiet place where he’s about to break off their strange, illicit relationship, when something happens (I won’t spoil it for you) that turns Javier’s experience from revenge-as-amusement to life-altering-shitstorm.

In this short novel, Javier, who speaks to us as a first person narrator, is aware of his shortcomings, though he doesn’t present them as evidence of his innocence. He knows he’s guilty and accepts his punishment without any apparent joy or sadness. His sense of right and wrong is, in a strange way, what guides him, even when he chooses what’s wrong. In choosing revenge, he seeks balance to Sonsoles’ cruelty, though he miscalculates and tips the scales the other way. Indeed, plotting revenge requires two graves,.

The title, The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, refers to Javier. The novel attempts to establish a parallel between Javier and one imaginary Bolshevik who, before killing a beautiful Russian grand duchess, falls in love with her. “What a tender moment,” Javier tells us, “when the Bolshevik turns against himself and the Revolution to admit his already necessarily despairing love for the Grand Duchess.”

Which brings us to the class issue. Javier is well-paid, but needs to work long days to stay that way. Sonsoles’s life will be a long road paved with money and comfort. The contrast is clear: Javier is the Bolshevik, Rosana the Dutchess. It makes one wonder: Would Javier have launched his revenge quest without feeling some sort of class resentment (subconscious or otherwise)? He certainly has his views of morality and wealth/poverty (“A conscience isn’t a basic commodity, just a whim of people with full stomachs”). It’s a question that lingers. The way Javier feels about himself certainly has something to do with what his job—and, by extension, the economy as a whole—has done to him.

Money, overall, seems to hover in the background, while the emptiness at the core of Javier’s life takes center stage. As readers, we hope he fills it with the love he seems to need. In the end, though, we are left pondering Javier’s final thoughts, as well as bits of wisdom he offered throughout the book, including this little nugget: “There is no more interesting believer than the one who changes faith.”

Amen.

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Because we love books and love to talk about them SO MUCH (and because we fell behind a bit over the holidays AND because we’re all snowed in today after last nights semi-blizzard), here’s another review for all y’all before the weekend hits. This latest addition to our “Reviews”: section in a piece by Peter Biello on Lorenzo Silva’s The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, out from Hispabooks Publishing.

Peter Biello is the organizer of the Burlington Writers Workshop and a producer/announcer/host at Vermont Public Radio. He’s also followable on Twitter @PeterBiello.

Three cheers to Peter for not only joining the ranks as a reviewer for Three Percent, but for taking on a book that not only has the narrator explaining how his soul is a dead weight nestled between his nads, but also shows the extremes of post-road-rage.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on the woman, Sonsoles—though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He lives alone, is average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Emily Davis on César Aira’s The Hare, from New Directions.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and now lives in India, rubbing elbows with other awesome translators, and is also one of the contributing translators to Open Letter’s forthcoming Spanish fiction anthology. (She’s also the original East Coast version of me—or I’m the original Midwest version of her. For those of you who know either of us, you know both of us.)

Here’s a bit of Emily’s review:

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense.

For the entire review, go here

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I should say at the outset that there is a lot of absurdity in the whole thing.”

As the shaman Mallén prepares to explain to Clarke the legend of the Legibrerian hare, I can’t help but read “the whole thing” as not simply the legend, but indeed the entire novel. At nearly 300 pages, The Hare is a great deal longer than Aira’s usually much thinner volumes, and accordingly, there is a lot of Airian absurdity in it.

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense. Clarke is constantly thinking about this, as he compares the vast empty landscape to an urban labyrinth:

I’ve also lived in London, and what this desert we are going through reminded me of was in fact London, the greatest city in the world. Strange, isn’t it? They would seem to have nothing in common, and yet the effects are the same, even down to details. If you head in any direction, either along its streets or out into this endless wilderness, the sense of being in a labyrinth where there’s no labyrinth, of everything being on view, of homogeneity, is exactly the same . . .

and desperately tries to explain repeated sightings of a “wanderer” whose position and movement appear to be logically inexplicable:

Once, a lone rider who remained in their sight for hours caught their attention. He was travelling along what was for them the skyline, and his trajectory seemed to be moving from one side to the other, not in the manner of a normal zigzag (in which case they would have noticed him moving closer then drawing further away) but rather as if the whole space between observers and observed were tilting. . . . The alarming thing was that they saw him again two days later, but this time at a completely different point, separate from the horizon. . . . Clarke became worried. . . . drawing a diagram with a twig in the dust when they stopped to camp. He was trying to work out how the rider’s position had changed, but contradicted his own calculations when he tried to include the tilting in space he thought he had detected on both occasions.

And then there’s the story about the enormous ducks—ducks the size of humans—that could only be possible within this mysterious world, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Another element of The Hare that’s worth pointing out, especially to those of you who are interested in translation (and considering where you’re reading this, I’m assuming that’s, like, all of you), is the interplay of languages. Not only is Clarke an Englishman traveling in an officially Spanish-speaking country, but most of the people he converses with speak either Huilliche or Voroga. This means that when we read Nick Caistor’s English translation—depending on how willing we are to jump down the rabbit hole—much of what we’re reading is essentially a translation (from Spanish) of a translation (from Huilliche or Voroga). This is all well and good and not that unusual, but I imagine it must be satisfying, when translating, to end up writing a line like “The joke was different in Huilliche of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.”

What’s more, there’s even special acknowledgment of the difficulties inherent in translation, especially where there are ambiguities of meaning:

In the Huilliche tongue, these last two nouns had several meanings. Clarke could not immediately decide how they were being used on this occasion, and asked for an explanation. He knew what he was letting himself in for, because the Indians could be especially labyrinthine in these delicate issues of semantics: their idea of the continuum prevented them from giving clear and precise definitions.

Of course here, as well as in the line “He [the Voroga chief, Coliqueo] created monstrous sentences, joining the subject of one with the predicate of another, in order to increase their vagueness,” I can’t help but wonder: are you describing your characters’ language, or your own narrative style? And, to be honest, this is precisely why I like it. I realize not everyone is as obsessed with self-referential style as I am, nor as prone to spot examples of it everywhere, almost compulsively, so I’ll stop myself there and skip right to this:

The Hare is disorienting from the start, and yet as the setting turns more disorienting (and the protagonists more disoriented, the plot more convoluted), things start to fall into place. The crazy tale culminates in a bizarre series of plot twists worthy of a daytime talk show, but the biggest surprise of all is that it actually comes off as kind of charming.

27 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

The novel opens with Javier Cetarti, a shiftless loser who was fired from his job six months earlier and who was just about to run out of money and, more importantly, marijuana, when he receives a phone call from a guy named Duarte in a tiny village called Lapachito, far to the north of Cordoba, where Cetarti lives. Duarte has some bad news: Cetarti’s mother and brother had been killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who also killed himself as the coup de grace of the grisly bloodbath. Cetarti hardly reacts to the news, but gets in the car and makes the 600+ kilometer drive up north when Duarte tells him there is some sort of life insurance policy involved, and Cetarti has the chance to cash in:

Of all the news Duarte had given him the night before, Cetarti had been most motivated to drive to Lapachito by the news that there was a life insurance policy to collect. He had been booted out of his job six months before (lack of initiative, discouraging behavior), and he had eaten through almost all of his compensation without lifting a finger.

For a dude who sits around smoking pot all day, refusing to work, this is a pretty sweet chance, and it also forms the introduction, within the first five pages, to Cetarti’s questionable moral impulse. This lack of morality becomes one of the main themes that dominates Cetarti’s universe vividly portrayed by Busqued in Under This Terrible Sun.

Cetarti arrives in his mother’s village, a wasteland that seems like the set of a horror story come to life: the houses are sinking into the mud caused by an industrial accident, the city is literally collapsing in on itself, poisonous beetles are taking over (although Cetarti is pretty sure there are no poisonous beetles, everyone tells him the beetles he sees everywhere are poisonous), and the residents can’t be bothered to leave because they just get used to it, as Duarte tells Cetarti. Welcome to Lapachito; it may be its own layer of hell.

Duarte lets Cetarti in on the life insurance scheme he’s concocted. Turns out, Cetarti’s mom’s live-in boyfriend, Molina, took out a life insurance policy before the massacre, and Cetarti could technically lay claim to the loot. It involves some questionable dealings, greasing the palms of government officials, and it doesn’t take long before you realize Duarte is hardly an ally, he’s as shady as it gets and completely incapable of doing Good. But he’s still promising Cetarti a sizeable payday, and he supplies Cetarti with tons of good weed, so Cetarti can’t complain.

Cetarti joins Duarte to visit his mother’s house, where the killing took place, and when they open the door they meet Molina’s ex-wife, who is there cleaning everything up. Cetarti goes through his mother’s and brother’s belongings without emotion, takes a few items, including what turns out to be keys to his brother’s apartment in Cordoba. The next day, he visits Duarte at home and gets a little creeped out, but rather laconically, as is Cetarti’s style, by some of the pornography that Duarte keeps laying around his house. Along with building a fleet of intricately-detailed model airplanes that are referenced throughout the novel, and paralleled by the characters watching a series of military documentaries on TV, Duarte is in the process of digitizing a fleet of brutal VHS porno tapes he’d collected, with titles too vile to mention here. He explains his choice of this particularly violent and nasty pornography to Cetarti:

“There’s some pornography you don’t watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go . . . This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them. That old woman, I picture her getting dressed with her ass all destroyed, taking the subway, buying chocolates for her grandchildren with the money she just earned by letting them do that to her . . .”

Duarte is obsessed with seeing how far the human species will go—and not just on video. A man of action, Duarte is a vibrant character: completely evil, completely amoral, completely unsympathetic, and for all of these reasons, a fascinating character. Although he commits all sorts of extortion schemes for money, he seems far more driven by the thought of pushing human bodies to their breaking point than in receiving money for anything. Which is terrifying.

Around this time we meet his henchman, a fat, shiftless pothead named Danielito, who is the son of the deceased Molina and Molina’s ex-wife. Duarte uses Danielito’s basement to hold hostages, seeking a ransom from the victim’s family at the same time as he abuses and violates the victims. Danielito is an all-too-willing accomplice to the torture, feeding the victims, but otherwise staying out of the way and letting Duarte enact his most revolting fantasies on his victims (fortunately, only alluded to).

The point of view at this point in the novel begins to alternate between Cetarti and Danielito, Duarte is never the focal point, the narrative proceeds through Cetarti and Danielito’s THC-reddened eyes, but he is the connection between the two characters (who don’t meet until much later in the novel), and only through Duarte do the parallels between their weed-soaked lives become evident: they sit around, smoke weed, eat sometimes, and watch nature and war documentaries on TV constantly. The subjects of these documentaries (elephants in southeast Asia, giant squids, WWII) recur over and over again in both characters’ lives.

The interplay between inhuman humans and mysterious deadly creatures of land and sea forms one of the most interesting themes of the novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given the novel’s epigraph, taken from Alfred Tennyson’s “The Kraken”: “ . . . Then once by man and angels to be seen, / In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”

In one particularly creepy scene from which the novel’s title is lifted, Danielito’s mother asks him to accompany her to another shitty village far from Lapachito in order to steal the bones of her firstborn son, who died before he was a year old and who, much to Danielito’s chagrin, is also named Daniel, and leads Danielito to fantasize about elephants he’d heard from Duarte were man-killers in southeast Asia, a theme that is first raised in conversation between Cetarti and Duarte much earlier in the novel. This particular scene is also an excellent example of Busqued’s narrative technique, and illustrates the overall vibe of the novel:

bq. He couldn’t avoid a shudder when he read, painted on the tin heart: DANIEL MOLINA 2-12-1972/10-4-1973. He looked at his mother. She was staring at the sunken earth. bq. “Poor thing, all these years under this terrible sun.” bq. He dug apprehensively. The earth was soft, but he felt no urge to speed up. He was soaked in sweat. Around the cemetery there was an island of empty land, and after a hundred meters the bush-covered mountain. He remembered the documentary about the elephants of Mal Bazaar. He imagined one of those elephants emerging from the forest. He imagined it coming towards them. A complex and powerful body that shook the earth at each step. But the elephant wouldn’t attack them, he thought. It would approach them calmly and with a certain curiosity. It would stop beside them, touching them gently with its trunk. And then it would fall to the ground. Or disappear into thin air. Or something, anything else. But it wouldn’t hurt them. “Almost every mahout is an alcoholic,” he remembered. How nice to be an alcoholic, he though, how nice to be murdered by an elephant. Something, anything else.

Cetarti eventually goes home to Cordoba and moves out of his apartment into the place where his brother had been living, accumulating massive amounts of junk (bug collections, Readers Digest, orange peels) in a strange part of town called Hugo Wast, a mysterious neighborhood where nobody owns their houses, but rather squats in them, located near the municipal slaughterhouse, which gives the area a particular smell when the wind blows in the right way. Cetarti eventually gets the money from Duarte and—to make a long story short and to glaze over Duarte doing some dastardly deeds and Danielito’s mother morphing into a very interesting and strong secondary character on whom many words could be written alone—Cetarti eventually gets wrapped up in another one of Duarte’s schemes, which leads to the rather abrupt ending (which comes about a bit too neatly for me).

As I said, I’m not one for gruesome novels, so I can assure you that this novel, despite being disturbing, is worth reading. It’s shocking and interesting in ways that literary novels rarely achieve. I mentioned Se7en above: it’s actually a pretty good comparison, the same creeping dread and inhuman elements are at play, which is actually refreshing to read in Busqued’s telling, capturing some of the more interesting morally-questionable elements of humanity that are usually only portrayed in Scandinavian (or other styles of) detective thrillers. Busqued is a good writer, sparse at times, maintaining a narrative distance from the characters’ impulses while simultaneously opening the door into some of their thoughts. His sentences are seemingly simplistic in construction, but all the while gather elements and build up to a pulse-quickening crescendo, all told via the quality work of translator, Megan McDowell (a UT-Dallas translation program alumna!).

As one of new ebook-only publisher Frisch & Co.‘s first titles, they have done an admirable job of bringing Busqued’s novel into English as part of their unique partnership with Editorial Anagrama, in which they will publish two books a year from the Spanish-language publishers in digital formats. It remains to be seen if Frisch & Co. will partner with anybody to do physical copies of these books, but either way, in any format, Under This Terrible Sun is a damn good read.

30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Carlos Busqued’s Under This Terrible Sun, from e-book publisher Frisch & Co.

Will Evans—known to many as The Apprentice of Summer 2012 here at Open Letter—is the publisher behind the still-relatively-new Deep Vellum, a translated literature press deep in the heart of Texas. In addition to being fueled by unlimited amounts of caffeine and the love for world lit, Will is undeniably one of the coolest people anyone can ever meet.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece from Jeremy Garber on Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from Knopf.

I could take a year off of work just to read, and at the end of that year, my “to read” bookshelves would still be overflowing and I’d still feel like I didn’t get to all the things that I wanted.

I only mention this because my copy of Marías’s The Infatuations arrived yesterday and made me want to set aside everything else. (Except for the fact that that “everything else” is editing Juan José Saer’s La Grande, which may very well be the best book I’ve read since reading Saer’s Scars.) But, I also still have the Marías trilogy to get to. And a stack of 12-14 books that I want to review for Three Percent. And I now have cable and all of the La Liga, Premiere League, Serie A, and Ligue 1 games to watch. And.

Anyway, Jeremy Garber — who is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore and has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com—wrote this fantastic review of The Infatuations. Jeremy’s reviews are always really fantastic, and I love his technique of inserting a ton of quotes from the book itself.

Here’s the opening:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

All this information was published over a period of two days, the two days following the murder. Then the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace. We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to have our attention shifted from one thing to another, to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if, after each one, we thought: “How dreadful. But what’s next? What other horrors have we avoided? We need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.

Once morbid curiosity, fascination, and, perhaps, schadenfreude no longer fuel our fertile imaginations, a murder (nothing more) becomes as disposable as any of the myriad news stories that we’ve somehow indulged as being momentarily relevant to our lives. Marías works this pervasive and perverse social peculiarity to great effect—intriguing us enough to concern ourselves with the fate of his characters (with ever the freedom to simply turn or walk away), yet forever eroding the space around them from which we can watch safely from the periphery. It’s a deliriously intoxicating technique, one evinced by our daily obsession with celebrity scandal, political malfeasance, far-off disaster, or nearby crimes of passion. These truncated news stories and soundbites, in reality, often have not the slightest thing to do with our own lives, but end up somehow consuming us (however briefly) all the same—as if they were somehow vested with the weight of our own personal stake. María is unable to turn away and neither are we.

Whereas so many whodunnits content themselves with little more than revealing the perpetrator and their hackneyed impulses, The Infatuations seeks to explore and confront a much broader purview. with perceptive observations and often tender insights into thought, reason, emotion, judgment, and the murky fringes of reality, Marías draws us into an almost inescapable role of accomplice and witness. He is able to do this so effectively by extracting the reader from the mystery of the murder itself (with which so few of us can identify) and repositioning one within the more familiar confines of love lost, relationships torn asunder, and the inevitable self-doubt which follows.

We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, before they can can abandon us or we abandon them. Anything that lasts goes bad and putrefies, it bores us, turns against us, saturates and wearies us. How many people who once seemed vital to us are left by the wayside, how many relationships wear thin, become diluted for no apparent reason or certainly none of any weight. The only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us, the only ones we don’t drop are those who abruptly disappear and so have no time to cause us pain or disappointment. When that happens, we despair momentarily, because we believe we could have continued with them for much longer, with no foreseeable expiry date. That’s a mistake, albeit understandable. continuity changes everything, and something we thought wonderful yesterday would have become a torment tomorrow.

Is the author manipulating us? Are we willing participants? Are we rendered prostrate simply because the story evokes the universal feeling of unrequited desire and heartbreak? What about the abhorrent murder? Is all grief transmutable and therefore inexorable? Are we failing to see beyond all that is shown?

I would never know more than what he told me, and so i would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that after all these centuries of practice, after so many incredible advances and inventions, we still have no way of knowing when someone is lying; naturally, this both benefits and prejudices all of us equally, and may be our one remaining redoubt of freedom.

Marías’s thirteenth novel (and the tenth to be translated into english), achingly beautiful and seemingly effortless like so much of his writing, could only have been carefully constructed by one possessed of a compassion and discernment alien to lesser writers. The Infatuations is not a flawless outing, but a remarkable and impressive one nonetheless. Marías’s exploration of doubt, truth, life, love, and violence does not answer any of the age-old questions of morality and mortality, but leaves us with the sense that there is much veracity and wisdom to be found within the shadows and gradations. A master of contemporary fiction (and regularly mentioned as a perennial candidate for world literature’s highest honor), Marías is among the finest european writers at work today.

The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn’t the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. it advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labors, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Each morning, it turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday—the balance of power—that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us. And yet quite the opposite is true, but time conceals this from us with is treacherous minutes and sly seconds, until a strange, unthinkable day arrives, when nothing is as it always was . . .

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book is by definition and appearances a tome. At just over 700 pages (and hardcover) it’s a doorstop for a doorstop. But I will be one of the first people in line to champion lengthy books, and argue that insane length ≠ poor quality. Just because a book takes you a few hours to read and sits at 85 pages does not make it fantastic. Same can be said for 500+ page books (massive books like Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything can read just as quickly as the majority’s go-to 150 page novels). Just because it might take you a week or two to work through it, it doesn’t make it a crap book . . . And based on the jacket copy and what Vincent discusses in his review, Sapienza’s The Art of Joy sounds like a truly fascinating read, in great part because of the author’s own life (Goliarda was a Bad. Ass.). I’ve got a copy of this at home and am dying to read it myself . . .

Enough rave-ranting from me! Here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

For the rest of the review, go here

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

The theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

27 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second book from Frisch & Co. has just been released— Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued and translated by Megan McDowell.

Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies. After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control. . .

A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.

This is only available as an ebook, which you can purchase via the Frisch & Co. website or from your favorite ebook retailer.

And as with La Vida Doble, we should have a review of this up in the not too distant future.

19 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Kids these days. They think they’ve invented everything. The McOndo writers and Crack Generation, who so proudly buck the Magic Realist tendencies of García Márquez, who seek to find a place within Latin American letters sans spirits . . . they’ve got their heads in the right place even if their books aren’t always the best. But, having read the stories of Manuel Abreu Adorno, I have to wonder if the Crack and McOndo groups know that their battle was won in 1978.

And the Hippies Came, the collected stories of Abreu Adorno (not to be confused with the other Adorno, who is far less fun to read), is, as the translator’s forward tell us, a neglected classic, a book that resonated with readers upon impact and caught the attention of Julio Cortázar. No wonder: the book is daring, fun, utterly readable, and—why not, let’s use the term—postmodern.

Abreu Adorno’s stories, most of them one part of a conversation, boast a striking immediacy, so much that the experimentation of tales such as “to please ourselves” effectively draws the reader along through a string of references, piled up without punctuation, to an inevitable conclusion. The pop culture mingled with literary playfulness is surely what captivated initial readers, fusing music with literature and echoing the tastes of readers who love Oulipo and the Beats as well as the Allman Brothers and Arsenio Rodríguez. Riffing off of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Abreu Adorno presents us with “the truth about farrah fawcett majors,” a deconstruction and reconstruction of a sentence that reveals a number of ideas within one very famous source. “what they said to each other for twenty-five dollars” narrates a conversation between a Spanish-speaking prostitute and her john, a CIA agent, neither speaking in the other’s tongue, the Spanish here un-translated in order to effectively communicate the distance between these characters. But the jewel in the crown may be the title story, which celebrates the arrival of a rock festival on the beach of Vega Baja along the lines of Woodstock, an event that promises music, sex, and LSD—but also brings horror:

“I came and saw how some local boys beat up some blonde kids. I came and saw how some stole from the tents of others. I came and saw naked girls everywhere. I came and saw people were smoking and singing . . . . I came and saw colors multiply before my eyes. I came and saw a group of local boys masturbating behind some palm trees. I came and found out they had raped several girls. I came and I was told how some kid had been stabbed that afternoon.”

Perhaps it is a disservice to highlight the grim moments of the story, but I feel the tale best exemplifies the reality behind the hippie illusion, the manner in which American celebrity manifests when exported, and the clash of dominant and subjugated cultures. This was the late 70s, well after the idealism of the hippies was shown to be, at best, a mixed bag. And for the shores of Vega Baja in tiny Puerto Rico, such a grand spectacle of American joyful excess could only end with an equal dose of pain.

Now that I’ve spoken about the steak, let’s talk about the sizzle: kudos to 7Vientos, the small press that resurrected this book. Published as a flip edition with the stories in their native Spanish along with the English translation, packaged with beautiful art printed directly on the hardcover, and loaded with author photos, the book feels like rock and roll albums used to feel in the days before iTunes. Kudos as well to Rafael Franco-Steeves for translating the book, a labor of love that has brought English speakers a neglected literary voice and reintroduced Spanish readers to a lost classic.

19 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on And the Hippies Came (Llegaron los Hippies) by Manuel Abreu Adorno, from 7Vientos.

Vincent is a frequent reviewer for Three Percent, and recently discovered and fell in love with 7Vientos, a brand-new press based in Chicago specializing in Latin-American literature. The press has two books out so far, both with pretty awesome cover art. And the Hippies Came also boasts a neat layout in that it’s a flip book: the original Spanish can be read from one side, and the English translation from the other.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Kids these days. They think they’ve invented everything. The McOndo writers and Crack Generation, who so proudly buck the Magic Realist tendencies of García Márquez, who seek to find a place within Latin American letters sans spirits . . . they’ve got their heads in the right place even if their books aren’t always the best. But, having read the stories of Manuel Abreu Adorno, I have to wonder if the Crack and McOndo groups know that their battle was won in 1978.

And the Hippies Came, the collected stories of Abreu Adorno (not to be confused with the other Adorno, who is far less fun to read), is, as the translator’s forward tell us, a neglected classic, a book that resonated with readers upon impact and caught the attention of Julio Cortázar. No wonder: the book is daring, fun, utterly readable, and—why not, let’s use the term—postmodern.

For the rest of the review, go here

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been meaning to read Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century ever since we ran Jeremy Garber’s review back in April 2012. And then it made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, which further peaked my interest. But man, it’s a 500+ page book—something that’s never easy to fit into a reading schedule packed with editing projects, other reviews, etc., etc. When the paperback edition arrived on my desk though, I was sold—I had to make time to read this. So, on the long train rides to and from BookExpo America, I did.

Since this book has been in the Three Percent ether for a while, my review isn’t exactly standard . . . It’s an attempt to go one step beyond a typical plot-related book review and open it up a bit. I’m not sure this 100% works (I wrote it on GoodReads while watching a soccer match), but hopefully it’s interesting if for no other reason than that I alluded to it on last week’s podcast.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s the opening:

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Click here to read the full piece.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Although nothing really seems to happen in this book (like a 90s indie movie, it’s mostly talk and ideas), there are a number of settings and set pieces that flesh out Neuman’s view of the major trends in thought and society at the time. For example, the bit about the strike at the factory and the way in which the management crushes it is quite illuminating and lays out one of the main conflicts of the time.

That said, the primary setting is the weekly salon, which takes place thanks to Sophie, and features all of our main characters: Hans, Sophie, her fiancé, the Levins, the conservative old professor . . . The salon discussion unfolds for pages and pages, exploring major concepts like nationalism, the possibility of translation, the role of women in society, and Romanticism, not to mention a dozen authors/thinkers/poets/dramatists whom most people reading this (I suspect), will be unfamiliar with (which is a shame).

Anyway, it’s during these salons that Sophie comes to life. As a rebellious, independent, smart, sexy woman, she’s a sort of book-boy ideal—the woman who can namecheck all the poets while pushing all of the boundaries imposed by conservative German society and rocking an elegant dress that accentuates her womanly charms. Seriously—as a character, Sophie is fully fleshed out, and so fucking cool.

What struck me about her though—especially after talking to Bromance Will about the rapist and the fap-worthy scenes—is that she’s constantly deconstructing (in spot-on fashion) the way in which male writers and thinkers impose their ideas of Woman on women via their prose. There are several points in which Sophie calls out a poet in a way that’s much more modern than what (probably?) really existed in Germany at that time.

Which brings me to the rapist. Almost. So, one of the major planks of this book is the illicit relationship between Hans and Sophie. It takes place on the sly, on the fringes, unacceptable by all standards (especially then).

One of the reasons Neuman’s world building works so well is that he sets up a lot of parallels and opposites. In terms of the salon, Hans’s opposite is Professor Mietter, who is much more conservative and stodgy (although in many ways, the two actually agree), and in terms of the banging, the businessman Alvaro’s relationship with Sophie’s servant, Elsa, serves as a sort of parallel to Sophie’s relationship with Hans. And in terms of the opposite, we have the rapist.

A bit about the rapist: One of the darker, more traditionally suspenseful storylines in the book revolves around a man who attacks women in dark alleyways and eludes the police for quite some time. In terms of page count, this is a minor bit of the book, although the rapist’s actions impact several of our key characters. The resolution of this plot line is somewhat anti-climactic though, and it never rises above the level of sub-plot, which is why I think Will was curious about it.

One obvious reason to include the rapist is that it appeals to the traditional reader for whom 500+ pages of ideas is a bit scary. But there’s also something more at work here . . .

First off, both Hans and the rapist get their sex on outside of what’s accepted in society. Obviously one of these is much more violent and awful than the other, but within nineteenth century Germany, Hans’s plowing of a soon-to-be-married woman—who will soon be married to the richest, most important person in town no less—is really fucking unacceptable. And his attempts to get her to break off her engagement, to abandon her father and run away with him to translate contain echoes of the male poets and their ideas about women.

Stepping back a level, this is a novel written by a man in which he basically constructs a vision of an ideal woman . . . which is exactly what Sophie criticizes in all of those male poets. So, is Sophie just a male wish-fulfillment fantasy? It’s almost as if Neuman is—consciously or not—aware of this and uneasy about it. And as a result, this book contains heaps of clashing viewpoints and a sort of unceasing desire to include all of them—including the darkest sorts (rape) that offset the more romantic ideal (Hans’s pure love for Sophie).

In short, this is a really incredible book that is overflowing with ideas, told in a cool style—I love the use of parentheses to convey interjections and responses—by one of the greatest young Spanish writers of our times. So don’t be intimidated—just read it.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013. Click here for Part I.

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

Another feature of the text that is present, but kept very much in the background in the original text, is its meditation on translation. The 1998 Encyclopedia concludes with the following line:

Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible) Yo.

The repetition already indicates that this is translation of a sort; in the first iteration, it is a line by Whitman; in the second, the line is claimed by the narrator, recontextualized into his own life experience. The fact that both iterations are in Spanish disguises the element of translation. A translator into Chinese or Russian could do the same, repeating the line twice in its Chinese or Russian version. But the translator into Whitman’s own language doesn’t have that option. What was more, this was a chance to conclude the novel with a final reminder of its Spanishness by offering the narrator’s Spanish version of Whitman as a translation.

Full of life now, compact, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible.) Me.

This solution struck me as perfect, but entrained a whole set of consequences. If the imperative of alphabetical order and the need to re-emphasize the original language was requiring me to position a source text alongside its translation here and in many of the headwords such as Pasarela, (which in my translation is followed by the English Catwalk in parentheses), the tacit theme of translation which those solutions made explicit had to become more explicit throughout—by positioning the source texts of all the Encyclopedia’s myriad citations alongside their translation into English. For if this had to be done with translations between English and Spanish (one of the less important language pairings within the polyglossia of this text), then it had to be done with all the other languages as well. When I first discussed this option with José, he resisted it, and with good reason. He worried that marking the text’s polyglossia so strongly, including citations in seven different languages, would alienate potential Anglophone readers, striking them as off-puttingly pretentious or academic. He was also laudably concerned that the incorporation of so many languages would appear to constitute a claim to fluency in all of them—a claim that neither he nor I could honestly make. He didn’t want to seem like a fraud.

The first of his objections would quite likely have been valid if this translation had been published at the same time or within a year or two of the original 1998 text. However, my sense is that over the course of the past two decades and especially in the past five years, multilingualism has acquired a marked cachet in the Anglophone urban literary sphere that is likely to take interest in this kind of novel. For examples, I’ll point out the increased use of foreign language dialogue with subtitles in Hollywood blockbuster films (of which the recent films by Quentin Tarrantino that include the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz are an instance), the rise of a foodie culture with its highly polyglot vocabulary, the increased popularity of yoga with its constant use of Sanskrit, the surging success of web-based language learning sites such as Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, Babbel. For those readers of the Encyclopedia with some understanding of one or more of its source languages, their incorporation into the translation could only enhance the experience of the novel. And for those who understand only the English, the visible presence of those alien words on the page would constitute a kind of pictorial illustration of the confrontation with a foreign system of meaning that is the book’s fundamental subject matter.

To enhance this sense of “foreign language as illustration” I wanted to include as little transliteration as possible, but use original scripts for all source texts. This meant, first and foremost, offering Russian words and passages in Cyrillic, and including transliteration only when the words’ sound value could add some dimension of meaning or rhythm to the visual impact of the Cyrillic letters. I quickly realized there was an additional feature of the text that motivated my sense that this was necessary. The Encyclopedia includes many reflections on recent innovations in printing technology—recent in the mid-90s—such as the scanner, the e-book, and advances in word-processing technology that were eliminating the distinction between manuscript and published text. In the two decades following that first publication, those advances have made it as easy to include the Cyrillic alphabet in a publication as it is to change a text’s font on a computer screen. Low-tech, old-fashioned transliteration would have belied the novel’s own claim to expertise in the cutting edge of printing technology.

This left me with a big headache. For the logic that dictated the inclusion of the Cyrillic, which José could supply, dictated the inclusion of the original Japanese and Hebrew texts in their respective writing systems as well, and that was a far more daunting challenge in which, fortunately, several friends who speak those languages very generously came to my assistance.

I ultimately persuaded José to go along with this adventure in polyglossia and include all the source texts by reminding him that translations are often published bilingually. Our narrator, I argued, is not claiming to be fluent in seven or more languages. Rather he is fascinated by language and likes to read books in bilingual editions, his eye often straying to the facing page. In other words, for the narrator, too, as for the monolingual Anglophone reader, many of the source languages are little more than pictorial illustrations of the foreign. With José’s permission, I made this explicit in the English version by adding the following phrase, in parenthesis, to a meditation on the unknowable nature of the material world and the closed cycle of cultures that appears under the headword Sea Sirens:

(the unfathomable original, there on the open page, that does not cease to trouble us as we read through its translation)

The English version of the Encyclopedia came out in January, and I must say that so far my the various intentions I’ve mentioned here—to foreground the text’s Spanishness, heighten its polyglossia, and make its meditation on translation more explicit—have been entirely ignored by reviewers and readers. None of the articles I’ve read or the readers I’ve discussed the book with have assessed it in the context of Latin American literature; none have considered what it has to tell us about translation; only one has even alluded (with considerable irritation) to the presence of source texts in various languages and scripts. Instead, the novel has been connected to various contemporary discussions of remix culture and the Internet, it has been compared to Huysmans’s A Rebours, the accuracy of its depiction of Russian life in the 90s has been debated, etc. A translator’s intentions, it turns out, are as limited in their ability to dictate the ways a text will ultimately be read as an author’s are. I have, however, had one satisfying confirmation of certain of them. The most recent issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell and published at almost exactly the same time as the English translation of the Encylopedia, is an astonishing literary romp across a polyglot universe: twelve stories are translated by sixty-one authors into eighteen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew, all published in their own scripts. I had no idea that this issue of McSweeney’s was in the works as I was making my decisions about the Encyclopedia—though I do recall defending my notion to include source languages with a line from a book review by Adam Thirlwell in which he spoke of the new possibility of a “reckless internationalism” in the English language. Now that I do know about this issue of McSweeney’s, I’m happy to take it as confirmation of my intentions. In the end, I may decide that I intended it that way.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013.

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel about translation at a Brooklyn bookstore. The announcement promised potential audience members they would “Find out what it takes to make sure the meaning of the words that have moved us to laugh, cry and learn new things are delivered the way the author intended.” In the end, the recent blizzard made the event impossible, but even in the absence of heavy snowfall, I would have found it impossible to explain how to translate words “the way the author intended.” For—and note that I say this in the presence of the author himself and have chosen to talk about authorial intent precisely because he is here and can talk back to me—making sure to convey an author’s intentions is not something a translation, any translation, can do.

Authors themselves can tell you that more often than not whatever it was that they intended when they wrote something was ignored by readers or forgotten and replaced by a different and shifting set of intentions even in their own minds once the piece was published or in the years following its composition. (Mónica de la Torre has a lovely article titled “Unreliable self-translation” in Translation Review 81 which describes how difficult it is for the author herself to divine the author’s intentions when she switches into the role of translator.) In the case we’re discussing here, many of the most prominent features of José Manuel Prieto’s work—the extensive use of citations and intertextual references, the recurrent theme of literary production as mash-up, remix and commentary, and the use of constraints such as the encyclopedia format of the novel we’re here to discuss today—seem, well, intended, to mount a direct challenge to the idea that a book consists merely of what its author intended. Words derive much of their meaning from their context, as Prieto superbly demonstrates in the essay on Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin” that we circulated in anticipation of today’s conversation, and the intentions of those who enunciate them form only a small part of that context, particularly as the moment of enunciation recedes into the past. Prieto himself is a translator, and his work is informed by a strong sense of the ambiguous and perennially shifting nature of semantic meaning. But not every writer has that sense. A dispute flared up last year between the playwright Edward Albee and his Catalan translator, Joan Sellent, after Albee demanded that Sellent account, in a five-column grid, for “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.” (For more info on the spat, I refer all of you to this piece from the marvelous blog Translationista where Susan Bernofsky catalogues and comments on the translation news of the moment.)

As I pondered the most challenging problems I confronted when translating Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the intentions of the author, with whom I was in frequent discussion, were only part of a continuum of factors influencing my choices, factors that also included the internal logic of the text itself—which is clearly distinct from an author’s intentions—the transformations wrought upon that logic by the process of translation into another language, the nearly two decades that have elapsed between the book’s original composition and my translation with all the historical, technological and political transformations those two decades have wrought, and my own personal sense of the literary, political and overall cultural context I was translating the text into and which of its features might speak most strongly to that audience.

The particular feature of the Encyclopedia I’ve chosen to discuss today is its polyglossia. I use the term in homage to the great Russian literary historian and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work the discipline of translation studies would do well to rediscover. Bakhtin associates what he calls polyglossia with parody as well as with texts that incorporate multiple languages; polyglossia is the opposite of what Bakhtin calls a “sealed off and impermeable monoglossia.” “Only polyglossia,” he writes, “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.”

Prieto’s Encyclopedia de una vida en Rusia, first published in Mexico in 1998, and reissued by the Spanish publisher Mondadori in 2004, exhibits a marked degree of polyglossia. The headwords of its seventy-seven entries are in Spanish, Russian, English, Latin and German, all transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The novel includes citations of Spanish translations of texts originally written in all of those languages, and in Hebrew, French and Japanese, as well. In this novel, and to a greater degree than most other contemporary literary texts I can think of, with the exception of Vassilis Alexakis’s marvelous Foreign Words, the extent to which the language in which one chooses to speak is a central component of the meaning of what one says is illustrated again and again. When the narrator first addresses the book’s heroine in a St. Petersburg park, the concision of her reply to his query makes him think that she is “ya pensando también en inglés” (“already thinking, too, in English”). Towards the end of the book, when she tells him, in English, “Well, I’m going to New York, Joseph” he begs her to speak Russian and not to go to New York. Elsewhere, Russian housewives are infuriated by the sound of the narrator conversing in a language that is not Russian as he passes by in the street, and the fact of mastery or non-mastery of the Russian language is a continuing theme. In one of my favorite moments, the narrator is watching a video that has no sound because the person who recorded it may have neglected to engage the sound button. In the entry that, in my translation as well, appears under the headword Pasarela, the narrator comments,

My lips pronounced a single word three or four times, a word that, when I first watched the video, I couldn’t decipher. Until it dawned on me that I was speaking in Russian. Then I understood: “Horosho” “Horosho” “Horosho” (“Good! Perfect!”).

