3 May 16 | Chad W. Post |

It took a bit longer than planned, but we did it! There are now “Why This Book Should Win” write-ups for all 35 books that were longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Browse through these, find a few to read, and tune in to The Millions tomorrow at 7pm to find out who won.

To make it easier to catch up on all the entries in this series, listed below are all of the titles, linked to their WTBSW post. (I’ll keep updating this as more of the pieces go up.)

These pieces are a great way to handicap the field, to get a sense of what the particular juries were paying attention to this year, and to find a handful of titles to check out for your own reading pleasure.

Enjoy!

BTBA 2016 Fiction Longlist


A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)

French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)

War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)

Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)

Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)


BTBA 2016 Poetry Longlist


A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)

Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)

Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

Silvina Ocampo by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (Argentina, NYRB)

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

25 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Becka Mara McKay, BTBA judge, author (A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, Happiness Is the New Bedtime), translator (Laundry, Blue Has No South, Lunar Savings Time), and director of the Creative Writing MFA at Florida Atlantic University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (France, Burning Deck)

In 2005, shortly after the publication of his innovative, entrancing collection Opéras-minute, the French writer Frédéric Forte was elected a member of the OULIPO—the innovative and entrancing Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature). Reading Minute-Operas, with its masterful translations (and transformations) by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel, it’s quite easy to see both the necessity and vitality of Forte’s membership in the group, and the difficulty and pleasure that translating this book must have presented.

As the title states, Forte’s poems are miniature performances enacted on every page. With a vertical line running down each poem’s face, Forte creates areas that he terms “stage” and “wings,” and uses an extraordinary variety of typographic techniques—erasure, diagram, blank space, symbols, and much more—to write the poems. Each opera, then, can be read in a number of ways, from a number of directions. For me, these are not so much poems that have moved from French to English—they are boldly original creations in one poem-language that are recreated in a new poem-language. The results are infinitely engaging. Forte’s poem-language takes the form of stage directions, lists of props and other materials, and process notes, among the more recognizable gestures. Yet these gestures and typographic techniques never overwhelm or overshadow the words that Forte (and his translators) choose. The writing remains meticulously original, tightly crafted, yet still ludic and lyrical. While some of my favorite of these poems are difficult to reproduce here, the following excerpt gives a sense of Forte’s mischievous mixture of the playful and the grim:

A wall
erected for tennis
and what if we changed
it to something else
to handball
headball
o sacrificial

Ceaseless games       Interchangeable massacres
Dismal demigod


Minute-Operas is divided into Phase 1 and Phase 2 (each phase consists of five twelve-page sections). Phase 2 draws on dozens of existing poetic forms (listed in a brief appendix—the book’s only paratext) from the very traditional (triolet, villanelle) to much newer forms (including the minute-opera itself), some invented by earlier Oulipians. The work of the translators on this section of the book is most interesting to me, as form is so clearly integral to the text that it, too, must be translated. There is something quite sculptural in these efforts, as though Forte’s text were three-dimensional and the translators needed to find its new language on a number of axes.

I have spent hours combing through the layers of this book, reading the poems in order, reading them at random, reading them aloud, and I have yet to grow tired of what Forte and his translators have achieved. Minute-Operas is meant to resound loudly in the readers’ heads and then force us to grapple with the uncomfortable, uncomforted silence that follows.

25 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Becka Mara McKay, BTBA judge, author (A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, Happiness Is the New Bedtime), translator (Laundry, Blue Has No South, Lunar Savings Time), and director of the Creative Writing MFA at Florida Atlantic University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)

In his excellent essay on translation “Anonymous Sources,” Eliot Weinberger posits “There is a cliché in the U.S. that the purpose of a poetry translation is to create an excellent new poem in English. This is empirically false: nearly all the great translations in English would be ludicrous as poems written in English, even poems written in the voice of a persona.” I have always only half-agreed with Weinberger on this point, or perhaps I only agree with half of his point: yes, it is a cliché (and a danger) to believe that the purpose of translating poetry is to simply create a new poem in English; yes, to measure an English translation of a poem against a poem written in English is a useless and fruitless exercise. But I nonetheless object to the appearance of the word ludicrous among the rest of Weinberger’s sensible assessment. And in the case of the poems of Sea Summit, which are vibrant and crystalline in Fiona Sze-Lorain’s remarkable translation, I would replace ludicrous with luminous. No, these do not sound like poems written in English, nor should they. They represent a carefully crafted intersection between the original Chinese and the English, a prismatic lens through which the original Chinese sparkles, transforms, and insistently sings. These are nature poems that defiantly employ an urban vocabulary—or perhaps they are urban poems seeking the solace of nature through the only language they know. In either case they are utterly original and absorbing, forcing us to rethink how we perceive objects and moments we might otherwise deem mundane. The ending of the poem “A Bouquet of Cauliflower” is a meditation on many things—the vegetable in question is only the beginning of a disquisition on the requirements of patience, the passing of the seasons, and the mystery of the world beneath our feet:

a string of buds awaits the bloom
like a thousand Buddha hands with palms closed
only a cauliflower with a thin stem
places a huge spring on its body


Many of Yi Lu’s poems examine the natural world with this mixture of serenity and compassion, sorrow and sly humor. Here is the beginning of “By the Maple Woods”:

Here are the millionaires of autumn
balding elders
yellow leaves scattered like torn pieces of manuscript
only silver gray branches
can hold the sky palace


Fiona Sze-Lorain is, according to her biography on the book’s cover, “an acclaimed zheng harpist,” and her ear for the music of poetry is evident throughout the book. The rattles, roars, and hums of the natural world are deftly reproduced in exquisite moments of internal rhyme and alliteration—techniques which never call attention to themselves but simply serve as elegant vehicles for these equally elegant poems.

18 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Monica Carter, former BTBA judge and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, Writers Tribe Review, and other publications. She is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in World Literature Today, Black Clock and Foreword Reviews. She is the Project Coördinator for Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools. She is currently working on her novel. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)

“I left some portions of the document in my drawer, and handed over others. The parts I handed over described my contribution and loyalty to Re-Ed, while the ones I left behind in my drawer contained material I hoped to use for a novel after I succeeded becoming a new man. I didn’t know which of these was more important to me, just as I didn’t know which is more important – the life of an author, or his works.”


Yan Lianke is a distinguished novelist not quite recognized as he should be in his own native China despite having been nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning the Franz Kafka Prize, which is based on an author’s oeuvre to date. He is revered in China although most of his works have been banned there, including Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village (a run was published but then recalled) and his current work, The Four Books, which never found a mainland publisher. Political dissension doesn’t make a literary work great, but a continual effort to challenge bureaucratic revisionist history of one’s own government provides a strong foundation for honest, compelling, exemplary work especially in the face of reprobation. The Four Books is morbidly farcical, a literary feat that few authors can achieve, but more importantly stuns with its complexity that appears simple, its messages that seem to be reductive reboots of communist propaganda and its styles varied yet fluid enough to be utterly readable.

This is not an “entertaining” book, although it entertains. It is a book of importance and by the fact that it is banned in the author’s homeland; it no doubt will be included one day in the canon of great Chinese literature.

The Four Books chronicles the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and also sardonically includes the use of red blossoms as rewards for good deeds based on Mao Zedong Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) that promoted open expression of the regime in order to let intellectual ideas flourish. Of course, Mao did a quick turnabout deciding that those intellectuals who took advantage of that freedom should be imprisoned for their counterrevolutionary ideas. As part of Mao’s economic initiative to reign victorious in grain and steel production over the West, where the “United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany and Italy are cock, balls and feces,” he collectivized farming in rural areas and established Re-Education districts for rebellious criminals.

The novel opens with the setting of the ninety-ninth district located on the embankment of the Yellow River where the goal was to assign each criminal “a number and re-educate them through hard labor.” The characters that figure prominently in this district are the Child, a low level leader in the Party whose ideology is based on an adolescent viewpoint of the world, Communism and the concept of reward and punishment, followed by intellectuals only referred to by their former profession: the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and most importantly, the Author. Almost a character itself, Chinese color symbolism imbues each page using red, white, yellow and black often and effectively to represent traditional interpretations ranging from beauty to imperial power to Communism.

Lianke shrewdly structures the book with alternating excerpts from four books. Translator Carlos Rojas stylistically creates fluidity and vibrancy throughout the novel with his language and interpretative choices. It opens with Heaven’s Child, an anonymous book written in holy language borrowed from a pastiche of religious texts including the Bible and The Four Books of Confucius. Then he alternates with excerpts from Criminal Records in which the Author records the infractions of his fellow district criminals and is promised by the “higher-ups” “that as long as you finish the this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be a leader of the country’s writers.” With the rationed ink and paper he is given, the Author also begins his memoir, Old Course, an intimate first person account of his thoughts, his gradual devolvement from witness of the ninety-ninth to a gradual obsession with growing wheat bigger than an ear of corn. The fourth book is also the final chapter that is the Scholar’s partial version of The New Myth of Sisyphus. The Scholar’s unfinished philosophical text about what he has learned from living in the Re-Ed District states that once humans become acclimated to the conditions of punishment, humiliation and debasement, harsher forms must be introduced make them understand the idea of hardship and challenge. Lianke turns up Camus’s myth into a futile exercise that involves the draconian task of not only rolling the rock up the hill, but down it as well.

As a symbol of the Communist Party, the Child is demanding, easily provoked, craves attention and wants to be constantly rewarded by the “higher ups.” The intellectuals make promises to him in order to gain paper red blossoms, which once they gain one hundred twenty-five, they will be allowed to leave and return home. He makes them swear that if they don’t mean it they say he makes childish, melodramatic demands like asking them to take a gun (placed on a platter), shoot him in the chest and make sure that he falls forward, not backwards.

Even though through raiding all the counterrevolutionary books of the intellectuals he is usually caught reading comic books emphasizing the simplistic nature of the bureaucracy as well as its lack of substantive provocative ideas. Paralleling the belief system of Christianity, even though the Theologian is forced to give up his copy of the New Testament for the Child to burn, Child’s is fascinated by a picture of Mother Mary. He ends up believing in the mythological nature of the stories of Genesis to justify the actions of the Politburo in Beijing.

Determined to earn enough red blossoms to return home, the Author goes to live by himself so he can produce wheat as big as ears of corn. At first, he encounters a feeling of freedom and renewed vitality to write but then in order to keep his promise of growing this Monsanto-esque wheat stalks, he devolves into chained slave vulnerable to the perils that threaten his wheat including bad soil, sun, and sparrows (one of animals of the Four Pests Campaign the Mao created in order to kill these pest that threatened the grain). He cuts himself to mix his own blood with water to make the stalks grow bigger. He forgoes sleeping in his hut to guard his wheat from disaster and continues bloodletting until he is pale and too dizzy to walk back to his hut. His desperation is palpable when he thinks, “Instead I wanted to crawl back, and in the process show all of the wheat plants how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children’s sympathy.”

While the “higher-ups” demand unrealistic wheat production and steel production from the labor camps, the land is barren with no hope of producing food for the Re-Ed workers and starvation results. When it is clear that the Great Chinese Famine hit the rural provinces hardest, some Re-Ed districts were faced with incidents of cannibalism. When it occurs in the ninety-ninth, the Scholar brings it up to the Child:

“The Scholar stared at the Child and said, “But at the very least we can’t permit people to eat each other, right?”

The Child open the picture book he was holding to a page near the end, and said, “Early on, there was a devastating famine, and people died throughout the land. There was also an enormous flood in which nearly everyone drowned, and only Noah’s family survived.”


The satirical nature of the Author that Lianke employs in the beginning of the book slyly progresses to horror when the he realizes survival seems unlikely for anyone:

“I retreated to the middle of the room and told the Scholar not to look. The Scholar then walked over to the corpses lying on the innermost cot. As soon as he reached the bed, I recognized the two bodies that belonged to the Theologian and a young associate professor. The Theologian originally had not been on his bunk. Feeling flustered, I went over and pulled back the sheet covering the Theologian’s body, and immediately felt a wave of nausea run through me. The body had no arms or legs, instead merely his trunk was lying there, like a corpse that has been disinterred after many years. I quickly covered him again with the sheet before the Scholar could see it and retreated from the room. I squatted in the doorway and repeatedly dry-heaved, as thought there were a clump of putrid grass wedged in my throat.”


Lianke lays out the slow burn of this genocide by insidiously eliminating basic human rights and primal needs from each character. The only expression of sexual (which is forbidden) and romantic love happens between the Scholar and the young, pretty Musician. Ultimately, after being reported by the Author, they are brutally abused for their behavior and endure degrading behavior in order to obtain food for each other.

The realization that no matter how many red blossoms they collect, they are doomed to die without dignity or recognition. Loyalty to the Party is the highest goal which none of the criminals can ever achieve when the requirements are constantly changing.

It’s not simply that The Four Books should win because Lianke continues to challenge the tragedies of China’s past and their denial in the present of those tragedies, but because he represents the curiosity of a writer who refuses to let them be ignored. The Four Books, as well written and as devastating as it is, confronts history and the roles we play in it. It’s a powerful testament to the courage Lianke renders as the obligation of a writer. Shouldn’t more writers do this with each novel they write? The Four Books should win for the voice it gives to the millions who died without recognition, without acknowledgment that they even existed.

18 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)

for miniature republic
parsimonious poems
          Engravings


The Djibouti writer Abdourahman Waberi’s name will be familiar to BTBA followers for his novel Transit, short-listed in 2013. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper is Waberi’s first collection of poetry and there is a palpable sense of urgency to these lean poems. Size, of course, is not a reliable indicator of impact or import. Waberi sees his small native land as part of the cradle of mankind, of homo erectus, to be exact. Here, humans first stood, first put one foot in front of the other, joining gesture, movement and breath into a kind of freedom. And it is that instant, that conjunction, that inspires Waberi to imagine man making “that first gesture in the bed of [his] pages.”

Writing poems, for Waberi, is “a matter of strictest necessity.” He sows these “modest pebbles” in readers’ paths, not to guide them—Waberi is suggestive, not prescriptive—but as markers to use in charting their own way to a meaningful life free from the tides of economic, financial, ecological, and spiritual excess that are washing over the world. “Another path of life is possible, apparent in the creases and folds of this collection.”

These spare poems are laconic but evocative, conjuring up desert landscapes, a nomadic tribe, or his small country’s struggles with civil war and extremism. He sees the wind as a calligrapher, covering the dunes with words.

brush in hand the wind sketches
landscapes of words
sculpted mountain slopes
shadow plains
horizon enclaves


This is a landscape that has witnessed much suffering, great and small. The Somali bullet,

. . . bloom of a new genus
that bans
all transports of joy
all shedding of tears in the name of love
drawn from the bittersweet milk of peace


is countered by a lame herdsman who laments

with my skinny legs
I’ve crossed vast desert sands
with my short strides
I’ve kept up with my camels’ pace
so why should I care
if my shrew of a wife slanders my name!


Unsparing in their frankness, Waberi’s poems are also finely attuned to the beauties and joys in a harsh landscape of “tortured geology” and happy simplicity. Waberi enjoins us to “let nomadic words live” for they, as much as any others, can open up new worlds and lead us to “the tree of knowledge [which] has wings to surpass the horizon.”

14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Charlotte Whittle, translator, and editor at Cardboard House Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)

Guadalupe Nettel’s unsettling autobiographical novel, which follows on the success of her story collection Natural Histories, recounts the disorienting childhood of a girl coming to terms with living in her own skin. From the psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator recalls a youth marked by trauma and displacement, and details the magnified perceptions and small-scale metamorphoses of her coming of age. The Body Where I Was Born is a story of a girl learning to inhabit a body, and of how the body inhabits its surroundings. In her exploration of this process of becoming, the author trains her gaze on the uncomfortable discoveries of youth many of us would prefer to forget. Nettel’s prose is elegant yet unadorned, and her translator, J.T. Lichtenstein, has preserved the book’s matter-of-fact and sometimes deadpan tone in her skillful rendering of the novel.

Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the young Guadalupe is subjected to a series of corrective treatments and forced to wear an eye patch the color of her skin. This gives her the uncanny appearance of having only one eye, making her classmates “curious and uncomfortable,” and initiating Guadalupe into her status as an outsider. The treatment regimen also involves exposure to black light: “for this, my parents built a wooden box that my small head fit into perfectly, then they lit it up. In the background, like a primitive cinemascope, drawings of animals went around and around: a deer, a turtle, a bird, a peacock.” The image anticipates Guadalupe’s withdrawal into her own world, where animals will become her protective totems.

In a defensive gesture, Guadalupe grows hunched and turns in on herself. Critical of her posture, her mother nicknames her “Cucaracha.” Partly as a result of this, Guadalupe comes to identify with the kingdom of insects, creatures that provoke the same mix of curiosity and revulsion she feels she causes in others. This process of identification reveals Nettel’s interest—also visible in Natural Histories—in the distasteful and beastly aspects of existence, those from which we might prefer to look away. Guadalupe’s cold, distant grandmother, with whom she is forced to live after her parents abandon her, banishes her from lunch “exactly how one might throw an undesirable insect outside so as to not have to squash it in front of guests.” Around the time of her first stirrings of sexual desire, Guadalupe sees in the mirror “something similar to the caterpillar found dead in my shoe.” Even as she discovers the latent potentialities of her young body, she creates an “alternative geography” for herself, recognizing that “I really did resemble the cockroaches that travel through the marginal spaces and buried pipes of buildings.” It is fitting then that Guadalupe reads Kafka, and recognizes her kinship with Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis: “Nowhere in the story does it say exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was, but I quickly gathered it was a cockroach. He had turned into one; I was one by maternal decree, if not by birth.” Guadalupe’s identification with the indestructible cockroach and with the ancient trilobite places her within a tribe of tough-shelled survivors.

While Guadalupe’s narrative is profoundly intimate and personal, it is also punctuated by far-reaching events that marked the era of her childhood. She grows up surrounded by members of the diaspora prompted by a series of Latin American dictatorships. Recalling the Villa Olímpica where she lived, built in 1968 to accommodate athletes and journalists attending the Olympics, Guadalupe associates it with the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco on the eve of that same event. And in 1985, she and her mother watch in shock as a Mexico City in ruins, after the earthquake that killed thousands, appears on the television in their living room in Aix-en-Provence.

A child of the 1970s, Guadalupe is subjected to experimental practices typical of the decade. She attends a Montessori school, and witnesses her parents’ flirtations with open relationships, communal living, and the predictive capacities of the I Ching. But despite their apparently liberated mindset, her parents are still conditioned by the mores of their own childhoods, and subject to curious blind spots and inconsistencies in their parenting ethos. When, after years of insisting that no truth should be withheld from their children, Guadalupe’s father disappears, it takes years for Guadalupe to discover the truth of his whereabouts.

One of the book’s most memorable episodes concerns the silent communication between Guadalupe and Ximena, daughter of exiles from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In a ritual of “marvelous symmetry” the two girls see each other from their windows and each recognizes the other in her isolation; they return to their respective windows night after night to quietly watch one another. It is as if each had found in the other a companion to share the quiet, intuited truths of their afflictions. But while Ximena sets fire to herself and escapes “once and for all from the cage of her life,” Guadalupe is already on her way to developing the cockroach-like carapace that will shield her.

The novel’s epigraph “I always wanted / to return / to the body / where I was born,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song” is borne out in the final sequence, in which the eye surgery Guadalupe’s mother has been planning is ultimately deemed unsafe: returning from the journey, Guadalupe accepts her body and the marks it bears, saying: “my eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently: . . . I decided to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.”

The Body Where I Was Born captures the alienation of a childhood spent in solitude, and is a powerful testimony of a woman claiming her agency and her place in the world. In its measured, incisive prose, the small incidents of adolescence carry as much weight as the global, political events that frame them. We are thus invited to witness the evolution of a hardened, resilient self that wears its wounds like stamps of survival: “these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.” Nettel’s complex, probing testimony of survival and Lichtenstein’s deft translation make The Body Where I Was Born a strong contender for the BTBA.

14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)

This collection, subtitled “Women’s Poetry from Herat Afghanistan,” bears moving witness to the extraordinary impact both poetry and translation—usually seen as minor, or marginal pursuits—is able to have on both our intellectual and emotional lives. In her introduction, powerhouse translator Farzana Marie explains that “poetry holds an exceedingly revered place in the consciousness of the people of Afghanistan,” its orality lending it endurance in a country where so much else has been repeatedly destroyed. Her tight editorial focus makes this anthology as effective as a single-poet collection; poems by eight young women from Herat, an ancient city near the border with Iran, all written post-2001 (in other words, post Taliban). The feeling is one of an intimate circle, especially as the latter seven are in some sense disciples of Nadia Anjuman, the poet whose work opens the collection and who was widely seen as the city’s leading literary light until her untimely death, a victim of domestic violence.

Two things about this book blew me away—one was the strength of the writing itself, and another was the astonishing work of its translator, whose time in Afghanistan has been spent volunteering at orphanages, on active duty in the US Air Force, and as a scholar of Persian literature. Crucially, though, Farzana Marie is also a poet in her own right, and an extremely gifted one, with the literary sensibility needed to carry off the tricky task of making poetry which relies heavily on strict forms like the ghazal and end rhymes come alive in English, substituting internal and slant rhymes to retain the music of the original (these translations beg to be read aloud). Here, in one of Nadia Anjuman’s most famous poems, rhythm, line-breaks and vowel sounds combine to produce an effect both heady and heavy, the long “u” at the end dulling the poem into a soporific stupor, similar to the way that earlier repeated “full” hung alone like a weight or a stopper, bringing any hint of exuberance up short.

Smoke-bloom

I’m full of the feeling of emptiness,
full.
An abundant famine
boils me in my soul’s fevered fields,
and this strange waterless boiling
startles the image in my poem
to life.
I watch the new-living picture,
a peerless rose
blush across the page!
But barely has she first breathed
when streaks of smoke begin
to obscure her face and fumes
consume her perfumed skin.


Sadly, I wasn’t able to interview Farzana herself as she’s currently recuperating from a stroke (and fundraising to pay for treatment), but her publisher Jim Perlman, at the wonderfully-named Holy Cow! Press, found time to answer a couple of questions.

How did you come to publish the book?

a.) We first became aware of Farzana Marie (her birth name is Felisa Hervey) in 2012 when we accepted her poem “Be-long-ing” for an anthology we were putting together called The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home. In her bio notes, Farzana wrote that she was currently studying for a Ph.D. in Persian Literature at the University of Arizona. In the winter of 13/14, wanting to escape the frozen tundra of northern Minnesota, I planned a two-week visit to Tucson where I have extended family. I decided to contact Farzana and set up a meeting. We met for lunch, and during our conversation, she mentioned that she’d translated a collection of contemporary poetry by Afghan women and was looking for a publisher. Soon after returning to Minnesota, I received a copy of that same manuscript. Although Holy Cow! are known primarily for writing by midwest regional American authors, I felt that Load Poems was a powerfully unique and historically important book. So, we went for it.

How does it feel to be longlisted?

b.) We’re overjoyed that Load Poems has been selected for the BTBA—the nomination confirms for us the wisdom of taking this bold step in publishing Farzana’s ground breaking collection, and it will definitely encourage us to seek out other translations to add to our list.

For those who are interested, here’s a clip from the reading tour for this collection:



14 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stacey Knecht, BTBA judge and translator from the Czech and Dutch. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)

There I lay, on my little yellow sofa, felled by the flu. The first three days were foggy, inside and out, but on the fourth day my eyes began to clear, and I reached for the fat Russian novel that had been waiting next to me ever since the fever hit: The Big Green Tent. Given my penchant for things Slavic, and the fact that the second half of a flu is usually easier than the first, this promised to be a pleasurable recovery.

It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.


These lines, at the start of Chapter One (they appear again halfway through the book, as if to remind us of their significance), sum up not only the book itself, but also the style in which it’s written. The novel unfolds, “following the natural course of events,” to reveal the cast of characters and the storylines one has come to expect from “the dear, dead, nineteenth-century Russians,” as my favorite literature teacher used to say, the kind of book in which we’d write a list of all those characters on the inside cover. Yet the author of The Big Green Tent, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, is still very much alive, widely acclaimed, and “an outspoken protester of the Putin regime” (The Atlantic, December 2015). The events she describes, the post-Stalin years up through the early 1990s, are palpably recent; and repression, unfortunately, is timeless.

