In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm and simple until the appearance of their neighbors’ cat, Chibi. Warmth and caring slowly seep into their relationship, with each other and with Chibi, due to the cat’s appearance. Gradually their lives change in subtle yet impactful ways. Finding out they have to leave their home coincides with an abrupt end to Chibi’s visits, and suddenly their newly established lifestyle is in disarray. The narrator describes his life experiences, relationships, and surroundings with simple clarity and beautiful awareness. At one point, as an attempted distraction from loss, the narrator immerses himself in a book on geometry and his reflection on this tactic illustrates his voice throughout the novel:
But perhaps I had embarked on this line of thought merely to distract myself from my own anger and grief. It’s not as if I was actually prepared to waste my time attempting to perform triangular surveying. I was merely seeking comfort in the thought that something as serenely transparent as an ancient surveying method might be applicable to this place of loss and bewilderment where I now found myself.
Having published numerous books of poetry, Hiraide’s poetic experience shines through in his prose as well. His language is gentle and deliberate, pulling the reader in with meticulous details, a style that fits perfectly with the generally peaceful course of the characters’ lives. While focused on one clear plotline, Hiraide’s storytelling, translated to English by Eric Selland, incorporates smaller transformations and events along the way that give The Guest Cat even more depth. The narrator’s description of fate at the beginning foreshadows the set up of the novel, both stylistically and contextually:
As it surges forward people flee, but ultimately they succumb to the water’s momentum. Nothing—no one escapes.
Living beings, in turning a corner, or in producing the movements required to enter the crack in a certain partially opened door, are endowed with certain properties, something which produces its own little river. These daily movements are repeated, and a certain tendency—a certain current if you will—is generated. Then this minor current, because it is a current, must at some point flow into a larger river.
The seemingly minor subplots of Hiraide’s The Guest Cat merge throughout the novel to create a forceful narrative that will captivate any reader.
Along with about, well, everyone else in the northeast, I’m snowed into my apartment today, so instead of answering the phones at Open Letter (HA! no one ever calls us), I’m at home, working on our forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, and, as a break of sorts, I thought I’d put together our monthly list of books worth checking out. (For past versions, including one with a rant about my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind group, just click here.)
For the past few years, every December/January, we’ve been posting a series of “Best of the Year!” podcasts—on fiction, on nonfiction, on movies, on music (my personal favorite podcast)—along with resolutions about what Open Letter/Three Percent/me personally would like to accomplish in the forthcoming year. (See last year’s post in which my number 1 resolution was to “Drink more mimosas!” Speaking of, it is a snow day, I do have some left over booze . . . )
Over the next few weeks, we’ll probably maybe get right back on that. I hesitate only because I’ve read around about 10 million year end lists over the past few weeks, each of which was, by necessity, incomplete and incapable of addressing its incompleteness and the biases underpinning that. (I even read this article about Largehearted Boy’s “List of Year End Lists.”) Thanks to Facebook and the success of all those awful click-driven, shitty websites named in this article on The Year We Broke the Internet, social media exposes us every moment of every day to absurd list after absurd list.
Which isn’t just annoying, but in the opinions of some (self included), pretty much a horrible thing for the world as a whole. (For more on Morozov, I highly recommend checking out this profile. And he lost 100 lbs on a rowing machine watching European art-house films? That’s the exercise regime I need to sign up for.)
But there’s something so compelling about seeing information in this way . . . It’s like numbered, or at least ordered, compilations of information tap right into the reptilian part of our brain and spew out all the morphine feelings. Jason Diamond’s ridiculous Top 10 List of Literary Snobs? I MUST HAVE IT. And hey look! I’m number 3!! WEEE!!
