For this week’s podcast, Tom and I answered our first mailbag question about literary journals, discussed the old adage that “short stories don’t sell,” and complained about the unbeatable Milwaukee Brewers.Read More...
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns
Country: South Africa
Publisher: Tin House
Why This Book Should Win: It explores a complex web of human relationships at a familial and national level without ever leaving a single room; and because, as Liesl Schillinger says in her review of the novel published in the NYT Book Review, “Books like Agaat . . . are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them.”
Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.
At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.
From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”
Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps _Agaat_’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:
[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.
Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.
[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.
Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery! They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.
A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.
She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.
I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.
Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.
She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.
Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.
The Winter issue of Tin House is now available, and includes an interesting interview Heather Hartley conducted with
French Belgian Japanese cosmopolitan writer Amelie Nothomb. Hartley’s intro does a great job in pointing out the huge difference between Nothomb’s popularity in the States (despite being published by New Directions, Picador, and Europa, she’s relatively unknown) and her cult-like popularity in France.
Every year since the 1992 publication of her award-winning first novel, Hygiéne de l’assassin (forthcoming in English, as Hygiene and the Assassin, from Europa Editions in Fall 2010), Amélie Nothomb has published one novel a year, brought out in high style each September during la rentrée, when the most sought-after books appear on the French market. Her publishing house, Albin Michel, opens its season with her book launch. Her novels have been translated into over thirty languages, including eleven in English, and her awards include the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix René-Fallet, the Prix Alain-Fournier (twice), the Grand Prix Jean-Giono, and many others.
She’s a phenomenon in France. In the tradition of Dead heads, groupies called “les Péplautes” (their name derives from her 1996 novel, Péplum) devote a good portion of their lives to following Nothomb from reading to reading, attending her lectures, and keeping up with the latest details of her peregrinations. But Amélie Nothomb is not French. The daughter of Belgian diplomats, she was born in Kobe, Japan, and spent a large portion of her childhood abroad in China, Laos, Bangladesh, Burma, and back in Japan. Many of these experiences are an integral part of her novels.
And since Tokyo Fiancee is a 2010 Best Translated Book nominee, it only seems fitting to quote this part of the interview:
Heather Hartley: In Tokyo Fiancée, you write, “the worst accidents in life are linguistic.” You play on the double meaning of the word “maîtresse” [which in French can mean either “teacher” or “mistress”], the Japanese notion “to play” [very different than the French literal meaning of “jouer,” to play], and the difficult, absolutely inescapable concept in French of “you”: the informal tutoiement or formal vouvoiement. What is born in the parenthesis between a misunderstanding and the right word?
Amelie Nothomb: Nothing is more difficult than finding le mot juste. And in fact contemplation and reflection are not enough.
[In Tokyo Fiancée,] what happens between the first major misunderstanding—the marriage proposal [regarding the two protagonists] that ends up in a huge misinterpretation—and the end of the book [where the two meet up in very different circumstances], is time. It took seven years between these two events.
Nothing replaces the work of time. The biggest discovery in life—and I’m speaking of life in the sense how we live it every day, where each one of us might live, let’s say, maybe eighty years—the biggest discovery in life is time.
Time can appear at first to be the principal enemy. When you’re young, you understand that time is going to go by, pass in front of you, through you. That it will destroy you, destroy your childhood, the things important to you. And it’s true that time destroys a tremendous amount of things. And to survive this is very difficult.
I remember when I was fourteen I declared that time was the worst enemy of all. And that . . . well . . . and that now, looking down from the heights of my great age, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Yes, time is an enemy, but it is not just the enemy, time is the main, essential discovery we can make in our life, beginning with the moment where you discover this other dimension of it.
You know who your friends are after twenty years. It takes twenty years of friendship with someone to know the worth of friendship. And this, nothing can replace. Not even the most beautiful words or the most important promises—all of that is worth nothing. It is only time that can say if it’s a true friendship.
So what enables you to find le mot juste is time.
HH: Mark Twain said, “humor is tragedy plus time.”
