5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Flower & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography by Mario Bellatin, translated by Kolin Jordan, and out from 7Vientos.

Since the site is about a week behind in posting reviews, I thought we’d start back in with a short and sweet one by Vince. We were at AWP in Seattle last week (we had a blast seeing all those familiar faces, as well as making a new set of new superfans!), and it’s been a bit tough coming back from the jet-lag. Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.

The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect. Within these quick glimpses, the reader encounters a writer with a prosthetic leg who becomes obsessed with a literary agent’s daughter, a scientist who synthesizes a drug that results in the deformation of hundreds of newborns, a woman who, abandoned by her husband, abandons her child in a most violent manner, and a man referred to as the “Autumnal Lover” for his predilection for the elderly. This collection of oddities comprises a larger tale, though each is compact enough to stand alone. The ideal reader will take them all in, though the book begs for a second viewing where each flower can be examined as a self-contained planet among the larger universe.

It doesn’t take long to get used to the abrupt shifts from story to story before Flowers comes to an end (sort of) and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography begins. And this is where things get very strange. The novella centers on the writer Mishima, who may very well be the long dead Yukio Mishima, though this Mishima exists post-suicide and is headless. Is it so bad to be headless? One only gets a sense of this late in the story, when the narrator confesses that, to Mishima, the worst aspects of this is the “lack” which he must carry with him, conjuring up both Lacanian ideas and Washington Irving’s famous horseman. This Mishima is also, we are informed, the author of several books that savvy readers will recognize as belonging to Mario Bellatin (most notable: Beauty Salon, a fascinating novella that shares more than a few traits with Mishima’s Illustrated Biography). Is this self-reflective literary criticism, meta-autobiographical fiction, or just plain old hijinks? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as the prose is elegant and engrossing in its directly stated fashion (thanks be to Kolin Jordan) and the ideas are about as exciting as any one might find in literature today. Reflecting on the purpose of writing, Bellatin offers a damn near perfect thesis: “Mishima realized that this mechanism might consist of using a terrible universe as a shield against what that very world produced.” This is why writers write and why readers seek their works. The mirror reflects the horrors of the world, but in the hands of writers like Bellatin, the mirror distorts just enough to offer escape. But we’re never really free from the truth.

3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, from Zephyr Press.

Chad had previously mentioned this book of poetry in a Poland-Love post; his enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced. Wróblewski has a delightfully and “casually strained” voice at times, an affect that, in my mind, resembles fleeting (and sometimes snarky) thoughts or internally-screamed observations one might make in a crowded grocery store line behind an old woman who is slowly counting out coupons for Campbell’s soup and cat food, and then the teenager at the register hits the wrong button and ALL THE LIGHTS START TO FLASH AND OH, MY GOD, MURPHY’S LAW YOU’VE PICKED THE WRONG LINE YET AGAIN. Anyway, this little bilingual volume is definitely one to take a look at.

Here’s an extract from Vincent’s review:

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures.

For the whole piece, go here .

3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”

So reads a typical aphoristic “poem” in Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski. I use quotation marks in an attempt to indicate that while the book is being advertised as poetry, the form hardly matches one’s expectations. This, depending on your perspective, is a good or bad thing. As I touched on in my last review, poetry is not a huge seller in these United States. If you are the sort of reader who finds line breaks infuriating and coded language obnoxious, Kopenhaga is poetry for you. If you’re a purist—look elsewhere.

Or maybe you’re used to this technique. It’s not like other writers haven’t dabbled in prose poems. Still, while the approach is nothing new, how many readers of Baudelaire go beyond Les Fleurs du Mal into Le Spleen de Paris? Even seasoned poetry readers tend to shrug off prose poems.

Example: an associate of mine, a poet, flipped through Wróblewski’s book and commented that, while it seems quite interesting, it isn’t poetry. I could practically see the dismissal manifest physically. Never mind the content—the form doesn’t work for him. This is lamentable and further evidence that poets and their readers may be poetry’s worst enemy.

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures. Wróblewski quantifies his existence by writing:

A letter from the insurance company PFA. My life is currently worth 7,993 Danish crowns. (The amount my family will get if I unexpectedly relocate to the next world.) Cosmic Loneliness. Thank you, Krystopher, I will keep you in my thoughts when I’m underground. A unique combination of protein and paranoia: 1,330 bottles of beer (or four tickets to Poland.)

What might otherwise be a brief interlude in a different book stands out on its own as a contained thought, yet serves a larger goal. In this sense, Kopenhaga is a piecemeal accumulation that deserves to be read in its entirety. Picking isolated movements feels criminal and detracts from the cumulative effect. In this sense, the poems adhere to a theme and build upon each other not unlike a novel. Any one page from Kopenhaga can stand on its own, but taken as a whole it makes a larger, albeit bizarre, sense.

And for all his concern with his homeland and his adopted country, in the end Wróblewski’s realization is that they are irrelevant:

bq, What terrifies me in Denmark (the land of Bohr and Kierkegaard, a caring tolerate state, with a high standard of living, etc)? What terrifies me is homo sapiens. Also in Wilanów and other wholly innocent corners of the Earth. What terrifies me is homo sapiens.

In this brevity, Wróblewski communicates the enormity of not only the exile’s tragedy but of all of humanity’s. The joke, it seems, is on us all.

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World, out from FSG.

Vincent is a regular contributor here, and I can guarantee that his review will give you some great poet-poetry insight and a few laughs for this chilly Monday morning (as well as a new recommendation for great international poetry). Here’s a part of his review:

bq The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

For the entire piece, go “here”:

16 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“The more bored you are, the more attached you get.
I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.”

So reads an entire poem by Patrizia Cavalli (translated by Gini Alhadeff) confirming for many critics of poetry what they’ve always believed: poets are gloomy, self-pitying bastards.

***

The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.

What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.

I suppose the idea is to allow American readers to see the work of Cavalli through the eyes of poets they know and trust. But this American reader had not heard of Alhadeff, and her translations still seem the most competent, a few exceptions not withstanding. Geoffrey Brock did this with Cavalli’s Italian:

If you knocked now on my door
and if you took off your glasses
and I took off mine which are like yours
and then if you entered my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not like yours
and said to me: “My love,
is everything alright?”— that would be quite
a piece of theater

Not possessing enough Italian to do more than get my face slapped, I’ll take it on faith that this is damn close to what Cavalli wrote, though reading later, equally pleasing translations by Brock lead me to the conclusion that his style suits my taste, which is to say that his reading of Cavalli suits my taste. And, apparently, Jorie Graham’s doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; the book is by no means a mess. The many hands that produced it have not inadvertently created obvious seams in the fabric. No, the tone shifts occasionally but I was never taken out of the poems, many of which are short, subtle, and compelling. Like much good poetry, Cavalli’s work can be read quickly, resulting in superficial responses, but returning to them allows for deeper appreciation. Poetry demands patience, investment, reinvestment, consideration, patience, commitment, patience, and patience. It is helpful when the work is as smooth as Cavalli’s (in most of the translations) and when the poet offers enough of an emotional core to attract readers.

***

To return to the subject of American audiences and their supposed disinclination toward poetry . . . While this disinclincation may be fact, I can’t help but think that if we had more poets like Cavalli, whose work drew comedy, ethics, and passion from the stillness of the everyday, and who were less concerned with abstractions and convolutions, then perhaps we’d have more readers of poetry.

Consider these lines from longest poem in the collection, and one of the few with a title, “La Guardiana,” translated by Alhadeff as “The Keeper,” which come after a little girl has pried a door open:

No mystery lay beyond that door,
it was a door a door like any other
and in the drawer was whatever was there,
everyone knew. And as to praises,
the only reward for my feats, many
at first, then fewer and fewer
—my prowess, with time, was taken for granted—
I cared little or nothing at all.
My pleasure lay only in the challenge
of unravelling that obstinate
inaccessible resistance to which
I was only the chosen instrument
of surrender: forces withdrawn
entering without forcing, only listening,
indifferent to the prize and to the profit,
the sound that rises form every sealed
thing, wanting just
to open and give itself away
but only to one ready for that sound.
With those bent wires, then words,
I practiced poetry.

Portrait of the artist as a young girl or easy metaphor, you decide, but to me this is the sort of clear, compelling work that is easy to dismiss and rich upon return.

This collection may not sway more Americans to poetry, but it certainly won’t alienate any, either. Cavalli will likely not become a household name, at least not in this country, but I, along with the other fools who write and read poems, and who sometimes (wrongly) bemoan the lack of attention poetry receives, now have one more writer of verse to recommend.

Fight on, brothers and sisters.

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

Things improve, though. The second novella in the collection, “Norartakir,” employs a similar style with more satisfying results. The plot of the novella is simple (the description on the back cover is somewhat misleading), but, in this instance, the story takes a backseat. Travel log, revenge tale, and exploration of social/cultural differences, “Norartakir” offers more to chew on than the other long piece in the collection, though it too suffers from meandering prose that doesn’t always hit the mark.

Shorter tales follow, most of them achieving good results that do much to redeem the otherwise cumbersome spots in The Bride Over Neroch. “Fellow Traveler” and “Ten Minutes of Waiting” nicely document the absurd realities of systematic Soviet life. “Ave Maria,” compact in comparison to the longer pieces yet given enough room to unfold, is perhaps the best balance of Tsypkin’s digressive tendencies and his ability to relay a compelling tale.

As with many collections, the sum is not as good as its finest parts, though the stories offer enough worth recommending. Perhaps this is a book aimed at specific readers: those enamored with Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden will cherish this publication of the neglected writer’s remaining work; scholars of Soviet-era literature will likely find some of these stories enjoyable. And the before-mentioned Slow Language Movement can add Tsypkin to its list of important writers. Otherwise, let the casual reader beware: here there be both glories and duds.

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Vincent Francone on Leonid Tsypkin’s The Bridge Over the Neroch & Other Works, from New Directions.

My apologies to Vincent for posting this so late—he had it ready for us almost a month ago—but it’s never too late for a Russian classic. Great Russian works can sometimes be hard to get in to, but even the heavier Russian works have their merits, and their beauty, as Vincent points out in his review. Here’s the beginning of his piece:

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This book is by definition and appearances a tome. At just over 700 pages (and hardcover) it’s a doorstop for a doorstop. But I will be one of the first people in line to champion lengthy books, and argue that insane length ≠ poor quality. Just because a book takes you a few hours to read and sits at 85 pages does not make it fantastic. Same can be said for 500+ page books (massive books like Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything can read just as quickly as the majority’s go-to 150 page novels). Just because it might take you a week or two to work through it, it doesn’t make it a crap book . . . And based on the jacket copy and what Vincent discusses in his review, Sapienza’s The Art of Joy sounds like a truly fascinating read, in great part because of the author’s own life (Goliarda was a Bad. Ass.). I’ve got a copy of this at home and am dying to read it myself . . .

Enough rave-ranting from me! Here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

For the rest of the review, go here

6 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Readers love a good story. But they really love a good author bio. If an author’s life story is interesting, readers get excited. They share a book with friends by first telling them about the writer. Oh, this Bolaño guy—he was a heroin addict and was in a Chilean jail and should’ve been killed but some high school chums saved him. This Burroughs dude—he shot his wife at a party! A writer with an interesting life is bound to attract readers because we love a good tale, especially if it is (supposedly) true. Hopefully we can get past the myths and legends of the bio page and actually read the works these writers produce.

I wonder if that will be the case with Goliarda Sapienza. Her back story is pretty great (here I go sharing her bio): she was an actress who worked with Visconti; she was a writer of some renown whose biggest project, which she spent years composing, was rejected by every publisher and dismissed by Italy’s top critic as “a pile of iniquity”; she was broke often and once jailed for the theft of a friend’s jewelry; she died penniless; her friend and lover self-published her masterpiece, which was, of course, recognized as a book of genius well after her death. This is a familiar story to readers of Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole, as endearing as her poems of solitude and his comic novel: the legendary writer not recognized in their lifetime.

In the case of Sapienza, the bulk of her novel The Art of Joy may intimidate readers who would be happy to share her story of poverty and literary struggle at a cocktail party, but might not venture further and actually read the thing. But if they do they’ll discover a compelling novel that sweeps through Italian history, bounces through philosophical ponderings, and tries damn hard to shatter as many taboos as it can.

The theme of a woman exploring her sexuality is nothing new to American readers who devour Fifty Shades of Sex in the City and The Real Desperate Housewives of Wherever. But The Art of Joy is bound to challenge readers of this sort, less because of the subject matter and more for the tone. Though not short of description one might find in the average bodice-ripper (“his hands close around my waist and lift me up, making me soar, light as a feather. It was like looking into a ravine. The greater the terror, the greater my desire to plunge in”), the book digresses and meanders through 20th century Italian history and political and philosophical tangents along with the odd murder plot and musings on the true dominant theme of the book: rebellion and freedom. The readers witness the book’s hero, Modesta, age and transform from an innocent girl raped by her father to a lover of men and women, wife to a man-child, aristocrat, rebel, libertine, mother, and anti-fascist imprisoned for her politics. And as Modesta grows into an independent woman, Sapienza becomes a liberated writer, shifting from first to third person willy-nilly, letting her muse have full reign over self-editorial impulses. The book slowly makes room (lots of it) for politics along with the perils of male-female relationships and whatever else entered Sapienza’s head during the time she held the pen.

And yes there’s some sex. But, despite the outrage from Sapienza’s critics, it’s a pretty tame story. Those looking for a dirty book will be disappointed. The Art of Joy is less about sexual exploits and the price they demand and more about defiance of all social constraints, sexual, political, and domestic. Sapienza introduces us to her ideal heroine, who is bold, transgressive, intelligent, and willing to suffer for her convictions. And she laughingly names her Modesta! In one chapter, Modesta tells her son that the reason people call her a whore has less to do with her sexuality and more to do with their manipulation of his feelings for her. People want to dominate unchained femininity, she suggests, and how better to achieve this aim than by condemning sexual expression. In this moment, among any like it, Sapienza conveys her theme perhaps a bit too demonstrably, but this is what makes the book so gripping. The sexual exploits and melodramatic plot too often feel trite. Absent the digressions and socio-political discussions, the book would suffer, becoming little more than the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s Euro-trash flick, Rochelle, Rochelle. But compressed chapters and engaging (though at times overwrought) prose make the 670 pages seem like something unique.

I anticipate split opinions on this one; no one is going to feel indifferent about Sapienza’s book. And this is a good thing. I appreciate art that is this divisive and elicits strong feelings, positive and negative. But I still don’t know if I love it or hate The Art of Joy. I admire it. I respect the author. I love her story, maybe more than I love her book. And I get the feeling that immediate recognition and success might have offered Sapienza the chance to write better books. Instead, we have her life and her tome, both of which will have to do.

19 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Kids these days. They think they’ve invented everything. The McOndo writers and Crack Generation, who so proudly buck the Magic Realist tendencies of García Márquez, who seek to find a place within Latin American letters sans spirits . . . they’ve got their heads in the right place even if their books aren’t always the best. But, having read the stories of Manuel Abreu Adorno, I have to wonder if the Crack and McOndo groups know that their battle was won in 1978.

And the Hippies Came, the collected stories of Abreu Adorno (not to be confused with the other Adorno, who is far less fun to read), is, as the translator’s forward tell us, a neglected classic, a book that resonated with readers upon impact and caught the attention of Julio Cortázar. No wonder: the book is daring, fun, utterly readable, and—why not, let’s use the term—postmodern.

Abreu Adorno’s stories, most of them one part of a conversation, boast a striking immediacy, so much that the experimentation of tales such as “to please ourselves” effectively draws the reader along through a string of references, piled up without punctuation, to an inevitable conclusion. The pop culture mingled with literary playfulness is surely what captivated initial readers, fusing music with literature and echoing the tastes of readers who love Oulipo and the Beats as well as the Allman Brothers and Arsenio Rodríguez. Riffing off of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Abreu Adorno presents us with “the truth about farrah fawcett majors,” a deconstruction and reconstruction of a sentence that reveals a number of ideas within one very famous source. “what they said to each other for twenty-five dollars” narrates a conversation between a Spanish-speaking prostitute and her john, a CIA agent, neither speaking in the other’s tongue, the Spanish here un-translated in order to effectively communicate the distance between these characters. But the jewel in the crown may be the title story, which celebrates the arrival of a rock festival on the beach of Vega Baja along the lines of Woodstock, an event that promises music, sex, and LSD—but also brings horror:

“I came and saw how some local boys beat up some blonde kids. I came and saw how some stole from the tents of others. I came and saw naked girls everywhere. I came and saw people were smoking and singing . . . . I came and saw colors multiply before my eyes. I came and saw a group of local boys masturbating behind some palm trees. I came and found out they had raped several girls. I came and I was told how some kid had been stabbed that afternoon.”

Perhaps it is a disservice to highlight the grim moments of the story, but I feel the tale best exemplifies the reality behind the hippie illusion, the manner in which American celebrity manifests when exported, and the clash of dominant and subjugated cultures. This was the late 70s, well after the idealism of the hippies was shown to be, at best, a mixed bag. And for the shores of Vega Baja in tiny Puerto Rico, such a grand spectacle of American joyful excess could only end with an equal dose of pain.

Now that I’ve spoken about the steak, let’s talk about the sizzle: kudos to 7Vientos, the small press that resurrected this book. Published as a flip edition with the stories in their native Spanish along with the English translation, packaged with beautiful art printed directly on the hardcover, and loaded with author photos, the book feels like rock and roll albums used to feel in the days before iTunes. Kudos as well to Rafael Franco-Steeves for translating the book, a labor of love that has brought English speakers a neglected literary voice and reintroduced Spanish readers to a lost classic.

19 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on And the Hippies Came (Llegaron los Hippies) by Manuel Abreu Adorno, from 7Vientos.

Vincent is a frequent reviewer for Three Percent, and recently discovered and fell in love with 7Vientos, a brand-new press based in Chicago specializing in Latin-American literature. The press has two books out so far, both with pretty awesome cover art. And the Hippies Came also boasts a neat layout in that it’s a flip book: the original Spanish can be read from one side, and the English translation from the other.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vincent’s review:

Kids these days. They think they’ve invented everything. The McOndo writers and Crack Generation, who so proudly buck the Magic Realist tendencies of García Márquez, who seek to find a place within Latin American letters sans spirits . . . they’ve got their heads in the right place even if their books aren’t always the best. But, having read the stories of Manuel Abreu Adorno, I have to wonder if the Crack and McOndo groups know that their battle was won in 1978.

And the Hippies Came, the collected stories of Abreu Adorno (not to be confused with the other Adorno, who is far less fun to read), is, as the translator’s forward tell us, a neglected classic, a book that resonated with readers upon impact and caught the attention of Julio Cortázar. No wonder: the book is daring, fun, utterly readable, and—why not, let’s use the term—postmodern.

For the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Whispering Muse by Sjón, from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The first time I saw The Whispering Muse was in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, misplaced somewhere on the D-F shelf. Taking this as a sign of meant-to-be, I bought it, and promptly placed it on my to-read shelf. This was two years ago. But I’ve been itching to get to it since! And the new editions from FSG have some pretty awesome looking covers…

Here’s a bit of Vincent’s review:

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

To read the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

The year is 1949, a fact quickly established by the primary narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, Icelandic fish enthusiast and quasi-eugenicist. Haraldsson boards the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant ship bound for the Black Sea, and encounters Caeneus, first mate and former Argonaut who, yes, sailed under Jason during his infamous quest for the Golden Fleece. This, regardless of the fact that the year is, again, 1949. This is the kind of book where none of those pesky rules of time and space carry any weight. Caeneus entertains the guests of the ship with after-dinner stories of his adventures with the Argonauts while stalled on the island of Lemnos amid comely enchantresses.

Caeneus’s inspiration comes from a splinter of wood he carries in his pocket—the titular whispering muse— a remnant of the long gone Argo. The mighty ship reduced to a mere splinter seems a good metaphor for the ethereal, the history lingering in our memories, the tiny specter that inspires and haunts all of us, but I suspect such readings are perhaps too heady for such a playful novel. Not to diminish any interpretive reading of The Whispering Muse, but I’m far happier savoring the goofy jumps from Caeneus’s story to Haraldsson’s absurd lecture on the superiority of the Nordic people, which he attributes to their fish consumption, than in picking it apart for deeper meaning. Perhaps this is because the novel’s breezy tone and brevity prevent me from looking at it as anything more than entertaining fabulism. The seafaring novel is constantly moving, sailing across narratives and landing nowhere near where I expected, instead stopping abruptly. A longer novel might have meandered, but Sjón keeps it slim and quick, a short effective burst of whimsy and surprise.

Despite the fun The Whispering Muse provides while reading—and it is a lot of fun—it was difficult to completely immerse myself in the book. Lyrical at times and certainly engaging, I was nevertheless detached from the events of the novel, witnessing them from afar. Critics of framed narratives sometimes complain of the frustration that can accompany distancing stories inside stories. Typically I do not agree, but here I sense that Sjón doesn’t necessarily care about his characters, which makes me wonder why I would invest anything in them. There are passages that amuse and delight, but the joy comes from the idea of what is happening rather than what is actually happening. This is not to say that the book is unsuccessful, but those who are looking for rich characterization need not crack open The Whispering Muse. Thankfully, I am less concerned with characters are more interested in the possibilities of the novel, which Sjón presents in 141 taut pages, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Claudio Magris’s Blindly, which is translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel and published by Yale University Press as part of their Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Yale’s World Republic of Letters Series deserves a special shout-out for all the great work they’ve been doing. At it’s core, this is a really admirable undertaking:

The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

Most importantly though, over the past few years they’ve published Edith Grossman (and some of her translations), Claudio Magris, Can Xue, Romain Gary/Emile Ajar, Witold Gombrowicz, Norman Manea, and Ranko Marinkovic, among others. (The forthcoming titles are some of the ones that I’m most looking forward to in 2013.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review:

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

“It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .”

Click here to read the entire review.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .

Asylum, gulag; Potato, potahto.

The adventures of Jorgenson and the experiences at Dachau all come back to the real center of the book: Goli Otok. The only certainty of the novel is that Tore was one of the unfortunate Italians who travelled across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia to help Tito build communism, only to be imprisoned on the tiny island of Goli Otok once Tito fell out with Stalin. The gulag years inform much of the, er, action, forever a point of reference for our not-at-all reliable narrator. When a paragraph begins detailing Jorgenson’s adventures, there’s more than a good chance it’ll end with Goli Otok, blending the very separate events into one hell of a dense puree. The success of the book is in Magris’s excellent prose and Anne Milano Appel’s translation. It is easy to see how this could all result in an infuriating mess, but, despite some frustrating stretches, Magris’s writing is seductive, keeping the reading going without ever making it easy.

To be sure, non-linear books that abandon convention are nothing new. In this sense, the odd structure of Blindly, which no review can ignore, is less interesting than the ideas which inevitably spring to mind even while wading through its more laborious passages, most notable being the manner in which victims appropriate other stories in order to make sense of their own. If Tore is a madman, he is indeed a “pazzo lucido,” a lucid madman, one capable of recognizing the absurdity of his own fate in context with the inhumanity of history. Could this be Magris commenting on the usefulness or fiction? The importance of history and culture? Perhaps, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one gets the sense that Tore is condemned to retell his story for the remainder of his days. Unlike the Mariner, Tore’s story is composed of many others, liberated from the constraints of experience. When Tore describes what he has read about Jorgeson in a book, he can’t help but critique his autobiographer, stealing the story for himself, becoming the Icelandic king. The appropriation tells us, and him, more about himself than any concentration camp narrative could. This, in a sense, is the usefulness of stories. We are never free from fictions, our or anyone’s, especially when it relates to some very real tragedies.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on the forthcoming novel The Story of My Purity, written by Francesco Pacifico, translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley, and published by FSG.

The Story of My Purity is the first of Pacifico’s books to make its way into English. He’s also the author of Il caso Vittorio, 2005 Dopo Cristo (which he co-wrote as part of the Babette Factory_, and the wildly titled San Valentino. Come il marketing e la poesia hanno stravolto l’amore in Occidente, which Google helpfully translates as Valentine’s Day. Such as marketing and poetry have distorted the love in the West.

Here’s a bit of Vince’s review of The Story of My Purity:

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Click here to read the full piece.

22 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have long lamented the lack of literature translated from Italy, the country of my grandparents. The span between Dante and Umberto Eco is wide, populated with fine writers, though it seems few of them get translated, much less read. Thus, it was with great interest that I approached Francesco Pacifico’s novel, The Story of My Purity.

The blurbs call it a comic novel in the tradition of Italo Svevo, and indeed echoes of Svevo are evident, as are echoes of Pirandello and Aldo Busi. Like these writers, Pacifico fixates on the Italian soul, tortured by Catholicism and lascivious desires. The hero of the book, Piero Rosini, is a pious husband in a sexless marriage, an editor for an ultra-conservative Catholic publishing house, and a former bohemian bent on maintaining his chastity even as he fantasizes about his sister-in-law’s breasts. His staid life is uprooted by the image of his sister-in-law dancing to Elvis, a seemingly innocent gesture that opens up buried desires. These desires lead him to abandon his life in favor of a libertine existence that his lingering faith will never allow him to enjoy.

Pacifico balances the frustrations of his protagonist with a collection of characters that range from anti-Semitic coworkers obsessed with a book revealing the Jewish origins of Pope John Paul II, a father who dismisses his son’s piety, and a gaggle of liberated females who challenge Piero’s resolve. The turns along Piero’s road take him deeper into the life of the sophisticated European libertine, yet each step forward is matched by a step back. As he journeys slightly closer to the precipice of sin, Piero creates an alter ego with which to live out his fantasies, though, as always, the foundation of religious faith proves unshakable.

As funny as all this is, and as much as the reader roots for the protagonist, Piero is not exactly a sympathetic character. Lacking true depth, he waltzes through people’s lives making promises he cannot keep. Early in the novel, Piero befriends an ambitious writer by promising publication that he is well aware will never come. Why lie to this poor sap? Well, because he represents something: the release of Piero’s obligations, a rebellion against the confines of his job, marriage, and religion. But Piero’s exodus out of his devout lifestyle is more like a tourist wandering through preapproved landmarks. In the end, the casual man about town is as trapped as ever, unaware of the events his meanderings have created.

Pacifico does a good job creating a character that is devious, charming, and frustrating. The reader wants to scream at him through laughter. There are moments of joyful hilarity, interesting metaphors, and some damn fine writing over all. But behind it boils a tension that is impossible to ignore and the sense that the whole book will fall apart. That it doesn’t is worth noting; Pacifico is a skilled writer who reigns in the story just as Piero, intentionally or not, reigns in his desires, just when they seem about to explode. The final result will surely frustrate some readers (it’s a bit anti-climatic, though, considering Piero’s behavior, this is fitting), but the portrait of the devout Catholic, torn between lust and a religious dogma impossible to exercise from the soul, is fascinating.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which Sam Taylor translated from the French and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

Here is part of his review:

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

That said, I do not wish to criticize the book for a lack of focus. HHhH is hardly a book about Heydrich or Nazism or Gabčík and Kubiš. HHhH is about the limits of recreation. Much has already been made over the meta structure of the book and Binet’s interjections. Early in the story, Binet discovers an expensive volume that would aid in his research, though he is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money. The book in question, written by Heydrich’s wife, would surely pay an important role in the retelling of Heydrich’s wedding, but Binet justifies not buying the book by writing:

It’s not a bad story. I just don’t feel like doing a ballroom scene, and even less the romantic walk in the park. So it’s better for me not to know more of the details; that way I won’t be tempted to share them […] so in the end, maybe I can do without this overpriced book.

Such statements, which may suggest a lack of commitment to some readers, can also be seen as a confession, one that must ring true to even seasoned historians. There are limits to research, sure, but how often have writers imposed them on themselves? Is this laziness or the admission that not everything needs to be included? If we accept this, we must also accept that even the most exhaustively researched material is subject to the whims, tastes, and interpretation of the writer. Binet’s confessions do not shake my confidence in his ability to tell a story; they merely remind me that all nonfiction is filtered through a net of subjectivity.

What Binet decides is that he is writing an “infranovel”—this after reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. He wonders how Littell “knows that [Paul] Blobel had an Opel.” Binet’s contention is that “if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book.” He goes on to discuss the plausibility of Bobel having an Opel, but decides that, “plausible is not known.” This is the sort of quandary that torments him, the sort of small detail the average reader would accept without question. Such is Binet’s true concern in writing HHhH: to show the reader how much of their cherished historical works—be they billed as historical novels or nonfiction—are peppered with bullshit.

The savvy reader will not care. Many of us are aware that even the most detailed and researched work will fall short of the truth (whatever that is). And we will scratch our heads and wonder why the reading public privileges experience over invention. We will wonder, again, why memoirs are so damn important to people who would never pick up a novel. We will be reminded of the debacle over James Fray’s A Million Little Pieces and ask ourselves how so many people could be so easily duped and, more importantly, why they were so hurt to learn that this absurd book was really fiction.

If Binet succeeds in reminding readers that historical fiction, as HHhH could be labeled, is riddled with bits of speculation, that’s great. He has picked up and added to an interesting conversation. This is why HHhH should be read and discussed. Also, it’s quite fun. The story is good and, at times, riveting. Binet’s prose, translated by Sam Taylor, is enjoyable in a way that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, more so for the often amusing injections than the brief chapters, some of which total a sentence or two. There are definitely worse ways to introduce such a conversation to a wide reading public. To that end, the publicity onslaught of HHhH is justified. Here’s hoping that readers normally averse to works in translation will pick up a copy of this book and reconsider long held beliefs in the superiority of factual literature.

9 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular reviewer Vincent Francone on Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, which is translated from the Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn and available from Amazon Crossings.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s not-entirely-positive review:

Reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is like having bad sex. You’re not enjoying yourself but you don’t necessarily feel like stopping. Your mind wanders, you wonder how long until it’s over, and you may even fake a response just so it’ll stop. After all, it’s late and you need to get some sleep.

If this seems an unfair analogy, I apologize, but so much of the book is about sex, both in terms of sexuality and gender, that it seems apt to think of the book in this way. If I may (pun alert) extend my analogy: the book, like bad sex, is hard to forget because of the tease and lack of climax. It presents stimulating ideas but fails to focus on them with any sustained energy, leaving the reader frustrated.

Clearly I am in the minority; the book was a bestseller in the Ukraine and the author’s reputation was cemented by its publication. It seems an important book, worthy of translation and publication here in these United States, though one might argue that the subject matter (feminine sexuality and gender norms) dictates the book’s importance more than the actual book. Perhaps too many other writers have mined this territory before, thus the “controversy” mentioned on the book’s back cover is relative. In the Ukraine, a frank exploration of feminine sexuality might be bold, but nothing in the book seemed shocking to these jaded eyes.

Click here to read the whole piece.

9 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is like having bad sex. You’re not enjoying yourself but you don’t necessarily feel like stopping. Your mind wanders, you wonder how long until it’s over, and you may even fake a response just so it’ll stop. After all, it’s late and you need to get some sleep.

If this seems an unfair analogy, I apologize, but so much of the book is about sex, both in terms of sexuality and gender, that it seems apt to think of the book in this way. If I may (pun alert) extend my analogy: the book, like bad sex, is hard to forget because of the tease and lack of climax. It presents stimulating ideas but fails to focus on them with any sustained energy, leaving the reader frustrated.

Clearly I am in the minority; the book was a bestseller in the Ukraine and the author’s reputation was cemented by its publication. It seems an important book, worthy of translation and publication here in these United States, though one might argue that the subject matter (feminine sexuality and gender norms) dictates the book’s importance more than the actual book. Perhaps too many other writers have mined this territory before, thus the “controversy” mentioned on the book’s back cover is relative. In the Ukraine, a frank exploration of feminine sexuality might be bold, but nothing in the book seemed shocking to these jaded eyes.
Perhaps this is an issue with translation, as another feminist text, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, was famously butchered upon initial translation. Still, I want to have faith in Amazon Crossing and their ability to select good translations of quality works. And this is not a bad book, per se, though it is not always enjoyable. The stream-of-consciousness narration and lack of paragraph breaks may alienate some readers, but even those who have cut their teeth on Virginia Woolf or Thomas Bernhard may drift while reading Zabuzhko’s book. There are engaging moments, but they are scattered throughout a series of otherwise tedious meditations on sex, gender, poetry, and estrangement, all themes worth exploring, sure, but not always well explored here. Zabuzhko has some compelling moments in her book, but, again, they lack connectivity and only flit in and out (pun intended), leaving the reader confused and, well, unsatisfied.

There are good moments in Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, but finding them requires effort, patience, and a tolerance for digressions that miss as often, if not more, than they hit. The attentive reader may be rewarded, assuming they have not seen books like this before, and assuming these attentive readers are like a polite lover: willing to overlook flaws and put up with a lackluster performance because the act itself is so important.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Leeches by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Language: Serbian

Country: Serbia
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: For seven reasons.

Today’s post is by Vincent Francone, a regular contributor to Three Percent, and an author, reviewer, and reader for TriQuarterly Online.

My original intention was to write 25 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated Book Award. Though it is a damn good book, I could not think of 25 reasons. Numerology plays a part in the strange, gripping story, so I decided to take 2 and 5 and combine them into 7. So I give you 7 reasons why Leeches by David Albahari should win the Best Translated book Award:

1. Because everyone loves a 309 page paragraph.

(Seriously, despite the absence of paragraph breaks, the prose is fluid, breathless, and engaging. Albahari’s story flows from event to event not turning back onto itself, as in the novels of Bernhard, but pushing forward and moving the story of one man’s descent into the surreal underworld of anti-Semitism and conspiracy further away from reality, taking the reader along the many twists and turns.)

2. Because Ryan Gosling made anti-Semitism sexy.

(As mentioned above, the plot of Leeches revolves around anti-Semitism. The narrator witnesses a seemingly random event—a woman getting slapped—and from that moment becomes embroiled in conspiracies both real and imagined, largely dealing with the opposition to Serbia’s Jews, all while the neighboring cities swell with the nationalism that would erode Yugoslavia. By focusing on a different aspect of ethic, um, pride other than the Serbian campaign of the 1990s, Albahari creates a story that seems larger than the war itself. I am not one to look at the author’s biography as a means of understanding a work of fiction, but knowing that Albahari is of Jewish descent allows one to analyze Leeches, and its focus on anti-Semitism, as a synecdoche for the horror of ultra-nationalist politics.

As for the Ryan Gosling reference, well . . . he’s everywhere these days, and very much one of the top Googled public figures. So maybe his performance in The Believer will somehow rub off on Albahari’s novel, garnering the book some additional attention. [And while I’m at it, I’d like a billion dollars.])

3. Because Dan Brown proved conspiracies = $.

(The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons got people reading. I have not read these books [the movies sufficed] but I assume the reason for their popularity rests in the conspiracies Brown weaves over the course of several pages. Assuming I am correct, Leeches ought to make bank. There are many conspiracies and interconnections that boggle both the narrator and the reader. And, like that damn Da Vinci book, there are strange symbols. Well, one really—a triangle and some circles. When the narrator tracks down an old friend to assist with the decoding, the answers are not the illuminating sort, but rather answers that only raise more questions. Sorry to keep harping on poor Dan Brown, but unlike his pot boilers, the conspiracies, Kabbalist mysteries, numerological and symbolist deconstructions do not shed much light. The technique is less about immediate rewards and more about creating a tone of uncertainty and fear.)

4. Because a Serb has not won in some time.

(They’re due.)

5. Because there’s dope.

(The narrator of Leeches smokes a lot of hash and marijuana, leading readers to wonder about his reliability. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Albahari’s narrator begins to appear particularly unreliable as he sees signs everywhere, often after consuming a large amount of weed. The reader cannot help but wonder about the state of the narrator’s mind. Sure, there are validations of his increasing paranoia, but even these very chilling events are tinged with a sort of skepticism that comes from other characters [the narrator’s best friend appears rather blasé about it all] as well as the story itself, which is rather outrageous. Maybe the paranoia is justified? Sure, there are very real reasons why the narrator ought to fear for his well-being [threatening graffiti, angry letters, a late night beating] but as the reader walks in his shoes one can’t help but ask: is some of this just drug-induced paranoia?)

6. Because the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has not gotten enough fictional representation.

(This can be debated, of course, but to this reader the events of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars don’t get enough attention. Or, I should say, they may get plenty of attention—I am sure there are scores of novels and poems on this subject that I do not know of—but these books don’t seem to land on the BTBA list. Nothing against the great writers of the French language, but don’t we think it’s time to look at another side of Europe?

Anyway, this book, as stated above, is not the In the Land of Blood and Honey realist portrait of life during wartime that one might expect. Rather, the fractured reality that consumes the narrator seems to best mirror the reality of such unimaginable atrocities. The events of Leeches take place one town over from the real war, yet the characters don’t seem concerned—they are too busy getting high and falling into Kabbalist rabbit holes. From this skewed [lack of?] vantage point, Albahari constructs his compelling story, one that may not directly focus on Serb aggression and nationalism but, nonetheless, is informed by the events of the 1990s.)

7. Because I say so.

(Nothing more to add. Just give Leeches the award.)

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Jacques Dupin’s Of Flies and Monkeys, which is translated from the French by John Taylor and available from Bitter Oleander Press. (Probably easiest to order this directly from SPD.)

“Vincent Francone” is one of our regular contributors. (In fact, he has a “25 Days of the BTBA” piece coming out on Friday.) Additionally, he’s a writer and a reader for TriQuarterly Online.

Here’s the opening of his piece:

My head hasn’t been in poetry lately. Call it burn out—last year I read mostly poems—or attribute it to grad school killing my love for poetry, but I have been reading more prose as of late. Subsequently, my recent poetry reading has mostly been out of obligation.

That being said, it takes a lot to get me excited about poetry. Jacques Dupin’s work is, thankfully, the kind of poetry that does intrigue, delight, and reward, making it the ideal poetry to reignite my old love. The recent release of three of his works, collected under the title Of Flies and Monkeys, makes the case for Dupin’s importance in the world of contemporary poetry. Dupin is an interesting figure. A contemporary of Yves Bonnefoy and follower of Francis Ponge, his name is not bandied about with the regularity of his peers. Add to that, his poems ride the crest between the legacy of surrealism and the state sanctioned aesthetic of political rumination. Neither of these trends suited Dupin, whose work is at once immediate and startling (“a clearing sodomoy / her saintly hem fucked / under the same low leaves”) even when the images veer into the obscure (“As if I were the moist imprint of her voice. The oil and the gathering of her endless worm-screws in the air”). Dupin’s images are both strong and subtle, suggesting a modern-day Artuad who pulls back just before his poems become clouded by the grotesque. This is a writer who understands his craft, and while he refuses to adhere to trends his work has the balance and grace of a trained master.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My head hasn’t been in poetry lately. Call it burn out—last year I read mostly poems—or attribute it to grad school killing my love for poetry, but I have been reading more prose as of late. Subsequently, my recent poetry reading has mostly been out of obligation.

That being said, it takes a lot to get me excited about poetry. Jacques Dupin’s work is, thankfully, the kind of poetry that does intrigue, delight, and reward, making it the ideal poetry to reignite my old love. The recent release of three of his works, collected under the title Of Flies and Monkeys, makes the case for Dupin’s importance in the world of contemporary poetry. Dupin is an interesting figure. A contemporary of Yves Bonnefoy and follower of Francis Ponge, his name is not bandied about with the regularity of his peers. Add to that, his poems ride the crest between the legacy of surrealism and the state sanctioned aesthetic of political rumination. Neither of these trends suited Dupin, whose work is at once immediate and startling (“a clearing sodomoy / her saintly hem fucked / under the same low leaves”) even when the images veer into the obscure (“As if I were the moist imprint of her voice. The oil and the gathering of her endless worm-screws in the air”). Dupin’s images are both strong and subtle, suggesting a modern-day Artuad who pulls back just before his poems become clouded by the grotesque. This is a writer who understands his craft, and while he refuses to adhere to trends his work has the balance and grace of a trained master.

The title work, “Of Flies and Monkeys,” is flanked by two other books, “Mother”—a series of mostly prose poems—and “Hazel Tree.” Of them, the middle section is the strongest. It is there that the reader sees Dupin vacillating between direct confessionalism and the unapologetically imagistic:

I write whenever

in the distance
fertilized by anguish

fear squirts out

and no longer has but words
but knives

to calibrate the suffering

If Dupin lapses into dreamy poetics, and risks alienating his readers, he does so in a manner that continues to engage:

As long as I breathe monkeys dance

A dance whose long arms dangle
voluble thoughts
a glass language a language

of sulfur
of iron pigments leading astray

the ocher of the excremental
eye

the firedamp blue of interstice.

To significantly excite this reader, a poet needs to involve me in the process of reading the poem. In short: craft is not enough. I need something more to hang my hat on. Lesser poets churn out works riddled with empty vulgarities, which I find dull, or capitulate to the trends of academia, which I find unforgivably dull. Dupin’s work extends itself, inviting one in even as it does the reader no favors. There are no easy answers in his work, but however elliptical these poems may be they remain engaging and graceful, excrement and all.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Giannini Braschi’s Empire of Dreams, which is available from AmazonCrossing in Tess O’Dwyer’s translation.

Vincent Francone is one of our regular reviewers, and a writer, and a reader for TriQuarterly Online.

AmazonCrossing recently published three books by Giannini Braschi, including Yo-Yo Boing! and United States of Banana. Vince wasn’t totally sold on this book (which is probably the most obviously “experimental” of the three), as you can see in his review:

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat.

Click here to read the full review.

20 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.

While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat. To be sure, Braschi hits the mark often enough to keep the reader engaged or at least curious to see what will follow. Landmark moments in the collection come late, as in the third section “The Intimate Diary of Solitude,” which gets more than a little meta, but wading through the earlier, duller bits is tiring. Oddly, Braschi’s lists and anaphora would be less grating were they broken into poetic lines and not crammed into a single paragraph:

This is not a book. I did not read it. I lived it. I lived it from road to road. I came across the fortune-teller on the way. And the magician too. And I found a door closed. And gates. And guards. And cowards and killers. And street spectacles. And New York City. And the moon. And the sun. And thunder. And love. And death. And trains. And visionaries. And war. And the atomic bomb. And I found my ears. And I found my soul. My self. My poet. My stars. My comet. And I wrote. And I got drunk. And I loved.

And I got bored. Not that drinking and loving and New York City are dull per se (though we’ve seen them before in better books), but the manner in which Braschi introduces them (and revisits them again and again in similar list fashion) renders these themes and images into jackhammers splitting the reader’s patience.

That said, there are more successful moments in Empire of Dreams. The before mentioned final third of the book plays with perspective by shifting persona; the author inserts herself into the story and becomes all of the characters. I admire such literary tinkering, though the conceit becomes clear before long. By the end of Empire of Dreams I felt neither anger for having slogged through a tiresome read nor reward for having taken the time to digest an experimental book.

Kudos should be reserved for AmazonCrossing, the translation leg of Amazon.com’s new publishing beast. I applaud them for taking a chance on a foreign book that surely will not net a large return (aside from not being a pot boiler, this has the curse of poetry, never a big seller on these shores). That said, I hope that AmazonCrossing’s next venture yields more satisfying results.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, which is just out from New Directions in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this last night. And I completely agree with Vince’s review: this is a strange, surprising, unsettling, great book. I’ve not read a lot of Pelevin, but after finishing this, I decided to go back and start Homo Zapiens . . .

I’ll be posting more about Hall of the Singing Caryatids in the near future (in a “Why I heart Scott Esposito” post), but for now, I just wanted to mention a few disparate things:

1) Thanks to Vince for reviewing for us. All of our reviewers are spectacular, but I think Vince deserves a special shout-out for so consistently writing interesting, solid reviews. (You can read the all here.)

2) If you have a review in with us and are anxiously awaiting to see it appear, don’t fret! For once (thanks to Six, our current intern), we actually have a backlog of pieces to run. That is not the usual situation, so forgive me for cherishing it. We’re actually set through the holidays, which means that we’ll have good shit to post while everyone is dreading enjoying their family time!

3) This deserves it’s own post, but props to ND for fixing their website. I haven’t explored this as much as I should, but it only took 30 seconds to find The Hall of the Singing Caryatids and download the cover image. This is compared to spending 30 minutes screaming at their old site and its annoying incompleteness. Thank you, ND people. If only all publishers could take your lead.

And now, the opening of Vince’s review:

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot.

Click here to read the full piece.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot. Lena auditions for a job in an underground club that caters to the whims of elite clientele. At this point, one can imagine any number of perversions to come, though the book is more in line with Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog than Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Lena gets the job partially because she can sing but also because she looks good naked standing on one leg. The job involves posing as a statue—literally. The girls in the hall are frozen thanks to a shot synthesized from praying mantises. Yeah, it sounds pretty weird, but in the context of the book this all makes sense. It gets stranger, as the girls, in their statue state, are able to communicate with a praying mantis, all while humming and singing for the amusement of largely absent customers. Any hope the reader has for outrageous sex or overly grotesque metaphors of state power and female subjugation are dismissed when the book turns away from such easy shocks and moves toward more impacting territory. This book subverts expectations and writes its own rules, asking for the reader’s trust as it settles on disturbing and oddly beautiful conclusion.

The usual descriptions of post-modern, post-post-modern, magic realist, sci-fi, or absurdist are too heavy with cultural baggage to convey what Pelevin achieves in this tale. While these elements are present, they are not employed in common fashion. Pelevin seems giddy with his literary tinkering, moving the story away from the obvious outrages in the work of his countryman Vladimir Sorokin. There is plenty of opportunity for Pelevin to turn the underground sex club into a Caligula-like romp, but when the one and only sex act finally arrives it is encapsulated with: “And they danced the dance that engenders new life.” Pelevin is not going to waste time and space dwelling on these details, especially when what follows is so much bigger. The end result is a brief, powerful book that is equal parts humorous and unsettling.

10 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Adonis’ Selected Poems, which Yale brought out not too long ago in Khaled Mattawa’s translation.

Vincent Francone has written for us a few times in the past and is a reader for TriQuarterly Online, a site that should probably be on our “links” page. (And will be shortly.)

Here’s the opening of his review:

Anyone here in the United States who has paid attention to Nobel Prize predictions these last few years is undoubtedly familiar with the name Adonis, though probably unfamiliar with his poetry. This may have less to do with American philistinism and more to do with the lack of English translations of his work. Luckily, Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Margellos World Republic of Letters, has published Adonis Selected Poems remedying this situation. The book—beautifully packaged and lovingly translated by Khaled Mattawa—works well to introduce the uninitiated to the enigmatic poems of a major figure in world literature. The introduction will be, for some, a revelation and, to others, confounding. To be sure, Adonis has ambition and vision to burn, though the end results of his work can just as often bemuse as inspire.

I am always one to champion international poetry, so I was quick to get my hands on this book. Reading it, however, has been slow. This is not to say it is a slog, but a thought that often arises when wading through some of the less accessible, more inscrutable poems in this collection is whether or not western readers are able to fully appreciate these works. Could there be something lost to cultural relativism? Is it necessary to know a bit about Arabic literature to truly enjoy these poems? Perhaps, though there is no shortage of impenetrable, imagistic American poetry currently confusing grad students and, to borrow a phrase form Robinson Jeffers, duping the duped. That being the case, what is the Western reader to do with “I see a word— / all of us around it are mirage and mud Imrulqais could not shake it away, al-Ma‘ari was / its child, Junaid crouched under it, al-Hallaj and al-Niffari too”? Even with endnotes, moments such as these threaten to alienate the reader unschooled in the history of Arabic letters.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anyone here in the United States who has paid attention to Nobel Prize predictions these last few years is undoubtedly familiar with the name Adonis, though probably unfamiliar with his poetry. This may have less to do with American philistinism and more to do with the lack of English translations of his work. Luckily, Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Margellos World Republic of Letters, has published Adonis Selected Poems remedying this situation. The book—beautifully packaged and lovingly translated by Khaled Mattawa—works well to introduce the uninitiated to the enigmatic poems of a major figure in world literature. The introduction will be, for some, a revelation and, to others, confounding. To be sure, Adonis has ambition and vision to burn, though the end results of his work can just as often bemuse as inspire.

I am always one to champion international poetry, so I was quick to get my hands on this book. Reading it, however, has been slow. This is not to say it is a slog, but a thought that often arises when wading through some of the less accessible, more inscrutable poems in this collection is whether or not western readers are able to fully appreciate these works. Could there be something lost to cultural relativism? Is it necessary to know a bit about Arabic literature to truly enjoy these poems? Perhaps, though there is no shortage of impenetrable, imagistic American poetry currently confusing grad students and, to borrow a phrase form Robinson Jeffers, duping the duped. That being the case, what is the Western reader to do with “I see a word— / all of us around it are mirage and mud Imrulqais could not shake it away, al-Ma‘ari was / its child, Junaid crouched under it, al-Hallaj and al-Niffari too”? Even with endnotes, moments such as these threaten to alienate the reader unschooled in the history of Arabic letters.

But isn’t part of the reason one comes to a translated work to learn about another culture and gain an insight outside the scope of our experience? Indeed, though the complaints already leveled at poetry (elitist, intentionally obscure) seem to double when reading poetry in translation. The reader of Orhan Pamuk’s novels can maneuver through the cultural and historical references so long as the road is paved with prose. When dealing with poetry, which can be—sure, why not say it?—a little cumbersome both in and out of translation, readers may be turned off and publishers may tune out. Ultimately, this is a shame, though when a book such as Adonis Selected Poems arrives on these shores the hope is that the savvy reader will let go of provincial obstacles and just read the damn thing.

How to read Adonis, a challenging poet to say the least? The approach should be the same as when reading many of the greats: let the poems be and abandon the need for full comprehension, at least the first time through (and the poems get a lot better upon rereading). Not everything is here for our understanding, and not everything suffers as a result. Oh, there are moments when the reader has more than a good idea of what is going on (“A bullet spins / oiled with the eloquence of civilization. / It tears the face of dawn. No minute passes / in which this scene is not replayed”) and as one gets further, and the progression of Adonis’s career is revealed, the earlier, modernist poems give way to clearer, often striking work. This is evident in the penultimate section, taken from the 2003 collection
‘Beginnings of the Body, Ends of the Sea.” Here Adonis demonstrates balance between imagery and emotion: “Your mouth’s light, no redness / can match its horizons // Your mouth, the light and shadow / of a rose.” So while there are rewards throughout the book, the reader is offered little to no favors. This is not a bad thing. Poetry requires that one slow down to appreciate its mystery. It asks the reader to put in effort and attention and to slow the hell down. In an age of streaming videos, tweets, and real time news, poetry offers a rare form of solace. Essentially, works such as Adonis’s ask the reader to rethink how they define poetry. Expectations will undoubtedly be thwarted, but the effort leads to some startling places.

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Raul Zurita’s collection Song for His Disappeared Love, which was translated from the Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky and published by Action Books.

I don’t read much poetry, so I wasn’t familiar with Zurita until Vincent Francone pitched us this review. (Although I love his Wikipedia entry: “Raúl Zurita Canessa (born 1950) is a Chilean poet and anthologist. He won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2000.” This is a street. There is a house.) Strangely—or maybe not so—one of the best overviews is available through the Blue Flower Arts agency and makes him sound pretty interesting:

Raul Zurita was born in Santiago, Chile in 1950. He started out studying engineering before turning to poetry. His early work is a ferocious response to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup. Like many other Chileans, Zurita was arrested and tortured. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. He has written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He has done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. In the early 1980s, Zurita famously sky-wrote passages from his poem, “The New Life,” over New York and later—still during the reign of Pinochet—he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) into the Atacama Desert which, for its length, can only be seen from the sky. An article in Jacket Magazine elucidates, “He says that in those days of brutality and distrust and terror . . . he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert. . . . He started to imagine that he might fight sadistic force with poems as insubstantial as contrails in the air over a city.” Zurita’s renowned poetic trilogy, composed over a span of 15 years, is considered one of the singular poetic achievements in Latin American poetry: Purgatory appeared in 1979, Anteparadise in 1982, and The New Life in 1993.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review of the new book:

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Click here to read the full piece.

18 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.

Song of His Disappeared Love, written in 1985, first addressed this grisly practice of discarding the dead at a time when such actions were well known and never spoken of. Years after the Pinochet era, the truth was made officially known. By then, it might have felt like the news was far too late. Chile already knew. Zurita knew. His testament is his poem through which the discarded dead have a voice. Zurita made them the focus of INRI (recently published by Marick Press, translated by William Rowe), written after Ricardo Lagos made the news public in 2001. If his subject is made overt in INRI, whereas it is implied in Song of His Disappeared Love, one can forgive the latter (or former, depending on your taste). In a time when self-censorship is the natural result of governmental oppression, what is left to the poet but codes? Song of His Disappeared Love employs such coding, though it never feels dense or obscure. Zurita’s voice (expertly translated by Daniel Borzutzky) explodes off the page. The horror is direct and the interrogation is clear. Zurita is not a symbolist; he is a poet of accusation, testimony, and intensity rarely seen today. In the face of indescribable pain, the poet burns himself, as Zurita did in protest. He writes poems on the page, in the sky, and bulldozes them into the desert (all of which Zurita has done—the residents of the Atacama in Chile still preserve his words “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” in the sand). The poet creates more than poetry; he fashions a new language that best captures his subject. Song of His Disappeared Love is Zurita writing in that new tongue, seeking to give voice to more than the individual. The poem, while mourning the dead and confronting the living, unites other countries with Chile in a series of “niches” that smashes borders. In this sense, Zurita’s poem is, to paraphrase Roque Dalton, like bread: for everyone.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In honor of today’s Ernesto Cardenal event in Ann Arbor, we thought we’d post a review of Pluriverse that Vincent Francone wrote for us.

The collection—which came out from New Directions earlier this year—covers Cardenal’s entire career, and Vincent has nothing but positive things to say about the book:

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

      They told me you were in love with another man
      and then I went off to my room
      and I wrote that article against the government
      that landed me in jail.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

They told me you were in love with another man
and then I went off to my room
and I wrote that article against the government
that landed me in jail.

When I first encountered the above four lines—the eighth section of Cardenal’s long poem “Epigrams”—I was sure I was reading a Latin American writer concerned, a la Neruda, with love and political strife in equal measure. I was right, but little did I know of the complete depth of Cardenal; little did I know that this poem, which is wonderful, was not necessarily a perfect synecdoche of the poet/priest/activist’s total abilities. “Epigrams” is early Cardenal, written in a period of reaction against Somoza in Nicaragua. Though its deep political leanings manifest before long, the poet as sad bastard makes an appearance first:

This will be my revenge
that one day you’ll hold in your hands the book of a famous poet
and you’ll read these lines that the author wrote for you
and you won’t even know it.

Reading the poem alongside the more famous “Zero Hour,” one can see the development beginning in Cardenal from romantic young poet to mature writer documenting injustice:

     . . . the United Fruit Company
with its revolutions for the acquisition of concessions
and exemptions of millions in import duties
and export duties, revisions of old concessions
and grants for new exploitations,
violations of contracts, violations
of the Constitution

“Zero Hour” remains one of the most striking examples of the poet as witness. The artful translation by Donald Walsh (one of seven translators contributing to this collection) captures the horror and history permeating throughout Cardenal’s long, unsettling poem:

Oh, to be able to sleep in your own bed tonight
without the fear of being pulled out of bed and taken out of your house,
the fear of knocks at the door or doorbells ringing in the night!

Pluriverse jumps from these early works to contemplative, spiritual poems that fuse Cardenal’s socio-political concerns with his religious vocation—“In respect of riches, just or unjust, / of goods be they ill-gotten or well-gotten: / All riches are unjust.” (from “Unrighteous Mammon (Luke 16:9))—sorrowful meditations, such as his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” and the nightmarish vision of his classic “Apocalypse,” a poem that seems all the more prophetic when read today:

And the angel gave me a check drawn on the National City Bank
and said unto me: Go thou cash this check
but no bank would for all the banks were bankrupt
Skyscrapers were as though they had never been
A million simultaneous fires yet not one firefighter
nor a phone to summon an ambulance nor were there any ambulances
nor was there enough plasma in all the world
                                to help the injured of a single city”

Cardenal always keeps his eye fixed firmly to his subject, even when bouncing from place to place, as in his “Trip to New York,” a poem that offers North Americans a look at a foreigner’s view of our rampant capitalism:

                      . . . And I look
at the deep canyon, the sunken gorge of buildings
where the hidden persuaders hide behind their windows
          selling automobiles of True Happiness, canned Relief (for 30¢)
                ** The Coca-Cola Company**
we cut through the canyon of windows and trillions of dollars

A seller of old books in the Village in love with my shirt
              my cotton peasant shirt from Nicaragua
he asks me who designed it.

Reading Pluriverse from cover to cover is, in effect, charting Cardenal from his beginnings to his current, Cosmic Canticle era writings—poems that chart the progression of the universe, the Earth, and the individual all at once. The new poems in Pluriverse strive to balance all of creation on the tip of the poet’s pen, fusing a connection between man and the cosmos:

Our cycle follows the star cycle:
stars are born, grow, die; our cycle is short
            — theirs too.
They seem stable
but like us they’re slowly dying.

If the universe is expanding
from which center is it expanding?
Or is every point the center?
So then the center of the universe
is also our galaxy,
is also our planet
(and the girl who once was for me).

The cosmic/mythical quality of these new works matches the storied life of their author. Cardenal, at age eighty-four, after political opposition, after serving as ambassador for the Sandinistas, after forming the Our Lady of Solentiname commune, after being publicly admonished by Pope John Paul II, after being harassed by the current incarnation of the Sandinistas, has earned the right to look not only backward but beyond, into the furthest regions of space. His findings match the remarkable quality of his past poetry. This is essential reading.

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