At the same time, we live in a world of way too much information. As awesome as this seems to techno-utopians, it’s pretty much fucking up our brains. (Obviously, that’s the scientific conclusion.) As I sit here, at my kitchen table, I have 20 tabs open on my browser—ranging from information about car batteries to Facebook to The Guardian’s ‘definitive’ list of 1000 books to read to Pitchfork’s list of upcoming albums to ESPN’s Soccer section—Spotify is playing one of the 596 tracks I pulled out as my “favorites of 2013,” to go along with the 5,000 more from 2010 onwards, and I’m staring right into my “to read” bookshelf (not to be confused with the “already read” and “probably going to die before I get there” bookshelves) that has 103 titles on it. And, no surprise, in between sentences, I’m getting my ass kicked at Words With Friends by both Tom Roberge and Steven Rosato. There’s too much going on.
None of which is news to anyone.
And like a lot of people, one of my personal resolutions for 2014 is to fuck as much of this shit as I can and live in the real world for more than 15 minutes at a time without checking Twitter for the latest witty hashtag meme (#AddAWordRuinAMovie) or international football scores. OK, that’s going too far. Football scores are still allowed.
I don’t want to just do my “old man screaming at the goddamn trees to get off his yard” rant though. The thing is, I kind of can’t live without all this stuff. Professionally. Without blog culture, I would never have “published” anything. Without email and Facebook and the rest of it, only a handful of people would ever have heard of Open Letter’s books.
What I wonder is if there’s a better, more effective way of providing readers with useful information. I started these monthly overviews because a) I wanted to pull out and highlight books that could get lost in somewhat overwhelming Translation Database and b) I wanted to make jokes.
This time of year always makes me a bit reflective . . . Not to mention that I take all of this a little too personally (result of being almost 40, having worked in this thankless business for 12-plus years, and chronic self-doubt) and get totally bummed when not a single Open Letter book shows up on the Quarterly Conversation Favorite Reads of 2013 lists. (SPOILER ALERT: All you’ll find behind that link is The Most Experimental Dalkey Archive Books and Seiobo There Below.)
For now, I’m not sure if there’s a better way to provide readers with information on forthcoming translations. My current mix of jokes and titles is probably not smarmy enough to go viral, and not smart enough to serve as a legitimate place to check for recommendations. (Surprise! Three Percent is not the Times Literary Supplement.) I’ll keep thinking about it over the course of the year though, and hopefully along the way we’ll provide some interesting recommendations. (And starting next month maybe we’ll say something about the books themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the listicle sites, it’s that content is totally and utterly irrelevant.)
And with that, I’m ready to announce Resolution #1: No More Writing about BuzzFeed/Flavorwire and the Reasons They Annoy Me. Down with lists and resolutions! Long live lists and resolutions!
The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus)
Resolution #2: Write More Reviews.
Every year I make the same promise—to do more reviewing—and then fail miserably. Out of the 112 books I read last year, I wrote reviews of what, four? Five? That’s pathetic. My goal is at least two a month, preferably three. And The Light and the Dark will be one of these.
(Although when I do review this, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that there is a LOT of bad blood between me and Quercus, over Shishkin’s work in particular. And thank god Shish got himself a new agent. Read into that all you will.)
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)
Resolution #3: Sell a Lot More Books.
So, here’s some breaking news for everyone: As of June 1st, Open Letter will be distributed by Consortium. This is fantastic news for everyone involved. This should make it easier for us to get our books into East Coast and Midwest stores (the West Coast has been doing great by us, thanks to George Carroll’s efforts), and frees up some time for us to work at promoting our books.
Aside from the practical reasons for joining up with Consortium, I’m really excited to be in with a group of great publishers like And Other Stories and BOA Editions and Copper Canyon, and Dzanc, and others. Feels like the place that we should’ve been all along . . .
Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Resolution #4: Create a Special Series for the World Cup.
George Carroll announced our forthcoming World Cup of Books at Shelf Awareness today, which means it’s definitely going to happen. I’ll be posting more specifics in the not-too-distant future, but if you’re interested in helping contribute, please let me know. (Really looking for people well-versed in the literature of the qualifying countries with fewer books available in America.)
Seeing that Croatia took out my beloved Iceland—which would’ve been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup—this seems like an appropriate book under which to announce our little contest.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland (New Directions)
Resolution #5: Read One Book from Every World Cup Qualifying Country.