Perhaps to ensure that the reader is aware of the fact that history can and does repeat itself, Ulitskaya brings past and present together, blurring our sense of time. There are passages here that echo those dear, dead Russians:

The storm took place at half past two in the morning. It was like an opera or a symphony—with an overture, leitmotifs, and a duet of water and wind. Lightning bolts flew up in columns, accompanied by incessant rumbling and flashes. Then there was an intermission and a second act. Maria Nikolayevna’s heart pains, which had plagued her all day, stopped immediately, as did Captain Popov’s headache, from which he had been suffering for the past twenty-four hours. He even managed to get some sleep before going to work. The only thing he didn’t manage to do was put a stamp on the document. But he could do that later.


Or:

Boris Ivanovich loved his mother-in-law; in her he saw Natasha, but with a more decisive character. In his wife, Natasha, he saw features of his mother-in-law — the first signs of a gentle fullness, small lines around the mouth, and a burgeoning soft pouch under the chin. Good, healthy stock. The generous plumpness of Kustodiev’s women, but all the more alluring for it.


Then, just two pages later, we’re reminded that this is a different era entirely:

What he was looking for was lying on his own desk in his office in the form of photocopied pages from Stern magazine. These were cartoons: gigantic letters spelling “Glory to the Communist party of the Soviet Union,” and under them a crowd of people and dogs trying to reach the sacred words. The words themselves were made of sausages: boiled salami, with circles of white fat where they had been sliced. [. . .] Another cartoon depicted a mausoleum made of the same kind of salami, with the word Lenin written in sausage links.


I’d be very happy for The Big Green Tent to win the BTBA 2016. The prose is rich, the translation, strong, the themes, relevant. There’s history, and humor, and a pinch of folklore. But above all: it cures the flu.

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Tiffany Nichols, who will start her Ph.D. studies this upcoming fall and is a contributor at to Three Percent. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

My first rather obvious reason as to why The Things We Don’t Do should win the Best Translated Book Award relies on the prestige already gained by Andrés Neuman. Neuman was introduced to the English-speaking audience with Traveler of the Century, a work which I personally believe is the War and Peace of the twenty-first Century. As Jeremy Garber points out in his Three Percent review of the work, Neuman “has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards.” Further, Neuman was celebrated by Roberto Bolaño (in verified print— Between Parentheses). In discussing Neuman’s first novel, Bolaño states:

In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch) and on no few occasions Neuman pulls it off with frightening ease. . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know what the future holds for them. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like that happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.


Personally, I believe we can drop the mic here as to why Neuman should win the BTBA. Namely, (1) Neuman is still writing, and (2) Neuman has assumed a position of literary prestige in the Spanish-speaking world (and the English-speaking world)—All of Bolaño’s criteria having been met. . .

Most works of literature stay with us for a short period of time upon completion. However, there are a select few that sneak into our thoughts weeks and months (even years) after completion. These works are challenging and thought-provoking not only during the act of reading, but also appear in one’s thoughts without provocation when the mind is busy handling our daily lives because the subconscious needs time to make its own assessment of the work within the greater context of time and the reader’s own identity. The Things We Don’t Do (along with his other works) is one of such work. Neuman’s aforementioned prestige and now his ability to write literature with staying power—the case is building for a winner.

Focusing on the work itself, The Things We Don’t Do is divided into five parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or often forget completely while carrying out their day-to-day activites. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest books to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the clues one can observe from a clothes line.

True to this established style, Neuman places observations that are so globally ubiquitous that anyone could engage with his work as if there was a direct channel between the reader and the work. These observations are so simple and stated with such finesse that any reader will be forced to provide his/her undivided attention to the work. Examples (absent context) include:

. . . [I]n today’s session he declared that people born in the ‘70s are orphans through excess. That is to say, a generation that feels unprotected due to its parents’ overprotectiveness.

Ariel was, so to speak, a classically envious person. And, like all people of his kind, his fury turned against his own interests and slowly ate away what little happiness he had.

. . . [M]y male neighbor on the third floor, who takes the trouble to sort out his washing by size, type, and color. Never a shirt next to a hand towel. He lives alone. I am not surprised. How can anyone possibly sleep with someone unable to trust in the hospitality of chance? No doubt about it, my obsessive neighbor is a master of camouflage.


Scattered through the entire collection, the reader will also stumble across clever mind games, which add to the intrigue of the work as a whole and demanding the reader’s attention (and later that of the reader’s subconscious) despite the deceivingly simple and unencumbered prose. Further, Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to these mind games, result in a work that becomes quite endearing to the reader without a scintilla of kitschiness. In addition, each story starts from a point of zero and flourishes into concepts that cannot be predicted or sensed until they occur, amplifying the suspense which is often laking from a short story collection. As Neuman himself states:

The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.


Turning to the end of the work, the last section of Things We Don’t Do is comprised of series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference pertaining to the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements to test whether the collection passes muster which can only come from an author who is aware of not only his craft, abilities, comfort with language, and peers, but also one who understands what came before and what will come after. To contain such a dare in one’s work is yet another reason why The Things We Don’t Do should win.

In closing, just as Patti Smith carried Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal throughout the world in a small metal suitcase, I have done the same with The Things We Don’t Do (albeit, a generic polyester Samsonite suitcase). Like Astragal for Patti Smith, The Things We Don’t Do has become a “trove of bittersweet memories” probably because The Things We Don’t Do is “a book [that] tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.” I rest my case as to why this book should win.

(It should also be noted that The COOP at Harvard University believes that The Things We Don’t Do is a perfect alternative to doing your homework. So you do not have to take my word for it.)

13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.

The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.

The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.

Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.

The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.

End of argument.

12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller at Community Bookstore. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

Wolfgang Hilbig made his English-language debut last year with the publications of I (Seagull Books) and The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press). Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator for both titles, brilliantly renders the bizarre beauty and breathlessness of Hilbig’s German, its lyricism, its repetitions, its many shades and shadows. Of course, to call Hilbig’s prose beautiful or breathless is to fear a misreading, for it’s a beauty bloomed in ruin, a breathlessness bound to suffocation. Landing on the BTBA’s longlist, The Sleep of the Righteous should win for its seven visions of an East Germany gone mad, back when the wall was not yet a relic, Stasi roamed wolflike through the streets, and a longing for escape blurred against the feeling of abandonment.

Hilbig finds poetry in paranoia, and his stories are strewn with wreckage and warning. Writing for the Boston Review, Tyler Curtis carefully locates Hilbig’s unease as a product of the East German surveillance apparatus: “[The] very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation.” Indeed, paranoia, particularly in its political guise, tends towards multivocality, collapsing distinctions between past and present, presence and absence, self and other—sometimes all at once. At their very best, Hilbig’s sentences are many-headed with these horrors. The harrowing story “The Afternoon” features a writer (always a writer, with Hilbig) who seeks to describe the arc of a Stasi arrest which happened long ago, but feels as if its happening outside his door right now. Between sitting down to compose and lingering on the arrest, the writer falters:

“How can you sit at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?”


The scene is scattered: table, town, hunt, all held haphazardly together by the writing act. The tension between representation and reality seeks an ethical answer; the writer’s present chronicle might stand in as a savior, called forth from the shadows of a man’s memories of his town to bear witness, but the writing act is overwhelmed, finally, by the past’s political terror, and off the story goes into the arrest. It’s a question asked of the present and the past at once, and left unanswered by both. Witness, for Hilbig, isn’t enough, even when it’s the only thing we have, and the only thing his writing can offer. But the writer must conjure these images, tormenting as they may be, or else we’d have no narrative to contend with.

The Sleep of the Righteous arrived to several comparisons (from Two Lines’s jacket copy, from the LARB) to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and, surprisingly enough, the comparison stands. Not that a riff on Poe is altogether unheard of—Bolaño sneaks more than a few into his stories—but it’s rare to encounter a mimic done well. In particular, the story “The Bottles in the Cellar” reads like pulp horror from the Eastern Bloc, uncanny enough to renew Poe’s same sense of panic, at least in this reader. The young man in the story, drunk off his family’s cider, finds himself increasingly unable to conceal his theft by refilling pilfered bottles. Humorous enough in its excess—“I had not filled them, the bottles, I had not yet disposed of them; on the contrary, I had bolstered their superior might with more and more fringe groups”—the story soon sobers, so to speak, against the threat of alcoholism: “[In] my body there was a curse like the very being of the bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open ever greedier maws within.” Of course, it all ends where you’d expect—in vomit:

“It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an Earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple.”


Vomit transforms into an image of the void. Hilbig’s horrors have the ability, like Poe’s, to explode the mundane (vomit from drink) into the cosmic (“an ocean, frozen”; “an Earth, plummeting”). But unlike Poe, whose stories hinge on allegory and metaphor to engage with the American republic, Hilbig refers again and again to the malaise and suffocation of life in East Germany, as set up in the story’s opening lines: “The old contraptions, survivors of two wars, held and held…no one generation gained the upper hand, and finally I accepted the fact that I didn’t belong to them.” The postwar generation under Communism cannot make their lives inside the glories and terrors of the past, but instead must suffice with drink and other petty pleasures that they find beneath the boot.

“The Dark Man,” the final story in the collection, twists the struggle for survival against the state back onto the state itself, or what’s left of it after the fall. The narrator, another writer, makes a trip back east to visit his mother, and begins receiving mysterious phone calls from an unknown man who demands they meet. Eventually, the story reveals that the unknown man is a former Stasi agent who was once tasked with reviewing the writer’s mail, from which he discovered an affair. At their first meeting, he describes the impenetrability of the writer’s style, even in correspondence: “A haze of writing . . . and can you even still see the life behind it? Is there actually still flesh behind the writing? Or just more writing?” As fitting a formulation of Hilbig’s style as any I’ve set down, the agent’s description cuts to the bone of the East German’s moody methodology. Living under surveillance amounts to hiding, encoding, encrypting, and who better to house the heart away from harm than a writer and his words. And though he labors hard through these seven stories to admonish the role of the writer, Hilbig always returns to the centrality of writing to resistance. Put another way: our words are the thoughts and things in our heads, graver than a gun which can be wrenched from our grasp, and their preservation is synonymous with survival—because what good our words without our heads, or our heads without our words?

Best I think to leave the last to the author of the introduction, perennial BTBA-winner László Krasznahorkai: “Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”

12 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)

Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.

A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.

Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.

Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.

11 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)

It may be only through humor that one can willingly enter the haze of Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume. The text—translated from Arabic by the renowned William M. Hutchins, and published by ANTIBOOKCLUB—tugs at the insides of anticipation until they are strewn across a table, staring back at you like doctored images of a woman you have never met but have just married.

The image is of Katia, a Frenchwoman, but mostly a name, who embodies promise and release for Ali Jarjar, a man who “from an early age [. . .] toughened himself by training his bladder’s urinary control, his lungs’ resistance to coughing, and his memory’s avoidance of vagaries.” A man with pride knotted in self-restraint. A man who incessantly dangles himself before the local women “who sold tea to the poor, women who were maids, and women who were immigrants.” Women he abandons, “enveloped in a warm dream and in the fantasy of a happy life.” Jilted, because like the cracks in the town walls of Gha’ib (or, “Nonexistent”) they are easy to overlook yet undeniably there. Women who, much like the ever-present squeaky doors of the neighborhood, denounce intimacy because “a door that opened quietly and smoothly was respected by no one.”

But Katia is a promise so intoxicating that men die writing poetry for her:

Beautiful Katia: where are you?
Where is desire for this melancholy flow
And where is the pure river of letters that will course through
     your blood with love and affection?


Katia is the exception, who oils the doors of Gha’ib with the anticipation of her arrival:

She will make us famous in the whole world by documenting us in a video, she will send us the money necessary to develop the neighborhood and to bury its sewers and fill its potholes, she will care for our stray dogs and cats, she will ask some of us to migrate and live with her in Paris, and perhaps she will fall madly in love with one of us and ask him to marry her.



Katia is the Angel, who renames the stores and paints houses blue.

Katia Cadolet—the image and the undoing.

Hutchins’s translation of Elsir’s French Perfume elicits sense from absurdity. It is a book dominated by fragrance of passion so annihilating because of its very absence. Its scent becomes the promise for the physical, but ultimately lacks the body—leaving only notes of overpowering delusion and heady expectation. It inflames a slow burn of want for the need to touch the intangible. This is a text that deforms the mind as it pulls one into the rituals of preparing for passion—for there is nothing closer to skin than scent, and only at the loss of restraint does reason unravel.

Why should this book win? Because “it was the desperate hope of a man without any hopes.” And because, once, you too must have loved the image of a ghost.

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by George Carroll, former BTBA judge, sales rep, and international literature editor for Shelf Awareness. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)

In Why Geography Matters, Harm de Blij writes that Americans have a dangerous geographic ignorance of other countries, particularly China. And if we’re iffy on China, we’re totally clueless about Africa, and worse, we don’t care.

So it’s satisfying that two of my favorite books on the BTBA longlist are set in sub-Saharan Africa—Tram 83 (Fiston Mwanza Mujila / Roland Glasser / Deep Vellum) and A General Theory of Oblivion (Jose Eduardo Agualusa / Daniel Hahn / Archipelago Books)—Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, respectively. Both books are also on the Man Booker International Prize—you know, the other translation prize.

The basic plot of A General Theory of Oblivion is that a light-sensitive agoraphobic walls herself and her white German Shepherd in her Luandan apartment for 30 years, eventually living off roof garden fruits and vegetables and the pigeons she traps, using diamonds as bait.

Outside her building, Angola is approaching the tail end of the War of Independence.
Dark and brutal when it needs to be, sensitive and thoughtful when it should be, the book is a bit of a riffle shuffle. It’s the callbacks,1 for a lack of a better word that I loved most in A General Theory of Oblivion. Characters who seem like one-offs or throwaways re-enter the book as major characters. It all leads to a denouement, minus all of the chuckles of, say, Comedy of Errors.

If the book title isn’t enough to entice you, the chapter titles should be:
Our Sky is Your Floor
The Substance of Death
On the Slippages of Reason
The Subtle Architecture of Chance
About God and Other Tiny Follies

Daniel Hahn’s translation is up with the best of his work. Is there anyone as consistently good as Hahn?

The reason A General Theory of Oblivion should win the Best Translated Book Award, or at least advance to the shortlist, is that the number one seed, the other book translated from the Portuguese shouldn’t be a shoe-in. Seriously—Villanova beat North Carolina. Leicester City could win the Premier League.

1 My favorite part of the television series Arrested Development was the callbacks. Well, second to the classic lines:

Michael (to GOB): Get rid of The Seaward.

Lucille: I’ll leave when I’m good and ready

I made a fool of myself with one of the series writers, now novelist Maria Semple at a book tradeshow. Rather than tell her I that was excited/interested in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I asked her a raft of questions about how they writers built callbacks into the episodes

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Lucina Schell, editor of Reading in Translation. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)

One Out of Two is a philosophical fable disguised as spinster fiction. From the dream team behind Almost Never (Graywolf, 2012), giant of Latin American literature Daniel Sada and acclaimed translator Katherine Silver, this compact hundred-page book is tightly stitched with the same perfectionism as its twin heroines’ tailoring output. On the surface, it is a delightful romp to be devoured in one sitting, but linger longer with the text and it raises profound questions about the desire for union with another person versus personal independence. “Then: intimacy as an idea that unravels.”

The spinster plot concerns Constitución and Gloria Gamal, identical twins who have only grown increasingly alike with age. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves from one another, the twins delight in accentuating their similarities by wearing matching dresses, styling their hair in the same way, and mirroring each other’s mannerisms. The Gamal sisters are as interdependent as they are fiercely independent. Orphaned as children, they flee the aunt who raised them and her constant exhortations to “‘get married soon and have loads of children!’” as soon as they come of age, and use their inheritance to buy a house in a small desert town and start a tailoring business, which quickly thrives due to their strong work ethic.

Their aunt’s advice continues in the form of increasingly contradictory letters, “Get married, you silly girls, and be quick about it! But don’t flirt with the first young man you meet; you have to be coy, give yourselves airs, or you’ll regret it . . .” But the twins don’t much care, focusing their attention instead on their growing business, until one day they receive an invitation to a family wedding. Now 42, and without any prospects, this might be their last chance to snag husbands! Their aunt suggests they distinguish themselves by hair style, but the twins have spent too many years refining their similitude to have any hope of looking different now. Thus, only one will go to the wedding, and they decide which with a coin toss, the first of many perfectly chosen metaphors for their predicament. When Constitución Gamal returns with a suitor, the twins concoct an elaborate ruse to share the man, thus putting their years of studied imitation to the test, because, “what’s mine is yours.” (The repetition of this marital maxim throughout the novel reminds us that the twins are in a sort of marriage already.) The narrative voice, peppered with folksy interjections and perfectly matched idiomatic expressions, reads like an omniscient town gossip, never letting us forget the twins are being watched. Yet, we revel in their abandon as they decide “To wit: let people think whatever the hell they like.”

This all sounds like a fun farce, but we are in the hands of a master stylist. As Sada pushes every cliché to the breaking point, it springs back with deliciously surprising prose. We can feel the pleasure he takes in crafting the bodice-ripper landscape in which Gloria takes the budding romance to the next level on “Constitución’s” second date with Oscar, while her sister watches from a few feet away: “To the chagrin of the observer, this Johnny-come-lately was painting the walls of her own scenario with wild and passionate hues splashed across the distance, cloud pompoms dripping with ocher and deep red settling in between the hills.” Constitución contemplates hurling a stick at her imprudent sister, but worries it will only land in the nearby bush, releasing a cloud of butterflies. In every flight Sada takes, Silver hugs his sentences as tightly as the twins press against walls while spying on each other.

The novel shifts seamlessly between genres and low to high literary diction, as when the twins, each falling in love, evolve from “one out of two or two in one” to, “A triangle, to put it simply: three gnawed points and a conjugation: or to put it indirectly: two similar points and a third one far far away. Passion conjugated: repressed, obsessive, in full conformity with the rules of the game”. The unusual, yet consistent use of colons—at times many in a single cascading sentence—sets up constant equations or analogies, and creates a staccato rhythm that heightens the growing tension as the inevitable marriage proposal approaches. Meanwhile, frequent sentence fragments remind us that the twins are only whole together. On a syntactic level, the novel is refreshingly suspicious of virtuous individualism.

But Oscar, a rancher, is hardly an ideal match for either of the twins, and increasingly, they realize their infatuation with him is more fantasy than true love. Oscar’s greatest ambition is “to one day open, next to any road whatsoever, a huge restaurant for truckers only, serving carnes adobadas and fresh tortillas, where there would be a jukebox and a dance floor and some shabby sluts—who would double as grub-slingers—available for pickup.” As Oscar drones on about his current reality, raising pigs and goats, one of the twins “conjured up abstract images that consisted of small arrows being shot at sentences—we could call them precepts—of the most profound transcendence.”

We expect the proposal to end in tears, the story to end in tragedy, with Oscar rejecting the twins when he finds out the truth. But the subversive, even feminist, conclusion to this fairytale is one of its best features. The deal-breaker ends up being the prospect of losing their business, to join Oscar in his distasteful venture: “because it would be unbecoming for the so-called better halves to compete with each other”. Turning the coin toss on its head, the twins make “An about face!” Together they are better halves than either could ever be with another man.

One Out of Two is much more than two in one. In few pages it manages to cover and subvert various literary genres, virtuosically, hilariously, while leaving us to ponder paradoxes such as, can true independence only come from perfect union with another human?

8 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Jarrod Annis, BTBA judge and bookseller at Greenlight Books, We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern (China, Graywolf)

Spanning some thirty years of work, Empty Chairs presents readers with the first bilingual edition of Liu Xia’s poetry, augmented by a selection of her work as a photographer. It’s a stark volume, but illuminated by an indomitable interior light that refuses to be extinguished. Living under strict house arrest since 2009—when her husband, poet and activist Liu Xiabo, was imprisoned by the Chinese government—Liu Xia’s poems are hermetic meditations on a larger world at work, both interior and exterior, where the push and pull between absence and presence is a daily conflict. When Xia writes

I must guard these
small fragile things
as if guarding our life


she could very well be referencing her poetic output, while is under the continual threat of an imposed silence.

While political constraints do play a role in much of the work, it is never at the cost of the Xia’s emotional core. If anything, it lends an urgency to the work, the feeling of reading these smuggled words, these poems of disconnect. In their chronicling of Xia’s daily life and feelings, the poems feel traced though the ages to more ancient Chinese poets of the Tang and Sung dynasties. When taken with the original Chinese characters en face, the process of translation is never far from the reader’s mind, the active function of language as it makes a vital voice available.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (France, Deep Vellum)

What I was feeling for A*** needed its own embodiment; the pleasure I took in A***’s company demanded is own fulfillment. I wanted A***, it was true, and all my other desires, needs, and plans paled in comparison. Suddenly, the obsessive clamor for amorous possession took hold of me.

I was surprised to find myself desiring, painfully. In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin.


What we have here is the impassioned confession of the unnamed narrator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta. A*** is the object of this sudden and intense desire. Neither character is defined by sex or gender. This factor acts as a constraint that places this French novel within the ranks of the works of the OuLiPo group though, written in 1986, it predates the author’s own admission to this famed groupof writers. Yet in the end, Sphinx requires no such designation to work as a powerful literary and darkly existential meditation on memory, attraction, and identity. To finally have it available in English, and at a time in which the public understanding of sex and gender is evolving, serves as an invitation to approach this work as more than either a literary challenge in itself or a polemic of feminist/queer theory. The exquisite timeliness of the translation of this bold and dynamic novel is perhaps the greatest argument in favour of rewarding Sphinx with the Best Translated Book Award.

But, wait a minute. Is it a good story? Can it stand on its own merits? At first blush, the set up sounds, and at points may even feel artificial, but that oddness passes quickly. The narrator is a young student of Catholic theology who is drifting without strong direction and, through a series of unusual, even disturbing, coincidences ends up working as a DJ at an after hours Paris nightclub. This serves as an introduction to a new world, an alternate reality that opens late at night and unwinds into the very early hours of the morning. Our narrator demonstrates a tangible ambivalence toward this radical change of lifestyle.

I acquiesced to whatever presented itself without much arm-twisting, and I neither suffered from nor reveled in it: I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being that was in turn abandoning me and sliding into another that slowly, imperceptibly came to envelop me.


In learning to navigate this world, an identity that may or may not be valid or true is adopted to serve as a barrier, a means of mediating an alien environment. Within this identity a certain boundary, a sober vantage point is maintained until A***, an exotic dancer at a strip club, comes into the narrator’s life. At first their friendship is platonic, existing in a stylish public sphere. The narrator realizes it is not built on strong romantic or intellectual engagement. The attraction is one of opposites—race and personality—until sexual desire arises abruptly, throwing the narrator’s carefully constructed identity into a crisis which is heightened as A*** initially refuses to take their relationship to an intimate level.

When it is ultimately consummated, a highly charged sexual and romantic liaison develops, enduring several years marked by turns of passion, jealousy, and domesticity. As might be anticipated in a union built on obsession rather than common interests, cracks and fissures begin to grow. This is heightened as the narrator seeks to revive abandoned theological pursuits, carving out time to focus on an essay, quite fittingly, on the apophatic tradition—the attempt to describe God only by negation. Later on, after the tragic end of this ill-fated love affair, the narrator will sink into a deeply existential rumination on love and loss. No sexual encounter, romance, intellectual or academic pursuit will fill the void left behind. A restless wandering overtakes our hero, driving a spiral into ever-darker self-exploration. Without the “other” as a frame of reference, it becomes increasingly evident that the self is isolated, disconnected.

Had I confided more in A*** than in anybody else? What had I revealed? Had I unmasked myself? No, more likely I had exposed my own collapse, the ruin of the edifice I had so painfully constructed out of rhetoric and made to stand for an identity.


At heart this is a novel of obsession, of memory, of mourning. The language is rich and sensual, with an intensity that is visceral and emotionally powerful. For that quality alone, Sphinx is a work worth attention—it reaches beyond the novelty and challenge of its conceit to touch a common ground of human experience.

But what about the matter of sex and gender? I suppose it will come down to how important it is to have a fixed image of the protagonists in your mind as a reader and how fluid your conception of gender is in relation to sex and sexuality. Are they bound together, or three separate aspects of identity? For the majority of people, biological sex conforms to gender identity—they are experienced as one and the same. Sexuality hinges on the sex and gender of the persons to whom one is attracted, and “transgender” is an umbrella term for those for whom sex and gender do not fit exactly. The range of gender expressions, identities and bodies under that umbrella is wide and the intersection with sexuality can further complicate the issue.

Queer theory aside, a novel like Sphinx opens up the potential for a completely open reading experience: one can choose gender, sex and sexuality as desired, play with alternatives in the reading, or re-encounter the work with repeatedly different contexts. Garréta has incorporated enough ambiguity to allow all possibilities. There is, in truth, something here for everyone—the undefined sex and gender of the protagonists offers an exciting challenge to the imagination for those who have rested in relative certainty about their identities; whereas for a queer reader like myself it is a glorious opportunity for self exploration that I would have welcomed in my isolated teenage years.

