10 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Gwen Dawson, a long-time reader of international fiction who has contributed to Three Percent in the past, and used to run Literary License, a book review blog.



Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Austria, Archipelago Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 61%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%

I came to Angel of Oblivion without any understanding of the larger context surrounding the story. The phrase “Carinthian Slovenes” was meaningless to me, and I resisted the urge to resort to Google. Instead, I immersed myself in Maja Haderlap’s novel and paid close attention to the details, exactly the kind of reading this novel rewards.

The first-person narrative is told from the perspective of an unnamed girl, a girl who appears to be a close reflection of young Haderlap herself. Grandmother, Father, and Mother—relationships rather than names are emphasized here—play key supporting roles. Gradually, by slipping in details throughout the early chapters, Haderlap situates her story in the far south of Austria in the Province of Carinthia, bordering Italy and Yugoslavia (now present-day Slovenia). The girl and her family belong to the Slovene-speaking ethnic minority in the province. Since the founding of the First Austrian Republic in 1919, the Carinthian Slovenes have suffered prejudice and discrimination, and they were one of the non-Jewish groups sent to Nazi concentration camps during WWII.

Angel of Oblivion is part history lesson, part memoir, and part coming of age novel. As Haderlap mentioned in an interview a few years ago, this is “the forgotten story of the Slovene minority of Carinthia.” For most American readers, this book will fill a regrettable gap in their WWII knowledge. Far from a dry recitation of facts, though, Haderlap tells this history through the personal stories of her characters, many of which are based on real life events and family members.

The narrator is born into a community she describes as “confined by politics to history’s cellar, where they are besieged and poisoned by their own memories.” Indeed, almost all of the novel’s action takes place in the past, forming the basis of stories and memories. Grandmother survived a concentration camp, and Father joined the partisans, a resistance group that fought the Nazis on both sides of the Carinthia-Yugoslavia border. The most harrowing episodes in the novel involve these past experiences, and the girl’s childhood is spent steeped in her relatives’ recollections.

So pervasive is the past in this story that it takes on the force of an active character. The past menaces and knocks on doors and is dragged behind the girl “like a rickety wooden horse on wheels.” This is a past with violent intentions:

As I listen [to family stories], something collapses in my chest, as if a stack of logs were rolling away behind me, into the time before my time, and that time reaches out to grab me and I start to give in out of fascination and fear. It’s got hold of me, I think, now it’s here with me.

This sounds like something out of a horror story: A young girl pitted against a dark and evil force, her very survival hanging in the balance. This struggle and its outcome for the girl—i.e. Haderlap herself—is the focal point of the novel, which manages to be both exciting and suspenseful even though nothing much actually happens. The past fights against the future, the Slovenian language against the German, the traditional farming life against a more modern and educated city existence. I will not reveal the outcome of this epic battle here except to say that the language in which Haderlap chose to write her story is a good clue.

I cannot end this piece without also mentioning Haderlap’s lyrical prose and Tess Lewis’s gorgeous translation. Haderlap has written three books of poetry, and that gift for language helps to brighten and elevate this novel’s grim reality. This is a community decimated by the Nazi concentration camps and haunted by memories. Yet it is also a world where the girl and her mother “sit for hours in meadows of language and speak in the rhythm of rhymes” and where “the summer days have a glittering golden border and more of the color rubs off onto [the girl’s] skin every day.” Lewis’s translation preserves the poetry and honors the cadence of Haderlap’s prose.

If you need any more reasons to read this book, consider that it already won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachman Prize in Germany as well as the Prix du Premier Roman in France. For her translation, Tess Lewis won the Austrian Cultural Forum’s translation prize and the PEN Translation Prize. Add to that its place on this year’s long list for the Best Translated Book Award, and it is difficult to find another book as worthy of your close attention as Angel of Oblivion.

3 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by writer and translator Tess Lewis, who actually has one of her translations on the BTBA fiction longlist! (Angel of Oblivion, which recently won the PEN Translation Prize.)



Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 67%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 11%

To write the tomato, its flesh: the fruit’s flesh.
To write until it reddens to warm it with words.
So that, thus courted, warmth transforms into juice.
          “The Tomato,” Of Things

What is our place in the world? We are, after all, one thing among many.

The Austrian poet Michael Donhauser’s collection of poems Of Things is an extended meditation on the relation of language to the world and by extension, our place, as linguistic beings, in it. Mundane things like a thicket, a manure pile, a marigold, gravel, or a tomato gain an almost talismanic power as the poet tries to understand them by describing their appearances, the associations they evoke, their historical contexts.

For Donhauser, the web of observation, perception, and thought along with the attempt to put that tangle into words determine our relationship to the objects around us. Metaphors become epistemological tools. A thicket glimpsed on a walk one Sunday afternoon is an “extraordinary, that is, unkempt form of thought,” a “feast compressed into a simultaneity of dishes,” the “bas-relief of a confusion.” A manure pile is the meadow’s “concentration / Atomization, disintegration, accumulation” and a reflection of his poetic language: “When I write, I collect words into a heap of language that resembles the pile of manure; perhaps by way of the manure pile I’ll gain some clarity concerning the sky of Sunday, coming from the thicket.”

This all sounds rather heady but there is a sensuality to Donhauser’s poetry that grounds it firmly in the physical. A peach is an orgiastic fruit, “plump and soft . . . in a circle upon itself. / Divided by the seam into the buttocks.” Liquid manure is “a heavy wine. / It has a rich bouquet: a thick scent. / So thick that it appears to be solid.”

There is a lightness and agility, too, to Donhauser’s writing. The tentative, exploratory, movemented nature of his descriptions holds the attention. His sentences start, stop, begin again, double-back, and jump forward.

The gravel makes us:
With a little time it makes us aristocratic.
(No reason to hurry now: we’re walking among words.)
It makes us into aristocratic auditors of our steps.
Of our conversation, as we walk.
As we imitate the act of speaking.
(For we listen only to the words, the crunching, the gravel.)

Reading these things—Donhauser’s poems themselves and, through his eyes and mind, the things he describes—is like slipping into a tropical sea, warm and enveloping, and drifting along with the currents. You emerge with senses heightened, refreshed, perhaps even a bit bewildered, eager to examine the objects around you.

I’ll end where I began, with the tomato.

The tomato appears in the shadow of language.
As moon (once again): as monad.
Darkened: a silken coal ember.

22 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._

My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin and published by Seagull Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.

The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.

According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.

As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.

19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.

My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor.

12 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.

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters and published by Archipelago Books

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

For sheer narrative inventiveness and luxuriant delight in the seductive power of fiction, you can do no better than pick up a book by Eric Chevillard. Chevillard is one of France’s most mercurial and impish contemporary writers. He has written more than twenty idiosyncratic books that push Big Questions to absurd extremes and his Prehistoric Times is an intellectual roller coaster and fun house mirror gallery in one.

The unnamed narrator, an archeologist by training, was “derailed” by a fall while excavating a cave with dozens of Paleolithic paintings. He has been demoted to guardian and guide in the site, a position he is as unsuited to fill as the uniform that goes with it, his predecessor having been much shorter and fatter. In his meandering monologue, the narrator justifies his delay in taking up his duties despite increasingly menacing threats of dismissal.

The narrator’s reflections swing from the abstract to the concrete and back again. Sometimes his progress is logical, sometimes associative, but the connective tissue, Chevillard’s antic, slightly off-kilter, acrobatic prose, virtuosically rendered into English by Alyson Waters, makes the web of his thoughts seem inevitable and coherent even at its most absurd.

The size of his uniform’s cap leads the narrator to meditate on the genesis of thought and to formulate a series of hypotheses about how the shape of the skull might affect the quality of the thinking done in it. Would thoughts develop more freely in a dome-shaped brainpan or would they get lost or confused? Alternatively, would a turnip-shaped skull engender sharper, more focused thoughts or simply constrict them? Then he segues to recollections of his childhood, to wondering whether Homo Sapiens had usurped the place of more intelligent ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, to man’s need for rituals, to speculation on the aesthetic ideas of troglodyte painters and how imagination changes man’s relation to world. He zigzags over a great deal of territory, assuring the reader that he is not wasting time, though by now the reader feels as if he has been led by the nose in random circles and U-turns.

There is indeed a method to his meandering. His ruminations have all been preparation for his grand ambition, to create a work of art that will endure, like his beloved cave paintings, outside of recorded history. In Chevillard’s hands, the novel of ideas is as exhilarating as a metaphysical fairground. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.

6 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 Lair by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Oana Sanziana Marian and published by Yale University Press

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

“Next time I kill you, I promise. The labyrinth made of a single straight line which is invisible and everlasting. Yours truly, D. This Borgesian death threat, assembled from words cut out of the newspaper and sent to Peter Gaspar, an exiled Romanian professor in upstate New York, opens up the labyrinthine plot of Norman Manea’s novel, The Lair. In this elaborate, mysterious portrait of three exiles struggling to adapt to their adopted countries, nothing is what it seems and no lines are straight. The most serious threats are the unstated ones.

Augustin Gora was the first to leave Romania. Granted asylum while in the United States on a Fulbright, Gora was able to establish himself in academia with the help of an older eminent Romanian émigré, Cosmin Dima, a literary stand-in for Mircea Eliade. But Gora has withdrawn completely to his lair of books, his “cell of papyrus” where “the past is present and the present is an echo of the past.” To Gora’s surprise, his ravishing, inscrutable wife Lu had refused to leave Romania with him. When she does show up in America years later, after Ceacescu’s fall, it is with Gaspar, now her lover.

The three form an uneasy love triangle that is soon overshadowed by the cryptic threat. Against his better judgment, Gaspar reviewed Dima’s memoirs and exposed the “Old Man’s” fascist sympathies and support for the Iron Guard in the 1930s, a red rag to Romanian nationalists at home and abroad. Not long after, a fellow émigré and former disciple of Dima’s is shot dead and the threatening postcard arrives in Gaspar’s mail. Gaspar begins calling Gora obsessively, mulling over the possible significance of minute details. Former students are drawn into the investigation—perhaps suspects, perhaps innocent bystanders—as is campus security, the state police, and the FBI.

The Lair is by turns hypnotic, baffling, and intoxicating. It is a fascinating novel of ideas whose characters are on unsteady ground, having lost their footing in the Old World and not yet found an intellectual hold in the New.

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The recipients of this year’s PEN Translation Fund Awards were announced last week, and once again, a number of really interesting projects are highlighted—including a number that are still looking for a publishers . . .

For those unfamiliar with the prize, this was established in 2003 thanks to an anonymous gift of some $730,000 and every year ten or so translators receive $2,000-$5,000 for a project they are working on. These projects don’t need to have a publisher already, and since translators apply directly, the Fund receives approx. 130 applications each year. (Almost half as many applications as the number of translations published in the U.S. . . .)

Anyway, here are this year’s winners:

Eric Abrahamsen for My Spiritual Homeland by Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), a collection of penetrating, funny and breathtakingly frank essays written fifteen years after the Cultural Revolution by one of China’s most insightful and controversial writers. (No publisher)

Mee Chang for Garden of Youth (1981) by Oh Junghee, a series of powerful stories that center on the struggles of domestic life during the Korean War, by a writer widely recognized as the master of the Korean short story. (No publisher)

Robyn Creswell for The Clash of Images (1995) by Abdelfattah Kilito, a hybrid bildungsroman, written in French, set in the medina of an unnamed Moroccan city. Growing up in a traditional world where the image is taboo, the protagonist is seduced by new American technologies of the image. (No publisher)

Brett Foster for Elemental Rebel: The Rime of Cecco Angiolieri (1260-1310?), a selection of impudent sonnets by a Sienese rival of Dante with a penchant for parodic wordplay. (Forthcoming from Princeton University Press)

Geoffrey Michael Goshgarian for The Remnants by Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), a historical novel widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Armenian literature, written in the early 1930s “to save what remained of our people.” (No publisher)

Tess Lewis for That Didn’t Reassure the Children (2006) by Alois Hotschnig, a collection of disquieting stories about the mystery, fluidity and perils of intimacy, by a prize-winning Austrian writer renowned for his stylistic virtuosity. (No publisher)

Fayre Makeig for Mourning (2006), a selection of free verse poems by H.E. Sayeh, an eminent contemporary Iranian poet whose life and work span many of Iran’s political, cultural and literary upheavals. “Tell us, heaven, why the rain / pours from your eyes…” (No publisher)

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for Poems of Kabir, a selection of 60 Hindi padas (songs) by India’s legendary mystic poet saint (1398?-1448?) who opposed all religious and social orthodoxies and oppositions. “But I’m wasting my time, / Says Kabir, / Even death’s bludgeon / About to crush your head / Won’t wake you up.” (No publisher)

Frederika Randall for Deliver Us from Evil by Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007), a darkly original memoir, ordered by theme rather than chronology, set in rural Italy when the Church and Il Duce ruled. The savage immediacy of childhood perception combines with amused and astutely ironic insights in an unsentimental human comedy. (No publisher)

Daniel Shapiro for Missing Persons, Animals and Artists (1999) by Roberto Ransom, a short story collection by an acclaimed young Mexican writer which explores the enigmas of art and the creative process with gentle irony and whimsical, at times fantastical, premises. (No publisher)

Chantal Wright for A Handful of Water (2008), poems written in German by Tzveta Sofronieva, a young Bulgarian-born poet, trained as a physicist and science historian, who also writes in Bulgarian and English. Joseph Brodsky said of her, “Listen carefully… She has something to say.” (No publisher)

Congratulations to all the winners, and I’m especially pleased to see Tess Lewis, Eric Abrahamsen of Paper-Republic) and Daniel Shapiro of the Americas Society. The unsigned books on this list usually find a publisher within days, so it’s possible this is already out of date . . . Which is great for the translators and authors, and means that I really have to get moving on contacting the right people about the projects that sound most interesting to me . . .

....
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