In honor of his “eloquent and fearless battle against political repression,” the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has awarded its prestigious 2012 Peace Prize to Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who walked out on his native country and landed in Germany a year and a half ago to pursue what he calls “freedom to write and publish.”
“In his prose and poetry, Liao Yiwu erects an evocative literary monument to those people living on the margins of Chinese society,” says the statement issued by the association’s board of trustees. “The author, who has experienced first-hand the effects of prison, torture and repression, is an unwavering chronicler and observer who bears witness on behalf of the outcasts of modern China.”
A native of Sichuan, China, Liao Yiwu is a poet, musician, novelist and documentarian. He has authored Corpse Walker, God is Red, For a Song and A Hundred Songs and Bullets and Opium, all of which have been translated into multiple languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish and Polish.
In the Corpse Walker, for which the Peace Prize was given, Liao has recorded his interviews with 27 Chinese living at the bottom rungs of society, from a grave robber and a leper, to a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals, and a human trafficker. Liao’s research took 11 years, and his final product is a stunning series of portraits of a generation and class of individuals ignored in history books and unacknowledged in the accounts of the Communist China.
And congrats by proxy to Wen Huang, who both wrote this piece for Publishing Perspectives, and translated The Corpse Walker into English.
Two of my friends have memoirs coming out this spring (the other being Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction), which is a sort of interesting phenomenon. I don’t typically read a lot of memoirs, but when it’s someone you know? . . . That’s extra intriguing. I don’t know either Gideon or Wen all that well, yet I know them well enough to know that I really like them and am curious to find out more about their lives, both in the events that shaped them and the way they write and share their take on these events.
So this week, I took a couple nights to get sucked into Wen Huang’s The Little Red Guard, which opens
At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma’s seventy-third birthday. He forbade us from calling it a “coffin” and insisted that we refer to it as shou mu, which means something like “longevity wood.” To me, it seemed a strange name for the box in which we’d bury Grandma, but it served a practical purpose. It was less spooky to share my room with a “longevity wood” than with a big black coffin.
It’s through this lens of Wen’s Grandma’s impending death, and all the complications this causes his family, that he provides a picture of what it was like coming-of-age during the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square incident. The basic conflict—as described on the back of the book—is that Grandma insists on being buried next to her dead husband at a time when all burials are outlawed, thus putting Wen’s father (a devout member of the Party) into a really tricky space where he has negotiate his belief in Communism and Mao with his filial duties and love for his mother.
The whole book is really interesting, in part because it adds all new dimensions to my understanding of what makes Wen, Wen, but also because I don’t know all that much about Chinese life during this period. At least not a in a way that is personal, thoughtful, touching, and sincere. (All qualities Wen has as a person are also evident in his writing.)
I don’t want to write a formal review (right now), but I do want to say that this memoir is a wonderful portrait of a family caught in all the various changes that swept through China in the latter half of the twentieth century. All the shifting values, belief systems, etc.—it’s all very fascinating to read about, especially told in such a remarkably earnest fashion.
It’s worth noting that in addition to authoring this book, Wen has translated two books: The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu and Women from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang. Through all of these books—and his writings for Publishing Perspectives—Wen is doing a lot to bring Chinese perspectives to English readers, and for this alone he deserves to be applauded.
Earlier in the month we posted a piece by Chinese translator—and amazingly nice guy—Wen Huang about Xianhui Yang’s collection of “stories” Woman from Shanghai. And no, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—these pieces are based on real-life events, with added fictional/literary aspects in order to skirt censorship issues. Which only makes the book more disturbing and calls to mind Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl.
I’m hoping to have a review of this up in the next couple weeks (although I keep promising reviews and not delivering, so we’ll see . . .), but in the meantime, it’s great to see the New York Times covering this in such a solid way:
Xianhui Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp,” a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls “fact-based fiction,” is about what might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China. Reading it, one begins to appreciate why travelers to North Korea are so reluctant to reflect on human suffering: the reality of North Korea today is too painfully close to a situation endured by the Chinese well within living memory. As the circumstances of the publication of “Woman From Shanghai” help us understand, these are memories that the Chinese state still works hard to suppress.
