26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from P. T. Smith on Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was, from Seagull Books.

This book was another one several of our reviewers jumped at, and yet another strong and insanely fascinating sounding piece of German literature, and German literature in translation. That, and Inka Parei has a pretty rad sounding name, and some intriguing titles to boot (The Shadow-Boxing Woman, to name another).

Here’s some of Patrick’s review:

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this . . .

At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either. As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this. Until coming across it in the text, the title is vague, but beautiful, then:

The night seemed endless. The old man felt wide awake. He tried to understand what darkness was, how merciless and absolute it was—nothing could chase it away. You could only ever light up tiny parts of a darkness like that, every light source ridiculous in comparison to the sun. Lamps, even very strong ones, had a light that was limited, its end foreseeable with the naked eye.

This shedding of light onto little spots of darkness is the aim of the novel, even while aware of the impossibility of full light, even finding time to dwell in the dark and find beauty. It goes beyond aesthetics, ideas, or any cultural examination, and instead is the core of the novel; indeed it is the plot. This trick, turning usual extraneous-to-the-plot elements into plot, is exciting, original, and makes a compelling read (I planned to put the book down after sixty pages and go to bed, then promised I would stop at ninety, before finally just finishing it in one read). At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either.

As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same: “Too little sleep was like a blanket that was too thin or too short, something you could not help tugging at, in a constantly restless and alert state” or the menace behind “the absence of sound in all the lifeless things that cities consist of, the silence of the mortar, the walls and rail, the aluminum casings, the silence of wood and hewn stones.” This world the old man is walking through, it can leave people behind, it can pass over accomplishment and sin—unless someone moves against the silence.

The old man is not obviously that someone. His time is spent in silence, watching his neighbors, half-heartedly contemplating his past while avoiding any participation in his present outside of the watching. His re-entry to both is sparked by the first watched neighbor he has contact with, known only as “the stranger.” The stranger, a recent arrival in the next-door apartment, becomes the central point for the old man’s thoughts, and the center of his actions, along with the actions of the others in the neighborhood. The old man is compelled to know the stranger, to find out more, yet also to keep him no more than a stranger; he is both scared for and scared of. Here is where I can struggle with giving too much away, ruining the few “events.” The blank slate that is the stranger allows him to exist with more than one identity, an identity from the Baader-Meinhof Germany of the novel’s present, given to him by threatening neighbors and by the old man himself, and the unnamed victims of Germany’s past—as “He’s one of them. I have to save him,” passes through the old man’s thoughts.

A struggle between the often separate realities of intellectual, rational understanding of experience, and of immediate physical experience is often played out at the same time as the past vs. present dynamic, one that dominates the old man in simple ways like a reflection on a childhood memory of spinning around and watching objects around dissolve, all while knowing that was only in his eyes and in paralyzing ways, describing the stranger’s eyes, “as though they affected his sight, but he knew that was an illusion. In reality it was him, looking at the stranger, who was distracted by eyes like that, plunged into confusion and overlooking other things.” It at times becomes a fight for sanity, a fight to be able to exist rationally, yet accept one’s experiences, and for the old man, experiences are not always something he wants to accept. He has a home that was gifted to him by an unknown man except for a last name, and all the men he remembers with the name have as guilty a past as he does, as German men of his age did.

Early on, the old man, seeing a scratch he made in paint as he unlocked a door is “unsettled. . . . that he could see across the layers of different coats of paint as if looking back across decades, down to the surface.” Looking at a simple scratch, at such a benign physical marker of the past is too much for him, and during this, the world around him is fogged and scattered, but as he watches more, hears more, tries to act and respond to current events, more and more memories come to him, and more clearly. The physicality of his present as he searches the basement, trying to find out what his neighbors are up to and how the stranger is involved, bring the clearest narrative of his past in the military, culminating in a cold reality that had been until now in that darkness.

This is not to say that What Darkness Was pulls itself into a formal, structured narrative. At the end we are not left with answers, and there is much in the novel that is as unclear to the old man as it is to us, though we are made to wonder if we haven’t lit our lamp bright enough, pushed it into the right corners, or maybe are simply a little too American and don’t know 1977 Germany well enough. Or must some things remain in the darkness and all we can do is bring out the most important things, and not, either intentionally or passively, keep the most dangerous things in the dark, for they will dim the present as well.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Rachael Daum on Dark Company: A Novel in Ten Rainy Nights by Gert Loschütz, from Seagull Books.

Rachael (with an “A-E”, thankyouverymuch) I believe it’s been mentioned before, is a former intern-student of Open Letter, and a great friend to and advocate for literature in translation. She won out in the mad grab to get her hands on this book to review: Seagull has been putting out some really exceptional stuff lately (or per usual, I should say), and several of our regular reviewers were pining for Dark Company. And I don’t blame them—it looks like a pretty rad read . . .

Here’s the beginning of Rachael’s review:

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

For the rest of the review and more darkness and rain, go here.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

There are few constants in the novel, rain, again, being one, and the vanishing of characters being the other. Early on, Thomas admits to a boyish wonder of Henry Hudson, “the explorer I admired above all others for the way he had disappeared. The way he sailed off at dawn (and never returned) spoke to me of true modesty and greatness.” This ominously becomes a veritable tattoo of the novel In almost every single chapter, we are introduced to a person—a colleague in the German Navy, a former lover, a nameless woman working on an angel statue in a workshop—who disappears. The natures of their disappearances are all different: Daniel, a fellow sailor in the British Navy, vanishes after the appearance of an African sailor who joins and introduces voodoo magic to the ship; Katharina, a young woman Thomas shared a night and a tattoo with, seems to melt away with her blood on the pavement after being attacked by some guard dogs, only to appear later in England; her Doppelgänger vanishes with a promise on her lips after chasing after somebody who, in a Marquez-like twist, has Thomas’s face. Thomas’s grandfather, continually referenced to but never seen in the novel, has a theory about vanished people:

He believed that all those who had vanished had not really vanished at all but were all gathered somewhere, in designated places. If I have understood correctly what he was saying, they travel in a particular kind of train which carries them across the length and breadth of Europe, unceasingly: that is to say, they never leave the train. . . . Since these trains are not listed on any timetable and never stop—or stop only in very remote, hidden places—it is difficult to detect them.

It is, then, this baleful continual movement of the train that pushes the narrative along like the rivers and eventual floods of rain do. Thomas—and thus the reader—learns to expect, and accept, their inevitability.

There does seem to be a striking passivity in Thomas’s acceptance of how the narrative plays out, which is baffling. That is, Thomas is content merely to let things happen to him. He repeatedly follows people into the darkness, once even as far as being led to the meeting of a religious cult in which he is apparently “The Promised One.” Thomas yearns to “go back, back to the rivers, the docks, the warehouses where a man could lose himself walking round, not back to my flat by the river but to a boat, and so what if my license had expired . . .” He never helps himself, and in his yearning eventually ends up a worker on a train. As a former skipper, he deals in transit, and never seems to get anywhere himself. His timeline is all but impossible to figure out—was he struck from his position as a skipper because he may have killed a woman? did he meet the woman who resembled Katharina after his work on the train? when did he have the affair with the married woman? when did he meet his possible son? is this the titular dark company?—and this question of time and madness is what sweeps the reader along as surely as Thomas is pushed forward by his work on the boats and on the train, and his life aboard a bus (a sad parody of Noah’s ark) that takes him away from his flooded house. It becomes apparent that Thomas does not trust the reader and indeed keeps things from her, allowing for gross jumps in logic (one moment he is waiting in a bar till “zero hours forty,” and then he admits that “this was the place and I had to wait. If she had come at eleven, we could have sailed at twelve,” with no previous mention to waiting for anyone. Perhaps, the readers reflect drily, he doesn’t trust us with his secret). He eventually references his omissions, finally admitting to them and their fatality: “Add one more fault to my list of omissions. . . . Everything that I have failed to do leaps out at me from the dark, my failures lurk in the driving rain, in the whistling sound overhead.”

It is impossible to read this book and not notice the beautiful translation from German into English by Willcocks. The text reads absolutely effortlessly in translation, with glittering descriptions of Thomas’s surroundings that are timed to an English pace and sound-set perfectly: “Instead [there was] fog, silence and the smell that so often accompanies fog, a smell of fire, a burning smell, a hint of smouldering trees and smoke creeping over the ground at knee height . . .” It is, however, Willcocks’s poetic employ of generally difficult English words that is worth our attention and applause. For example (emphasis mine), Thomas’s “world outside . . . dissolve[s] into a fuzzy stroboscopic fog of impressions,” and Katharina’s dogs, “two deep-chested, powerful beasts . . . stopped at her command (a word? a signal?) and eyed us, obediently, yes, but truculent too, truculent in their obedience.” Willcocks has weighed the very sounds of the words he applied to the English text, resulting in a sensuous, sonorous prose. Ultimately, in the translation itself as in the text, this is a book for a reader looking for a thematic and highly, wonderfully literary challenge, and though the reader is left with gaping questions apathetically unanswered, it can’t be denied that it was worth buckling in for the ride and getting caught up in the flow of the flood with Thomas and the debris of his life.

1 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Our old friend Jeff Waxman of University of Chicago Press and Seminary Co-op up in Chicago turned our attention to this little gem of an article the other day from Publishing Perspectives written by Maggie Hivnor, the Paperback Editor at “U. of Chicago Press, about how Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos, which had been out of print for decades, came to her attention via her foreign rights manager, Inés ter Horst. Inspired in part by a telenovela ad on the side of a bus, Venezuelan political history, and a lot of helpful folks in Cuba and Venezuela, Hivnor recounts the arduous process she and Ines went through to see Gallegos’ masterwork, the “national book of Venezuela,” see the light of day again after years and years of being out of print, forgotten in English.



The cover of the Univ. of Chicago reprint of Doña Barbara

Here’s a nice bit from Maggie’s article:

Of the Latin American writers I most admire—Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño—all were recipients of an award named after Rómulo Gallegos. A teacher, writer, and one of the founders of Acción Democrática—an important political party in the early years of Venezuelan democracy—Gallegos became the first democratically elected president of Venezuela in 1947. But in 1929, he was forced to flee the country after publishing a novel critical of the regime of Juan Vicente Gómez. That novel was Doña Barbara.

. . . The story pits an educated, principled land-owner against a beautiful and tyrannical cattle-rustler, Doña Barbara, rumored to be a witch. One of the first examples of “magical realism,” it is an epic, a love poem to Venezuela: the land, its peoples and their legends. It’s also a romance, a political parable, a story of cowboys, spirits and hustlers, and the strange magic of history.

From the first page, I was wowed by Robert Malloy’s beautiful, poetic translation of Gallegos’s language: an eerie description of the river and the sense of danger hovering over the young Santos Luzardo. By the time I’d gotten through visions of dawn on the prairie, with “the smell of mint and cattle” and encountered Pajarote’s stories of vampires and ghosts, and the legal/political shenanigans of the gringo bully “Sr. Danger,” I was ready to gallop out onto the Venezuelan llanos myself and lasso the rights. But we still had no leads on whom to contact.

So it was Inés who ventured to Venezuela, via the Guadalajara book fair, where she left a hand-written note inquiring after the English language rights at the Cuban-Venezuelan stand. A month later, an e-mail from the Cuban Ministry of Culture landed in Inés’s inbox, suggesting she get in touch with the CELARG, in Caracas, Venezuela (Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos). After several days of phone calls, she finally reached the head of Publications, who referred her to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter. (He had a daughter! We had a phone number!) Encouraged, Inés kept phoning and writing Venezuela until she managed to negotiate the rights. She even recruited relatives to help us resurrect this Venezuelan masterpiece: her father hand-delivered the license agreement to Rómulo Gallegos’s daughter, and Ines’s uncle, who happened to be in Venezuela at the time for business, transported the signed agreement back to The University of Chicago Press for its countersignature. After almost six months, we had a deal.”

Of course, the book being Venezuelan, the political plays an integral part of this story, as Ines relates to Maggie:

“When your country struggles for democracy and you watch it sink from afar, your only hope is to raise consciousness in the people around you about what is really happening. I think it’s essential that English-speaking readers discover this literary gem now, so they can draw parallels between the conflicts described by Gallegos and Venezuela’s current situation—where frequent clashes between civilization and barbarism are experienced on a daily basis. Doña Barbara is a parable of how Venezuela could be saved from a corrupt and backward-thinking regime. Venezuelans saw that in 1929; that’s why the book caused such a sensation and made them want to elect Gallegos as their president. If the book could do that then, maybe it can help, in some way, now.”


The telenovela ad that inspired the reprint!

Esteemed bookwrangler Larry McMurtry even wrote a foreword for the book, quoted on the cover, in which he proclaims Doña Barbara as “a Madame Bovary of the llano.” Read the whole article “here”: http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/05/how-we-putdona-barbara-back-in-the-saddle-in-english/ and grab a copy of Doña Barbara in stores this month!

Like Jeff so rightly told us, this is the type of backstory we all love to hear, both as readers and as people in the business of books. It’s a lot of work, but sometimes the payoff is so rewarding we can get a little misty-eyed…even cowboys cry.

30 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Nigel Beale—whose interviews are always really interesting—recently posted a great discussion with Ha Jin about his recent book, The Writer as Migrant, which was recently released by University of Chicago Press and sounds pretty good:

Ha Jin’s journey raises rich and fascinating questions about language, migration, and the place of literature in a rapidly globalizing world—questions that take center stage in “The Writer as Migrant,” his first work of nonfiction. Consisting of three interconnected essays, this book sets Ha Jin’s own work and life alongside those of other literary exiles, creating a conversation across cultures and between eras. He employs the cases of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese novelist Lin Yutang to illustrate the obligation a writer feels to the land of his birth, while Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov—who, like Ha Jin, adopted English for their writing—are enlisted to explore a migrant author’s conscious choice of a literary language. A final essay draws on V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera to consider the ways in which our era of perpetual change forces a migrant writer to reconceptualize the very idea of home. Throughout, Jin brings other celebrated writers into the conversation as well, including W. G. Sebald, C. P. Cavafy, and Salman Rushdie—refracting and refining the very idea of a literature of migration.

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