The Encyclopedia is a text that insistently reminds us of something so obvious we very often forget it: one of the primary and most significant semantic components of any utterance is the selection of the language in which it is uttered. The heroine’s selection of English for her reply to the narrator’s first advance says much about who she is and what her ambitions are, just as the fluent mastery of Russian the Spanish-speaking narrator boasts of in the volume’s first entry tells us a great deal about him. And therein lay the first challenge of my translation. To render into English a text that explicitly rejects its character’s use of English, to take out of Spanish a text about Russia that is of particular interest for the very fact of its having been written in Spanish, is inevitably to depart in a dramatic way from the intentions that lay behind that original 1998 book.

A strong feature of the 1998 Encyclopedia is the paucity of allusion to the Spanish-speaking world and literature written in Spanish. The narrator’s tropical home country is barely mentioned, and in the book’s dense tissue of literary referents, only two have any explicitly Hispanic component—an allusion to Borges and the citation of a guaracha that compares a sexy girl to a sea siren. In interviews and articles, Prieto has often stated that Russian literature has had more of an influence on his work than Latin American literature, and he describes his first three novels as his “Russian trilogy.”

Click here to read Part II.

23 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy. It was no less than this: he had brought it to pass. Had restored to life a dead man.”

We meet Domingo Zárate Vega, “better known to all as the Christ of Elqui,” in the opening lines of Hernán Rivera Letelier’s The Art of Resurrection (Alfaguara, 2010), at the moment of realization of his greatest dream—of having mastered “the sublime art of resurrection.”

The novel follows Zárate Vega in his travels through a key week in the midpoint of his 20-year mission of penance. It is the last week of December, 1942; the randy Christ of Elqui journeys to the mining camp of Providencia in search of the woman he believes will play the role of Mary Magdalene to his messiah. His story of finding her and losing her again is an exuberantly comic, darkly sarcastic, heartfelt, and sentimental meditation on faith and loss, played out against labor unrest among the striking workers of Providencia.

The novel threads together life in the mining camp with currents in Chile’s history in a way that is characteristic of (and perhaps unique to) Rivera Letelier’s narrative voice. He has spent the past 20 years telling the stories of people who worked in the nitrate industry, an industry that formed a vital part of the story of Chile and, by extension, that of the industrialized world. (No nitrate, no industrialized agriculture!) The degree of precision and fluency in his descriptions of scene and character bring that past alive.

The reader’s sense of identification with and sympathy for the characters is heightened by Rivera Letelier’s peculiar trait of shifting frequently and without warning between the third person and various first people—“For his part, he must serve as a light for the world; he did not drink or smoke. A glass of wine at lunch, as directed in his teachings, was sufficient. He hardly touched his food; for among my sins, of which I certainly have many, my brothers, I have never reckoned gluttony.” I found this a bit jarring the first couple of times it happened but quickly came to love it—it gives a cinematic effect of shifting camera angles. Coasting between a character’s head and the world around him, between dialogue and paraphrase, all combines to give a distinctive, memorable access to the world of the book.

Rivera Letelier’s camera work shows him to be a gifted, versatile director. Take this long, sweeping pan—it brings to mind one of Herzog’s opening shots:

Set up facing the kiosk on the plaza, outside the union hall, the three great cast-iron cauldrons were blackening above the stone hearths; the fires were fed with bits of wood split off from railroad ties. The only shade was provided by a cloud of music coming from the Victrola in the union hall; the striking workers and their families were crowded together in the sun waiting for their “wartime rations”, as they called the proletarian plate of beans.

At a distance, it might look like chaos; but everything was laid out in a vivacious, rambunctious order: some kids, a stick in hand, took turns keeping at bay the pack of stray dogs attracted by the smell of food; stocky derripiadores, sweaty, splitting crossties to keep the fires going; a group of women, perspiring freely, aprons cut from flour sacks, their cheeks grubby with soot, ladled out the steaming lunch to the men, women and kids who stood waiting in a dense line, their chipped dishes in hand, their faces long with hunger. The menu, today as every day, was a generous helping of beans—one day with hominy, the next with noodles—seasoned with the sweet-smelling chili sauce bubbling away on another fire, in a deep black skillet.

From the lovingly, baroquely detailed descriptions of Providencia and its workers and management to the long, twisted digressions on the prophet’s life story, with liberal borrowings from Nicanor Parra’s classic Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui (1977; tr. Sandra Reyes, 1984), to the dark phantasmagoria of the final chapters: The Art of Resurrection is a masterpiece from a seasoned storyteller.

23 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest piece in our Reviews Section comes to us from Jeremy Osner, and is on Hernán Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrección (The Art of Resurrection) from Alfaguara.

Jeremy Osner blogs about reading and translation at READIN. He is currently working on a translation of El arte de la resurrecctión (and the translated excerpts in his review are his), a novel that is looking for an English-language publisher. Here’s a bit from his review:

“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy. It was no less than this: he had brought it to pass. Had restored to life a dead man.”

We meet Domingo Zárate Vega, “better known to all as the Christ of Elqui,” in the opening lines of Hernán Rivera Letelier’s The Art of Resurrection (Alfaguara, 2010), at the moment of realization of his greatest dream—of having mastered “the sublime art of resurrection.”

The novel follows Zárate Vega in his travels through a key week in the midpoint of his 20-year mission of penance. It is the last week of December, 1942; the randy Christ of Elqui journeys to the mining camp of Providencia in search of the woman he believes will play the role of Mary Magdalene to his messiah. His story of finding her and losing her again is an exuberantly comic, darkly sarcastic, heartfelt, and sentimental meditation on faith and loss, played out against labor unrest among the striking workers of Providencia.

Life in the mining camp is threaded together with currents in Chile’s history in a way that is characteristic of (and perhaps unique to) Rivera Letelier’s narrative voice. He has spent the past 20 years telling the stories of people who worked in the nitrate industry, an industry that formed a vital part of the story of Chile and, by extension, that of the industrialized world. (No nitrate, no industrialized agriculture!) The degree of precision and fluency in his descriptions of scene and character bring that past alive.

For the rest of the review, go here.

9 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by New Directions.

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Few contemporary writers are as conceptually imaginative or as willing to acknowledge their debts as Enrique Vila-Matas, which comes as a breath of fresh air, especially to those of us reading in the United States, where literary insularity is the norm. Each of his books to be translated thus far—Montano’s Malady, Bartleby & Co., Never Any End to Paris, and our subject here, Dublinesque—takes as its starting point a book or writer and from that point delves into clever, incisive examinations of what it means to be a modern reader.

Dublinesque (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean) is concerned with a pivotal moment in the history of literature: what Vila-Matas refers to as the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. It is, as one might expect, an elegy. The plot follows the downward trajectory of an exemplar of that unfortunate species, the literary publisher, whose battles with alcohol and entropy (personal and professional) constitute the lament at the heart of the book. Riba, whose career has long since dried up and whose days are spent in front of a computer, grows convinced that in order to exorcize his demons, he needs to hold a funeral for the age of the printed book. There is no better place for this than Dublin, he reasons, because Joyce’s masterpiece was the culmination of the printed book. And so he begins to plan this funeral, all while battling his own personal demons and obsolescence.

Like Vila-Matas’ other books, this is one is melancholy, focused like the others on exhaustion—it’s also a rain-soaked and haunted novel. Dublinesque nevertheless manages to maintain a degree of levity. This is due to Vila-Matas’ wistful humor and his vast knowledge of literature: the book is full of allusions, references, cameos, and digressions on such figures as Robert Walser, Juan Carlos Onetti, Emily Dickinson, Julien Gracq (!), and, more centrally, Joyce and Beckett. In typical fashion for Vila-Matas, there are also references to fictitious writers who leave the reader pining for more. Nothing impresses so much as the range of Vila-Matas’ reading and his ability to weave into his narrative strands from other works, a technique that helps to bolster his occasionally patchy plots.

To be honest, I found the thin spots in the book endearing in a way, as if Vila-Matas littered his book with trapdoors into which a reader might fall. Of all the books on the longlist, Dublinesque is the most reflexive and its concern with the state of serious literature, where it’s heading and how it got here, makes it worthy of winning this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Tiffany Nichols on Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman and published by Two Lines Press.

Tiffany, who is relatively new to the Three Percent contributors’ club, is an avid reader of literature in translation and runs the mouthwatering food porn and book-geeking Tumblr blog tiffany ist.

Here’s a bit from Tiffany’s review:

When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

8 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.

The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.

“Despoiler,” the second story in the collection, is an intriguing and atypical example of fabulism where Carmen, an isolated women crossing the right of passage of turning forty, is reacquainted with the beloved stuffed animals of her childhood in human form during Carnival. Of course, these animals appear to be adults in costume, but as we all learned at a young age—looks, especially when masks are involved, can be deceiving.

The third and probably most disturbing story, “Butterflies Fastened With Pins,” is a compendium of individuals who have committed suicide and whom the narrator has encountered. What is most troubling about the recollection of the suicides is how detached the narrator is from the victims, but how vividly he is able to describe everyone else’s personal reactions to the suicides and their aftermath. The narrator always remains detached, calculated, and controlled in descriptions of the facts surrounding the suicides, but provides an almost poetic account of how the other observers succumb to grief, misunderstanding of death, and inability to cope with the suicides.

The collection closes with “The Passenger Beside You.” Although “Butterflies” was the most disturbing, “Passenger” is by far the most eerie in the collection. In this account, Roncagliolo explores a corpse’s last moment of intimacy during a final examination by a medical examiner mechanically performing his job function. What is most unnatural about the account is how closely the reader will experience these last moments of intimacy from the perspective of the corpse. The corpse narrator vividly describes the methodical carefulness of the medical examiner’s touch, starting from the outside surface of the body and moving to his calculated exploration inside the corpse’s body. The progression will cause you to shudder, but will also leave you almost invigorated and intrigued by the intimate connection between the corpse and her detached examiner.

Roncagliolo is an incredibly gifted storyteller who is able to execute many writing styles, as evidenced in the shock thriller Red April and the delicate and sensual exploration of the relationships between the connected and detached in Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stores. In each of these works, Roncagliolo reminds us that, although we are isolated by default, we are all connected to each other in some way. For this reason, in addition to Roncagliolo’s partnership with the translator, Edith Grossman, I urge everyone to actively follow the presence of Roncagliolo’s work in the English (and Spanish) language.

25 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)

There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.

Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.

Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that

everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.

And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues

that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.

This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.

I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the most recent Aira book to come out from New Directions, and which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation, and for her thesis she translated Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography, which we hopefully will be publishing in the not-too-distant future.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog isn’t already familiar with César Aira. New Directions has published seven of his books, including Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference, and How I Became a Nun. And this is just a fraction of Aira’s incredible output—he’s published more than 50 works, including 2-4 every year since 1993. (According to Wikipedia, the World’s Finest Information Source.)

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is hard to summarize. The most I can do is set it up: Dr. Aira has the power to perform miracle cures, and everyone knows it. His power is legendary. The hospital chief is constantly developing elaborate traps designed to trick Dr. Aira into performing a miracle cure on command, and Dr. Aira tries his best to avoid these tricks. Dr. Aira is also a sleepwalker, or rather, to use the words of the novel itself:

He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same.

On one such morning, Dr. Aira finds himself talking to a Lebanon cedar, delivering a rather deep philosophical monologue about humanity and its position on the planet and its relationship to Nature, when suddenly he pauses and adds:

Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.

This is not only a comment that might make a frequent Aira reader laugh (“you might not have a clue what I’m trying to say here, but rest assured that at least I get it”), it’s also an indicator of one aspect of Aira’s writing style. Here, and in his books in general, Aira is a master of using high-register vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way. Why mention sleepwalking when he can easily fold in somnambulism instead? That his character is talking to a tree, like a madman? Why not seamlessly incorporate a word like reifying?

Of course, we ought to remember that Aira writes in Spanish, and this sort of styling—in particular, a stylistic trait that depends on certain vocabularies—does not simply transfer from one language to another on its own. That’s the work of a skilled translator, and here as ever, Katherine Silver does not disappoint. I can only imagine the feat it must be to translate Aira; nonetheless, The Miracle Cures is remarkably smooth while remaining anything but flat.

The final scene of The Miracle Cures is the most lively, most visually interesting, most mentally engaging of the entire book. Unfortunately, the ending itself is disappointing. Without giving it away—here I am going into abstractions myself—the ending does make the opening scene make a little more sense, but it doesn’t quite connect enough of the dots. I don’t expect all the dots to be connected—Aira usually leaves a few disconnects—but I just get the feeling he could have done more with this one. It just falls, and not enough in the “oh, this makes a lot of Aira-sense” direction. There seems to be a little too much truth to the narrator’s comment as Dr. Aira is wrapping up his actions in the final scene:

As often happens with difficult jobs, a point came when the only thing that mattered was to finish. He almost lost interest in the results, because the result that included all the others was to finish what he had started.

14 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis, which won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award in 2009, is frustratingly good, inventive, and obsessed with story telling. The premise is simple: An author much like Santiago Gamboa himself, is invited to participate in a literary conference about biography—one that will also be attended by a strange array of guests, including a porn star and an ex-con turned evangelical pastor—that takes place in a besieged Jerusalem. During the conference, the ex-con evangelical—who tells one of the most captivating stories in the book—is found dead of an apparent suicide. Maybe.

What’s interesting/frustrating about this book is that that plot point takes place on page 165, then is interrupted, textually at least, for almost 200 pages as other participants in the conference tell their stories, each of which is intriguing in its own right, but which, for a reader of traditional, conventional books obsessed with pacing, plot points, and building climaxes, must be crazy-making. (But those sorts of readers don’t really read these sorts of books, do they?)

I read this way back in the fall and meant to write up a review back then when all the connections between the various stories in the novel—which, in terms of their themes, ideas, and narrative styles, overlap and play off one another in a beguiling fashion—were still fresh in my mind. Now, I’m just left with the memory that, in contrast to say The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, this novel is much more circular in its construction, looping back on itself in a way informed by the best of twentieth-century literature.

A lot of people reading this blog probably feel the same way, but god damn is it a good time for Spanish-language literature. Vila-Matas. Gamboa. Neuman. Labbé. Marias. Chejfec. Prieto. Valenzuela. Dozens of writers I can’t think of.

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first read Almost Never by Daniel Sada, I thought it was a lock to be a finalist for the 2013 BTBA. It’s a strange book that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay ending with three pages of this:

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Ecstasy-sex. Sinking-in-sex. Sex that shapes. Sex that sparkles.

Yes, once again I’ve decided to highlight a sex book that I thought would make the BTBA longlist.



But Almost Never is more than a book about a man obsessed with sex—it’s a stylistic masterpiece that’s incredibly intricate, unlike anything I’ve read, and exquisitely translated by Katherine Silver.

I don’t have a lot of time to write all the things I’d like to say about this book, but I do want to point out my favorite part of the opening chapter:

Now comes a description of Demetrio’s job: his workday went from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, sometimes six, more infrequently seven.

That’s it. Nothing about what he actually does (at this point), just the time he spends there. Which is so wonderfully telling for this particular character.

Quickly: Sada is considered by many to be one of the greatest contemporary writers to come out of Mexico, was praised by Bolaño, and his novel Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe is considered to be untranslatable. (According to Rachel Nolan of the New York Times it really does sound pretty daunting, what with its “650 pages, 90 characters and use of archaic metric forms like alexandrines, hendecasyllables and octosyllables.”)

Katherine Silver actually received an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on more Sada, so hopefully there will be additional books of his to consider for future BTBA awards . . .

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

But while she intensely lived her own small roll in the general evolution of humanity and of her individual, personal story, every day, every hour, every minute a huge, central part of her mind was consumed with a ferocious, forbidden desire: the anticipation, anguish, fear, and craving of her next meal.

Marina’s fervid obsessions over food can be incredibly overbearing at times which adds to the novel’s urgency. As she chronicles her roller-coaster history with weight loss and her new difficulties dealing with the near starvation level diet, we learn much about how food truly affects every minute of Marina’s life. More than once she entertains the possibility of cooking a human or animal to deal with her hunger, and these instances do not even happen in her most manic times of the addictive cycle. Her character is raw and truthful in ways literature often does not allow itself to go. With this in mind, however, Marina’s relationship with Alex can at times come off as inauthentic and corny compared to the raw edge the reader has gotten so used to with other aspects of the book. Overall, the book offers an incredible new look into the cyclic addiction to food and fans of dystopian literature, political parables, and food aficionados will find this to be a newly relevant twist on an old tale.

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Allie Levick on Ana Maria Shua’s The Weight of Temptation, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger and available from University of Nebraska Press.

Allie is another of my students from last semester. Few more of these to run over the next couple weeks . . . But if you’re interested in reviewing for us, get in touch. Kaija is taking over the book review editor job and will be looking to assign a ton of books in the near future.

Back some time ago, Emily Davis reviewed Ana Maria Shua’s Death As a Side Effect for us, which was also translated by Andrea Labinger and published by Nebraska. Shua is an interesting writer, and it’s great that Nebraska is continuing to support her and introduce her to an English-reading audience.

Here’s the opening of Allie’s review:

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Vanderhyden on Severo Sarduy’s Firefly, which is translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and published by Archipelago Books.

Will Vanderhyden (aka “Willsconsin,” which separates him from “Bromance Will” and “Will Cleveland” and all the other Wills that roll through the ROC) is one of the current MA students in the translation program here at the university. (Speaking of, if you’re interested in the program—which is incredible, and has an extremely high rate of publication success—you should apply now. In addition to learning about the art and craft of translation and having a great group of people to learn with and from, you get to work with me here at Open Letter . . . In our new, super-cool offices!1) He specializes in Latin American literature, and is currently translating a few things that Open Letter will be bringing out . . . More on that in another post.

For now, here’s the opening to his review of Sarduy’s Firefly:

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 Yes, we’re moving again. But this time the move is into a space that’s both appropriate (a suite where we all to work together! with space for grad students!) and permanent. Pics TK, but if I’m MIA on the blog for a couple days it’s because I’m trying to unpack all of my accumulated shit.

14 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Sarduy sets Firefly’s confused search for identity against the backdrop of a decadent island world replete with crooked characters and rotting landscapes. “He felt blindfolded and alone at the center of a grotesque, cackling circle spinning around him.” It almost seems cruel the way Sarduy treats his young protagonist, he is allowed no relief, no way out, nothing stable to latch on to; he finds only loneliness, turmoil, ambiguous sexual impulses, and the shameful betrayals of his own young body.

He sensed in an opaque way, as if he had received an unspoken but fatal warning, that he would always be lost, disoriented, lacking an interior compass, as if the entire Earth were a laborious labyrinth or a perverse mirage of movable walls someone had contrived just to get him lost, to bring him down.

By the end of the novel, in a way, Sarduy has brought him back to where he started when he poisoned his family: resentful and alone. But he has also been transformed; experience has made him disillusioned, his resentment has expanded. “Man is the shit of the universe,” he tells himself near the end of the novel.

Now he knew people were capable of anything: of selling off father and mother, of turning over to the Inquisition and the stake the one they were pretending to protect. Capable of treachery, of usury with their loved ones. Of lies.

Everyone deceived. Everything nauseated. But deep down, he told himself, he was thankful: he had seen the true face of man, his essential duplicity, his need as unquenchable as hunger or thirst, for trickery, for wretchedness.

The lesson he has learned is one of despair and distrust: the world is a rotten place, full of deceitful, cruel people. And in the end: “He swore he would return to exterminate them all.”

Though Sarduy’s tone sustains comic, absurd notes throughout the novel, the story is essentially one of loneliness and alienation. Sarduy lived more than half of his life in exile. He left Cuba for Paris shortly after Castro came to power in 1960 and never went back. Firefly—first published in Spanish in 1990, just three years before Sarduy’s death—feels like a meditation on exile: Sarduy’s exile from his home country, the geographical and political exile of Cuba, the existential exile of adolescence, and the social and cultural exile of marginalized sexual orientations.

The intricate narrative structure and surrealist moments in Firefly resemble some of the stories of Julio Cortázar. The overflowing lyricism of Sarduy’s prose evokes the neo-baroque style of his fellow Cubans Alejo Carpentier, and José Lezema Lima. And it is this, the verbal richness, the luminous intensity of the language that marks Firefly as the product of a truly unique and talented writer. The novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The juxtaposition of a strange, somewhat bleak story with the vibrant mosaic of Sarduy’s writing is fascinating and powerfully engaging. Here again it is worth mentioning the work of the accomplished translator Mark Fried, whose English rendering captures beautifully the exquisite texture and lively rhythms of Sarduy’s prose.

For readers of Latin American literature in English, Sarduy is often eclipsed by fellow Boom writers such as Marquez, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. He is difficult to classify, but clearly was a dynamic force in avant-garde literature in Latin America from the 1960s until the 1990s. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English, however, as Susan Jill Levine states in the preface to her translation of his earlier novel Cobra: “Sarduy characterizes the place of Latin America in Western civilization perhaps more authentically than the writing of some of his more accessible colleagues in the mainstream.” He deserves more attention. One can only hope that Firefly‘s English publication will spark renewed interest in the singular brilliance of this indelible master of Spanish language fiction.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Aside from the Borgesian idea of a book that details the literal present, there is not a Borgesian or magic realist moment in this recent novel from Latin America. Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have done a good job of eradicating the myth that literature from south of the border is solely populated by spirits and two hundred year old patriarchs, but another brand of fiction has cropped up in its place: narco-literature. Down the Rabbit Hole may qualify as such, though only in the sense that it takes place largely in the secluded palace of Yolcaut, Tochtli’s paranoid criminal-emperor father. Though this is the setting, and though there are mentions of violence, they are filtered through the lens of a small child who relays events in a simplistic manner, allowing the reader a glimpse into the life of a narco unburdened by the machismo voice of a typical narrator.

This is not to suggest that Down the Rabbit Hole lacks in machismo. There are few women in the book save for the “mute” servants and prostitutes who exist on the outskirts of Tochtli’s view. More than once Tochtli places male behavior into the simple polarities of macho and faggot. To be macho is to take things “like a man”; to cry at the sight of two animals being killed is to be a “faggot.” This dichotomy, effortlessly understood and accepted as law by a child, does not offend the reader as, they are constantly reminded, these are the thoughts of an unusual storyteller in an unusual situation. By employing a child to tell this story, Villalobos allows his readers to accept the violence, sex, and dirty dealings that exist on the periphery of Tochtli’s obsessions: hats (he has a vast collection), samurais, and Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, which he longs to add to his personal zoo. Just as the reader is ready to accept these as the quirky, charming interests of a young boy, Tochtli reveals his other obsession: differing methods of turning people into corpses (he mostly admires the French for their guillotines). Tochtli’s narration gives the reader a view into an ugly world without the usual genre gimmicks of the narco-novel or police procedural. The effect is infinitely more unsettling.

I must admit I had reservations about Down the Rabbit Hole. I have tired of child narrators. This, however, is miles away from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Here we have a naive view of a terrifying world where few are trusted and everyone is a potential traitor; here we have innocence on the verge of corruption.

The slim number of pages aids in the success of the book; a longer version might have seen the concept grow tiresome. But no moment of the novel takes the reader out of its world and the rising action and denouement that might have felt tacked on to a lesser novel feel natural here. At just 70 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole strikes quick, leaving a strong impression.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which is translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and available from FSG.

This is a book I first heard about a while back when the innovative and amazing And Other Stories announced that they’d be bringing it out in the UK. Really glad that it found a U.S. publisher, and given FSG’s recent publications of Spanish-language literature—books by Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Roberto Bolaño—this fits right in.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s review:

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

“Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.”

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Click here to read the entire piece.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of FSG’s Work in Progress weekly newsletter (which is maybe the best publisher newsletter out there), has an interview with Rosalind Harvey, co-translator with Anne McLean of Oblivion by Hector Abad and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and solo translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which just came out from FSG (and came out from And Other Stories last year).

Down the Rabbit Hole is fascinating for several reasons, not least because it’s told from the perspective of a child. How did that affect the experience of translating the book?

For me the voice is the most important aspect of translation (and literature in general, I think), whether it’s a child or an adult narrator. When the voice is clear and strong and believable enough to remain in your mind, that’s your starting point. I read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but mainly I was just listening out for Tochtli’s voice and trying to recreate it in English. [. . .]

Are you generally a reader of books in translation, either from Spanish or from other languages? How do other books in translation inform your own work, if at all? Are there any translators you particularly admire?

I do read quite a lot in translation; I try to read books written in Spanish in the original, and translated books I have admired in the last year or so include All The Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, and a Swedish thriller called Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Joan Tate. Obviously I admire Anne McLean a great deal and she taught me a lot about how to translate, and I also admire Suzanne Jill Levine for her creativity and humor (she has a great book about translating Cabrera Infante which I recommend), and the great Edith Grossman is incomparable.

It’s generally acknowledged that literature translated into English gets fairly bypassed by readers. Do you agree? What do you think can be done (or is already being done) to bring translations further toward the forefront? Why is doing so important?

Yes, it does happen but only because they aren’t given access to it! Things are looking up though—I know for a fact that there are interested and varied audiences for translation after having done three translation-related events this year in the UK, which were all very popular and elicited some really interesting responses. I think we need to translate and publish more of a range of writing: good literature is wonderful, but difficult or avant-garde work is not for everyone and so I’d like to see more Estonian chick lit, Indonesian thrillers or Bolivian erotica. People read that stuff as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, so bring it on! As a reader I would say that reading translation is no more or less important than reading a literature, but as a translator I guess I say that reading translations can give you a broader vision of the world and of people and emotions, making you more aware of the huge differences but also similarities between people. Good literature from anywhere can do that.

On a related note, why is translation important to you, personally? What delights you about the work you do?

Translation is important to me as someone who’s always loved words, language, and wordplay in particular. I love punning, and playing around with words, and I always have ever since I learned to speak. When I was younger I want to be a writer, and translation is a form of writing. It is also often said that it’s the closest form of reading, and I love the chance my work gives me to really get inside a text, as well as getting inside a character’s head, and to be intimately involved with the creation of a book.

Here the complete interview here.

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I want to do a podcast sometime about the difficulties of reading. Everything from the amount of time it takes to read a book (and where that time comes from) to what makes a particular book (Finnegans Wake for example) tricky to get into, to books that one avoids because they “seem” like they’d be a bit of a grind. There’s a lot about this topic that I find fascinating, and a huge part of it revolves around the distance between what is expected of a book—”Gravity’s Rainbow is just so nonlinear!”—and the actual process of processing the words on the page.

One of the reasons that a lot of people give for why they do (or why they should) read international fiction is to “get a sense of what life is like in other cultures.” Which is sweet and admirable and maybe a bit LolliLove, but makes a degree of sense. Or does it? Why do we assume that a Japanese writer is going to “explain” something about Japanese culture? Is it because American writers like cough Rick Moody cough and Richard cough Ford cough can’t stop being so American? Or is this some sort of weird imperialist hangover, where we expect the Columbians we employ to entertain us to explain what life is like where they’re from?

All of this comes into play when approaching Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which was just published by Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Spanish. For anyone unfamiliar with Atxaga, and to be honest, this is the first of his books I’ve read in full, he’s considered to be the greatest contemporary writer from the Basque Country. And his earlier translated books—Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son—have much more to do with Basque life than this novel, which references France in the title, is set in the Congo, and takes place in the early 1900s featuring mostly Belgian characters.

If you think I’m playing this up too much, just check this quote from The Independent: “Don’t be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.”

I totally agree—this is a complex novel that coasts along with “deceptive” simplicity. Does it matter where Atxaga comes from? The book isn’t even translated from Basque . . .

For someone intrigued by the complexities of reviewing literature in translation, this raises a good deal of questions: how to evaluate a translation from a language the original text was translated into for instance. Or, should this be considered within the context of Basque (or Iberian) literature, or is it more appropriate to discuss it alongside books like Heart of Darkness? Is it possible to judge this book on its own terms, and what does that mean?

I’m going to cop out right now, and admit that I don’t have an answer for any of these questions. Instead, I’m just going to approach this review like I approached the book, looking at the plot, the craft, and the things I find interesting.

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

One of the most obvious, yet striking, aspects of Atxaga’s book is the way in which he constantly shifts perspective, retaining a certain distance (see the excerpt above) while “peeking over the shoulder” of various characters. This isn’t a unique narrative technique, per se, but the way in which he does it fuses so well with the plot that the two are inseparable—the duel is inevitable because this is a novel the needs a climax, but at the same time, the duel is inevitable because each player in the novel has to react to surrounding events in a particular way. This perspective jumping isn’t the most advanced of narrative techniques, but it’s done in such a way that it opens up scenes and complicates them in interesting ways. From Chapter XVIII:

The canoe almost capsized when Van Thiegel jumped into the prow, landing heavily on one side of the craft; fortunately, he managed, with another jump, to reposition himself in the middle, where Livo and Donatien were rowing; soon the canoe stopped rocking violently from side to side and they could get underway.

After that opening, here’s a few bits from the next few paragraphs, all describing Van Thiegel’s actions: “Van Thiegel stood up, beating his chest with his fists,” “he shrilled,” “they could hear the drumming . . . he cupped his hands round his ears so as to hear better,” “he was walking with great determination” Theses are from the first six paragraphs, which provide a straightforward depiction Van Thiegel’s purposeful existence in the world. Then suddenly:

Livo was carrying a stick he’d picked up form the ground, and suddenly he struck Donatien roughly on the thigh with it. Donatien looked at him, surprised.

From then that point onward, the chapter—which is disturbed, which is violent—is conveyed through the lens of Livo’s perspective. He becomes the “he” that reflects upon Van Thiegel’s physical impact on the world. Again, not that this is all that special a technique or interesting a critical observation, but the way that perspective opens up the narrative in a whole new direction is both interesting in terms of plot and morality: What should Livo do with Van Thiegel when he rapes and murders a girl just because she liked the wrong man?

In some ways, this book is perfect for a high school English class: you can open up these possibilities in such nice ways in a classroom, engaging students in myriad issues that are essentially unresolvable. It unfolds in a way that’s identifiable and intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, points to why Atxaga set this novel in a country that wasn’t his—where the book could take on a more grandiose universal sense of meaning that would be overshadowed if it was all “Basque Country this” and “Basque heritage that.”

Now the thing I find interesting is none of these things. They’re all cute and curious, and fun to dissent and unspool, and explain why reading rocks when all the other expectations and time stuff doesn’t get in the way, but the one thing I’ll take away from this book, is the descriptions of the various characters who have their minds split into various parts. As things get intense, Van Theigel frequently describes his mind as being “split into two,” and then four, and then an infinite number of parts. This is described in ways that resemble a state of drunkenness, with one’s mind flipping from one image/subject to another, and to a state of craziness, in which a normally normal person isn’t sure what he thinks is OK and what’s not. Donatien has a similar situation in which all of his siblings “speak to him” inside his mind and advise him what to do. In contrast to Van Theigel’s sort of dissociative disorder, Donatien reads more like someone with multiple personality disorder.

In a mysterious way, this feels like the heart of the novel, with characters black and white, colonizer and colonized, christian and killer, all experiencing this dissolution of self and sort of randomness of thought leaving them open to outside, more cosmic influences.

But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Get past the non-Basque, Basque aspect and let the book stand as a book that is meant to entertain, illuminate, question, and inform.

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a thing I wrote about Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which just came out from Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

This is the third Atxaga book that Graywolf has published, the other two being Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son. All (?) of his other novels are available in English translation as well, including The Lone Man and the The Lone Woman, but aren’t technically for sale in the U.S.

Anyway, here’s a bit of the review:

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

“Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.”

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

To read the whole thing, just click here.

22 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This summer has been a crapton of busy. There’s the normal publsihing10bookswiththreeemployeesOMG sort of daily adrenaline rush, and on top of that, and on top of working with a half-dozen interns and apprentices, this summer has been consumed by planning and planning and fretting over and planning the American Literary Translators Association conference, which will be taking place here in Rochester on October 3-6. And if you’ve never tried to organize a conference, well, don’t. (Kidding, ALTA!) It’s a wonderful experience—especially if you like that feeling of being perpetually behind with everything . . .

Anyway, all that is to explain why I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to Three Percent as I would’ve liked. And why I haven’t been able to read as many new books as I would like. Which is why, rather than writing up long posts about all the new books I love, I’m going to start writing weekly posts about new and forthcoming and recently released books that I want to read.

I’m going to start today with five books from the Iberian Peninsula. This might seem a bit random, but I’ve always had a thing for Barcelona and for Antonio Lobo Antunes. Plus, this summer I was lucky enough to speak at the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and fell back in love with all things Iberian.

You might think I’m kidding, but when I got back, I bought a case of Spanish wines, bitched up all the chorizo dishes, and checked out all the Iberian-related books, such as The Basque History of the World, which I would be reading RIGHT NOW if I didn’t have two Open Letter books to proof, one to edit, and a Korean manuscript to evaluate. Ah, publishing!

Sticking with the Basque interest (they have their own breed of cows and pigs and sheep! they invented their own shoes! their language is loaded with ‘x’s and ‘k’s! and has no word for “Basque,” just for “Basque speakers”! so unique, so interesting!) the current book on my nightstand is Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which comes out in September from Graywolf Press. This is the third Axtaga book Graywolf has published (Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son being the others), and maybe the least Basque of the three—it’s set in the Congo—but it’s new, and is about corruption and things evil, which makes for good beginning-of-the-school-year reading.

Sticking with the corruption theme, the other book that arrived recently that caught my eye is Peter Bush’s new translation of Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, which originally was published in Spanish in the 1920s. According to the NYRB press materials, this was “the first great twentieth-century novel of dictatorship, and the avowed inspiration for Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.” That’s some pretty fine company to be keeping, and with Peter Bush’s involvement, I’m totally sold. It’s also interesting that Valle-Inclan—who was born in Galicia—wrote a book about a revolution in Mexico.

Switching gears from writers writing about places other than their homeland, Jose Saramago—whose posthumous output is approaching L. Ron Hubbard levels—has a new book out: Raised from the Ground, a novel set in a southern province of Portugal and featuring the Mau Tempo family, a family that resembles Saramago’s own grandparents. I’ve never been a huge Saramago fan, although I do enjoy reading his books for entertainment (along with those of Joyce Carol Oates, which sounds like a slight to both authors, but truly isn’t), but I’m really excited to read this, since it came out in 1980, long before the Nobel Prize and hopefully before he started relying on the sort of smug narratorial tone that infests his more recent works.

As a sidenote, the Saramago is the second book on my Iberian love-list that’s translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Not-so-coincidentally, I just finished reading The City and the Mountains by Portuguese author Eca de Queiros, which was ALSO translated by Costa. This was the first Queiros book I’ve read in full, and although it’s not perfect, it’s really interesting and has led to my adding a ton of his titles to me “to read bookshelves,” including “The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes,” which is available from Tagus Press in Gregory Rabassa’s translation. This bit of the jacket copy is exactly why this is the next Quieros book I’ll be picking up:

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes—ostensibly letters, with an arch introduction—actually ranges widely and revels in many forms of discourse. In this singular work, originally published in 1900, one finds meditations, dialogues, observations, grand shifts in tone, occulted ironies, pastiches, lampoons, and and underlying hilarity throughout.

Another linguistic reveler of sorts—and a fellow Portugese writer—is Goncalo M. Tavares, who is best well know for his two series: The Neighborhood series, one bit of which will be coming out from Texas Tech later this year; and “The Kingdom” series, which consists of four volumes published by Dalkey Archive—Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine. I read the first two right before meeting up with him in Lisbon, and really, really loved Jerusalem. (Learning to Pray is great, but not quite as great as Jerusalem.) In Lisbon, organizers Jeff Parker and Scott Laughlin were both high on Joseph Walser’s Machine, the most recent book in “The Kingdom” to be released. I’m a whore for trilogies and series, especially series of this sort, which don’t follow in a linear fashion, but interlock in a more interesting, complicated fashion. Something like Kjaerstad’s Wergeland Trilogy which is built from three different narrators with three different takes on Jonas Wergeland’s life, and structured in three very different ways. Or the Joyce Cary trilogy that NYRB reissued a way back. Anyway, Tavares’s “Kingdom” is more like that than like a sort of space opera trilogy featuring all the same characters. Sure, some character reappear in Tavares’s different books, but the connections between the books are more thematic and tonal than anything else. But I’ll write more about this after reading Joseph Walser’s Machine and the final book in the series.

That’s it for this week . . . Next week I’ll write about a book I want to read to be able to not understand it. This will make sense . . . Promise . . .

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Winstein-Hibbs on Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and is available from Biblioasis.

As Sarah states in her introduction, this is her first book review for threepercent!

Here is part of her review:

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Click here to read the entire review.

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Leonora was the childhood friend and teenage compatriot that writer Diana Glass always looked to for inspiration, zeal, and leadership. The book contains many passages in which Diana waxes nostalgic, attempting to immortalize the heyday of their Communist cause, with Leonora at the vanguard:

“She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a flower.” (14)

After witnessing Leonora’s sudden and horrific abduction at the hands of the government, Diana resolves to document her life in a grand, impassioned subversive tragedy. However, the facts that eventually surface interfere with her pre-planned storyline of glorious heroism and martyrdom: Leonora has been brutally tortured and given information to the government; Leonora has defected and joined the other side; Leonora is in love with her torturer, who is also her husband’s murderer. Upon learning the truth about Leonora’s fate, Diana experiences a type of literary paralysis, willfully self-editing her text because the truth is so abominable to her.