Mr. Yang’s stories, which he painstakingly collected over a three-year period a decade ago, are those of people branded by the Chinese state as “rightists” in the late 1950s and sent to Jiabiangou, a notorious camp for “re-education through labor” in the northwestern desert wastelands of Gansu Province. In his introduction the translator, Wen Huang, explains that the camp, which was originally built to hold 40 or 50 criminals, came to hold roughly 3,000 political prisoners between 1957 and 1961. All but 500 of them would perish there, mostly of starvation.
When word of the soaring death toll reached the capital, Beijing began an investigation. In October 1961 the government ordered Jiabiangou closed and then mounted an exhaustive cover-up. After it was shuttered, a doctor who was assigned to the camp spent six months fabricating the medical records of every inmate. In letters to family members, the cause of death was attributed to all manner of illness except starvation, a word that was never mentioned. [. . .]
Readers of Mr. Yang’s book should not be put off by the frequent recurrence of common elements in these stories: the exposure to bitter cold; hunger so intense as to cause inmates to eat human flesh; the familiar sequence of symptoms, beginning with edema, that lead down the path to death; the toolbox of common survivor techniques, from toadyism to betrayal, from stealthy theft to making use of the vestiges of privilege, which survived even incarceration in this era of radical egalitarianism. It is through the accumulation and indeed repetition of such things that this utterly convincing portrait of a society driven far off the rails is drawn.
And Howard French even mentions Wen in his review, praising him for all he’s done to bring this book—along with The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu—to the attention of English readers.
Speaking of Wen, I believe he’s writing a few things for Publishing Perspectives about China. Should be really interesting.
Below is a guest post from Wen Huang, whose translation of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker is now available in paperback, and whose translation of Xianhui Yan’s Woman from Shanghai releases
on Thomas Pynchon day today. We’re planning on reviewing this in the next week or so—sounds fascinating.
Today, Pantheon released Chinese writer Xianhui Yang’s non-fiction book Woman from Shanghai, which is about Jiabiangou, the name of a forced labor camp, a Chinese gulag tucked away in the desert region of China’s northwestern province of Gansu.
Fifty years ago, over 3,000 intellectuals and former government officials were herded to Jiabiangou in military trucks and forced to undertake what the Communist Party called “reeducation through hard labor.” They were known as “Rightists” because they had expressed dissenting views of Chairman Mao’s policies or offended Party officials.
Between 1957 and 1960, the Rightists worked long hours under the supervision of prison guards, cultivating farmland, growing crops and raising horses and sheep in the harsh desert conditions. In the evenings, they studied Chairman Mao’s writings and wrote self-confessions. Since Jiabiangou was covered with barren salt marshes and desert. Crops could only grow in some small patches of oasis. There was no way for the camp, originally built as a prison to hold 40 to 50 convicted criminals, to support the 3,000 new arrivals. The government refused to supply the political prisoners with any food subsidies.
Starting in the fall of 1960, food supplies began to dwindle and massive deaths from starvation occurred. Rightists combed the oasis of grassland for food, from leaves, tree barks, worms and rats to the flesh from their dead fellow inmates. Since survivors were too emaciated to bury the dead, bodies lay exposed and scattered outside on the sand dunes.
The tragedy at Jiabiangou caught the attention of senior Party officials in Beijing in December of 1960. The central government dispatched a task force to investigate the situation at Jiabiangou. Realizing the Gansu provincial government had gone overboard in its purges, the senior leadership soon issued an amnesty. By the time the government trucks arrived at Jiabiangou to move the Rightists out of the death camp at the beginning of 1961, there were only 500 some survivors . . .