However, if you are not quite convinced that Sphinx is a most worthy contender for the BTBA, there is Emma Ramadan’s wonderfully lucid translation. As Ramadan describes in her afterward, Garréta was forced to employ a great deal of ingenuity and creativity to avoid revealing the narrator’s gender. In English genderless narrators are not unique, but A*** has to be presented with more care and, consequently, less depth. However, this compromise is not at odds with the narrator’s own lack of understanding of A***. It all falls together beautifully through prose that is meditative, unsettling and, at times, deeply moving.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Jarrod Annis, BTBA judge and bookseller at Greenlight Books, We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Russia, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This book is a beast—it is a hefty, beautiful bulk that constitutes one of Ugly Duckling Presse’s biggest translation endeavors to date. The stately volume is justified by the work it contains—the most substantial selection of Yevgeny Baratynsky’s poetry to be available in English. Readers are also treated to a selection of letters and detailed notes, all compounding into a detailed portrait of a unique poet who was lauded by Pushkin, his great contemporary, and had a key influence on Russian modernists such as Akhmatovah and Mandelstam.

Reading A Science Not For the Earth, it’s hard not to feel a sense of disbelief at not having encountered the work before—how could it have slipped through the cracks? This surprise is perhaps due to Rawley Grau’s crisp translations, which render these nineteenth century gems in a language that feels contemporary and lively, despite beyond their nearly two-hundred years, while still honoring Baratynsky’s original forms. This is poetry that transcends ages, poetry which is not through speaking. As Baratynsky writes,

But why talk now of ancient times?
The poem is ready. Very likely,
as a register of who I am
you’ll soon find it will come in handy.


Don’t be put off by the size of this collection—we have Rawley Grau and Ugly Duckling Press to thank for a volume of poetry as fresh and elegant as the work it contains.

7 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)

As a rule I drove home before the first cars came down the hill towards the bridge, but today I had frittered my time away. I hadn’t even started to pack my bag, and the cars that were coming were classy cars, expensive cars. I turned my back to the road, my navy blue reefer jacket wrapped tightly round me. I’d had that jacket ever since I was a boy in Mørk, and only one of the old brass buttons was still intact, and I had a woollen cap on as blue as the jacket, pulled down over my ears, so from behind I could have been anyone.

Norwegian author Per Petterson’s I Refuse opens in the predawn hours of a September day with the chance encounter between two childhood friends, Jim and Tommy. Now in their mid-fifties, more than thirty years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him engaging in his early morning fishing ritual, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after an unsuccessful attempt to return to work as a librarian. He is nearing the end of his emotional tether. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, and has worked his way up to a high level position in a financial investment firm in Oslo. However his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them, and lack meaningful relationships. Over the course of the day that follows this early morning meeting, each man will face his own simmering internal crisis and reach differing critical convictions.

While the experiences and reflections of his two main protagonists on this fateful September day, form the central core of the narrative, Petterson employs a winding chronology and a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and trace the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide, at the age of nineteen, initiated events that drove them apart.

Growing up in a semi-rural region outside a small town, the boys have very different backgrounds. Jim is the only son of an evangelical Christian single mother whereas Tommy comes from a family almost surreal in its dysfunction. He has a sister, Siri, with whom he has an exceptionally close relationship, bordering on incest, and two much younger twin sisters. Their mother disappears off into the snowy distance one night in 1964, leaving the children at the mercy of their violent father. Tommy suffers the abuse until one day an especially brutal beating drives him to break his father’s leg with a bat, effectively forcing this parent out of their lives as well. It is 1966 and he is just shy of fourteen years old. The children try to manage on their own but social services intervene—the twins go to one family in town, Siri is sent to live with another, and Tommy moves in with Jonson, the owner of the mill. From this point on, Jim and Tommy are inseparable as they face the joys and challenges of adolescence together.

Prose as spare and luminous as the northern Norwegian setting, grounds this exploration of time and friendship, loss and longing. First person narratives carried, in turn, by the two main characters are interspersed with cameos from select supporting actors and segments narrated from an open indirect third person perspective. These shifts enhance the melancholy, meditative atmosphere, as in this scene set soon after Tommy’s family has been dismantled:

At the top, near the dam, the bikes were leaned against the railings and they stood by the bikes and leaned against the railing and looked down into the waterfall, and Tommy ran his fingers carefully over the eyebrow and the long gash along it, and over the scabs on his cheek and said, sometimes you feel like jumping, don’t you, just feel jumping over and sailing out like a bird. I know, Jim said, just climb up on to the railings and dive. My mother says it isn’t dangerous to jump off and fly, you can jump off a skyscraper if you like, and it isn’t dangerous. It’s the landing that’s the problem. I’ve heard that one before, Tommy said. I know Jim said. Everyone’s heard it.


Like countless other readers my first introduction to the work of Per Petterson was with his masterful novel Out Stealing Horses which won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I went on to read everything that was available at the time, and watch eagerly for new releases as well as the long awaited translations of earlier works that began to appear. With I Refuse, his sixth novel, we see a writer at the height of his powers. The themes that drive Petterson’s creative vision—absent or distant parents, male friendship, the bond between siblings, childhood loss and emotional injury, secrets and unspoken tensions—are all revisited here in his broadest, darkest, and most complex work to date. And in Don Bartlett he has, I would argue, a perfectly matched translator. Bartlett captures this novel’s stark beauty, brooding tone, and shifting voices cleanly and effortlessly.

Petterson’s gift lies in his ability to penetrate to the heart of his protagonists’ insecurities, hopes, and longings. His characters are often haunted by memories, repressed emotions, and by the many things that have been left unsaid or unspeakable. I Refuse introduces us to two men who, over the course of the day that begins with their unexpected meeting on a bridge, are faced with circumstances that will either alter or reinforce the trajectories of their lives. Tommy’s day includes a call from the police asking him to come and collect his father—after forty years his father is alive and needs his assistance. Their reunion is, as one might imagine, charged with unresolved tension but marks a critical turning point for the son:

We both knew why he limped and we had forgotten nothing, repressed nothing, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it, no, that was the trick, instead we would just look at each other with maybe a quick smile on our lips and share that knowledge, that memory, as though it was something that was ours together, his and mine, something intimate and violent, a secret, burning bond that held us together, a bond of blood.

Then I stood up. No peace, I thought, nothing that binds us together. I refuse.


As the day turns into night, Petterson pulls his narrative into the third person, raising the tension as the two men reach their distinct states of resolve. Will their paths collide again or will it be too late? The true power of this work lies in Petterson’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries. He is content to leave us with equal measures of hope and despair, light and gloom. The powerful timelessness of this mesmerizing tale is perhaps the strongest justification for recognizing this achievement with the Best Translated Book Award.

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tony Malone, founder of Tony’s Reading List. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)

Anyone with more than a fleeting interest in literature in translation will be aware of the lack of women published in English, but Korea seems to be a country that could buck this trend. Despite the passing of the grande dame of K-Lit, Park Wan-suh, and the aging of other major writers of that generation (O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun), there are several female writers ready to make a splash in the West. Over in the UK, Han Kang is the one who has made the biggest waves so far, but across the Atlantic it is Bae Suah who might become the new face of K-Lit, particularly if she takes out the Best Translated Book Award this year. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.

Nowhere to be Found is one of two Bae Suah novellas released by AmazonCrossing (both translated by Sora Kim Russell), and what it lacks in size, running to only around sixty pages in print form, it makes up for in quality and emotive writing. Bae’s narrator is a young woman in her mid-twenties, stuck in the lower rings of what young Koreans call “Hell Choseon,” a country where those who fail to excel at school are destined for a life of crappy, badly-paid jobs (and those who do can look forward to working 100-hour weeks while being screamed at by their boss for the next fifty years). Although the story was originally published over twenty years ago, I suspect little has changed since the story first appeared in Korean, and anyone in a country where the working classes are exploited will be able to empathize with the characters (which, I guess, would be just about all of us . . . ).

With the nameless narrator finding herself as the main breadwinner for her family, for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the book, she is forced to work almost around the clock. Friends and family assume that she will marry her high-school friend Cheolsu, an average guy in the middle of his mandatory military service, yet she is not the kind of woman to simply give in to keep everyone else happy, even if getting married to a spoiled mummy’s boy will make her life a little easier. Just as is the case in the earlier novella, Highway with Green Apples, Bae’s character is a strong woman in a society geared towards serving men’s needs, perfectly willing and able to stand up for herself when necessary (and when she says she doesn’t like chicken, just go with it . . . ).

What lifts Nowhere to Be Found above Highway with Green Apples (and many of the BTBA longlist titles), though, is the way the writer spends half the story creating a tone before suddenly shattering it in a few brief paragraphs, the casual account of a humdrum daily life giving way to a frenzied moment of passion and self-harm. This pivotal moment half-way through the story turns the action on its head, preparing us for the second part of the book, which we now suspect might not be as calm as we were expecting. In fact, it becomes ever more confused. After a bizarre visit to Cheolsu’s army camp, in the course of which she begins to lose touch with reality, the narrator’s life drifts slowly along until we return to the scene we glimpsed at the heart of the work, which this time is even more disturbing . . .

Of course, none of this would work unless it were well-written, and Bae, even at this early stage of her career, manipulates the story masterfully. She excels in sudden shifts of pace, deliberate attempts to unsettle the reader, and you often find yourself being dragged from the middle of one anecdote into another, as if the narrator had just remembered something and needed to get it off her chest before continuing with her tale. Whether it is random asides about subway stations full of people she used to know (and others she will meet in the future), or stories about her brother’s past relationships, everything she comes up with is interesting and also somehow linked to the bigger picture, providing another detail which may, or may not, help us to understand what her story is all about.

For those who enjoy it (and I suspect many will), Nowhere to Be Found is a frustratingly brief glimpse of the abilities of an excellent writer, but never fear—help is at hand. Two longer titles will be released later this year, Recitation from Deep Vellum and A Greater Music from Open Letter (with the latter publishing another title in 2017), news that will gladden the hearts of those who are desperate for more of Bae’s work. It appears that the future of literature in translation may well lie with writers like Bae Suah and her countrywomen, and I, for one, welcome our new female Korean overlords (or should that be overladies . . . ).

6 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Gwen Dawson, founder of Literary License. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)

This year’s longlist is very strong, but I have no problem making the claim that The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud deserves to be at the head of the list. No other book on this longlist will force you to reexamine your reading of one of the Western world’s most studied novels like Daoud’s novel will. On top of that, this novel will expose your unconscious reading bias and, if you’re like me, make you feel pretty guilty in the process. If I were an English professor, The Meursault Investigation would go on my syllabus next semester.

In this novel, Daoud takes on Albert Camus’s The Stranger (sometimes translated as The Other or The Outsider) and dares to tell the other side of the story. For those few of you who escaped having The Stranger as assigned reading in school, it is widely regarded as the classic existential (or, some say, absurdist) novel. Camus wrote it in French and first published it in 1942. To summarize, in the first half of the novel, the protagonist Meursault ends up shooting an “Arab” on a hot sunny beach out of either boredom/ennui or heatstroke (the critics disagree) and, in the second half, he languishes in his jail cell waiting for death while questioning the meaning of life. Meursault eventually concludes, “Nothing, nothing mattered . . .” The story is told in the first person in unadorned, almost acetic, prose.

Daoud comes at this same story from a different angle. His protagonist Harun is the surviving brother of Musa, the “Arab” murdered by Meursault in Camus’s novel. In Harun’s world, The Stranger is a kind of memoir by Meursault, describing his crime and its aftermath. The Meursault Investigation is Harun’s first-person response to Meursault’s narrative, albeit fifty years after the crime. For Harun, Meursault murders Musa first by calling him what he is not (Arab), second, by refusing to call him what he is (Musa), and third, by shooting him five times. All three are inexcusable, and as readers of The Stranger, most of us were complicit in the first two murders, only recognizing the five bullets as wrong.

Unlike many readers of The Stranger, Harun refuses to accept the label of “Arab” for his brother:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test . . .


Meursault also neglects to give Musa a name or even a body. Without a body, there’s “a weird funeral” and an “empty grave,” and, understandably, Harun is angry about this:

Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name. H’med or Kaddour or Hammou, just a name, damn it! . . . But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.


The brilliance of Daoud’s work here is that many of his readers will be recognizing these gaps in the classic story for the first time. When I read The Stranger in ninth grade (I think), all of the focus was on Meursault’s motivations in shooting “the Arab” and his resulting struggle to define the meaning of his life. I don’t recall thinking much about the Arab whose death animates Meursault’s famous philosophizing. This is where the guilt comes in. Why didn’t we think about the murdered man and his family when we read The Stranger? And when we didn’t, why weren’t we taught that we should?

I don’t have space here to unpack all the masterful ways in which Daoud engages with Camus’s novel except to say that the resonances are multilayered and reward close reading. One point of contrast, however, is notable. Both novels were written originally in French, but where Camus writes with spare efficiency, Daoud employs a lush, descriptive language. John Cullen’s translation of Daoud captures the warmth and sensuousness of the language as well as Harun’s conversational tone. The stark difference in linguistic style between the novels highlights the different worlds inhabited by these two protagonists, even though they walk on the same streets.

The Meursault Investigation is uncomfortably thought-provoking in the best way. It deserves to be read and studied alongside its classic companion. Even with only a passing familiarity with Camus’s The Stranger, Daoud’s novel is a rewarding read. The Meursault Investigation’s brilliance, however, becomes most obvious when read right after reading (or rereading) Camus’s classic. It is then that its complex interactions with the classic are best appreciated.

5 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kevin Elliott, BTBA judge and bookseller at 57th Street Books. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)

If you read the initial reviews of Beauty Is A Wound from all of the usual media suspects, you might get the feeling that reading Kurniawan’s is akin to picking up a Marquez novel crossed with George R.R. Martin and run through a collander of Indonesian history. Forgive the kitchen reference. I cook when I’m feeling anxious or otherwise seriously affected by a novel or other work. And believe me, you will be affected when you read Beauty Is A Wound . . . Far far more affected than the death of one of your favorite characters or a multi-year wait for the next volume. I’m still so shaken, stunned, horrified, and amazed, that these noodles will most likely sit in my sink for a few days. Despite what you’ve read about the contents elsewhere, Beauty Is A Wound is one of those novels that sticks inside of your gut and churns long after you finish, making it difficult to forget . . .

. . . it may also need a disclaimer, as some of the contents will be extremely triggering to some readers.

What a way to start a post about why this book should win, huh?

Indonesia has been a thinly represented country in contemporary translated literature, but we were lucky enough to see three separate novels released in 2015 (Home by Leila S. Chudori from Deep Vellum, and another novel by Kurniawan, Man Tiger published by Verso). Each novel approaches Indonesia’s brutal history in unique ways, but this is the novel that reaches the farthest in every direction and succeeds on many levels in creating a multi-layered narrative which delights, informs, and disturbs in equal dose.

Blending elements of magical realism, allegory, satire, and a skewed marriage-plot sensibility, the novel begins with Indonesia’s most beloved and beautiful prostitute, Dewi Ayu, rising from the grave to tell the story of her own history and that of her three beautiful daughters who are all beset by terrible tragedy. But perhaps the primary reason for Dewi’s strong willed return to life is to visit her fourth daughter, to whom she gave birth just before dying. Her name is Beauty, and she is blessed with an ugliness that Dewi does not understand or approve of.

Among various characters who are introduced and storylines that seem destined to go nowhere (though Kurniawan displays his skillful storytelling most while threading disparate plotlines together), beauty with a lowercase “b” plays a pivotal role. Tragic ends, brutal interactions, and more than a little bit of sexual violence by way of husbands, suitors, and other male lovers swirls around the centerpiece of beauty. Though not graphic or obsessed over in the text, the rape and brutality in the novel targets physical beauty, yet character of Beauty is repeatedly dismissed as one who is immune and devoid of value. The male characters we are introduced to are the ones pointing the finger, and because this unfortunately plays in a contemporary western setting as realism, it’s difficult to remember that each character is in some small way a personification of an era and setting of Indonesia’s deceptive and bloody past. It’s easy to forget the satire since the world of the novel is so immersive and skillfully laid out.

There is even a point in the middle of the book where it is as if nothing were wrong with ignoring the brutality of the narrative at hand. A chapter begins “Once upon a time” as a fairy tale would. It’s as if nothing were wrong with the grotesque worship of beauty and the selfish means in which it is pursued and dominated. As if even the fairy tale itself should be swallowed like a spoonful of sugar. But even this chapter slowly reveals itself as an allegory of the bastard revolution promised to the country under new rule.

And that’s the hidden and true beauty of this novel. It draws you in so that, as a reader, no matter how far removed you try to place yourself, every terrible detail offends while every joke brings a laugh. The layered texture of its storytelling provide readers with multiple ways to approach the novel, including tuning into the allegory or choosing to read the entire novel as a multi-generational ghost story.

Kurniawan’s ambitious writing is filled with a joyful necessity and Annie Tucker’s translation seems to capture this by being straightforward and simple where the story needs and precisely elegant elsewhere (and knowing the difference between the two). There’s also a feeling of discomfort that comes from reading a novel like this, but the discomfort may very well be intended when reading about a history of place that is often ignored . . . and while realizing that even a people experiencing struggle in light of a fate they have no control over will often find strength to laugh in the face of those who seek to control them. To find beauty in what is not mandated or considered acceptable and to forge ahead is a strength of Kurniawan’s country and a strength that comes through the darkness of the novel.

After reading the last line of this book, I kept going back to reread passages that I couldn’t shake from my memory. Beauty Is a Wound lived inside of me long after the last page was closed. At first, there were single lines and passages that made me think I didn’t want it to win, but it was its unflinching nature, all-encompassing ambition, and astounding narrative achievement that convinced me it should.

5 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Betty Scott from Books & Whatnot. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)

Frankly, any one of the novels in the Neapolitan Quartet should take the prize in almost any conceivable matchup (except cover design—but trust the famous aphorism). Each maintains an impossible tension through a pretty significant number of pages, all of which seem entirely necessary. Each of them contains a breadth and depth of character to a degree that’s both uncommon and uncommonly well executed. Each adds a layer to the rich relationship established in My Brilliant Friend while mapping the cracks in its foundation, but it’s not until The Story of the Lost Child, the stinging coda, that a reader can truly understand that Ferrante isn’t just putting a life between these covers but life itself.

Birth. Death. Marriage. Divorce. Bigamy. That’s just a start. Classism. The labor movement. Feminism. Autochthony. That’s still not the half. While all of these subjects appear in the Neapolitan novels, they’re also questioned. Do they matter? Maybe. How do we know what matters? Who knows. Who knows anything?

Starting with the first novel, Ferrante’s style mimics thought and conversational speech, and while much of it is grammatically incorrect, it’s not ignorance on her part or Goldstein’s error but a deliberate choice. When Ferrante questions language, learning, and communication itself, it becomes clear that the wandering sentences and meandering paragraphs are no accident. The Story of the Lost Child establishes that this is for a purpose and to an end—while some readers will look past these structural elements and focus on the drama, the fourth book gets incredibly meta. That we read it in translation makes it even more so. At one point, it describes a translated review of a translated book in a conversation that is being spoken in a second language. Ferrante highlights language and thrusts it to the fore repeatedly. The opposition between the Neapolitan dialect and formal Italian is just one example. It’s tied to other oppositions—emotion and reason; formulation of identity and its destruction; authenticity and pretense; knowledge and ignorance; the two main characters—and the characters call them into question about as often as they can without it becoming a schtick or interfering with the action.

To take so many disparate elements and connect them not only to a solid narrative arc with a phalanx of arresting characters but to language itself is a nearly impossible feat. To question communication both on the linguistic level and as a concept while so perfectly communicating both the minute details that make life concrete and the immense range of emotion present in human existence is more difficult still. I can’t think of another book whose form so spectacularly follows its function, undermining itself as it builds itself down to the sentence level, which in turn mirrors the novel’s events. That it does this while addressing enough weighty ideas for a hundred philosophy courses and covering the pulpy, lurid parts of life that “respectable” literature often omits or marginalizes? That’s certainly a prize-winning feat. If there’s an award for novels that induce dizzying mental tug-of-war, one for books that undermine themselves while proving their own points, or books that make you care deeply about the characters and then damn you for caring. The Story of the Lost Child should win those first. Then, it should win the BTBA.

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)

This has been my first year as a co-judge for the BTBA, and it’s been an enormous privilege. We’re all incredibly proud of our longlist; the quality is top class, but the breadth of languages (Tamil! Zapotec! Dari!) and the fact that 7/10 of the books are by women is also exciting and important. I’m a passionate believer in the inseparability of aesthetics and representation, and in Calvino’s concept of translation as stylistic evolution; rather than a worthy box-ticking exercise, actively seeking work from literatures as yet little-known in English is one of the most effective ways of sourcing writing which feels genuinely new—a seemingly impossible feat these days.

The incredibly violent reaction to the four female Tamil poets whose work is collected in Wild Words gives alarming confirmation to Malayali translator and scholar J. Devika’s assertion that “translating women authors from regional languages is an important escape route from the overbearing and overwhelming patriarchies that have shaped and continue to shape regional literary publics.” We should be doubly grateful, then, to translator Lakshmi Holmström, for bringing these brave, wild words to a wider audience, and for producing translations of such arresting imagery and tonal variety.

Paths by Salma

Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
falls, scatters.

But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.


Equal gratitude goes to the book’s publisher, HarperCollins India—their commissioning editor and rights manager Manasi Subramaniam first brought the book my attention when she contacted me to suggest some potential authors for Tilted Axis Press (we’re publishing two novels by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, both translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). She’s a passionate advocate for translating India’s regional literatures, which, as you’ll see in this interview I did with her, is not the easiest job in the world.

How do you feel about the longlisting?

Hearing about the longlisting of Wild Words for such a prestigious award gives us immense joy. I’m so glad and grateful that awards like this one even exist.

How did you come to publish the book? What made it stand out for you, and what has the reception been like?

The reception has been absolutely fantastic. The reviews have been unanimously positive and admiring. I just wish poetry would sell more!

This is an unusual book for many reasons: it’s poetry, it’s translation, it’s an anthology, and it’s all women. All four of these things excite me for very different reasons, and I love that there exists a collection such as Wild Words that manages to bring them together. I actually chanced upon this book in its earlier edition, which was published as a bilingual Tamil-English book by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House. I’m a Tamilian myself, so I was very taken with the book, as well as with the reasons for putting together these 4 poets in particular.

In 2003, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets—particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma (an activist and political who is also the subject of a brilliant documentary—Ed), Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani—charging the women with obscenity and immodesty. The response of the Tamil literary world was markedly violent. A lot has changed since then—but a lot remains unchanged still.

What’s the status of India’s regional literatures, as opposed to work written originally in English?

Indian fiction in languages other than English represents the richness and diversity of our tongues in ways that only multiplicity can. There’s so much wonderful work happening in the Indian languages (English is an Indian language too!) and it seems only fair that the languages all translate into and out of each other. If we don’t keep doing that, these voices will never be heard outside of their languages. Intercultural understanding seems increasingly important in a country like India that’s both global and multilingual. While critics and reviewers are incredibly receptive to translated literature, it does seem harder and harder to get the reading public as excited about translation as we ourselves are. So—while we are able to do high-quality translations and work with other publishers and translators—it remains a problem of numbers. We also have to depend on scouts when it comes to languages we are not familiar with.

What’s it like trying to get publishers outside the subcontinent interested in these translations?

I haven’t had a great deal of luck getting publishers internationally to pay attention to our translations. I do want them to have a wider market and be published in the U.S. and the UK, but I think perhaps that the English-speaking world’s interest in translations is still restricted mostly to the European languages. There’s the odd success story here and there, but it isn’t as yet easy for me to pitch translations to the U.S. and UK publishers that we work with.

*


Here’s the trailer for the documentary of Salma mentioned above:



4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you’ve probably noticed, the Why This Book Should Win series has basically taken over the website. Our plan is to highlight all 35 titles longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards before the announcement of the finalists on Tuesday, April 19th. Most of these posts are written by BTBA judges, although a number of reviewers, booksellers, readers, and Three Percent fans are contributing as well.

We’ve been lining people up for these posts as fast as possible, but we do have a handful of titles waiting to be assigned. So, if you’ve already read one of these, and are interested in writing something up for the website (I’ll need it by the end of the week), just email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu. First come, first serve. And remember, these posts don’t have to be carefully crafted reviews—just passionate responses on why these particular titles are so great.

Here are the books that we still need people to cover:

A General Theory of Oblivion
Nowhere to Be Found
French Perfume
Sphinx
The Body Where I Was Born
I Refuse
The Four Books


Thanks in advance!

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Amanda Nelson, BTBA judge and managing editor of Book Riot. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)

The two kinds of literature I most gravitate to are: 1) epic, sweeping, generations-long East-of-Eden-War-and-Peace-ish narratives; you know, old-fashioned stories that draw you in and shove you deep into the lives of the characters and 2) shorter, more introspective, less plot driven punch-in-the-gut books that use words and sentences like a razor to cut out your heart; you know, the ones you have to read with a pen so you can underline each perfectly crafted thought. The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector is somehow (miraculously) both of these things. That is why it should win.

It’s odd to think of a huge collection of short stories as in any way comparable to the multi-threaded Steinbecks and Tolstoys (and Dickenses and George Eliots and etc.), and it’s true that the characters in Lispector’s stories don’t appear and re-appear. You’re not following a single person or family from birth to death, but you are following Lispector from (artistic) birth to (actual) death, and her characters are so human, so vivid and flawed and normal and strange and real, the stories could be and are about everyone and no one. All the happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is that it is so complete. You can follow the writer’s development from the beginning of her career through her artistic maturity and into and out of the more experimental phases, accompanying her along all the twists and turns of her mind until she died. There are so few female authors (especially from the middle class, especially mothers) with a body of work that begins at young adulthood and continues into old age, that isn’t interrupted by the necessities of marriage or children or caring for aging parents. There is nothing at all wrong with a writer not writing anymore or taking pauses to do those things—it’s just notable that the gaps you so often find in the work of women because of necessity is not really present here. Editor Benjamin Moser says it best in his introduction: Clarice was a “woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end.”

That inherent feminist thing happening in the book is also notable in the stories themselves, and while we judges have spent time debating just how accidentally (or maybe not) misogynistic some of the long list might or might not be, there’s no ignoring that the Lispector is simply better at portraying women than pretty much any other candidate (the Ferrante and Nettel being the only real competitors). Lispector gives us the inner lives of women from childhood through very old age. Not only are women underrepresented in literature in general and literature in translation specifically, but when they are present it’s so often as a plot prop or object through which the male characters (or authors) can discover things about themselves. That is not Lispector’s game: her women are real, they wrestle with marriage, they struggle with motherhood, they make art, they are bored, they have affairs, get old, play the “cool girl” game long before Gillian Flynn’s Amy gave it a name in Gone Girl. Lispector’s stories all in one place say: we have always been here.

That’s the macro, now about the micro: Lispector is precise at a word-for-word level. To put on my I-Was-Raised-Southern-Baptist hat, I was constantly put in mind of a verse in the book of Hebrews about the word of God being a double-edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow, while reading these stories. She’s doing surgery with sentences. A few tidbits:

Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. (“The Smallest Woman in the World”)

I also knew that only a mother can resolve birth, and ours was the love of those who rejoice in loving: I was caught up in the grace of having been allowed to love, bells, bells ringing because I know how to worship. (“The Foreign Legion”)

And out of a whole lifetime, by God, sometimes the only thing that saves a person is error, and I know that we shall not be saved so long as our error is not precious to us. (“Mineirinho”)

I’m going to tell you all a secret; life is fatal. We keep this secret in muteness each faced with ourselves because it’s convenient, otherwise we would make every instant fatal. (“Soul Storm”)


And on the translation: well, what an undertaking. To translate the work of a lifetime, to maintain its uniformity without losing the nuances of what changed about her style or tone or voice over time? It’s an admirable feat. Dodson catches that slight, off-kilter weirdness that Lispector’s language has, that low-level-buzz of unease, without being awkward or missing a word or leaving a verbal pothole for the reader to stumble over and cause you to fall out of the story. It’s seamless, it’s strange, it is very, very good.

4 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)

This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.

Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.

Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.

So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.

So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.

“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”

Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.

If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.

1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Jason Grunebaum, BTBA judge, writer, and translator. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)

Would you like read the book that Salman Rushdie had hoped to write with Midnight’s Children? Looking for that book that satisfies your itch for the reliably bawdy and resoundingly literary, a tale read out loud, episodically and euphorically, by your favorite Pakistani uncle—or the one you wish you had—and who never sleeps a wink?

Do your friends look at you wonky and miffed when you declare, “Give me picaresque or give me death?” Have a soft spot for wow-y stories told with countless detours and details by a manic raconteur who resides well south of the high peak of K2 but nevertheless can see the whole wide world?

Do you prefer your Partition history baked so deeply into the gooey mantle of your South Asian fiction that you don’t realize how much you’ve just learned until three weeks later while waiting at the dentist’s?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should immediately go out and read Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, originally published in 1990, beautifully translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, and published in English by New Directions—“this book” in today’s installment of “Why This Book Should Win.”

Let’s begin in the usual place with a bit of “Donkeyography”: the title of a short section in this episodic and delightfully meandering book.

“Donkeography” examines the important differences in perceptions of donkeys and owls in the imaginations of East and West. The reason that we’re here is that lots of bad things are about to happen to our comic hero Basharat’s automobile, but he hasn’t settled on a car purchase yet. Other possible ways of getting around are discussed in detail. “[W]ith all this talk about modes of conveyance, why didn’t I suggest donkeys and donkey-carts?” After dispensing with owls, the narrator continues:

The mascot of the Democratic Party has always been the donkey. It’s on the party flag. The entire American people were like this donkey in their single-mindedness opposition to Iran. I mean, they were numb, dumb, and frozen in place. In the West, the donkey does not inspire any satire. In fact, the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne was so impressed with the noble qualities of this animal that he wrote, “Nowhere on earth can you find an animal more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious than a donkey.” We Asians think ill of donkeys because they have some human qualities. That is, they carry loads heavier than their power of endurance and strength will allow; and they are obedient, obliging, and grateful to their master to the same degree that they are beaten.


There’s more than one way to bring down an empire, skin a cat, or take the fort. One approach is to write a book thick with psychological portraiture and voices of something like insight from the psyche’s inside. This is not that book.

Another approach is to look at a brick wall suffering from efflorescence, caked with salt and peeling away, and see each flaky layer not as rot but zest—and then endeavor to make sure each and every brick and all the natural elements that have pushed through to the surface get their fair shake so that the whole can be viewed anew, with wisdom and awe.

Balban, the horse that drew the carriage that conveyed Basharat, before he settled on the purchase of a car, and before the discussion of donkeys, was to be shot to death by the ostensibly pious Maulana, on account of the horse having run amok on the road while passing a funeral procession, which caused Basharat to be almost blinded by an errant blow to the eye by the horsewhip and both Balban and Basharat to be nearly murdered by the discommoded, grumbling mourners, while Basharat’s father, old and infirm and Balban as his best and only friend, was not informed of the execution order on the horse, but rather told simply that the horse was being sent from Karachi to the Punjab to graze for a couple of months—all the while Maulana, the supposed executioner, quietly ordered a stay for Balban, and instead put the still living animal to work on the sly, a secret that Basharat discovers after a harrowing trip to the slums where Maulana lives.

All because a friend had given Basharat unwise counsel:

A friend advised him not to let a vet put [Balban] down. He said, ‘It’s a bad way to go. It’s not pretty. When I put my Alsatian down at a hospital, I saw it dying. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards. He had been by my side through a lot. He was looking at me pleadingly. I sat with my hand on his forehead. This is a very inauspicious, a very miserable, horse. Despite his disability and pain, he served you and your children well.’

This friend arranged over the phone for Balban to be shot to death.


As run-down brick is reconstituted into a lapidary mural, something happens to the ego of the reader. “Defeat” is a strong word, and “solace” not quite happy enough for the dazzling experience that is the reading of this book. Nevertheless, the narrator advises this near the end of the tale:

How and where the defeated ego finds solace depends on a number of things—your taste, your skills, your ability to put up with failure (your patience), and the available means of escape:

__Mysticism
__Renunciation
__Meditation
__Liquor
__Humor
__Sex
__Heroin
__Valium
__The Fantasy Past
__Daydreaming

Whichever form of intoxication you prefer. At the moment of imminent colonization, Arnold wrote about the ability of the navel-gazing East to withstand defeat:

     The East bow’d low before the blast
     In patient, deep disdain
     She let the legions thunder past
     And plunged in thought again.

And, in this arrogant meditation, centuries slip by. The most hypnotic and deepest form of intoxication available to humankind—the one that makes you indifferent to your surroundings—takes place through an admixture and imbrication of your thoughts and dreams. If you know this high, then everything else is A-okay.

     A thousand miseries will dissolve into one great dream

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Ben Carter Olcott, who is a writer, editor of the KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and a bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)

I can think of no better way to begin gushing about Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press; translated, exceptionally, by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) than by granting its author, Gabrielle Wittkop, the credit she claims on the first page of the novel:

Concealed beneath a hood and clad in all black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, laugh or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while, in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom bust like wineskins.


Indeed. The downfall is that of the Venetian Empire (Bonaparte is on the march), the women are the five doomed, successive wives of Venetian aristocrat Alvise Lanzi, who is “something of a parvenu” (via the gorged, burst women’s dowries) and a devout bibliophile for whom books are “anchor and salvation”—his bookish passivity in these events is a not-so-veiled swipe at certain atrophied masculinities—Murder Most Serene is of a robust and exultant femininity—and, indeed, as promised, these women burst—and rot, and fester, and putrefy as someone close, some criminal within, administers in secret horrible potions of Henbane, Aconitum ferox, English yew, et al. To consistently spectacular effect, literary and otherwise, well-worth citation:

She is given opium. What else is there to do? The opium brings relief but it closes her gut, too. She shrieks that she does not want to die, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to! . . . She vomits pestilential ink, pisses blood, and from time to time, blood pours from her nose, too . . . ulcers appear all over her body, and the smell becomes so bad that no one can stay in the room. Hide, oh hide, those livid, leaden stains, the purulence, the lethal stases, apply powder or ointment.


Indeed: it is Wittkop who jolts these doomed women into life and Wittkop who sends for their poison, Wittkop whose deft hands manipulate her puppets’ desires, their irreducible, irreplaceable life strings. We are rarely allowed to forget it: Wittkop cannot and does not endure narrative “convention” that would obscure her. A broken form facilitates that breaking-in: Murder Most Serene is “a piece of writing made as if from shattered mirrors.” As such it is written in mostly short, jagged paragraphs voiced from ever-shifting, oft-anonymous perspectives. There is a personal, epistolary voice; a staccato voice that reads like a transcript of grainy security camera footage; an “impersonal” narration (though Wittkop’s idiosyncrasies are never far from the surface); and, lastly, that of the marionettist herself, Wittkop the transgressive and irrepressible—and all these are often intermingle in single paragraphs that become, by glint and dint of imagination and insight, mosaics, or as Wittkop deems them, “husks,” overlaying the “kernel” or the “core” thought. To extend her metaphor, what light rebounds from the shattered glass directs the novel: everything else is superfluous if not restriction. This is writing that flows with mind, that abhors submission to a poetics of unities, that generates, in its liberality, passages perverse, disturbing, subversive, free of cliché, and beautiful. This sequence, for example: first, a longer passage describing the birth—“Felicita Lanzi expels a bald monkey, attended by a stench of butchery and all the horrors of parturition”—of a hydrocephalic baby; then several spangling sentences—“But there are not prophecies for now. The parturient feigns sleep. A phial shatters on the stone floor. A clock rings”— then, at the baptism, in reference to a deranged church-goer exhibiting his “flaccidity,” “leaving obscene drawings between the pages of the missals”:

Shameful fascination and no less shameless repulsion serve as mutual mirrors, but the horror of the flesh prevails, perhaps, over its appeal, so that the images may contribute to the salvation of souls; disgust at fornication in all its forms may be transmuted to elevating energy, and the mystic’s vile wilting may reveal the face of his god. This is of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.


Wittkop is a disciple of Marquis de Sade, and she applies his extreme libertarianism to literary form itself, to novelistic convention, synthesizing an absolute freedom-of-form-and-content (her kin are Kundera, Barth, Cixous). That de Sade is reagent is fairly explicit: he’s quoted in the epigraph, and the substance of the book calls out in its intensity and depravity to de Sade’s aesthetic of revelatory atrocity. This excerpt from an autopsy scene is instructive:

The face is absent, obliterated beneath the pale, leathery mask of the scalp, fringed by a few remaining strands of hair, which the raven-beaked anatomist has just pulled down to the chin. Sawn open, the cranium is a casket like any other. The flesh is both flaccid and marmoreal, singularly compact and tight, like frozen fat. The skin is aqueous, one might say, sheathing the hands in heavy folds, livid stases marble the feet and legs. Every dead body is opaque and anonymous, with a hint of meanness, irremediable indigence. Carved in gray, the brain, smooth yet convoluted like a lump of Chinese soapstone, lies in a nearby bowl. An appetizing morsel.


Like de Sade’s, Wittkop’s world is motivated by hidden forces generating in body, the effluence of which is desire. As such, Wittkop the puppeteer, the character-author of the novel Murder Most Serene is a contraption herself, a humanoid reification of that that shadowy fundament within; she is something impossible in the lived-in world. Undoubtedly, these are tropes redolent of the po-mo; and MMS is certainly of that clade—but without the stench. Because of its intellectual integrity, yes, and more powerfully, because it does not devolve into irresolvable and sanctimonious koans on “lacks”: she attempts to fill in those spatialized negativities with things, places, beauty. In other words, though the world is obscure, though what fits into these vacuums must emerge decayed, depraved, Wittkop will not let it remain obscure. Her aim of revealing and through language inhabiting the literal grotesqueries of interior body, the sanctified and thus metaphoric and umbrageous flesh and blood, is illuminative. And this applies to every facet of the book, holistically, totally. Rarely is a city evoked with such lush, lusty, personal passion—Wittkop’s Venice has a body as much as any puppet-person, and she applies to it the full breadth of her copious and powerfully positive descriptive power. It is site to desperate, unknowable trysts and triages, desires of every grotesque mutation, “bejeweled putrescences”, charades, masks, debauchery, and, simultaneously, at every turn, in every breath, death. The city “held aloft on millions of felled trees . . . the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies . . . doubly dead,” is simultaneously, on its “alive” side, host to a society steeped in traditions of decadent and decaying excess—traditions on which they now rely, frivolously, Wittkop suggests, as they hurtle toward their inexorable destruction. At the Carnival of Venice, “that endemic epidemic:”

The masks ape death better than ever. Removing the refuse has become a problem, on a par with the disposal of a corpse. Baskets and pails are overflowing with filth, spewing forth their bubbling putrefaction, snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life. In the veins of the labyrinth, laborers sweep up the vile remains, exchanging lackluster obscenities and jokes.


This as the pulchinelle, Wittkop’s derisive term for the insipid and mawkish carnival goers (the name derives from the famously fatuous, drunken clown of the commedia dell’arte) “groan and rumble” as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, unwittingly consuming the city’s riches, perpetuating its death throes, having long ago turned it into a city where “nobility may be bought for a hundred thousand ducats.” The chimera of the body, urban or human, and the protean, hidden fundament of life, are thus both beautiful and utterly base, viral and destructive and the edifice itself. In a phrase: desire is the prettiest poison. That Wittkop lands squarely on that narrow line and never—never: there isn’t a stray word in MMS—deviates, and in fact illuminates what’s there, is surely an extraordinary artistic achievement.

There is so much more to say about this book—a masterpiece, in my opinion—but this one last thing I fear will go underreported: Murder Most Serene is a delight. It’s concise, fast-paced, and funny—I think you’ll find in any one of the above lengthy citations at least one morsel of laugh-out-loud wit; and I can assure you there’s at least one smart-ass quip in every paragraph in the entire book. Really, despite the seriousness of its ideas, (or because of what those serious ideas seek to undermine) MMS is a romp. Wittkop, too, is a superior writer, and I mean superior to nearly everyone I’ve ever read. These sentences are gorgeous; these sentences are so gorgeous they rekindled my belief in the efficacy of the beautiful. But when I recommend this book to friends, and they dutifully ask me why, I say this, first: Murder Most Serene will be the most fun you have reading this year. It was for me.

But do have a dictionary nearby: you’re going to need it.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kate Garber, BTBA judge and bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)

Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole, should definitely win the Best Translated Book Award. Outside of what might objectively be considered its qualifying elements, the fact is, when I think about all of the what-seems-like-thousands of books I’ve read during this award process, Moods is the one that makes my heart flutter the most. This almost makes it difficult to write anything. Like if you’ve just fallen in love, and the person is actually great, but you try to talk about this person and then suddenly it’s impossible to speak in full sentences because you’re busy blushing and remembering.

There’s something oddly witchy about this book, in that Moods is precisely what it’s named to be: moods. It is not about moods; it is moods.

It’s like a pressure chamber where Hoffmann is slowly and sometimes suddenly changing your atmosphere, making you weep then making you laugh then making you feel inexplicable guilt. Particularly affecting is his work in sadness:

Here are some other things that break the heart: An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted. A grocer whose store no one goes into. Above all, a husband and wife who don’t talk to each other. One-eyed cats. Junkyards. The stairwells of old buildings. A small boy on his way to school. Old women sitting all day by the window. Display windows with only a single item or two, coated with dust. A shopping list. Forty-watt bulbs. Signs with an ampersand (such as ZILBERSTEIN & CHAMNITZER), and when a person we love disappears (at a train station, for instance) into the distance.


Out of context, maybe that won’t make you weep. The crazy part is that the “context” that does make you weep isn’t a storyline at all. It’s the precise engineering of the pressure chamber, in which a vague list of items (which don’t seem to relate to anything) can evoke even more sadness than a seven hundred page novel where your favorite character dies in a tragic accident on the last page. I have theories about how this engineering works, but please, just try it and see what happens. This is why Moods should be named the best fiction, best poetry, best machine, and best spiritual possession of the year.

I’m flipping through the book again, and hang on, it’s just too much.

Sometimes it is discomforting honesty:

Penina Tuchner we loved like the Twin Towers, especially when they were burning.


Sometimes it is pure sensitivity:

We should call all things by their first names. All dogs. All frogs. All trees. Once upon a time we took pity on a gourd that the gardener wanted to uproot, and so we called it Simcha.


Sometimes it is depression without sadness:

Life itself should be lived like that. As in a silent film in which one sees only a single hut with a rooster strutting every so often from the left side of the screen toward the right, and a little while later coming back across it.

Once every thousand years or so a word will be heard.


Sometimes it is delight:

My father Andreas like to play tricks on people. Mostly on his sister, my Aunt Edith.
Every year, on April 1, he’d come up with another prank. Once he started muttering strange syllables and wrote a note to my aunt saying that he had vowed from that day on to speak only Mandarin.


And overall, it is a bit of everything. I’m ashamed that I can’t do it justice, but that’s okay because you’ll see what I mean once you read it.

Beyond this, Moods should win because Peter Cole’s translation is exquisite. Because it queers the line between fiction and poetry so elegantly. Also, because New Directions has published six previous books by Yoel Hoffmann, and this year is the first time I’d even heard of him. Not that you haven’t heard of him—maybe you’ve already read several of his books—but I’ve been working in bookstores for a decade and “Yoel Hoffmann” didn’t even ring a bell. I’m sure I’m partially to blame, but listen, it’s really about time that this fucking grand master becomes a household name.

30 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Rachel Cordasco, who writes for Book Riot and runs the site Bookishly Witty. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)

Relatively short, but consciously powerful, Tram 83 is one of those books that draws you in with the first note and carries you through every variation and improvisation before ejecting you with a last crescendo.

I read Tram 83 in one sitting, and I think that this is the best way to experience it (if possible). After all, the swirling, kaleidoscopic, jazzy, crude, and hyper atmosphere of the novel (which makes jazz central to its expression of a nonexistent State) is best appreciated through complete immersion. This story of Lucien (a writer trying to hold on to some utopian vision of art) and Requiem (a gangster and trafficker who clings to his power over the debauched world of a fictional separatist African city) offers us a vision of modern colonialism and the devastating cycle of war after war of liberation that has gripped nations across the African continent for over a century.

Mujila himself hails from Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tram 83 is his first (and already award-winning) novel. We see his exploration of literary ideals clashing with the mundane, even grotesque, necessities of daily life in a city that has become unmoored from a state and a history. It is Tram 83, the city’s most infamous nightclub, that acts as a gathering place for prostitutes, criminals, tourists, soldiers, and others. Here Lucien comes night after night, sometimes with his friend/sworn enemy Requiem, sometimes with his would-be publisher Malingeau, and each time he writes down snatches of prose that capture the whirlwind, wild nature of this uninhibited place.

But above all, it is the profiteering tourists who, together with corrupt politicians, exploit the diamond mines and suck out the wealth that they offer. Thus money, corruption, and sexual abandon characterize the nightclub where everyone who seeks prosperity gathers. Tram 83 is the petri dish and Mujila is the scientist peering through a microscope at the chaotic and carnivalesque results of this gathering.

It is jazz, though, that gives Tram 83 its rhythm and body. Mujila set the novel in a nightclub, after all, where music and conversation mix with sights and smells until everything melds into a series of tangible experiences. Each chapter opens with a line or paragraph that’s striking in its seriousness, as compared to the more casual, colloquial language of the novel itself. For example:

Strategy means resolving a given situation intelligently.

Requiem and Malingeau, or when two crooks drink to each other’s health.


This latter opening (to chapter 14), which sounds like the title of some 18th-century English play, then leads into a series of stage directions:

Tram 83, interior.

In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.

Center-forward, the young ladies of Avignon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.


This constant stylistic flux embodies the “swinging rhythms, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones, drums, and electric guitars” that can be heard in the nightclub. Even opera finds its place in this novel- chapter 25 describes a nightclub singer who looks like, and even sort of sounds like, the famous Maria Callas.

Such a shifting, swirling novel poses its own unique translation challenges, but Roland Glasser has expertly captured the story and its rhythms and made the English translation seem like the original French. We read this book with the understanding that “translation” is itself a character- Lucien trying to translate his experiences into literature, criminals translating scams into money, music translating emotions into sounds. With Tram 83, Mujila shows us a liminal, shifting world, and Glasser has captured it for English ears. A performance like this one deserves to be rewarded.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the first entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, which will highlight each of the 35 “longlisted”: titles for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Tom Roberge of Albertine Books wrote this piece.



The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

The nature of these “Why This Book Should Win” pieces is that they, by virtue of the various writers’ particular fondness for whatever book they’re arguing on behalf of, are, in their conception and execution, capable of taking almost any form. They are not reviews; that’s been done. They aren’t critical examinations; that’s for another time and place. And they aren’t the sort of recommendations people like me (booksellers, publicists) make on a daily basis because those tend towards the succinct, which is not a problem, per se, but which means that a lot of the gritty beauty of a book is summarized in ways that, in the service of making one’s case before the target loses interest in a tangle of plot.

Which is all a way of saying that I’m going to try to make my case for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel and published by this site’s beneficent overlord (I kid, I kid) Open Letter, in my own damn way. By which I mean I’m going to try to sway you by using a few related passages of the text itself to demonstrate just how insanely beautiful and captivating this book is.

First, a bit of summarization, since it is, I’d argue inseparable from the overall scope and style of the book, which functions on several levels at all times, and which jumps around in time and space in a way that intentionally disorients and then immediately reorients the reader (something that I’d further argue is itself a grand metaphor and commentary on the plot and subject matter, but I don’t have time or, quite frankly, the intellectual dexterity to tackle that notion). The story sprawls across a century of wars and miseries and inter-war miseries that dominated Eastern Europe until recently and, of course, that have left their indelible marks in myriad ways. The narrator, we might as well explain at the outset, possessed, as a child, a certain ability to leap into the buried memories of other people (and creatures, as you’ll see below . . . ). Though given a scientific explanation and name (empathetic-somatic syndrome), it seems to be an invention of the writer, albeit one that yields an abundance of material as the narrator pieces together his family’s history, which passes through two real wars, the cold war, and finally the end of Soviet rule, a period itself full constantly shifting attitudes and socio/economic realities. But this is not in any way a novel that wallows in historical gravitas. The historical aspects of the book are present in the way historical incidents are present in DeLillo’s best novels: as un-ignorable facts of life, monoliths casting massive shadows.

Now, in addition to these time-out-of-joint retellings of his family’s history (think Slaughterhouse Five), the narrator dives into the enduring depths of Greek mythology in order to draw lessons, to find solace amid the chaos, and to lend the history itself a new context. More specifically, the myth of the Minotaur is examined and revisited throughout, the story expanding and developing greater nuance with each visit. So what does this mean in practice? Consider this passage, which I’ve chosen from an early mention of the myth that I believe helps establish the book’s unique mise en scène:

I never forgave Ariadne for betraying her brother. How could you give a ball of string to the one who would kill your unfortunate, abandoned brother, driven beastly by the darkness? Some heart- throb from Athens shows up, turns her head—how hard could that be, some provincial, big-city girl, that’s exactly what she is, a hay- seed and a city girl at the same time, she’s never left the rooms of her father’s palace, which is simply a more luxurious labyrinth.

Dana returns to the mill all alone in the darkness and rescues her brother, while Ariadne makes sure that her own brother’s murderer doesn’t lose his way. I hate you, Ariadne.


In the children’s edition of Ancient Greek Myths, I drew two bull’s horns on Ariadne’s head in pen.

To clarify, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s sister, and Dana is the narrator’s grandfather’s sister, who had to retrieve her younger brother after he’d been simply forgotten when the family had visited the mill to sell a load of flour. The mother, for what it’s worth, very nearly left him there; such was the desperation of the time.

Then, not a handful of pages later, we get this, without introduction:

The slugs slowly drag themselves across the newspaper, without letting go of it. Several are timidly clinging together, body to body. My grandfather grabs one with two fingers, closes his eyes, opens his mouth and slowly places the slug inside, close to his throat. He swallows. My stomach turns. I’m afraid for Grandpa. And I want to be able to do as he does. My grandfather has an ulcer. The slugs are his living medicine. They go in, make their way through the esophagus and stop in the soft cave of the stomach, leaving their slimy trail there, which forms something like a protective film on top, a thin medicinal layer that seals off the wound…

This is then followed, after a section break, with a version of the action as told from the slug’s point of view, which, of course, the narrator can access:

A huge hand lifts me up and sets me at the opening of a red, warm and moist cave. It is not unpleasant, even if a bit frightening. The red thing I have been placed on constantly twitches, slightly bucking and rising, which forces me to crawl farther in toward the only available corridor. At the entrance there is a soft barrier, it isn’t difficult to overcome. It’s as if it opens on its own, in any case it reacts when I touch it. Now there’s the tunnel, dark and soft, which I sink into, horns forward, like a slow bull. I leave a trail behind me to mark the way back. I feel safer with it…

The juxtaposition of the slug’s trail in the grandfather’s stomach and the string left for Theseus by Ariadne is, in my opinion, breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful and something that I cannot possibly expound upon any further; it speaks for itself. And this is but one example of the sort of genius on display in The Physics of Sorrow, which is why I think this book should win.

8 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.


Last Words from Montmartre – By Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich
NYRB

Last Words from Montmartre is a loaded piece of work before you ever begin reading it. Qiu Miaojin, the young Taiwanese lesbian writer, committed suicide at the age of twenty-six before it was published, before it became “a bible for lesbians” in Taiwan and before her first novel, Notes of a Crocodile, won the esteemed China Times Honorary Award for Literature. The dramatic way she lived and ended her life does not overshadow this novel, but becomes an intense, self-examined manifestation of how desperately she wanted to engage in it.

Yes, as it begins, it may seem to be the paragon of the break-up novel with page after page of incriminations, recriminations, pleading, apologizing, proselytizing, and declaring. Will writer and reader both make it through this emotional excoriation? Yes because Qiu quickly and deftly makes this epistolary novel explore places emotionally and intellectually she’s been to, hold them up to the light and examine them no matter how much it hurts her or us. Last Words from Montmartre is not about these experiences, it is these experiences: being left to sob on the floor as your lover walks out the door, the harrowing pursuit of artistic expression, and the torturous yearning endured at cross-section of sex and desire. Yet, it is also so much more.

“My purity is comprised of my physical body, my soul, and my whole life, and I’ve never given this ‘purity’—as unblemished as a piece of white jade—to anyone but you.”

This is a novel of self-revelation. Composed of twenty letters, don’t take Last Words as if you’re reading someone’s letters to an ex-lover. You are reading an artist fighting for her life albeit with the awareness and control to use novelistic elements. A master of controlled inner chaos, Qiu instructs the reader before she begins that the letters, which are numbered, do not need to be read in order. This is true, they don’t. Yet since Qiu also hints at her own suicide in her dedication, there’s no pull to begin anywhere – one wants to start where she wanted the story to begin. The letters cover the gamut of emotions, but the purity of her passion is tempered the self-consciousness of a novelist. These letters are for you, the universal reader, the one ‘out there,’ not for her lover to whom they are never sent.

“Sincerity, courage, and honesty will deliver humanity. I’ve realized this since coming to France. With sincerity, courage, and honesty, one can face death, extreme physical pain, and even extreme psychological pain. One can resist persecution from individuals, society, or government. To live in preparation of adversity and finding ways to preserve your core values—this is what it means to learn ‘how to live.’”

This is a political novel. By the sheer act of honesty in her writing, Qiu was a political writer. Both of Qiu’s novels, as Qiu herself, are treasures and guides for the Taiwanese queer community. She did not want to be invisible, as the government prefers of their queer population; she wanted to be heard and seen as an artist and her sexual identity was inextricably threaded through her works. Compartmentalizing parts of herself would have only meant compromise as an artist—and lack of purity. This is precisely why Ari Larissa Heinrich’s translation is so skillful because he is able to understand Qiu as an artist, including all her tiny nuances, and her importance as an artistic figure, which he so aptly addresses in his Afterword.

“Because I have a fatal, mortal, terminal passion for you. Ultimately I have no choice but death: an unconditional allegiance, an eternal bond to you. (The ultimate rule of desire/eros is this: At their peak, ‘sexual desire’ [erotic desire], ‘desire for love’ [romantic longing], and ‘desire for death’ [the death wish] are all the same.)

This is a novel of passion: the passion to love, to understand, to know, to express, to connect, to live and to die with reason. When these desires are placed in the hands of someone as youthful and sensitive as Qiu, it creates organized chaos, a one-woman show, live on the pages in front of us, making us feel uncomfortable that it is all slightly too real. Yet anxious as she may make us feel, Qiu mining herself on so many levels for the purity and honesty of art commands our respect, our admiration. As readers, when a writer lays bare for us with such brutal honesty, truth will always be what we see.

Qiu gave her life for art, desire and love. This isn’t a book of love letters or a book of suicide notes; its a testament to the power of artistic courage in the face of pain, misery and isolation. Last Words from Montmartre deserves to win because of what it represents for Taiwan’s queer history, what it represents for truth in literature and what it represents for those who have loved and lost.

23 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for this year’s BTBA Poetry Finalists is by judge Anna Rosenwong.

The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky (Italy; Chelsea Editions)

I love The Guest in the Wood. I didn’t expect to; it snuck up on me. I anticipated respecting the poems, appreciating the marvelous translations by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and the elegant volume from Chelsea Editions, but masterful translation and thoughtful publishing have been the rule in this competition. Dozens and dozens of brilliant translations have invited themselves into my home over the past months, but this book asked me in and wouldn’t let me leave.

I say it snuck up on me because, unlike many other remarkable submissions, The Guest in the Wood did not announce itself as exotic, exhaustive, avant-garde, genre-defying, or canonical. The Guest in the Wood is humbly subtitled, “A Selection of Poems 2004-2007,” and it was with no more warning than this that I ventured into the wood and became Biagini’s guest.

From the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both “guest” and “host”). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to “attend and rediscover” the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, “the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.”

Born in 1970, Elisa Biagini is herself a translator of contemporary North American poetry, and part of my attraction to her work surely comes from a sense of the poems in translatorly conversation with influences such as Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. Tellingly, The Guest in the Wood merges two of Biagini’s six collections, The Guest and Into the Wood, with the wood representing a very different kind of contained space than the home, one synonymous with fairy tale archetype and danger. With its evocation, Biagini’s homey interiors are revealed to be haunted, their spare restraint repeatedly performing domestic cleanliness and order in a perpetual struggle to manage threatening guests.

The plates are never left out
because otherwise the dead will come
and sop bread in the broth
carefully
so that a misplaced spoon won’t be noticed
the next morning.
You don’t want them counting the crumbs
reading your fortune in the leftovers
tasting your body
at night.

I’ve been thrilled to find that my fellow BTBA judges were likewise caught out and drawn in by this book’s unapologetically feminine sense of embodiment and urgency—Biagini’s sharp distortions of ironing boards and dirty dishes as compelling, political, and philosophical as any of the more obviously ambitious or grandiose works we read. The fact that this collection is Biagini’s first in English is a credit to Chelsea Editions for bucking the publishing preference for safety and known quantities, as well as testament to both the message of Three Percent and the importance of projects like the Best Translated Book Award. You should read this book. And it should win.

23 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With this post we’re kicking off the “Why This Book Should Win” series for this year’s BTBA Poetry Finalists. This piece is by judge Anna Rosenwong.

His Days Go By the Way Her Years by Ye Mimi, translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury (Taiwan; Anomalous Press)

the train sidles into the station at the stroke of noon   like a tidy row of bento
you toss off your mackintosh       and fly, fly away
calling to mind a practical exercise     slanting rhymes:

bite off the break
skirt the precipitous brink

the ghosts in the first level basement
await
the coming of man from Mars

you open up your backpack then
knock back a bootle of Español
for that next tastefully unfamiliar excursion

(Ye Mimi excerpted from “I Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know: For ‘Sis’” )

In the end, only one chapbook proved muscular enough to make it onto the BTBA poetry shortlist. And at just 29 bilingual pages and 10 poems, it does feel audacious to set this slim introduction to a young poet against the likes of a door-stopping volume of Roberto Bolaño’s complete poetry and a long overdue first English collection of Sohrab Sepehri, one of Iran’s foremost poets of the 20th century. But Ye Mimi’s His Days Go By the Way Her Years is an audacious book. Its limited run was beautifully letterpress printed by Erica Mena at the envelope-pushing Anomalous Press, having been chosen as a finalist in their inaugural chapbook contest by Christian Hawkey. Most importantly, the marvel of its translation comes thanks to that passionate proponent of experimental Taiwanese poetry and beloved American Literary Translators Association stalwart, Steve Bradbury. In less virtuosic and fearless hands than his, this collection would be an impossibility. I am grateful to all of these collaborators for introducing me to Ye Mimi and her swirling, sometimes manic charm. Chapbooks are often overlooked, but they represent an unparalleled avenue for small, ambitious publishers to bring us the world.

The ten exclamatory, cuttingly modern poems of His Days Go By the Way Her Years are shot through with sonic gamesmanship, punning, the unbridled verbing of nouns, and voraciously transcultural allusion. Many also perform an oscillation between coy formal disruption and seductive dream logic, as in the typographically resistant line: “\ every one of the ◻◻ / could find themselves sluiced by the ◻◻◻ into a water melon frappe of a summer season.” The poems are well aware of their own cleverness, but resist turning precious as they revel in grotesque particulars and subversions of the ordinary stuff of life and poetic diction. In “The More Car the More Far,” Ye Mimi asserts:

Solitude is somewhat sweeter than water.
Fish are crunchier on the outside, softer in the middle than the sea.
From this day henceforth I will go forth and wilderness the wilderness.
She sang.

Ye Mimi does sing, and His Days Go By the Way Her Years represents just a small sample of Bradbury’s translations of her work. May it pave the way for more joyful, defiant, aggressively wonderful poems, more wildernessing, more international literary prizes for Ye Mimi!

14 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And here’s the final post in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for the 2014 BTBA fiction longlist. I’ll post a handy guide to all of these posts later this afternoon, but for now just enjoy Bromance Will (aka Will Evans, the founder and director of Deep Vellum) wax enthusiastic for his favorite book from the past year.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)

The past is everything, the future nothing, and time has no other meaning.

I won’t play games, there are no secret agendas here: Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by the incomparably amazing independent publisher Archipelago Books, should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for two reasons, both of which fulfill whichever the criteria of what a “best translated book” should be: 1) it is the best book I read in the last year; and 2) it is the best work of translation, the work of a genius author translated by a genius translator, I read in the last year. Not only is it a damn good book, which I’ll get into below, but it’s the best damn translation by the best damn translator in the game: Dr. Sean Cotter.

What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .

I suppose I should write a disclaimer: Sean Cotter is a friend. He lives in the Dallas area, where I live. We frequently eat at Mediterranean buffets together. I’ve put together readings for him in town. I trumpet the cause of Sean Cotter. This may make you think I’m biased towards him, but that’s not entirely true. The reason I do all of these things and the reason why I am even writing this piece is not because I’m friends with Sean Cotter but rather that I’m Sean Cotter believer. I believe in this man’s talent as a translator that transcends your earthly opinions of human relationships and whatever notion of bias means in this instance. When I sit with him at lunch I basically just ask him how the hell he could actually manage to translate this beast of a novel, and even after he’s explained it to me over and over again I’m still in awe.

What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .

But back to the book itself—Blinding is a masterpiece. It was an instant bestseller when it appeared in Romania (God bless the Romanians). Blinding first book in a trilogy that takes the form of a butterfly tracing out the history of Cărtărescu’s family history: the full title of book one is Blinding: The Left Wing. The other two books, as yet untranslated, include book two, “The Body,” and book three, “The Right Wing.” The left wing of the butterfly-novel is the history, or rather, the legend, of Cărtărescu’s mother; the right wing tells the story of his father; the body is about the author himself. It’s an imaginative format, and is made apparent to the reader throughout the novel by the central figure/motif/metaphor/symbol/icon of the butterfly that links all of the stories taking place across time/space. Chapters alternate in narrative points of view and throughout the history of Cărtărescu’s mother and her ancestors, from the narrator philosophizing about the nature of our existence in this universe sitting in his room overlooking Bucharest’s skyline in the present day to magical stories of gypsies and resurrected zombies in rural 19th-century (or before?!) Romanian hinterlands, to WWII-era Bucharest and its bombed-out aftermath under the Soviet stooge government.

Space is Paradise and time is inferno. How strange it is that, like the emblem of bipolarity, in the center of a shadow is light, and that light creates shadows. After all, what else is memory, this poisoned fountain at the center of the mind, this center of paradise? Well-shaft walls of tooled marble shaking water green as bile, and its bat-winged dragon standing guard? And what is love? A limpid, cool water from the depths of sexual hell, an ashen pearl in an oyster of fire and rending screams? Memory, the time of the timeless kingdom. Love, the space of the spaceless domain. The seeds of our existence, opposed yet so alike, unite across the great symmetry, and annul it through a single great feeling: nostalgia.

The complex layout of the novel isn’t so complex when you read it, I swear, it is fun and breathtaking and will carry you away in the epic sweep of very sentence. I can’t tell you what happens in the novel, because there is no plot per se, unless you describe in the terms I attempted to above: the novel is Cărtărescu’s creation myth for his mother’s side of the family; the mythmaker, the storyteller, is the axis of the many stories that spoke out from his mind into a work of beautiful, complex genius.

I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghosts of moments into weighty, oily gold.

In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book TwoBlinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.

You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membranes . . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago . . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!

I read a lot of translations by a lot of translators but the fact of the matter is the Blinding is a perfect reminder of the importance of world literature being translated into English as the ability to expand not only our artistic consciousness and understanding of the world but blowing apart the very limits of our own reality. I volunteered to write this piece because I read Blinding and it blew my mind into a zillion pieces, it is wholly unlike any other novel I have ever read, so unique and refreshing that I now see the world in new ways, and that’s why I read books in the first place, and the fact is that it is so miraculously wrought a novel that I cannot help but write a piece extolling the translator’s talents in rendering the weirdest turns of phrases and run-on sentences that mark the genius Cărtărescu’s work into a breathtakingly original English that extends the limits of what we imagine our own native language—our own native minds—can fathom.

Under my skin, tensioned and fresh, run tendons that activate the levers of my fingers. And my fingers move, because we do not doubt ourselves. Because what flows within the borders of our skin is not only blood, lymph, hormones, and sugar: more importantly, our belief flows.

Sean’s translation is imaginative and creative, fearless and flawless. He has captured the manic, mad majesty of Cărtărescu’s mind as they trace the fantastical branches of Cărtărescu’s family tree and the labyrinthine shadows of Bucharest so lovingly described throughout centuries of history—which is the history of Cărtărescu himself, his ancestors, his family, his city, and his active, whirlwind imagination. There has never been anything written in the English language to prepare you for the originality of vision and language that you will find within the pages of Blinding.

What else would I be but a neuron, with a brain as my cellular body, spinal marrow as my axons, and nerves as my numberless dendrites? A spiderweb that feels only what touches it. Yes, each of us have a single neuron within us, and humanity is a dissipated brain that strives desperately to come together. And I wonder, quaking inside, whether the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead are nothing more than this: the extraction of this neuron from every person that ever lived, their evaluation, and the rejection of the unviable into the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and construction of an amazing brain—new, universal, blinding—from the perfect neurons, and with this brain we will climb, unconscious and happy, onto a higher level of the fractal of eternal Being.

Blinding should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award because it is the best book of the year, and Sean should win the first ever back-to-back BTBA award for a translator because he is a master of the English language and brought Cărtărescu into my mind. Into our minds. Into our collective consciousness. Into our collective memory. And for that he should be awarded eternal life. Legend.

14 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Twenty-four hours from now the 2014 BTBA finalists will be announced—will In the Night of Time be on the list? Below are my reasons why it should be.

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In the Night of Time is a huge book. Six-hundred and forty-one pages of very mannered, wandering prose depicting the general chaos of the Spanish Civil War, and the personal chaos that architect Ignacio Abel undergoes during the war’s buildup. It’s more of an emotional book than a political one, with most of the “action” revolving around Ignacio’s love affair with a young American, and the harm this causes to his wife and family.

That’s all fine, but reason number one that I think this book should win the BTBA is for the way in which it depicts the terrifying ambiguity of the start of a war. Throughout the first 400+ pages of the novel, war is always on the horizon. Franco’s Fascists are nearby, moving toward Madrid, gathering support from the general populous fed up with the Republican Party. Molina’s presentation of the way in which the newspapers are completely unreliable at this time—several characters point out how the advances and retreats never quite add up—and that most people don’t think anything will come of the revolutionary uprisings around the country, is kind of terrifying. And then everyone starts carrying guns, “just in case” . . .

The sense of loss portrayed at the end of the book, once Ignacio is in America, working at a small liberal college and war has officially broken out, is incredibly powerful and saddening. I’ve always been interested in the Spanish Civil War and its craziness, and this novel reinforced my desire to learn more about the various nuances of the conflict.

But sticking with this novel, and why it should win, there are two more things that I want to point out. First, the prose itself. As I read this, I was frequently reminded of Javier Marias. Going back to an adjective from above, Molina’s writing is very “mannered.” Which is true of Marias as well. But where Marias tends to circle around and around a particular thought or action, Molina has a bit more forward motion.

He didn’t pretend. It was easy for him to talk to Adela and his children and not feel the sting of imposture or betrayal. What happened in his secret life didn’t interfere with this one but transferred to it some of its sunlit plenitude. And he didn’t care too much about the ominous prospect of immersion in the celebrations of his in-laws, usually as suffocating for him as the air in the places where the lived, heavy with dust from draperies, rugs, faux heraldic tapestries, smells of fried food and garlic, ecclesiastical colognes, liniments for the pains of rheumatism, sweaty scapulars. A sharp awareness of the other, invisible world to which he could return soon made more tolerable the painstaking ugliness of the one where he now found himself and where, in spit of the passage of years, he’d never stopped being a stranger, an intruder.

Also, this is translated by Edith Grossman, one of the most important translators ever. Her contributions to world literature—both in terms of her translations, like her Don Quixote from a few years back, and in terms of her own writing, like Why Translation Matters—deserve to win all of the awards.

Finally, from a reader enjoyment perspective, I finished this book in just over a week. Every chapter—each of which almost stand alone and little set-pieces advancing a couple parts of the overall story in a way that defies traditional, linear storytelling—was compelling and brought me right back into the world of this haunted man, on the run from the self-destruction of his homeland, where his betrayed wife and abandoned children are maybe still alive, and kept me reading. This is a shit argument, I know, but the fact that Molina’s writing has the power to keep me reading is some sort of internal proof that this is a damn good book—one deserving of the BTBA.

13 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re down to the last three longlisted titles, so we’re going to have to cram these in before Tuesday morning’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists. I’ll be writing the first two, Bromance Will will bring it home tomorrow evening.

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)

It’s not surprising that Sjón’s books read like musical compositions. A lyricist, member of the board of the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and sometime singer, Sjón has been involved in Iceland’s amazingly creative music scene for some time now. In my opinion, this is why his earlier novel The Blue Fox works so well. The prose is concise, the voices play off each other incredibly well, and the book’s underlying architecture help it to do more in 100 pages than most authors pull off in 300+.

The Whispering Muse is a different sort of book: there’s a stronger, more linear plot (in 1949, Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander obsessed with the influence of eating fish on the Nordic peoples, is on a boat with Caeneus, who entertains the passengers of the boat with his stories of the Argo and retrieving the Golden Fleece); the passages are a bit longer, less immediately poetic; and it’s a bit funnier. That said, it’s distinctly Sjónian.

Most of the humor derives from the fussy speeches of Valdimar Haraldsson, former editor of Fisk og Kultur and author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, who just won’t stop talking about how a diet rich in fish is the recipe for Nordic superiority:

In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish. And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms. [. . .] The same was true of the aboriginal settlers of Scandinavia, who followed the edge of the ice sheet when the great glacier began to retreat at the waning of the Ice Age. Instead of following in the footsteps of the herbivores and the predators that preyed on them, they kep tot eh seashore, benefiting from the easy access to food.

It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and shore are endowed.

Vadimar is a great protagonist/narrator precisely because he’s such a drag to listen to and be around. He’s funny—in a pathetic sort of way—but also annoying as shit. (Which is why everyone would rather listen to Caeneus’s tale.) That’s a hard thing to pull off, and one solid reason why Sjón deserves this year’s BTBA.

A lot of the other reasons I think this should win are personal. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I love Iceland and would give anything to retire there (or start Open Letter’s Reykjavik office). Great people, music, books, and hamburgers. What more does one need?

And Sjón? One of the kindest, most down-to-earth, wonderful writers I’ve ever met. He was responsible for getting Can Xue into the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to give him this award.

Plus, this was the only “original” book of the three that FSG brought out last year, a publishing plan that helped launch his career in the States and ensures that his future books will be desired and supported by a healthy group of fans. The matching covers and simultaneous release was a bold move on the part of FSG, and I love to see an innovative, literary press get rewarded for things like this. So, go Iceland!

7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.

Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.

While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.

Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.

11 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

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

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Brandon Holmquest.

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi

Language: Albanian
Country: Albania
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 108

Why This Book Should Win:

It begins
when she searches in the darkness
for her likeness, a line of verse awaiting its end rhyme

and it goes on from there, and in just about every poem there’s something that grabs your attention. As in the quote above, where the rhythm of the use of the letter S is so nice in the first two lines, establishing a beat which then opens up to let the long I come in, “likeness” “line” then the same S in “verse” and the long I again in “rhyme.”

This is English-language poetry, of course. I have no Albanian whatsoever and the book is not bilingual, something which I generally regard as a minor crime, though this book may have persuaded me to be a little less hard-line about it. As I was attempting to explain to a bookseller friend of mine not that long ago: I want the original even in languages I don’t know because I want to see what I can see. Are the original much longer or shorter than the translations? Are they shaped differently? Do they rhyme and if so, do the translations? And so on. I’m suspicious, in short.

And often, there’s reason to be. But, sometimes, maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because the English is so good I cease to care if it’s even a translation. I just want more of it, whatever it is, however it came to be made.

Case in point, the poem “Monday in Seven Days,” a longish serial poem of ten parts, which I’m only going to quote once because otherwise the whole thing is going to wind up in what is supposed to be a brief review:

Preparing for winter
isn’t tradition, but instinct. We hurl our spare anxieties
like precious cargo from a shipwreck.

Read that again. If you don’t see on your own how good it is, how truly excellent the choice of the word “hurl” is and how excellently true the observation contained in the lines is, maybe you don’t like poetry as much as you thought. Or maybe you need to read a lot more of it.

Well, there’s a lot more of it in this book. Both the above quotes are pulled from the first quarter of a 100+ page book. At about the halfway point we find:

They are dying one after the other;
shoveling earth on them has become as common
as sprinkling salt on food.

I don’t know what anyone could say to work like this except, “Hell yes.” I could go on dropping quotes all day, but I can see no real percentage in aggressively preaching to a mixed congregation of the choir and the uncovertable.