Heker’s book is largely about disillusionment and betrayal, and this applies not just to Diana, but also to readers. Only when we’re three pages from the end do we know for sure who the narrator has been all along: it’s the wily Hertha Bechofen, who voyeuristically watches Diana writing in cafes, eavesdrops on her conversations, and writes about life through the eyes of torturers, victims, mothers, fathers, children, and survivors. Indeed, the book wouldn’t be possible without her impartiality, since Bechofen’s past experiences in WWII Vienna allow her to perceive the Dirty War with emotional distance and calm level-headedness. Where Diana is indignant and myopic, Bechofen is skeptical and detached, making her the better narrator for the story:

“…this isn’t a story about heroes, my dear,” Bechofen chides, “it’s a story about murder and murderers. And it’s also a story about survivors…So, forget your heroine and tell what you have to tell.” “It isn’t what I wanted,” Diana protests. “History is never what one wants, my dear. But it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t feel right for you to write the story, I’ll write it myself. For a while now I’ve been looking for an interesting character; now I have two.” “Go on and try, Hertha, but you won‘t be able to. Now I know the story well. I know it will end for you in the first chapter. The character already shows her true colors there…she tore my own story to shreds, you see, my own sacred springtime. She ruined it forever.” (175)

What Diana wants to write conflicts with what actually happened: her intense emotional investment in history prevents her from documenting the truth. Throughout the novel, Diana grieves the breakdown of her ideology and the loss of her heroine. Because Diana can’t work through her own disappointment and obstinacy, Bechofen is the writer that ultimately takes over the story.

Unlike Diana’s lyrical reminisces, there’s a strangely flattened, matter-of-fact quality to the narration in the descriptions of violence and imprisonment in this book, as though Heker were trying to dissect a tragedy:

“Interrogations aren’t the only activities that take place in the basement, but the woman lying on a cot, chained, has no way of knowing this. She can only distinguish what can be heard in the distance—music on the radio, cries, fragments of interrogations—or at times, whatever happens to cross her field of vision, since her blindfolded condition—if the recumbent woman is lucky—might not be permanent. In the strictest sense, almost nothing is permanent in this section since, according to what the recumbent woman can distinguish, subjects are taken away once the session is over or in the event of death. The electrical equipment can be observed on a small table near the cot. Anyone lying there, chained, would be perfectly able to deduce, if observant enough, that all the compartments must have similar equipment and that other instruments—clubs, pliers, scalpels for pulling off skin—must be brought in especially for certain sessions. The lighting—logically, since it’s a basement—is always artificial.” (82-83)

This cold-blooded tone of voice actually makes the torture even more disturbing; the text is stripped of detail and emotion, which makes readers suspect—chillingly—this unbelievable series of events hasn’t been romanticized or fictionally embellished at all.

As in many effective war novels, Heker spares us from nothing—with unflinching candor she takes us right into the torture room, with all of its animal sights, sounds and smells.

But what stuns about Heker’s book is the way that she fearlessly mines the psychic states of torturers, and—arguably—even creates sympathy with them simply by giving them a voice in the novel. Because of the monstrosity of state-sponsored violence unleashed during the Dirty War, many would consider the articulation of such viewpoints to be pure evil, or at least propagandistic—“She’s playing right into the military’s hands,” in the words of one incensed writer. But in my opinion, these are the moments that make the book so strong: Heker is not afraid to voice any perspective of the war in her novel, as dangerous as it may be. Though she herself is a former Argentinean left-wing journalist and self-proclaimed socialist, through many of her characters Heker voices a deeply bitter disenchantment that other former revolutionaries might be too timid—or too proud—to articulate. And by telling about the love affair that occurs between Leonora and her torturer, she shows how even in times of war, the human instinct is stronger than abstract systems of honor and dogma that supposedly govern human life.

Many readers have criticized Heker’s book for its lack of closure and resolution, but this is precisely what gives the novel its realism. In life and war, no absolute truth or simple answer exists; Heker’s story achieves this reality by exploring the motives and perspectives on both sides of the conflict. This spectrum of emotion and thought furnishes the book with a literary richness and depth that would be impossible if Heker were openly rooting for one team. Which side is right; who’s culpable for the war; whose philosophy is more sound? – Heker refuses to answer these questions for us. What she does offer us instead is the infinitely more valuable opportunity to think critically about the evidence presented, instead of blindly accepting the ideology of one authority (philosophy, government, author, party, faction). Heker’s book shows that there is never simply one way to tell about a war, or one way to end the story—there are many.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque, which Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey translated from the Spanish and is available from New Directions.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. His novels have been translated into eleven languages and honored by many prestigious literary awards including the Prix Médicis Etranger. He has received Europe’s most prestigious awards and been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Here is part of his review:

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Once a successful publisher of important works and great authors, Riba has since closed his Barcelona-based publishing house and finds he has little to look forward to in either his personal or professional affairs. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, he despairs his increasingly solitary milieu, marked as much by his failing marriage and tenuous abstention from alcohol as by his constant lamenting over his lost career. Intrigued by the concept of the hikikomori (a phenomenon prevalent in japan, characterized by individuals, usually male, whom have chosen for themselves a life of extraordinary isolation and social withdrawal), perhaps as an explanation for his own existential malaise, Riba’s own life begins to resemble that of an awkward outcast, marked by an internet addiction that consumes as many as fourteen hours in a single day.

After recalling a “strange, striking dream he’d had in the hospital when he fell seriously ill two years ago,” Riba decides to set about planning a trip to Dublin. The impetuses for this excursion are many, not the least of which is an opportunity to stage a funeral for the age of print and “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” The date Riba sets for this requiem is none other than June 16, the very day on which James Joyce set his Ulysses, and commemorated annually as “Bloomsday.” With plan in place, Riba enlists the company of three writer friends to join him and his venture in the Irish capital.

Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.

Riba’s wife, Celia, a museum employee and recent convert to Buddhism, shares her name with the title character’s lover in Beckett’s Murphy. As well, the rocking chair in which Riba spends much of his time in Dublinesque’s final section is an allusion to the same piece of furniture in which Beckett’s Murphy whiles away many of his days. A character resembling a young Ceckett makes several mysterious appearances and leads Riba to seek out his identity, in hopes of, perhaps discovering that this fellow is the unknown, genius writer for whom Riba has been searching for his entire career. While in Dublin, Riba delves into a Beckett biography by James Knowlson (presumably damned to fame), shortly after remembering the surprise of reading a novel that featured “a character who’s a real person.”

Riba’s fascination with (and seemingly extensive knowledge of) Ulysses figures prominently into the story, as well. Riba makes repeated mention of the modernist novel’s sixth chapter (“Hades”), wherein Leopold Bloom and others attend a funeral for Paddy Dignam. It is during the funeral scene that Bloom encounters the mysterious Macintoshed character, much as Riba espies the young Beckettian man during his requiem for “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” Vila-Matas was himself one of the founding members of “The Order of Finnegans (La Orden del Finnegans)” (a society comprised of a small number of other Spanish writers “with the sole purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses”).

Riba’s “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text” is worked playfully throughout the novel, especially given Vila-Matas’s decision to employ the Joycean and Beckettian allusions that shape the narrative in which Riba lives. “Dublinesque,” the Philip Larkin poem from which the novel draws its name (about a prostitute’s passing funeral), is but another example of the way Vila-Matas incorporates actual literature into his dirge of the forsaken art. Riba, perhaps resulting from his compulsive need to bring the imagery and incidents of that formative dream (or premonition?) into reality, begins to wonder whether his own life has come to resemble not merely a work of fiction, but the entirety of literature’s arcing curve itself, from great heights to pitiable ruination:

Only he—no one else—knows that on the one hand, it’s true, there are those serious slight discomforts, with their monotonous sound, similar to rain, occupying the bitterest side of his days. And on the other, the tiny great events: his private promenade, for example, along the lengths of the bridge linking the almost excessive world of Joyce with Beckett’s more laconic one, and which, in the end, is the main trajectory—as brilliant as it is depressing—of the great literature of recent decades: the one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Beckett).

While Riba laments the passing of the print age, with its celebration of and devotion to the duality of the writer/reader relationship, he, like the era for which he mourns, must endure the perils and hardships that inevitably accompany so splendid a fall from grace (his career, his marriage, his health). That Vila-Matas so adeptly created a work of fiction that simultaneously considers the current state of both publishing and literature (as well as the respective roles of author and reader alike), while allowing the novel itself to serve as a comment on the very subject, is nothing short of a dazzling accomplishment. Vila-Matas, under the guise of fiction, seems to make the case for a future in which the importance of good writing and meaningful stories are afforded their due attention, while the relationship between author (or publisher) and reader is enlivened anew and bolstered for posterity.

Enrique Vila-Matas is undoubtedly one of the finest Spanish authors at work today and Dublinesque offers for display his profuse literary talents. With sharp, distinct prose and often unexpected humor, Vila-Matas is indeed a compelling writer. As a complement to the four books already available in English, one hopes that many more of his two dozen novels (as well as his collections of essays) will soon find their way into translation. Vila-Matas’s writing, in addition to providing fantastic stories and striking insights, is consistently amongst the most original work being produced today, and stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the banality and bankruptcy of what all too often now passes as popular literature: “the Gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.”

14 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Calvo—the author of Wonderful World which was published by HarperCollins a couple years ago—is in the States for a few events, including this one with Edith Grossman that’s taking place on Saturday at McNally Jackson in New York.

To mark this, and to bring attention to an interesting young Spanish author, we got Jesse Barker from SUNY Albany to write up this piece about Javier’s works, mostly focusing on The Hanging Garden his latest novel. (Which has yet to be translated into English.)


Over the last decade a quiet boom has been occurring in Spanish narrative. In an age of conglomerated publishing houses and fascination with new media, the novel is alive and well in Spain, with a host of new authors pushing the boundaries of fictional form to describe the contours of the twenty-first century. One of the most prominent of these writers is Javier Calvo, whose latest work The Hanging Garden (2012) continues his intriguing evolution as a novelist.

Calvo’s first books—the short story collection Canned Laughter (2001) and the novel The Reflecting God (2003)—had a considerable impact in Spain and earned him a reputation as an ultramodern writer, both experimental and highly attuned to pop culture. While the influence of American authors like David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk (both of whom Calvo himself has translated into Spanish) was evident, it did not overshadow what was from the beginning a unique narrative voice.

The stories in Calvo’s fiction are developed through short and intricately constructed scenes. Brief moments in time are described with striking visual details and metaphors, which accentuate the particularities of his eccentric characters or the absurdity of situations. Take, for example, the following passage from The Hanging Garden, where he describes his protagonist Teo Barbosa at the meeting of a revolutionary left-wing group in a neighborhood church:

Everyone present has that slightly ridiculous look that adults always have when they sit at child-size desks, but in Barbosa’s case—since he’s two or three heads taller than the others—the impression is particularly dramatic. With his extra-long arms and legs protruding grotesquely from the desk, Barbosa looks like he’s gotten himself snared at waist-height in some sort of experimentally designed trap.

[Todos los presentes tienen ese aspecto vagamente ridículo que les queda siempre a los adultos cuando se sientan en pupitres infantiles, pero en el caso de Barbosa, que les saca dos o tres palmos de altura a los demás, la impresión es especialmente dramática. Con los brazos y las piernas larguísimos sobresaliendo grotescamente del pupitre, Barbosa tiene aspecto de haberse quedado atrapado a la altura de la cintura por alguna clase de cepo de diseño experimental] (21).

Just as the ridiculously tall Barbosa is here trapped in his ridiculously small desk, Calvo’s characters seem propelled by innate physical and psychological qualities towards playing certain social roles, carrying out certain extreme behaviors and fulfilling certain (often tragic) destinies. These personalities are revealed through a visual narrative reminiscent of films and comic books, but the narrator’s voice is constantly highlighted through elaborate and fanciful metaphors like the one seen in the quote above.

In contrast to this emphasis on surface images, Calvo’s fictions are also constructed around profound allegorical meanings, often intentionally shrouded in mystery and contradiction. This aspect became more evident in the short story collection The Lost Rivers of London (2005), which revealed a growing interest in myth and pagan magic. Characters are consumed by their obsessions with ancient deities or contemporary pop figures, which act as totems providing access to millennial energies, represented by the lost subterranean rivers of the book’s title. In metafictional asides, the narrators present the stories themselves as magical incantations unleashing powerful forces. The satirical surfaces of this author’s works are thus configured as components of a complex structure aimed at penetrating the depths of cultural and spiritual dynamics.

Calvo’s latest three novels—Wonderful World (2008), Crown of Flowers (2010) and finally The Hanging Garden—show a progressive mastery of these different levels. The stories take place, respectively, in a modern day hyper-consumerist Barcelona, a Dickensish nineteenth-century Barcelona and a 1970s Barcelona immersed in Spain’s transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy. For a dedicated Calvo reader it is fascinating to see how his peculiar narrative lens shifts between such different time periods and yet retains his characteristic style and themes, which are increasingly integrated into a sublime vision of human psychology and society. If the long choral novel Wonderful World (thus far the only one of Calvo’s books available in English) seemed a culmination of his earlier literary exeriments, the others turn his lens onto two important historical periods in Barcelona: the arrival of industrial modernity and the arrival of consumer-driven postmodernity.

While initially surprising within Calvo’s trajectory, these historical focuses serve to dig deeper into the demons that have always fueled the author’s work. Crown of Flowers shows a repressive state and economic apparatus that tears down Barcelona’s medieval wall and, along with it, the ancient spirit of the place and its people. Residues of this spirit, however, persist underground in the obsessions of a mad scientist and a violent sect of orphaned children guided by a mysterious leader, both of which maintain ambiguous connections to the very power elites that seek to dominate the city.

The Hanging Garden represents a sharper departure from previous works. First of all, Spain’s conversion into a democratic state—known within the country as the Transition—invokes a more explicitly political subject matter, as this period of Spanish history is inevitably a source of controversy. Some hold up the process as a model political transition, with no bloodshed and a quickly achieved widespread consensus. Others criticize the amnesty and “pact of silence” about the dictatorship’s crimes. In a broader cultural sense, the Transition is an accelerated version of processes occurring throughout the Western world since the end of World War II: globalization, de-industrialization, the loss of ideological certainty and the ascendance of media-driven consumerism. Thus Spain’s celebration of new political and social freedoms was quickly tainted by the social fragmentation that characterizes contemporary society.

The Hanging Garden addresses both political and cultural aspects of the Transition. On one level it is a political thriller centered on the struggle between the government and a fictional revolutionary group, complete with terrorist acts, double agents and espionage romance. The novel portrays the transition between a security apparatus dominated by the dictatorship’s army to the more subtle and pervasive secret service working behind the scenes of modern democracies. It also exposes the gaps between the priority of maintaining power that guides democratic governments and their stated goal of serving the interests of the people.

On another level the novel represents the societal upheaval of Spain’s Transition and functions as a chilling allegory of the cultural order inaugurated in the era. A meteorite fallen in the Catalonian countryside shortly before the beginning of the story covers Barcelona in dust and causes extreme weather patterns. Teo Barbosa maintains ambivalent relationships with both the left wing extremists and the secret service, too skeptical and sarcastic to fit comfortably on either side. His only sincere passion seems to lie with Sara Arta, the fellow revolutionary with whom he shares long nights at the “Bar Texas” and her studio apartment, filled with sex, drugs, alcohol and the pre-punk wailings of Patty Smith. It is impossible to know where Barbosa’s true feelings lie, however, both for the reader and ultimately for himself. His intellectual and existential disorientation is indicative of a society where the real is disintegrating. Sara Arta’s aesthetic transformation from pale-faced, dark-eyeshadow art student to nihilist punk is also representative of the times. As the narrator declares more than once, in 1977 Spain the past is quickly fading and, consequently, so is the future.

On the other side of the equation is Arístedes Lao, the mathematical genius that works for the secret service and is apparently devoid of human feelings. Instantly repulsive to all who meet him, Lao has a gift for analyzing the human psyche and complex social dynamics. Like many of Calvo’s characters, Lao begins as a comic caricature but acquires a profound symbolic importance in the novel. His computer-like mind engineers the different pieces of the human jigsaw in the story, producing an apocalyptic ending that reduces the potentially subversive elements to impotence and desperation.

Words like allegory and representation fall short of describing The Hanging Garden_’s depiction of reality. While the specific subject of the novel may be the Spanish Transition, the reader is taken along a journey, both mythical and ironic, to the heart of a global cultural/political/economic order that appeared invincible until recent financial meltdowns and protest movements. _The Hanging Garden is a brilliant and captivating novel that confirms Javier Calvo’s enormous talent.



Although The Hanging Garden isn’t yet available in English, you can buy Wonderful World which is now available in paperback from HarperCollins and translated by Mara Lethem. And with a little luck, we’ll have a full review of this up by the end of next week.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Carlos Gamerro’s An Open Secret, which is translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett and available from Pushkin Press.

Aleksandra Fazlipour is the student I introduced last week who just completed a semester long independent study on writing reviews. After this, I think we only have 4 more reviews of hers to run . . .

I actually met Carlos Gamerro when I was in Buenos Aires on an (AWESOME) editorial trip a few years back. He’s an incredibly interesting guy and writer, and actually contributed to Three Percent. His novel The Islands is coming out from And Other Stories this month.

Here’s the opening of Aleksandra’s review:

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

Click here to read the full review.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.

The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.

The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.

And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil, which is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, and was recently released by New Directions.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

Here’s the opening of his review:

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

“. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.”

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished. Some of the included stories may well have an ambiguous ending, while others leave off in a way that seemingly indicates that they were abandoned pending resumption at a later date.

Of the nineteen pieces that compose The Secret of Evil, three have appeared previously in English translation.1 “Vagaries on the Literature of Doom” (a speech about the state of post-Borgesian Argentine literature), “Sevilla Kills Me” (an unfinished, if somewhat similarly themed address), and “Beach” (progenitor of the “Bolaño was once a heroin junkie” speculations since debunked by his wife, as well as by friend and fellow author, Enrique Vila-Matas) were all published in Between Parentheses. As with much of Bolaño’s writing, the line between fictional creation and autobiographical sketch blur easily, as is evident in “I Can’t Read,” a “story” about his son Lautaro’s humorous antics during Bolaño’s first return trip to his native Chile in nearly two and a half decades. “I Can’t Read” demonstrates a lighter, more playful (and ever self-effacing) Bolaño, and is one of the book’s stronger pieces, despite it remaining, sadly, forever unfinished.

Three of The Secret of Evil’s stories, “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “Death of Ulises,” and “The Days of Chaos” feature recurrent Bolaño character (and autobiographical alter ego) Arturo Belano, two of which portray him well beyond his heady, itinerant Savage Detectives years. Daniela de Montecristo (of Nazi Literature and 2666 fame) makes a brief appearance in her namesake story, “Daniela,” wherein she recalls the loss of her virginity at age thirteen. “Scholars of Sodom” (in two versions) imagines V.S. Naipaul upon a visit to Buenos Aires. “Labyrinth” is vaguely evocative of the first part of 2666, “The Part about the Critics.” “‘Muscles,’” Echevarría surmises, is “probably the beginning of an unfinished novel, perhaps an early version of Una Novelita Lumpen” (a 2002 novella yet to be rendered into English). The collection’s title story is amongst the best (despite its brevity) of those selected for inclusion, and offers a seedy, nocturnal milieu that Bolaño was so adept at creating. The most surprising of the stories is “The Colonel’s Son,” a nightmarish tale wherein the narrator recounts a chilling zombie movie he viewed on television the night before.

The Secret of Evil, quite obviously, will appeal most greatly to those already won over by Bolaño’s extraordinary body of work. Neophytes may well find this a difficult collection to make sense of, as the nature of the book lends itself to those long since familiar with the style and themes that characterize the Chilean’s masterful fiction. This is most certainly not the place for a newcomer to start, but for the devotee, a subterranean expanse of narrative possibilities and literary what-ifs await.

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless that i tell you i just about fell of my chair.

1 The three previously published pieces that originally appeared in Between Parentheses were translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, and the sixteen new to this collection were rendered by Chris Andrews.

11 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne and available from Bloomsbury USA.

Aleksandra did an independent study with me last semester to learn about writing book reviewing. She read a bunch of books, wrote and rewrote and rewrote her pieces, read all of the essays in the Words Without Borders “How to Review Translations” series, and became a much better writer and reviewer over the course of the semester. I meant to run her pieces throughout the semester, but classes (and ALTA and life and work and everything) kept me way too busy. So instead, I’ll run them every Friday for the next few weeks.

This is from the first review she ever wrote:

Emilia Dupuy is haunted by the memory of her missing husband, Simon Cardoso. During what seemed like a routine mapping expedition in Argentina for the couple (both of whom were cartographers), Simon vanished without a trace. A thread of hope is preserved in Emilia thirty years after his disappearance in spite of testimonies stating that he was detained, tortured, and murdered. Simon became one of the many “disappeared” that characterized Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, and Emilia became one of the individuals left behind in her own personal purgatory, marked by uncertainty with regards not only to the whereabouts of her husband, but the direction of her own life and her place within her family. Tomas Eloy Martinez carefully constructs this tale of one woman’s struggle in Purgatory by mingling poignant emotion with gut-wrenching fact and allows the reader to effortlessly move between present-time New Jersey into the corrupt Argentina of yester-year characterized by propaganda-induced authority.

The true power of Martinez’s storytelling lies in is his ability to make his protagonist’s personal struggle secondary to the oppression of the Dirty War—he uses his artistic skill to enfold the reader not only into Emilia’s story but into the time itself, whisking the audience through 30 years in the blink of an eye. In hopes of finding her husband, Emilia fruitlessly following a series of ultimately inaccurate clues pointing to Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and finally the United States. The true angst in the story floods not from the pursuit itself but from the slow realization that these clues seem loosely linked to Emilia’s own father: Dr. Dupuy, a propagandist for the oppressive government regime itself. The irony almost makes the narrative humorous—Dupuy’s ideals enforce the statement “God, family, country,” but it seems increasingly clear to the audience and to Emilia that her father instigated Simon’s disappearance, and possibly his torture and murder, in order to further his own agenda and to keep Emilia among others from discovering the truth behind the government’s atrocities.

Click here to read the full review.

11 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Emilia Dupuy is haunted by the memory of her missing husband, Simon Cardoso. During what seemed like a routine mapping expedition in Argentina for the couple (both of whom were cartographers), Simon vanished without a trace. A thread of hope is preserved in Emilia thirty years after his disappearance in spite of testimonies stating that he was detained, tortured, and murdered. Simon became one of the many “disappeared” that characterized Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, and Emilia became one of the individuals left behind in her own personal purgatory, marked by uncertainty with regards not only to the whereabouts of her husband, but the direction of her own life and her place within her family. Tomas Eloy Martinez carefully constructs this tale of one woman’s struggle in Purgatory by mingling poignant emotion with gut-wrenching fact and allows the reader to effortlessly move between present-time New Jersey into the corrupt Argentina of yester-year characterized by propaganda-induced authority.

The true power of Martinez’s storytelling lies in is his ability to make his protagonist’s personal struggle secondary to the oppression of the Dirty War—he uses his artistic skill to enfold the reader not only into Emilia’s story but into the time itself, whisking the audience through 30 years in the blink of an eye. In hopes of finding her husband, Emilia fruitlessly following a series of ultimately inaccurate clues pointing to Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and finally the United States. The true angst in the story floods not from the pursuit itself but from the slow realization that these clues seem loosely linked to Emilia’s own father: Dr. Dupuy, a propagandist for the oppressive government regime itself. The irony almost makes the narrative humorous—Dupuy’s ideals enforce the statement “God, family, country,” but it seems increasingly clear to the audience and to Emilia that her father instigated Simon’s disappearance, and possibly his torture and murder, in order to further his own agenda and to keep Emilia among others from discovering the truth behind the government’s atrocities.

As the novel progresses, the reader begins to question what is real and what is invented—both within the story and looking at the novel from a historical standpoint. There are some interesting parallels between Martinez himself and the author depicted in Purgatory who is relaying Emilia’s story—both are exiled writers from Argentina, and the character’s books share titles and topics with those published with Martinez himself. The events surrounding Dr. Dupuy’s villainous character are outlandish in a way that adds comic relief to the tense storyline in spite of being very serious and mirroring real-life events, which further blurs the line between truth and fiction. One moment he has Emilia move home to care for his ailing wife and the next he is sending his daughter reeling, which only perpetuates public rumors that she is insane, in search of her lost husband to get rid of her lest she learn too much about what is really happening in the government. Prior to his wife’s death he traipses around publicly with a successful woman, and the moment his mistress’ reputation wanes, she is mysteriously found dead (supposedly by suicide). For some reason Dupuy is compelled to secretively obtain treatment for his wife’s cancer. He forces a man to marry his favored daughter Chela and boosts his new son-in-law into riches for the sake of his daughter’s wellbeing, but the moment his reputation is questioned, he arranges it so his daughter becomes one of the disappeared alongside her husband and forsakes his relationship with his daughter entirely. Although Dupuy’s role seems very small at first, it gradually snowballs until the reader is struck by his importance not only in Emilia’s love story, but in post-Dirty War Argentina.

One significant scene captures Dupuy bartering with Orson Welles, who receives a cameo in the book. Dr. Dupuy begs Welles to create a film in which Argentina is shown as a “peace-loving country” where everyone is happy. This comes on the tails of a campaign in which two actors were sent across the country dressed as Mary and Joseph in something of a religious parody, trying to prove that the people would help and support them, but showing the exact opposite when most people not only rejected them but mocked and insulted them. Dupuy (who Welles refers to as Charlie) wants Welles to create an uproar, a national panic, that attributes the disappearances of many individuals to UFOs. Welles’s response is not only a refusal—it is a disclosure to the audience:

“Art is illusion, Charlie, reality is illusion. Things only exist when we see them; in fact, you might say they are created by your senses. But what happens when this thing that doesn’t exist looks up and stares back at you? It ceases to be a something, it reveals its existence, rebels, it is a something with density, with intensity. You cannot make that someone disappear because you might disappear too. Human beings are not illusions, Charlie. They are stories, memories, we are God’s imaginings just as God is our imagining. Erase a single point on that infinite line and you erase the whole line and we might all tumble into that black hole. Be careful, Charlie.”

With these words, Welles unveils the true nature of the disappearances and warns Dupuy that the government’s tenuous grasp on power is further weakening, and that a propagandist campaign can only go so far to reinforce power. Argentina is on the verge of tumbling into that black hole of purgatory, just as Emilia and many others whose loved ones’ disappeared already have, existing on a false sense of hope and security when certainty is absent. By the time the reader has to fully consider the idea that Emilia has unexpectedly been reunited with her husband, who has not aged after 30 years, the unrealistic magical air of the novel (largely established by Dupuy’s fantastical character) allows the reader again to question what is real and even permits events that are too fantastical to believe to waver on the edge of possibility—the reader is bound to ask, “is it likely that Emilia has, in fact, found the ghost of her husband?” While Emilia was characterized as the one who was crazy all along for not believing that her husband was dead when testimonies existed that proved otherwise, it seems feasible that those testimonies were also a creation intended to keep questioning at bay.

Overall, there is a beautifully created sense of horror that surfaces because, the more the reader knows about the corruption in the government, the less inclined he or she is to believe that Emilia, our protagonist, is insane in light of the insanity the government is attempting to hide. Overall, Tomas Eloy Martinez creates a historical thriller in which the characters and the audience alike must struggle to separate fact from fiction lest they get lost without a map in their own personal Purgatory.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, which is just coming out from FSG in Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And one of my GoodReads friends, where I read a lot of his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

I’ve been hearing about Andres Neuman for some time now, and am very excited to check out this novel. We actually featured him back in 2010 as part of our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . .

Here’s a bit from Jeremy’s review of Traveler of the Century:

Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’ stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Click here to read the entire review.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post |

Traveler of the Century is an exquisite, dazzling work of fiction. Its author, Andrés Neuman, is a young argentinian writer, born in 1977, whose relative youth is belied by a remarkably prodigious literary output. Neuman has written nearly twenty distinct works, including four novels, nine books of poetry (a tenth compiles them), four short story collections, a book of essays, and a book of aphorisms (in addition to his translations of german poet Wilhelm Müller). His writing has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards, and his international renown is clearly on the ascendancy as his works find their way into ever more translations.

With the publication of granta’s winter 2010 issue (“Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”), many English-speaking readers had their first introduction to Andrés Neuman via his short story “After Helena.” The late Roberto Bolaño offered his own high praise for Neuman (well before Traveler of the Century had even been written), including a short piece about him (“Neuman, Touched by Grace”) in his nonfiction collection Between Parentheses (published in English translation in 2011). Bolaño, ever the discerning critic, wrote about neuman after reading his first novel (Bariloche):

Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When i come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

With Traveler of the Century, Neuman’s first book to be translated into English, it is evident that the myriad hype surrounding this young writer is indeed well-deserved.

Written in Granada between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2008, Traveler of the Century (El Viajero del Siglo) was published in Spanish in 2009 and was summarily awarded two of Spain’s most distinguished literary honors (the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize). The awards themselves place Neuman in the company of a veritable who’s who of Latin American letters, counting as their recipients Cela, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Onetti, Marias, and Vila-Matas, amongst others. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century has already been translated into ten languages.

The novel is set in the small, fictional German town of Wandernburg sometime in the early nineteenth century (presumably in the mid- or late-1820s). A town where the streets are constantly rearranging themselves, “it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time.” Wandernburg, from the german verb “wandern” (to hike, ramble, roam, or wander), is nestled between Dessau and Berlin in the northeastern part of the country. Despite the metaphysical qualities inherent in the town’s geographical layout, it would be a grave error to classify Traveler of the Century as containing any elements from the Latin American subgenre of magical realism.

Instead, Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’s stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Neuman’s novel is colored by a number of rich subplots that are woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative. A series of nefarious and sinister crimes work their way into the tale, for example, and are portrayed in stunning complement to other rising action. Minor characters, such as Hans’s new best friend (and weekly salon attendee), Álvaro, figure prominently into the story and are as well-conceived and believable as both Hans and Sophie. Nearly every aspect of Traveler of the Century seems carefully crafted and assiduously arranged. Neuman’s prose is both beautiful and engaging, lending the novel yet another characteristic that makes up its captivating essence.

Traveler of the Century, at heart, is both a novel of ideas and a love story. Neuman explores many exigent issues throughout the book (relevant to both post-napoleonic Europe and the modern world), including continental politics, national sovereignty, war, peace, economic development, immigration, poverty, nation building, empire, women’s rights, labor, and revolution, as well as more literary subjects such as poetic norms, style, philosophy, fiction, and the role of the translator. that neuman was able to so expertly include these elements into the novel without straying into the didactic, rendering them essential components to the story, demonstrates the mastery with which he composed this fantastic book.

Neuman’s work, in all its many aspects, represents a summation of the narrative form. Traveler of the Century is a complete novel that allows us an opportunity to reassess the present (and the future) by looking behind us. It is truly a timeless tale, one that demonstrates a past, once contemplated through the often clarifying lens of fiction, not all that dissimilar from the contemporary. Andrés Neuman seems to possess a formidable talent, and Traveler of the Century may well presage a lengthy and accomplished literary career the likes of which only come along a few times in a generation. Traveler of the Century, while penned by a young, spanish author born in Argentina, is, nonetheless, an European novel of considerable consequence. As more of his works undoubtedly make their way into translation, Andrés Neuman is surely a name that will come to be uttered in the same breath of his masterful forebears.

When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That’s how it is, isn’t it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.

9 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Some of the pleasures?

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

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

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

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

3 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Vila-Matas is most definitely one of the best writers working today. His games with form and structure are unparalleled. And this ironic gem of a book includes Marguerite Duras as a character.

Today’s post is by Monica Carter, BTBA judge, writer, reader of French, and runner of Salonica World Lit. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Never Any End to Paris is a novel for anyone who has wanted to live in Paris, wanted to be a writer, went to Paris and failed its promise and offerings, tried to be a writer and failed its promise and offerings, loved Paris, hated Paris, loved Hemingway, hated Hemingway, wanted to live the life of A Moveable Feast but decades later, loved Marguerite Duras, hated Marguerite Duras, loved the idea of living in a writer’s garret, wanted to runaway to Paris to become a writer, or more specifically, a reincarnation of Hemingway himself and finally, this is a novel for everyone who likes novels. I am emphatically telling you it is virtually impossible to dislike this novel. Told from the point of view of a novelist about to give a lecture, it is clear that the “novelist” is thin scrim for the author. When the novelist was young, he spent two years in Paris trying to write a novel, The Lettered Assassin, while living in Marguerite Duras’s garret. He has returned to the city of Paris many years later as a successful writer, wondering through his old haunts with his wife and reminiscing about the unhappy years he spent failing his dream while running around Paris with the likes of Duras, Barthes, and Perec.

But what is at the core of this novel is the myth of Hemingway. Whenever someone dreams of being a writer, it’s inevitable that they will discover Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and begin plotting a way to while their days away in some Parisian café penning the next great novel. Our narrator is no exception and even takes it a step further by convincing himself that he looks like Hemingway, despite the protestations of others and the humiliation of being kicked out of a Hemingway look-a-like contest in a Key West bar. The beauty and tragedy of Hemingway was that he created a mythic image of himself as author—a man who runs with bulls and hunts wild animals, lives a life of adventure and daring, with barely enough time to dash off brilliant novels and short stories reeking of courage and masculinity—that was destined to snuff out Hemingway the man. Since this mythic image of Hemingway has been immortalized, it has hurdled through time capturing the dreams and imaginations of any would-be writer. This ideological literary behemoth refuses to jump the shark despite the mocking undertow for its cartoonish he-man extremes perfectly reflected in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Writers don’t want to surrender this image go because it encapsulates a life lived as art, for art. This is why Never Any End to Paris is so brilliant. It’s a rebuttal to Mr. Hemingway in the form of a failed homage. Vila-Matas delivers in sophisticated prose, an ironic tale of trying to live the dream and being disappointed by it, with hilarious aplomb tempered by gloomy flourishes. In the end of his two-year journey, he concludes he is just a man who will find his own way through his life as a writer and it will never equal the life Hemingway created of himself as a writer. And thanks to Anne McLean’s integrity and dedication to Vita-Matas’s tone, there is no loss of his wit or self-deprecating style. This is a novel for all novelists and told as well as any tale Papa told. It is a love letter and a Dear John letter to Hemingway and should win for its creativity, honesty and courage to fail at living a dream.

14 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Why This Book Should Win: In part because Martínez died just a couple years ago, and has never gotten the recognition here that he deserves.

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

There’s a fair bit I can say about Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory. It is a political novel, a study of madness, a ghost story, a meditation on a rich culture that has spawned disastrously violent regimes: it is in many ways a culmination of Martinez’s life’s work. But I spend most of my time these days selling people books in twenty second blurbs that have to hook them on the spot, so a long explication of Purgatory_’s strengths isn’t really up my alley. So let’s start over and try this: _Purgatory is a startlingly addictive character study focusing on a woman’s search for her husband against the backdrop of a country gone mad.

OK, that probably needs a bit more explanation.

Briefly, Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy and her search for her husband, Simon, who disappeared not long after their marriage. More accurately, Simon is disappeared by the Argentine junta during the military’s rule in the late 1970s and early ’80s. After spending decades chasing phantoms of him—despite eyewitness testimony and the reality of life under the junta, Emilia refuses to accept that Simon is dead—she settles in New Jersey to await Simon’s return. The novel begins thirty years after Simon’s disappearance in a chain restaurant where, looking up from her booth, Emilia sees Simon sitting just a few feet away and he hasn’t aged a day since she saw him last.

The events of the junta’s reign are well documented; the history is laid out. But Martínez takes those events and the ways in which an insane political system attempted to remake an entire nation and creates a beautifully personal history in Emilia’s life following her husband’s disappearance. The novel skips about in time, addressing the events of the day and Emilia’s place in them almost thematically, building her personality and the circumstances that bring her to the novel’s opening lines.

What Martínez achieves is a triumph of memory over historical events. By presenting Emilia’s history as a chaotic overlapping of occurrences he allows the personal perspective to take precedence over the factual occurrence. The carefully demarcated line of causation that explains the grand historical movement of peoples and countries from one moment to the next is cast aside in favor of the fragments, the coral that each individual generates. In unmooring this period of history Martinez brings its profound effects into starker relief. And by creating Emilia he makes the pain and misery forced upon his native country a more personal reality for the reader.

I might need to pare that down a bit to get it under twenty seconds.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dehiscent: in botany, the spontaneous rupture of a plant structure at maturity to release seeds; in medicine, the rupture of a wound with much discharge.

In this strong, propulsive collection of poems translator Forrest Gander uses dehiscent for the Spanish word diesminandose in one poem, and in the title of a second for ensimismada. López Colomé’s images draw on the dual meaning of the English word. The botanical one with the positive pitch of natural propagation of a species (picture a milk pod releasing its silk parachuted seeds) occurs for example in poems that reference the tibuchina flower and almonds, and with images of bees filled with pollen, silk flowers and blooming real ones (“My Life’s Portrait”). López Colomé though is not a “nature poet.” The substance of the poems are also wedded to the medical, colored by the idea that pain, pus, blood are pouring out of a wound. Thematically López Colomé touches on both, related concepts over and over again. The language also performs a verbal dehiscence, as is announced in the poem “Heart’s Core”:

. . . .
But
a certain sentence
perfectly measured,
a shard, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
plunk.
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
that between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.
there, where pain isn’t forgotten.
There, where memory
radiates,
candescent:
in signal strength enduring
with no need
to plead its case.
. . .

You know that you are in the hands of a master who has control over language. Echoes of the cultural past (“a shard, black onyx dart”), religious imagery allusively rendered (“the heart” in its iconographic Latin American role) are interwoven with the contemporary “atomic” and the technologically yoked reference to light, “candescent.” Thematically the poet is addressing the realities of pain at the heart’s core, but which can only be pointed to “between words . . . not merely an account of it.”

While this poem relies strongly on inner feelings that seem intimate, many of the other poems tell about states of emotion/being at a more distant remove. In this next poem the reader also encounters the use of images and language drawn from the poet’s reality. From the three part poem “My Life’s Portrait,” the second section, WATERWORM AGAINST A BLUE BACKGROUND:

A radiant
eight year old
on her way from the possible
to the shameful.

Reinvented
in the guise of a good girl
who learns to not be herself,
to sit still, all but immobile,
to adopt a pose
from this moment on
The expression on her face, fabulous.

A dress of purple velvet
with a lacy collar;
socks conscientiously folded down
to the top of the ankle
new patent leather shoes.
But her hands once again
escape the artist . . .