The Gansu-born writer Xianhui Yang first heard of Jiabiangou in 1965 when he worked at a military-style collective farm near the Gobi Desert. In the 1990s, emboldened by the relaxed political climate in China, he decided to investigate the tragedy at Jiabiangou. He journeyed back to China’s far flung northwest and spent three years interviewing over 100 survivors. He turned those interviews into a series of short stories. In 2000, Shanghai Literature, an influential literary monthly, carried his first story “The Woman from Shanghai,” which shocked the nation. Spurred on by the strong interest from the public, Shanghai Literature published more stories later that year.
Yang has inherited the docu-literary genre created in the 1980s by Chinese writers who masked the non-fiction nature of their work by adding some literary/fictional elements to skirt censorship. The English version contains thirteen of Xianhui Yang’s stories, which document the Rightists’ daily struggles inside the labor camp. The title story, “Woman from Shanghai” recounts the tale of a woman who travels all the way from Shanghai to visit her husband in Jiabiangou, only to learn that her husband has already died of starvation. His former roommate has devised all sorts of obstacles to stopping her from seeing the body because his flesh had already been eaten by fellow detainees. In “The Potato Feast,” the author tells the story about a group of starving Rightists who are assigned to transport seed potatoes from the city warehouse to Jiabiangou. After they have loaded the truck, they found a big cauldron at the warehouse, stole a huge sack of potatoes, boiled them and then wolfed all down. On their way back, they have suffered the traumatic consequences. One guy died of overeating. “Jia Nong” depicts the life of female detainees at Jiabiangou and how they managed to raise a child born inside the camp. These and the others in this collection reveal in brutal honesty the dehumanized existence that was theirs at Jiabiangou.
These stories have become instant hits. Many survivors, who have remained silent for many years, stepped forward to tell their stories. In 2003, “Woman from Shanghai” and “Escape” won the Chinese Novelists Association’s annual Best Short Stories award.
Yu Jie, a well-known independent critic said Yang’s stories demonstrate the efforts to “defend our memory and preserve our history.” According to Yu, the extent of the distortion and rewriting of contemporary Chinese history is beyond the academic abilities of any historians. The official systematic cover-up, sabotage and elimination of historical materials have made even the most recent history ambiguous, hard to tell which was true and which was false.
Lei Da, a literary critic and executive deputy chair of the Chinese Writer’s Association describes his reaction to Yang’s stories: “I have to admit that my eyes were filled with tears when I finished the story. It’s been a long time since I have read such an emotionally powerful story. With such adorned simplicity, Yang’s works rejects superficiality and demonstrates restraint, very much like the deceptively calm expression of a person whose mind is tortured by chaos. This type of controlled restraint draws the readers to the special magic of his works. His book is a clap of lightening in the dense cloud.”
In a recent interview with the China News Weekly Magazine, Yang said: “I hope to be remembered as a writer who speaks truth. In the past, there weren’t too many Chinese writers who dared to speak the truth. I’m sure they will be more in the future. The path to truth will gradually be cleared.”
Liao Yiwu is the author of “The Corpse Walkers: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.” On June 4, 1989, Liao composed a poem, “Massacre,” that condemned the government’s brutal crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. He distributed underground and for which he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. The following, which profiles one of Liao’s inmates, is taken from his prison memoir, “Testimonial.”
Wei Yang is a native of Dujiangyan in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. His head looks disproportionately large and he speaks with a thick accent as if he had a disproportionately large tongue. While in jail, he seldom talked and was anti-social. Beneath that loner’s appearance, he possessed the agility of a squirrel, smart and alert. He moved swiftly and mysteriously.
Yang came from a poor family. Before his arrest in 1989, he was in his teens, attending a local vocational school. Like most self-absorbed teenagers, he seldom paid any attention to politics or current affairs. However, the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4 outraged him and turned him into an activist. Out of the blue, he fabricated an organization called “The China Democratic Alliance,” claiming that CDA was a longstanding pro-democracy organization overseas. Yang designed and printed a dozen CDA posters, urging people in Sichauan to stand up against the brutal regime, avenge the death of innocent students in Beijing and overthrow the central government. He boldly pasted the posters prominently at public venues. To add authenticity to his creation, he even made up a name at the bottom of the poster—“the Sichuan branch of the China Democratic Alliance.” The sudden appearance of those counterrevolutionary posters with explicit anti-government messages shocked authorities in Sichuan. Local officials escalated the case into a top national emergency and requested assistance from both the provincial and central governments. Top experts gathered in Sichuan to share information and conduct joint investigations. More than one hundred policemen were mobilized and ordered to solve the case quickly before “this counterrevolutionary organization” could create more damage.
Yang was quick on his feet. Upon hearing that police were on his trail, he picked up two big albums of stamps and ran. He remained on the lam for half a year, wandering around in ten different southern metropolises. “I started collecting stamps as a child,” he said to me after he got caught and landed in my cell. “Each time I arrived at a city, I would hang out at the stamp market for a couple of hours. The money I got from stamp transaction would last me for a few days.”
Yang’s case, which alarmed the central government and gained national notoriety, remained unresolved for months. When the real culprit was finally caught, the fatigued police were shocked, disappointed and depressed to see the “menacing” counter-revolutionary that they had pursued for half a year was merely an innocent looking teenager with a pair of big round eyes. What made them feel more insulted was the fact that Yang had no overseas connection, as he had claimed in the poster. He had no clue as to what a democratic alliance meant. When asked to cough up the names of the key members of the CDA in Sichuan, he admitted: “I, myself, hold the titles of chairman, deputy chairman, publicity manager and secretary.”
The public security bureau and the court staff realized that they had been duped. Out of anger, they had him beaten up and thrown into a detention center. Several days later, indictment papers came. Then, they put him on trial. “I took lots of mental notes and was prepared to engage in a debate with the judge about the student movement in Tianamen,” Yang recollected. “They didn’t take me to a courtroom. Instead, I was led into a small office. The paper with the verdict had already been prepared and lay on a desk. Once I walked in, the judge picked up the paper, handed it to me and told me to move my ass out of the way. When I refused to leave, he grabbed a document folder with both hands and began to hit me hard on the head. Then he yelled: ‘Get the hell out of here.’”
The judge charged him with counterrevolutionary demagoguery and sentenced him to three years in jail.
He was barely twenty years old. Initially, the authorities put him in charge of a warehouse for the prison factory. While nobody was looking, he slipped notes into the goat skin gloves that prisoner had produced for export. On the notes, he reminded people that the products were made in prison and urged customers to boycott the manufacturer. As a consequence, the merchandize, valued at about two million yuan (US$300,000), was returned from Hong Kong. The prison authorities launched an investigation and easily uncovered the hidden traitor. In retaliation, the prison guards hung him upside down from the ceiling for several days.
Subsequently, they assigned Yang to clean the factory workshops. He buddied up with a convicted murderer from Henan province, who was over six feet tall. Yang followed him everywhere. The two constantly got into quarrels. When that happened, Yang would tilt his head backward and stare at his companion with anger. He resembled more like a tiny mouse protesting against a big evil cat.
One time, all the political prisoners staged a hunger strike, but the guards enticed the common criminals to sabotage the efforts. The political prisoners found themselves surrounded by a group of hostile convicted criminals, which far outnumbered them. The big cat from Henan spotted Yang, the mouse, swooped on him with his big claws and then grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Yang was swung high up in the air, his legs kicking like an astronaut inside a space shuttle. The big cat still wouldn’t let him down. People from both camps burst out laughing. For many years, the scene haunted me and kept occurring in my dreams. I would see him being held up in the air by an invisible hand, struggling to get down. When I woke up, I would always find my own legs kicking.
In the spring of 1993, Yang served out his sentence and was allowed to go home. He became a laborer, pedaling a tricycle to transport beer for small restaurants along the Yangtse River. Once he had earned enough money to take care of his basic needs, he became restless. He traversed the country twice. He was a true friend. While in Guizhou, he encountered a former inmate and brought him back to Sichuan. Yang offered his place to that friend for a long time. One day, my phone rang. I picked it up and nobody was there. As I was puzzling over the anonymous phone call, my door bell rang. It was Yang—he had just called me on his cell phone outside.
