20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Will Evans. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.

Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.

The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.

Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .

These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .

It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.

My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)

In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)

Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.

And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .

I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)

The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)

This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.

Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.

Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).

Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.

It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.

. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)

I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.

And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.

——

Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.

——

Did The Pale King Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


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.

24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets, a collection of poems from Zephyr Press by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester.

For those who don’t know, Will is the face behind Deep Vellum Publishing, based in Dallas, Texas, and is also a translator of Russian. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat (which I reviewed for Three Percent in late 2013), and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

For the rest of the review, go here

24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

Relocations is a 21st collection of poetry in constant dialogue with Russia’s past, present, and future. The ghosts of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva haunt the pages, as does the brutal history of Russia and the Soviet Union’s 20th century, with its revolutions and wars, and the middle-class stabilization and increasing internationalism of Putin’s 2000s. These three quite different but well-paired Russian women poets are each attempting to “modernize” Russian poetry, while at the same time reclaiming the status of “woman poet”:

“. . . they [Barskova, Glazova, and Stepanova] confidently leave behind Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova as poets of female desire, while remaining conscious of themselves as writing women. Stepanova insists on calling herself a ‘ poetess,’ a knowing postmodern reclaiming of a category Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova felt necessary to reject.”

In her introduction, editor Catherine Ciepiela notes that these women live and work internationally, in contrast to their lyric Russian poet forebears like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky, whose movements were restricted by Soviet authorities. The “relocations” of the collection’s title are as much physical as artistic, as each poet’s work “relocates” across genres of poetry as much as each poem represents part of the international lives these 21st century Russian women live in Russia (in the case of Stepanova), abroad (Barskova and Glazova), and the spaces in between.

Polina Barskova’s poetry is included first in the collection, translated by the collection’s editor, Catherine Ciepiela. Her work is dominated by a conversational tone that puts emphasis on the sounds of words strung together, stretched across the page in unrhyming, varying forms free verse. Dual language poetry books are awesome for this reason, especially if you know the original language, and Ciepiela does a fantastic job translating Barskova’s language into a playful, yet serious, English, as in this excerpt from “The Translator I”:

bq, We flounder through powdery snow
Siamese t-t-
Twins joined by the tongue’s sweet saliva,
My round-the-word dawns break inside you over you
With awkward precision—
A tattoo job,
Wet still, trace of blood from the needle,
The trace of my writing stains you.

Barskova writes from a first person, seemingly autobiographical narrative “I”, unafraid to link herself to the history of Russian letters, as in the epic “Leningrad Directory of Writers at the Front 1941-45,” which provides creative interpretation of the choices made by the Soviet Union’s most famous poets and artists to survive the brutal Leningrad siege in World War II. And at the same time, Barskova is capable of moments of profound beauty in imagery and ideas, as in her section’s closing poem, “Tomatoes and Sunflowers”:

Brimming—branches, shadows, lineaments,
Flavor and scent not quite stench, just exhaling.
Grasses black, brown, blue, then down from the
Sky, a gust—there’s a rush, shuddering.
But as soon as the picture completes itself
And perspective shrinks to zero, everything
Collapses. You know what will stay with me?
The spider web—its dire embroidery,
The tomato—the crack that won’t close again,
Half-minute foretaste of ashes, calamity—
I was given it all, none of it promised to me.

Anna Glazova, translated by Anna Khasin, is a quite different poet from Barskova and Stepanova, and writes much shorter poems that are unnamed, uncapitalized, and unrhymed, with a detached narrator observing the essence of the world around them in a style that is at once sensually lush and haunting:

the work of hands is the work of ears of grain.
through bread we want to touch death.
who eats bread.

we, wheat, growing, don’t know.

he who cuts
breaks the whole thing with all.

Glazova’s style is described in the introduction as “phenomenological,” reflecting the individual’s direct interpretation of their surroundings. The closing poem in Glazova’s section is a fitting image of her style, encapsulated in the haunting final line, a rare instance of the narrative first-person:

it takes all kinds of thoughts to come of departure,
hid the throat in the collar, somebody standing in the backyard
or taking a feral way to the through yard.

given that to wait for an answer
is simpler for me than to arrive home.
and the sense of a foothold keeps getting lost.

this is me remembering how hard it is sometimes to walk before the wind.