They reach into the future.
And they oblige
everything else to pose.
As she would pose and stare at that garden
with its interminable whirlwind
and the dizziness would intensify
until she tumbled into the grass
and discovered
that when her body wasn’t spinning around,
the stars themselves were circling;
then the telescopes in her eyes
would gradually funnel
away the delirium bit by bit . . .
Because I refused to be
a still life,
I lost the only grip I had.

The very cord that set me free
was twisted around my neck
a transparent slipknot
choking me
while fireflies
flickered
between the bars of my fingers
as I made
a fist.

The speaker ruminates on the ruptures in life; it starts with the promise of seemingly unlimited possibilities reduced on the one hand by societal expectations, and on the other hand the challenges of human existence. While the picture which emerges is dim—flickering fireflies seen through bars of fingers curving into a fist—it is not, from the adult speaker’s perspective, without humor or glimpses of happiness, the “fabulous” expression on the child’s face, the twirling of an eight year old in a garden.

This next poem continues with the child grown into adulthood. The “torment” emerges at the end, in the acorns grown into a choiring grove, a potentially poetic cliché that actually terrorizes. Gander interprets this in his introduction as an allusion to the cancer which López Colomé dealt while writing many of these poems.

“Tormented”

Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
I trembled,
and in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.

Hail, maybe
enormous kernels of ice;
coming down,
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.

A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.

Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.

Which is my terror.

In one of the longer poems “Dehiscent, Enraptured Invention” López Colomé brings another key concern of hers, the pull toward some spiritual reality, although not one tied to any traditional religious tradition.

To be able to speak

without punctuation

jubilant infinite moment
moment jubilant infinite
infinite moment jubilant
gibberish
and as if that weren’t enough
to burn and sing
a solipsist
heard
by no one
beyond
the weird world’s
distant core . . .

and what follows. There is an inner light here, with words as fuel, language in-itself pouring outward:

To be able to speak

without contrivance,
filigrees
underlinings or cursives

supreme instant
of unbounded
pleasure
at the center of an immensity
without any outside pressure
knowing that the vital forces
peel away from muscle easily
and drift off
and you drown
and it doesn’t matter
since you’re protected
enraptured
. . .

The first poem cited above, “Heart’s Core,” includes that image of a black onyx arrow piercing the heart, a contemporary version of ecstasy of St. Theresa captured once in Bernini’s sculpture. Here though the angel and long arrow are language itself. López Colomé makes it clear in her “Afterward” to this collection that her religious upbringing included exposure to religious poetry. She recalls that the words, the sound and movement and moving of the hearer, were her revelation, not that of a god’s visitation. As a child she confessed, “When I pray, I talk to God, but He doesn’t talk to me.” To which her confessor counseled, “Pray in your own words.” This directive she says gave her “a whole new imago mundi; a capacity to describe perceptions and emotions in a fresh way, with intimate verbs.” In adolescence she realized that “you could save the right words just to talk to yourself, without the Most Holy watching over your shoulder . . . a dialogue with my personal penumbra.” López Colomé is a religious skeptic, but definitely a fideist in the power of the Words.

Finally, the metaphor of dehiscence strikes me as a great way to understand the project of translation. The idea that a text, especially in the concentrated form of poetry, bursts out into multiple meanings in its original language, then in a translated text, and further in the two held in the tension of facing poems in Spanish and English. In López Colomé’s and Gander’s hands this bursting sometimes is propagative, at other times a lancing of wounds.

I have on my bookshelf at least five different approaches to that proto-text of vernacular poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which translators try to match the terza rima structure, others the plain meaning of the text, with all sorts of ground in between. Gander, an accomplished poet (essayist and novelist) in his own right and translator of many Spanish language writers, honors the voice and tone of López Colomé. If you pick up one of Gander’s several collections you would encounter a different voice, with his own unique concerns. Yet his approach is one of a poet with word choices that represent the meaning of the original, not the plain translation. Some of the changes are practical—both inventive and of a more mechanical, problem solving nature. The poem ‘Almendra’is in English titled ‘Almond.’ In the last stanza of the poem López Colomé draws attention to the actual word “almendra,”:

Consonantes trituridas        A vowel and two consonants
sin gastar savia en balde    worth the spit it takes
se repiten, se digieren         to chew them, repeat, and digest
se repiten sin cesar             them one after another
ene dé erre ene dé erre      ah el em ah el em
n d r  n d r                            alm alm

The translator has the challenge in a poem that uses in Spanish three consonants (consonantes trituridas) n, d, and r, which of course do not occur in the English translation, the word almond. So the first line quoted above keeps the intent but changes the literal wording, to a vowel and two consonants, which in “almond” are alm in Gander’s translation. Note here as well Gander’s mastery of Spanish colloquial speech in translating the second line to an English saying (not) “worth the spit it takes.”

Gander is able to take the project one step further, for example, in “Tormented,” when he translates “Un verdadero calor frio” not into “A truly/really hot cold,” but instead into the intended, equivalent meaning in English, “A truly searing cold.” Perhaps another English word could have been used in the place of searing, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any better.

Then there is a wholly different level of the translator’s engagement and interpretation. With true artistry Gander takes a series in Spanish “lagrimas, anhelos, nadieras” and turns it into “tears, longing, and ratty nothings.” Ratty: that’s a nice touch, as is the translation of “Aparacete tal cual, / resono” into (the Gander added italics and explanation mark) “Show yourself!

In a world where what is truly of value received attention, López Colomé and Gander would be soon going on tour to read from this collection in the same range of venues that a popular rock group might appear. As it is, I urge anyone who wants to read moving poetry that unfolds with multiple re-readings to buy this book, and then to buy a second and third copy to put into others’ hands.

12 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Scars by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina (though Saer had recently moved to Paris when it was published)
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: The title sounds like an action movie and it would be cool to announce in a scary voice from the stage if it wins. And because it is fucking unforgettable.

This piece is written by the infamous Dustin Kurtz who works at the equally infamous McNally Jackson.

As I wrote to Chad earlier and may have proclaimed, unasked, a few times on the floor of my bookstore, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars is some kind of masterpiece. What I mean here is that this novel plays a single nuanced tune. It plays it with impressive range and variety. It plays it with enough subtlety to overcome the bluntness and stridency of the chosen instrument (male narrative voice in provincial Argentina in the midcentury). But more than that, it does it in such a way that variety itself, that range, that repetition above all, become not just structural methods for Saer but themselves the topics of the book. It is a book about small men, and whatever Saer’s intentions for the work it never grows grandiose enough to indicate a Great Book in ways we are used to recognizing. It is not, as I say, a masterpiece. I don’t generally care for masterpieces. Give me instead books that are lesser, are grounded, books filthy with humanity.

This book languished on my to-be-read pile for too long. I spilled something—what is this, coffee?—on it at some point. And then, this past December, I found myself trying to pull together a list of a few great books translated that season. Open Letter has pretty good credit in my house, and Chad, when first selling it to me, had been pretty exuberant, so I began to read.

There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window. I’m leaning over the table. sliding the cue, ready to shoot. The red and white balls are across the table, near the corner. I have the spot ball. I have to hit it softly so it hits the red ball first, then the white, then the back rail between the red ball and the white ball. The red ball should hit the side rail before mine hits the back rail, which it should make for at an angle, after it’s hit the white ball.

That is the opening passage of the book. Incredibly, bravely, it keeps going that way. How do you refuse a book like this? How do you even put it down?

Scars revolves more or less around the story of a single murder, told from the point of view of four men. As we pass through the book each narrator is closer to the murder and each narration is given a shorter span of time. The result is a sort of slow pacing along the path of a meditative labyrinth toward its not-so-nice center. The thing is, I don’t give a shit about that structure. It doesn’t hurt the book but it doesn’t add appreciably to it either. What matters are Saer’s characters and his way of nesting a few indelible details in a wealth of repetition.

While I’m mentioning things to make you avoid the book (“Great recommendation Dustin!” “Thanks, Chad!”) let me say that Scars could be read as misogynistic. It is more complex than that, though many of the characters themselves are unambiguously misogynistic for reasons of youth or spite or because this book is, again, set in Argentina in the mid twentieth century. Saer’s women are seen exclusively through male eyes. And Saer’s men are invariably angry or repressed or confused. The women are not always cast in a flattering light, and are always a source of self-loathing for the men. In fact the true heart of the book is hidden in these men’s frustrated relationships to women and the thick-barked form that frustration takes.

Oh, and the book is boring. (“Why yes, I will buy a copy. That sounds right up my alley, good bookseller. I was just thinking I needed a good soporific.”) Or, it isn’t boring but as I said it plays with boredom. Do you remember the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick? Right in the middle of your sexy harpoon allegory? Well some of Scars is like that. That billiards bit above is nothing. There is a passage about twenty pages long explaining and then over-explaining the rules of baccarat. I now know more than any person I have ever met in the entire course of my life about baccarat, excepting maybe Chad W. Post and Steve Dolph and the lucky folks (I am not being facetious here; they are lucky, this book is incredible) I convinced to buy a copy of this thing because they trust my taste or maybe just liked the pixel-flame cover art.

Another portion of the book, among my favorites, follows an aging judge as he drives up and down the streets of a small town in the rain. “I cross the Avenida del Sur, and at the next corner I turn right, then drive one block and turn left onto San Martin to the north” is a typical sentence. That is oddly specific, yes? After the first page of nothing but driving it becomes oddly hypnotic. After five more pages, you begin to relearn what a novel is.

This is Steve Dolph’s second translation of Saer, also having done the remarkable The Sixty-Five Years of Washington put out by Open Letter in 2010 and presumably their forthcoming edition of La Grande. With it he’s stepping into the shoes of the formidable Margaret Jull Costa, but it’s hard to imagine Saer in anyone else’s hands (or wait, shoes, I guess? Is that the lazy metaphor I was using?) at this point. Dolph is thankfully true to the understatement in this book. There are moments of flame-bright language—during dream sequences, bilious drunken dialogue, an excerpt from a novel in progress—but they are rare, and must leak up through extra-textual cracks in a shell of simple declarative vocabulary. Dolph does an impressive job here, using just the right measure of repetition in the language itself, opting for no more specific phrasing than is necessary. There are staircases, squares, doorways and trees, arcades, gin and long marsh grass. He has a good ear for the break of the sentences, for when a character’s narration should push or drag you, cozy you in or hold you distant. Even more, Dolph manages to coax a different timbre from the voice of each of these five sometimes very similar male narrators. He builds them of slang and its lack, of reflection and its lack, until he’s managed what I hope Saer himself did in the original: a mumbling too-easily-joined chorus of banalities and lust.

Ah that’s right, beer. I spilled a beer on it.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lian Law on Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka that came out from Black Cat/Grove Press back last year.

Lian Law was an intern and in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class last semester, which is when she wrote this review. (And yes, we are that far behind in running all of these.)

Marcelo was actually in Rochester for an event last spring in connection with PEN World Voices. You can watch the full event below, or skip forward to see the reading and interview with Marcelo:

And here’s the opening of Lian’s review:

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Kamchatka: a remote peninsula in the Russian Far East. However, to the ten-year-old narrator in Marcelo Figueras’s novel Kamchatka, it represents much more. It is a territory to be conquered in his favorite game of Risk, it is “a paradox, a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms,” and it is the last thing his father ever says to him.

Kamchatka is Marcelo Figueras’s English novel debut, translated by Frank Wynne. A novelist and screenwriter, Figueras has published several other books including El espía del tiempo, La batalla del calentamiento, and Aquarium. He was born in Argentina in 1962 and similar to the narrator of Kamchatka, he was a young child at the start of the Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976.

Kamchatka chronicles the life of a young boy during this time of political instability and its suffocating climate of fear and violence. When he, his brother, and his parents, are suddenly forced to flee to a safe house, they must assume new identities. The boy renames himself “Harry,” after his hero and famous escape artist Harry Houdini while his five-year-old brother rechristens himself “Simón,” after Simon Templar in the TV show The Saint (although Harry continues to refer to him by his nickname, the “Midget.” Despite all the disruptions, fear and sudden disappearances of friends and family members, Figueras’s main goal is not to write another somber novel about the Dirty War. By retelling the events through a child’s perspective, Figueras explores the impact this situation had on personal and family dynamics. In the face of this situation, Harry remains a typical young boy, reluctantly attending school, obsessed with TV shows, comic books, and superheroes. He spends his time playing Risk with his father and aspiring to learn the secrets of Houdini.

In addition to Harry’s ten-year-old perspective, the adult Harry is often a companion voice, reflecting upon and filling in information that his younger self was incapable of comprehending at that time. Harry reflects on the information he gathers about the political situation.

For a long time I thought that my parents told me these little things because they believed I wouldn’t understand the bigger picture—whatever it was they were not saying, whatever they were hiding from me. Now I think that they did it deliberately, knowing that by the time I put the pieces together and could finally see the picture in the jigsaw puzzle, I would be safe, far from the danger that, right now, threatened us all.

The novel is uniquely bookended by the same moment in time as Harry and his father see each other for the last time. The interior brings the reader back to the beginning and up until this specific moment. While the end scene contains much of the same wording as the opening, the father and son’s encounter and the parting words of “Kamchatka” are full of new meaning and significance. While the opening was distinctly told in a ten-year-old voice, the final retelling is much more reflective, informed by the adult Harry’s brief interjections throughout.

Harry’s voice is most impressive, creatively and perfectly interweaving the ten-year-old and his older self. The novel is structured in five main parts, all around school subjects. In doing so, Figueras brings attention to how children, Harry and his little brother included, learn and decode meaning from their own experiences. Figueras favors short chapters, each paint their own small portrait of Harry’s life. The 81 chapters reflect how a ten-year-old breaks down his life into small episodes, much like the way his favorite television show The Invaders does. These short chapters provide vivid and beautifully colored portraits of his family and the children’s humorous exploits and adventures. The novel is filled with small touches of childhood reminiscence; Harry practicing holding his breath in the bath tub, Harry learning to slip out of knots, Harry and his brother’s attempt to save toads from drowning in the safe house swimming pool by creating a “reverse diving board” and arguments over who is better: Superman or Batman.

In telling the story from Harry’s point of view, Figueras is able to highlight the importance of family, courage and sacrifice within the context of fear, separation and ultimately loss. In the end, Harry realizes that in order to survive you need to “love each other madly.” In retelling his story, he has brought the characters to life once more. Through this act of storytelling, he realizes that “I don’t need Kamchatka any more, I no longer need the security I once felt being far from everything, unreachable, amid the eternal snows. The time has come for me to be where I am again, to be truly here, all of me, to stop surviving and start living.”

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

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

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Open Letter Books

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as Vila-Matas says in his introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaitlyn Brady on Jorge Volpi’s In Spite of the Dark Silence, which is translated from the Spanish by Olivia Maciel and available from Swan Isle Press.

Kaitlyn was in my “Introduction to Literary Publishing/Open Letter Internship” class last semester, which included an assignment to write a book review of a work in translation. Kaitlyn’s in my “Translation and World Literature” class this semester, so expect to read another of her reviews in the not-too-distant future . . .

This is the third book of Jorge’s to be translated and published in English. Scribner did In Search of Klingsor, a while back, and one of our first titles was Season of Ash. As Kaitlyn mentions in the review, Jorge is mostly associated with the “Crack Movement,” which was founded by a group of friends and resulted in this manifesto and a number of interesting works. (The most recent one to be translated into English is Eloy Urroz’s Friction.)

Here’s the opening of Kaitlyn’s review:

With In Spite of the Dark Silence, Jorge Volpi puts a new spin on a classic tale of obsession, following the fictional narrator who is consumed with his research of actual Mexican poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta. The fictionalized biography, in its slightly bizarre nature, weaves the narrator’s research of Cuesta with the downward spiral of his personal life, and will quickly envelop its readers, leaving them with memorable lyrical prose and fragmented sentence structures.

Jorge Volpi is one of the founders of the Crack Movement, a literary movement in Mexico that aimed to break from the cynical, superficial, and outdated movements of the past. The members wished to rupture the contemporary literary conventions of Latin America, such as the expected “magical realism,” creating their own style, and encouraging others to do so as well. Their works reflect a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the progress of civilization and the modern societal systems, which they contrast with the infinite possibilities inherent in fiction. In Spite of Dark Silence is one of the predecessors of this movement.

“His name was Jorge, like mine, and for that his life hurts me twice,” opens Volpi, as the narrator introduces his growing obsession with Jorge Cuesta. Cuesta, an actual Mexican figure, was a member of Los Contemporánoes, a Mexican literary movement in the twentieth century, who eventually committed suicide in a mental ward. His writing is both overtly and subtly woven into Volpi’s narrative as Jorge compulsively researches the poet, diving deeper and deeper into his life and oeuvre, and blurring the boundaries between the two Jorges.

Click here to read the full piece.

21 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With In Spite of the Dark Silence, Jorge Volpi puts a new spin on a classic tale of obsession, following the fictional narrator who is consumed with his research of actual Mexican poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta. The fictionalized biography, in its slightly bizarre nature, weaves the narrator’s research of Cuesta with the downward spiral of his personal life, and will quickly envelop its readers, leaving them with memorable lyrical prose and fragmented sentence structures.

Jorge Volpi is one of the founders of the Crack Movement, a literary movement in Mexico that aimed to break from the cynical, superficial, and outdated movements of the past. The members wished to rupture the contemporary literary conventions of Latin America, such as the expected “magical realism,” creating their own style, and encouraging others to do so as well. Their works reflect a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the progress of civilization and the modern societal systems, which they contrast with the infinite possibilities inherent in fiction. In Spite of Dark Silence is one of the predecessors of this movement.

“His name was Jorge, like mine, and for that his life hurts me twice,” opens Volpi, as the narrator introduces his growing obsession with Jorge Cuesta. Cuesta, an actual Mexican figure, was a member of Los Contemporánoes, a Mexican literary movement in the twentieth century, who eventually committed suicide in a mental ward. His writing is both overtly and subtly woven into Volpi’s narrative as Jorge compulsively researches the poet, diving deeper and deeper into his life and oeuvre, and blurring the boundaries between the two Jorges. Narrator Jorge happens to encounter the story of Cuesta’s self-castration and subsequent suicide, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the tragic story. Despite his wife’s protests, the narrator’s obsession with Cuesta increases as he strives to replicate his experiments and ideals. Eventually quitting his job and abandoning his marriage, the narrator is doomed to follow in his idol’s footsteps—he admits, “If I could not rescue my own life, at least I would rescue his.”

This novel, as a precursor to the Crack Movement, features a light displacement of syntax, which will later be exaggerated. This effect is in part due to fragmented lines from Cuesta incorporated into the narrative, as well as the inclusion of whole letters and excerpts of his poetry. The disjointed style forces us to share the madness of Jorge, as his life intertwines with Cuesta’s. When Jorge attempts to come to terms with his obsession, Volpi writes,

I prefer my own fragmented history, unserviceable, hypocritical, vain, the futility of my effort, my sad relationship with Alma, my one and unrepeatable Alma, and a destiny that cannot aggrandize me, that in no way resembles Cuesta’s passion, that is as worthless as anyone else’s, but that is enough to cry and finish.

This slightly confusing sentence openly imitates his “fragmented” mind, while directly referencing Cuesta. We’re placed in his shoes, feeling overwhelmed and lost. In addition to the disjointed style, Volpi also presents us with lyrical poetry blended with his prose, writing, “I touched the wet clay, amazed by the eloquence of the revelation: My sight diffused on the space is space itself.” The latter half of this phrase is actually an excerpt from Cuesta’s poetry, demonstrating how Volpi incorporates Cuesta’s writing into his own. With this partially incomprehensible half-prose, half-poetry sentence, we share the narrator’s confusion and his obsession, as Cuesta begins to invade his every thought and feeling.

Olivia Maciel, the translator, adeptly maintains this style indicative of Volpi and the Crack Movement as well as writes an eye-opening Afterword on these subjects. She explains how “Jorge Volpi, along with other members of the Crack literary movement, begins a new conversation with the luminous and ever rare transubstantial world.”

In Spite of the Dark Silence is hauntingly arresting, dragging the reader into the downward spiral of its narrator and subject. At times we’re unsure if we’re reading something from the perspective of Jorge the narrator or Jorge Cuesta, making for a delightfully puzzling read. After being sucked into the quest of the narrator, we can predict how history will repeat itself, while hoping that it will not. In perhaps what could be described as a strange, twisted love story, In Spite of the Dark Silence questions passion, love, relationships, and obsession, illustrating just how far one will go.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Review Section”: is a piece by Phillip Witte on Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, which is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from New Directions.

Phil is one of our regular reviewers, and one of our former interns. As mentioned in the review, he also interned at New Directions, and is currently working for the Plutzik Foundation, where he’s running their poetry blog, A Fistful of Words. (Definitely check out the blog—Phil’s a great writer and great person and this deserves more attention.)

I believe Marias has a new book coming out in the not-too-distant future, but some unnnamable agent (as in, his name should never be spoken out loud for fear of repercussions sinister and royalty related), sold the rights to this (and some of the ND backlist) to a Big Six publisher. So forget that book and read While the Women Are Sleeping and Your Face Tomorrow. And trade ND editions of his earlier works (Dark Back of Time is a personal favorite) on the black market.

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Click here to read the full review.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Though the book is not all ghost stories, it does include several, featuring narrators or protagonists enmeshed in their own strange dilemmas of love and selfhood which are complicated by the sudden incursions of a spirit from beyond the grave. “One Night of Love” has its protagonist, who complains of his wife’s lack of interest in lovemaking, discover love letters addressed to his late father from a woman who claims that she is already dead as she writes. The narrator then receives a letter from his dead father’s dead lover, importuning him to exhume his father’s body and cremate it, in order that his spirit will be released and can join her. As the narrator quibbles with himself over whether to hide the letters from his wife, her sexual interest in him mysteriously starts to grow. Another story, “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” tells of a young girl who, out of charity, reads to a lonely old woman every day, and before long they are visited by a bullet-ridden ghost who turns out to be the Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, coming just to listen quietly to the girl read.

I’m finding it difficult fun to paraphrase a Marias story, they’re so gently off-beat and beautifully constructed. And Marias is bursting with affection for his very human, very living protagonists, as boring and morally repugnant as they might be, which might make my descriptions a little less morally ambiguous than the stories actually are—and challengingly, illuminatingly so, if you’ll pardon all the adverbs. “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban,” my personal favorite, tells of Derek Lilburn, an Englishman “of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past,” who begins a new teaching job in Madrid on a short-term professional exchange program. He arrives at his new school, where he is given the simple task of locking up the school every Friday night. The first night he is to perform this chore, he is warned to pay no heed to Senor Santiesteban, the ghost who, every single night, bursts out of the school office, takes seven steps over to the hallway bulletin board, tacks up a letter of resignation addressed only to a “Dear Friend,” takes eight steps back into the office, and falls still. Oddly, this ghost is not to be seen, only heard. And no one knows who he was in life, or what he is resigning from, or why: the letter, identical every night, is enigmatically reticent of circumstantial details. Lilburn makes it his personal mission to solve the puzzle, despite the warnings of his superior, Mr. Bayo, who has been down the investigational road and found that it only leads one to admit in frustration that the mystery is unsolvable. The bored and boring Lilburn is undeterred, and shares every tiny discovery with the wearily patient Mr. Bayo, until, finally outdoing his superior, Lilburn finds a way to truly know the ghost—by becoming him, in a strange way that has nothing to do with death.

The private contemplation of death by the living preoccupies many of the stories in this book, but not all of them: see “An Epigram of Fealty,” which tells of a rare book dealer in London who is harangued by a beggar claiming to be John Gawsworth, King of Redonda; or “Gualta,” a brief tale narrating one man’s descent into total ruination after meeting his doppelgänger at a business dinner. The title story, which is the first and longest in the collection, sets the stage for meditating on the imagination’s encounter with death, but it features nothing of the supernatural either. Told from a voyeur’s perspective, the story is strongly reminiscent of Lolita: it depicts an overweight middle-aged man, Viana, who has subscribed his life to his passionate desire for Inès, the daughter of his close friends, whom he meets when she is only seven years old. Now she is twenty-three and they have been living together for five years, to the ruin of his friendship with her parents. He videotapes her body with microscopic attention every day “because she is going to die,” he says, and he wants to have a visual record of her last day on Earth. The narrator watches this videotaping take place on the beach, and then meeting Viana one night beside the hotel pool, he listens to the fat man’s tale. My next thought as I read is that Marias owes much to Nabokov’s sense of narrative play as well—from the first image in the story of the narrator spying on his fellow sunbathers on the beach through his wife’s straw sunhat, this playful seriousness continues through the story’s final lines:

Both were sleeping, that’s why they didn’t wake up or come out onto the balcony, Luisa hadn’t died in my absence, however long that had been—I’d forgotten my watch. Instinctively, I glanced up toward the rooms, toward my balcony, toward all the balconies, and on one of them, I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet toga and heard it call to me twice, saying my name, as mothers say their children’s names. I stood up. On Inès’s balcony, though, whichever it was, there was no one.

The texture of the collection as a whole may seem uneven, but this is hardly a detractor. The ten stories here are dated across a period of more than 30 years, the earliest being “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga,” written (according to the Author’s Note) in 1965, when Marias was just fourteen years old (“be kind, please,” he beseeches his readers). The story is narrated by a man on his deathbed who continues to be able to see and hear but is unable to move or speak, “alive and well” mentally even as his body has ceased to function. A certain lack of maturity in the writing comes across at times with a coarse brashness, a mix of youthful courage and naivete in the tone that can be highly entertaining:

At six o’clock on the evening of the 22nd, when the fever intensified, I tried to get out of bed, but fell back against the pillow, dead. . . . I couldn’t speak or move or open my eyes, even though I could see and hear everything going on around me. My mother-in-law said:

“He’s dead.”

“May he rest in peace,” chorused the others.

Certainly it is the weakest story in the collection, so one wonders why Marias chose to include it. My guess is that it is at the very least to demonstrate that certain themes and meditations that set the writer to work in youth may keep him busy many years later. By including this story along with the much more mature “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” (dated 1998), with “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiestaban” (1975) and other stories from the mid-80s falling in between, the book offers us a glimpse of a long range of Marias’s life in writing.

The final and perhaps greatest pleasure in the book, however, is found in rereading and discovering that the work is not quite what you thought it was—it’s not the stories only, it’s the soft surprises that burst from Marias’s delicate prose (via Margaret Jull Costa’s rendering in the way that I like best in a translation: she gives the feeling that what you’re reading is decidedly not English, though you can’t point to exactly why it feels that way, as her English at the same time feels perfectly natural—Chris Andrews’s translation of Cesar Aira’s Ghosts is another example of English prose that dexterously retains some flavor of the original Spanish). As I’ve gone back over the book in composing this review, in order to describe these ghosts and enigmatic perusals of death, this is the kind of thing I find—the most careful, disquieting attention to a curious scene:

The young man took some time to reappear—perhaps ghosts go into mourning, for who else has more reason to or perhaps they are still wary, perhaps words can still wound them—but he did finally return, attracted perhaps by the new material, and he continued to listen with the same close attention, not standing up this time, leaning on the chairback, but comfortably installed in the now vacant armchair, his hat dangling from his hand, and sometimes with his legs crossed and holding a lit cigar, like the patriarch he never, in his numbered days, had the chance to become. (from “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps”)

Everyone probably already is, but I’ll say it anyway: Read Marias, read him again, and read him again.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Giannini Braschi’s Empire of Dreams, which is available from AmazonCrossing in Tess O’Dwyer’s translation.

Vincent Francone is one of our regular reviewers, and a writer, and a reader for TriQuarterly Online.

AmazonCrossing recently published three books by Giannini Braschi, including Yo-Yo Boing! and United States of Banana. Vince wasn’t totally sold on this book (which is probably the most obviously “experimental” of the three), as you can see in his review:

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat.

Click here to read the full review.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat. To be sure, Braschi hits the mark often enough to keep the reader engaged or at least curious to see what will follow. Landmark moments in the collection come late, as in the third section “The Intimate Diary of Solitude,” which gets more than a little meta, but wading through the earlier, duller bits is tiring. Oddly, Braschi’s lists and anaphora would be less grating were they broken into poetic lines and not crammed into a single paragraph:

This is not a book. I did not read it. I lived it. I lived it from road to road. I came across the fortune-teller on the way. And the magician too. And I found a door closed. And gates. And guards. And cowards and killers. And street spectacles. And New York City. And the moon. And the sun. And thunder. And love. And death. And trains. And visionaries. And war. And the atomic bomb. And I found my ears. And I found my soul. My self. My poet. My stars. My comet. And I wrote. And I got drunk. And I loved.

And I got bored. Not that drinking and loving and New York City are dull per se (though we’ve seen them before in better books), but the manner in which Braschi introduces them (and revisits them again and again in similar list fashion) renders these themes and images into jackhammers splitting the reader’s patience.

That said, there are more successful moments in Empire of Dreams. The before mentioned final third of the book plays with perspective by shifting persona; the author inserts herself into the story and becomes all of the characters. I admire such literary tinkering, though the conceit becomes clear before long. By the end of Empire of Dreams I felt neither anger for having slogged through a tiresome read nor reward for having taken the time to digest an experimental book.

Kudos should be reserved for AmazonCrossing, the translation leg of Amazon.com’s new publishing beast. I applaud them for taking a chance on a foreign book that surely will not net a large return (aside from not being a pot boiler, this has the curse of poetry, never a big seller on these shores). That said, I hope that AmazonCrossing’s next venture yields more satisfying results.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Emily Davis on Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

Emily Davis a MALTS student here, and translates from Spanish. As you might be able to tell from the final line of her review, she wrote this months ago, at which time she emailed it to me and I promptly misfiled it. So.

Emily’s review is really positive, and makes this sound extremely interesting, and like a possible BTBA longlist title . . .

bq.If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Death as a Side Effect is a book about aging, death, absence, coldness, fear, and entrapment—which, taken as a group, makes it sound like a horribly depressing read. It isn’t, though, because even amid the darkness there are bright sparks of humor. Take, for instance, a bit of Ernesto’s evidence of his mother’s going crazy: “Yesterday Mama threw a pot of stew down the stairs,” or his comically erudite description of a part of his reaction to having witnessed an act of violence: “As the car had new upholstery, I was circumspect enough to vomit on the street before I climbed in.” It is especially in such careful word choice and construction of tone that Andrea G. Labinger’s translation shines, as the prose seamlessly shifts among the range of emotions in this novel, as in Ernesto’s darkly humorous reflection on his dying father’s belongings:

Sadly, I realized there was nothing, absolutely nothing there that I might want to keep, except maybe that naked, reclining woman, whose oversized breasts were salt and pepper shakers and which struck me as the most touching symbol of my father’s bad taste and his enthusiastic vitality.

In addition to the temporary—and incomplete—lightening of mood afforded by these periodic dollops of humor, there are also moments of hope—hope for some kind of freedom—such as this dream of Ernesto’s:

I fell asleep. I dreamed I was flying. With a single leap, I gained altitude and soared through the air, very high above the city. It was pleasant, and it filled me with immeasurable pride. In my dream, I realized that flying was very unusual. Only I, among all men, could fly, only I in the entire history of the human race. I advanced effortlessly, feeling the breeze against my face, floating with an ease I never had in water. Then, without any transition, we were in the country, and I had gathered together a group of acquaintances to watch me fly. I ran and leaped, trying to rise, but my leaps were just that: enormous leaps, twenty or thirty yards long, that lifted me quite a bit above the ground. No matter how hard I attempted to run full speed, to try every which way, it did me no good. In real life, these boundless leaps would have been extraordinary. In the dream, they were simply proof that I couldn’t fly. The observers began to play poker.

His freedom is imperfect, its exercise incomplete, the outcome laughable and a touch unsettling; but still, the dream hints that there may be something beneath the surface that threatens the fearsome authority of the dystopia, something that flirts with a sort of balance in Ernesto’s world that could, perhaps, make it tolerable after all.

In the screwed-up world of Shua’s novel, perhaps the only sanity rises from Goransky, the film director with delusions of grandeur for whom Ernesto works as a scriptwriter and later as a makeup artist. Goransky has made only one successful film: a short documentary set in Antarctica. Still, he has dreams even bigger than he—“an enormous, heavy man with the brightest eyes you could ever imagine, in constant motion, a hippo on amphetamines, a bear hypnotized into thinking he was a squirrel”—dreams of making the great feature film of his era, a film also set in Antarctica. He throws a party to support his film project—a Coldness-themed party, which is at once over-the-top decadent and ridiculous, as well as strangely comforting in its absurd play at an alternative world:

There was a tea for Arctic foxes. And a cluster of Lapp huts, where exquisite dishes were served, not always in keeping with the central theme of the party as far as ingredients were concerned, but authentic in their presentation. The roofs of the huts sloped to the floor, and in the terribly hot interior, attractive, sweaty men, bare-chested and dressed in reindeer hide pants rolled up to their knees, served oysters shaped like snowflakes with white sauce and meringue, and extra-tender unborn veal steaks rotating over a fire, as if they were a single slab of flesh stuck to the enormous femur that served as a central skewer: a bear leg.

By turns horrifying, touching, thoughtful, comical, and even absurd, Death as a Side Effect is not likely to disappoint. And at just over 160 pages, you can probably still squeeze it into your summer reading mix.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen about Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican short stories of the fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris Brown and forthcoming from Small Beer Press.

Sara “Number Four” Cohen was one of our summer interns, who attends the University of Rochester where she’s majoring in English and singing lots of showtunes.

She wasn’t a huge fan of this collection as a whole, but there were a number of pieces that she really enjoyed. Here’s the opening of her review, along with one example of the “Very Good” stories included:

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

Click here to read the full review.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

2. “Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.

3. “Nereid Future,” by Gabriela Damián Miravete.

Imagine a modern, Mexican version of Margaret Oliphant’s short story from 1869, The Library Window and you’ll arrive at “Nereid Future.” The story, told in the second person, is about a girl who falls in love with a long-dead author through his books. The narrative gets increasingly meta as the girl begins to believe that the author loves her back. Intertextuality and female identity earn the spotlight in this short story, which contains one of those perfect endings where you should have seen it coming from the start, but still catches you by surprise.

4. “The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

5. “Variations on a Theme by Coleridge,” by Alberto Chimal.

Three Messages includes plenty of short-short stories; this is my favorite example, a page-and-a-half-long gem. It begins, “I got a call. It was me, calling from a phone I lost the year before. I asked myself where I had found the phone. I answered myself that it was in such and such cafeteria that I couldn’t remember anymore.” The story gets increasingly meta and hilarious, drawing its premise from the capabilities of modern technology, its humor from repetition and its pathos from the ways we judge ourselves.

Other favorites: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández, “Wittigenstein’s Umbrella” by Óscar de la Borbolla, “Mr. Strogoff” by Guillermo Samperio.

Category Two: The Mediocre.

Most of the book falls into this category: stories that build up but go nowhere (“The Guest”); stories that you swear you’ve read before (“Three Messages and a Warning in the Same E-mail”); stories with one original gimmick, a clever premise or punch line that amuses without earning long-term appreciation (“A Pile of Bland Desserts”, “Wolves”); even a few pieces that don’t fully cross the cultural divide (“The Nahual Offering”).

These are not awful stories. I enjoyed reading some of them. But when I forget they existed in a week or two, I won’t feel the loss.

Category Three: The Ugly.

In my opinion the worst of the collection (besides that very random poem, “Mannequin”) are the stories that are unbearably trite, the stories that fit a shallow American understanding of Mexican culture to a T. I’m speaking mostly of the first story in the collection, “Today, You Walk Along a Narrow Path,” a tale about Día de los Muertos with the most predictable “surprise” ending in the entire book. There are others that fit this category, of course . . . but the line between “mediocre” and “ugly” seems awfully thin in my mind, so I think I’ll let future readers sort out those stories on their own.

5 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito’s been on about Daniel Sada for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his work, especially the “Joycean,” “Rabelaisian,” novel Almost Never, which wont he prestigious Herralde Prize for Fiction, and which Graywolf is bringing in April in Katherine Silver’s translation. Yes, April. 2012.

Well, to my grand surprise, a galley arrived here this morning:

Here’s a description:

This Rabelaisian tale of lust and longing in the drier precincts of postwar Mexico introduces one of Latin America’s most admired writers to the English-speaking world.

Demetrio Sordo is an agronomist who passes his days in a dull but remunerative job at a ranch near Oaxaca. It is 1945, World War II has just ended, but those bloody events have had no impact on a country that is only on the cusp of industrializing. One day, more bored than usual, Demetrio visits a bordello in search of a libidinous solution to his malaise. There he begins an all-consuming and, all things considered, perfectly satisfying relationship with a prostitute named Mireya.

A letter from his mother interrupts Demetrio’s debauched idyll: she asks him to return home to northern Mexico to accompany her to a wedding in a small town on the edge of the desert. Much to his mother’s delight, he meets the beautiful and virginal Renata and quickly falls in love—a most proper kind of love.

Back in Oaxaca, Demetrio is torn, the poor cad. Naturally he tries to maintain both relationships, continuing to frolic with Mireya and beginning a chaste correspondence with Renata. But Mireya has problems of her own—boredom is not among them—and concocts a story that she hopes will help her escape from the bordello and compel Demetrio to marry her. Almost Never is a brilliant send-up of Latin American machismo that also evokes a Mexico on the verge of dramatic change.

But what’s really exciting about this—and the reason why I’m going to read this as soon as I’ve fulfilled all my other reading obligations—is the prose itself. Check the opening:

Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied, ambiguous sex, as a game that baffles then enlightens then baffles again; pretense-sex, see-through-sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life lived. Conjectures cut short during a walk on a pale afternoon. Block after block, ascending, then descending. A strain in the step as well as the mind. The subject was one Demetrio Sordo, tall and thin, almost thirty, fond of the countryside wehre he plied his trade with a modicum of pleasure, but for recreation: what thrills? Nightly games of dominoes in seedy dives, and those strolls—few and quite dull—of a mere mile or two; or a cup of coffee in the evening, always solitary and perfectly pointless; or the penning of letters to known but already ghostly beings. Hence a rut, and—what should he do?: think, already anticipating certainties and doubts: lots of naysaying, and more reshuffling, all of which helped him find the spark he’d been lacking without taxing his brain on that overcast afternoon. Sex was the most obvious option, but the trick would be to do it every twenty-four hours. If only! A worthy disbursement, indeed. So that very night the agronomist went looking for a brothel.

You can pre-order your copy now . . . Also worth noting that this is part of Graywolf’s Lannan Translation Series, a collection of books in translation sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. This series includes Per Petterson, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Bernardo Atxaga, and many others.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Good Offices by Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, and coming out from New Directions next week.

Good Offices is the second novel by Evelio Rosero (after The Armies, 2009) to be published by New Directions. It’s also the first to be translated by Anne McLean in collaboration with Anna Milsom.

In Good Offices, we are released into the world of Tancredo, a hunchback who has a deep fear of becoming an animal. Tancredo, the sexton’s goddaughter (Sabina Cruz) and the three witchlike widows work for a corrupt priest providing charity meals for the local poor. Their endless labor has drained them of their humanity. Their daily routines are soon to be broken, however, with the arrival of a new priest: Father Matamoros, a drunkard with a beautiful voice whose sung mass is spellbinding to all. Under the magical and disillusioning presence of Father Matamoros, the women and Tancredo spill their confessions and turbulent stories.

Click here to read an extended preview, which has a pretty striking opening:

He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime. “I have this fear,” he says to himself, and glimpses his hump reflected in the window. His eyes wander over his eyes: he does not recognize himself. What an other! He thinks. What an other! And examines his face. “On Thursdays,” and then, “this Thursday, especially, when it’s the old people’s turn.” Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.

Additionally, we posted an interview between Dan Vitale and Anna Milsom, which is definitely worth reading in full:

DV: How did you discover the book?

AM: Well, I met Anne at the BCLT summer school too—it must be a decade or so ago. We had a lot of fun and have stayed in touch since. Two years ago I was running a literary translation evening class at London Metropolitan University where I now teach and I invited Anne to come in as a guest speaker. She had Los almuerzos in her bag and suggested we might see about doing the translation collaboratively—I leapt at the chance, as you may imagine. Anne had already translated Rosero’s The Armies and together they had won the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, so it felt pretty amazing to be discussing the possibility of working with such a formidable team. I got hold of the book as quickly as I could and the first thing I did was fall for the swooping rush of the prose. The second thing was to wonder how on earth to render it in English. Or perhaps I did those two things simultaneously. Translators read in a very special and peculiar way, I think, taking in the words as both readers and writers at the same time. It becomes hard not to do this, even when you’re reading purely for pleasure.

Finally, here’s Dan’s review of the novel, which opens:

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Click here to access all of these features and to find links where you can buy a copy of the book.

22 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Evelio Rosero’s first novel to be translated into English since his award-winning The Armies takes place on a much smaller scale than that hallucinatory story about the damaging effects of civil war in Colombia. Good Offices, lighter in tone and slighter than The Armies, documents the events of a single day in a single location: a Catholic church in Bogotá. The tale is told through the eyes of Tancredo, a young man with a hunchback, who assists the priest of the church, Father Almida, as an occasional acolyte but mainly by running the daily free lunches the church offers to the city’s neediest residents: “Tuesdays for the blind, Mondays for the whores, Fridays for families, Wednesdays for the street kids, Saturdays and Sundays for God, or so says the priest.”

Tancredo and Father Almida not only work at the church but live in its presbytery, along with Machado, the sacristan; Sabina, Machado’s goddaughter; and “the three Lilias,” a clutch of women who run the household and who have come to resemble one another so closely that they go by the same name. The novel opens on a Thursday afternoon, “when it’s the old people’s turn” to be served lunch, and Tancredo has just finished kicking out the last of the diners. The anger he feels at their insistence on remaining in the church hall long past the end of the meal stirs in him “a terrible fear of being an animal,” although he is for the most part a mild-mannered, studious, and obedient servant of the church.

Beyond its opening pages, however, this short novel barely concerns Tancredo’s primary job. We witness a meeting at which Father Almida informs Tancredo that, starting Monday, the sacristan of the church will begin assisting Tancredo with the lunches, but after this scene nothing more about the meals is mentioned, which is a disappointment—and an oddity, considering that the Spanish title of Good Offices is Los almuerzos (“the lunches”).

Sabina, who lusts after Tancredo and has been waiting for a chance to be alone with him, is excited when Father Almida and her godfather are called away Thursday evening on a mysterious errand to dissuade Don Justiniano, the church’s main financial benefactor, from withdrawing his largesse on the basis of unspecified “lies” purportedly being spread by other priests in the city about the church’s use of Don Justiniano’s funds. But ultimately it is the three Lilias, not Sabina, who take the most pleasure from what transpires in the two men’s absence.

The book’s plot turns out to be built on an archetype: the arrival of a charismatic stranger who forever changes the life of a small, well-ordered community. Father Matamoros appears during a rainstorm to fill in for Father Almida at seven o’clock Mass. In contrast to Almida’s plainspoken efficaciousness, Matamoros is dreamy and poetic (and fond of drink—he swigs aguardiente during the service). But what most endears him to the evening parishioners is that he sings the Mass rather than speaks it, in a voice of great beauty and devotion:

Beneath the cold vaulted reaches, his voice seemed to come from heaven. He repeated his invitation to repent, singing: Beloved brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins. It was as if the organ were sounding. Tancredo lifted his gaze to the marble dome as if escaping and saw the host of painted angels flying among the clouds; he saw them return his gaze and still did not know whether to feel terrified or moved. How long it had been, he thought, since Mass had been sung. The purity of the voice was the air they breathed.

After this miracle of a Mass, the Lilias immediately and passionately ingratiate themselves with Matamoros, making him comfortable, bringing him food and drink and fawning over his talents. But the Mass of Father Matamoros also unleashes something disturbingly otherworldly in them, inspiring them (among other unusual behaviors) to conduct a bizarre and violent ritual in the church garden. Through the night and into the early hours of Friday, their power and ferocity grow to such an extent that not even Father Almida and Machado, when they return from their errand the next morning, are safe from it.

As difficult as it is to describe exactly what has happened to the Lilias, it is even more difficult to speculate about the significance Rosero ascribes to it. New Directions’ fall catalog states that Good Offices is a “beautifully poetic and vivid satire of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church,” but the stability that Matamoros and the Lilias upset seems composed of far murkier and much more poorly explained elements than mere religious hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fervor of the Lilias themselves that is being satirized, but again, if so, Rosero is being far vaguer about his targets than true satire demands.

Further, at the end of the novel Rosero seems to be taking pains to cast Tancredo and Sabina as some kind of modern Adam and Eve, but over what new paradise (or hell?) they are to supposed to reign Rosero does not specify. We finish the book feeling we have experienced something unsettling, but unsure what, and still wondering what is to become of those daily free lunches we read about at the start.

29 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Argentina Independent has a great feature on Carlos Gamerro, a very interesting Argentine writer who once contributed to Three Percent and has a couple books coming out in translation. Here’s Joey Rubin’s intro:

The time has come for Carlos Gamerro to speak English. Born into a bilingual family in Buenos Aires in 1962, he’s been using the language since childhood. Since the 1990s, he’s been translating from it (books by Auden, Shakespeare and Graham Green) and lecturing in it (at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the US; at Cambridge University in the UK). But now, readers can welcome the author into a different kind of English conversation: over the next year, two of his novels will be released in first-ever English editions. Those books—‘El secreto y las voces’ and ‘Las islas’—will be released in the UK as ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press, 2011) and ‘The Islands’ (& Other Stories, 2012).

They are part of a diverse and cultivated body of writing that includes other novels (‘El sueño del señor juez’ and ‘La aventura de los bustos de Eva’), literary essays (‘Harold Bloom y el canon literario’ and ‘El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos’), and short fiction (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

Bad Burgers, available here in an original English translation, has been published thrice before in Spanish—in the magazine ‘Pisar el césped’, the newspaper Página 12, and in the story collection ‘El libro de afectos raros’. It distills much of what makes Gamerro’s writing distinctive; what Federico Falco, writing in the newspaper Perfíl, has called “the three fundamental pillars” on which Gamerro’s writing stands: “brilliantly hatched plots, characters who, without surrendering the profound, rub up against pop culture, and a view of the national reality somewhere between critical and humorous.” Reason enough for English-speakers to listen to what he has to say; now, at long last, in our native tongue. tion (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

And here’s the opening of the interview:

Joey Rubin: You have two books coming out soon in English translations — ‘An Open Secret’ and ‘The Islands’. Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing them into English? Are they your first full-length works to be published in English?

Carlos Gamerro: Yes, these are my first full-length works to be brought into English. After a few near misses — all of them in the UK, I suppose it’s a side effect of my upbringing. Or maybe it’s one of the mysterious effects of a general trend of Argentine culture where practically all the ‘English’ schools are precisely that, English (even though mine advertised itself as Scottish).

So, after years of waiting, I suddenly found myself with two publishers vying for my work! Pushkin is a prestigious publisher of classics and choice new fiction, and & Other Stories is an exciting new venture you should do a piece about! I was lucky in that both accepted my choice of translator, Buenos Aires-based, England-born Ian Barnett, who’s been living in Argentina for ages now, is an avid reader of Argentine fiction and has been wanting to do my stuff since he first read ‘Las islas’ back in 1998. His translations of me are ‘in collaboration with the author’ although my role is actually less to collaborate than to drive him crazy. With ‘An Open Secret’ we were using the ‘comments’ option and towards the end I thought of looking at the numbers and we had reached comment 1,500! But it’s a dream situation: to have the same translator for all my books, one who is open (or resigned) to all suggestions, who is obsessive, devoted and, to top it all, a good friend.

The whole interview is worth checking out, as is Joey Rubin’s translation of Bad Burgers.

I’m personally very excited to get my hands on both of Carlos’s forthcoming books, which we’ll definitely review here. (And maybe include in Read This Next?)

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

Here’s the opening of her review:

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

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

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

Click here to read the entire piece.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on Lucia Puenzo’s The Fish Child, which is translated from the Spanish by David William Foster and available from Texas Tech as part of The Americas series.

We’ve written about The Americas series before, but if you’re not already familiar with this, it’s a special literature series edited by Irene Vilar that was once housed at the University of Wisconsin Press and is now published by Texas Tech University Press. The focus is on Spanish and Portuguese literature from south of our border, and includes works from Moacyr Scliar (who will be featured in the Read This Next program in the near future), Ernesto Cardenal, and David Toscana. It’s a really great—and attractively produced—series.

Lucia Puenzo was selected by Granta as one of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist” for their special issue that came out last fall. As a result, we did a special piece on Puenzo as part of our 22 Days of Awesome series.

Anyway, as mentioned in that post—and in Sara’s review—Puenzo is not just a novelist, but also a filmmaker. In the Granta-related post, we included the trailer for XXY, so this time, here’s the trailer for The Fish Child, a “gripping tale of forbidden lesbian romance and a crime heist gone awry that boasts beautiful cinematography and electrifying performances from its two female leads.”


http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=2995

Sara Cohen is interning here this summer, and along with mailing her other internish duties, she’s been writing reviews of some of these Texas Tech books.

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

“It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.”

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Click here to read the entire review.

8 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here are four things you should know about The Fish Child:

1.) The novel is sensual, crude, vibrant and unyielding.
2.) The protagonists, Lala and Guayi, are the sort of characters who make dangerous, fascinating mistakes.
3.) Puenzo, born in Buenos Aires, directed a film adaptation of The Fish Child that premiered in Berlin. So this story has traveled all around the world before it’s finally been brought to print in the U.S.
4.) The Fish Child is narrated by the family’s pet dog.

If that last item threw you off, that’s okay. The canine mindset is a bit alienating in both theory and practice. Just look at the novel’s opening paragraph:

It could have been worse, believe me. It took them a day to make up their minds. Prodan. Saumerio. Violeta. I imagined myself going out into the world like Violeta and I peed my pants hiding in corners. Let’s see if you get me: I’m black, macho and bad. No matter how I look right now, with tubes coming out of me, on the verge of being dead meat. It was an accident, something that could happen to anyone. And what they’re saying is not true: I’m not stupid, just curious. If I see something moving beneath the leaves…I bite. Sorry, I digress, I know…it isn’t easy when Lala caresses me this way. And it doesn’t look good, a dying dog with an erection.

Puenzo’s narrating mutt (ultimately christened Serafín) allows the reader a unique view of the world. Characters, setting and plot are presented free of the standard censorship of “polite” society. The result is a gritty, sensual narrative voice that, along with a tight sense of storytelling, makes this novel impossible to put down.

Just in case, after all this hype, you’re wondering what this novel is actually about, here is the premise: Lala, the daughter of a popular Argentinian author, falls in love with Guayi, her Paraguayan maid. The two teenagers plan to escape to Guayi’s family in Paraguay. But when Lala, driven by passion, commits one of those dangerous, fascinating mistakes, she is forced to leave for Paraguay earlier than expected—and without Guayi. The consequences of Lala’s actions, and her struggle to physically and emotionally reunite with her lover, fill the 161 pages of The Fish Child.

Despite the compelling plot, the best thing about this book is Puenzo’s characters. Serafín follows Guayi and Lala with the fiercest of canine loyalties. His presence helps transform a harsh book about reckless teenagers into a narrative about the strong devotion that binds the three leads together. Puenzo isn’t afraid to create truly messed up characters, but her compassionate exploration of the characters’ histories and motives forces readers to love and even respect them despite their mistakes.

The Fish Child has a few sore points. In spite of what seems like a stellar translation from David William Foster, Puenzo’s narrative occasionally darts from past to present without clear indication of the transition. This is visible in the aforementioned opening paragraph, where the narrative begins in the distant past, moves to a slightly unclear moment in the novel’s future, then darts back to the distant past again for the following paragraphs. I also had trouble remembering the characters are teenagers—Lala’s tendency to idolize Guayi led me to assume the latter character was in her mid-twenties, at least.

Still, these are minor flaws in what is generally a refreshingly honest, thoroughly captivating and ultimately compassionate novel. Add in the lightest touch of magical realism and an ending mysterious enough to demand a reread, and you have The Fish Child. I consider myself lucky to have found it.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote about Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and forthcoming from Archipelago Books. It also happens to be this week’s Read This Next title.

Here’s the opening of the review:

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

You can read the complete piece here.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

The photographs of Jai Singh’s observatories are one of the most strikingly beautiful things about this book, and by themselves are worth the price of admission. Jai Singh was the ruler of Amber (later Jaipur) in the early 1700s and amid all sorts of political and social issues, he built at least five observatories. Using Hindu astronomy, these observatories were used to predict eclipses, etc. That’s interesting in and of itself, but beyond practicality, these structures are stunningly intricate and a bit mesmerizing. (Some photos from the book are available here, but you can also see a slew of color photos via this Google search.)

Cortazar took the 36 photos included in the book back in 1968, and they very much reflect the elliptical, baroque play found in the prose itself:

Everything corresponds, Jai Singh and Baudelaire thought with a century’s interval, from the lookout of the tallest tower of the observatory the sultan must have sought the system, the network in code that would give him the keys of contact: how could he not have known that the animal Earth would suffocate in a slow stillness if it had not always been in the lungs of the astral steel, the sneaky traction of the moon and the sun drawing and repelling the green breast of the waters. [. . .] Every sign of measurement on the marble ramps of Jaipur received (still receives, for no one now, for monkeys and tourists) the Morse signs, the sidereal alphabet that in another dimension of the sensitive turns into plankton, trade winds, shipwreck of the California oil tanker Norman (May 8, 1957), blossoming of cherry trees in Naga or Sivergues, lava in Osorno, eels arriving in port, leptocephali having grown to eight centimeters in three years will not know that their entry into fresher waters sets off some mechanism of the thyroid, will not know they’re now starting to be called elvers, that new calming words accompany the serpent’s storming of the reefs, its advance up the estuaries, its irrepressible invasion of the rivers; all this that has no name is called by so many names, the way Jai Singh swapped twinkles for formulae, unfathomable orbits for conceivable times.

This is pretty representative of the prose in From the Observatory: winding, digressive, soaring, playful, and looping back on itself like a Mobius Strip. As Anne McLean said in the interview, “Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.”

29 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next feature on Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, we just posted an interview with translator Anne McLean about this book, Cortazar in general, and the other authors she’s worked on.

You can read the whole piece here, and here’s a short excerpt:

CWP: As a long time fan of Corátzar (especially the “big” books—Hopscotch, Blow Up, 62: A Model Kit), I’ve been pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the Corátzar books Archipelago has “unearthed.” In my opinion, these really add to the Corátzar mythos . . . From the Observatory isn’t Hopscotch, Part II. It’s still obviously Corátzar, but a more poetic, almost reflective Corátzar. What’s is it like for you to be responsible for bringing this “other Corátzar” into English?

AM: It’s thrilling for me, and also very daunting (as with any seriously good writing, really, when you’re translating it you spend half the time thinking: oh, I can’t wait for people to be able to read this in English, and the other half wondering how on earth you can ever possibly recreate the wonderfulness of the original). But there are many, many “other Cortázars”; there were lots and lots of different Julios inside that one giant of a writer. Many of them were at play and in action in Hopscotch, for example. But you’re right, of course, From the Observatory does come from Cortázar’s reflective, poetic, philosophical side.

CWP: The lyrical nature of this book mixed with the striking images of Jai Singh’s observatories creates a really stunning work, but one that’s hard (for me) to get a handle on. How would you describe From the Observatory to a casual reader?

AM: If forced to describe From the Observatory, I would probably describe it as indescribable, but I guess that wouldn’t help much.

It’s a prose poem about the life cycle of Atlantic eels and about an early eighteenth-century Indian astronomer-prince and his (imagined) observations of the night sky and about science and its fascinations and limitations and poetry and its possibilities and about opening up to life and love and about challenging ourselves and changing the world.

Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.

Click here for the whole conversation.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next book is From the Observatory by Julio Cortazar. Wonderfully translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, this will be available from Archipelago Books in early August.

In the words of Complete Review’s Michael Orthofer, this book is “striking, odd,” which is just about right. (You can read his full review here.) It’s a very poetic piece built around the life-cycle of eels and the Jaipur observatory.

Speaking of Jaipur, a cool feature of this gorgeous little book are all of the photographs of the observatories built by Jai Singh II. From Wikipedia:

In 1719, he was witness to a noisy discussion in the court of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. The heated debate regarded how to make astronomical calculations to determine an auspicious date when the emperor could start a journey. This discussion led Jai Singh to think that the nation needed to be educated on the subject of astronomy. It is surprising that in the midst of local wars, foreign invasions, and consequent turmoil, Sawai Jai Singh found time and energy to build astronomical observatories.

No less than five massive structures were built at Delhi, Mathura (in his Agra province), Benares, Ujjain (capital of his Malwa province), and his own capital of Jaipur. In all of these only the one at Jaipur is working. Relying primarily on Hindu astronomy, these buildings were used to accurately predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The observational techniques and instruments used in his observatories were also superior to those used by the European Jesuit astronomers he invited to his observatories. Termed as the Jantar Mantar they consisted of the Ram Yantra (a cylindrical building with an open top and a pillar in its center), the Jai Prakash (a concave hemisphere), the Samrat Yantra (a huge equinoctial dial), the Digamsha Yantra (a pillar surrounded by two circular walls), and the Narivalaya Yantra (a cylindrical dial).

Jai Singh’s greatest achievement was the construction of Jaipur city (known originally as Jainagara (in Sanskrit, as the ‘city of victory’ and later as the ‘pink city’ by the British by the early 20th century), the planned city, later became the capital as the Indian state of Rajasthan. Construction of the new capital began as early as 1725 although it was in 1727 that the foundation stone was ceremonially laid, and by 1733 Jaipur officially replaced Amber as capital of the Kachawahas. Built on the ancient Hindu grid pattern, found in the archaeological ruins of 3000 BCE, it was designed by the Brahmin Vidyadhar who was educated in the ancient Sanskrit manuals (silpa-sutras) on city-planning and architecture. Merchants from all over India settled down in the relative safety of this rich city, protected by thick walls, and a garrison of 17,000 supported by adequate artillery.

For a full-color look at the Jaipur Observatory, you can click here, otherwise, I highly recommend checking out the preview, both for the pictures and Cortazar’s prose.

22 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

FFC: First literary memory (or emotion)?

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

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

FFC: What are you reading at the moment?

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

Read the entire conversation here.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Contemporary Latin American literature in translation abounds with words of posthumous support from Roberto Bolaño, a blurber par excellence for a generation of writers only now being ushered into the Anglo-American canon, in some cases two decades after first being published.

The mild absurdity of this gold standard, against which the works of many of his contemporaries are set, is hardly lost on his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, who wrote a 2009 article for Argentina’s La Nacion, “Bolaño Inc.,” that began: “I told myself I wasn’t going to write or say anything more about Roberto Bolaño.”

Bolaño, for his part, wrote, or perhaps said, one of the more salient and lingering points one could make about Castellanos Moya calling him: “The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.”

The praise, like most pithy promotional quotes, is perhaps an overstatement, but hardly an invalid one, as Castellanos Moya’s excellent new creation, Tyrant Memory makes clear.

Set over the course of one month in 1944, with a concluding chapter taking place twenty nine years later, the novel’s backdrop is the failed military coup against Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a sympathizer of European Fascism and casual mystic whose legacy of human rights abuses is frequently recounted by way of his assertion that it is better to kill a man than to kill an ant. The man will be reincarnated, the ant won’t.

The novel—which, it should be noted, is set during the nascent days of Latin America’s “secret Vietnam”—opens with the diary entries of Haydée, a housewife whose husband Pericles, a political journalist, has just been imprisoned for writing an article criticizing the government of Martinez, or as he is more commonly referred to throughout the novel, the Warlock. It is the eve of an anticipated coup and Haydée is certain that the impending fall of the Warlock will ensure her husband’s safe return. Instead the failed attempt on his life leaves her family in shambles, in large part to due her bumbling eldest son Clemens, who prematurely announces the Warlock’s death on national radio. Needless to say, Clemens is very soon public enemy number one.

The novel is built on two alternating narratives, moving from Haydée’s chatty diary entries to a far more streamlined, and slapstick, account of Clemens going into hiding. This pairing can read as a warped sort of he-said-she-said, whereby no one actually knows what anyone said. Both narratives are so thoroughly built upon hearsay, gossip and speculation that each serves as a highly adulterated, though hardly unfulfilling, accompaniment to the other.

Haydée, who remains in San Salvador after the failed coup, becomes active in organizing protests on behalf of the Committee of the Families of Political Prisoners. Together with several other women, the wives and mothers of prisoners, she participates in a thwarted street protest that ends with gunfire and becomes increasingly active in a clandestine network of citizens planning a general nationwide strike.

Clemens and his cousin Jimmy meanwhile are on the run from the National Guard, who have begun capturing and assassinating anyone complicit in the coup. Together the pair leaves the city shortly after Holy Week. Disguised as a priest and sacristan they make their way to the home of a man named Mono Harris, an American of unspecified profession who has access to airplanes, arms and a few leaked bits of military intelligence.

There are several American characters in Tyrant Memory, not least of which is Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who is known only by name, and his Yankee government and air force are popularly considered the only hope ending the Warlock’s tenure. Their presence in the region is taken for granted as a source of arms and military training and their influence on the Martinez administration, historically an easy proxy in efforts to staunch any semblance of communism in Central America, proves a vital source of life support.

Castellanos Moya is an especially adept writer of dialogue and stream of consciousness narration, and this skill is put to good use in Haydée’s diary entries as she recounts, if not quite the facts, then a certain colloquial spread of information and interpretation, for example rumors of U.S. intervention.

The day began with excellent news. Mingo dropped by the house to find out how Pericles is doing, and he took the opportunity to tell me that the Americans have already firmly turned their back on the general, yesterday the ambassador rejected the government’s proposal for the United States to send officers to reorganize the air forces, which was virtually dismantled after the attempted coup. “Such a rejection means they’ve lost all trust in the government,” Mingo explained to me with great excitement. I went straight to Father with the news. He told me he’d speak with Uncle Charlie to confirm. By noon everybody had heard that “the man” is being left out in the cold.

In the voice and words of Haydée, Castellanos Moya is able to nearly erase his presence as author. The narration is so casual it is almost audible, and revelatory in a manner that seems believably incidental, which, of course it is not. Castellanos Moya’s greatest triumph as a fiction writer is to recreate the daily ambiance of life at the margins of crisis. Though his novels often draw on political circumstance, they are not blindly or overtly concerned with the mechanics of politics.

Tyrant Memory is a novel about impression and interpretation, about the reading of an ambiguous reality, a reality that is distinctly Latin American, if one is inclined to heed Bolaño. Castellanos Moya’s fiction could be described as surreal, but only because reality is always so close but always unreadable: an eye test readers and characters likely fail before being told they need glasses they can’t afford.

This is an impressive affect for an author to replicate, and even more so to replicate more than once. Previous novels published in English by New Directions (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) and Canada’s Biblioasis (Dance with Snakes) bear the distinction of narrators with untrustworthy relationships to discernable, factual life. Together the novels cover a territory that range from the lucid and disturbing—the mass murder of an indigenous population in Senselessness—to the truly bizarre—a transient’s sexual relationship with five talking female snakes in Dance with Snakes.

Castellanos Moya’s narrators share a removed position on the periphery of their respective social circumstances, which is pretty apt coming from a writer who has lived much of his adult life in exile. Haydée, as a woman, is excluded from the realm of politics that has consumed her family. Deeply aware of her loss, she is never quite certain of what that emptiness entails, as when a friend asks for news of Clemens.

She wanted to know if I had heard anything she hadn’t. I told her the men in my family and Pericles’s family share the opinion that life-and-death secrets should not be shared with women, so I was totally in the dark. I returned home even more unsettled, and still now, after writing down all the events of the day, anxiety is gnawing away at me inside, as if something important were happening right next to me without my being aware.

Haydée’s diary, for all its impressionistic qualities, is not always engaging. Which may in fact be further proof of Castellanos Moya’s skill as a ventriloquist as he guides us through the subtle development of his character. The entries begin with an intimate jumble of names, relations and social engagements, the details of which can be easily lost, and at perhaps little cost. But by the novel’s end Haydée’s involvement with political action has increased and become more deliberate, more compelling.

The sections devoted to Clemens and Jimmy are told at more of a distance as the dimwitted Clemens provokes the ire of his cousin. Their buffoonery—Clemens is always on the verge of messing everything up as he lets a love of booze and his libido get in the way of every near escape—is at times a welcome respite from the steady, and sometimes overwhelming, hum of Haydée’s note taking.

This mosquito-in-the-ear quality, annoying though it can become, is hardly without foresight or merit, because it ultimately proves a far more insightful impression of a period in El Salvador’s history, than the military men’s antics.

As the husband of one of Haydée’s friends puts it to her, government ministers are “afraid of what people will do to them if the general is toppled, so they send their wives out to spread rumors about them wanting to resign, but once they’re face-to-face with the Warlock they start shaking in their boots.”

The final chapter, which takes place during one day in 1973, is narrated by the husband of Haydée’s best friend, a man named Chelón who has until now been a peripheral but constant presence. It is worth noting that it is only here, in the last fifty pages of the novel, that the reader’s given a physical description of Haydée and told the full details of her life. Neither are especially remarkable, save for the fact that in the absence of these typically requisite details, Haydée has managed to become a fully formed character with her isolated voice alone.

Which makes it all the more disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, when Chelón dismisses Haydée as “a woman from a conservative family who doesn’t fully understand her husband’s decisions . . .” Fair enough, but this slight begs the question—to what extent does that matter when she is the one narrating the fallout?

Castellanos Moya can be a brilliant practitioner of edge of collapse, culling searing narratives of exile and estrangement. Tyrant Memory can be a tiring novel, and it is not always a lucid one, but these attributes may in fact be the greatest of its many achievements. Because inherent to the fog of tyranny is an opaque and exhausting search for information and answers, for the elusive logic behind fickle oppression. Readers are well served with Castellanos Moya as a guide.

9 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just posted an interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya about Tyrant Memory:

Chad W. Post: How does Tyrant Memory compare to the other works of yours that have been translated into English? It seems to revolve around similar political themes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Tyrant Memory belongs to a group of novels that deal with members of the Aragon family. And indeed, through the personal and family problems of these characters, you can grasp some intense historical moments in Central America. This is the first of that group of novels that has been translated into English.

One difference between Tyrant Memory and the other three works of mine that have been translated into English is that most of Tyrant Memory doesn’t take place in contemporary El Salvador, but in April and May of 1944, when there was a failed military coup d’etat and then a successful general strike to put and end to a 12-year dictatorship. Politics is all around, of course, but you see it through the eyes of a conservative, catholic, 44-year old lady, and to be more precise, through her diary, where she writes down whatever happens to her since her husband was put in jail for being a journalist who supports the opposition. And this is another difference: the main characters of the other three novels are a little bit out of their minds, deeply affected by violence; in Tyrant Memory, Haydee (the main character) is ruled by common sense and strong moral principals.

CWP: “Ruled by common sense”? This seems like a sharp diversion from the (justifiably) paranoid narrator of Senselessness, or the crazed protagonist killer in Dance with Snakes, or even Laura Rivera from She-Devil. How did you like writing a (somewhat?) sane character?

HCM: It was a challenge. I had to dig deep in myself in order to grasp the mentality and the voices of those conservative, common-sensed ladies that I have met along my life. The challenge was to do it without bias, trying to see the world through their eyes. Once I got the voice, it demanded me a lot of control to keep it. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my last post, it’s a pleasure to announce that the first Read This Next selection is Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver and available later this month from New Directions.

I’ve been a fan of Horacio’s ever since I read Senselessness, an absolutely stunning book about a man hired to edit a 1,100-page report of the atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population. It’s haunting and beautiful and tight and paranoid. (See this review for more detailed info.)

Since that time, Biblioasis published his novel Dance with Snakes and New Directions did She-Devil in the Mirror. Although Senseless still stands supreme in my mind, both of those books are extremely interesting and cemented Horacio’s reputation as one of today’s most exciting and talented authors.

So when we decided to create Read This Next it seemed absolutely perfect to kick things off with Horacio’s new book, Tyrant Memory. This novel is a bit different than the others that have come out in English translation, mostly because it features three different narrators and styles. (The other three books are all first-person narratives.) It’s a “bigger” book in some senses, seeing that it deals with the coup and strike that lead to the overthrow of the Warlock, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in 1944.

Here’s New Direction’s jacket copy:

The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a country’s history in the destiny of one family.

You can access the online preview of Tyrant Memory by clicking here, and you can purchase the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Powell’s at those links.

Enjoy!

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s podcast (after the posting of which, the Cardinals pounded the Cubs 9-1), the latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on the forthcoming Enrique Vila-Matas novel, Never Any End to Paris, which New Directions is bringing out later this month in Anne McLean’s wonderful translation.

(BTW, as Anne—and Jeremy—have since pointed out, Vila-Matas did write a book called The Lettered Assassin. Which Anne said isn’t as bad as it sounds in Never Any End to Paris . . .)

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (BTW, next week’s podcast has a strong baseball element as well . . . mre to come.)

Here’ the opening of Jeremy’s review:

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

Click here to read the full piece.

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

While broad in scope, much of the narrator’s lecture, in addition to recalling the hardships of crafting the novel, the ongoing poverty that accompanied his writing of it, and the wealth of his social engagements with Paris’ creative elite, sets about considering the nature of irony (both in general and as it relates to the telling of his tale).

You’ll see me improvise on occasion. Like right now when, before going on to read my ironic revision of the two years of my youth in paris, I feel compelled to tell you that I do know that irony plays with fire and, while mocking others, sometimes ends up mocking itself. You all know full well what i’m talking about. When you pretend to be in love you run the risk of feeling it, he who parodies without proper precautions ends up a victim just the same . . . That said, I must also warn you that when you hear me say, for example, that there was never any end to paris, I will most likely be saying it ironically. But, anyway, I hope not to overwhelm you with too much irony. The kind that I practice has nothing to do with that which arises from desperation—I was stupidly desperate enough when I was young. I like a kind of irony I call benevolent, compassionate, like what we find, for example, in the best of Cervantes. I don’t like ferocious irony but rather the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope. okay?

As the lecturer remembers his deliberation about how best to craft a novel (The Lettered Assassin) that will cause its readers to die immediately following their reading of it, the irony of writing what could be a successful book only to be left with no one living to admire it is not lost on him.

Like Vila-Matas’s other works (or, at least those already translated into english), Never Any End to Paris is a smart, creative, and playful work; one that never deigns to take itself too seriously. It as much a quasi-autobiography as it is a celebration of literature, film, paris, irony, and the folly and determination of youth. If only La Asesina ilustrada were already available in translation, then perhaps this book would resound with an even greater clarity than it already does. On its own, however, Never Any End to Paris1 is a fantastic book, one that surely bolsters Enrique Vila-Matas’s reputation as one of the finer spanish-language novelists at work today.

“Among the many fictions possible, an autobiography can also be a fiction.”

1 Translated by Anne McLean, known for her english translations of Julio Cortázar, Evelio Rosero, Javier Cercas, and others.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Guardian is one of my favorite newspapers for any number of reasons, but I particularly like their series and their overall international focus.

For instance, earlier this month they launched their New Europe Series, which features an in-depth look at four European countries: Germany, France, Spain, and Poland. (The Poland page will be available next week.)

Each section features tons of pieces about the focus country, mostly in the political, economic, and social bent, but most pertinent to this blog, there’s also a lot of literary coverage.

For years, the Guardian has been running a “World Literature Tour,” but according to Richard Lea’s intro to the new Germany focus, technology and the internets rocked the archives, decimating all the comments people wrote about the literature of Finland, Turkey, Germany, etc., etc.

So now they’re kicking this off with a new system. Instead of having a space for comments, there’s now a form where you can make a recommendation, which is fed into a very readable, very browseable spreadsheet. (I have to admit that having tried—on several occasions—to slug through the hundred of comments for any particular country, that I’m very jacked about this new method.)

And although it can still be a bit overwhelming, the results are pretty cool. Here are the spreadsheets for Germany, and for France. (Doesn’t look like the Spain one is up yet.)

Richard Lea’s overviews are all worth checking out as well, so here are links to the pieces on Germany, France, and Spain. And don’t forget to log in your own recommendations at the bottom of these pages. (Like maybe all your favorite Open Letter titles?)

As if this weren’t enough, as part of this series there are also “What They’re Reaidng In XXX” for each of the respective countries:

In Spain:

Meanwhile, the publishing engine continues its unstoppable course. Long ago, a few large publishing companies, such as Santillana, Planeta and Mondadori, took control of the lion’s share of the market. However, despite the steamrolling presence of these companies, not only do small publishers survive but new ones keep popping up and – even in this recession-ridden 2011 – it is these small players who manage to keep alive the embers of independence and surprise: Periférica, Libros del Asteroide, Páginas de Espuma, Minúscula and Nórdica, to name but a few distinguished examples.

Talking of new arrivals, one has to mention Juan Marsé‘s new book Caligrafía de los sueños (Lumen), an introspective inquiry into the Barcelona of the post-war period. Marsé is a master of the art of covering the same territory a thousand times and always making it seem new. The author of unforgettable portraits of a Spain facing a very uncertain future, such as Ronda del Guinardó, Si te dicen que caí and Rabos de lagartija, returns to familiar material: everything is sad in Marsé, a sadness that also includes meanness, humour and, of course, memory. His legions of followers are delighted as always.

b. But in Spain, right now, the most awaited book of the year is undoubtedly Javier Marías’s new novel, Los enamoramientos (Alfaguara). The eternal Spanish Nobel prize candidate and the author of what have already become contemporary classics, such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White, has handed over to the printers a spine-chilling story about the highs and lows of our miserable lives. Marías is always Marías, and his arrival in the bookshops is always the publishing event of the season. [. . .]

Looking a little further back, Anatomía de un instante (Mondadori) by Javier Cercas is one of those essay/fiction books that is so linked to a real – and brutal – event that it not only managed to hypnotise Spanish readers at the time of its well-publicised launch many months ago, but still manages to do so now. The recent commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the attempted coup d‘état by a group of military officers, on 23 February 1981 (the real pretext for this work of literary pseudo-fiction), has helped to maintain interest in Cercas’s book. He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting authors on the young literary scene in Spain, besides being an especially lucid and sharp columnist.

The Germany piece is kind of funny. It’s kind of a downer, focusing either on books that were derided by critics, or that sold really poorly:

More challenging fare was provided by Melinda Nadj Abonji. Her novel Tauben fliegen auf (“Falcons without Falconers”), a family drama about Yugoslavian immigrants in Switzerland, won the 2010 German Book Prize, Germany’s answer to the Booker. But unlike previous winners by authors such as Katharina Hacker, Julia Franck and Uwe Tellkamp – all reliable suppliers of highly marketable light novels for a moderately demanding reading public – Abonji’s novel was a commercial disaster, just reaching number 50 on the bestseller list shortly before Christmas.

New books by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf reminded us that there were once such things as great German writers. Gruppe 47 (Group 47), a literary association that influenced an entire era and encompassed the country’s best authors, disbanded long ago. Which author under 60 could play that role today? Thomas Lehr, perhaps, whose September. Fata Morgana is a linguistic tour de force set in the aftermath of 9/11 and is both celebrated and controversial. Pedantic critics derided it for not having a single punctuation mark (despite the full stop in the title), as if punctuation has anything to do with literature.

The piece on French literature doesn’t have too many recommendations, but does have some info on the French publishing scene (and French controversies):

To understand what literary life in France is like, imagine a pond. A pond that’s getting smaller and smaller, with just as many fish in it, so that the water is getting more and more crowded. You can guess what happens: each one has less and less space to evolve, to find food, and even to develop the energy required to discuss ideas. Sales of books continue to be weak in 2011, after a particularly flat year for publishers and bookshops. Apart from the usual juggernauts, such as titles from the bestselling authors Mark Lévy and Amélie Nothomb, and more sporadic successes such as the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq (winner of the Prix Goncourt in November last year), most novels and essays struggle to make any money. [. . .]

This polarisation is reflected in the way the press talks about books. In newspapers the space devoted to literature is now relatively stable after a dramatic decline over the past 10 years. As a result, critics struggle to cover the full range of books produced, caught between the need to talk about what everyone else is talking about, the need to explore types of literature that almost no one is talking about and the wish to get themselves talked about by taking up increasingly clear-cut positions.

In these circumstances, what happens to the discussion of ideas? It is still alive with regard to the big questions that run through society (political, religious, social, historical, and so on). According to the philosopher and novelist Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French situation is unusual in that, instead of being permanently fixed, “intellectual groups re-form around each issue like iron filings around a magnet”, a situation which has become more marked in the last 20 years. In January 2011 the “affaire Céline” shook the cultural world. The writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote some truly great books and also some violently anti-semitic tracts, was included in the calendar of national commemorations, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. His presence in this official brochure provoked such a furore that the minister of culture eventually backed down and removed Céline.

There’s tons more worth checking out here, including a review of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog and an article on the 100 Years of Gallimard. It’s very easy to spend a morning (or a month) looking through all of this. Especially once all the Polish stuff is up . . .

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming collection of non-fiction pieces entitled Between Parentheses. This is translated by Natasha Wimmer, and will be available from New Directions in late May.

I’m 99.9% there’s no need to explain who Roberto Bolaño is to anyone reading this blog. We’ve been praising, reviewing, and commenting on his books since our very inception. I have to admit that I haven’t had a chance to read some of his latest titles (there are so many!), but I’m really looking forward to this one . . .

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first saw his review of this book.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (Opening day is only 8 days away and it is snowing in Rochester. Yes.)

Here’s the opening of Jeremy’s review:

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Click “here“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=3143 to read the full piece.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Between Parentheses, above all, demonstrates Bolaño’s love of books, seemingly more so as a reader of them than as their writer. He was known to have read widely, and this work offers his opinions (mostly favorable, yet sometimes acerbically critical) on a wide array of books, poets, and authors well-known and obscure. As from some of his other titles, one could cull quite the impressive reading list (spanning continents and centuries) from amongst its pages. Omnipresent is Bolaño’s trademark prose style, as his non-fiction reads with the same unique voice that brought so many ardent fans to his fiction. Bolaño seldom strays into the realm of the political, but his few forays are terse and powerful. Amidst his wide knowledge of all things bibliophilic is a singular sense of humor, one that is familiar to readers of both his novels and short stories.

While Bolaño presumably never intended these writings to stand in lieu of a more cohesive autobiographical work (which, given the sentiments contained within the book, is not something he was ever likely to have penned in any proper way), it is nonetheless all we as readers are left with to make sense of him as an individual and lover of great fiction. It seems the late Chilean writer was more than content to let his books stand upon their own merits, as he seemed to have a general disregard for awards, critics, and the like. Between Parentheses is an indispensable collection for those who count bolaño as a remarkable and important literary figure (one, too, perhaps even more essential for his naysayers, detractors, and other assorted maligners).

Behind this crowd, however, hides the one true patron. If you have patience enough to search, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what you’re looking for. And when you find it, you’ll probably be disappointed. It isn’t the devil. It isn’t the state. It isn’t a magical child. It’s the void.

17 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales

Language: Spanish
Country: Uruguay
Publisher: Host Publications
Pages: 296

Why This Book Should Win: Harry Morales has been championing Benedetti for years, and a victory could lead to more Benedetti books making their way into English; Host Publications deserves some extra attention; the cover has matches on it.

Today’s entry is from David Krinick, a former intern at Open Letter. He wrote this review last summer, and it’s a great overview of this book.

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.

The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories (recently published by the admirable Host Publications) offers a rare survey of the author’s short stories that spans over fifty decades of work. The stories collected act as vignettes that offer the reader brief perspectives of the many unremarkable lives of many of Uruguay’s urban citizens. In works such as “The Iriarte Family” Benedetti shows the life of a secretary’s febrile romanticizing of a female’s voice and the subsequent disintegration of his real life relationship. His character’s are repeatedly confronted with outcomes that contradict what they thought they originally desired.

Later stories reflect the author’s exile, evoking voices from the previous generation’s émigré writers such as Nabokov and Bunin. In “Completely Absent-Minded” an exiled politician’s dazed wayfaring across Europe brings him unexpectedly back to his home country, where he is quickly arrested. Benedetti’s voice shifts from the expository urban observer to a ruthless dissector of individual’s morals that passively accept their government’s yoke. Stories such as “Listening to Mozart,” “Nineteen” and “Answering Machine” expose cases of loyalty motivated by fear and self-preservation. From “Listening to Mozart”:

Sometimes, you too interrogate without conviction, and if you use electric shock, that’s precisely the reason why; because you don’t have any confidence in your own line of reasoning, because you know that no one is suddenly going to turn into a traitor just because you evoke the fatherland or curse at them.

Benedetti’s fearless writing chronicles a dark period in Latin American history, one where loved ones would disappear over night, never to be seen again. This collection, however, also resonates with the author’s desire to speak of love and our need for one another despite the estranged natures that society and politics cultivates in us. He explores the lines between public and private lives, illuminating our curious passions with a sense of irony, humor and gravity. The Rest Is Jungle affords a great introduction into the provocative career of one of Latin America’s most beloved authors.

16 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, translated by Idra Novey

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Pages: 172

Why This Book Should Win: Because it hasn’t won any other awards, and it deserves at least one. On Elegance While Sleeping is our first opportunity to read a complete work by Tegui in English. Also, where else can we find heterosexuality, homosexuality, pedophilia, prostitution, and bestiality all wrapped into the experiences of one character.

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was, at various times during his eventful life, an Argentinean, a Parisian, a self-labeled viscount, a translator, a journalist, a curator, a painter, a decorator, a diplomat, a mechanic, an orator, a dentist, and, fortunately for us, a writer. Tegui’s 1925 novel On Elegance While Sleeping, a cult classic in Argentina, Tegui’s home country, is now available for the first time to an English-speaking audience (thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Idra Novey). This genre-defying novel is framed as a four-year series of chronologically-ordered diary entries composed by an unnamed French infantryman in the late 1800s. Like its author, this novel’s narrator concerns himself with a bit of everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink (or, should I say, the cultivation of carrots). The entries touch on the themes of life, illness (specifically, syphilis), death, sex, gender, memory, crime, and literature, to name just a few. Seamlessly shifting among present reflections, past recollections, and stories within stories, the entries examine the mundane (one begins “Cotton mittens bother me when they’re dyed black.”) as well as the sublime (“Nothing spreads sadness like popularity.”) and range in length from just two sentences to almost seven pages. The result is a work of art that’s impossible to categorize. Is it autobiography? Allegory? A crime novel? An experiment in form? In a word, yes.

Just before we lose our bearings wandering among this heady collection of seemingly aimless thoughts—that is, at the perfect moment—On Elegance While Sleeping changes registers. The novel adopts a foreboding tone as the diary entries slowly coalesce into the thoughts of a man intent on committing murder. Driven by a Raskolnikov-like need “[t]o unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness,” the diarist lays out his motivations in chilling and poetic prose:

I’ve sketched out my plans and am ready. I have a new strength in me, taken from the secret core of my life, driving me on, controlling me. It’s health, youth, and optimism combined. Until yesterday, my tentative novel (“The Syphilis of Don Juan”) served as a haven for my imagination. Today, it doesn’t satisfy my thirst—or, better said, can no longer stem the anguish that gnaws at me on the eve of an act that is now quite inevitable. I’m halfway between a comedy and a strange sort of drama, and feel an overbearing need to lower the curtain. No simple curtain: the front curtain of the stage, the grand drape, the great iron and asbestos curtain that drops like a zinc plate from the sixth floor and creaks as it falls. Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected—something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.

Tegui’s prose is a seductive mix of hard edges and soft contours, flowing musings and sharp declarations. Translator Idra Novey maintains this delicate balance, juxtaposing “a haven for my imagination” with “the anguish that gnaws” and following a complex and elegant three-sentence metaphor with the startling declaration, “I’m going to kill someone.” Tegui’s compelling style relies as much on rhythm and sound as it does on content, and Novey masterfully recreates this effect in English.

At its core, On Elegance While Sleeping gives us access to the soul of a man who is desperately seeking. Whether it’s love, sex, happiness, connection with his fellow man, an imaginative outlet, or simply a good story, the problem is the same: to find what he lacks. He asks, “Could it be that the thing I’m missing is courage?” Does our diarist have the fortitude to follow through with his murderous plan? To discover the answer, you’ll have to read the book.

14 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, translated by translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker

Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 434

Why This Book Should Win: The judges gave the first Best Translated Book Award to an awesome book called Tranquility by Attila Bartis, despite the fact that it was up against that behemoth 2666, and everyone knows that 2666 is the greatest book published ever, to say nothing of the year 2008. (Really, it is. I should know. I wrote it.)

As may be surmised from the above paragraph, this is the second entry in the WTBSW series from beyond the grave. This time it’s from The Late Roberto Bolano.

Needless to say, a lot of people were disappointed that the judges opted for the Bartis, so here’s their chance to give the award to a hyper-noirish, dark, convoluted, paranoid, freaky book about the Mexican drug war, in many ways similar to 2666 (and in many ways nothing like my master opus at all).

The Black Minutes tells a pretty gripping story about murder in 1970s, northern Mexico providing a kind of pre-war look at a land that is now dominated by huge narco-cartels. Like many good noirs are, it’s framed around the one cop who wants to do an honest job, named Cabrera. As as English-language translator Natasha Wimmer wrote in The Nation:

It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what . . . we are supposed to publish or not publish. . . . You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.

We soon find that the story of the honest cop is just the beginning, as about 1/3 of the way in Solares abruptly shifts to a story-within-a-story about Cabrera’s predecessor on the case, which makes the plot-line even more convoluted, the characters even more numerous, and everything that much more freakily connected.

So in sum, The Black Minutes is a big, wooly, meaty neo-noir with plenty of sex, guns, violence, death, and of course lots and lots of politics. It’s a chance to give the award to a Mexican drug war book in light of the fact that the judges dissed my book 2666, even as the Bartis was pretty freakin awesome.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Julia Haav on Ena Lucia Portela’s One Hundred Bottles.

Julia Haav is a publicist for Europa Editions and is completing a master’s degree in the humanities, with a focus on contemporary Latin American literature, at NYU. I also believe she’s one of my newest GoodReads friends, and she’s the author of a very interesting piece on five Latin American books about Germans.

Ena Lucia’a Portela won the 2002 Jaen Prize for this book and is the author of several other works of fiction. I’m not usually a blurb man (jesus that sounds dirty), but the praise on this book is stunning. Esther Allen, Natasha Wimmer, and Jose Manuel Prieto all have amazing things to say about Portela and her novel. This line from Prieto might be the most laudatory: “Without doubt one of the best writers Cuba has produced in recent years.”

Anyway, here’s the opening of Julia’s review:

When Z. was a child in Havana she learned how to disassemble and reassemble the engines of classic American cars. Z., the narrator of Ena Lucía Portela’s One Hundred Bottles, describes this skill as the most useful thing she knows, and her aptitude at the art of reconstruction is made beautifully clear in this compact but panoptic portrait of modern Cuba in crisis. One Hundred Bottles is a novel about novels and novelists, and about a writer’s duty to deconstruct and rearrange prevailing systems. More specifically, it is a novel about two writers living through The Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR, and the cessation of Soviet petroleum imports, led to a devastating economic collapse.

Z., who narrates in a conversational and colloquial monologue, is an overweight twentysomething at work on an unnamed book. She lives in a single room in a decrepit mansion that has become overrun with migrants from the countryside and their unruly pets. Named after Tchaikovsky’s code letter for homosexuals, Z. is the unlikely product of a Parisian mother who died in childbirth and an openly, and flamboyantly, gay Cuban father who long ago left for San Francisco. Enmeshed in an abusive relationship with Moisés—a man so terrible he seems to be both misogyny and misanthropy incarnate—she is at once always and never alone. Her sharp but caustic best friend Linda tells Z. that her place in life is the same as her place in the alphabet.

Linda, it just so happens, is also at work on a book, about a double homicide, called 100 Bottles on the Wall.

Click here to read the full piece.

1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [17]

When Z. was a child in Havana she learned how to disassemble and reassemble the engines of classic American cars. Z., the narrator of Ena Lucía Portela’s One Hundred Bottles, describes this skill as the most useful thing she knows, and her aptitude at the art of reconstruction is made beautifully clear in this compact but panoptic portrait of modern Cuba in crisis. One Hundred Bottles is a novel about novels and novelists, and about a writer’s duty to deconstruct and rearrange prevailing systems. More specifically, it is a novel about two writers living through The Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR, and the cessation of Soviet petroleum imports, led to a devastating economic collapse.

Z., who narrates in a conversational and colloquial monologue, is an overweight twentysomething at work on an unnamed book. She lives in a single room in a decrepit mansion that has become overrun with migrants from the countryside and their unruly pets. Named after Tchaikovsky’s code letter for homosexuals, Z. is the unlikely product of a Parisian mother who died in childbirth and an openly, and flamboyantly, gay Cuban father who long ago left for San Francisco. Enmeshed in an abusive relationship with Moisés—a man so terrible he seems to be both misogyny and misanthropy incarnate—she is at once always and never alone. Her sharp but caustic best friend Linda tells Z. that her place in life is the same as her place in the alphabet.

Linda, it just so happens, is also at work on a book, about a double homicide, called 100 Bottles on the Wall. Already an established author of feminist detective fiction, Linda lives in a spacious penthouse apartment—inherited from her parents when they emigrated to Israel—survives on royalty checks from her agent in Spain and makes frequent sojourns abroad. She holds two passports—Austrian and Cuban—speaks six languages and makes sweeping, melodramatic claims about Emily Brontë (brilliant but misunderstood) and Virginia Woolf (an Anglo Saxon lizard who “used feminism as a cover to rake Katherine Mansfield over the coals”).

The novel’s dramatic arc takes nascent form when Linda is invited to attend a conference of Hispanic Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College in New York. Traveling to the U.S. on her Austrian passport, she speaks English with a German accent to avoid scrutiny at customs. As Z. is quick to note, Linda, who is the descendent of European Holocaust survivors, “doesn’t have a drop of Hispanic in her” but because she writes in Spanish is nevertheless included in the event and supported heartily, if blindly, by her fellow writers. Scheduled to return to Havana after a week, Linda instead stays in New York for six months, living in Washington Heights with a Puerto Rican poet and coming out as a lesbian.

Upon returning to Cuba, Linda becomes an integral part of Havana’s lesbian community and starts a tumultuous affair with a very jealous younger woman, Alix Oyster. When the couple comes to blows—or whatever else you might call a sloppy knife/gun fight—Linda kicks Alix to the curb. The girl first finds herself on the streets and then on a sympathetic Z.’s bedroom floor; which is where she stays until the night of a double homicide that may, or may not be, the same double homicide Linda is writing about in 100 Bottles on the Wall.

Portela is an excellent practitioner of double entendres and semiotic slights of hand, which lends to a storyline that is often more atmospheric and anecdotal than streamlined. Much of One Hundred Bottles takes a wide angle on the culture of 1990s Havana, with Z. evoking a shaky handheld video camera. Z. seems to derive great pleasure from her bizarre, and often obscene encounters and treats these incidents with a voyeur’s enthusiasm. In a particularly poignant episode, Z. seduces a former classmate, J.J., who in the midst of some very public sex on the Malecón, calls out “linda”, which Z. at first hears as linda (pretty) but is actually Linda. If this seems awfully bleak, well, Z. finds it amusing and invites J.J. back to her room for a second, and third, round. This ability to survive any number of hardships—cramped living quarters, Moisés’ physical and verbal abuse, the severe dearth of food for years on end—seems to derive from Z.’s singular ability to disassemble reality and reconstruct it, so that what should logically be terrible becomes roughly bizarre and bemusing.

Portela is very much a writer’s writer, and she peppers One Hundred Bottles with literary references, Latin terminology, and quotes from King Lear (“thou whoreson Zed! Thou unnecessary letter!”). At times these stylistics can become cloyingly clever, as is the case with the character Poliéster, the son of a Cuban woman and a Russian engineer, who owes his name to the synthetic fabric. But at its best this fascination with semiotics reveals itself in an intelligent exploration of authorship and identity. The question of who is writing whom is never resolved, leaving the reader without evidence that Linda and her crime novel aren’t fabrications from Z.’s book. Or, for that matter, that it isn’t actually Linda who has created the character of Z.

It is worth noting that the one weak point in an otherwise seamlessly worded English rendition is the book’s title, which in its original Spanish is Cien botellas en una pared (One Hundred Bottles on a Wall) the exact title of Linda’s book. This is also, and equally significantly, the title of that highly repetitive song, sung to pass the time on long car trips. One Hundred Bottles is very much about this stretch—the bleak decade when Cuba struggled to rearrange itself after Soviet collapse—and about the role of narrative in quelling the subsequent emptiness and uncertainty. But Portela offers her readers something far more nuanced than an homage to storytelling. At its best, One Hundred Bottles makes for a brilliant lesson in the art of disassembling relics. At work in both the novel and the song are a war of attrition and a process of extraction, the taking down and passing around of one single part of a larger whole. One Hundred Bottles succeeds as a story of crisis and survival because it turns the focus from the pattern on the wall to dissenting pieces compelled to forgo such uniformity.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and available from New Directions.

Will is one of our “contributing editors” (which are sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts) and a former Open Letter intern. He’s reviewed a number of titles for us, is very interested in Japanese literature, and is a translation student here at the University of Rochester.

Roberto Bolano is someone you’ve all heard of. New Directions has and is publishing approximately 1,000 of his books, four of which arrived in the mail today: Antwerp, Monsieur Pain, The Return, and The Insufferable Gaucho. I’m a huge fan, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Will . . .

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

“Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.”

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

And what may be even more interesting is how the two essays in the back of the collection are written in a way that feels almost more like “fiction” than the actual short stories do. Too bad the actual subject matter at hand is not nearly as interesting as the way Bolaño writes it, once you sift through his bag of literary tricks.

Bolaño is certainly a talented writer, but he writes with the cynicism of someone who maybe knows a bit too much for his own good, so at times he comes off as kind of a smart-ass. I don’t think the reader would find the eponymous “insufferable gaucho” quite so insufferable otherwise, and Bolaño’s namedropping of his favorite (and least favorite) writers can grow tedious, if you forget that, like any writer, this is someone who really loves literature. On the bright side, award-winning Chris Andrews’ translation is practically seamless, and save for one in text translation of some song lyrics, the reader could go through the whole book without realizing they were reading a translation.

The Insufferable Gaucho is certainly an interesting set of pieces that show that Bolaño is capable of many different feats with his writing. When it works, it really works, and the stories “Jim,” “Police Rat,” and “Alvarro Rousselot’s Journey” show how good Bolaño can be. But overall I found the collection to be a mixed bag, and for someone who hasn’t already contracted Bolaño-mania, it just quite wasn’t enough for me to join his growing throngs of fans.

16 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 3 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Spanish author Sonia Hernandez. Samantha Schnee translated her story “The Survivor” for this issue.

Since Samantha Schnee is one of the founding editors of Words Without Borders, and the translator of Sonia Hernandez’s “The Survivor,” makes this as good a post as any to point out that Words Without Borders is maybe the best place to visit for more stories from Spanish-language novelists. I’m pretty sure any and every person reading this is already familiar with their site, but in case you’re not, it’s worth noting that WWB is fricking awesome. Not just for their new content (a new issue comes out every month), but for their extensive archive, which becomes more and more impressive all the time as these authors move from being discovered by WWB, to getting U.S. book deals, to becoming cult and cultural phenomenons. And the WWB archive can be searched and sorted in dozens of ways, including by country.

Sonia Hernandez is featured on the Granta website where she talks about the writers she currently admires (James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Enrique Vila-Matas, Melania G. Mazzucco and Siri Hustvedt), her literary criticism, and her sort of adverse relationship to the Internet:

Do you have your own web page?

No – I find it dangerous how easy it is for writings from the personal sphere or literary gossip can become published on the Internet.

Yes, yes it is easy. And dangerous. But anywho . . .

That same link also has a very short piece by Stewart O’Nan about Hernandez’s story:

“The Survivor“’s a funny story, and I don’t mean just comic, something that made me laugh as I found myself agreeing with its logic, though I did that more and more the deeper I got into it, but funny in the way it’s put together, that initial metaphysical heaviness – since we’re talking about existence and its lack of meaning – giving way as the narrator goes from person to person like Chekhov’s sadsack hack driver, trying to find someone close to him who finds his life of value, to the running cosmic joke, at once pathetic and terrifying, that he might as well have died, or perhaps not even lived (his great achievement providing affordable couches for the asses of Spain). It’s a tale of dis-ease that leaves the reader chuckling uneasily. We’ve survived it, yes, but now we have to do something with the rest of our lives.

And to give you a taste, here’s the opening:

I should have died six years ago. On 16 July 1999. That’s what Dr Castro said. A medical doctor. Marisa, my wife, was with me and she stared furiously at the doctor, as if the woman said I had been dead for six years. Perhaps that’s what she actually said, and I misheard her. My mind went blank. There were a few seconds of silence, like those moments of uncertainty when you awaken in someone else’s bed. In a way, I was awakening to a life that wasn’t mine.

Dr Castro half smiled. She’s a rather unfortunate woman, physically: too skinny, a sharp nose, large but glassy eyes. News like that should come from a more attractive woman, or a man, a corpulent, taciturn physician who would leave no room for doubt. ‘What I mean is that you’re very fortunate,’ she added. I’m very lucky, according to my physician.

After a few more instructions about my upcoming endoscopy and prescribed echocardiogram, we left her office. Marisa began to babble nervously, on the brink of a hysterical outburst, the kind she usually has when things don’t go as she’s planned. For a moment, I felt guilty; this vague, confusing terrain where Dr Castro had dumped me was a great inconvenience to our life together, a life which had cost us so much effort to build. I supposed that for Marisa it must have been a huge problem, not to know whether or not her husband had died, or worse, not to understand why I hadn’t died according to plan on 16 July 1999.

Suddenly, I realized that the logorrhoea, the rhetoric, the flattery and the timid reproaches that poured forth from my wife upon exiting the doctor’s office were nothing more than words intended to fill my mind – my immediate memory – to prevent me from dwelling on that strange diagnosis which had made me into a rebellious patient. My other memory – the mediate, or deep, or whatever it’s called – was different. There the lights were still off, that sense of strangeness of a hotel bed, the descent into an abyss – they weren’t melodramatic but made no sense. Marisa was livid about the doctor’s lack of tact, and repeated her rather pragmatic question, ‘Why on earth would she tell you that now? The accident and the operation belong to a very difficult chapter in our lives, why would she want to torment us with the possibility of what might have happened?’ Few people survive an accident like the one I had and, according to Dr Castro, no one survives an operation with complications like that.

Marisa decided that after the visit with the doctor, I wasn’t fit to go to the factory, so we went home and let the day run its normal course. I went to Pepe’s bar for a while, spoke with the regulars and put a coin or two into the slot machine, nothing special. I thought about telling everyone what the doctor had told me, to see how they’d react, but I stopped myself because it would have legitimized the joke she made at my expense. It was later that night, as we were watching television, that I began to think about the past six years, a gift of sorts from Providence, God, science, chance or my body. I realized that the whole time, I had been living irresponsibly. It’s a fact that after the operation Dr Cabrol, the surgeon, had said the situation was touch and go. And the days in the ICU were nothing but a fog, followed by a convalescence in our apartment in Altea before returning to real life in September. I went back to work against doctors’ orders because at the time I was indispensable at the factory. After years of toil and misery, we had finally managed to become one of the main sofa manufacturers, and I couldn’t leave everything hanging, especially after my brother Ramón had washed his hands of the business, more concerned with discovering Taoism and the truth of Zen. Returning to work was the first of my mistakes. For some strange reason, my body insisted on continuing to function; in other words, I had been given what’s called a new lease on life, and I wasted it among feathers, foams and wooden frames.

Aaaannnddd, if you’ve missed it the first 17 times, by subscribing to Granta today you’ll receive this issue—a 324-page trip through the minds and words of 22 of today’s best Spanish-language novelists—totally free. A $16.99 value!

14 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 5 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today’s featured Granta author is Spanish author Javier Montes. The opening of his new novel “The Hotel Life” was translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa for this issue.

OK, the “fun wintertime weather” of Rochester has been replaced by mountains of snow and slipping cars and interminable delays getting into the office. Oh, and zero degree nights. People now resemble nondescript bundles, and the idea of walking anywhere to get sustenance and coffee seems as mentally daunting as climbing a mountain, or traveling through the Canadian tundra.

In addition to suffering this “wintry mix,” I’ve spent about an hour resetting every password I can think of since my email account and password were released and compromised thanks to that Gawker hack thing. UGH. The simplicity of using the same password at all accounts has been replaced by unique digit and symbol combinations that resemble the inside of a schizophrenic’s mind.

So, these two things have left me a bit cranky, a lot behind, and having to half phone this post in . . . (Excuses, excuses.)

Javier Montes’s “The Hotel Life” is one of my favorite pieces in here. It’s not the most experimental (also a big fan of the Hasbun, which will be highlighted next week) or the most daring, but in its direct simplicity and creepy moments, it’s a memorable, interesting opening (?) to his “novel in progress.”

First though, here’s a bit about Montes himself: According to Granta, he’s a writer, translator, and art critic. (Here are some pieces from Letras Libres.) He won the Jose Maria Pereda Prize for his first novel, Los penultimos, and just published another, Segunda parte. (Nice. Those are titles I can approve of.) Together with Andres Barba, he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for the book La ceremonia del porno. (And the list of awesome titles continues.) He’s done other things with Barba, including editing an anthology of stories entitled After Henry James. (Again.)

About “The Hotel Life”: I’m going to include to excerpts below, the opening which sets the tone about the narrator deciding to write a review of a local hotel, and then a part of the creepy-odd moment when he gets to his room.

HOTEL IMPERIAL, 17 March

I took only one light suitcase with me, although it was such a short journey that I could easily have taken more and heavier luggage if I’d wanted. Ten blocks, or 1.132km according to the electronic receipt from the taxi. There was so much traffic, though, that it took me twenty minutes. No one said goodbye to me or closed the apartment door behind me, no one came with me, still less followed in my tracks. I was, however, expected at my destination, and the room where I was to spend the night had been reserved in my name. I live so close to the hotel that it really would have been quicker to walk, but I decided to hail a taxi so as to get the journey off to a good start. However short, it was still a journey, and I wanted to show that I was taking it seriously (but then I’ve always taken both my work and my journeys seriously; they do, after all, come to more or less the same thing).

Or perhaps the opposite was true, perhaps it was a matter of being capable of a certain playfulness too, when required. I’ve spent half my life moving from hotel to hotel, but this was the first time I would sleep in one in my own city. That’s why I finally agreed to do it when the newspaper called and suggested the Imperial. I think we were all surprised when I did.

‘They’ve finished the refurbishment now and have just sent us their new publicity pack.’

Initially, I refused. They know I never write about new hotels.

‘But this isn’t a new hotel. It’s the same old Imperial. They’ve just given it a facelift.’

I don’t like new hotels: the smell of paint, the piped music. And I distrust the refurbished variety. Any ‘facelift’ destroys the prestige and character which, in older establishments, are the hotel equivalent of good sense and even sentiment, or, at least, of memory. I don’t know that I’m much of a sentimentalist myself, but I do have a good memory. And I’ve noticed that, after a certain age, sentiment and memory tend to merge, which is probably why I prefer hotels that know how to remember.

I long ago agreed my terms with the newspaper. I choose the hotel of the week, and they pay. Cheap or expensive, near or far, undiscovered or famous, and usually just for one night, but sometimes two. No skimping (they skimp quite enough on my fee) and no favours either. I never accept invitations in exchange for a review.

Not even if it’s a bad review, as some either very stupid or very astute PR guy once asked me over the phone.

People in the hotel world know my views, but an awful lot of invitations still get sent to me at the office (I won’t allow the paper to give anyone my home address). I suppose the PR companies send them just in case I do, one day, take the bait, just in case I relent and end up accepting and going to the hotel, where they will treat me like royalty and give me the very best room, so that I will then write a five-star review, which they will frame and hang up in reception or post on their website, and which will bring in money from guests or, even if it doesn’t and even if they don’t need it, will doubtless bring them other things that are sometimes worth as much or more than money: the approval of fellow hoteliers, the warm glow of vanity confirmed, the certainty that they are, as a hotel, on the right track.

My column, I have to say, continues to be a success. And although the people at the newspaper never say as much, so that I don’t get bigheaded, I know that hotels, airlines and travel agencies are queuing up to put a half-page advertisement in my section: ‘The Hotel Life’.

That success is, of course, relative, as is any success in newspapers and in print. Every now and then, someone suggests I start a blog with my reviews. Even the people at the newspaper do so occasionally. It might be fouling our own nest, they say, but if you started a blog and got some advertising on it, you’d make a mint.

I think they’re exaggerating.

‘Besides, you only live around the corner. All you’d have to do is spend a couple of hours there one afternoon to check out what they’ve done.’

Again I refused. They know perfectly well that I don’t write about hotels I haven’t slept in. It would be like writing a restaurant review having only sniffed the plates as the waiters brought them out (of course, my colleague on the next page sometimes does exactly that in his column: ‘Dinner is Served’. He said to me when we met once, ‘I can tell by the smell alone what’s cooking.’ I didn’t take to him, and the feeling, I imagine, was mutual).

‘Well, if that’s what’s bothering you, spend the night there.’

They may have been joking, but I took them at their word. I rather liked the idea of sleeping in a hotel room from which I could almost, you might say, see the windows of my own empty apartment and bedroom. A night of novelty might buck me up a bit. I’ve grown rather jaded with the years; well, I’ve been doing the same job for a long time now. My choice, of course. And I do it reasonably well, I think, possibly better than anyone, to judge by the emails I sometimes get from readers and even the occasional letter written the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, envelope and stamp, and which the newspaper also forwards to me.

The letters always arrive opened. Apparently it’s a security thing, but it seems a bit over the top: I might be somewhat harsh in my comments at times, but not enough to merit a letter bomb. Then again, I don’t mind if the people at the office read them, always assuming they do, because at least the editors will see that I do still have a public.

On the other hand, there’s nothing so very amazing about being better than anyone else at a job for which there’s scarcely any competition. There aren’t many of us hotel reviewers left, not at least in the newspaper world. The Internet is another matter, there everyone wants to give his and her opinion and to analyse their journey down to the last detail and even write as if they were real reviewers (I think some of them copy my style and my adjectives). There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. On the other hand, the reviews are never somehow right either: they’re nearly always illintentioned, ill-considered and ill-written by venomous individuals or by just plain weirdos: I mean, I like my work, but I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.

In the end, I gave in, which is presumably what the people at the Imperial were counting on when they tried their luck. The editors were thrilled, so I guess they had some advertising deal going on as well. As usual, they made the reservation in my name. My real name, of course, not the pseudonym I use for my column. The surname on my ID card throws even the sharpest manager or receptionist off the scent and means that I can be just like any other hotel guest. That’s also why I won’t allow my photograph to appear alongside my name, and why I never go to conventions or meetings with colleagues. That’s no great sacrifice, mind: they’re doubtless as dull as the reviews they write. Having no face makes my job much easier and – why deny it? – more amusing too. That way, the whole thing has something of the double agent or the undercover spy about it. A double double agent, because in hotels, no one is ever who they say they are, and who doesn’t take advantage of a stay in a hotel to play detective, however unwittingly?

After all these years of only using my real name to check in, it now seems to me falser than my false name; apart from the people on the newspaper, few people know it, and still fewer – almost no one, in fact – uses it.

*

The corridor on my floor was empty and silent, as if it were five in the morning. Or as if it were precisely the time it was, because hotels are often very noisy at five in the morning. No employees, no guests. The thick, gluey smell of new carpets. I reached my room door and it took me a while to work out how to put the card in the slot. Finally, the little red light blinked, then turned green. The door gave a kind of wheeze and reluctantly opened a couple of centimetres. Beyond lay a dark area, one of those spaces in hotel rooms that serve as a kind of no-man’s-land and provide the luxury of a square metre with no furniture, no name and no other purpose than that of isolating the bedroom, at least in theory, from any noise out in the corridor.

To my right, the door of the bedroom stood slightly ajar, letting in just enough light for me to see that the door to the bathroom stood wide open. A gleaming tap dripped in the darkness. Before I had a chance to close the main door to the corridor, I heard a voice inside. Like a thief taken by surprise, I instinctively froze, an instinct I had no idea I possessed and which was, besides, entirely misplaced. To my left, in the full-length mirror in the vestibule, something moved. In the reflection, I could make out the inside of the room that the door was preventing me from seeing. I saw a double bed with a beige counterpane that matched the grey light coming in through a window invisible to me.

A girl was sitting on the edge, towards the head of the bed. She was pretty, despite the ridiculous amount of make-up she was wearing. She looked very young. She had on only a bra and panties. Her hair and skin were the colour of the bedspread. Her hands were resting on her lap, and she was staring down at them with a look of utter boredom on her face. She was blowing out her cheeks a little, drumming lightly on the carpet with her feet and sighing scornfully, exaggerating these signs of tedium, like a child pretending to be bored. Out of the corner of her eye she was watching something happening on the part of the bed not reflected in the mirror. She wasn’t alone. The mattress creaked without her having moved a muscle and someone – a man, of course – panted once, twice, three times.

I didn’t know whether to go back out into the corridor or to walk straight in and demand an explanation. Since they clearly couldn’t see me, I took another step forward, my eyes still fixed on the mirror. The girl’s reflection disappeared. On the other side of the bed, with his back to the headboard and to her, I saw a naked boy. He was probably slightly younger than the girl and much darker skinned too. I couldn’t see his face because his head was bent contritely over his chest: I could see only a tense forehead, the beginning of a frown. He was still breathing like someone about to make some great physical effort, and was running his hand over his chest with a strangely insentient, robotic gesture. Then the girl spoke.

‘Get on with it, will you?’

The boy jumped and looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.

‘All right, all right.’

He again focused on his hand and let it slide slowly down his chest to his navel. He placed it, without much conviction, on his flaccid penis, which he shook a couple of times, like a rattle. Then suddenly a shiver ran through him.

‘It’s too bloody cold in here.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

The girl’s ‘yeah, yeah’ sounded resigned, as if she had said it a thousand times before, as if she had spent her whole life in that room, sitting there in her underpants, listening to people complaining about the cold. I imagined her arching her eyebrows and nodding in mock solemnity, but to check that I was right, I would have had to stop seeing the boy’s face. She must have liked the woman-of-the-world air that her ‘yeah, yeah’ gave her, because she repeated it.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

The boy started breathing hard again as he went about his business without success. The girl joined in his next out-breath.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know. Can’t you help?’

‘No, I can’t, I’ve told you already. You have to do it on your own. Then we can fuck.’

‘I can’t get it up.’

‘Well, watch the film then.’

The girl had suddenly adopted the tone of an older sister.

‘Wait, I’ll turn up the volume.’

I heard her feeling for something next to the bed and heard things falling onto the carpet. I didn’t dare change my position in order to be able to see her face again. I was beginning to feel afraid they would discover me there. The idea of marching into the bedroom, pretending to be surprised and asserting my rights had vanished of its own accord. I should have gone down to reception. The truth is, I don’t know if I stayed there because I was afraid of making a noise as I left or because I wanted to see and hear more. It seemed to me that I could safely wait a while longer: if the boy or the girl got up, I would still have time to step out into the corridor and close the door before they saw me.

You can read the rest of this excerpt by purchasing Granta 113. Or, better yet, you can subscribe and receive the issue for free . . . .

10 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 7 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



For today’s update, Emily Davis interviewed Alberto Olmos, whose “Eva and Diego”—the first chapter of his new novel—appears in this issue in Peter Bush’s translation.

Today’s post is brought to you by the number six.

Segovia native Alberto Olmos is one of six Spaniards on the Granta list of Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. He is also one of six writers on the list who were born in 1975, and he has written six—count ’em, six—novels. At age twenty-three (!) he published his first novel, A bordo del naufragio (1998), which was a finalist for the Herralde Prize. His more recent novels are Así de loco te puedes volver (1999), Trenes hacia Tokio (2006), El talento de los demás (2007), Tatami (2008) and El estatus (2009). He is also the editor of the volume Algunas ideas buenísimas que el mundo se va a perder (2009), compiled from internet-based texts. Olmos taught Spanish and English in Japan for three years. Currently he can be found in Madrid as well as on the interwebs.

He generously agreed to answer some questions about the writers who have most influenced him, technology and contemporary literature, and the effects of the Granta honor.

Emily Davis: What writers have influenced you?

Alberto Olmos: I will name three: the Spanish writer Francisco Umbral has shown me the way of style, in the preoccupation with the sonority of words; Henry Miller clued me in to the fact that one could say anything in a novel, and be aggressive and solipsistic; and William Faulkner will continue always to be the great master of narrative structure, of the zeal to tell a story in a different way.

ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the Granta list?

AO: To name one, Alejandro Zambra.

ED: Among your novels are the titles Trenes hacia Tokio (2006) and Tatami (2008). Where did your interest in Japan come from? And the experience of having lived in Japan, has it influenced your work in some way?

AO: I believe that a large part of my literary vocation comes from my desire to leave my mark in writing, that is to say, to write autobiography. Because of that, everything that happens to me in life is susceptible to becoming literature. I lived in Japan for three years and it was inevitable that some pages came out of that experience. But nothing is further from my intention than to become one of those authors who only write about a country in which they lived for a short time.

ED: Where did the desire to be a writer originate?

AO: It’s a mystery, but I believe that solitude has created more writers than all the writing schools in the world.