Yang looked weary and his face was covered with dirt. It turned out that he had just gotten off a long ride on a slow train from the coastal city of Shenzhen. He had come directly from the train station to pay tribute. “I’ve gotten gifts for you. These gifts have been smuggled in from Hong Kong. Two copies of Beijing Spring, a popular magazine published by dissident writers in the West and a book, _The Disasters of China’s Leftists._” Then, Yang flashed a 100 Hong Kong dollar bill with Queen Elizabeth’s head printed on it in front of my eyes: “Have you seen it before?”
My eyes sparkled at the sight of money. I examined and squeezed the one hundred dollar bill, feigning great interest. Then, I complimented him sarcastically: “You are very much in tune with the mood of this country, money, money, money.” His face blushed, looking like a Red Delicious apple.
Later, I was told that Yang had decided to reform himself, shutting himself away and reading banned books on promoting democracy in China. He also developed a passion for Chinese and foreign detective stories. Yang made tremendous progress both in his possession of knowledge and gadgets – he was well versed in Chinese politics and equipped himself with a beeper, a fax machine and cell phone.
Inspired by ideas from the many detective novels he had read, he launched an underground pro-democracy movement and learned how to contend with his enemies. After undertaking hundreds of scientific experiments, he acquired a new skill for writing secret notes with a special ink. The notes will remain invisible until you soak the paper in clear water for a few minutes (This special ink, mentioned in several revolutionary novels, was said to be invented by the subversive underground Chinese Communists who engaged in activities to sabotage the ruling Nationalist government in the 1940s).
Somehow, Yang managed to get connected with a dissident at a human rights organization in the US and communicated with him regularly. He enlisted my help in obtaining letters from imprisoned political dissidents and disseminated their information to the international community. We were both caught and locked behind bars for more than twenty days. The latest arrest made Yang more paranoid. “The police are omnipresent, like the bugs in your stomach. You feel their presence when you eat, and when you fart and shit.”
He further improved his spying techniques and always complained that other dissidents wouldn’t be able to appreciate his efforts. One time, while visiting me at home, he bypassed me to present a pot of flowers to my father, who wasso touched that he carefully tended the flowers, giving it water and fertilizer. Little did I know that a secret note was hidden at the bottom of the pot. It was a letter to warn me of a possible police search. Two months later, after Yang mentioned the letter, I dashed over to the pot and dug up the note. It was mainly decomposed with a couple of worms squirming over it.
If the “Chinese Democratic Alliance” was a mere figment of his imagination in 1989, he made it reality eight years later. When dissident Wang Youcai and his friends established the “China Democratic Party” in the summer of 1998, Yang and his friends responded and formed the Sichuan branch. Police soon got wind of their political endeavors. Two leading members, Liu Xianbin and She Wanbao were arrested and immediately sentenced to ten years behind bars. Yang also found himself surrounded by plainclothes police who were stationed outside his apartment. He felt like a turtle in a vat. Calmly, Yang stepped out of his apartment, carrying a bucket of ashes downstairs and pretended to dump garbage. As police closed in on him, he tossed the bucket in the air. The dust blinded his captors and Yang ran away.
Like a nervous deer chased by a predator, Yang went up north, attempted to cross over to Russia through Jiamusi city, but that failed miserably. He had no alternative but returned to Sichuan, staying at different places and playing hide and seek with police. Not long afterward, he forged an identity card and joined a tour group for Thailand. Immediately upon arriving in Bangkok, he claimed to be horny and insisted on visiting the red light district. He got into a taxi and recklessly directed the driver to the American Embassy in Thailand. Sweaty and stinky, he stepped into the American territory and cried like a baby. He said he had finally tasted freedom.
In the winter of 1998, I received a fax from Yang, saying that he had been kicked out of the American Embassy and found himself on the streets. Since Thailand is well-known for its Buddhist charity, I later heard tales of Yang being picked up by a group of monks. He earned a living as a temple cleaner. Out of sympathy and friendship, I contacted friends in the West, seeking assistance for Yang. Political asylum turned out to be more complicated than I had expected.
Four years later, the dissident friend at the US-based human rights organization informed me that Yang’s political asylum status had been confirmed and he would soon be transferred to a United Nations refugee camp. He would be given US$200 per month to cover his housing and food. “The money can barely feed his stomach,” says the friend. “But it’s better than nothing. I’m trying to locate a country that will accept him, but it’s very difficult. We have to jump all sorts of hurdles. He has to do a lot to prove himself.”
I felt so bad for Yang, but knowing his past ingenuity, I knew that he would somehow survive.
One day in July of 2004, a writer friend invited me out for tea and shared with me the news that Yang had arrived in Canada.
“He has a new phone now and tried to call you many times and said he couldn’t get through?” said my friend.
“Really? I’m sure he will call again,” I said.
(Special thanks to Wen Huang for sending us this translation of Liao Yiwu’s piece. Very appropriate for today, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or June Fourth Incident.)
My friend Wen Huang — translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and Xianhui Yang’s Woman from Shanghai — contacted me this morning about the article below that Liao Yiwu wrote in remembrance of the one year anniversary of the devastating Beichuan earthquake.
As referenced in passing in the piece below, Liao Yiwu is a poet and novelist, who spent four years in jail after publishing “Massacre,” an epic poem condemning the killings in Tiananmen Square. His book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, came out from Pantheon last April to great acclaim.
On May 12, 2008, a major earthquake struck Beichuan in Sichuan province, about 80 kilometers from where I live. It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed.
I don’t know if the dead are resting in peace, but those who survived continue to be tormented by the memory of death. Recently, there have been a lot of stories circulating on the internet about an increase in suicide rates in the disaster area. A widely reported case involved a 33-year-old resident in Beichuan who had lost his wife and son in the earthquake. He used to be an outgoing optimist, but on New Year’s Eve he was found in a pool of blood with his wrist slit. Luckily, his relatives discovered early and got him to the hospital in Mianyang city where the doctor was able to rescue him.
A Chinese psychologist categorized this incident as an example of “impulsive suicide” triggered by Chinese holidays. The doctor said that every festival or anniversary has the potential to cause an insurmountable amount of stress for survivors. That reminds me of two lines from a well-known Chinese poem: “A stranger in a foreign land I cast, I miss my family on festival days.”
Each time a disaster hits China, we all become refugees and strangers in our own land. The famines of 1959 and 1962 left thirty million dead. The Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of between two and seven million people. The devastating earthquake in Tangshan claimed the lives of 240,000 . . . We survivors struggle on, living meaningless lives like pigs and dogs. In the Mao era, the Party used to call on people to “wipe clean the blood stains on your face, bury the bodies of your comrades and move on . . .” According to Western standards of mental health, almost every Chinese person is suffering from some mental illness—such as post-traumatic stress disorder. We are all the descendants or contemporaries of various man-made and natural catastrophes.
I was caught in the middle of the earthquake one month after my book Corpse Walker was released in the United States. I rushed out of my house and survived. Suddenly, I found myself the center of attention from friends and the media. I talked non-stop about my experience and expressed my frustration and inability to help. Then, some friends overseas reminded me of my duty as a writer: “You need to go to the epicenter and record real history. The misfortune of a country is the fortune of historians. This is an opportunity and mission from heaven.” They were right. I felt like transforming myself from a lazy dog into a mechanical one. I dragged my girlfriend along and sniffed around the debris for months, interviewing survivors and listening to their stories. I kept what I had seen and heard in a journal every day. As summer turned into winter, I finally had the opportunity to compile my journal into a book called The Big Earthquake. [. . . ]Read More...
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