24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks 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.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

14 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks 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.

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Why This Book Should Win: In part because Martínez died just a couple years ago, and has never gotten the recognition here that he deserves.

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

There’s a fair bit I can say about Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory. It is a political novel, a study of madness, a ghost story, a meditation on a rich culture that has spawned disastrously violent regimes: it is in many ways a culmination of Martinez’s life’s work. But I spend most of my time these days selling people books in twenty second blurbs that have to hook them on the spot, so a long explication of Purgatory_’s strengths isn’t really up my alley. So let’s start over and try this: _Purgatory is a startlingly addictive character study focusing on a woman’s search for her husband against the backdrop of a country gone mad.

OK, that probably needs a bit more explanation.

Briefly, Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy and her search for her husband, Simon, who disappeared not long after their marriage. More accurately, Simon is disappeared by the Argentine junta during the military’s rule in the late 1970s and early ’80s. After spending decades chasing phantoms of him—despite eyewitness testimony and the reality of life under the junta, Emilia refuses to accept that Simon is dead—she settles in New Jersey to await Simon’s return. The novel begins thirty years after Simon’s disappearance in a chain restaurant where, looking up from her booth, Emilia sees Simon sitting just a few feet away and he hasn’t aged a day since she saw him last.

The events of the junta’s reign are well documented; the history is laid out. But Martínez takes those events and the ways in which an insane political system attempted to remake an entire nation and creates a beautifully personal history in Emilia’s life following her husband’s disappearance. The novel skips about in time, addressing the events of the day and Emilia’s place in them almost thematically, building her personality and the circumstances that bring her to the novel’s opening lines.

What Martínez achieves is a triumph of memory over historical events. By presenting Emilia’s history as a chaotic overlapping of occurrences he allows the personal perspective to take precedence over the factual occurrence. The carefully demarcated line of causation that explains the grand historical movement of peoples and countries from one moment to the next is cast aside in favor of the fragments, the coral that each individual generates. In unmooring this period of history Martinez brings its profound effects into starker relief. And by creating Emilia he makes the pain and misery forced upon his native country a more personal reality for the reader.

I might need to pare that down a bit to get it under twenty seconds.

....
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