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.

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.

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.

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