AN: Brilliant! That’s exactly it.
One of the most interesting journals I’ve heard about recently is Chtenia: Readings from Russia a very well-produced publication that features a wide range of works by Russian authors, from classic authors to new voices. And it includes not just fiction (although they do claim to be the “only regularly published journal of Russian fiction in English translation” which is a bit surprising), but nonfiction, photography, etc. Each issue is themed as well, with recent ones focusing on Nikolai Gogol, the Caucasus, and the holidays.
I highly recommend checking this out, and you can subscribe by clicking here.
In addition to Chtenia, Russian Life magazine (which is responsible for the publication of Chtenia) is also getting into book publishing by releasing Life Stories: Original Fiction by Russian Authors. This anthology collects 19 pieces by contemporary Russian writers—and most of these stories have never appeared in English.
(Full list of authors: Vladimir Voynovich, Andrey Gelasimov, Boris Grebenshchikov, Yevgeny Grishkovets, Victor Yerofeyev, Alexander Kabakov, Eduard Limonov, Dmitry Lipskerov, Sergey Lukyanenko, Vladimir Makanin, Marina Moskvina, Victor Pelevin, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Zakhar Prilepin, Dina Rubina, Dunya Smirnova, Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Khurgin and Leonid Yuzefovich.)
(And because they deserve as much credit as possible, here’s the full list of translators: Alexei Bayer, Michele Berdy, Liv Bliss, Lise Brody, Nora Favorov, Anne O. Fisher, Deborah Hoffman, Marcia Karp, Michael Katz, Peter Morley, Susanna Nazarova, Anna Razumnaya-Seluyanova, Paul E. Richardson, Marian Schwartz, Bela Shayevich and Nina Shevchuk.)
As if that weren’t cool enough, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book will go to benefit Russian hospice. To this end, all royalties were waived and all translation fees were waived.
(And check out this post at the Center for the Art of Translation blog for a bit more info.)
On a related note, in September, Tin House (which has been kicking ass in the international literature department of late, not just with interesting translations, but a lot of good books from South Africa) will release Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, who also edited Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States a pretty interesting collection we put out at Dalkey some years back.
I’m really curious to check this out, and Margarita Shalina is already planning on reviewing this for the site. But in the meantime, Tin House recently posted the full text of Drill and Song Day by Vladimir Kozlov.
Unfortunately, there’s no table of contents (that I could find anyway—let me know if I’m just blind/impaired), so I’m not sure which other contemporary writers are in this collection . . .
Regardless, lot of great Russian stuff coming out this fall . . .
Over at the Tin House blog (which is relatively new and very solid), South African author Michiel Heyns has an interesting essay about creativity and translation:
I have just sent off the first draft of a translation of a 130,000-word novel, Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (30 Nights in Amsterdam). By chance, on the same day, I receive a Call for Papers from the University of Swansea in the UK for a conference on “The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition.” The call for papers kicks off with the following paragraph:
The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.
The topic interests me, because I have published four novels and three literary translations (not counting this latest, as yet unpublished one), and I have from time to time asked myself, in an informal sort of way, about “the creative processes involved in the translation of texts”: is it in fact “a form of creative writing”? And if so, how does it differ from the more traditional kind?
Writing this, it occurs to me that the word “recreate” encapsulates the problem: for if it means simply rendering the work in another language, then it’s more a question of transliteration or transposition than creation; but if it means “re-create” as in creating anew, then one is stressing the creative contribution of the translator: the translation, then, carries the stamp of the translator as unmistakably as the original carries the stamp of the author.
But of course translation is also, inescapably, a second-order activity, derived very directly from the creation of the author. If the translation is a creative act, it is yet unlike the writing of a novel in that it does not require that most difficult of creative feats, which is to create from nothing. A novelist creates and peoples a world; a translator reports back on that world to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to that world.
I like his take on this (although the bit about author’s craving a “faithful rendering” when their books are translated feels a bit reductive), and his novel, The Children’s Day looks really interesting as well.
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .