25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

But while she intensely lived her own small roll in the general evolution of humanity and of her individual, personal story, every day, every hour, every minute a huge, central part of her mind was consumed with a ferocious, forbidden desire: the anticipation, anguish, fear, and craving of her next meal.

Marina’s fervid obsessions over food can be incredibly overbearing at times which adds to the novel’s urgency. As she chronicles her roller-coaster history with weight loss and her new difficulties dealing with the near starvation level diet, we learn much about how food truly affects every minute of Marina’s life. More than once she entertains the possibility of cooking a human or animal to deal with her hunger, and these instances do not even happen in her most manic times of the addictive cycle. Her character is raw and truthful in ways literature often does not allow itself to go. With this in mind, however, Marina’s relationship with Alex can at times come off as inauthentic and corny compared to the raw edge the reader has gotten so used to with other aspects of the book. Overall, the book offers an incredible new look into the cyclic addiction to food and fans of dystopian literature, political parables, and food aficionados will find this to be a newly relevant twist on an old tale.

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Allie Levick on Ana Maria Shua’s The Weight of Temptation, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger and available from University of Nebraska Press.

Allie is another of my students from last semester. Few more of these to run over the next couple weeks . . . But if you’re interested in reviewing for us, get in touch. Kaija is taking over the book review editor job and will be looking to assign a ton of books in the near future.

Back some time ago, Emily Davis reviewed Ana Maria Shua’s Death As a Side Effect for us, which was also translated by Andrea Labinger and published by Nebraska. Shua is an interesting writer, and it’s great that Nebraska is continuing to support her and introduce her to an English-reading audience.

Here’s the opening of Allie’s review:

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

Click here to read the entire piece.

11 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by J.T. Mahany—a grad student here in the University of Rochester literary translation program—on Lutz Bassmann’s, or rather, “Lutz Bassmann’s” We Monks & Soldiers, which is translated from the French by Jordan Stump, and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

If you haven’t heard of Antoine Volodine or Lutz Bassmann, just listen to pretty much any Three Percent podcast from the past six months—I’ve been geeking out about Volodine ever since I read Minor Angels. He’s a fascinating, unique writer whose project—the production of an invented literary movement that’s something like sci-fi surrealist postmodern game-playing experimentalism expounded upon by a series of Volodine heteronyms—is one of the most exciting and ambitious things going on in contemporary world literature.

Here’s the opening of J.T.‘s review:

Lutz Bassman’s We Monks & Soldiers is a post-exoticist collection of several interrelated stories set during the final shallow breaths of humanity. An exorcism is performed that may or may not have resulted in the slaughter of an innocent family. An agent carries out a strange mission with varying levels of success. A vast prison is detailed. Two monks make their way into a new proletarian universe and are killed almost instantly by an oppressive military institution. A race of bird-people are cruelly tended to in their dying days inside a compound in the woods.


The point of all of these vignettes is to show a world of apocalypse―the end has come and it is time to make way for the spiders. Perhaps more importantly than future spider-people and dream quests is the critique of modern neo-liberal capitalism, and the dangers of any group, be it governments or corporations, owning our souls. In fits and starts, a picture is painted for us: the Communist Global Revolution foretold since Marx has finally come about, but it was quickly co-opted and compromised by businesses, and the people were left off worse than before. There is one very important, easy to miss line of description in the section “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel” that provides ample implied evidence for the history of this damaged world:

“[The man] was endowed with an enormous chignon. Atop it he wore a black cap with a drooping, damaged visor and, on one side, an embroidered reproduction of a Coca-Cola calligraph in Chinese.”

Other parts of the book mention that some sort of absolutely devastating war happened, most likely with the use of nuclear weapons, involving America, and now the only safe spots left to live are on the coast as the last generation of humanity waits to die.
Something important to mention is that Lutz Bassmann is not a real person; the actual author is Antoine Volodine. Bassmann is merely one of his merely synonyms. It is also important to note that according to another text of Volodine’s, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Lutz Bassmann is incarcerated in a high-security prison for his literary crimes, along with every other author involved in the post-exoticist movement. Considering the chapter in We Monks & Soldiers entitled “The Dive,” it would seem that Bassmann penned this novel while behind bars, awaiting his dismal end.


To read the full review, just click here.

11 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Lutz Bassman’s We Monks & Soldiers is a post-exoticist collection of several interrelated stories set during the final shallow breaths of humanity. An exorcism is performed that may or may not have resulted in the slaughter of an innocent family. An agent carries out a strange mission with varying levels of success. A vast prison is detailed. Two monks make their way into a new proletarian universe and are killed almost instantly by an oppressive military institution. A race of bird-people are cruelly tended to in their dying days inside a compound in the woods.


The point of all of these vignettes is to show a world of apocalypse―the end has come and it is time to make way for the spiders. Perhaps more importantly than future spider-people and dream quests is the critique of modern neo-liberal capitalism, and the dangers of any group, be it governments or corporations, owning our souls. In fits and starts, a picture is painted for us: the Communist Global Revolution foretold since Marx has finally come about, but it was quickly co-opted and compromised by businesses, and the people were left off worse than before. There is one very important, easy to miss line of description in the section “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel” that provides ample implied evidence for the history of this damaged world:

[The man] was endowed with an enormous chignon. Atop it he wore a black cap with a drooping, damaged visor and, on one side, an embroidered reproduction of a Coca-Cola calligraph in Chinese.

Other parts of the book mention that some sort of absolutely devastating war happened, most likely with the use of nuclear weapons, involving America, and now the only safe spots left to live are on the coast as the last generation of humanity waits to die.
Something important to mention is that Lutz Bassmann is not a real person; the actual author is Antoine Volodine. Bassmann is merely one of his merely synonyms. It is also important to note that according to another text of Volodine’s, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Lutz Bassmann is incarcerated in a high-security prison for his literary crimes, along with every other author involved in the post-exoticist movement. Considering the chapter in We Monks & Soldiers entitled “The Dive,” it would seem that Bassmann penned this novel while behind bars, awaiting his dismal end.


Bassmann (Volodine) has a bit of an obsession with odors, especially unpleasant ones. The adjective ‘urinous’ is used multiple times, and bad smells are always wafting up from somewhere, from street vendors frying dough, from people packed together on a long train ride, from dead birds. My best guess is that the focus is twofold: the first is that smell possesses a powerful link to memory, but it is often our most-forgotten sense. Secondly, Volodine illustrates a cornucopia of bad smells as a way of showing what humanity really is, beyond the glossy portrayal of irreality bestowed upon the populace by corporate advertising (one might recall Nietzsche’s constant allusions to “bad air” in Beyond Good & Evil).


Volodine certainly puts forth post-exoticist theory in We Monks & Soldiers. One such concept explored (although not explicitly stated) is that of the shaggå. In Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Volodine describes the shaggå as a short story told seven times, each one somewhat modified, with no clear indication of what the truth of the matter actually is. This undertaking can be seen in the repetition (although, thankfully, only twice instead of sevenfold) of “Crisis at the Tong Fong Hotel,” wherein events unfold differently in both iterations of the story. It is definitely an intriguing concept, and casts doubt on what is real and what is fiction (as all good post-exoticist literature does), and the reader must decide for him- or herself what to take away from the text.


All in all, We Monks & Soldiers is not a book for everyone. There is no happy ending, and the writing becomes a Gordian knot in some places. It is a mystery without an easy solution (if one ever existed in the first place). I am sure that there will be plenty who will complain of the book being too dense, too pretentious, too mired in overt communist propaganda (though that last charge can easily be dismissed by the text’s overall pervasive political nihilism). However, it is continuously entertaining despite its gloomy atmosphere, and is an excellent read for the cheerfully suicidal. One final note to add is that Jordan Stump’s English translation is markedly brilliant. One can really feel his channeling of Volodine here, like some wild oneiric shaman by the sea. Overall I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable, from the gray pastiche of New Yagayane to the live immolation of two teenage girls on a train platform.



{Silence after the review.}

6 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we HIGHLIGHTED (past tense) the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We had a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts prompted you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Private Property by Paule Constant, translated by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn

Language: French

Country: France
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Why This Book Should Win: A university press deserves to win this prize one of these years. The boarding school the protagonist attends is named “The Slaughterhouse School,” which is creepy/gross/intriguing.

The person who was going to write this piece wasn’t able to get it done on time, leaving me with a bit of a dilemma . . . I haven’t read this book, so rather than make up something in sincere, I thought it would be more useful to cobble together parts of Claudine Fisher’s introduction, and the review that Jessa Crispin wrote for NPR. Just trying my best . . .

From Jessa Crispin’s review:

There is no greater horror to a child than standing out. Being different means being easy prey. When your daughter comes home crying because someone has made fun of her freckles, her hair, her thick glasses, you might try to console her with “one day you’ll appreciate those freckles, you’ll find them beautiful,” but she won’t be comforted. A child wants only to blend in, to be absolutely the same as everyone else.

Tiffany, the 9-year-old at the center of Paule Constant’s Private Property, is not like the other girls, and she has no mother to wipe away the tears. Her parents, French colonialists living in Africa in the years leading up to the Algerian War, have sent her back to France alone to live and be schooled at the Convent for Slaughterhouse Ladies. The nunnery’s name sums up the atmosphere of the place, where the playground becomes the setting for young girls’ bloodsports and the nuns dole out about as much softness as the scratchy stiffness of their garments. The other girls tease and torment Tiffany for her African origins, her missing mother and for the way she does her hair. Every time she reaches out for solace or companionship, she is, at best, met with indifference. Understandably, she strives to become an invisible observer, at a remove from everyone else. [. . .]

The author surprises with her quirky imagery and powers of observation, like her description of the Mother Superior’s habit: “When she stood it was as if a ship had hoisted all its sails.” Also perfectly conveyed are Tiffany’s ostracism on the playground (“The recess periods were spent in a pretense of playing so as not to displease the Lady, and at not playing so as not to irritate those who were playing. She played at playing . . .”) and the daily torture chamber that is the lunch cafeteria.

Small of scale does not mean small of consequence. That goes for the diminutive Tiffany as well as Private Property itself. Those moments that look so tiny, those school humiliations and emotional kicks at home, continue to shape us into adulthood. Constant’s portrait of a little girl lost, someone who would be happier to camouflage herself in the furniture than to take the spotlight, will loom large in the mind.

And from Claudine Fisher’s intro:

Private Property serves as a fictional backdrop for Constant’s own educational experience when she herself was sent to France while her parents were assigned to various posts in Africa, South America, and Indochina. The boarding school, modeled on the one Constant attended, is transformed fictionally into “La Pension des Sanguinaires,” taking its name from the street on which it is found, named for the slaughterhouse at the end of the road, and is translated as “The Slaughterhouse School,” underscoring the violent nature of the child’s experience there.

The irony in Tiffany’s repatriation is that the homeland does not feel like home. The colonial Africa of the 1950s (Ouregano) is her adopted “real” homeland. Though a white child, Tiffany was in harmony with her African roots. Her attachment to the natural environment, its people, and African animals provided her with a sense of self. She now lives a doubly heartbreaking experience when arriving in the southwest of France: separation from the land she loved and from her parents, especially her mother, who is distant and unapproachable but nevertheless her mother. France becomes, in part, a land of exile and the boarding school a jail, another exile of the soul, compared to her free-spirited and roaming lifestyle in the African countryside.

And there we are. Twenty-five books in twenty-five days . . . And Tuesday we’ll all find out which ten move on . . .

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Jules Verne’s The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, which came out earlier this year from the University of Nebraska Press in Peter Schulman’s translation.

Kaija is an about-to-graduate MA student in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester. For her thesis she’s been translating Inga Abele’s High Tide from the Latvian—a book we’ll be featuring here on Three Percent in the not-too-distant future when Kaija and I do a special podcast about Latvian literature, Harlequin romance novels, and other things both appropriate and in-.

Since Kaija sort of explains Verne in the opening part of her review, I’m going to abandon the typical format and just go straight into that:

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

To read the full review, click here.

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

If you’re like me and grew up in the suburbs reading the Wow! Doritos of literature like the Fear Street series or anything based in the Midwest and prominently featuring ox-drawn wagons and corn, you had almost zero contact with anything Vernian and probably looked up the above summaries on a website that’s like Wikipedia on paint fumes.

That said, I was excited to crack open my first ever Verne book (and the first English translation of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz). However, the only information I had to reference style-wise was what translator Peter Schulman wrote in his introduction: “. . . Verne’s later novels became increasingly pessimistic and alarming to a young readership used to the earlier, joyous tales of travels and discoveries.” Additionally, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is said to be Verne’s final novel, and one of those mystical manuscripts that was only discovered and published in the original French in the 90s.

The plot of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz deals with the elements of dark magic and, more importantly, the idea of invisibility. Narrator Henry Vidal, travels to Ragz, Hungary, to meet his brother Marc’s fiancé Myra Roderick and her family. But soon Henry learns that creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy Wilhelm Storitz, who recently proposed to and was turned down by Myra, is still lurking in the peripheral picture and is probably out to take revenge. For the longest time no one’s really sure how far the scorned Storitz will take things, but once all kinds of weird, invisibility-related shit starts happening to the family and in relation to Marc and Myra’s upcoming wedding, it’s almost unanimous that the source is a certain creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy:

That’s when I saw . . . actually, a hundred people could see what I was seeing, but we all refused to believe it.

Here was the bouquet lying on the table—the engagement bouquet, suddenly ripped to shreds; its flowers were apparently being stomped upon and strewn all over the floor . . .

This time it was a sensation of terror that fell upon us! Everyone wanted to flee the scene of such strange goings-on! . . . I was even asking myself if I were completely sane amid such irrational occurrences.

Captain Haralan had just joined me, and pale with anger, he announced:

‘It’s Wilhelm Storitz!’

Wilhelm Storitz? . . . Had he gone mad? . . .

At that very moment, the bridal wreath rose from the cushion upon which it had been placed, traveled across the drawing rom, then, without our being able to see the hand that was holding it, flew through the gallery and vanished into the garden.

The rest of the story mostly involves waiting for the narrator and other characters to catch up to Storitz and figure out how he’s been pulling all these freaky-malicious stunts.

Because I’m unable to compare The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz to Verne’s earlier works, my next best bet was to line it up next to Henry James—specifically The Turn of the Screw. Not only does Verne’s story contain the similar, chilling and spooky content as James’ famous ghost story, but Schulman has done well in mimicking the vocabulary and sentence structure of late 1800s/early 1900s English in his translation, something that is already apparent in the first paragraphs of the text.

While not as fantastically flourished as James’ writing, that turn of the century feel the translation has is immediate—something that definitely made it easier to get right into the swing of and accept Verne’s novel for what it was—a simple and straightforward kind of mystery-cum-fantasy story. And as said in the book’s introduction, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz definitely has its share of dark events and pessimism. The plot itself stays within Verne’s realm of magic realism, and reads quickly and lightly, but also has those undeniably dark moments that keep it far from slipping into the children’s literature genre. Think city mobs, torched houses, and semi-random corpses.

And while I can’t say I agree with the quotes on the back cover that say the novel “soon accelerates into an intense, high-speed thriller” or that the plot is “a sinister, devious fable with an unprecedented ending that grows more and more astonishing the longer you think about it” (I mean seriously, have any of these people read The Turn of the Screw? That book and ending eff with your mind for weeks . . .), or Peter Schulman’s incorrect use of the word “myriad” (three times in 190 pages), what I can say that it was an enjoyable read and wonderful introduction to Verne’s style of storytelling.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream, translated from the Italian by David Jacobson and published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Acacia O’Connor is one of the first group of students to enroll in the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation program. She came here by way of a year in Italy, and also worked for a time at the Association of American Publishers. I’m sure this is the first of several reviews she’ll be writing for us . . . (I love when new groups of interns start working with the press. They’re all so interesting with such diverse interests, and they’re so earnest! So eager to learn and help out! So much different than all the jaded people working in the publishing industry.)

Anyway, this novel—a work of science-fiction originally published in 1897—sounds both dry and intriguing:

Have you ever seen renderings or book covers from the 1800s in which the artist attempts to envision and portray a future world? They always seem quaint compared to the contemporary world as it has been realized—proof that we are so limited in imagining the unknown that it will always take on shades of what we have in front of us today. Early science fiction is the same way, as we see in Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream translated in its entirety into English for the first time by Nicoletta Pireddu.

Mantegazza’s thirty-first century couple, Paolo and Maria, is making a global trek to obtain a marriage license and the right to “transmit life to future generations.” In one of their last stops in Andropolis, the global capitol, the pair go to the museum of natural history, which houses samples of all life forms as well as “possible people.” These “possible people” are scientist’s renderings of alien beings, and Paolo finds them hilarious:

“Oh, my dear Maria, how comical these planetary angels are, how grotesque, above all, how impossible! . . . We can imagine only anthropomorphic forms, and so, just as the ancient founders of theogonies could fashion their gods only by clothing them in human skin, so these odd creators of supermen were unable to go beyond the human and the animal world.”

Click here to read the full review.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post |

Have you ever seen renderings or book covers from the 1800s in which the artist attempts to envision and portray a future world? They always seem quaint compared to the contemporary world as it has been realized—proof that we are so limited in imagining the unknown that it will always take on shades of what we have in front of us today. Early science fiction is the same way, as we see in Paolo Mantegazza’s The Year 3000: A Dream translated in its entirety into English for the first time by David Jacobson.

Mantegazza’s thirty-first century couple, Paolo and Maria, is making a global trek to obtain a marriage license and the right to “transmit life to future generations.” In one of their last stops in Andropolis, the global capitol, the pair go to the museum of natural history, which houses samples of all life forms as well as “possible people.” These “possible people” are scientist’s renderings of alien beings, and Paolo finds them hilarious:

“Oh, my dear Maria, how comical these planetary angels are, how grotesque, above all, how impossible! . . . We can imagine only anthropomorphic forms, and so, just as the ancient founders of theogonies could fashion their gods only by clothing them in human skin, so these odd creators of supermen were unable to go beyond the human and the animal world.”

This is one of several moments in which Mantegazza reveals he is aware of his own limitations and obsolescence as one making predictions about a utopic future world. Though he really needn’t, considering that many of his previsions about biology, medicine, global politics and communication weren’t far from the mark. Indeed, things such as the CAT scan, credit cards, EU, and the Internet are eerily similar to what we find in the United Planetary States. Needless to say, other details couldn’t be further from our reality one-hundred and thirteen years later, which both is and isn’t the point. The fun of reading the otherwise very dry 3000 is to imagine Mantegazza imagining us and re-imagining ourselves and our future 3000. Pireddu’s useful notes also help us locate ourselves in his time and mind.

Employing elements common to other science fiction writers of the time, such as Felix Bodin and Emile Souvestre, Mantegazza crafts his world to a greater purpose than simply making fantastic predictions. A physician, surgeon, naturalist, anthropologist and general jack-of-all-trades, Paolo Mantegazza combined his interest in science with his investment in political and moral questions of his day in his varied writings. He participated in the 5 Days Revolt for Italian independence in Milan at the age of 16 and later served as senator under the newly unified Regno d’Italia.

From the distance of this futuristic setting, Paolo, Maria and their guides can look back to the ancient world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to criticize different aspects of society and culture. It’s a Swiftian move that gives his critiques of socialism, science, industry, religion, and especially the Aesthetic movement in art (it appears literally as a “black spot, a blot drawn over the last period of the nineteenth century” on the Art History map in Andropolis) a certain amount of distance.

In one chapter, Paolo and Maria visit the island of Ceylon, which is a sort of museum to past forms of governance. It becomes clear which forms the author feels don’t work, tyranny and socialism, for example. What is less clear is how this new peaceful, well-oiled United States of Earth really works and why. It appears that in their evolution humans have become less greedy, groping, and conniving. Mantegazza briefly attributes this to improvements in communication, which “brought men closer to one another, making hatred more difficult and war impossible.” If only twitter could save us.

What is evident, through presumptions such is these, is Mantegazza is optimistic about the future and especially about the role of science. In his future world humans all speak a universal language, there is universal suffrage, and improvements in medicine and infrastructure have made peoples lives infinitely more livable—people live to the ripe age of 70! Indeed, the greatest religion in this world is a cult to Hope. Even the stoic scientist Paolo can’t help but be moved when he and Maria visit the Temple of Hope in Andropolis. And while life with these evolved, efficient, almost naïve thirty-first century humans seems like it might get dull pretty quick, you don’t mind taking a quiet tour past the statues and beautiful fountains for a few pages.

8 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eight days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi. Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball. (Djibouti, University of Nebraska Press)

Below is a guest post from Monica Carter, a member of the BTBA fiction committee, bookseller at Skylight, and curator of Salonica. She’s going to be helping out this week with a couple other posts so that we can be sure to cover all 25 books before 2/16’s announcement of the finalists . . .

Abdourahman A. Waberi writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa, what many people in third world countries dream of—that they were born into the richest country in the world and had every advantage that Americans have. What is so captivating about this novel is its commitment to this idea, to realizing this dream in an imagined world, to reimagining the context of race and politics. Immediately, the reader is struck by that concept—what would it be like if Africa were America and the United States and Europe were third world countries where the whiteness of your skin was a disadvantage, a mark of poverty and prejudice. To enrich this conceit, Waberi adds two characters, Yacuba and Maya. These two characters do not know each other or interact, but react to each other’s appearance according to their own backgrounds. Yacuba, a poor carpenter from the bowels of Europe, emigrates to Africa in search of a better life. Yacuba’s life does not improve; in fact, it hovers in the same misery and becomes even more miserable as he is opened up to the constant prejudices that he sees propagated against himself and his people daily in real life and in the media.

But most of the novel is told through the eyes of Maya, or at least, through the mind of Maya. Waberi chooses a removed second person, as if someone is telling Maya her history, her movements and her thoughts:

Ever since your mother’s illness, everything—your body and your mind, your dreams and your feelings—have been focused on death. You examine every sin, Maya, every word, every particle of darkness, every rumor you hear on the radio. Just yesterday, your were struck by a detail in a popular song written by our great lyric songwriter, the illustrious Robert Marley.

Maya, adopted when she was little by African doctor, is white and privileged. She never realized the color of her skin would be a problem until she went to school and other children made fun of her. Feeling out of place with the world she lives in, she goes in search of her mother. This leads her to the underbelly of France, ripe with the grit and grime of poverty and hopelessness. Maya (her real name is Malaika) encounters head on her prejudices but also the contrast of the color of her skin with her background.

Already the theater of your journey is set up in this corner of France. You have a solid advantage, Maya. As you very well know, you have the local color. As long as you don’t open your mouth, nobody can suspect your foreign status, the source of many privileges. You usually keep quiet or else you express yourself in elementary French, as correct as possible. You try to erase your accent, which sounds like it comes from far away, as it wasn’t easy to find a professor to teach you the rudiments of this language—your parents insisted you learn it, if only because of your personal history.

Subtle as this point is, it reverberates—imagine that your culture, your language, your customs were slowly and quickly dismissed because your country’s financial status didn’t have an impact on global economy. Who you are as an individual is wrapped up in the disregard of rich countries and their motivations. Waberi attempts to deliver this message with alternating turns of humor and emotion, leaving us to wonder what our roles are in all of this.

Equally impressive to the goal of this novel, is Waberi’s sense and use of language. He is lyrical and direct, both earthy and ethereal. In his language you sense the rugged landscape of his native Djibouti but also the fantastical lightness of its traditions. All this is served so well by the deft translation of David and Nicole Ball.

This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Going through all my BEA catalogs, Rosa Chacel’s Dream of Reason (University of Nebraska Press, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier) was one of the books that really caught my eye. And not just because it’s long (like 776-pages long), or because the author is compared to Joyce, Proust, and Woolf (isn’t every modernist writer compared to one of those three or Beckett and Kafka?). The Javier Marias quote on the back is definitely attention grabbing: “Rosa Chacel’s La sinrazon is one of the best, most original, and most daring novels of twentieth-century Spanish literature. . . . It is time that her importance in the history of world literature be recognized.” And based on the bits I’ve read from the galley that arrived this morning, this seems to be the case.

I’m not familiar with Rosa Chacel’s works, although Nebraska has published a couple of her other books—The Maravillas District and Memoirs of Leticia Valle—in the past. Her life sounds pretty interesting as well, but it’s her description of this book—and it’s “embryo” Estacion. Ida y vuelta—that really peaked my interest. (That and the fact that it’s pretty rare to come across a massive modernist text by a Spanish woman writer.)

From the intro she wrote for the third Spanish edition:

I did not, all those years ago, try to create a character who lacked direction or moral consistency—and who might seem quite modern today—I only tried to achieve the mental discourse of a man who sees himself, analyzes himself, and follows himself in his wandering—the subject’s sole characteristic, the urge to wander—through three phases, Estacion. Ida y vuelta.

An ambition or longing for form, then, became my supreme aesthetic motive, also, not separate from form, but also in the enumeration of appurtenances or conditions—also craft, the goal of doing something and doing it well, without taking into account what, at that time, was considered well done: to do this, confident that the work’s veracity, which has nothing to do with its verisimilitude, was solid, a condition that is usually—or was usually—demanded of the novel. Because it was a question of creating a novel, of following a man—not following him as an observer capable of undertaking a story; it had to be the man’s mind itself that followed after him, keeping at just the right distance for being able to judge him, not annexing him but joining him, that is, becoming imbued with the nuances of each phase.

And here are a couple intriguing quotes from the book itself. First, the opening from chapter 1:

A few words, seemingly quite trivial when spoken, over time have become identified with one of the climactic moments in my life. What I’m thinking about occurred during a period so frivolous I’m embarrassed to describe it; nevertheless, I must describe it.

That whole period is very distant now, but I remember it well, well enough to tell about it reliably, which is not at all unusual. People often remember past events in detail; the hard thing is to recall what you were like then while you’re recalling now, to summon, from experience, knowledge, and disillusion, an exact remembrance of not knowing, of innocence. That’s very difficult and that’s what I want to achieve, especially the recollection of innocence, because ignorance actually increases with knowledge—experience and disillusion make it much easier for us to ponder the extent of our ignorance. Innocence is not extensive, though: innocence either is or is not.

And now, skipping to the opening of Part Two:

Cross out, cross out, that was the first thing I thought of when I unearthed these notebooks after six years. Quite cunning, those two words: to cross out you have to pick up your pen again.

I’m rereading everything I wrote, and it seems awkward, inefficient, and positively useless for what I wanted: it clarifies nothing. So if it’s useless, why not toss it into the fireplace? I don’t know why, and I can’t find any reason not to do that; but the thing is, neither do I find enough momentum in myself to do it. I can think I should burn it, but I know my hand won’t move in the right direction; on the contrary, no sooner did the words “cross out” come craftily into my head than my fountain pen began to secrete its spidery web onto the page.

Dream of Reason won’t be available until October, but you can pre-order copies from The Booksmith by clicking here.

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa.

It’s a pretty interesting and strange book. Here’s the opening of my review:

As Percival Everett states in his introduction, Djibouti author Abdourahman Waberi’s first novel to be translated into English is particularly interesting for the way in usurps not just our expectations, but much of what we have come to believe constitutes a novel:

This is where In the United States of Africa Waberi has inverted the globe and has managed as well to turn over the writing. By this act of inversion he has allowed us to see the absurdity of any kind of oriented globe. This novel holds a mirror up to the planet and questions the direction of spin, whether gravity is a pulling or pushing force, whether upside-down writing is even writing at all. (From the Introduction)

Although it gets much more complex as the novel advances, the primary reversal—exchanging the industrial-financial history and prejudices of Africa and the rest of the world—is a simple conceit to cotton onto and one that Waberi has a lot of fun with. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Yacuba, a “flea-ridden Germanic or Alemanic carpenter” who has fled AIDS-ridden, poverty-stricken Europe in hopes of a better life in the much wealthier and cleaner United States of Africa. Through Yacuba we’re introduced to a world where Quebec is at war with the American Midwest, where the “white trash” of Europe speak an undecipherable “white pidgin dialect,” and where the African media fans the flames of intolerance:

“Surely you are aware that our media have been digging up their most scornful, odious stereotypes again, which go back at least as far as Methusuleiman! Like, the new migrants propagate their soaring birth rate, their centuries-old soot, their lack of ambition, their ancestral machismo, their reactionary religions like Protestantism, Judaism, or Catholicism, their endemic diseases. In short, they are introducing the Third World right up the anus of the United States of Africa. The least scrupulous of our newspapers have abandoned all restraint for decades and fan the flames of fear of what has been called—hastily, to be sure—the “White Peril.” Isn’t form, after all, the very flesh of thought, to paraphrase the great Sahelian writer Naguib Wolegorzee? Thus, a popular daily in Ndjamena, Bilad el Sudan, periodically goest back to its favorite headline: “Back Across the Mediterranean, Clodhoppers!” From Tripoli, El Ard, owned by the magnate Hannibal Cabral, shouts “Go Johnny, Go!” Which the Lagos Herald echoes with an ultimatum: “White Trash, Back Home!” More laconic is the Messager des Seychelles in two English words: “Apocalypse Now!” [click here for the rest.]

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the Catalan theme, our latest review is of Mercè Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror, which is available from University of Nebraska Press as part of the European Women Writers Series.

14 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although most of Mercè Rodeoreda’s novels have been translated and published in English, and although she’s become one of—if not the—most important Catalan writers of the twentieth century, it still feels like her work is greatly overlooked in this country. Which is a shame, since her writing is fantastic, and would greatly appeal to readers of Virginia Woolf and the like.

Along with The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror was the Rodoreda novel most recommended to me during a recent visit to Barcelona, and with good reason. This novel is a sweeping family saga, covering three generations, and a slew of important historical events, including the Spanish Civil War. In terms of the plot, the book is interesting enough, containing all necessary soap opera aspects, such as illegitimate children, incest, hidden secrets, financial scheming, and the like, all told in a very compelling way, drawing the reader into the world built around Teresa Goday, a pretty, young woman who marries a wealthy old man. Her children and grandchildren populate the novel and infuse it with memorable characters, conflicts, and events, one of the most remarkable being the haunting chapter in which one of the children drowns.

In contrast to most family epics, this book is only a couple hundred pages, as Rodoreda foregoes lengthy expository passages in favor of a more direct writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the writings of Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras. And it’s the stylistic advancements Rodoreda makes as the narrative develops that is most impressive about this book.

Split into three distinct parts, the family’s disintegration runs in parallel to the style in which it’s written, moving from a time/style of Victorian-like elegance, to a more modernist period, before concluding in a more fragmented, postmodern style. This development is strikingly evident in comparing the opening of the book with its conclusion.

As previously mentioned, it opens with an air of elegance:

Vicenc helped Senyor Nicolau Roviera into the carriage. “Yes, Sir, as you wish.” Then he helped Senyora Teresa. They always did it that way: first he, then she, because it took two of them to help Senyor Nicolau out again. It was a difficult maneuver, and he needed a lot of attention.

The end has a different feel entirely:

A few days later other shadows came to cut down the trees and to raze the house. Soon they saw by the trunk of the chestnut tree a disgusting rat, with a head that had been gnawed on, surrounded by a bunch of greenish flies.

In my opinion, the best novels are the ones that develop in complicated and interesting ways, challenging the reader’s expectations. Rodoreda’s book does just that. This novel is a true artistic accomplishment, and at the risk of writing in jacket-copy speak, I have to say that this is a true modern classic that deserves a much wider audience.

A Broken Mirror
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Catalan by Josep Miquel Sobrer
University of Nebraska Press
218 pp., $24.95 (pb)

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