The poems of Maria Stepanova, translated by Sibelan Forrester, are bold, narrative reflections on the world, especially current affairs, with a strong narrator writing in the first person. Stepanova is well known in Russia as the founder of Openspace.ru, an online journal of cultural commentary akin to The Huffington Post. She more recently founded Russia’s first publicly-funded cultural journal, Colta.ru. Unlike Glazova’s work, which straddles ambiguous narrative spaces by not identifying the narrator, Stepanova writes strongly feminine and feminist poems that play with form, rhyme, meter, and content, that drop endings off of words, leave out lines, and hint at what remains unsaid between the lines. These poems are quite different from the works of Barskova and Glazova, both in terms of form (longer, rhyming at times) and content, they all refer directly to the feminine form in its many forms, with political intonations both indirectly and directly expressed, as from the “The Wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Broadcast Live by RTL German TV”:

But who is a man, and who inhabits him,
Puffs him up, follows after him as if he’s a plough,
As pregnancy reduces the female form to zero,
Traces the coming contour with an unseen circle,
So its cramped O will be filled from within,
And are you and I to remember it forever?

Between the poems on current events and contemporary political topics, the Russian and Soviet past makes an appearance in Stepanova’s work as well. Like to Barskova’s poem about the Leningrad siege, Stepanova’s “Sarra on the Barricades” gives a history of Stepanova’s own great-grandmother, who participated in the 1905 revolution, and who miraculously lived long enough to know her great-granddaughter. The poem is a spectacular recreation of Russia’s 20th century history, dominated as it was by women, the women who were left home, left to make do and keep the country running with what ravaged remnants of society remained while the men went off to fight and die by the millions in revolution after revolution, war after war, purge after purge:

Now—just in my own cramped skull.
With her daughter.
With her granddaughter.
With her great-granddaughter me.
The storm cloud swallow of feminist skies.
Noah of a female ark.
And when she crowns the barricade,
I shall not bare her arms and breasts,
But neither will I drape her with a flag,
Because there’s no such flag.
And neither the color red, nor the white and blue
Are suited to such a task.

In the cacophonous lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in a few weeks, these last lines remind the reader that politics in Russia is an inhuman constant, whether under the flag of the Soviets or the ostensibly democratic Russian Federation. Their sentiment of the flag as beneath humanity echoes one of my favorite poems by the American poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz, writing in the height of the George W. Bush war era: “I don’t believe a flag / is important / / enough to kiss— / or even burn. / / Some men would hate me / enough to kill me / if they read those words.”

Reviewing poetry presents a world of problems. Reviewing translated poetry presents another world of problems in addition. Reviewing translated poetry by women poets throws the male reviewer into a universe of problems that could take lifetimes to extract himself from. As with most reviews, context is everything. How to contextualize the contents of the work under review is the most important task any reviewer faces, and with a collection like Relocations, the reviewer could go in any number of contextual directions, before settling, finally, on presenting these three incredible female poets as a vital new chapter in the history Russian poetry.

Relocations is a highly enjoyable collection of poetry introducing the English-language world to three incredibly diverse and talented women poets writing in Russian that could be as meaningful to a casual fan of poetry as to a comparative literature scholar. Since the 80s, Zephyr Press has published more Russian poetry than just about anybody, including numerous women poets, starting with the comprehensive collected works of Anna Akhmatova, a thick tome that has become the standardized edition that I remember all so well buying from my college bookstore as a wide-eyed freshman, Akhmatova’s legendary profile on the cover. It would have been easy for Zephyr Press to stop there—after all, most publishers do, rarely delving into contemporary poetry; but Zephyr Press started publishing contemporary Russian poetry in the 1990s in a bilingual anthology called In the Grips of Strange Thoughts, which morphed into a series of Russia’s most interesting contemporary poets.

Relocations is a fantastic addition to the In the Grips list, and a much-needed, timely, fun, and all-too-relevant read in 2014. The best part about anthologies like Relocations is that no matter what style of poetry you like best, it’s included within, though you’re more likely to enjoy all three poets as their poems strike various chords in your mind as you make your way through the collection. A great anthology, highly recommended.

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, Zephyr Press.

Formerly an Open Letter apprentice and now his Own Man, Will is the mustache director behind Deep Vellum Publishing, a soon-to-be year-old literature in translation house based in Dallas Texas. Will knows incredible amounts about Russian literature, and his review on Polonskaya’s collection of poems is enough to make anyone interested. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For the rest of the review, go here.

3 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.

For some background on the Kursk submarine and why Polonskaya would devote a cycle of poems to the memory of its lost sailors, shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, while America was immersed in the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, the sinking of the Kursk became the first international incident affecting Putin, and gave hints to how he would engage the rest of the world for the next decade plus. After an explosion on board killed a large number of the sailors instantly, the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in salvageable condition, and in relatively shallow water, but with an unknown number of the men still alive (some think it was most of the crew), no power, and oxygen depleting fast. Putin spurned offers of help from British and Norwegian rescue expeditions despite the lack of Russian crews that could do anything to help in the vicinity. In the delayed Russian response to the tragedy, all 118 sailors died. The men who survived the explosion suffocated to death, knocking in vain on the hull of the submarine for days on end in an attempt to alert rescue crews, and rumor has it several managed to write farewell letters to their loved ones. The tragedy became a permanent stain on Putin’s presidency. Many Russians will never forgive him for ignoring the chance to save the men on board in favor of trying to prove the still-weakened Russian state’s competency in its own matters—and failing miserably.