ED: What are you working on now?

AO: I should be reading over the first draft of my new novel; I am somewhat dazed by the reverberations of the Granta list and I am looking for the calm necessary to read my own writing with objectivity.

ED: In “Eva and Diego” the iPod appears as the product itself and also as a symbol of the epoch in which we live. How would you say that technological or consumerist motifs fit into the literature of today? Is it something unique to twenty-first-century literature?

AO: Those motifs (technology, consumerism) will always be current, given that, as we know, Facebook has changed the human species in greater measure than all the literature written in all the world in the last fifty years. It is a shame, but there it is. However, as central themes, consumerism and technology are somewhat out of fashion.

ED: What does it mean to you to have been named one of the best young Spanish-language novelists by Granta?

AO: It’s an important recognition that has given me new encouragement to write. As Cyril Connolly said, the “menopause” of a writer comes at 35 years (my age) and it consists in losing in certain measure the youthful passion for writing, the faith in your own talent and in the talent of readers. In that way Granta has made me about ten years younger.

The current issue of Granta features “Eva and Diego,” the first chapter of Olmos’ new novel and translated by Peter Bush. Here is just a snippet of it to get you interested:

The day I bought my iPod, forty-five people died in a terrorist attack. When an important piece of news breaks, part of my section collaborates with the ‘affected’ section (National or International Affairs, usually); additionally, the Culture pages are reduced in number and, as the one in charge, I’m left with almost nothing to do. I’m bored and look out of the window.

The bombs exploded at 8.56 a.m. in a Madrid shopping centre. They were hidden in the changing cubicles on the women’s clothes floor. Thirty-two victims were women; twelve were children. Only one man died. Several dozen more were injured, in a similar ratio in terms of sex and age to those who had died.

Responsibility for the attack pointed to Arab terrorist groups.

I saw one photo and refused to look at any more. A dummy clad in human flesh. The bomb had completely wrecked one individual’s body and her skin, bones and organs had splattered all over the front half of a dummy.

‘We’re next.’

Journalism is essentially pessimism. I left the office before lunchtime.

To go spending.

I like buying new technology because it takes me quite a long time to realize it is pointless. I read the instructions, hit the keys, connect a cable here and another there, and feel as if I’m confronting a huge mystery I have to solve. And I enjoy it. Then there is no mystery, only a useless gadget I jettison in any old drawer.

I bought my iPod because the sales assistant was very handsome. The shopping centre was strangely devoid of people (or not so strangely: forty-five dead, after all). I’d decided to use the morning to pay Diego a visit, so I opted for the ground floor rather than the sixth. I take less time to buy a microcomputer or PDA than to buy a pair of shoes and the result would be the same.

The sales assistant was very handsome.

I spotted him within five minutes. He was reading a magazine on the counter of his Apple stand. I have thousands and thousands of CDs at home and the last thing I’d have thought of would be to purchase a gadget that would force me to get rid of them all.

I assumed his drive to sell had been deactivated by the lack of customers. The least he could do was offer me a fucking iPod.

I walked past the young man again, much more slowly and nearer this time. He ignored me.

I finally went over to him.

‘Hello,’ I said.

The young man took off his headset (I’d not noticed it) and smiled.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

His mouth was very sweet.

‘How can I be of help, madam?’

‘I’d like one of those.’

I pointed to the most expensive iPod on display. Indeed, I pointed at the price tag, not at the gadget itself.

The sales assistant headed over to the display cabinet. I gave him a good look up and down while he unlocked one of the glass doors.

He turned round and stared at me.

‘What colour would you like, madam?’

‘Red.’

Remember: For the next seven business days—through the end of this “22 Days of Awesome” series—you can get a copy of this issue for free by subscribing to Granta..

9 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 8 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today post is an interview by Emily Davis of Spanish author Elvira Navarro, whose “Gerardo’s Letters” was translated by Natasha Wimmer for this special issue.

Born in Huelva, Spain in 1978, Elvira Navarro has published two novels: La ciudad en invierno (Caballo de Troya, 2007) and La ciudad feliz (Mondadori, 2009). La ciudad feliz won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta prize for best new author. She currently teaches writing workshops in Madrid and has an ongoing project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ (Madrid is Periphery) in which she explores the various undefined and marginal spaces of Madrid. Those writings can be found online here. Today we get to hear from the author about the draw of these kinds of spaces, how they relate to her writing, and what inspires her.

Emily Davis: How did you become a writer? Where did the initial desire come from?

Elvira Navarro: I don’t believe that a book can be written from any other place than from the need to express something of yourself that demands the construction of a narrative territory in order to betray oneself as little as possible. It is there where the desire to be a writer resides, and what lights the way to becoming one. When that impulse is transferred to the work it becomes authenticity, a virtue that for me is absolutely necessary, to the point where I abandon books that are well written if I do not find them authentic, that is to say, necessary for those who write them. If a book is dispensable for the author, it will be even more so for the reader.

ED: Where do you get the inspiration for your novels?

EV: From my life, from the dirty corners, and from what I have said in answering the previous question.

ED: What writers have influenced you?

EV: Among recent Spanish narrative, Belén Gopegui is, along with Juan Marsé, the writer who has influenced me the most. I have discovered that certain parts of my writing are close to Cristina Fernández Cubas, but that is a discovery that I made a posteriori. I am pretty devoted to Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Tomeo. If you had asked me what writer I would have liked to be, I would have chosen Dostoyevsky. And Marguerite Duras seems to me an example of a radical writer and writing: she is always on the verge of being ridiculous, but it ends up being brilliant. I would also cite Ana Blandiana, Julio Cortázar, David Foster Wallace and Coetzee.

ED: Do you believe that it is possible to speak of a national Spanish literature?

EV: Spain, just like any other country, has a tradition (although here it would be better to speak of many traditions), even if in a globalized world it is making less and less sense to attach a [literary] tradition to a geographic or linguistic border.

ED: In addition to your novels you are working on a project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ which is an exploration of the less visible areas of the capital. What is it that attracts you to peripheral spaces in general, and in particular with regards to writing?

EV: It occurs to me something that the painter Antonio López said in an interview, that what inspired him was not the center, but rather the outskirts. When I see a picture of, for example, Paris’s Rive Gauche, Manhattan, or Madrid’s Gran Vía, I can’t help but see a postcard. These are places that are profusely talked about, that embody our current myths, that is to say, they support the narratives that identify us. In that measure, they are overinterpreted, and their legend is set in the realm of History, not of mystery. Overinterpretation can be fruitful for many writers, after all literature does nothing but tell the same story over and over again. However, I can’t put myself into this type of setting; their signifying weight is too heavy for me, and I prefer to go to places that are undefined, with an open plan, peripheral. Sometimes I get the impression that my writing is synonymous with flaneûr, and that the storylines that I cast are an excuse for justifying that my characters travel across certain spaces that tend to go from one urban periphery to another where the city dissolves. I am exaggerating, yes, but not much. Honestly, I don’t know what it is that brings me to explore inhospitable territories; that said, I guess it has to do with the unknown and with possibility and, with relation to the latter, at times I believe that the periphery, that decomposition of the habitable, represents us better, since we are failed city dwellers. Also I think that putting my characters to prowl through godforsaken places or in places that people don’t go is a way of making that territory habitable, converting it into a polis.

And finally, here is the opening to what appears in the Granta issue as “Gerardo’s Letters,” translated by Natasha Wimmer and a part of Navarro’s novel in progress. From the first sentence it is clear that we are dealing with the kind of in-between, uninhabitable space that Navarro describes above, and this setting becomes the frame for what turns out to be an emotionally tumultuous portrait of the relationship between the narrator and Gerardo.

Two roads, separated by half a mile of wasteland, flank the hostel, and I suggest that we cross over to see whether we can find some patch of countryside, but Gerardo says it’s late, we’d better explore the fields.We walk straight ahead until it’s completely dark, and we return guided by the lights of the hostel and the cars. We can’t even see our sneakers, and looking down produces a kind of dread, as if we were about to plunge into the void or step on a nest of scorpions. When we reach the basketball courts I instruct Gerardo to hold my ankles while I do sit-ups. The ground is cold and it’s hard to bend; having Gerardo crouching in front of me, with his head brushing against my knees, begins to seem unpleasant, and I stop at what seems a reasonable limit for a beginner. I feel absurd and it occurs to me that this is the nature of couplehood: the abjection of observing and participating in the other person’s obsessions. Like my sit-ups at ten at night on the dark basketball court of a hostel a mile from Talavera. Maybe there’s something positive about this that I’ve lost sight of, or maybe this foolishness applies only to defunct couples, like me and Gerardo, who claim that everybody else in the world takes such things for granted. ‘You’re crazy,’ he tells me when I try to explain what I mean, and then I feel this craziness of mine as a searing loneliness, even real madness. When I’m with him I lose my sense of judgement, and since Gerardo is the keeper of reason, I suddenly fear that without him I won’t be able to function in the world.

We get to the dining room just as they’re about to put the trays away. It’s not even eleven; we ask an old woman in a net cap why they’re closing so early. The old woman says that if we wanted to eat late we should’ve stayed at a hotel. The menu: shrivelled peas with something that looks like York ham but turns out to be chopped cold cuts, and breaded cutlets in perfect ovals whose greasy coating hides some kind of processed chicken. All I eat are the peas. The chopped meat and the processed chicken are the same pale pink colour. ‘The cutlets are raw,’ says Gerardo. At a big table the girl from last night is talking to three boys of about the same age, who must be the other high-school students. They’ve finished eating, and they’re smoking, flicking their ash on the tray; then they put out their cigarettes in what’s left of the peas. The girl doesn’t look at us.

‘I’m going to shower,’ I tell Gerardo as we enter the room. I takemy robe, toiletry bag and flip-flops out of my duffel bag, and whenI’m about to open the door Gerardo says:

‘You can get undressed here. I won’t touch you.’

I undress with my back to him. I’m conscious of his efforts to communicate his lust; it registers as a disagreeable weight on the back of my neck that makes me get tangled up in my trousers and fall down. I stand up and leave wearing my robe over my bra and T-shirt. Fortunately the hot water works and I stand under the shower head, which spits out water in fits and starts, until my fingers are wrinkled and the bathroom mirror is steamy. I don’t want to go back to the room; I pace back and forth, opening the doors of the shower stalls, where those little black bugs that seem to inhabit every dank place collect. I make a racket with the doors and stir up the bugs; a whole swarm ends up flying around the mirror, which is dripping with water. My feet are cold and I decide to get in the shower again, but the sides of the stalls are covered with insects now and I don’t have the strength to shoo them away. I go back to the room. Gerardo is lying in bed masturbating, with his pants around his ankles. He doesn’t look at me. I gather up my clothes as fast as I can and, trailing the cord of the hairdryer, I leave the room before he comes.

I return to the bathroom; the insects have retreated to the nooks and crannies of the showers and are now undetectable. I’m afraid there won’t be any outlets; if there aren’t, I can go to the TV room and dry my hair there. I imagine the four high-school students sprawled on the vinyl sofas, watching a celebrity survival show.

Asking the high-school students for permission to make a noise with my hairdryer while they watch their show doesn’t seem very appealing; and yet I’m determined not to go back to the room, even if Gerardo thinks the creepy gnome of a hostel manager has chopped me into bits and stuffed me in the pool-bar freezer. This is a good moment for us to break up once and for all: at six in the morning, while he’s asleep, I’ll go up for my duffel bag and call a taxi. A break-up plan like this might be out of the question for another couple without involving the police and having the hostel searched for the vanished loved one; but Gerardo and I have become accustomed to bad behaviour and extravagant gestures. If I decide to spend the day hanging upside down from a tree, he’ll leave me there, though he might tell me twenty times that I’m a nut. This is another one of the things that, until a year ago, made leaving him unthinkable, because I hate normal life, and in some sense and despite the awfulness, with Gerardo I seem to be safe from a certain kind of normality. With him, through the process of taking everything to the limit – rage, contemplation, disgust – I attain a kind of exasperated life and I’m convinced that this exasperation must violently propel me somewhere.

You can read this complete short story—and 21 more—in the new issue of Granta, which you can receive for free by subscribing now.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 10 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today’s post—which is going up a bit late, sorry—features Spanish author Pablo Gutierrez whose new story, “Gigantomancy,” was translated for this issue by Anna Kushner.

Something about Gutierrez really appeals to me . . . I think it’s this line from his bio: “Currently a teacher of literature at a secondary school in Cadiz, he lives in peace and tranquility, very close to the sea.” Oh, and by “appeals to me,” I really mean, “makes me insanely jealous.” I want some tranquility and seashore!

But seriously, Gutierrez is one of the youngest authors selected for this list, and already has a promising start to his career having won the Tormenta en us vaso Prize for best new author in Spanish for his first novel, Rosas, restos de alas.

Since Gutierrez’s full story is available on Granta‘s website, I thought today I would just post a significant excerpt, so that you can get a taste of his work:

As cadets, we rubbed Coca-Cola on our soles so we wouldn’t crack open our heads while playing outside. The dew soaked the concrete and we glided on the court like an aeroplane when it rains, our hands hidden in our fists, the pavement greasy beneath Saturday’s frost, and just at the mouth of the airport, eleven pale giants fastened to the seats like packages, the pilot narrows his eyes so that the nose meets the blue lines, the wind, the rain, all of the gods’ lightning illuminating our enormous jaws. On those winter courts, how we broadsided those boys from the Salesian school, there go the boys having taken communion – we used to say – there go the boys parading their embroidered crests, no one breathes until the aeroplane rushes on the runway and the pilot releases the brakes. A pitch-dark night: the sky falls in pieces over Treviso, it always rains in Treviso, what does it matter if from here to the hotel and from the hotel to the field we’re watched by the guard dog, oh, how we bit as cadets, how we rushed at anyone, and one Saturday they came to see me from La Caja and they shook my hand like a gentleman, they said, aren’t your parents home? Damn, you can really hit it, how would you like to try spending some time with us? La Caja! With Izquierdo and Lafuente and that tower of curls who was shooting at just fifteen years old, a trunk with elephant ankles who moved slooooowly like a mimic, but when he got it down court, oh, La Caja. My folks said fine, but only if you go on with school, and there was Mom, crying as if I were going off to Antarctica, don’t cry, Mommy, I’ll come home every weekend, all those hours on the bus that brings back the San Fernando recruits, heads shaved and bone-thin as lepers, sad and gloomy-faced with their backpacks hanging at their shoulders, their noses covered in pimples. Two breakfasts, meat at lunchtime, fish for supper, piles of vegetables on tin trays: we also made up an army, an army of gigantean kids with sharpened hands, prominent Adam’s apples and the shadow of a moustache. We followed orders, we had leaders, punishments and uniforms, La Caja’s uniform is so pretty, with gold borders, a name and number on the back, it was the first time I saw my name printed on a shirt, like an idiot I stared at it like someone who stares at the picture of his girlfriend, I would have slept in it if my room-mate hadn’t laughed, serious as a monk and stretched-out and dry, he spent his time reading and he could throw well but didn’t run much, and there you had to run like a deer, run and bust a gut during training so during games you could fly like Son Goku when he took his weights off, we hit any one of them with a hell of a lot of blows, it would be great if you could still play that way now, if it were that easy to glide right past your rivals like an aeroplane on the runway, jump that way, hit that way, laugh and always win that way, but everything now is fight and surround and bite down on your protector so they don’t break your teeth, like here in Treviso when they ripped one of my molars out during the first charge, minute one and boom, down to the floor like a sparring, of course I wasn’t even twenty years old then and I would be shaking as I came on to that court that had the appearance of a gym and the fans shake you from the minute you step on the sporting ring and Perotti the winger ripped my tooth out with a full contact blow of his elbow, I went running to the clinic so they could sew up the hole because I wouldn’t stop haemorrhaging and there was a monsoon-like rain falling, imagine, a guy as big as a castle all covered in blood asking for a doctor, the nurse nearly fell right over at the sight of me, how the Italians shake you in Treviso or Bologna, each point is an Olympic battle, they grab on to your neck like Medusas, I don’t have the heart or the patience any more but there’s nothing else I know how to do, after what happened at the Forum, who would trust me, I thought I would end up training kids for a modest salary, I don’t want a Nordic house on the peak of some mountain or yachts or cars that I can’t park but after what happened at the Forum who would dare put me in a locker room with kids if all I’m good for is being moody and putting on weight, although I’ve also been quite refined and elegant and have kept some of that, like when we were up against Baskonia, down by two, and Otis had gotten the whistle in the fifth and in the last play, they set a trap for the skinny guy and I threw that rock that I thought would end up outside the pavilion but goddamn, it went in like Larry Bird hit them, the stands went wild, in Giants, they did a retrospective on me, I appeared in all the television news programmes, well, if this isn’t going to be my day – I thought – but then what happened at the Forum came, and because of that I understand quite clearly that before the year is up, they’re going to kick me out, if it would at least stop raining, if only I could take off this tracksuit and button up a real coat and escape from this hotel without telling anyone, just looking left and right in case the guard dog is making his rounds as if we were juniors, if only I could rip off this ridiculous smock that’s hurled down on you from a fifth floor when you’re over thirty years old, I’m fed up with being a walking adman for AGR Insurance and Univision Optics, if only I could slip away from this remote hotel dropped down on a traffic circle with decorated roundabouts and carpet-covered hallways and brass banisters, a forlorn, tiny receptionist who looks at me with round eyes from deep inside her cardboard uniform as if I were a sulphuric giant banging the counter asking for the Yellow Pages, the classifieds from the newspaper, for a taxi to take me to the city: to walk wildly, feeling splendid and lazy, sit down at a cafe and invite a blonde girl to join me, ask for a cream puff, wolf it down in one bite, make a call like in the last century from a telephone booth, talk to Luisa about the weather in Treviso, ask her if the little one is asleep already, no, not yet, she’s cheating me in Parcheesi, tell her to get on the line, you’re-so-far-away-I-have-a-burn-mark-on-my finger-I’ve-already-got-two-up-on-her, if I could, I would care very little about what happened at the Forum, but it’s raining like in the Great Flood and I’ve become a prisoner of this room watched over by the guard dog, inside this walking adman costume, sharing a room with this little acrobat boy who thinks he is Vince Carter and who has been playing video games for two hours already, imprisoned as if I were at camp training a pony and riding zip-lines while Mom and Dad go off to Paris for a week to see if they can kiss each other there like they don’t here, and even though I could escape and strip and get into that taxi, I would still be moving this mountain-like body crowned with the face of a chased aboriginal. On that peak, my forehead like a movie screen would stand out like the lamp of a lighthouse: the little blonde would squeeze her knees together like a girl who is peeing herself, there wouldn’t be any cream puffs left at the pastry shop, in this century, there’s no finding a telephone booth with anything more than an amputated cable hanging like a terrible extremity.

Humans against giants. All of those midgets spitting at me from the stands, hanging strips of toilet paper from my ears, urinating on my towel, calling me hair-raising things, the word repeated from their rounded mouths that sounds the same in every language, even syllables and fricatives and different I-don’t know-whats always sound like the same thing.

Click here to pick up reading where this excerpt leaves off.

And don’t forget: by subscribing to Granta while the “22 Days of Awesome” is going on, you’ll receive this special issue featuring the next wave of Spanish-language novelists for free. (The issue retails for $16.99 FYI.)

22 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

See this post about Barba for more information about this piece, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.

The ad in the “male seeking male” section said:

I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

and was in amongst others listing predictable obscenities and a series of oral necessities. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of a man of indeterminate age and sadness who wore a mask that gave him the pathetic air of a terrorist just emerging from the shower; it said so alone just like that, like it was nothing, it said it with the afternoon languor pressing in through the living room window (the one that overlooked the park) almost the way you accept the ritual of Sunday afternoon boredom, with no resentment.

I’m so alone.

If he had accepted Marta’s invitation, now he would have an excuse to get dressed, go out; the doorman’s little desk would be empty, the street would be empty, the dog would stare up at him, watery eyes, panting tongue, tail wagging to the rhythm of his desire to go for a walk, “Platz. Paw. Sit,” repeated, the same as the light, an anonymous conversation beneath his bedroom window (the one that overlooked the patio), traffic.

He bought it last night and the first thing he did was check the ages of the men who’d placed the ads (almost never stated, which was worse because it meant that the majority of them were probably young). The ones who dared to send a photo took the risk of being recognized. He had gone out to buy cigarettes and ended up buying the magazine. When he got home he started to masturbate to one of the personals but ended up using an erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. When he finished he washed his hands, made some soup and fed the dog. There were no movies on TV. Marta called to invite him over for Sunday lunch with Ramón and the kids and he declined, saying he had other plans. But he didn’t have other plans. The movies playing at the theater didn’t appeal to him enough to make him want to go out, deal with the hassle of the ticket and refreshment lines, and then return home without being able to rave about or even discuss what he’d seen. He hadn’t been to an art exhibit in years. He fell asleep thinking tomorrow he would take it easy at home, and it didn’t sound like a bad idea. Sometimes he liked to stay in, lose track of time watching TV after lunch, listen to Chopin while lounging on the sofa, leafing through a book. The magazine lay on one of the armchairs like a long-drawn-out, accepted failure. After having used it last night, he thought he’d throw it away, but he’d left it there and when he finished watching the afternoon movie it had sat there, looking up at him saying Madrid Contactos on the cover in red letters and death to hypocrisy in smaller ones, under the headline and above the photo of a woman who looked like his brother-in-law Ramón’s sister because, like her, she wore half a ton of mascara on each eye and her thin lips were made up to look fuller, filled in beyond her lip line. He opened it back up to the “male seeking male” section. He lingered over the pictures again and became excited again.

I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

Then it dawned on him that this had been going on for many years. Simply, almost painlessly, he had become resigned to the fact that he himself would never demand the things the personals were asking for, and although on a couple of occasions he had contracted a rent boy and brought him up to his apartment, the fact that he had to pay, the whole act of the wallet, the question, the exchange, turned him off to such a degree that he would then become uncomfortable at how long he took and once or twice ended up asking the guy to leave out of sheer disgust.

The dog barked and he found his shoes to take him down for a walk. He left the light on and put on his coat.


Monday everything looked the same from the bank’s office window. A Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the recently hung lights announcing the imminent advent of Christmas. He had heard something about an office party and, although he’d said he would go – declining would have launched a desperate search for excuses – they knew, as he did, that it had been years since he had last liked Alberto’s jokes (always the same, whispered to the new secretary or the newest female graduate to be hired), Andrés’s toasts and Sandra’s conversations about the kids. The fact that he was the oldest employee at the office allowed him to decline those invitations, ignore them without having to worry about subsequent hatreds that were felt but never expressed. He enjoyed that in the same way that he enjoyed his solitude, his collection of consolations and little excesses (Napoleon cognac, fancy cigarettes, a weekly dinner at an expensive restaurant) that he had grown used to and that led him to grant that he was a reasonably happy man. Jokes about his homosexuality told in hushed tones at the office met with his indifference, making him invulnerable, and although his exterior coldness had begun as a survival technique, now he really did feel comfortable in it, like someone who finally finds a warm place to take refuge and decides to make do, without yearning for anything better.

But the ad in that magazine said:

I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

And those few words had begun, since he read them on Saturday night, to unravel everything. When he finished work on Monday he felt anxious and he didn’t know why. Or he did, but didn’t want to admit it. Accepting that he wanted to call that number would have meant accepting disorder where, for many long years, there had reigned peace, or something that, without actually being peace, was somehow akin to it: his Napoleon cognac, lunch at Marta’s house once every two weeks, walking the dog, the nightly TV movie he watched until tiredness overcame him, maybe the occasional rent boy he’d bring home in his car and whose presence he would then try to erase as soon as possible, fluffing up the sofa cushions (not the bed, never the bed), opening the windows, repenting.

That night he took the dog for a walk earlier than usual and then it became undeniable. Something had broken. Something fragile and very fine had broken. He always ate dinner first, smoked a cigarette watching TV and then took the dog out. Why hadn’t he done that today? The dog hadn’t even wagged his tail when he saw him approach with the leash and, on the way down in the elevator, had looked up at him with an expression of bovine wonderment.

“Paw,” he said. “Paw” and the dog gave him his paw, tongue out and eyebrows raised, as if his owner were teaching him the rules of a new game.

When he got back he looked for the magazine. He’d left it on the table, he was sure, and now it wasn’t there. He looked in the bathroom, and in the kitchen. He shuffled through his desk drawers. Any other day at this time he would have already had dinner and be smoking his cigarette, getting ready to walk the dog, yet that night not only had he not done it but he was nervous, desperately searching for that magazine that he wouldn’t even have been able to masturbate to without the help of the erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. Finding himself in this situation increased his desperation, but he didn’t give up until he found it. It was on the floor beside the sofa. He opened it again and became excited reading the personals again, but there was something a little different. It wasn’t the TV, or the cognac, or the dog, but himself, in the midst of all those other things. Reading all of the ads was a game he submitted to, fooling himself and yet all the while knowing precisely what he was looking for. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of the nude man with the mask.

I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

Finding it was like feigning surprise when an expected visitor arrived, except this time the surprise was real; it was as if the ad had never been there and he had invented it at the bank. He had never met anyone named Roberto, so –though it was a common name – it had hung in the balance on page 43 like a riddle waiting to be solved. It wasn’t an ugly name. Roberto. Anxiety made him eat the steaks he was saving for the weekend. Now he’d have to go shopping again because the leftover rice he’d been planning to have tonight would have gone bad by tomorrow. This was no good at all. Not that it was bad to have eaten something he was saving for another time; that was one of the sorts of luxuries that made him reasonably happy. But doing it the way he’d done it, just like that, for no reason. But really, had there been reasons the other times?

Half an hour later he couldn’t sleep. He always went to bed early, capitalizing on television’s soporific effect, and that night he couldn’t sleep. He’d taken the magazine with him to bed and left it on his nightstand. He picked it up and opened it but then felt ridiculous. It was all Roberto’s fault. In the open wardrobe door, he could see the dark, faint reflection of his fifty-six year old body in the glow of the television, projecting tiredness and an obesity that, while not obscene, he had never made a serious attempt to combat. He felt pathetic for having entered into the game Roberto was proposing. How – after so many years of reasonable happiness, of peace – could so blatant a ploy have gotten the better of him? Crumpling it up, he took it to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. Then he tied the bag and left it by the door, hoping that the doorman would not have made his rounds yet. Sleep descended upon him that night serene and unburdened. He was proud of himself.


In the morning the trash bag was gone. He could have verified this simply by looking out the peephole but instead he opened the door. At the bank, they asked him if he felt all right when he arrived.

“I have a little bit of a headache,” he said.

“It’s the flu. People are dropping like flies.”

But it wasn’t the flu. The Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the Christmas lights. It was Christmastime. How had he not realized? Two years ago he’d felt a slow-burning sadness during the holidays, too, and he hadn’t been able to shake it off until they had taken the lights down. But what he felt now wasn’t really sadness. He was anxious. He made a mistake keying in the number of a bank account and spent almost half an hour arguing with a customer who claimed his deposits were not being credited correctly. At lunchtime he went to get the first-aid kit to take his temperature. But he had no fever. He took an aspirin. But he didn’t have a headache. The ad said:

I’m so alone. Roberto, and then there was a phone number. He couldn’t remember the number. He, who had always been so proud of his numeric memory, couldn’t recall the number. It started 307. It started 307 and then there was something like 4680. It wasn’t 4680 but it was similar to 4680. 5690. 3680.

I’m so alone. Roberto, and then 307…

When he left the bank he didn’t go home but instead walked to the kiosk where he’d bought the personals magazine the other day.

“Check over there,” the newsagent said.

It wasn’t there.

“Don’t you have any more?”

“Aren’t there any there?”

“I can’t see any.”

“Then we must be out.”

He couldn’t find it at the sex shop three blocks down, either, and the clerk hadn’t even heard of the magazine. He thought about filing a complaint but that seemed ridiculous. When he got home the dog was restless because he’d been gone so long. He was hungry and wagged his tail. Any other day he’d have felt relaxed arriving home, but this time he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know if he should sit down or watch TV. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet. He had to walk the dog. Suddenly every act that, for years, he had performed in a ritual of leisurely contentment seemed an unbearable obligation. He put on the dog’s leash and went down to take him for a walk but didn’t follow his usual route. When he got back, though he had no appetite, he ate dinner and then took two sleeping pills. He dreamed of someone he had loved for three long years a long time ago, but he couldn’t see his face; there was only the familiar presence of that body lying beside him, his smell, his saliva.


Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday he went to the bank with a fever. He felt weak but at the same time he wanted to scream. It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years. During his lunch break he went out to his usual café-bar for a sandwich and coffee but he felt excluded from everything around him. Wherever he looked, all he saw were couples, kisses, little signs of affection. The cold condescendence he once looked on with now turned against him, blowing up in his face with envy and anxiety. He had to find that magazine. Now.

I’m so alone, said Roberto. He was alone, too. He wanted to be kissing someone, like all those couples, holding someone’s hand, buying presents. Irony was a game he could no longer play.

22 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 22 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

First up: Spanish author Andres Barba, whose new short story “The Coming Flood” is included in this issue.



I’ve been hearing about Andres Barba for years thanks to Lisa Dillman. She’s been extremely active in promoting Barba—hailing him as one of the “great young Spanish authors” before this issue of Granta was a footnote in an editor’s dreaming eye.

In fact, one of the first reviews we ever published on Three Percent was this piece by Lisa on Barba’s La hermana de Katia. Katia is an interesting, strange novel, which was also made into a film.

Barba’s a pretty prolific writer . . . He’s all of 35 years old, and in addition to Katia, he’s the author of the novels Ahora tocad musica de baile, Versiones de Teresa, Las manos pequenas, Agosto, octubre, and Muerte de un caballo. In addition (in addition?!?), he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for La ceremonia del porno and wrote a colleciton of novellas entitled La recta intencion. (More on that in a second.)

“The Coming Flood,” the new story included in this issue, which was translated by Lisa Dillman, is about a woman willing to do whatever it takes (mainly prostituting herself) in order to get enough money to have a horn implanted on her face. Which is as strange as it sounds, but is a desire that gathers in intensity as the story progresses:

The idea has a life of its own. She closes her eyes, overcome, feeling something sweet, sharp, finally full of harmony; the safety of the bone. Operations in the past: lips once, breasts four times, ribs removed, cheekbones done, and in her diary, sometimes, between one operation and the next, she’d write ‘I’m a monster.’ Other times she’d write: ‘For my next operation . . .’ Her writing now is perky, vibrant. She doesn’t sleep that night either. Little by little the unrest subsides, but come dawn, it’s back. Now the house, a dank place, befits her large body. Because the body secretes feelings, but you’ve got to be close enough to perceive them. And one day she leaves home and lets out a low moan she’d have liked to make last. Who could say why she walks there when what she wants is to avoid the place? But she holds onto the railing at the entrance and then, as if thrust forcefully, takes one step and then another with the trusty tick-tock of a clock. ‘My face with a horn, my smile with a horn, my arms and legs and tits and cunt with a horn.’ She needs the vulgarity of those words, but there’s no more money. There are no more calls, no more film shoots.

As a special bonus, Lisa Dillman was kind enough to send us an excerpt from Barba’s Nocturne, one of the novellas from La recta intencion. Since this is a pretty long sample, and since I tend to write too many over-long blog posts, I’m going to make this a separate entry, which you can “find here.”:

And don’t forget, if you want to read all of “The Coming Flood” (and 21 other pieces), you can receive this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.

Up tomorrow: Santiago Roncagliolo.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erika Howard on Manuel de Lope’s The Wrong Blood, which was translated from the Spanish by John Cullen and available from Other Press.

Manuel de Lope has published fourteen books in his native Spain, but this is the first of his works to be translated into English. Based on the reviews of The Wrong Blood that I’ve read, hopefully this won’t be his last. Even the NY Times gave it (and translator John Cullen) some love in this past Sunday’s Book Review:

This absorbing novel — the first from the distinguished Spanish author to be translated into English — is full of mild sensations. Mild humor (bacalao soaked for dinner in the toilet tank) gives way to mild horror (a woman bends over another’s baby with “the posture of certain all-consuming insects”), which in turn yields to mild philosophizing (on the “admiration that denizens of the rural world feel for folding things”). At times, the mildness turns to provocation, as when the main character, a simple yet baffling woman named María Antonia Etxarri, watches a troop of soldiers and has “a feeling that one of those soldiers, if not more than one, was going to rape her.” The placidity with which she faces this prospect is galvanic. But de Lope’s languid sentences, artfully translated by John Cullen, continue to unfurl, and you find yourself sinking back into the narrative as if it were quicksand.

Erika Howard is interning with Open Letter this semester, and this is her first book review . . . Here’s how it opens:

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage . . .

To read that passage and the rest of the review, simply click here.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage:

However, anyone familiar with the two locales—that is, the Extarri inn at the crossroads and the Las Cruces villa in Hondarribia—could have told that one of the two had pervaded the other through the subtle introduction of symbols and emblems that assuredly were not limited to the buffalo head and the china chamber pot. Knowing eyes would have detected Maria Antonia’s influence in the house after the Senora’s death and the expropriation and destruction of the inn. Thus her universe now extended beyond the kitchen, where she spent so much of her time, and her room, which had always been the servant’s quarters.

The story of these two women is told in drips and drabbles, more in flashback and hints dropped by the crippled doctor who lives next door, probably the only one (or at the very least, one of the few living) who knows the secret that bonds Maria and Isabel. Thus the connections that are intricately laid can be difficult to trace unless you stop and focus on them. Perhaps this is a side effect of a few too many connections; perhaps it’s the simple fact that some of these connections were announced fairly early in the novel. Either way, by the end of the story it takes a moment to recall exactly why everything was connected.

However, even with the momentary confusion that happens once or twice, the good outweighs the bad. Manuel de Lope constructs a story about war that seems relatable, even though the (very large) majority of readers will never face a scenario like this. The emotions are true, and the setting rarely strays to a far-off battlefield, or really anywhere too difficult for an average reader to imagine. The storyline might be a little far-fetched, a little too coincidental to be believable, but on the whole the novel stays true to itself, and keeps you engaged. The Wrong Blood is definitely worth the time and attention it requires.

10 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m sort of on vacation this week (and will literally be out of town on Thursday and Friday), so instead of writing a lot of new posts, I’m instead going to run a bunch of reviews that I’ve been storing up. First in the queue is David Krinick’s piece on Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories, which was translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales and will be out from Host Publications next week.

As David mentions, Benedetti is a big name in Latin American literature, but not all that well known among English-readers. That’s no fault of Morales’s—he’s been pushing to get Benedetti’s works published for quite some time now. Harry’s a great translator, and it’s great to see at least one of the books he was championing available to the masses.

David’s interning here this summer, packing catalogs, reading submissions, and setting up sales calls with bookstores. (Among other fun intern activities.)

Here’s the opening of his review:

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

“Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.”

Click here to read the full review, and click here to visit our complete review section.

10 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.

The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories (recently published by the admirable Host Publications) offers a rare survey of the author’s short stories that spans over fifty decades of work. The stories collected act as vignettes that offer the reader brief perspectives of the many unremarkable lives of many of Uruguay’s urban citizens. In works such as “The Iriarte Family” Benedetti shows the life of a secretary’s febrile romanticizing of a female’s voice and the subsequent disintegration of his real life relationship. His character’s are repeatedly confronted with outcomes that contradict what they thought they originally desired.

Later stories reflect the author’s exile, evoking voices from the previous generation’s émigré writers such as Nabokov and Bunin. In “Completely Absent-Minded” an exiled politician’s dazed wayfaring across Europe brings him unexpectedly back to his home country, where he is quickly arrested. Benedetti’s voice shifts from the expository urban observer to a ruthless dissector of individual’s morals that passively accept their government’s yoke. Stories such as “Listening to Mozart,” “Nineteen” and “Answering Machine” expose cases of loyalty motivated by fear and self-preservation. From “Listening to Mozart”:

Sometimes, you too interrogate without conviction, and if you use electric shock, that’s precisely the reason why; because you don’t have any confidence in your own line of reasoning, because you know that no one is suddenly going to turn into a traitor just because you evoke the fatherland or curse at them.

Benedetti’s fearless writing chronicles a dark period in Latin American history, one where loved ones would disappear over night, never to be seen again. This collection, however, also resonates with the author’s desire to speak of love and our need for one another despite the estranged natures that society and politics cultivates in us. He explores the lines between public and private lives, illuminating our curious passions with a sense of irony, humor and gravity. The Rest Is Jungle affords a great introduction into the provocative career of one of Latin America’s most beloved authors.

29 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know, I know, it’s been a while, but the latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erik Sean Estep on Noberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner and published late last year by W. W. Norton. (FYI, the paperback edition will be available in December.)

Erik Estep is someone I know from the long, flat days of Central Illinois. At the time he was working in Milner Library at Illinois State University. Around the time that we all left Dalkey for Open Letter/Three Percent, Erik escaped as well, and is now a Reference Librarian at East Carolina University. Erik is also the most deluded Cubs fan I ever met, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now, although we probably should’ve reviewed this back a few months ago, the announcement regarding Castro’s memoirs actually makes this a bit timely. (Planned. Totally planned.)

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Erik’s review:

Most of the icons of the Long Twentieth Century (defined by most as stretching from the Great War to the suicide of the Soviet Union) have left the scene. If you were on team communism, chances are you in formaldehyde or you have turned over your kingdom to an heir. If you were on the capitalist side of the field, you’ve likely been given a nice state funeral by the victors, long after, sadly, your brain had turned to jelly. However, there is one leader who is still in game, a survivor who has managed recently even to return to the big screen, via an undisclosed location, to inspire the masses. That man, of course, is Fidel Castro. A stroke may hobble The Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, thus speeding up the transition to the Great Grandson of The Leader, but El Comandante continues to lead.