Following up on #4, this seems like a great way to combine my interests in soccer and literature . . . Not sure The Guest Cat will be the book I read from Japan, but it does feature a cat and we all know that cats sell. I know there’s no way ND would ever put together a cute cat video compilation to promote this books, but, seriously, cats sell. This poster is pretty much the only reason so many students sign up for my spring class:
Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (New Directions)
Resolution #6: Make September A Thousand Forests in One Acorn Month.
This anthology—edited by Valerie Miles—features 28 Spanish-language authors, including a lot of “Big Name” writers like Fuentes, Marias, Vargas Llosa, Vila-Matas and the like, and twelve that have never before appeared in English. What’s unique about this collection is that each piece is prefaced by an interview with the author in which s/he explains why s/he chose this particular story/excerpt as a representative of his/her “aesthetic high point” and also talks about his/her influences, etc. So, for the month of September, every day we’ll run either an excerpt from one of the interviews, or a bit from a previously untranslated story. Stay tuned—this is an incredible collection and you’re going to love the shit out of these pieces.
The Interior Landscape by A. K. Ramanujan, translated from the Tamil by the author (New York Review Books)
Resolution #7: Expand My Reading Horizons.
In a little while, I’m going to post a list of all the books I read in 2013. This is kind of pointless, but since I kept track of the titles and what languages they were originally written in, I can confirm that, out of the 111 books I read last year only 27 were by authors from courtries outside of Europe and North & South America. And that includes the 16 Korean titles I read for the LTI Korea—most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. So, to be honest, less that 10% of the books I read last year were from India, the Middle East, Africa, Asian, etc. . . . That’s kind of sad. I want to do better with that this year.
1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Resolution #8: Create Some Sort of Translator Love Month.
Way back when, Erica Mena and I interviewed a bunch of translators at ALTA Pasadena (in 2009??) and posted all of these on Three Percent. As an advocate for translators, I think we really should do this more often, like, maybe in October, to correspond with the publication of A Man Between: The Life and Teachings of Michael Henry Heim, we could have a month of short interviews highlighting the most interesting and talented translators working today. You know, people like Linda Coverdale.
This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Open Letter)
Resolution #9: More Self-Promotion.
This is probably my depression talking, but it seems like for the past few years, we’ve been talking up all sorts of interesting and fantastic projects and books, but receiving very little love in return. As a result, I’m going to take extra efforts to make sure that we get a lot of info about our new books up on Three Percent and elsewhere.
Starting with this year’s first release, the short story collection, “This Is the Garden”: by Giulio Mozzi and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. It’s a great collection, and one that includes angel dong. Seriously. Come for the angel dong, and stay for the beautiful prose!
All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Griasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon (Other Press)
Resolution #10: Post at Least Once a Day.
When things get busy, it’s really easy to just skip posting for a day, which then becomes two . . . three . . . a week. Thankfully, Kaija has been keeping the site going with lots of book reviews (thanks to all of you!), but I’m going to make a dedicated effort to install a Five Day Plan mixing book posts, with industry posts, with links to other interesting articles.
The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive)
Resolution #11: Launch Open Letter After Dark.
I’m keeping most of this under wraps for now, but sometime soon, I hope we’ll have some exciting news . . .
Have a great 2014!
Just more than two months after the longlist, we are proud to reveal the winners of the 2009 Best Translated Book Award (click here to download the official press release). The announcement was made tonight at a special award party that took place at Melville House Books in Brooklyn, and was hosted by author and critic Francisco Goldman.
For fiction, the award goes to Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein and published by Archipelago Books.
Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.
In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.
And on the poetry end of things, the award goes to For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu and published by New Directions.
Here are a couple sample pieces from the book:
8. Continuous thoughts of packaging ice. No matter what I write it melts, even the address. If and when it arrives, that person will be gone.
17. The radiant subway again. Today, too, in this still-radiant subway, small white explosions occur here and there. They are the sounds of our joints popping, the sound of an all-too-convenient despair fading away. The walls collapse, and the birds of the earth, now without hesitation, begin transporting their nests so as to set them into these daily-renewed explosions.
35. “Up ahead, difficulty.”
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .