Total broken record moment, but if you haven’t subscribed to the Publishing Perspectives daily newsletter, you definitely should. The pieces are always interesting, and very well done.
Anyway, a couple months back I was planning on writing a long piece on Turkish fiction coming out this year, including Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, Orhan Kemel’s The Idle Years, and two Selçuk Altun titles, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Many and Many a Year Ago. I had a hard time getting into Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, then got distracted with other things, and then and then it’s suddenly the middle of August . . .
But today’s piece in Publishing Perspectives has remotivated me (is this even a word?) to take a look at the latest Altun book.
As Ed Nawotka writes in his article, Altun’s an interesting guy. He’s served on the board of YKY (Yapi Kredi Publications), one of Turkey’s largest publishers, and was was chairman of Yapi Kredi Bank until he retired at the age of 54 to become a writer. He paid to have his first book translated into English, working under the (mostly correct) assumption that once it was in English there was a much better chance of getting it translated into a bunch of other languages.
That’s all cool (and noble—his book earnings fund three scholarships!), but it’s the book itself that sounds intriguing to me:
Many and Many a Year Ago concerns a young Turkish fighter pilot who, after crashing his F-16, is set up with a generous stipend and an apartment in Istanbul’s Taksim district. In return, the convalescing daredevil must undertake a series of mysterious missions following in the footsteps of American writer Edgar Allen Poe, taking him from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, and beyond. Eventually, he arrives at Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.
“It is part literature and part travel book, a little bit of Paul Auster and Bruce Chatwin,” says Altun. “It is a Sheherezade-like reading experience in that there’s a chain of eight stories within stories. Poe was himself a very rich character, though financially poor. He was polyglot, he had dreams, and if he had money he would have lived his life in a rich way, so what I tried to do was imagine what the life of a post-modern, well-off Poe would have been like.”
I’ve got a stack of “to be reviewed” titles going already, but this is moving quickly toward the top . . . Speaking of which, we’re always looking for more book reviewers, so if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.
Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.
Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:
I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.
Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”
And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]
I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk. . .Read More...
Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. . .Read More...
For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. (Hungary, Telegram)
This novel is the international traveler’s worst nightmare. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but who gets off the plane to find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize, where he doesn’t understand the language and where no one can understand him.
Budai’s struggles to find his way home—or at least out of this incomprehensible country—are claustrophobic and unnerving. The concept of being helplessly stuck in a situation where you can’t even figure out how to read the simplest of signs, and where no one can help you seems to me to be the worst situation an intelligent adult could ever be stuck in. And for this situation to persist—and remain compelling to the reader—for over 200-pages, with Budai making small intellectual advances that are followed by new situations of complete bafflement is quite an accomplish. A sort of insane, Kafka-esque accomplishment that may well drive some readers crazy, but an accomplishment nonetheless.
G. O. Chateaureynaud claimed that “with time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.“ The Kafka connection is obvious and mentioned in every review of this book, including Monica Carter’s review of Metropole will go live later today, and which does a fantastic job of capturing the reader’s somewhat horrifying experience of being trapped with Budai:
And so it goes with Budai, a horrific stream of missed opportunities that lead to deeper isolation. And as readers, we are just as trapped as he is. The long, unsettling paragraphs of description we cannot turn away from because Karinthy leads us to believe that there might be hope just on the other side of the page. But there never is. We want so much to help Budai, help him find a way out, all the while being disconcerted that we know we would not fare any better in the same situation. We know that if he does not escape this city he will run out of money, which he does. We know that he will lose his hotel room because of this, which he does. We know that he will not get his passport back annihilation any chance of escape, which he doesn’t. We feel just as isolated and suffocated as Budai caught in an existential urban nightmare where we merely exist, but don’t matter.
Written in 1970 and considered a modern classic in Europe, it is difficult to avoid comparing Karinthy to Kafka. It is, in fact, inevitable. Budai suffers humiliation, isolation, homelessness, loss of motivation, intellectual atrophy, brief imprisonment, loneliness that leads to lapses in his own morality, yet we never get to the apex of horror. Instead we drudge along on his degrading journey of imminent failures waiting for a moment of absolute despair or absolute hope. Because we never get either and so we encounter, ourselves, a sense of failure.
This is the first of Ferenc Karinthy’s (or, more properly, Karinthy Ferenc’s) books to be translated into English. Some brief info about a few of his other works is available on the Hungarian Literature website. (Though to be honest, none of the other works sound nearly as ambitious or unique as Metropole.)
Ferenc—who was, in addition to being a writer, a water polo champion—was the son of famous Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Frigyes is very well-known and respected in Hungary, and was the first proponent of the “six degrees of separation” concept. Which I believe is why he’s mentioned in the “book club extra” on the Lost Season 3 DVD . . . (As a sidenote, Frigyes’s Journey Around My Skull was recently reprinted by New York Review Books.)
On another side note, searching for additional information about Ferenc lead me to translator George Szirtes’s blog, which I didn’t know existed. Based solely on the quality of Szirtes’s translations—not the mention the quality of the authors he translates—this is definitely worth checking out.
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