20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

The Misters tend to think like this, taking a roundabout approach to get to a strikingly obvious (if not entirely realistic) conclusion, in so few words from Tavares that the simplicity of the writing adds punch to the simplicity of the thought. Mister (Paul) Valéry, for instance, another denizen of the neighborhood, wears a black shoe on the right foot and a white shoe on his left foot. Upon being told that his shoes are “switched” he puts a white shoe on his right foot and a black shoe on his left foot. When he is told again that his shoes are switched, he determines that this must be wrong, since if it was incorrect the first time and he reversed it, it must now be correct, since the inverse is the opposite of the wrong original, making it right. With this in mind, he no longer worries about whether his shoes are on the correct feet—so long as they are the opposite of their inverse, they’re fine.

Now, it took me as many almost as many words to explain that chapter (“The Shoes”) as it took Tavares to write it. That is the beauty of his writing, Roopanjali Roy’s translation, and of this book itself: the simplicity of the ideas mirrored in the simplicity of the writing. The style seems like it belongs in a book for children (it reminded me pretty strongly of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth), its language simple and straight to the point, creating an entertaining counterpoint to the absurdity of the content. In his introduction, Philip Graham mentions that his eleven year old daughter and her class in school loved Tavares’ writing: “I was mightily impressed by how even young children could be moved by Tavares’ writing, even though they certainly didn’t have a clue who Juarroz,Valéry, or the others might be.”

This is where I get a little uneasy. Based on everything else mentioned above, I want to say that I loved the book—and I did like it a lot—but I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to because, like Graham’s daughter, Hannah, I didn’t have a grasp on who the models for the Misters really were. And unlike those children, while I found the stories were enjoyable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing glaringly obvious references to the Misters’ philosophical views or prevalent themes in their works, which kept me slightly uncomfortable for the duration of the book. That being said, the pathological need to know ALL OF THE BACKGROUND!!!! before I go into reading something is a long-standing personal hang-up of mine, and perhaps because of that this book wasn’t the best way to introduce me to Tavares’ writing. I wish that I could have enjoyed it the way that those children did, but I was nagged the entire time by that feeling of missing something, and I’m sad to say that it diminished my potential enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I went into this book expecting the wrong things, but that’s not to say that I was disappointed. On the contrary, the project that Tavares underwent in creating the stories and the characters in The Neighborhood is staggering both in terms of its inception and its execution; the entire project had thirty-nine total inhabitants squished into Caiano’s map by the time that this translated collection went to press, all famous figures repurposed by Tavares’ clever hand. The short stories are enjoyable in their absurdity and profundity, simultaneously provoking smiles and making the reader think, “That’s ridiculo– wait, uh, actually . . . that kind of makes sense. I think.” Perhaps for people like me who need to know everything going in, this book is not ideal, but for someone who’s familiar with Italo Calvino, Paul Valéry, Roberto Juarroz, Robert Walser, Karl Kraus, or Henri Michaux and can appreciate the homages to them (or a reader who is able and content to just take the stories as they are) The Neighborhood is a delightful collection from one of Portugal’s most striking modern literary talents.

20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on The Neighborhood by Gonçalo Tavares, from Texas Tech University Press.

Hannah is one of our Open Letter interns this summer (and a recent student of Chad’s), and in addition to helping copy edit manuscripts, keeping the mail situation in check, reading submissions, and patiently ducking as we test the new darts for the office dartboard, she’ll also be contributing to the Three Percent reviews during her stay with us.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

For the rest of the review, go here.

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Pierce Alquist on Manuela Fingueret’s Daughter of Silence, which is translated from the Spanish by Darrell B. Lockhart and is available from Texas Tech University Press.

This is Pierce’s first review for threepercent. Pierce is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Journalism and Anthropology. She has interned at various publishing companies, with publications ranging from magazines to academic works, and now translated literature. After studying abroad this past semester at Oxford she is happy to return to her native Rochester.

Here is part of her review:

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

Click here to read the entire review.

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

A space for the abused and desperate. Peronism was the ideal place in which to orient those feelings. The Peronism of passion, of mysticism, of marginalization, of prominence. Jew and Peronist. Peronist and Jew. Woman, Jew, and Peronist. A triple provocation. The stories of concentration camps that I tried to decipher between books and whispers among family members became an undeniable obsession. All the barriers that Tinkeleh put in place with her silence made my journey inevitable. (78)

Fingueret’s prose captures Rita’s desperate, winding thoughts as she navigates her imprisonment and clings to her memories to maintain her sanity. In her rapidly declining state, however, she finds solace in piecing together her mother’s unspoken memories of the Holocaust. Whether this imagined world is healthy or another tax on her already damaged mental state is left undiscussed, but Rita uses these imagined memories to connect to her mother and other resilient women, etching their names on her cell walls for inspiration.

Rita’s story is told through fragments, becoming increasingly disorienting as her abuse escalates. In any lesser author’s hands, this disorientation would merely result in a reader’s confusion but Fingueret instead artfully references Rita’s fragile mental state, with the spaces between the text, the silence, telling more of Rita’s struggle than her words alone. Rita herself is insightfully portrayed, surrounded by the impassioned idealism of the Peronists around her, and struggling to connect with a distant, silent mother, she discovers in prison the deeper similarities between herself, Tinkeleh, and generations of other women, forced into the bind of silence and obedience but driven to survive.

The novel ends uncertainly, as Rita is transferred from her prison, defiantly looking at the blank expanse of her future:

I stretch my body across the void. I see a lot, I hear too much, I file and file, thousands of voices, ages, hair colors, professions, addresses: Auschwitz in Buenos Aires. These women console me. They know as well as I do where this train is headed. Did I get off at the wrong station? I have no regrets. (147)

Despite its difficult subject matter, the book concludes with some remnants of hope, as Rita’s resilience stands as a testament to the strength and will to survive of generations of women. The deep unsettling connections allow Fingueret to create a wholly new Argentinean novel, exploring the relationship between Judaism and Latin America, women and their tradition of silence, and ultimately calling for a clearer understanding of the nature of history.

5 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.

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar, translated by Thomas O. Beebee

Language: Portuguese

Country: Brazil
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press

Why This Book Should Win: Texas Tech’s “The Americas” series has been quietly putting together a fantastic list of Latin American authors, and this would thrust them (deservedly) into the spotlight. Plus, Scliar died last year, and for some reason that makes me feel like he deserves some special recognition.

Kafka’s Leopards is a short (96 page) novella that happens to be one of the most entertaining books on this year’s longlist. It centers around the character of Mousy, who, when he was growing up near Odessa in the early part of the twentieth century, got involved with a group of Trotskyites, mainly through the influence of his radical friend Yossi. (As you do. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to participate in a revolution?)

In fact, Yossi had met THE Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky had entrusted him carrying out a secret radical act. But when Yossi comes down with a terrible illness, he asks Mousy to stand in for him, and travel to Prague where he’s to meet a revolutionary writer who will give him a message that will explain what he’s supposed to do next.

Anyway, novella-length story short, Mousy loses all the necessary information on the train (revolutionaries are so disorganized) and tries to puzzle out what he’s supposed to do. Which leads him to calling up a one Franz Kafka and asking for the text.

Lots of mistaken identity mishaps ensue, but Mousy is eventually given Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” aphorism which he believes he’s supposed to interpret in order to fulfill his mission. In a slick move that draws attention to the situation of translation in an interesting way, Mousy can’t read this and takes it to a old Jewish man at a synagogue who interprets it for him:

He outlined the story in Yiddish. Mousy learned that the leopards broke into the temple and drank the contents of the sacrificial chalices to the last drop; that this was repeated so often that in the end everyone knew it would happen, and that finally the scene became part of the ritual.

Naturally, more mishaps occur, and the adventure-story aspect explodes as Mousy tries to makes sense of this aphorism in a way that connects the text with the city of Prague with the Russian Revolution. Told with a deftness that is both sincere and light with comedy, this part of the novella is extremely fun to read, and must’ve been fun to translate as well. (Goes without saying, seeing that this award focuses on the “best translations,” but Thomas Beebee’s translation is very admirable, mostly for the way in which he emphasizes the sort of joyful, playful tone that runs throughout this book of constant failures.)

To make this more interesting, it’s worth nothing that Mousy’s story is really only the subplot . . . The novella has a frame narrative involving one of Mousy’s relatives, and their revolutionary troubles in 1965.

For such a quick, enjoyable read, there are a lot of levels to this novella that make it a rich, rewarding work. I’ll let Thomas Beebee explain via this bit from his wonderful introduction:

In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to The Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly take by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted.

On top of all these serious reasons for why this book should win, it’s also a beautiful edition, and Irene Vilar—who edits the whole series—is a wonderful advocate for international literature: two more valid reasons why we could be crowning this book as the 2012 champion on May 4th.

12 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press in Thomas Beebee’s translation from the Brazilian Portuguese.

As Lily recommends in her review, you should definitely read this piece by Thomas Beebee and then read this preview of the book. Scliar is one of the past century’s best writers, and it’s awesome that Texas Tech is making more of his work available to American readers.

Click here to read Lily’s piece on this short novel.

12 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I was going to write a review of Kafka’s Leopards by the recently deceased Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar, and then I got around to reading the piece that translator Thomas Beebee wrote for us on Scliar, his writings, and Kafka’s Leopards and realized that there was not much enlightenment that I could offer on any of these topics that Thomas had not already covered. So I come to you today, humbly, from a place of little knowledge, and suggest that you read Thomas’s wonderful piece on all things surrounding Kafka’s Leopards and then go ahead and read the book itself.

Running at under 100 pages, Kafka’s Leopards tells the story of Mousy, the logistics of which you can basically read from start to finish on the back of the book, but which is told with much more love on the part of Scliar. In brief, Mousy is a Brazilian Jew who is summoned to carry out a plot on the part of Trotsky which involves going to Prague and receiving and decoding a text. Mousy manages to mess this up and instead ends up with a short text from Franz Kafka himself, concerning leopards.

Mousy is a sympathetic character who can fall in love with a woman from a smile, and who is fiercely dedicated to the ideals of the Communist movement, but in whose whole life there is but this one seminal anecdote which overwhelms with its intrigue and its hijinks. This is the story of that anecdote, and its brief return to the limelight later in Mousy’s life.

Quite frankly, there is no reason not to read this book. Scliar entertains and moves the readers as much as he may perhaps dwell on the idea of the transmission of messages, the interpretation of texts (read Beebee’s piece for more on this!). He is never heavy-handed, and in fact, handles the character of Mousy as gently as such a character must be handled. We can practically feel the sweat beading on Mousy’s forehead, the warm heat building with anxiety, as well as the pride that swells up within him when he has carried out part of his mission correctly, or so he believes. Scliar writes to a perfect length, not letting the story going any longer or shorter than is necessary; and in the interest of not exceeding the book in length, I will simply conclude that reading this book was a pleasure and I would highly recommend it as a quick end-of-summer read.

11 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In support of this week’s Read This Next title—Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar—translator Thomas Beebee wrote this essay about the man and the novel:

The extended European setting of Kafka’s Leopards is adventuresome for Scliar, but Kafka’s Leopards is a frame-tale connecting Porto Alegre in 1965, Brazil’s southernmost metropolis, with Bessarabia and Prague in 1917. Scliar’s depictions of the Jewish-Brazilians of Porto Alegre have repeatedly emphasized the transatlantic connection between Old World and New that we see in this text as well. The author himself has categorized much of his fiction as belonging to the “literature of immigration.” The title story of the collection A Balada do Falso Messias (The Ballad of the False Messiah) opens with two Russian Jews conversing on board the steamer that is carrying them to Brazil, expressing their relief at no longer having to fear annihilation in a pogrom. Benjamin Kantorovitch, the protagonist of Kafka’s Leopards who moves from the Old World to the New, and his family could be on the same ship; they are certainly fleeing the same set of circumstances.

Brazilian prose fiction has been shaped by authors who write about their own region or city: Machado de Assis for Rio de Janeiro, José Lins do Rego and Rachel de Queiroz for the Northeast, Jorge Amado for Bahia, João Guimarães Rosa for Minas Gerais, Márcio Souza for the Amazon, João Almino for Brasília, Érico Veríssimo for the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, and Moacyr Scliar for Porto Alegre, the largest conurbation of that state and one that has welcomed many immigrants, including European Jews. In one sense, Scliar fit the regionalist mold, setting many of his longer texts in the Porto Alegre neighborhood of Bom Fim, where he himself had grown up as the son of immigrants from Russia. And that focus on his Jewish neighborhood made Scliar the first Brazilian author to give the life of Jews in Brazil a central place in his fiction. Like Amado and Guimarães Rosa, Scliar added elements of magic realism to many of the events he wrote about, but he owed these techniques more to the work of Franz Kafka than to precursors in Brazil or Latin America. Allusions to, and even direct citations of, the Czech-Jewish author’s work abound in Scliar’s fiction, culminating in the appearance of Kafka as a central character in Kafka’s Leopards. Before embarking on these portrayals, Scliar studied medicine and continued to work most of his adult life for the government health services of Brazil—again, something of a parallel with Kafka, who worked for an insurance company during the day and wrote through the night. Not surprisingly, the body and its ailments figure in many of Scliar’s works. The interior monologue of the aging protagonist of The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes (A Estranha Nação de Rafael Mendes) begins with an assessment of his bladder. Naturally, in Kafka’s Leopards the tuberculosis of Franz Kafka, one of the great invalids of world literature, receives a telling description from the knowing perception of another Jew, a resident of one of the Russian shtetls that were the origin of many who eventually settled in Bom Fim. In Kafka’s Leopards, tuberculosis becomes a bond between Yiddish-speaking Benjamin “Mousy” Kantorovitch from the Bessarabian shtetl and the sophisticated, German-speaking urban Jew Franz Kafka:

“Kafka looked at him fixedly. Suddenly he started coughing. A small, dry cough, subdued but persistent, alarming. Mousy shivered. He knew that cough: it indicated, he knew this for sure, tuberculosis—the specter that joined the pogroms in terrorizing Jewish villages. Kafka did not live in a village, but he had all the markings of a victim: the thinness, the pallor, the cheeks colored slightly red. In addition to the cold of the frigid little house that couldn’t be good for a tubercular. An immense sorrow took hold of Mousy, the same sorrow as would possess his mother if she were in his shoes: you’re sick, Kafka, very sick, that cough is not a laughing matter, it’s not a fiction, it’s tuberculosis.”

[. . .]

In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth About Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to the Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly taken by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted. Kafka, we might say, is also as disguised for Mousy, as he was for many of his Prague colleagues and contemporaries, almost none of whom recognized him as a literary genius: only decades later does Mousy realize that he was lucky enough to receive a text from one of the giants of world literature. In Brazil, the material text given to Mousy by Kafka becomes an object of exchange, as Mousy urges his fugitive nephew Jaime to sell it to an antiquarian in São Paulo, and a sacrificial object devoured by the leopard-like chief of police in exchange for Jaime’s freedom. In his study of the puzzling relationship between writing and secrecy, Frank Kermode uses Kafka’s parable to illustrate the paradoxical and unstable difference between “insiders”—those with a special status or knowledge that enables them to grasp the hidden meaning of a text—and clueless “outsiders.” The leopards represent the penetrative aspect of hermeneutic interpretation, the temple the reserve of meaning that the cryptic text always holds in reserve. The leopards are able to “break open” or “divide the word” of the text—except for the fact that they have now become part of it. Outsiders become insiders become outsiders again. Such is the alternation of blindness and insight in Scliar’s novella.

Click here to read the whole piece. And click here to preview Kafka’s Leopards.

9 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week at Read This Next we’re featuring Kafka’s Leopards, a short book by celebrated and prolific Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar that’s translated from the Portuguese by Thomas Beebee and forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press.

This book is one of strange misunderstandings, attributions of vital meaning to coincidence, that create the central story of interest in the protagonist’s life. Mousy is a tailor who always insists on cutting left sleeves a little shorter so that it is easier to read a wristwatch, much to the chagrin of his customers. Entrusted with a secret mission, one originally issued by Trotsky himself, Mousy heads out to Prague and bumbles his way into the life of Franz Kafka.

Fittingly, this title originally caught the eye of translator Thomas Beebee as he was looking through a shelf Portuguese books and glimpsed Kafka’s name on one of the spines. This week we have an introduction to the novel from Beebee himself, and a full review on Friday.

In case you’re not familiar with Scliar already, here’s a link to his obituary, which includes reference to the whole “Max and the Cats” and “Life of Pi” controversy:

‘‘Max and the Cats,’‘ about a Jewish youth who flees Nazi Germany on a ship carrying wild animals to a Brazilian zoo and, after a shipwreck, ends up sharing a lifeboat with a jaguar, achieved fame twice over. Critically praised on its publication in 1981, it touched off a literary storm in 2002 when the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for ‘‘Life of Pi,’‘ about an Indian youth trapped on a boat with a tiger.

Mr. Martel’s admission that he borrowed the idea led to an impassioned debate among writers and critics on the nature of literary invention and the ownership of words and images.

“In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me,’‘ Mr. Scliar told The New York Times. ‘‘An idea is intellectual property.”

I hesitate to even mention that, since it would be much better if Scliar were known in this country for his great works—The Centaur in the Garden, The War in Bom Fim—than this controversy. But it is kind of interesting, and it’s always fun to besmirch overrated novels . . .

Anyway, click here to read the beginning of Mousy’s trip to Prague and the misfortune that begins the whole jumbled series of events.

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.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint. Toscana’s cleverly created characters, one bound to please and the other to disappoint, ultimately challenge the reader’s surface-level assumptions. Also challenging is Toscana’s stream-of-consciousness prose, translated by Asa Zatz. The novel does not employ quotation marks to distinguish between dialogue and the other text. This forces readers to tread carefully, especially when Lucio offers everyone direct quotes from his favorite books. As with many of the challenges and frustrations in Toscana’s book, this device serves a bigger purpose, eliminating the distance between Lucio’s total obsession with the fictional world and the readers’ own blind acceptance of Toscana’s words.

Thus, Toscana’s challenges to the reader are far more purposeful than arbitrary, and the result is that the clever little book (some will argue too clever for its own good) has won numerous awards, most prestigiously being shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize. And the journey to the novel’s astounding conclusion, if rigorous, is hardly painful. Toscana’s rambling, and at times distancing, prose occasionally tips toward the luscious:

There is nothing like the smoothness of [Remigio’s] avocadoes, for which reason, on some nights he throws a few in the bed and stretches out with them. He offers them caresses, flattery. They are lovers with supple hands and noticeable breasts, disposable lovers, no name, no obligations, and no future, because they wake up squashed on the sheets after having sacrificed everything for love. The avocado was the fruit of temptation, without a doubt, although people liked to believe it was the apple, an inept whore with a smooth skin but a rigid body, sticky, no discretion in biting, which gets old all at once and consorts with flies and other insects. He knows that his girl is better off [buried] under the avocado tree.

If Lucio occasionally gets lost in his favorite prose, well, perhaps we cannot blame him. But this is entirely Toscana’s point: he has crafted a novel specially for bibliophiles, a novel that highlights the perils, perversions, and joys of losing oneself in a fantastic book.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on David Toscana’s The Last Reader, which is translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz and available from Texas Tech University Press.

Sara—a summer intern and student here at the University of Rochester—is working on reviews of a few books in Texas Tech’s Americas Series. We wrote about this series a few months back, and it looks like we’ll be highlighting at least one of their forthcoming titles in the not-too-distant future.

But more on that later. For now, here’s the opening to Sara’s review of Toscana’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Romulo Gallegos International Novel Prize and won the National Colima Prize, the Premio Jose Fuentes Mares, and the Antonin Artaud Prize.

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint.

To read the entire review, click here.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the 8th book in the Americas Series from Texas Tech has arrived, it seems like an opportune time to bring some attention to Irene Vilar’s exciting project.

Irene used to run this series out of the University of Wisconsin Press back in the early 2000s, but after leaving and writing a memoir (Impossible Motherhood, available from Other Press), she relaunched The Americas at Texas Tech with the publication of David Toscana’s The Last Reader, transated by Asa Zatz.

(Quick “let’s make fun of people who don’t understand the Internets” moment: I wanted to see which books ended up in the Wisconsin version of this series—I believe the Jorge Amado books were in this, but I can’t remember the others—so I visited this UWP page. Click on the link for “a list of the books in this series.” I dare you.)

The Last Reader sounds fantastic (see this earlier post), as do all of the other titles. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones I’m most interested in:

The Origin of Species and Other Poems by Ernesto Cardenal, translated from the Spanish by John Lyons.

Cardenal is considered by many to be one of Latin America’s greatest contemporary poets, and his work has been getting a lot of love of late. Pluriverse came out from New Directions a couple years back (see our review here), and did a great job encapsulating Cardenal’s 56-year career. This new book will likely get a ton of attention (more on that as it happens), and because of the new publication, Cardenal will be going on an extensive U.S. tour. (Check our translation events calendar for more specifics.)

The War in Bom Fim by Moacyr Scliar, translation from the Portuguese by David William Foster

Scliar—who passed away in February—is one of Brazil’s most beloved writers. A few of his books came out in the classic Avon series of Latin American authors, and a few others popped up here and there from a variety of presses, but I feel like his work has been underappreciated here in the States, and instead, he’s most known for thinking of suing Yann Martel for ripping his ass off for Life of Pi.

The War in Bom Fim sounds like a lot of fun (and will be the first of the series that I’m going to read and review):

What if, as David William Foster poses in his introduction to Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s novel, the Germans did choose to invade the Americas in the second World War? What if the Luftwaffe did plan to bomb American cities? [. . .]

With playful irony, homage to the Jewish folktale, a touch of magical realism, and keen insight into the customs and characters of this Yiddish-speaking melting pot, Scliar spins a fable of an imaginary war waged by the youngsters of Bom Fim. Brothers Nathan and Joel and their gang defend their quarter against a pretend German military invasion, while their parents deal with the quarrels and worries of the adult world. But which is more real? In Scliar’s richly layered fantasy Carnival and Pesach, Nazi and Jew, the consumer and the consumed, the grotesque and the quotidian intermingle unexpectedly amid the kitchens and alleys of Bom Fim.

The Fist Child by Lucia Puenzo, translated from the Spanish by David William Foster

Lucia Puenzo was included in Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish Novelists” special issue, and we wrote about her as part of our 22 Days of Awesome series.

Puenzo is a writer and filmmaker (she received a lot of praise of XXY as mentioned in our Granta post) and the movie adaptation of The Fish Child appeared at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. Here’s the trailer:



Symphony in White by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Sarah Green

Hut of Fallen Persimmons by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Sarah Green

Both Lisboa books sound really interesting, and we have a forthcoming review of Symphony in White, which won the Jose Saramago Prize in 2003. Symphony in White focuses on two sisters, a “swirl of dark secrets,” and the “unspoken atrocities of the military dictatorship holding sway in their country.”

Hut of Fallen Persimmons just arrived the other week, and tells the story of Haruki and Celina’s trip to Japan. “Their trip to Kyoto provides a context for each to meditate on the past, their feelings for each other, and the questions of cultural difference. Through a counterpoint of narration and text, the pair’s losses and struggles gradually unfold.”

*

All with striking covers, these eight books make a fantastic collection. And I’m really looking forward to all the books Irene ends up including in the series. With a brilliant advisory board I have a lot of faith in the future of this series.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few months ago we posted about the University of Texas Press’s decision to relaunch its Latin American literature in translation series. (And at some point soon we’ll have a full review of the first new title in the series, And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio.)

Well on Friday I found out that Texas Tech University Press is taking over The Americas series, which Irene Vilar launched at the University of Wisconsin some years ago. Irene is a successful author in her own right (The Ladies’ Gallery was translated by Gregory Rabassa to critical acclaim and her new memoir, Impossible Motherhood, will be out from Other Press later this year), and has put together a killer advisory board and is relaunching the series with a number of interesting titles.

Up first is David Toscana’s The Last Reader (translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz), which releases in October and sounds interesting:

In tiny Icamole, an almost deserted village in Mexico’s desert north, the librarian, Lucio, is also the village’s only reader. Though it has not rained for a year in Icamole, when Lucio’s son Remigio draws the body of a thirteen-year-old girl from his well, floodgates open on dark possibility. Strangely enamored of the dead girl’s beauty and fearing implication, Remigio turns desperately to his father. Persuading his son to bury the body, Lucio baptizes the girl Babette, after the heroine of a favorite novel. Is Lucio the keeper of too many stories? As police begin to investigate, has he lost his footing? Or do revelation and resolution lie with other characters and plots from his library? Toscana displays brilliant mastery of the novel—in all its elements—as Lucio keeps every last reader guessing.

Other forthcoming novels in the series include Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez, Symphony in White by Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa (and translated by Sarah Green), and Chango, the Baddest Dude by Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella (and translated by Jonathan Tittler). All of these sound really interesting—especially the Lisboa. She was selected by the organizers of the Bogota World Book Capital as one of the thirty-nine highest-profile Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine, and she also won the Jose Saramago Fiction Prize for Symphony in White.

More importantly, it’s great to see this series coming back to life, and to see Texas continue to be one of the hotspots for translation.

....
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