Lleshanaku’s work is in a vein with some other writers from Eastern Europe I’ve run across in the last few years. She reminds me of Mariana Marin with a less severe case of depression, but really most of the good work I’ve seen from Romania or Poland and elsewhere in the region is in the ball park. Lots of images, vernacular language, a tendency to roll around in the lower reaches of the culture, and a level of comfort on the part of the poet with the saying of things, the making of explicit statements about the nature of something, be it the self, the world, or some interaction between the two.

Point being, there’s something going on over there that we’re only just now getting a chance to see in this country, thanks to books like this and translators like Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi. There are literary cultures less dominated by the inane war between boring middlebrow crap and equally boring academic crap. Child of Nature is a book that comes from such a place. Read it.

5 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As started last week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

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

Today’s post is by poetry committee member and Reading the World podcast host Erica Mena.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Publisher: Litmus Press
Pages: 144

Why This Book Should Win: Outsiders are cool, two-for-the-price-of-one, 1st ever repeat translator winner, the poetry will explode your brain and send you spinning into dreamspace.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air are two separate books, collected into this single volume, and their contrast underscores Ayane Kawata’s breadth of poetic talent and Sawako Nakayasu’s impressive range as translator. Time of Sky is Kawata’s first collection of poems, published in Japanese in 1969. At the time of publication, Kawata was (and still is) an intentional outsider in the Japanese poetry world. This remove is perhaps the strongest feature of this first part of the collection: the distance of the observer from the poetic world she engages with.

These sparse, short verses seem at first to belong to the tradition of abstract, imagistic Asian poetry that most Western readers are familiar with. The grammatical minimalism, the intense images, the staccato rhythm of constrained lines, all of these things feel familiar, within the comfort-zone of contemporary Japanese poetry. But there is a dark tension lurking beneath the surface, and in places it bursts through, startling:

19

From the trace of the incontinent blood of an angel walking along
holding some sky cut out with a class cutter, the dawn—

27

Will the lark’s vein blow up
Or will an earful of the distant blue make its way inside

30

At the speed of a reed of blood crawling about the brain
As if to assault—
Sing

Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination.

There is also a layered femininity in these poems, that builds sexuality within protest and suffering.

37

O naked women letting out screams and passing through the
invisible automatic doors of the blue sky

38

Breasts that hatch
Like music
Mirrors resound and melt
The sky goes missing

50

How long will the women be gasping as they open and close their
arms in the towering forest of mirrors

The reflection of the body in a mirror is a clear gesture toward feminist positioning, but at such cold remove, such seemingly idle wondering, that the violence of the watcher’s gaze is all but undone. This first book is full of startling imagery, more striking for the distanced tone which Nakayasu preserves throughout. This tone, which could become monochromatic or dully repetitive, emphasizes the layers of image and meaning, and hints at innocence and indifference. But if the tone gestures towards indifference, it is even more exciting to encounter the violence and strangeness of these sharp fragments of image.

Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.

With an infant

A man is chasing me—so in order to escape I try to have a relationship with an infant. The idea is to drive the man away by having him see me make love to the infant. The infant understands the situation completely.

Throughout this sequence the poet struggles with impossibility – the attempt (often failed) to escape pursuit, to be seen, to be heard. Familiar tropes of an unsettled dreamer, these are transformed into revelations of weakness and strength.

Flute

I have a flute in my hands and try to play it, but no sound comes out. I accidentally breathe in and something like a scrap of silver foil gets left behind in my mouth. As I am wondering what it’s like inside the flute, the thin wooden flute splits vertically like a cicada shell, exposing the metallic scraps and grass seeds mixed inside. The flute sounds because of something inside it. I put it back together and try again to play it. Still no sound comes out.

This collection moves from cold remove to shameless vulnerability, from verse to prose, from imagistic to dreamlike. In maintaining a recognizable voice and preserving the disparity between pieces, Nakayasu created a remarkable translation, deserving of close and repeated readings.

4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

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

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Kevin Prufer.

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry

Language: Slovenian
Country: Slovenia
Publisher: BOA Editions
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: The poems in Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things focus with nearly comic intensity on an array of everyday objects—an egg, a coat, a toothpick, a stomach. Here, a potato recollects the soil it came from. Or a hand dryer speaks a windy language we can’t quite understand. Or a doormat forgives us all. But Šteger’s poems go far beyond mere comic description, personification, or metaphor. Rather, his objects reflect our own strange complexities—our eagerness to consume, our rationalizations and kindness. Our many cruelties and our grandiosities.

Each of these fifty poems (the book includes seven sections of seven poems plus one introductory “proem” titled “A”) fixates with obsessive detail on a different, focusing on the turnings of its imagined mind. A loaf of bread “asks you to do him harm, for you to stab him / To shred him to pieces, consume his still warm body.” “Yes, yes,” Šteger concludes, “he loves you, that is why he accepts your knife. / He knows that all his wounds crumble in your hand.” Or, of a pair of windshield wipers, he writes: “Both of them hide something, / That is why they move in such harmony. / Like two serfs in black rubber boots.”

At times playful or grimly serious, the effect of these poems slowly gathers until one has the sense not of looking at everyday objects anew, but of being looked at anew by the once inconsequential objects that surround us. And, reflected in their many, multifaceted eyes, we do no fair well.

Šteger’s The Book of Things is harrowing and hilarious, unnerving and weirdly familiar—and, most of all, ambitious in its attempt to look anew into our all-too-human darkness. And translator, Brian Henry (himself a poet of significant talent) renders these poems beautifully into an English that is both colloquial and disconcertingly plainspoken.

29 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

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

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.

Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett

Language: Chinese
Country: China
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Pages: 151

Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.

So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.

In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.

In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”

Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:

Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.

I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

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

Today’s post is by BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet.

Geometries by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse
Pages: 80

Why This Book Should Win: Charming yet deep; sweet and funny; stimulating, challenging, and yet approachable; private, but easy to relate to, sexy. No, I’m not describing my perfect mate—wait, yes I am!—but I’m also describing the wonderful poems in Geometries, by Guillevic, translated by Richard Sieburth and originally published in French in 1967.

Each of these poems is based on a geometrical figure—presented in its Euclidian simplicity at the top of each piece. These poems bounce playfully, deftly, and philosophically between the unchanging fact of the simple, named form, and the nameless feelings and attitudes we have toward space, the way it shapes us, is us, and comes between us.

Some of the poems in Geometries are intimate addresses to the shapes, such as in “Ellipse,” which begins, “Listen, I know how hard it is/To achieve this kind of balance,//With everything pressing in/On each of your outer points.” These poems, by commiserating with forms, by sometimes chastising them, by truly conversing and engaging with them, reshape shapes from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. The condition of the body and the mind, minds that love and bodies that love—the troubling trouble of it all, is playfully illuminated. “Ellipse” ends “Two centers,/Either oblivious/To each other,/Or at war.” How like our own—my own!—sense of a self at odds with itself. I find I can relate to this ellipse. Who knew.

Many of the poems in the collection give a voice to these shapes, which speak to us out of their self-awareness and their striking personalities. These shapes are resigned to behaving as their dimensions demand—just as may know where the arc of our particular behavior leads us. The “Point” ballsily notes:

I am no more than the fruit
bq. Of an encounter.

I have nothing.

‘Get the point.’
bq. ‘Miss the point.’

What do I know?

Yet who would venture
bq. To erase me?

The cover of the collection says that these poems were “Englished” by Richard Sieburth. They are indeed. Sieburth captures in English the specific spokenness of the poems, their philosophical wit, their pathos (who would have thought shapes could have pathos!), without losing a sense of the inherent playfulness of the project. These shapes are foreign mirrors—yet astounding mirrors nonetheless. These poems are part game, part serious seriousness, and Sieburth stealthily draws the poems down that line into a wonderfully pleasing feeling that something true has been discovered in the oddest of ways.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As referenced in this article in the New York Times, the April issue of Oprah Magazine has a special feature on Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets. And one of the featured poets? None other than Anna Moschovakis, who is one of the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse (whose collection Geometries by Guillevic is a poetry finalist for the BTBA), author of a new poetry collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and . . . translator of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is a fiction finalist for the BTBA.

Congrats, Anna!

Favorite quote from the piece:

“I use writing as a way of thinking. Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t add up.” While she’s drawn to dissonance in her writing, when it comes to clothes Moschovakis most prizes ease.

Love that turn from “dissonance” to “ease” . . .

Also worth noting that this particular issue of Oprah Magazine has a bit with David Duchovny on his favorite books, which include The Crying of Lot 49. Admittedly, I’m a bit surprised at how well done and literary this particular section was. Makes the rest of glossy mag media look illiterate. As if they didn’t already.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns

Language: Afrikaans
Country: South Africa
Publisher: Tin House
Pages: 579

Why This Book Should Win: It explores a complex web of human relationships at a familial and national level without ever leaving a single room; and because, as Liesl Schillinger says in her review of the novel published in the NYT Book Review, “Books like Agaat . . . are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them.”

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.

From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”

Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps _Agaat_’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:

[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.

Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.

[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.

Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery! They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.

A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.

She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.

I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.

Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.

She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.

Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.

22 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated by Ina Rikle

Language: Dutch
Country: Netherlands
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 523

Why This Book Should Win: Couperus is the Dutch Zola/Flaubert/Tolstoy, but pretty much no one in America reads him; this is a truly classic novel, one that was first published in 1889; probably the only “Novel of the Hague” published last year.

The best introduction you can get to Couperus and Eline Vere is the bit from the Leonard Lopate show attached below and featuring Ina Rilke and Paul Binding:

(Kind of funny that right off the bat, Rilke talks about how Eline Vere isn’t really Couperus’s best work.)

Another great entryway to Couperus—one of the Netherlands great authors—is Paul Binding’s very informative and interesting afterword. Here’s a bit:

Louis Couperus was only twenty-six when Eline Vere came out, and had previously published only unsatisfactory and derivative poems (in 1883 and 1884). Though it is a literary artefact of precocious sophistication and accomplishment, the novel is also palpably the creation of a young man whose years were a great advantage to him in its composition. For Couperus is still very much of the milieu he is re-creating, aware though he is of its limitations and faults, and he clearly was intimately familiar, as a member himself of youthful Hague society, of the very pleasures, expectations and hopes he ascribes to his large cast of characters, almost all of them his contemporaries. Their gossip and banter, their flirtations, their little tiffs and misunderstandings and reconciliations, their plans for and doubts about the nature of their future adult lives convince us (and never more so than in Ina Rilke’s spirited and linguistically sensitive English) because they are done essentially from the inside. A young man like Etienne van Erlevoort, lazy and industrious, facetious and affectionate by turns, springs to life off the pages—on which he performs no absolutely essential dramatic act—as though a relation of the author’s own, slyly observed over many years, were being presented to us. [. . .]

And a bit about the book itself:

Almost halfway through Eline Vere we find its eponymous heroine in a state of conscious happiness. Eline, whose life has hitherto centered round the entertainments of high society in The Hague, is staying at De Horze in Gelderland, the country property of the family into which she has agreed to marry. The more she sees of her betrothed, Otto van Erlevoort, the more she appreciates his kindly, virtuous character. Herself highly strung and only too frequently dissatisfied, she has found deep contentment in surrendering to the slow rhythms of the rural summer. These have enabled her to get on with members of the large Van Erlevoort family so well that they are now obviously fond of her—even Otto’s sister Frederique, who has never much cared for her. Eline is quite aware that she has significantly changed:

“During moments of solitary reflection on her new selfhood, tears welled up in her eyes in gratitude for all the goodness that she had received, and her only wish was that time would not fly, but stand still instead, so that the present would last for ever. Beyond that she desired nothing, and a sense of infinite rest and blissful, blue tranquility emanated from her being.”

Yet the God to whom she prays for this stasis does not answer her prayer, for time by its very nature cannot stand still. And moving and even sympathetic though we may find Eline’s thoughts here, we can also detect in them signs of the pernicious weakness that will destroy her. Her hopes are unrealistic, and fear plays too great a part in them; indeed, they amount to a desperate desire to have subtracted from existence anything demanding or painful. They are also self-centered; in this respect Eline’s “new selfhood” differs little, if at all, from her former one. Does her fiance have his rightful part in these wishes of hers for the future to be cancelled?

Another great rediscovery from Archipelago . . .

OK, two books left to cover, and then on Thursday we’ll be announcing the finalists for both fiction and poetry.

21 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

CYCLOPS by Ranko Marinkovic, translated by Vlada Stojiljkovic, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursac

Language: Croatian
Country: Croatia
Publisher: Yale University Press
Pages: 550

Why This Book Should Win: Nice cover; Yale has two books on the list for the first time ever, and deserves some love; interesting story behind the publication of the translation; classic of Croatian literature praised by Michael Henry Heim; apparently, the title is in ALL CAPS.

Here are a few bits from Ellen Elias-Bursac’s introduction that got me all psyched about the book:

When Marinkovic set out to write CYCLOPS in the early 1960s he was thinking big. In shaping his plot he reached for the big writers, such as Joyce (whose Ulysses had first been translated into Croatian in 1957), Homer, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky. For all the influence of other literature, however, the novel is anchored firmly in a more local context. The story unfolds on the streets between the Zagreb main square and the Opera House, and the streets and cafes are inhabited by the poets, actors, and other public figures of Marinkovic’s student years in Zagreb. [. . .]

There are many comparisons that can be drawn between CYCLOPS and other works of literature, most obviously Ulysses, the Odyssey, and Hamlet. But the irreverence, irony, and satire with which Marinkovic dissects Zagreb cultural life on the eve of World War II also resonate with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Heller’s biography affords a surprisingly productive comparison with Marinkovic’s. They both were playwrights and short-story writers, as well as novelists, and they were close in age. Heller fought in active combat in World War II, unlike Marinkovic, who spend the war as an internee and refugee, but both of them were the first, for their respective readerships, to write of the World War II in a darkly humorous vein. And they were each known chiefly for their first novel, each of which became a huge best seller, never to be outshone by anything else they later wrote.

I don’t have all the details on how this publication came to be, but the sketch I heard is pretty interesting. As you may know, Marinkovic died in 2001, and the translator of this book, Vlada Stojiljkovic, died in 2002. From what I heard, Stojiljkovic had translated this book prior to his death, the manuscript was literally found in a drawer, Ellen Elias-Bursac cleaned it up a bit, and Yale became the first press to issue an English-language translation of this Croatian classic. (In the movie version: the book goes on to win the BTBA, becomes an instant best-seller in America, and spawns a new group of Marinkovic’s fans devoted to studying and promoting this great book. Oh, and someone falls in love. During an explosion. At least that’s how I believe movies work.)

Here’s an excerpt from the opening of the book itself:

MAAR . . . MAAR . . .” cried a voice from the rooftop. Melkior was standing next to the stair railing leading down below ground; glowing above the stairway was a GENTS sign. Across the way another set of stairs angled downward, intersecting with the first, under the sign of LADIES. A staircase X, he thought, reciprocal values, the numerators GENTS and the numerators LADIES (cross multiplication), the denominators ending up downstairs in majolica and porcelain, where the denominators keep a respectful silence; and the whirr of ventilators. Like being in the bowels of an ocean liner. Smooth sailing. Passengers make their cheery and noisy way downstairs as if going to the ship’s bar for a shot of whiskey. Afterward, they return to the promenade deck, spry and well satisfied, and sip the fresh eventing potion from MAAR’s air.

MAAR conquers all. When the darkness falls, it unfurls its screen high up on the rooftop of a palace and starts yelling, “MAAR Commercials!” After it finishes tracing its mighty name across the screen using a mysterious light, MAAR’s letters go into a silly dance routine, singing a song in unison in praise of their master. The letters then trip away into the darkened sky while giving a parting shout to the dumbstruck audience, “MAAR Movietone Advertising!”

Next there appears a house, miserable and dirty, its roof askew, its door fram battered loose, wrinkled and stained shirts, spectral torsos with no heads or legs, jumping out of its windows in panic. To danse macabre music, the ailing victims of grime proceed to drag themselves toward a boiling cauldron bubbling wiht impatient thick white foam. With spinsterish mistrust, wavering on the very lip of the cauldron (fearful of being duped), the shirts leap into the foam . . . and what do you know, the mistrust was nothing but foolish superstition, for here they are, emerging from the cauldron, dazzlingly white, one after another, marching in single file and singing lustily, “Radion washes on its own.” Next, a sphinx appears on the screen and asks the viewers in a far-off, desert-dry voice: “Is this possible?” and the next instant a pretty typist shows that two typewriters cannot possibly be typed at once. “And is this possible?” the sphinx asks again. No, it is also not possible for water to flow uphill. It is equally impossible to build a house from the roof down, or for the Sun to revolve around the Earth . . . “but it is possible for Tungsram-Crypton double-spiraled filament lightbulbs to give twice as much light as the ordinary ones for the same wattage . . . “ and on goes a lightbulb, as bright as the sun in the sky, the terrible glare forcing the viewers to squint. Then a mischievous little girl in a polka-dot dirndl prances her way onto the screen and declaims, in the virginal voice of a girl living with the nuns, “Zora soa washing clean, cleaner than you ever saw . . you’ve ever seen,” she hastens to correct her mistake, too late, the viewers chuckle. The little girl withdraws in embarrassment . . .

21 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

Language: Hebrew
Country: Israel
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 576

Why This Book Should Win: David Grossman won the German Peace Prize this past year; this was one of the only translated novels to consistently show up on year-end “best-of” lists.

Today’s entry is from Monica Carter, BTBA panelist who also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

A stunning achievement in war literature, David Grossman’s novel captures war and it’s destruction in the here and now better than any other novel of this epoch. It is a novel that does what war can’t: it explains, reflects, and examines the lives who are directly and indirectly swept into its torrents. It presents the reality surviving war without mawkish attempts at emotional manipulation, instead offering the stark reality of attempting to regain a sliver of a former self once the war has done its damage.

Grossman’s work has not received the attention he deserves from American readers, but this is the novel that showcases his skill as a writer, his themes of war and isolation, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and his powerful ability to write novels of meaning and substance. It’s difficult to find a bad review of this novel that is a testament to his appeal despite the controversial subject matter.

To the End of the Land is an intricate epic revolving around the love triangle of Ora, Ilan, and Avram. Alternating between present day and past memories, the reader witnesses Ora’s escape into her memories to avoid the reality of what she considers the inevitable—the death of her son Ofer who just sent her son off to war again. Grossman parallels her psychological journey of futility with her physical journey on the Israel Trail. Ora is a unique, complete voice, rich and multifaceted, that literature needs to hear.

Grossman focuses on Ora and Avram’s—her teenage lover and a POW survivor from the Egyptian war—walk to the Galilee which was the trip she had planned to take with Ofer. Her husband Ilan, who was the best friend of Avram, and her eldest son, Adam, have abandoned her to travel together to South America. She literally drags Avram with her, who is lost in a haze of drugs and depression, because she wants to tell him about Ofer. Avram is Ofer’s father, but Avram let him be raised as Ora and Ilan’s son because he was too emotionally and mentally ruined after brutal treatment at the hands of Egyptian guards. She knows that if she is not home she can avoid ever receiving any bad news from the authorities about Ofer. Grossman expertly shows the excruciating moments of not knowing and waiting to know if her son has died:

During this eternal moment, she, and faraway Ofer, and everything that occurs in the vast space between them, are all deciphered in a flash of knowledge, like a densely woven fabric, so that the very act of her standing by the kitchen table, and the fact that she stupidly continues to peel the potato—her fingers on the knife whiten now—and all her trivial, routine household movements, and all the innocent, ostensibly random fragments of reality around her, become nothing less than vital steps in a mysterious dance, a slow and solemn dance, whose unwitting partners are Ofer, and his friends preparing for battle, and the senior officers scanning the map of future battles, and the rows of tanks she saw on the outskirts of the meeting point, and the dozens of smaller vehicles that moved among the tanks, and the people in the villages and towns over there, the other ones, who would watch through drawn blinds as soldiers and tanks drove down their streets and alleys, and the quick-as-lightening boy who might hit Ofer tomorrow or the day after or perhaps even tonight, with a rock or a bullet or a rocket (strangely, the boy’s movement is the only thing that violates and complicates the slow heaviness of the entire dance), and the notifiers, who might be refreshing their procedures at the Jerusalem army offices right now . . . Everyone, everyone is part of this massive, all-encompassing process, and the people killed in the last terrorist attack are part of it too, unaware of their role: they are the casualties whose death will be avenged by the soldiers off on a new campaign.

Ora had promised him that she would not talk about Ofer to Avram because it was too difficult to him. Afraid that she will lose her memory of Ofer’s life, she begs Avram to listen and learn about who Ofer is. Gradually during the journey, Avram grows stronger and is able to engage in listening to Ora recount her memories of Ofer and brings their relationship to a deeper, more connected level.

This is not a novel that answers questions, or even asks them, its purpose is to expose the loss of war—the lives of those we lose and the pieces of life lost by those who survive. We know nothing good comes of war, but in the end in comes down to managing the pain of memory and trauma so that the war doesn’t continue within us once the fighting has stopped. To the End of the Land should win because the translation is faultless the message has the most to give us in the current war-driven atmosphere that offers no redemption. David Grossman also understand war better than many having lost his one of his sons while in war while finishing this novel. To convey his own grief through literature of the highest quality proves his dedication to life as art and to helping others cope with the tragedy of war.

17 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated by Harry Morales

Language: Spanish
Country: Uruguay
Publisher: Host Publications
Pages: 296

Why This Book Should Win: Harry Morales has been championing Benedetti for years, and a victory could lead to more Benedetti books making their way into English; Host Publications deserves some extra attention; the cover has matches on it.

Today’s entry is from David Krinick, a former intern at Open Letter. He wrote this review last summer, and it’s a great overview of this book.

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.

The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories (recently published by the admirable Host Publications) offers a rare survey of the author’s short stories that spans over fifty decades of work. The stories collected act as vignettes that offer the reader brief perspectives of the many unremarkable lives of many of Uruguay’s urban citizens. In works such as “The Iriarte Family” Benedetti shows the life of a secretary’s febrile romanticizing of a female’s voice and the subsequent disintegration of his real life relationship. His character’s are repeatedly confronted with outcomes that contradict what they thought they originally desired.

Later stories reflect the author’s exile, evoking voices from the previous generation’s émigré writers such as Nabokov and Bunin. In “Completely Absent-Minded” an exiled politician’s dazed wayfaring across Europe brings him unexpectedly back to his home country, where he is quickly arrested. Benedetti’s voice shifts from the expository urban observer to a ruthless dissector of individual’s morals that passively accept their government’s yoke. Stories such as “Listening to Mozart,” “Nineteen” and “Answering Machine” expose cases of loyalty motivated by fear and self-preservation. From “Listening to Mozart”:

Sometimes, you too interrogate without conviction, and if you use electric shock, that’s precisely the reason why; because you don’t have any confidence in your own line of reasoning, because you know that no one is suddenly going to turn into a traitor just because you evoke the fatherland or curse at them.

Benedetti’s fearless writing chronicles a dark period in Latin American history, one where loved ones would disappear over night, never to be seen again. This collection, however, also resonates with the author’s desire to speak of love and our need for one another despite the estranged natures that society and politics cultivates in us. He explores the lines between public and private lives, illuminating our curious passions with a sense of irony, humor and gravity. The Rest Is Jungle affords a great introduction into the provocative career of one of Latin America’s most beloved authors.

16 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, translated by Idra Novey

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Pages: 172

Why This Book Should Win: Because it hasn’t won any other awards, and it deserves at least one. On Elegance While Sleeping is our first opportunity to read a complete work by Tegui in English. Also, where else can we find heterosexuality, homosexuality, pedophilia, prostitution, and bestiality all wrapped into the experiences of one character.

Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.

Emilio Lascano Tegui (1887-1966) was, at various times during his eventful life, an Argentinean, a Parisian, a self-labeled viscount, a translator, a journalist, a curator, a painter, a decorator, a diplomat, a mechanic, an orator, a dentist, and, fortunately for us, a writer. Tegui’s 1925 novel On Elegance While Sleeping, a cult classic in Argentina, Tegui’s home country, is now available for the first time to an English-speaking audience (thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Idra Novey). This genre-defying novel is framed as a four-year series of chronologically-ordered diary entries composed by an unnamed French infantryman in the late 1800s. Like its author, this novel’s narrator concerns himself with a bit of everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink (or, should I say, the cultivation of carrots). The entries touch on the themes of life, illness (specifically, syphilis), death, sex, gender, memory, crime, and literature, to name just a few. Seamlessly shifting among present reflections, past recollections, and stories within stories, the entries examine the mundane (one begins “Cotton mittens bother me when they’re dyed black.”) as well as the sublime (“Nothing spreads sadness like popularity.”) and range in length from just two sentences to almost seven pages. The result is a work of art that’s impossible to categorize. Is it autobiography? Allegory? A crime novel? An experiment in form? In a word, yes.

Just before we lose our bearings wandering among this heady collection of seemingly aimless thoughts—that is, at the perfect moment—On Elegance While Sleeping changes registers. The novel adopts a foreboding tone as the diary entries slowly coalesce into the thoughts of a man intent on committing murder. Driven by a Raskolnikov-like need “[t]o unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness,” the diarist lays out his motivations in chilling and poetic prose:

I’ve sketched out my plans and am ready. I have a new strength in me, taken from the secret core of my life, driving me on, controlling me. It’s health, youth, and optimism combined. Until yesterday, my tentative novel (“The Syphilis of Don Juan”) served as a haven for my imagination. Today, it doesn’t satisfy my thirst—or, better said, can no longer stem the anguish that gnaws at me on the eve of an act that is now quite inevitable. I’m halfway between a comedy and a strange sort of drama, and feel an overbearing need to lower the curtain. No simple curtain: the front curtain of the stage, the grand drape, the great iron and asbestos curtain that drops like a zinc plate from the sixth floor and creaks as it falls. Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected—something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.

Tegui’s prose is a seductive mix of hard edges and soft contours, flowing musings and sharp declarations. Translator Idra Novey maintains this delicate balance, juxtaposing “a haven for my imagination” with “the anguish that gnaws” and following a complex and elegant three-sentence metaphor with the startling declaration, “I’m going to kill someone.” Tegui’s compelling style relies as much on rhythm and sound as it does on content, and Novey masterfully recreates this effect in English.

At its core, On Elegance While Sleeping gives us access to the soul of a man who is desperately seeking. Whether it’s love, sex, happiness, connection with his fellow man, an imaginative outlet, or simply a good story, the problem is the same: to find what he lacks. He asks, “Could it be that the thing I’m missing is courage?” Does our diarist have the fortitude to follow through with his murderous plan? To discover the answer, you’ll have to read the book.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg

Language: German
Country: Moravia
Publisher: Archipelago
Pages: 560

Why This Book Should Win: Again with the Mad Scientist!; Archipelago titles are always contenders; the novel is long, engrossing, gothic, and classic.

Today’s entry is from Bill Marx, who is a BTB judge, editor of Arts Fuse, and runs PRI’s The World: World Books. He also teaches at BU.

You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters, but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.

Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist), who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.

Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the predominate metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (ice).

Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity. Weber also refers to civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.

14 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, translated by translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker

Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 434

Why This Book Should Win: The judges gave the first Best Translated Book Award to an awesome book called Tranquility by Attila Bartis, despite the fact that it was up against that behemoth 2666, and everyone knows that 2666 is the greatest book published ever, to say nothing of the year 2008. (Really, it is. I should know. I wrote it.)

As may be surmised from the above paragraph, this is the second entry in the WTBSW series from beyond the grave. This time it’s from The Late Roberto Bolano.

Needless to say, a lot of people were disappointed that the judges opted for the Bartis, so here’s their chance to give the award to a hyper-noirish, dark, convoluted, paranoid, freaky book about the Mexican drug war, in many ways similar to 2666 (and in many ways nothing like my master opus at all).

The Black Minutes tells a pretty gripping story about murder in 1970s, northern Mexico providing a kind of pre-war look at a land that is now dominated by huge narco-cartels. Like many good noirs are, it’s framed around the one cop who wants to do an honest job, named Cabrera. As as English-language translator Natasha Wimmer wrote in The Nation:

It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what . . . we are supposed to publish or not publish. . . . You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.

We soon find that the story of the honest cop is just the beginning, as about 1/3 of the way in Solares abruptly shifts to a story-within-a-story about Cabrera’s predecessor on the case, which makes the plot-line even more convoluted, the characters even more numerous, and everything that much more freakily connected.

So in sum, The Black Minutes is a big, wooly, meaty neo-noir with plenty of sex, guns, violence, death, and of course lots and lots of politics. It’s a chance to give the award to a Mexican drug war book in light of the fact that the judges dissed my book 2666, even as the Bartis was pretty freakin awesome.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Small Beer
Pages: 231

Why This Book Should Win: Craziest (in a fun way) French author to finally make his way into English; looks almost exactly like Kurt Vonnegut; first book from Small Beer to make the list; Edward Gauvin is one of the brightest up-and-coming translators working today.

We will have a more formal post about this book in the near future, but in the meantime, I wanted to draw some attention to Edward Gauvin’s blog, which is very interesting and includes a post on A Visit with Chateaureynaud that provides some good material on why Chateaureynaud deserves more attention—and even a prize:

Châteaureynaud had just come from signing 300 press copies of his latest book, a memoir of his early life from Grasset, entitled La vie nous regarde passer [Life Watches Us Go By].

“I lost fifteen copies,” he said. “I left them in the metro. The stockroom did a good job sealing the box up really tight, so instead of trying to open it, the police have probably blown it up by now.”

“It’s one way to spread the word… or words,” I said.

“Yes . . . you could say that book really burst onto the scene!”

Châteaureynaud’s latest work of fiction, Résidence dernière [Final Residence], had come out a few weeks earlier from Les Éditions des Busclats, a small press founded by poet René Char’s daughter, Marie-Claude, and her partner, critic Michèle Gazier. Since 2007’s De l’autre côté d’Alice [Through a Looking Glass Darkly]—three adult meditations on popular children’s heroes Alice, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio—Châteaureynaud had been experimenting with thematically linked triptychs of short stories. The tales in Résidence dernière, featuring a decrepit sphinx, a magic mirror, and a nightmarish limbo, revolve around writer’s retreats, examining such typically Castelreynaldian themes as solitude, the anxiety of creation, and the writing life. I thought the final, title story among the finest he’d written. In it, a number of aging writers, worrying over posterity, find themselves on a bus headed for a mysterious residency. [. . .]

An alcove off the dining room is stocked top to bottom with the handsome red Hachette hardcovers of Jules Verne, a few postcards and figurines propped against the gilt backdrop of their spines. In a corner of the glass-fronted armoire, among china services collected from his days as an antiques dealer, the certificate naming Châteaureynaud a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur stands rolled up in its original mailing tube. A photocopied picture was wedged between mirror and frame, above the liquor cabinet.

“Guess who it is?” G.-O. asked. A weathered-looking Vonnegut with a hat and a cane stared out from a street corner. “He does look like me, doesn’t he?” [. . .]

G.-O. said that he himself had met Borges’ friend, the Argentine fabulist Adolfo Bioy Casares, “in Nice once, or maybe Cannes. Somewhere warm.”

He’d asked Bioy Casares a question only to be met with practiced deflection. “But he was very old by then, you know; I don’t think he could’ve stood up straight without his nurses.”

I pictured the author of The Invention of Morel, one of Châteaureynaud’s favorite novels, flanked by a pair of Russ Meyer valkyries. Among the many ways in which meeting Georges-Olivier has not disappointed me is that he never plays the persona card. You have the feeling of talking to a real person who pays you the compliment of his attention and does his best to answer, an approachability almost shocking in a public figure. There is, of course, the hat and the merry air of slight befuddlement most often worn at book fairs, but even that, one suspects, is less pretense than actuality, and endearingly human.

10 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 424

Why This Book Should Win: Anthea Bell is one of the best translators working today; this novel won the German Book Prize in 2007; it made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year for the UK edition.

Since this novel has already won a number of prizes, here’s a series of quotes and comments from other award givers:

“Framed by the story of a child abandoned in the chaos of postwar Germany, this novel shows epoch-making events through the eyes and emotions of the ordinary people – above all the women – who always bear their brunt. After the tramuas of the 1914-1918 war, half-Jewish Helene escapes to Weimar Berlin, an emancipated nurse breathing the air of freedom. As the darkness of the Hitler era closes in, marriage to a pro-Nazi engineer link dictatorship at home and in the state, in a novel finely attuned to every exercise of power- and every act of resistance.” — Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

“Against the background of two world wars, Julia Franck tells the disturbing story of a woman who leaves her son, without finding herself. The book is persuasive in its vivid use of language, narrative power and psychological intensity. A novel for long conversation.”, is how the seven judges for the German Book Prize announced their choice.

(And just for the oddity of this quote, here’s another bit from the German Book Prize people: “There was a big majority for the judges’ choice of Julia Franck’s novel Die Mittagsfrau as the winner for the 2007 novel of the year. This decision was preceded by energetic and intense discussion of all titles; there was particularly lively argument as to what a contemporary German novel is able to achieve over and above literary fashions and off-the-peg goods”, says Felicitas von Lovenberg, speaking on behalf of the judges. “Off-the-peg goods” is my new favorite phrase. Along with “unintended fuckery.”)

Keeping on with the glowing praise for this novel, here’s a bit from Julia Pascal’s review in the Independent:

It is easy to see why The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize. Julia Franck’s novel, based on her own father’s life, is one of the most haunting works I have ever read about 20th-century Germany. Its distinction is Franck’s ability to explore intergenerational trauma in a totally fresh way – as if the 39-year-old author had lived through two world wars and returned as a witness.

Helene is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Aryan father. Brought up in Saxony she, and her sister Martha, suffer the consequences of their father’s war injuries and their mother’s mental illness. Both escape poverty and enjoy a freer life with their decadent Jewish aunt in Weimar Berlin.

What is so clever about Franck’s characters and plotting is that she shows the women maturing without any sense of political awareness. Although they see Lotte Lenya in Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, the larger political struggle, between Communism and Nazism, hardly touches them. The rise of Hitler is so understated that its gathering momentum gives the book a compulsive charge.

Granted, there is a surfeit of WWII-related books out there, but to convince you of the worthiness of this title, here’s an except (or technically, an excerpt of an excerpt):

They headed to the station at a run. But on the staircase down to the station, a uniformed nurse with a protruding belly came towards them, obviously a colleague of his mother’s. She told them the special trains weren’t coming into Stettin, they’d have to go out to Scheune, walk to the next stop; that was where the trains were going from.

They walked along between the tracks. The nurse got out of breath quickly. She jostled into place next to his mother and Peter walked behind them, trying to hear what they were talking about. The nurse said she hadn’t got a moment’s sleep, she kept thinking of the bodies they’d found in the hospital yard at night. Peter’s mother didn’t reply. She didn’t mention the soldiers’ visit. Her colleague sobbed, she admired Peter’s mother for her dedication, even though everybody knew, well, that something wasn’t right about her origin. The nurse laid a hand on her round belly and puffed, but she didn’t want to talk about that now. Who had that courage after all? She could never have taken one of the stakes herself and pulled it out of one of the women’s bodies, staked like animals, their guts all torn to shreds. She stood still for a moment and propped her heavy body on Peter’s mother’s shoulder, taking deep breaths, the woman who survived had kept calling for her daughter, but she’d bled to death beside her long before. Peter’s mother stopped still and told the nurse gruffly to stop talking. For heaven’s sake, stop it.

The narrow platform at Scheune was crowded with people waiting. They sat on the ground in groups and eyed the new arrivals with mistrust.

Nurse Alice! The call came from a group of people sitting on the ground; two women waved their arms wildly. Peter’s mother followed the call of the woman, who seemed to have recognized her. She squatted down next to them on the ground. Peter sat down next to his mother; the pregnant woman followed them but stayed on her feet, indecisive. She shuffled from one foot to the other. The women whispered amongst themselves, and two women and a man disappeared with the pregnant nurse. When a woman had to pee she was accompanied by several people if possible. People said the Russkis were hiding in the bushes and jumping out on women.

(FYI: The above translation is by Katy Derbyshire, not Anthea Bell. Katy’s a great translator as well, runs “Love German Books” and is a big champion of Julia Franck.)

8 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and the author

Language: Norwegian
Country: Norway
Publisher: Graywolf
Pages: 224

Why This Book Should Win: Because it was written by Per Petterson, arguably one of Scandinavia’s finest living writers. The book has already won a slew of prizes. In Norway, it won the 2008 Critics’ Prize and the 2008 Brage Prize. And in 2009 it won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Prize. Why not give it another one?

This post was written K.E. Semmel, a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, World Literature Today, Best European Fiction 2011, and elsewhere. His translation of Karin Fossum’s next novel will be published by Harvill Secker in the UK in 2011 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US in 2012. And he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan.

When Per Petterson burst onto the international literary scene in 2007 with his novel Out Stealing Horses, the English-speaking world got a glimpse of what readers in Scandinavia have known for quite a while: Petterson’s work is special. On the dust jacket for this new novel is a quote from Richard Ford: “Per Petterson is a profoundly gifted novelist.” That Ford is a fan of Petterson’s work can be no surprise to readers of each author. Like Ford’s narrators, particularly Frank Bascombe, the narrator of I Curse the River of Time, Arvid Jensen, is a self-reflective man whose story unfolds most powerfully as a kind of internal monologue.

This long passage, in a lively translation by veteran translator Charlotte Barslund, is an example of Petterson’s power as a reflectionist. With a few deftly chosen words he tells us a lot about Arvid Jensen:

And then I entered the hall and walked into the kitchen, the living room, where everything was as it had been for almost ten years, the same posters on the walls, the same rugs on the floor, the same goddamn red armchairs, and yet not like that at all, not like it was in the beginning, when there were just the two of us against the world, just she and I, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, there is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more, all things had spaces, had distances between them, like satellites, attracted to and pushed away at the same instant, and it would take immense willpower to cross those spaces, those distances, much more than I had available, much more than I had courage to use. And nothing was like it had been inside the car either, driving through three or four districts in Romerike, in eastern Norway, east of Oslo. There the car was wrapped around me, but up here, in the flat, things fell out of focus and spun off to all sides. It was like a virus on the balance nerve. I close my eyes to true up the world, and then I heard the bathroom door open and her footsteps across the floor. I would have known them anywhere on earth, on any surface, and she stopped right in front of me. I could hear her breath, but not close enough to feel it on my face. She waited. I waited. In one of the bedrooms the girls were laughing out loud. There was something about her breath. It was never like that before. I kept my eyes closed, I squeezed them tightly shut. And then I heard her sigh.

“For Christ’s sake, Arvid,” she said. “Please stop that. It’s so childish.”

Much like Out Stealing Horses, I Curse The River of Time is a novel in which time itself takes on the role of a character, bending backward and forward. The novel interweaves three strands of time:

  • a youthful Arvid meeting the girl who would later become his wife versus a thirty-seven year old Arvid whose marriage is in tatters. The above passage comes at a time when Arvid’s marriage is crumbling, but some of the most tender moments of the novel come when the young couple first meet and fall in love:

‘Do I have a tan now?’ she said.

I laughed again. ‘You and I,’ I said. ‘Just you and I.”

‘Isn’t it fun,’ she said and she smiled. I let the oars rest in the rowlocks. The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.

  • a youthful Arvid—a staunch Communist—versus a later, disheartened Arvid following the collapse of the Berlin Wall:

At a kiosk that was still open, there were newspapers stacked on a stand outside, and in large bold typeface on every front page it said THE WALL TUMBLES, and I could not breathe, where had I been? This was bad, I had not paid attention, it was really bad, and I started to cry.

  • Arvid’s mother—or Arvid’s youthful memories of his mother—versus her later self. Sick, dying of stomach cancer, she returns to her native Denmark for one last trip. And because Arvid idealizes his mother in the same way he idealized his political views or his feelings for his wife, he follows her there like a child:

I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it. I pulled some straws from a cluster of marram grass and put them in my mouth and started chewing. They were hard and sharp and cut my tongue, and I took more, a fistful, and stuffed them in my mouth and chewed them while I sat there, waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me.

The various strands loop together to form a bold and smart novel, one that portrays the complex relationship between a son and his mother, between time and memory, and finally between the individual and his struggle to find his place in society. Taken together, the novel’s structure may seem deceptively simple, but it is extremely powerful on the whole. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is that the novel doesn’t telegraph what is to come next; like time and memory, it does not flow in a straight line: it jumps from A to D and back to A. As such, it’s a novel that invites the reader to ask questions. Why are we back here, at this point in time? What does this have to do with his mother’s journey to Denmark? These are simple questions, but they are certainly not simple answers, and, at times, you may find yourself wondering where Petterson is going with his story. Yet it’s precisely this which makes I Curse the River of Time so special: In this novel, Petterson writes with venerable authority, like a master unafraid to try new, ever-bolder moves. By the end of the novel you know exactly where he’s going with his story, and you know exactly where you’ve been. And it’s quite a trip.

7 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: “I didn’t use to believe in the efficacy of verbal torture. And now as of these last few minutes I’ve started to believe in it.”

This post was written by aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate, Jen Marquart.

After receiving news that he has a rare form of cancer, Nobel Prize winning author Prétextat Tach decides to grant interviews to five journalists. The first four approach Tach from a straightforward manner—believing to have out smarted former colleagues—to be torn apart, humiliated, sickened and broken. Only with Nina, the fifth journalist, does the obese, grotesque, misogynist author meet his match in a brutal game of verbal wit. By the end of the interview both Nina and Tach have plunged into an inescapable abyss.

With each interview reading as a separate story around the central theme of literary culture (more specifically what it means to be a “good writer/reader” and the politics surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature) Nothomb, in her powerful first novel, commands a dialogue digging at these issues:

“[…] You have sold millions of copies, even in China, and that doesn’t make you think?”

“Weapons factories sell thousands of missiles the world over every day, and that doesn’t make them think, either.”

“There’s no comparison.”

“You don’t think so? And yet there is a striking parallel. There’s an accumulation, for example: we talk about an arms race, we should talk about a ‘literature race.’ It’s a cogent argument like any other: every nation brandishes its writer or writers as if they were cannons. Sooner or later I too will be brandished, and they’ll prepare my Nobel Prize for battle.”

“If that’s the way you look at it, I have to agree with you. But thank God, literature is less harmful.”

“Not mine. My literature is even more harmful then war.”

“Don’t you think you are flattering yourself there?”

“Well I’m obliged to, because I am the only reader who is capable of understanding me. Yes, my books are more harmful than war, because they make you want to die, whereas war, in fact, makes you want to live. After reading me, people should feel like committing suicide.”

“And how do you explain the fact that they don’t?”

“Well, I can explain it very easily: it is because nobody reads me. Basically, that may also be the reason for my extraordinary success: if I am so famous, my good man, it is because nobody reads me.”

These funny and critical exchanges are taken to a higher level with Nina, who plays Tach’s game equally well, if not better. She plays with his words and calls bullshit on his “Freudian Slips,” all in an attempt to tease out the ‘real’ Prétextat Tach.

With biting witticism and the criticism of literature swirling around the disturbing life of one Nobel Prize author, Hygiene and the Assassin is one of the funniest and most engaging books I have read.

22 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson

Language: French
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Bitter Lemon
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: Second Chessex book to make the longlist in two years; Switzerland deserves some play; maybe the most accessible and gripping of the longlisted titles; people love WWII-related novels; title is one of the more disturbing of eligible books this year.

I wrote today’s post.

Michael Orthofer turned me on to Jacques Chessex last year when he recommended The Vampire of Ropraz for the BTBA longlist. I tend to avoid “those” sorts of books—the crime-related ones, the ones with vampires in the title, the books that sound like they could be gory. But Michael is a sharp reader, and I have to admit that Ropraz took me by surprise and totally won me over.

When Bitter Lemon sent along a copy of A Jew Must Die a few months back, I fell into my same old prejudices: the title is a bit off-putting, the cover a little less than appealing, it’s about World War II (sorry, but /yawn), there is a murder involving an iron bar, etc., etc.

But, once again, I totally sucked at evaluating the greatness of this book. Once the BTBA committee picked it for the longlist, I decided that I really should read it (I’m working my way through all 25 title, and will hopefully finish all of them before the winner is announced), and once again, I was captivated.

It only took an hour to read this novella, which is perfect, since this is essentially a written version of a Dateline episode set in 1942 . . . Seriously. Just listen to the voice over narration of a few key moments:

Arthur Bloch usually covers the short distance between Monbijoustrasse and the railway station on foot, stepping out to the rhythmic tap of his stick. He gets into the first train to La Broye, which reaches Payerne via Avenches. He likes this ninety-minute trip through the stretches of meadows and valleys still filled with mist in the early-morning light.

Arrival in Payerne at 6:18. Chestnuts in bloom, silken hills, bright weather, all the more beautiful since threatened from within and without. But Arthur Bloch is unaware of the danger. Arthur Bloch does not sense it.

Almost the whole book has this same sort of omniscient distancing that causes this to read like a news report. Which makes this even more compelling, and avoids a lot of the trappings of writing a book about a horrific Nazi crime. Characterization is spotty, so we don’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a fucking monster. Bloch’s death is told in direct, unadorned facts, which both keep the narrative from becoming too melodramatic and create a very creepy vibe.

A Jew Must Die is a horrifying book about a horrifying crime committed by horrifying people. And for all the books about this sort of thing that have been written, this one manages to distill the horror into something direct that will remain in my memory for a long time.

21 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson

Language: French
Country: France
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 167

Why This Book Should Win: Europa Editions publishes a ton of translations and deserves a victory; Nothomb was all of 25 when she wrote this; Nothomb has written 20-some-odd books and still doesn’t get the attention she deserves from American readers; She’s coming to Rochester days after the April 29th announcement, and that would be effing awesome if she won; most importantly, she deserves to win because of the passages below and the constant referencing of Celine.

I wrote today’s post.

This novel—Nothomb’s first, publishing in French in 1992, and just now available in English—may be the sharpest, funniest book on this year’s BTBA fiction longlist.

Here’s the basic set-up: Pretexat Tach (what a name!) is a Nobel Prize winning author, who is a recluse, and who is about to die. Because of his impending death, he agrees to be interviewed by a series of journalists, each one as moronic as the last. Tach tortures each of them in turn, berating them, humiliating them, and coming across as a total prick—but one who, despite (or maybe in part because of) his disgusting appearance, thoughts, and rants, is fairly entertaining.

Actually, instead of trying to describe the merits of this book—the way the final journalist undoes Tach, the way the plot feels all piecemeal until the last few moments when all the literary traps are sprung and the plot points braided together in a very tense, exciting way—I’m going to stop here and leave you with a couple examples of Tach’s awesome rants (and Nothomb’s stunning ability to come up with these, and Anderson’s skill at translating them).

Tach on how few people have really read his books:

“Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or cavier; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. Well, when I say ‘you,’ I should say ‘I myself and a few others,’ because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state: they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction. They have read, that’s all: in the best-case scenario, they know ‘what it’s about.’ And I’m not exaggerating. How often have I asked intelligent people, ‘Did this book change you?’ And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, ‘Why should a book change me?’”

“Allow me to express my astonishment, Monsieur Tach: you have just spoken as if you were defending books with a message, and that’s not like you.”

“You’re not very clever, are you? So are you of the opinion that only books ‘with a message’ can change an individual? These are the books that are the least likely to change them. The books that have an impact, that transform people, are the other ones—books about desire, or pleasure, books filled with genius, and above all books filled with beauty. Let us take, for example, a great book filled with beauty: Journey to the End of the Night. How can you not be transformed after you have read it? Well, the majority of readers manage just that tour de force without difficulty. They will come to you and say, ‘Oh yes, Celine is magnificent,’ and then they go back to what they were doing.”

But really, the best section is this one on how Tach’s books are dangerous, how “writing is harmful”:

“There’s no comparison. Writing is not as harmful.”

“You obviously don’t know what you’re saying, because you haven’t read me—how could you know? Writing fucks things up at every level: think of the trees they’ve had to cut down for the paper, of all the room they have to find to store the books, the money it costs to print them, and the money it will cost potential readers, and the boredom the readers will feel on reading them, and the guilty conscience of the unfortunate people who buy them and don’t have the courage to read them, and the sadness of the kind imbeciles who do read them but don’t understand a thing, and finally, above all, the fatuousness of the conversations that wil take place after said books have been read or not read. And that’s just the half of it! So don’t go telling me that writing is not harmful.”

18 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell

Language: French
Country: Morroco
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 118

Why This Book Should Win: Book that pleasantly surprised me the most from the longlist; Robyn Creswell won a PEN Translation Fund Award for this; New Directions; I think this is the first Moroccan book I’ve ever read.

I wrote today’s post.

I’m not a huge proponent of the “you should read translated literature to understand other cultures” argument. People don’t like medicine, and although this isn’t quite that, it still smells a bit funny, you know?

Besides, not all works of international literature give the reader great insight into other cultures. Sure, you can sometimes see how a character’s mind works, how the cultural context influences a particular character’s decisions, actions, and beliefs, but generally, people seem to read translations for the same reason they read any work of literature, which includes a lot of factors (style, complexity, plot, characterization, beauty) other than “to better understand another part of the world.”

Then again, occasionally there is a book that’s not just beautiful and intriguing, well-written and compelling, but does give you a special insight into a different culture. Enter The Clash of Images.

Kilito’s book is about the shift from the “old Arabic world of texts and oral traditions” to the new “modern era of the image, the comic book, photo IDs, and the cinema.” By taking this moment in time as its base, and crafting beautiful short pieces around this theme, Kilito provides a special perspective on what it was like growing up in this culture—a perspective that actually can provide foreign readers with subtle shades of meaning and understanding. Witness these bits from “The Image of the Prophet”:

I had never seen any images properly speaking, except my own in the mirror. On the walls of our house there were no photographs, no reproductions of any sort. The walls were white, cold, and smooth, with no more than on Quranic verse in calligraphy: “The All-Merciful is seated firmly upon the throne.” An ambiguous verse and one that—despite the ingenuity of exegetes bent on removing all traces of anthropomorphism—_presents an image_ (Arab theologians needed several centuries to quell the tendency to lend divinity a human form).

It was only once I learned to read that I was actually able to decipher images.

There were a number of these, images with a certain prestige, sold not far from the great mosque. Each told a story, or else the climactic moment of a story, with a religious subject. [. . .]

These were considered edifying images that exalted the faith and exemplary figures of the past, though at the cost of violating the ban on figural representation. One limit was respected, however: the prophet of Islam was never pictured. The prophet was a story, a word in the mouth, not a face. And yet many claimed to have seen him in their dreams (with what features?).

This is a short book, one that’s quick to read, but which sketches out a number of lasting images, lines, stories. In particular, I’d recommend the “Revolt in the Msid,” “A Glass of Milk,” “Don Quixote’s Niece,” and “Cinedays” sections—all of which are brilliant and prove why this book should win the BTBA.

17 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

16 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

15 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar

Language: Arabic
Country: Palestine
Publisher: Clockroot
Pages: 72

Why This Book Should Win: Only book translated from the Arabic on the list; Clockroot Books deserves more attention and praise; she is “The Most-Talked-About Writer on the West Bank.”

Today we finally get another publisher involved, as Hilary Plum of Clockroot wrote this post.

In 2008 when Pam and I were starting Clockroot—a new imprint of Interlink Publishing for literature in translation—we readied ourselves for questions such as: how do you decide what translations to publish? What works to translate? I don’t know if we expected anyone out in the world to ask us this, or whether we were really asking ourselves. In any case, we had our answer prepared, having stolen it from Adania Shibli, who when asked by the Guardian what Arabic writers should be translated into English replied:

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

It’s the better story to say that on reading this we decided that the texts we should translate should be Adania Shibli’s. In some way this must be true—we signed on both of Adania’s novels without being able to either in full, relying on tantalizing pieces that had been published in translation in magazines, and a stunning essay translated and introduced by Anton Shammas in the 2007 Words Without Borders anthology.

As publishers, we have to do what we can for our books, let our hands get dirtied in “the market,” or maybe we should just call it the world. A few years ago Ahdaf Soueif wrote an article in which she hailed Adania as “the most talked-about writer in the West Bank”—a phrase we of course used in publicity, and which several reviews noted as ultimately maybe regrettable hype. Of course it’s hype, we replied, but we would like people to read her books—actually, of course, we didn’t reply, how could we? Which is no doubt why I am doing so here. The point is, on behalf of our authors sometimes we must deny ourselves the freedom and rigor of expression that we value in our authors. (In a recent interview, when asked “Do you feel that you represent the new generation of Palestinian authors?” Adania answered, “No. (In fact I hardly represent myself and most often fail to do so.)” and proceeded to discuss exile in the internet age, the late work of Darwish, Palestinian literature as “the literature of the last breath that never ends.”)

All publishers know: when the world calls for hype, you hype. But how do we get the taste of all this hype out of our mouths, how do we get to talk again about literature, about falling in love? And—because, after all, our own feelings should not be that important—how do we shield our writers from all this hype, all this world? How do we hold a space open for Adania and her writing in English translation, under the weight of such labels as “the new generation of Palestinian writers,” a “Palestinian woman writer” (picture here all the tired stereotypes of “Muslim women speaking out,” that sort of thing—these will be lingering in the shadows, in the US of 2011 we can’t be free of them, they’re there). Let’s try to answer all these questions at once, for Touch. Because the answer isn’t so hard—_Touch_ holds open its own space, and luminously:

Everyone managed to find black outfits to wear, except the little girl. The search for a black outfit for her, followed by an attempt to improvise one, nearly made the family forget their grief, so it was decided that this task should be left to her.

The closet door was always half open, because no one fixed it or showed any interest in fixing it.

The girl removed all the clothes from the closet and placed them in the small space between the closet on one side and the beds on the other. The pile of clothes remained multicolored, despite what the constantly angry art teacher said, that all colors mixed together would make white.

A pair of dark blue velvet pants and a wool sweater that had in addition to the dark blue other little colors won the almost-black outfit contest. After she put them on, she found a hole in the pants near the left knee.

On the way to the mosque, she bought a bottle of cola with a red ribbon on it. The liquid inside it was black, or closer to black than to any other color around her. She continued on her way, holding the bottle in her right hand and hiding the hole in her pants with her left.

She was the last to arrive at the square of the mosque. When she got there, she found that the mother had fainted and had been taken to an ambulance parked out back, so she headed in that direction.

The back door of the ambulance was open, but she could not get to it, because a huge crowd of women in black created an immense wall between her and the door. She could not even get a glimpse of the mother’s shoes. As the crowd of women in black got bigger and bigger, she, in her dark blue clothes, got pushed further and further back, unable to resist. Her right hand was holding the bottle and her left was covering the hole. She could not remove her hand, or everyone would see the hole.

The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.

At the end of the square, the wall of the mosque rose behind the girl, keeping her from getting pushed back any further. She stood there looking toward the ambulance, which had no white left, after the black drape of women wrapped it. But above, on top of the ambulance, the red light kept spinning inside itself, not veiled by anything, switching regularly from dark red to light red. She waited for its regular return to dark red, so that it would look like the red label on the empty bottle in her hand.

Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar

In years of reading literature in translation, of reading Arabic fiction—really just in years of reading—Pam and I had never read anything quite like Touch. Its spare, idiosyncratic beauty, the slow pace of the girl’s encounter with the world, so slow as to be merciless, to break your heart, but no, you must go on steadily, as she does. When I think of the novel, I don’t remember particular phrases so much as a feeling, something like: the side of a fist rubbing away the breath fogged within a car windshield—outside, it’s just night. Can I say that this is a book like that? And then add that, also, it’s not—if as publishers we can only offer so much, it’s nice to remember that at least we’ve offered each book the chance to go out and speak for itself.

14 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

Language: Swedish
Country: Finland
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 208

Why This Book Should Win: Big favorite among booksellers; has been gathering buzz for over a year; that whole writes in Swedish but lives in Finland thing; one of NYRB’s most notable recent rediscoveries (NYRB also publishes her Fair Play and Summer Book.

Today’s post is from Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Maine.

Objectivity, like high fructose corn syrup and polyester suits, is very much out of fashion. The triumph of relativism is such that objectivity is considered now more an historical curiosity than a concept to be applied seriously. We do know, however, that the following statement, “True Deceiver should win The Best Translated Book Award for 2011,” is an objective fact. How can we be certain of that? Let us consider the matter objectively. From the standpoint of this award _True Deceiver was certainly reborn into English with a silver spoon in its mouth, for the concept of being a true deceiver lies at the very heart of translation itself. A successful translation cannot help but be the epitome of true deception, a consistent application of perspective which transforms a complex object from one shape to another. Jansson’s portrait of the corrosive effect of deception on the integrity of personal identity is compelling and unsettling to the nines. It grabs the reader with that most potent force of all: strong identification with a character in the thrall of a subtly corrupting evil. Its perfection as a work of translated fiction is plain to see in the power of its inversions, a portrait of deception and instability which yields truth and focus. These are matters of opinion you say? Hardly, for True Deceiver steps firmly away from any subjective accounting of its worth in its unique willingness and ability to speak directly on its own behalf, using only quotations from its pages, to anyone who questions it. The proof of these matters is to be found directly in the interview below.

KB: Do you feel that this BTBA will be conducted fairly?

True Deceiver: “You know nothing about Fair Play!”

KB: Perhaps not, but how can the awards committee reach truth?

True Deceiver: “The truth needs to be hammered in with iron spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress.”

KB: I see. Perhaps you’re right and the committee will need to take a firm line. Now do you feel that Tomas Teal handled his translation of you properly, considering how taut the prose is?

True Deceiver: “Cluttering the ground with Flowery Rabbits would have been unthinkable”.

KB: I see. Now if you had a word for a judge what would it be?

True Deceiver: “He must understand how hard I try, all the time, to put everything I do to a strict test—every act, every word I choose instead of a different word.”

KB: Is there any other objective data that would make the selection of any book other than yourself as the BTBA winner a danger to the future well being of the human enterprise?

True Deceiver: “I’ve given security where there was no security, no direction, Nothing. I provide safety!”

KB: I really appreciate your willingness to go on record and clarify these points. The stakes are terrifying.

True Deceiver: “I can assure you that you needn’t be nervous, there’s no cause for alarm.”

KB: I guess there’s nothing else to be said on the matter!

True Deceiver: “We’ve done what matters most.”

KB: Well I certainly hope so, for all human interconnection involves translation, and without an exploration of its dark possibilities we should all be much the poorer. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, you really add something vital to the whole of Tove Jansson’s sublime body of work. After all the Moomins may demonstrate the delightful exercise of freedom, but your pages reveal both the cost and the means of losing it.

True Deceiver: “Thank you for calling.”

11 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, I know we’ve been a bit slow in posting in the “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” series. (So far we’ve only covered 5 of the 25 longlisted fiction titles.) Not sure that anyone’s really waiting on this, but I thought I’d provide a bit of an explanation and explain what we’re up to.

As I mentioned at the start of each of these five posts, our goal with this series is to provide passionate, fun pieces from people who love the particular title in question. Rather than strive for some sort of “objective overview” of the longlist titles, I’d much rather run manic, overly exuberant write-ups that might inspire people to actually go out and read these books.

Going even further, it seems like fun (and good for readers eveywhere) if we emphasize the competition aspect of this prize. I want to see publishers and translators and whomever lobbying for the book that they think is the best. Reading international literature should be fun, as should arguing about which title deserves to win.

To that end, I’ve asked a bunch of people to write on these books. (My over-exuberance has its limit, and I know there’s only so many times people want to read a post in which I declare a book is “awesome” over and over again.) In fact, in some cases there are multiple people writing about the same title. Which I think is fine, and totally cool, since I’d love this to be as interactive and collaborative as possible, with as many voices as possible chiming in for the book they love.

We still have 28 business days before we announce the finalists in both fiction and poetry—plenty of time to cover the remaining 20 titles. That said, we still have a few titles we need people to write about . . . In particular, Cyclops by Ranko Marinkovic, Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, Georg Letham by Ernst Weiss, and The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck.

So if you’ve already read one of these books and loved it send me a note. Especially excited to get booksellers to write in about titles they got enthused about this year.

There we are. And we’ll be back Monday with a number of BTBA posts, including ones on Albert Cossery, Adania Shibli, Jacques Chessex, Amelie Nothomb, and Abdelfattah Kilito.

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

2 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s is mostly made up of something I wrote some time back.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated by David Frick

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Open Letter
Pages: 143

Why It Should Win: Because we published it; it was one of Kirkus‘s top 25 books of 2010; “by a billion barrels of beer!”

To be quite frank, Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the BTBA because he’s the best writer about the joys and long-term terrors of drinking . . . And by drinking I don’t mean in-moderation-three-drinks-a-week-in-gentrified-social-company sort of drinking, I mean the full-on-drink-away-your-life-savings-on-grain-alcohol sort of drinking.

But it’s not like Pilch’s novels are moral sludges about the dangers of excess boozing—instead, they find that perfect balance between depicting the allure of a good buzz and the waves of fear and regret that accompany a true bender.

This is more true of The Mighty Angel than A Thousand Peaceful Cities, but last spring, when proofing this book, I wrote a post (while “tipsy”) that I’m still pretty proud of, and does a decent job of explaining the differences and similarities between the two novels while capturing the drunken vibe and overall awesomeness of Peaceful.

In other words, this post specifies exactly why A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the 2011 BTBA for fiction.

What follows is a number of excerpts from that post. (What? I was expecting to be living in a series of snow-carved tunnels for the foreseeable future, so planned ahead. Not my fault that this “snowpocalpyse panic” was brought to you by the egg, dairy, and bread industries.)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a much different book from The Mighty Angel. The narration is a bit more complicated, flipping in focus between young Jerzy and his coming-of-age experiences and the endless banter of Mr. Traba in a way that builds in complexity and insight as the book progresses. By contrast, Mighty Angel, itself an intensely powerful book, is much more confessional, direct, singular in voice and presentation.

Re: Jerzy’s adolescent adventures, one of the best bits in the book is when he describes the “angel of his first love” and his attempt to connect with her. She lives across the way in an apartment above a department store that looks down on Jerzyk’s bedroom window. So he puts a sign up that says “WHY DON’T YOU SMILE?” Finally, he catches her eye:

Now it was I who waved to her. I let it be known that I am here, that I consent to everything. I sent her missives to calm the air. I soothed her fury with the help of a mad alphabet of incoherent gestures. Finally she noticed me, and she stood stock-still. Now I slowly pointed my index finger at myself, and then I reached both hands out in her direction, which was to signify: “I will come to you right away, and I will allow you to make sport of my young and virginal body.” But she, to my great amazement, shook her head no, and she turned her unparalleled hand down, in the direction of the display window of the footwear section, which was covered with a green grating. I repeated my gesture. She doesn’t understand, I thought—or maybe she just doesn’t believe her own dumb luck.

Charmingly innocent acts like this are offset by Mr. Traba’s (I keep wanting to type “Uncle Traba,” because he is such an uncle figure, always at the kitchen table, schnapps in hand, pontificating) long-winded, hilarious, and world-wise diatribes that range from randy bits about his virginal maid (who, “departed this world intacta [. . .] In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous . . . “), to his desire to accomplish something memorable before he dies, namely, assassinating of the Communist leader of Poland.

What I ran into tonight was the boozy thread that connects Jerzy’s blossoming and Traba’s insanity with The Mighty Angel. And it became clear that if there’s one thing that Pilch excels at, it’s writing about the pernicious effects of alcohol.

Here’s a bit from the moment when young Jerzyk is drawn into Traba’s assassination scheme. In typical Polish Pilch fashion, they indoctrinate him with a drink:

And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of juniper berry vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear it in my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, I could grind Wladyslaw Gomulka [the person Traba wants to assassinate] to dust.

Ah yes, the first drunken pleasures. That moment before the bars of overwhelming neediness, the sad solitary nature of a really wicked hangover, the desire to repeat just to keep repeating, to try and recapture that first moment. That’s what Traba seems to have lived through. That’s why he knows he’s on his way out and has to do something impressive and meaningful before the booze catches him.

One Sunday, Jerzyk decides to forgo church in favor of booze. Too young to be served at a bar, he heads to Traba’s house and finds his quasi-hero, his Quixotic-hero, in a state diametrically opposed to the figure of the jolly man who talks too much and punctuates his speech with the energetic expression “By a billion barrels of beer!”

Mr. Traba lay on an iron bed, which was standing in the middle of a huge chamber that was even larger than our kitchen. Except for the bed, and the bottle that was standing by the bed, there were no pieces of furniture or any other objects, nothing. Just the numbed vastness of the waters, the castaway adrift in the middle, and a bottle full of disastrous news. Blood oozed from Mr. Traba’s cut forehead. Saliva flowed from his lips as they parted again and again. The green army pants he wore were completely soaked. The room was in the grip of the deathbed odor of a body that was passively floating in all its substances, although it was, in fact, filled with only one substance. Mr. Traba said something, whispered, gibbered nonsense, but at first I wasn’t able to catch even a single word, not even one intelligible sound. Still, I strained. I mobilized my secret talent for guessing words that had not yet been spoken, and after a moment—to tell the truth, after a very long moment—I knew more or less what it was about. The key word in Mr. Traba’s delirious narration was the word “tea,” and the entire narration was about love. It was the sentimental complaint of a man lamenting the fact that he couldn’t drink tea at the side of his beloved, since she was drinking tea at the side of another. The whole thing abounded in innumerable digressions, unintentional interjections, and unintelligible ornaments. Perhaps the general thrust of the lament—that drinking tea at the side of one’s beloved was the single dream in the life of a man—was a too-incessantly-repeated refrain, but, taking Mr. Traba’s state into consideration, everything came out amazingly fluently. After all, it was as it always was with him: the sense of his story was the basic, and perhaps the only, tie linking him with the world. The beloved’s name didn’t come up even once. Perhaps I wasn’t able to guess it, or perhaps I didn’t want to guess it. I produced a white handkerchief from the pocket of my Sunday clothes. I poured a little vodka on it from the bottle standing by the bed. I applied the dressing made in this fashion to Mr. Traba’s forehead, and I wiped the slowly drying blood.

The contrast between Jerzyk’s present possibilities (the “angel of his first love”) and the fucked past of Traba that is corroded, ruined by his unending drunkenness is what struck me so hard. The effects of drink isn’t a unique theme in literature—and this may not even be a very unique treatment—but the way this book unfolds, with Jerzyk’s innocence coming under the power of this always-blasted, comically-unhinged, potentially-dangerous man, is quite powerful and compelling. ATPC is the perfect companion to The Mighty Angel. And not just for the way you can trace back Jerzy’s drinking obsession . . .

1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. And today’s entry is from THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3 on Michal Ajvaz.

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Andrew Oakland

Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 336

Why It Should Win: Nabokov + Borges + Swift = Ajvaz; Dalkey Archive is one of the premiere publishers of translations; praised by the Hipster Book Club; much better than Ajvaz’s The Other City

“The Book You All Must Choose to Win BTBA 2010, Unless You Are All Pompous Egoists Like That Ass Nabokov”

by THA REALIST Edmund Wilson 3

You know, the Kingdom wasn’t such a bad place until that pompous ass Nabokov got up here. I had a nice run of about five years, just me and the deity talking over those really interesting questions of language and reality, the relationship between them, how this all pertains to novels. Wittgenstein would drop by from time to time. It was nice. But the inevitable had to happen sooner or later, that old émigré son of a bitch had to die sometime. So Mr. Genius of all Geniuses finally kicks himself over, and here he comes floating up on butterfly wings—I mean, puh-leeze, butterfly wings? where’d those even come from?—and let me tell you, for any of you who think the deity is full of Him/Herself, you should have seen it when Nabokov floated on up to the Kingdom of God . . . “oh, gee Mr. Nabokov, tell me how you channeled Pushkin for that—excuse the pun—god-like translation. Tell me again how unconventional you were when you wrote Lolita . . .”

It was enough to make me sick, if sickness had any meaning up here, although I have to admit, it was plenty fun watching the old man get all in a lather over that “idiot son” of his (his words, not mine) claiming to have spoken with his ghost. He was in such a rage, and impotent to do a thing! Guess real life isn’t like “The Vane Sisters,” is it Nabby! Heh, heh, heh . . . You should have seen him the day T.O.O.L.—that’s what he calls it, tool that he is—the day T.O.O.L. was published. You’d have thought the fallen angel had returned there was so much commotion. I have to give it to him, the Kingdom really shook that day.

But anyway, I digress. I bring up Nabokov—pompous ass that he is—only to introduce The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, the book that hack Nabokov would have written if he had any real talent, instead of just ego. It takes little butterfly-boy’s favorite conceit—that whole bit about language being reality and vice versa—but he transports it to an island world Nabokov couldn’t have dreamed up if he wrote ten Pale Fires. He populates this island with a civilization that makes Zembla look like the little podunk backwater it is—I mean, he describes it in detail for a good 150 pages, half the book, and I was riveted the whole damn time! Waterfalls inside of houses! Walls made of water! Telling time via smell! It was all so truly creative, and the best thing was that every one of these beautiful details doubled as a metaphor for the way language mediates reality. Oh, and no kiddy porn in the whole book. Imagine that.

The plot of the book is that years ago a European took a trip to this island, and now he’s making a sort of ethnological study of it from what he remembers. At the center of their society is this Book that they hand around and all write in—like a pen and paper Wikipedia. And then after the narrator is done describing the society that gave rise to this incredible Book, then Ajvaz indulges in the Borgesian conceit (he hates Nabokov too, by the way), the Borgesian conceit of a book within a book that tunnels down into itself nearly down to infinity. The book as reductio ad absurdum—brilliant! And we read this book alongside the narrator—which is a great book in and of itself, despite (or because of) it’s near-infinite nature—and this book-within-a-book-within-a-book comes to reflect on the whole society the narrator has just spent the previous 150 pages describing in such staggering detail. It’s all so brilliant. You can just turn to a page at random, and I bet you there will be a line or a sentence or a paragraph there that you could muse about for the rest of the day.

Really, if you extracted all the genuine talent in Nabokov (minus that cancerous lump of an ego) and tossed in a liberal dash of Borges and a touch of Swiftian satire, well, there you would have Michal Ajvaz. The book is surely the most staggering translation to be published in 2010.

31 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. And I’ll kick things off with a post I wrote about Javier Marias’s book.

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias, translated by Esther Allen

Language: Spanish
Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 57

Why It Should Win: Elvis! and a hysterical description of Fun in Acapulco; stars a translator and the plot hinges on translator’s interpretation; it’s Javier Marias, it’s Esther Allen, it’s New Directions

Although it’s only 57-pages long, this novella is packed with awesomeness. The basic story: some years back, a young Spaniard is hired to go to Mexico with Elvis and help him with his Spanish pronunciation. (Elvis wants to speak his ‘c’s like a true Spaniard—not like a Mexican.) While there, a confrontation takes place with locals in a bar—a confrontation that, by linguistic necessity, puts out narrator in the line of fire (literally and figuratively).

Marias is absolutely one of the best, and this book dazzles from its opening line:

No one knows what it’s like to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.

It might be due to the brevity of the text, but there’s a way in which every scene, every description, every event seems absolutely locked together, with each paragraph having to follow from the one previous. That’s not usually how I think of Marias, with his long-winding sentences (see above), constant contemplation, and the way his prose mulls. But Bad Nature really is the very definition of tight.

The fact that this book is about a translator—and the process of translation—might give it an edge with the panelists. This isn’t the first time Marias has written about a translator or used an act of translation as a plot point (see A Heart So White). Regardless, the moment in which the translator chooses his words in conveying Elvis’s insult to the ruffians is thick with tension, and such a perfect example of how translation is interpretation . . .

All that’s great, Marias is great, Esther’s translation is great, but the real reason this should win? These two passages. First, a description of the film:

I don’t really know what the plot of the film was supposed to be, and not because it was too complicated; on the contrary, it’s hard to follow a plot when there is no story line and no style to substitute for one or distract you; even later, after seeing the film—before the premiere there was a private screening—I can’t tell you what its excuse for a plot was. All I know is that Elvis Presley, the tortured former trapeze artist, as I said—but he’s only tortured sometimes, he also spends a lot of time going swimming, perfectly at ease, and uninhibitedly romancing women—wanders around Acapulco, I don’t remember why, let’s say he’s trying to shake off his dark past or he’s on the run from the FBI, perhaps some thought the fratricide was deliberate (I’m not at all clear on that and I could be mixing up my movies, thirty-three years have gone by). As is logical and necessary, Elvis sings and dances in various places: a cantina, a hotel, a terrace facing the daunting cliff. From time to time he stares, with envy and some kind of complex, at the swimmers—or rather, divers—who plunge into the pool with tremendous smugness from a diving board of only average height.

And from this description of the ridiculousness of Elvis:

Since he was a hard and serious and even enthusiastic worker, he couldn’t see how his roles looked from the outside or make fun of them. I imagine it was in the same disciplined and pliant frame of mind that he allowed himself to grow drooping sideburns in the seventies and agreed to appear on stage tricked out like a circus side show, wearing suits bedecked with copious sequins and fringes, bell bottoms slit up the side, belts as wide as a novice whore’s, high-heeled goblin boots, and a short cape—a cape—that made him look more like Super Rat than whatever he was probably trying for, Superman, I would imagine.

Super Rat FTW!

....
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