Westerners have all but forgotten the Kursk incident, since Putin went back to war with Chechnya around the same time and 9/11 distracted all foreign media for the decade since. But the Kursk sinking still means so much, and Polonskaya has provided the first attempt to come to terms with this tragedy, and she writes with a palpable sadness, alternating between the voices of Chorus, Sailor, Siren, and Angel to tell the tale of loss without ever naming the submarine or its sailors directly:

Chorus

00:15. Water in the hold. The deck rocks.
We sail. A taut wire of legs,
we bespatter the walls.

00:45. We’re sinking. The anchor glows
like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the cries,
the sea sucks the Great Bear.

00:53. The storm laid the blueness of its hands
on the heeling boat. Called for help,
no answer. Nothing lasts forever.

The effect is haunting. The nameless sailors transcend the political ramifications of Putin’s inaction and become universally recognizable victims. The voices in “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM” provided the basis for the libretto to David Chisholm’s orchestral adaptation of the cycle, which premiered in Melbourne’s Arcko Symphonic Project in October 2011 (a link to watch a documentary on the making of the adaptation of Polonskaya’s poem into music can be found here on Vimeo, which also includes a video performance of the piece).
“KURSK” is presented at the end of the collection, which Wachtel lays out in an orderly fashion that follows, seemingly, some sort of thematic logic, wherein a poem about one subject segues into another poem on a similar subject, which opens the door into another theme, and so on. The first thematic cycle is a dialogue between the poet and the work of classic visual artists, from the collection’s namesake Paul Klee to Picasso, Magritte, and Michelangelo’s David. From the breathtaking “Like David”:

There’ll be snow tomorrow. It will alter our faces, sewing solemn lines of
      wrinkles.
Winter’s white goats will wander the orchard, stripping bark from the apple
      trees,
and they’ll look into the windows where we warm our hands over a quiet
      geranium fire.
Such are the days here, like drops of water in a prisoner’s solitary cell.
And we are immobile, like David, our legs planted deep in the ground.

Subsequent themes reveal themselves as layered elements that build off and complement each other in the shape and scope of each poem. The poems ponder a wide range of themes, such as the relationship between humanity and nature; or of the triumph of evil over good; of love lost; of “God’s indifference”; snow and cold (standing in for so, so much, emotional and physical, “the snow within”); the passage of time; the fragility of memory; family ties; soldiers and war.

The poems in Paul Klee’s Boat are for the most part unrhymed free verse. Occasional rhymes in the Russian are translated into English unrhymed, and occasionally structured poetic forms appear, but without holding true to the forms’ stylistic convention. The first half of the collection consists of shorter poems, all a page or less, then rounds out with five longer cycles of poems, starting with “The Wave,” a requiem about the devastating 2005 tsunami in Thailand, followed by the more personal “Greek Diary,” “Dalmatian Cycle,” and “Free Verses,” in which Polonskaya reflects on her own style, all of which crescendo in the epic sweep of the closing cycle, “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM.”

The collection is not expressly political, and I am loathe to always analyze Russian poetry and literature toward the political, and Polonskaya never names names, nor does she descend into open criticisms of anyone in particular (“KURSK” being an exception to the rest of the poems). But there is an undercurrent of malaise in these poems that recalls the period of “stagnation” under Brezhnev, that has been morphed under Putin into “timelessness,” i.e. Russia has become a land that exists out of sync with the rest of the world. You can see it in the short excerpt above from “Like David,” the prisoners with their legs stuck in the cold winter’s ground. It’s as if perestroika and the Berlin Wall’s collapse never happened in Russia, and people can’t decide if Putin has thrown Russia back into the 1980 Soviet Union or Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy. Without saying it, but in unspoken acknowledgement, Polonskaya paints a grim portrait of a contemporary Russia developing a sense of its own angst, gaining a voice yet still ultimately powerless, that reminds me of the pre-revolutionary poets and their entrapment between the tsar’s vice grip on power and the murky future that revolution would bring.

Paul Klee’s Boat is part of the series of contemporary Russian poetry called “In the Grips of Strange Thoughts” that Zephyr Press has published since an extensive anthology of the same name in 1999. Zephyr Press is an amazing and dedicated independent publisher that has been around since 1980, and has become one of the most important publishers of international poetry in translation, especially from the Russian. Their complete collection of Anna Akhamotva’s poetry put them on the publishing map in 1990, and they have since published emerging poets and new voices from across the world.

In short, Anzhelina Polonskaya is a fantastic poet whose work calls to mind Russia’s great poets past, and Paul Klee’s Boat is a vital addition to the contemporary poetry canon, a collection as interesting as it is touching that will inevitably be remembered for years to come.

30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

The novel opens with Javier Cetarti, a shiftless loser who was fired from his job six months earlier and who was just about to run out of money and, more importantly, marijuana, when he receives a phone call from a guy named Duarte in a tiny village called Lapachito, far to the north of Cordoba, where Cetarti lives. Duarte has some bad news: Cetarti’s mother and brother had been killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who also killed himself as the coup de grace of the grisly bloodbath. Cetarti hardly reacts to the news, but gets in the car and makes the 600+ kilometer drive up north when Duarte tells him there is some sort of life insurance policy involved, and Cetarti has the chance to cash in:

Of all the news Duarte had given him the night before, Cetarti had been most motivated to drive to Lapachito by the news that there was a life insurance policy to collect. He had been booted out of his job six months before (lack of initiative, discouraging behavior), and he had eaten through almost all of his compensation without lifting a finger.

For a dude who sits around smoking pot all day, refusing to work, this is a pretty sweet chance, and it also forms the introduction, within the first five pages, to Cetarti’s questionable moral impulse. This lack of morality becomes one of the main themes that dominates Cetarti’s universe vividly portrayed by Busqued in Under This Terrible Sun.

Cetarti arrives in his mother’s village, a wasteland that seems like the set of a horror story come to life: the houses are sinking into the mud caused by an industrial accident, the city is literally collapsing in on itself, poisonous beetles are taking over (although Cetarti is pretty sure there are no poisonous beetles, everyone tells him the beetles he sees everywhere are poisonous), and the residents can’t be bothered to leave because they just get used to it, as Duarte tells Cetarti. Welcome to Lapachito; it may be its own layer of hell.

Duarte lets Cetarti in on the life insurance scheme he’s concocted. Turns out, Cetarti’s mom’s live-in boyfriend, Molina, took out a life insurance policy before the massacre, and Cetarti could technically lay claim to the loot. It involves some questionable dealings, greasing the palms of government officials, and it doesn’t take long before you realize Duarte is hardly an ally, he’s as shady as it gets and completely incapable of doing Good. But he’s still promising Cetarti a sizeable payday, and he supplies Cetarti with tons of good weed, so Cetarti can’t complain.

Cetarti joins Duarte to visit his mother’s house, where the killing took place, and when they open the door they meet Molina’s ex-wife, who is there cleaning everything up. Cetarti goes through his mother’s and brother’s belongings without emotion, takes a few items, including what turns out to be keys to his brother’s apartment in Cordoba. The next day, he visits Duarte at home and gets a little creeped out, but rather laconically, as is Cetarti’s style, by some of the pornography that Duarte keeps laying around his house. Along with building a fleet of intricately-detailed model airplanes that are referenced throughout the novel, and paralleled by the characters watching a series of military documentaries on TV, Duarte is in the process of digitizing a fleet of brutal VHS porno tapes he’d collected, with titles too vile to mention here. He explains his choice of this particularly violent and nasty pornography to Cetarti:

“There’s some pornography you don’t watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go . . . This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them. That old woman, I picture her getting dressed with her ass all destroyed, taking the subway, buying chocolates for her grandchildren with the money she just earned by letting them do that to her . . .”

Duarte is obsessed with seeing how far the human species will go—and not just on video. A man of action, Duarte is a vibrant character: completely evil, completely amoral, completely unsympathetic, and for all of these reasons, a fascinating character. Although he commits all sorts of extortion schemes for money, he seems far more driven by the thought of pushing human bodies to their breaking point than in receiving money for anything. Which is terrifying.

Around this time we meet his henchman, a fat, shiftless pothead named Danielito, who is the son of the deceased Molina and Molina’s ex-wife. Duarte uses Danielito’s basement to hold hostages, seeking a ransom from the victim’s family at the same time as he abuses and violates the victims. Danielito is an all-too-willing accomplice to the torture, feeding the victims, but otherwise staying out of the way and letting Duarte enact his most revolting fantasies on his victims (fortunately, only alluded to).

The point of view at this point in the novel begins to alternate between Cetarti and Danielito, Duarte is never the focal point, the narrative proceeds through Cetarti and Danielito’s THC-reddened eyes, but he is the connection between the two characters (who don’t meet until much later in the novel), and only through Duarte do the parallels between their weed-soaked lives become evident: they sit around, smoke weed, eat sometimes, and watch nature and war documentaries on TV constantly. The subjects of these documentaries (elephants in southeast Asia, giant squids, WWII) recur over and over again in both characters’ lives.

The interplay between inhuman humans and mysterious deadly creatures of land and sea forms one of the most interesting themes of the novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given the novel’s epigraph, taken from Alfred Tennyson’s “The Kraken”: “ . . . Then once by man and angels to be seen, / In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”

In one particularly creepy scene from which the novel’s title is lifted, Danielito’s mother asks him to accompany her to another shitty village far from Lapachito in order to steal the bones of her firstborn son, who died before he was a year old and who, much to Danielito’s chagrin, is also named Daniel, and leads Danielito to fantasize about elephants he’d heard from Duarte were man-killers in southeast Asia, a theme that is first raised in conversation between Cetarti and Duarte much earlier in the novel. This particular scene is also an excellent example of Busqued’s narrative technique, and illustrates the overall vibe of the novel:

bq. He couldn’t avoid a shudder when he read, painted on the tin heart: DANIEL MOLINA 2-12-1972/10-4-1973. He looked at his mother. She was staring at the sunken earth. bq. “Poor thing, all these years under this terrible sun.” bq. He dug apprehensively. The earth was soft, but he felt no urge to speed up. He was soaked in sweat. Around the cemetery there was an island of empty land, and after a hundred meters the bush-covered mountain. He remembered the documentary about the elephants of Mal Bazaar. He imagined one of those elephants emerging from the forest. He imagined it coming towards them. A complex and powerful body that shook the earth at each step. But the elephant wouldn’t attack them, he thought. It would approach them calmly and with a certain curiosity. It would stop beside them, touching them gently with its trunk. And then it would fall to the ground. Or disappear into thin air. Or something, anything else. But it wouldn’t hurt them. “Almost every mahout is an alcoholic,” he remembered. How nice to be an alcoholic, he though, how nice to be murdered by an elephant. Something, anything else.

Cetarti eventually goes home to Cordoba and moves out of his apartment into the place where his brother had been living, accumulating massive amounts of junk (bug collections, Readers Digest, orange peels) in a strange part of town called Hugo Wast, a mysterious neighborhood where nobody owns their houses, but rather squats in them, located near the municipal slaughterhouse, which gives the area a particular smell when the wind blows in the right way. Cetarti eventually gets the money from Duarte and—to make a long story short and to glaze over Duarte doing some dastardly deeds and Danielito’s mother morphing into a very interesting and strong secondary character on whom many words could be written alone—Cetarti eventually gets wrapped up in another one of Duarte’s schemes, which leads to the rather abrupt ending (which comes about a bit too neatly for me).

As I said, I’m not one for gruesome novels, so I can assure you that this novel, despite being disturbing, is worth reading. It’s shocking and interesting in ways that literary novels rarely achieve. I mentioned Se7en above: it’s actually a pretty good comparison, the same creeping dread and inhuman elements are at play, which is actually refreshing to read in Busqued’s telling, capturing some of the more interesting morally-questionable elements of humanity that are usually only portrayed in Scandinavian (or other styles of) detective thrillers. Busqued is a good writer, sparse at times, maintaining a narrative distance from the characters’ impulses while simultaneously opening the door into some of their thoughts. His sentences are seemingly simplistic in construction, but all the while gather elements and build up to a pulse-quickening crescendo, all told via the quality work of translator, Megan McDowell (a UT-Dallas translation program alumna!).

As one of new ebook-only publisher Frisch & Co.‘s first titles, they have done an admirable job of bringing Busqued’s novel into English as part of their unique partnership with Editorial Anagrama, in which they will publish two books a year from the Spanish-language publishers in digital formats. It remains to be seen if Frisch & Co. will partner with anybody to do physical copies of these books, but either way, in any format, Under This Terrible Sun is a damn good read.

30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Carlos Busqued’s Under This Terrible Sun, from e-book publisher Frisch & Co.

Will Evans—known to many as The Apprentice of Summer 2012 here at Open Letter—is the publisher behind the still-relatively-new Deep Vellum, a translated literature press deep in the heart of Texas. In addition to being fueled by unlimited amounts of caffeine and the love for world lit, Will is undeniably one of the coolest people anyone can ever meet.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

7 June 13 | Chad W. Post |

This post-BookExpo America podcast (with special guest, Bromance Will/Will Evans, the man behind Deep Vellum Press) is all about the good and bad of the country’s largest trade show for publishing. Mostly, it’s a series of rants—not necessarily about the show itself, but about the crap that craps it all up. From tech-speak nonsense to Mitch “Fucking” Albom, this is one of the funniest and most fiery podcasts we’ve recorded to date.

Read More...

2 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

Bromance Will—who is probably still smarting from Duke’s AWFUL performance on Sunday—is back. Will Evans is in process of setting up Deep Vellum, a publishing house based in Dallas dedicated to international literature. More info on that in the near future.

What if you did dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? What if you did meet the devil at a crossroads and sold your soul for a special talent? What if your own Faustian bargain brought about the end of everything? What if you were at your wits end, and devoid of even the faintest glimmer of hope, but a mysterious stranger in any form could offer you some sort of reprieve, some sort of change? Would you take it? Of course you would. And you would become another loser in the history of the world, another sad character in a Krasznahorkai novel. But make no mistake, you are already that loser, history has already forgotten you, you are helpless, you are weak, you are inconsequential. This is what Satantango should make you feel. And it is why it should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA.

Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first novel to be published way back in 1985, and was turned into a legendary seven-hour film by the author’s friend and frequent working partner, the director Béla Tarr, in 1994. Despite the film’s renown, or perhaps because of it, the legend holds that the translation of Satantango took nearly 20 years to complete. And it’s not just that we had to wait 27 years for this masterpiece, Satantango could and should win the BTBA in and of itself because it is a harrowing and bleakly funny look at the frailty of the human condition and our divine aspirations.

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom. Take this conversation between Irimiás and Petrina on the road back to the village, one of my favorite passages in the whole novel (all bolding mine):

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The moral of Satantango is unclear, if there is one at all. You can draw your own conclusions, you can read into anything and everything, the questions that arise from the text are not immediately answerable. Is Irimiás himself the Devil? Or just another false prophet, like so many who came before him? Like the Communist leaders who promised utopia on Earth, and who were still firmly in charge of Hungary, though a barely-breathing corpse, when Krasznahorkai wrote the novel in ’85? Irimiás seems to take his instruction from the nameless and faceless bureaucrats in the capital who send him on the ill-fated mission that comprises the novel’s downfall (with the chapters numbered in ascending, then descending order). And what about the doctor, the unconscious narrator of the novel, daydreaming of ahistorical time in his chair while the world around him spins downward to ultimate ruin? What of the pitiful women in the story, the little girl/cat-killer, or the prostitutes hanging about in the ruins? Should we be depressed when the novel ends, realizing that we live in a different kind of shit (“Same shit, different toilet”, not a Krasznahorkai quote, but which applies here), or impressed with an author who is willing to confront the hopeless idiocy of humanity’s basest instinctual elements?

The vagueness and banality of evil is at the core of Satantango; reading Satantango is a much-needed antidote to the garbage you read in the techno-centric positivism online about everything these days. Though it seems like lot of time has passed since 1985, make no mistake, no time has passed at all in the primordial sense of time, you are still inconsequential; and vast droves of people seem to think that the leaps forward in technological advancement has meant grand changes to humanity, but they’re wrong: in the grand scheme of things we’re still the same awful, evil creatures we were 27 years ago, a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and the cult of the digital revolution or whatever the latest fad or technological advancement may be, none of them are any different than the false prophet of Irimiás’s empty promises to lead us all to some nonexistent exalted future.

Satantango should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because as a people, humanity needs to gain some awareness of our own rotten core, and if Satantango goes unrecognized as a work of the purest genius it is because we as a people are too afraid to look deep within ourselves, too scared of what we might find, or too scared to realize what was never there in the first place.

21 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books

BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.

Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.

Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.

The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.

And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.

Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).

Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.

It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.

If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, which is translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Corry Merrill, and Bela Shayevich and published by n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse.

By now, most of you know who Bromance Will is, but for those who don’t, he was an apprentice here last summer and is starting up his own publishing house in Dallas. (And I have to give a public shaming to University of Texas at Dallas for not snatching Will up and hiring him. Huge loss, UTD. Huge.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of his review of this really interesting sounding collection:

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art. As Medvedev states in his essay “Literature Will Be Tested” (evoking Brecht):

The metaphysical consciousness of the artistic intelligentsia is based, as I’ve said, on the idea that any product of nonmaterial labor exists outside its context and speaks for itself . . . “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.

In his poetry, Medvedev uses a brutally simple free-verse style, rare among Russian poets, evoking a sentimental humanism in constant dialogue with the world around him, be it artistic, political, or wholly personal, reminiscent of a mixture of Vladimir Mayakovsky with Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev has translated into Russian, and with whom he shares a “genuine contact” (24) that explores the collective aspect of human experiences.

(I remember this about myself:
when I was little I thought
that when it came time for me to die
that everything would be different
and that it wouldn’t be me anymore exactly
and so for me, in the form that I was then,
there was nothing to fear)
children think that
in the form
in which they now exist
they will live forever

In contrast to his poetry, Medvedev’s essays use simple language to explore complex political and cultural issues on power and art, whether it is the attraction of aesthetic appeal of fascism, or the hierarchies of power in the Russian poetry underground. In a long biographical essay on the underground poetry publisher Dmitry Kuzmin, with whom he’d had a falling out, Medvedev calls for a new form of socialist-democratic art, with the artist as a leading figure in creating collective political consciousness and inspiring direct action:

For a leftist art, there are no individuals: there is simply a single human space in which people exist . . . But no work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims, nor is it a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality.

Throughout It’s No Good, in all of the literary methods and actions that he employs, Medvedev cycles through series of questions on the role of the writer as artist; the role of the artist as political figure; the role of art in politics, in general; the way art morphs and is shaped by money; the importance of leftist art in the fight against neo-fascist and capitalist hegemonies. Medevedev continuously evokes the work of political artists from outside of Russia who came before him, from Pasolini to Brecht, placing himself among an international tradition of artistic activism for leftist, socialist, anti-fascist political causes: “whereas I want—revolution / to change the face of everything, / to overthrow everything and everyone— / they want / a petty bourgeois revolution—”.

It’s No Good is presented in a beautiful paperback covered with Russian avant garde-esque art (Tatlin’s tower is evoked on the front cover, the back cover descends into lines floating in autonomous space), which segues nicely with Medvedev’s theories of art as political weapon, and recalls the intentions of the Soviet Constructivists in the post-Revolutionary period, when artists felt like they had the power to create a better place on Earth, a truly harmonious socialist society, through their art. The American publishers of It’s No Good are no strangers to leftist political thought: Ugly Duckling Presse puts out some of the best poetry and prose from around the world of a truly independent and radical nature, while n+1 published the first collection of writings on the Occupy movement, and publishes some of the best international literature in their journal, as a recent issue featured an excerpt of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair.

The impressive team of translators for It’s No Good include Keith Gessen, a co-editor at n+1 who helped translate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Killed Her Neighbor’s Baby, as well as Mark Krotov, an editor at publishing behemoth-extraordinaire FSG. Two other translators, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich, combine with Gessen and Krotov to give Medvedev a powerful and sympathetic voice in English that is remarkably unified and direct, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and refreshing and enjoyable to read.

As a poet, Medvedev will appeal to the casual poetry reader as much as the avid chapbook hound, and his nonfiction prose will undoubtedly help It’s No Good land on many graduate student bookshelves for years to come. It is Medvedev’s unique mixture of poetry and prose, artistic and political at once, that gives It’s No Good a lasting power that immediately places him in the forefront of international activist art. While Medvedev delves into the complexities of art’s role in Putin’s Russia from his place within the Russian context, the American, and Western reader, in general, comes away not only with a greater understanding of the complexity of a political activist’s lot in Russia today, but burning with the universal questions about every society’s relationship between art and politics.

Sin
1 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Zakhar Prilepin is one hell of a writer, and an interesting figure to boot. Sin is an exciting debut in English for one of one of Russia’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers.

Though this is his first novel published in English, Prilepin has written a lot: four novels, three books of short stories, plus a couple of books of essays, plus he’s a full-time journalist writing for an independent newspaper he started in Nizhny Novgorod (the fifth-biggest city in Russia), where he lives, and his columns and interviews frequently appear in national newspapers and magazines. Last time I was in Russia, summer 2011, his newest novel, Чёрная обезьяна (Black Monkey), was everywhere—in the front of every bookstore, in kiosks in the Metro, and his face and name were in every magazine and newspaper I came across, from the massive state organ RIA to the hipster cultural mag Большой город. But Prilepin is also a controversial figure in Russian letters: politically active, he is a member is of the National Bolshevik Party (which is neither communist nor fascist, but some sort of weird hybrid in between), an outsider political organization/party headed up by the writer Eduard Limonov, and in 2012, Prilepin wrote a now-infamous “open letter to Stalin” that was accused of thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. And speaking of Stalin, there is an awesome poem in this book with the title “I’ll buy myself a portrait of Stalin.” To speak of Stalin in Russian literature is a taboo, this poem is remarkable, and Prilepin is, while controversial (and I make no judgments, I know too little), remarkable too.