Castro has not yet published his memoirs, but is said to be working on them since formally relinquishing power several years ago. Norberto Fuentes in his delightful, brutally honest, and satirical book The Autobiography of Fidel Castro has beaten him to the punch. Fuentes was a companero of Castro and his regime until the late ‘90s until he became persona non grata and had to flee to Miami. Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the superstar memoir genre with his Autobiography, and, it is important to note, that the veracity of that book was challenged from the outset. Rousseau, ever the bad boy of the Enlightenment, was said to have shaded things in his direction. Even though we know that Fuentes book is a work of fiction, his many years at Castro’s side have made his work indistinguishable from “true” memoirs.

Click here to read the full review.

29 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Most of the icons of the Long Twentieth Century (defined by most as stretching from the Great War to the suicide of the Soviet Union) have left the scene. If you were on team communism, chances are you in formaldehyde or you have turned over your kingdom to an heir. If you were on the capitalist side of the field, you’ve likely been given a nice state funeral by the victors, long after, sadly, your brain had turned to jelly. However, there is one leader who is still in game, a survivor who has managed recently even to return to the big screen, via an undisclosed location, to inspire the masses. That man, of course, is Fidel Castro. A stroke may hobble The Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, thus speeding up the transition to the Great Grandson of The Leader, but El Comandante continues to lead.

Castro has not yet published his memoirs, but is said to be working on them since formally relinquishing power several years ago. Norberto Fuentes in his delightful, brutally honest, and satirical book The Autobiography of Fidel Castro has beaten him to the punch. Fuentes was a companero of Castro and his regime until the late ‘90s until he became persona non grata and had to flee to Miami. Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the superstar memoir genre with his Autobiography, and, it is important to note, that the veracity of that book was challenged from the outset. Rousseau, ever the bad boy of the Enlightenment, was said to have shaded things in his direction. Even though we know that Fuentes book is a work of fiction, his many years at Castro’s side have made his work indistinguishable from “true” memoirs.

The English translation is roughly 550 pages, which is abridged from the Spanish version that is nearly three times as long. Accordingly, the pacing seems a bit off; there is much about Castro’s rise to power, very little about Cuba’s involvement in the wars in Africa, the rapprochement with the Carter Administration, Glasnost, the fall of the Soviet Union, the execution of several high ranking Cuban officers for corruption in the ‘80s, etc. One can guess that they were left on the cutting room floor and since Fuentes was there for most of the period, perhaps they were left out of the Spanish version as well, just to play it safe.

And it is just as well because this book has the voice of a very young man, making Castro seems very alive, not yet ready for the embalmers needle. As with most political leaders, but especially revolutionaries, any memoir is also about ideology and Fuentes has a lot of fun with the myth of infallibility of dictators. Every single decision has to be correct and it is interesting to see how Castro airbrushes the record. The voyage on the Granma from Mexico to the Sierra Mastre has long since passed into Cuban mythology. What is less well known, is that leaving the Granma intact was a military blunder; Batista’s planes were able to hone in on the ship and trace the movement of the guerillas from that point and pound the insurgents from the air. More chillingly, Castro claims responsibility for Che’s death in Bolivia; it was all according to plan to use Che as a martyr for the Revolution. None of this sounds funny, but the ex post facto reasoning leads to some very tall tales that wouldn’t be out of place in the works of Mark Twain.

A curious omission is the figure of that Great Communicator: Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Castro is jealous and since he is still fighting the good fight; one shouldn’t give credit where credit is not due. What is remarkable, though, is the symmetry between this book and Edmund Morris’s Dutch. Morris, an old public relations hand, was taken to task for inventing a fictional character to carry the narrative along. Alzheimer’s had long robbed Reagan of his memory to remember his own lines so Morris was accused of taking advantage of a senile old man. But Dutch was a blast to read and laid out in a properly elegant fashion, with photographs of the handsome actor breaking up the gushing text. And so, Fuentes has given service to the Revolution he has long since abandoned; by writing Castro’s autobiography for him he has given notice that El Comandante is not ready for the formaldehyde of history just yet.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year with a new introduction by Francisco Goldman.

Puig’s an all-time favorite of mine, and in my opinion, this is his best book. (Even better than Kiss of the Spider Woman.) (I’m actually flipping through the new Dalkey edition as I type and thinking about rereading this over the weekend . . .) Puig was an amazing writer, and although I wish Open Letter could’ve been the press to reprint his early works, it’s great that Dalkey is making all of these available again.

Larissa Kyzer is a frequent reviewer for us, her most recent review (like two weeks ago recent) was of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. (Larissa knows a lot about Scandinavian lit, which is why she reviews a lot of Nordic books for us.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Erica Mena’s examination of Pablo Neruda’s World’s End, which came out last year from Copper Canyon, and is translated from the Spanish by William O’Daly.

In case anyone’s keeping track, that makes two—count ‘em, two—poetry reviews in the past month. All credit to Erica for both pushing for more poetry coverage (confession: the only poetry books I read are the ones that win the BTBA), and for writing these reviews. And I know there are many more poetry pieces to come . . .

Speaking of Erica, in addition to being a poet and translator, she’s also behind the Alluringly Short blog and is the co-host of the Reading the World podcast. (Which you all should a) listen to, b) subscribe to on iTunes, and c) give a five-star rating to.)

Yeah.

So here’s the beginning of her piece:

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Click here for the full review.

18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Here we have the mature Neruda. A Neruda of silence and of memory—his own, and historical. Of forgetting and the unforgettable. Here is a Neruda at times disillusioned about the power and usefulness of art in the face of so much violence:

It is our heavy epoch,
the age of iron paws,
the bloody and circular century,
and we must recognize
the wheels of the Apocalypse.

After all, they did not serve us,
the fragile human towers,
everything was soft and breakable,
any painting may be riddled with holes,
a sonata does not defend us,
the books burn and pass on.

(Death of a Journalist)

Despite this horror, this despair, Neruda (and this is why can forgive him so much) is ultimately certain that his work as a writer is vital: “I do not dedicate myself to the ashes, / I go on naming and believing” he writes in an elegy for Oliverio Girondo of the same name.

In the dizzying vastness of the book, Neruda telescopes from the intimate to the expansive. Encompassing everything, he writes bestiaries and indictments of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam, elegies and love poems. He condemns himself with one breath and defends himself with the next. He laments and he celebrates. It is the contradictions that make this work so important, and so human. It is also this unrestrained breadth that makes this poem seem less like a coherent sequence and more like a collection of individual poems.

For a patient reader (or more likely, a Neruda scholar), reading it as a sequence reveals subtexts that form the skeleton of the poem. Confronting the recurring violence, the modern mechanisms of war, the technology of destruction that threatens to overwhelm his humanity, there is silence and forgetting. Ultimately, this is a work about the unforgettable. The shared burden of violence and the responsibility of the poet to remember the unalterable truth. And only once that truth has been committed to poetry is it possible to “forget / so as to sustain hope” (“The Worship II”). This contradiction—silence as the way to bear witness, and forgetting as the way to remember—rests on the plurality of silences and of forgettings. Neruda writes between “the truthfulness of silence” (“The Passion”) and the missing who are “crucified in the silence / of this age of agony” (“The Missing”). In a “century of communicating / failed communications” (“Know It Know It Know It”) “words will come to an end / all language will be burned” (“Bomb I”) because language can’t withstand the abuses of propaganda, cover-ups and official lies. Language must lapse into silence in order to recover the ability to remember truth, and in doing so, allow the poet to unburden himself of that truth.

Neruda finds this restorative power primarily in his relationship to the natural world. In “The Idler” he writes:

May the enemy forgive me
if I wasted too much time speaking
with sands and minerals:
I had no real reason
but I learned a lot about silence.

Politics and nature depend on one another in this work, and as the cycle nears its end Neruda reclaims his power as a poet connected intimately to his people, his land and his sea.

But I move forward singing
my song, and the roads tell me
of the many they have seen pass
in this century of people without a country.
And the poet keeps on singing
so many victories, so much pain

(Exiles)

This book is perhaps most valuable for the insight it provides into Neruda’s political engagement with the major events of the twentieth century, and his contemporary writers. In addition to coming to terms with his role in history, he places himself among (or in opposition to) the great writers, mentioning among others Whitman, Vallejo, García Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Zola, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The personal-historical, the mediation of history through the voice of the poet, is most interesting in this case for what it tells us about the poet.

And what it tells us about the poet is told in the voice of William O’Daly, the translator of this book, along with the other eight late and posthumous Neruda books published in this series by Copper Canyon. O’Daly re-creates in English the variety of Neruda’s voices within this poem. Surrealism mixes with politics and love poetry, and in the refusal of a distanced poetic voice O’Daly meets the challenge of Neruda’s self-implication in a heterogeneous vocabulary and a multitude of registers and dictions. From the prophetic to the elegiac, the nuanced variation of language is beautifully explored in resonant English. In contrast to the melancholic politics already quoted, take this short poem “Physics:”

Love, like the resin
of a tree filled with blood,
hangs out its strange odor of the origin
of natural enchantment:
the sea goes to extremes
or the devoured night
breaks over your motherland:
your soul breaks inside you,
two bells of bone sound,
and nothing happens but the weight
of your body, empty once again.

If Neruda, like Whitman, contains multitudes, then here we come to him in his full multitudinousness. Volumes could (and likely will) be written about the implications of this work in understanding one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Equally, in reading this book at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have an unparalleled vantage point from which to reflect on the suffering, the pain, and our implicit share of that guilt of the most violent century in history. The perfection of the technologies of destruction requires the poetics of this book to remember, and to help us forget, the unforgettable.

10 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next six days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso. Translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark. (Mexico, Dalkey Archive)

I can’t do half the job summing up this mammoth book that Paul Doyle did for Quarterly Conversation. So rather than even try, I’m going to give all props to Paul and use his review to profile this particular BTBA title:

If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.

Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.

This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.” [. . .]

History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.

Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.

This is a much different novel from Palinuro of Mexico, the other del Paso book that’s made its way into English. (And is also published by Dalkey Archive.) Both are incredibly ambitious, with Palinuro being more manically hilarious and drunk on lists.

That’s not to say News from the Empire isn’t remarkable—it’s an amazing achievement, and the writing is beautiful, even when the central focus is historical positioning and events. It’s a tough book to quote from, but here’s the opening bit of the first “historical section” (in contrast to the “Carlota sections,” which are all set in 1927 at the end of her life).

In the year of our Lord 1861, a sallow Indian named Benito Juarez governed Mexico. He had been orphaned at three, and at eleven had become a shepherd who climbed the trees by the Enchanted Lagoon to play his reed flute and talk to the birds and beasts in Zapotec, the only language he knew.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon III reigned in France. Some had given him the nickname “Mustachoo” because of his long, full, black, and pointed mustache, which he treated with Hungarian ointments; others called him the Little Napoleon to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Napoleon the Great—that is, Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day, Benito Pablo left the relatives who had taken him in. He abandoned his sheep, and the town of his birth, Guelatao—a word meaning “deep dark night” in his language—and walked twenty-six leagues to the city of Oaxaca, where he could find work as a servant in a wealthy home like his older sister had done; and most of all where he could get an education. Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, was a city that could be described as “ultra-montane,” not only because it was located beyond the mountains, but also because of its sanctimoniousness and its submissiveness to Rome. There, Juarez learned Spanish, arithmetic and algebra, Latin, theology, and law. In time, not only in Oaxaca, but also in other cities, undergoing other exiles—whether he was stubbornly pursuing a goal or fulfilling a destiny sent by Heaven—he also learned to be a representative, then governor of his State, Minister of Justice, Secretary of the Interior, and, finally, President of the Republic.

Little Napoleon didn’t manage to become Emperor of France until his third attempt. Nothing seemed to help: not Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding ring, which people say, he had used as a talisman during his first attempt; not the strip of bacon some say he fastened to his hat during his second attempt—so that an eaglet, a bird he had bought for a pound sterling at Gravesend soon after embarking down the Thames on the Edinburgh Castle—would always follow him and hover around him. No, none of these ploys helped Little Napoleon gain the power he sought on his arrival in France.

This is a dense book that takes some time to read, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

7 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next nine days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Op Oloop by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. (Argentina, Dalkey Archive)

I waited years for this book to come out. Years. Back in the early 2000s I went on an editors trip to Germany that was organized by the wonderful Riky Stock and included stops in Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt. During one of these visits (my memory! I assume now that I’ve been in publishing for 10 years, I can start forgetting some details, right?) I met with the guys from Tropen Verlag, who not only were super-cool, but told me that rather than pimp any of their German authors, the one person I needed to pay attention to was a semi-obscure Argentine author named Juan Filloy.

Once I got back to the States, I started looking into Filloy and this handful of facts convinced me that no matter what, we (re: Dalkey Archive) had to publish him:

  • He lived in three centuries—born in the nineteenth, and passing away in 2000 at the age of 106;
  • Julio Cortazar loved him, and references Filloy’s Caterva in chapter 108 of Hopscotch;
  • Freud was a fan of Op Oloop, which led to a personal correspondence between the two;
  • Filloy was a lover of palindromes and wrote over 6,000;
  • and, not to be overlooked, almost all fifty-plus of his novels and collections of poems have seven-letter titles. (Op Oloop, Caterva, Vil y Vil, so on and so forth.)

The plot of Op Oloop is pretty simple: it chronicles the final day and night in the life of its titular character, Op Oloop, a Finnish transplant in Buenos Aires who is recently engaged to Franziska, the Finnish consul’s niece. As he likes to state, Op Oloop is a “man of method,” a statistician who lives his life in a very orderly, pre-arranged way.

Thus, Op Oloop was convinced yet again that it was simply impossible for him to act contrary to his nature. “SUNDAY: WRITING, BETWEEN 7:00 AND 10:00 A.M.” That was the rule. When life is as ordered as a mathematical equation, you can’t just skip a digit whenever you feel like it. Op Oloop was entirely incapable of any impromptu act that might violate the pre-established norms of his routine; even such a trivial, graphical set such as addressing an envelope he’d already begun while still within the allotted time.

It’s clear from the start that Op Oloop isn’t all there—his speech to the employees at his local spa about the need to unite on tipping and form a “Gratuity International” is proof enough—but on this particular day, things go from bad to worse, as Op’s “method” is thwarted and he can’t regain his sense of order.

Filloy’s protagonist is a step beyond eccentric, and Lisa Dillman’s ability to capture his peculiar speech, wordplay, and insanity is quite impressive. This is especially true in the lengthy section detailing Op Oloop’s special dinner with his friends (in preparation for him to sleep with his 1,000th prostitute—a situation that doesn’t go according to plan and is the final nail that breaks Op’s mind). This dinner is the section of the book that seems most Cortazar-like (Hopscotch is filthy with groups of characters bantering and making statements about Argentina and its people), although Filloy’s not quite as tight and witty and fluid as Cortazar (who is?).

“In Hollywood, everyone knows the caloric value of everything. Just as they all aspire unanimously to stardom, they’re all equally fanatical about being tres mince rather than overweight. Truly, there’s a veritable obsession with fat. Dieting forces them all to undertake endless calculations and combinations. All portions are measured on a basis of one-hundred-calorie units. For example, one hundred calories equals: a tablespoon of honey, or two mandarin oranges, or four dates, or twenty asparagus tips, or a quarter-inch thick steak measuring five inches long and two and a half inches wide . . .”

“So you must’ve gone round with tape measures, eyedroppers, and scales . . .”

“It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve noticed that Argentines in general tend to be quite sarcastic, yet they’re entirely lacking in humor deep down. They make fun of everything in particular, and yet as a nation are all unanimously dull. It’s truly incongruous!”

As the novel lurches from scene to scene, Filloy creates an interesting account of one man’s mental breakdown. With the exception of what happens at the whorehouse, most of the underlying motivations for his breakdown are mysterious, summed up by the idea that he’s “method personified.” A more conventional book would delve into this issue, maybe explain how the hell he ended up with Franziska in the first place, etc., etc., but this isn’t a conventional book. Which is why it’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist . . .

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Spain, Open Letter)

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.

One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.

Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:

They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.

Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.

To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.

Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .

The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.

So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:

When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.

26 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Ghosts by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)

During a late night phone conversation last night, I mentioned that one difference between last year’s BTBA for fiction and this year’s was the lack of a “Big Book.” Last year we had Bolano’s 2666, which everyone and their brother knew would be a longlist title. We also had Moya’s Senselessness, a fan favorite that received a lot of buzz all year. But this year . . . ? There are a few big names—Bolano, again, Pamuk, Le Clezio—but there’s no single book that overshadows all the others, that has achieved that elusive goal of being a translated book that everyone seems to be talking about.

But on second thought, I wonder if Ghosts by Cesar Aira might not fit that bill. Not giving away much by saying that this book was high on the list for most (all?) of the fiction judges. And that we’d been referencing it on Google Docs and e-mails for months.

Aira’s got a few things going for him: New Directions has already published two of his other novels—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and How I Became a Nun—and will be doing more in the future. Anyone who knows Aira’s work (like every single literate person in Argentina) will point to how each of his books employs a different style, almost as if they were written by entirely different writers.

The other constant is the fact that Aira’s books are short. Which hurts in terms of being perceived as having written a “Big Book,” but also helps in the sense that it only takes a few hours to read one of his novels. (Or novellas, depending on your view of that.) For all its intricate plotting and expansive ideas clocks in at a mere 139 (small) pages—just a fraction of News from the Empire or 2666.

Of the three Aira books to make their way into English, this one is by far my personal favorite. It’s just so tight. Not a wasted word. And the opening is incredibly impressive and grand, depicting the setting for the novel (New Year’s Eve at a fancy high-rise that’s still under construction) through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills and to start his mediation on space, happiness, and potentiality:

The owners of the apartments had their own idea of happiness; they imagined it wrapped in a delay, a certain developmental slowness, which was already making them happy. In short, they didn’t believe that things were going to proceed as planned, that is, quickly. They preferred to think of the gentle slope of events; that was how it had been since they paid the deposit and signed the settlement a year earlier. Why should they adopt a different attitude now, just because the year was coming to an end? True, they knew there would be a change, but at the last moment, beyond all the moments in between. It wouldn’t be today, or tomorrow, or any day that could be determined in advance. Like the spectrum of perception, the spectrum of happening is divided by a threshold. That threshold is just where it is, and nowhere else. They were focusing on the year, not the end of the year. Needless to say, they were right, in spite of everything and everyone, even in spite of right and wrong.

As mentioned above, this high-flying, semi-abstract, cursory introduction to the building ends up resting on Patri, a teenager who is going to have to make a critical choice by midnight. Her story—which serves as the core conflict for the book, one that is both incredible compelling and universal—is encapsulated in this mini-story that’s told over dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

This is Patri’s dilemma exactly. There are ghosts throughout the construction site, ghosts that are generally playful but, especially according to Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay,” also have a sinister side. And they want Patri to join them at midnight for their party.

But this ghost story isn’t necessarily that simple. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Overall, Aira packs a lot of beauty into the slender book. It’s an impressive achievement, one that deserves even more attention and readers than it received so far. Impressive enough that it’s one of the favorites to make this year’s shortlist . . .

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece on Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror that I wrote. Katherine Silver translated this, and New Directions published it a couple months ago.

Senselessness was one of my favorite books from last year, and She-Devil is up there on my Best of 2009 list . . .

Here’s the opening of the review:

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call.

Click here for the full review.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call:

[. . .] Olga Maria was always so discreet, so modest, so reserved, never had those fits of hysteria, she defended her home and was totally devoted to her husband and children, that’s why her death makes me so angry, my dear, what’s the point, so many bastards they don’t bother killing and a woman like that—a paragon, so hard-working, look how she started that boutique from scratch, all with her own hard work. Those two coming in now, they’re the two policemen who came to Dona Olga’s to harass us, the one with the dark jacket is the one who says his name is Deputy Chief Handal: riffraff, my dear, they’ve got no respect for other people’s pain, what’s wrong with these people, how dare they come to a decent person’s wake, their heads must be full of rot—imagine: they wanted me to reveal all of Olga Maria’s secrets, as if any of her friends or acquaintances would have planned her murder . . .

Laura’s speech flits from subject to subject like that for 190 pages, unaware of its various contradictions, such as following the statement that Olga Maria was “totally devoted to her husband and children” with heaps of sordid details about her many affairs. Although initially Laura’s character is a bit incredulous, she starts to hit a rhythm and takes shape as a less-and-less reliable narrator even as she starts to postulate very dangerous ideas about the identity of the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s murder.

And that’s the simple tension that makes this book function: our only source of information to unravel the murder plot is a narrator who is either a flibbertygibbet or a true mental case. But if she’s right, the implications behind Olga Maria’s murder transform it from a daily tragedy into something with more shadowy political motives.

Overall, this book reads beautifully (all props to Katherine Silver for her wonderful translation), and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya’s reputation will continue to grow for years to come.

28 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Dream of Reason by Rosa Chacel, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier and recently published by the University of Nebraska Press as part of their European Women Writers Series.

I’ve written about this book on a few occasions, mainly because of the Javier Marias quote on the back, but there’s also a strong endorsement from Barbara Probst Solomon, who states, “Dream of Reason confirms Rosa Chacel as a major Modernist writer, the equivalent of a new-found Proust meditating on memory and selfhood, an image-driven Woolf with a profound philosophical bent. But reading Chacel is its own unforgettable experience.”

This review is written by Grant Barber, who, in his own words, is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.”

Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) sculptor, novelist, poet, essayist, feminist was born and died in Spain, with Brazil as a second home. She was a contemporary with the Generation of ’27, which included Garcia Lorca and Ramon Jaminez, and she was familiar with the writings of Freud and James Joyce and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. She claimed La sinrazón (Dream of Reason) (1960) to be her masterpiece and culmination of her fiction writing. This and much more can be found in Carol Maier’s helpful, thorough introduction. Maier is not only the translator of this Chacel book, which is appearing in English translation for the first time; she is the translator of two other Chacel novels that appear in the University of Nebraska’s European Women Writers Series; she is a scholar of Chacel’s entire writings, and she had the chance to know and explore the writer’s thought with Chacel before the end of her life.

This business of introductions presents a possible dilemma to the reader. To read the introduction first? In works of translation, or in bringing back into print a novel that has dropped out of sight (as with the excellent New York Review of Books) this decision is common. Often the introduction gives away more of the plot than one might want, or it takes away some of the enjoyment of discovery of style and thought. Why not begin reading the novel, skip the introduction; after all, if it is a worthy work of art then it should stand on its own, right?

Dream of Reason places this dilemma front and center. The writer is still a relative unknown to English speakers. At the outset the reader realizes that this novel is not plot driven. In her introduction, Maier gives a cogent explanation of Chacel’s intellectual project, that the novel tries to represent will and thought intimately joined to a person’s circumstances, a philosophical perspective from Ortega y Gasset. The voice of the narrator Santiago Hernandez is agreeable, but at times the ruminations can tax patience, unless the reader enters the novel forearmed. Not until page 268 of the novel does Hernandez explain, “One of our contemporary philosophers has said that the intimate life of ideas should be novelized. That is definitely what’s needed: the creation of a genre, a series of biographies of ideas, a thing very different from a novel of ideas.”

Click here for the full review.

28 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) sculptor, novelist, poet, essayist, feminist was born and died in Spain, with Brazil as a second home. She was a contemporary with the Generation of ’27, which included Garcia Lorca and Ramon Jaminez, and she was familiar with the writings of Freud and James Joyce and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. She claimed La sinrazón (Dream of Reason) (1960) to be her masterpiece and culmination of her fiction writing. This and much more can be found in Carol Maier’s helpful, thorough introduction. Maier is not only the translator of this Chacel book, which is appearing in English translation for the first time; she is the translator of two other Chacel novels that appear in the University of Nebraska’s European Women Writers Series; she is a scholar of Chacel’s entire writings, and she had the chance to know and explore the writer’s thought with Chacel before the end of her life.

This business of introductions presents a possible dilemma to the reader. To read the introduction first? In works of translation, or in bringing back into print a novel that has dropped out of sight (as with the excellent New York Review of Books) this decision is common. Often the introduction gives away more of the plot than one might want, or it takes away some of the enjoyment of discovery of style and thought. Why not begin reading the novel, skip the introduction; after all, if it is a worthy work of art then it should stand on its own, right?

Dream of Reason places this dilemma front and center. The writer is still a relative unknown to English speakers. At the outset the reader realizes that this novel is not plot driven. In her introduction, Maier gives a cogent explanation of Chacel’s intellectual project, that the novel tries to represent will and thought intimately joined to a person’s circumstances, a philosophical perspective from Ortega y Gasset. The voice of the narrator Santiago Hernandez is agreeable, but at times the ruminations can tax patience, unless the reader enters the novel forearmed. Not until page 268 of the novel does Hernandez explain, “One of our contemporary philosophers has said that the intimate life of ideas should be novelized. That is definitely what’s needed: the creation of a genre, a series of biographies of ideas, a thing very different from a novel of ideas.”

The novel is divided into two parts of almost equal length. In the first Hernandez is orphaned, taken in by his uncle in Madrid, has a relationship with a German dancer Elfriede who will return twice again at decisive moments to move the plot along; he attends university in Buenos Aires, marries Quitina, daughter of a wealthy Cuban. Hernandez finds an opening in his field of chemical manufacturing, which leads to his majority ownership of the factory and outright ownership of the hacienda in the country. He and his wife have three sons. Their family/social circle is expanded by the arrival as refugees of a distant cousin from Spain, Herminia, her adolescent son Miguel, and later Herminia’s husband Damien, a man troubled from taking the Republican side of the Civil War as a soldier.

The novel progresses through a series of crises, grounded in the world of action, but given real meaning and explained in the ruminations of Hernandez. In the dynamic world of people interacting we read how Quitina’s mother opposed the budding relationship and has Quitina shipped off with relatives in Cuba. Yet the more important action happens inside Hernandez’s head: he has a vibrant moment in the midst of the resulting turmoil as he focuses on a bothersome fly:

I tried countless times to hit the fly with my hand, but I’d always failed. . . . As I formulated my desire to see the fly annihilated, I did not try to hit it with the heavy instrument of my hand: I focused my intention on the fly and, and without breaking the spiral of its flight, I lead it toward the glass. There the fly fell and my energy collided with it on the glass. I heard it fry, because that was neither a buzzing nor a vibrating. . . . The blow reverberated throughout that uncommon limb of my will, the echoes of former convulsions. . . . For a few minutes, or rather, for one of those spans of time that seems impossible to divide into minutes I thought about the power that was within me, which had lived off my own life, without my noticing it.

At the same moment, as if related, Quitina’s mother is killed in a car accident, and the impediment to their relationship vanishes. Later Hernandez will repeat something of the same encounter, with different results. While in his study he notices a mounted butterfly specimen, and he sets himself the challenge that, if he would will it, he could make it flap its wings—only to end the ruminations with deciding he would will the butterfly not to flap its wings.

A second crisis that illustrates the inwardness of “action” in the novel occurs on an evening when Hernandez is staying in town at his work office and decides to tell Quitina that he has to stay too late that night to make the drive back to the country. He knows it is a lie as he tells it. The crisis he experiences is his expectation that Quitina not believe the lie. Instead Hernandez believes his relationship to his wife to be so profound that she should, she must, know that he is lying and then confront him. Her failure to do so is her failing. In uncovering the reality that he has idealized a perfect union of will and emotion between two imperfect people he asks, “And what’s left of love if love loses its sense of the absolute?”

The next move Hernandez makes in his narration is to turn to a moment of spiritual enlightenment, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. In the modernist tradition in which Chacel writes though this leap is not one Kierkegaard would recognize. Referring to a moment of transcendence, Hernandez makes a claim that humans are self-deifying. Later he talks with Miguel about the withdrawal of God which allows all of humans to become divinized in each person’s moment of crucifixion, and the desire for each of us to become a Superman—not Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, dismissed as tiresome—but rather the Superman of the movies, a metaphor in some ways for becoming angelic.

The second half of the novel picks up the memoir six years later. While the first half of the book shows a building up of life—sense of self, marriage, work, relationships, the second half chronicles dissolution through a series of internal crises similar to those in the first, albeit with more conversation reported and events occurring in the world of action, helping to pick up the narrative pace a bit.

A significant tension remains at the end of the book. Hernandez is an ambiguous figure, intentionally presented as a not entirely likeable character. His crises of mind and spirit pale next to the war experiences of others, yet his own self absorption reverses the hierarchy of importance. His expectations of others in his life are unreasonable. The purpose of growing poppies, to produce opium, goes unstated, but reverberates. He is no everyman, nor hero. Yet he is the vehicle by which Chacel chooses to explore Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, one toward which she was drawn.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Going through all my BEA catalogs, Rosa Chacel’s Dream of Reason (University of Nebraska Press, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier) was one of the books that really caught my eye. And not just because it’s long (like 776-pages long), or because the author is compared to Joyce, Proust, and Woolf (isn’t every modernist writer compared to one of those three or Beckett and Kafka?). The Javier Marias quote on the back is definitely attention grabbing: “Rosa Chacel’s La sinrazon is one of the best, most original, and most daring novels of twentieth-century Spanish literature. . . . It is time that her importance in the history of world literature be recognized.” And based on the bits I’ve read from the galley that arrived this morning, this seems to be the case.

I’m not familiar with Rosa Chacel’s works, although Nebraska has published a couple of her other books—The Maravillas District and Memoirs of Leticia Valle—in the past. Her life sounds pretty interesting as well, but it’s her description of this book—and it’s “embryo” Estacion. Ida y vuelta—that really peaked my interest. (That and the fact that it’s pretty rare to come across a massive modernist text by a Spanish woman writer.)

From the intro she wrote for the third Spanish edition:

I did not, all those years ago, try to create a character who lacked direction or moral consistency—and who might seem quite modern today—I only tried to achieve the mental discourse of a man who sees himself, analyzes himself, and follows himself in his wandering—the subject’s sole characteristic, the urge to wander—through three phases, Estacion. Ida y vuelta.

An ambition or longing for form, then, became my supreme aesthetic motive, also, not separate from form, but also in the enumeration of appurtenances or conditions—also craft, the goal of doing something and doing it well, without taking into account what, at that time, was considered well done: to do this, confident that the work’s veracity, which has nothing to do with its verisimilitude, was solid, a condition that is usually—or was usually—demanded of the novel. Because it was a question of creating a novel, of following a man—not following him as an observer capable of undertaking a story; it had to be the man’s mind itself that followed after him, keeping at just the right distance for being able to judge him, not annexing him but joining him, that is, becoming imbued with the nuances of each phase.

And here are a couple intriguing quotes from the book itself. First, the opening from chapter 1:

A few words, seemingly quite trivial when spoken, over time have become identified with one of the climactic moments in my life. What I’m thinking about occurred during a period so frivolous I’m embarrassed to describe it; nevertheless, I must describe it.

That whole period is very distant now, but I remember it well, well enough to tell about it reliably, which is not at all unusual. People often remember past events in detail; the hard thing is to recall what you were like then while you’re recalling now, to summon, from experience, knowledge, and disillusion, an exact remembrance of not knowing, of innocence. That’s very difficult and that’s what I want to achieve, especially the recollection of innocence, because ignorance actually increases with knowledge—experience and disillusion make it much easier for us to ponder the extent of our ignorance. Innocence is not extensive, though: innocence either is or is not.

And now, skipping to the opening of Part Two:

Cross out, cross out, that was the first thing I thought of when I unearthed these notebooks after six years. Quite cunning, those two words: to cross out you have to pick up your pen again.

I’m rereading everything I wrote, and it seems awkward, inefficient, and positively useless for what I wanted: it clarifies nothing. So if it’s useless, why not toss it into the fireplace? I don’t know why, and I can’t find any reason not to do that; but the thing is, neither do I find enough momentum in myself to do it. I can think I should burn it, but I know my hand won’t move in the right direction; on the contrary, no sooner did the words “cross out” come craftily into my head than my fountain pen began to secrete its spidery web onto the page.

Dream of Reason won’t be available until October, but you can pre-order copies from The Booksmith by clicking here.

26 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not sure how I missed this when it first came out, but this piece in the Independent is fascinating:

House sales have plunged, automobiles have tanked, and credit is throttled, but Spain is experiencing an unprecedented boom in books. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, Spaniards have become voracious readers, devouring more books than ever before.

Spain’s book trade has not only escaped the downturn afflicting the rest of the economy, but is spectacularly bucking the trend. Publishing houses say business last year broke all records, and they predict even better results for 2008. The sector was said to be euphoric [. . .]

Funny—“euphoric” is the last word that I would ever associate with publishers and/or any discussion of a nation’s reading habits. . . .

And these stats!

Even with the leap in literacy of recent years, Spaniards were slow to adopt the reading habit. Not so long ago, more than 50 per cent said they had never read a book, nor had one at home. Now 57 per cent claim to read regularly.

Everything about this stands in stark contrast to the situation here in the States, where Cody’s goes out of business and we’re constantly talking about the decline of readership . . .

28 November 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From The Guardian:

It is the book that Spaniards like to pretend they have read, though few really work their way through its two lengthy volumes. But now there is no excuse for not knowing the plot of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel Cervantes’ 17th-century epic: the first animated version of the novel to make it into the cinema opens across Spain next week.

Ummm . . . great. I mean, it’s a good thing that more people will be familiar with one of the greatest books ever written, especially if the cartoon is reasonably faithful to the book . . .

The adventures of Don Quixote may take up hundreds of pages in Cervantes’ classic, but the film’s producers have by necessity played fast and loose with the story in their adaptation. Squeezing the novel into 80 minutes, it gives starring roles to Don Quixote’s trusty steed, Rocinante, and Sancho Panza’s donkey, Rucio – who bears a striking resemblance to the donkey from the successful Shrek series, voiced by Eddie Murphy.

Damn. Maybe it’s absolutely fantastic . . . More than likely that’s another $20 million that could’ve been spent in a better way.

1 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen |

In selling literature in translation, there’s always a joke/fear that readers won’t pick up a book by an author whose name they can’t pronounce. Or if they do, that they’ll struggle dealing with names and places that are unfamiliar, with too many consonants, that are obviously foreign.

Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem has a similar, yet different problem—my guess is that most U.S. readers have no idea what “Malvinas” might signify, and although “Falkland Islands” might help clarify, the Falkland War is not something frequently studied in our not-very-top-notch public school system.

Which is a shame, since Fogwill’s book is quite remarkable, deserving of the Catch-22 comparison in the jacket copy, and a very interesting, literary “war book” that is both localized and universal in its themes.

Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the Falklands War was fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands. Argentina invaded in March, lost the war in June. About 250 Brits died in the war, and about 650 Argentines. What’s also worth noting—at least in regards to Argentina—is that this war fueled the growing protests against the Argentine military government, leading to its collapse.

Against this backdrop, Fogwill tells the story of the “dillos” (short for armadillo), a group of Argentine deserters who are living inside a cave, trading goods with both the British and Argentine armies, trying to survive the conflict.

Each newcomer was told: the Kings are in charge here, they’re the ones who started everything. The Sergeant started it all. The Sergeant had got together the Turk, Quique and Viterbo, when they began to dig the trenches. He had lined them up in front of him, grabbed them by the lapels, gave them a shaking, and asked:

‘Are you arseholes or what?’

‘Yessir!’

‘No! You lot aren’t arseholes, you lot are the smart ones. Are you smart?’ he’d screeched.

‘Yessir. Yes, Sergeant,’ the three replied.

‘Well then,’ the Sergeant said to them. ‘Here’s what you do. Go further up,’ he pointed at the mountain, ‘and dig there.’

He explained that the trenches were useless. Headquarters had designed them, drawn them on a map. He said that when it rained those trenches would flood, and that everyone would either drown or freeze like idiots, and that the smart ones should go and start digging in the mountainside, without a word to anyone.

The dillos, firmly established in their Warren, with a pack of smokes a day for everyone, and plenty of food (from giving away strategic info to the Brits), joke, talk politics, and create a livable community. But the war is always raging on in the background, and Fogwill has a tremendous ability for switching from more light, casual writing to something more jarring and violent. The use of the second-person in this passage works particularly well to disrupt the reader’s sense of comfort.

On the islands the sheep run and jump about more than the dogs do. They leap over a wire fence as if it were nothing to them: just raise their forelegs and jump. Now the human observes the sheep from a way off and thinks: ‘What a fucking stupid animal: the best it can manage is to run off!’ He carries on observing her for a while, having nothing better to do, while waiting for real night to close in, so he can return to the Warren. All of a sudden there’s a flash of light: boom! Beneath the sheep’s hooves lay a mine and when she trod on it, there was a blinding flash of fire as through the sun had suddenly risen. You could see the whole sheep suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe. She’s flying through the air, and it’s only then that the human, at the very same instant, hears the sound of a mine exploding, blown apart by the sheep.

And expanding from an individual act of random destruction is the group chaos:

When the other sheep—if there are any—hear this, and see what happened to their mate, they stampede in the opposite direction. Instead of remaining quietly on their own, they herd together, before all rushing off as one. That’s the big mistake, because as soon as the next flash of light occurs—meaning another landmine has gone off—another sheep flies into the air like a toy animal then disintegrates, and the ten or twelve other stupid sheep around her also jump and, too far from the explosion to be blown apart, still drop down dead with their muzzles flat on the ground, after struggling in vain to get up again.

In many ways, this is a nasty, disturbing book. The reader’s comfort is constantly provoked, building up to a rather horrifying conclusion. This is much more than a war novel though, and the construction of the novel is quite interesting. As the reader finds out towards the end, the author of the book is writing it based on tapes of conversations with the dillos. Which leads to an interesting artistic question—this novel first came out 1983 and was written right after the war, when there wasn’t a lot of widespread information about what had actually happened on the islands, yet according to others, Fogwill’s descriptions are remarkably accurate, and insightful, which is one of the reasons this book is credited with helping fan the anti-military fires in Argentina.

And today, twenty-five years later, the book is definitely still work reading. The translation is fantastic—Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson always do a wonderful job—and the book is interesting on so many levels, even if you have no idea where the Falkland Islands are located.

21 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This month (October I guess . . . seems like the Brits are jumping the gun a bit), the Guardian World Literature Tour will be talking about Spain.

So far, the recommendations are pretty straightforward—lot of love for Cela, Javier Marias, Juan Marse, Ramon Lllull, and Juan Goytisolo “if you like sheer weirdness.”

....
Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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