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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