Why do I mention Prilepin’s political inclinations? Because, as one old Soviet poet once said, in Russia, a poet is more than a poet; a writer is more than a writer. Or is he? Does he have to be? If you are American, and you read something by Zakhar Prilepin (which isn’t his real name but rather his pseudonym), is he more than a writer to you? Or is he just another Russian whom you can discard if he’s not Tolstoyan or anti-regime or doesn’t fit the mold of all the beautiful Russian stereotypes that have existed from Pushkin to Brodsky . . . we like our Russian writers to be daring, to be politically active, and to suffer some sort of persecution—basically, everything we don’t ask for in writers from anywhere else. Russian writers are held the worst levels of double-standards by global critics, where works are judged for their “insight into the Russian soul” or their “political satire” without placing the writers into the context of global culture and international literature where they justly belong.

Sin is Prilepin’s first book published in English, and it was brought out by Glagoslav Publications, a new publishing house based in the Netherlands and UK that specializes in eastern Slavic literatures (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian). Only a few of Prilepin’s stories have been available in English previously, most notably in the Rasskazy collection and the elusive Read Russia compilation put together for BEA 2012 (why this collection hasn’t been made available, at least as a downloadable file online, is beyond me. If anyone can tell me how to convert the book I have into a PDF file, aside from manually scanning each page, let’s pirate it!).

Sin is one of the most highly-regarded novels of the post-Soviet period: it won the National Bestseller after it was published in 2008, and in 2011 won the decade-spanning “SuperNatsBest prize, in which judges selected the best/most important (their criteria is vague) book that had ever won or been nominated for the National Bestseller award (in 2011, Prilepin also won the Russian Booker of the Decade for the 2000s for his novel San’kya, which I’m happy to see is coming out in English translation via Dzanc Books’s new DISQUIET imprint).

Why do I keep writing all of this? Why all this pedantic context? Here I am, trying to “teach” the reader of this review something about Russia and about Prilepin, as if I really knew. I hate myself for this review, because here I am, another scholar of Russian literature writing a review of a new Russian novel . . . published by a company that only publishes Russian literature. Isn’t this a vicious cycle? We’re Russianists and Slavophils writing reviews of Russian books to be read by other Russianists and Slavophils! I want somebody else to review this book who doesn’t know a goddamn thing about Russian literature today and can judge the merits of the book on the book itself—on Prilepin’s vivid language and complex characters! BUT WHAT IF THE CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING!? What if my pedantry can get somebody new to read this book and see that even though Putin’s name is never mentioned once, the hallmarks of Putinism are painted on every page?! And that even though the political undertones (and overt display of political themes, as in the closing story, “The Sergeant”) are everywhere, the joy and beauty of the narrator’s love for his wife and children (and his beautiful cousin, one summer when he is still a teenager) is still breathtaking. But is it breathtaking to someone who’s not in so deep with Russian literature? Can we judge Prilepin as a post-modernist-post-Soviet-21st-century writer without the context?

Sin is a novel in stories—well, eight stories and a cycle of poetry—and it is fun and easy to read (with a highly sympathetic and likeable narrator, if that’s your thing). The stories jump around time periods in the life of the narrator, Zakhar (or Zakharka, as he goes by when he’s younger), from a summer in his grandparents’ village at seventeen (“Sin”), through a courtship with his beloved as a young man (“Whatever day of the week it happens to be”) through marriage and fatherhood (all the rest of the stories). At various points he is a writer, a bouncer, a bread truck un-loader, a soldier, and an office worker. He loves his girlfriend and (later) his wife and his children and the puppies that live in the courtyard of his apartment building, and he has some friends of moderately ill repute that are alternately amusing and sad that he likes to drink with.

Zakhar the narrator lives in Nizhny Novgorod, which is only explicitly described once (when Zakhar-narrator drives from Nizhny Novgorod to his home village in the province of Ryazan, where the real-life Zakhar is also from), but the rest of the time, you can tell it’s not Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and that’s a pretty remarkable thing in Russian literature these days, considering 90+% of Russian cultural figures live in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, or abroad. Imagine if all American writers and directors and ballet dancers and anyone else affiliated with the arts lived in New York or Los Angeles and that was it. It’s kind of like that for film in the US, but no other arts industry. So it’s refreshing to read a book that’s NOT set in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.

I recently read and loved David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and like Shields, I like for my literature to take on a life of its own based on the life of its creator. It doesn’t have to be “fact,” that would be trite, but it has to come from a place of truth, inspired by the reality of the author. And the life that Prilepin describes is all too real. I can close my eyes smell the dank stairwells and cramped corner stores that Zakhar visits throughout his life. I can see the village where his grandparents live, where their neighbor still doesn’t own any electrical appliances. These hallmarks of decay are emblematic of the malaise educated, urban professionals and youth feel in Russia today. Brezhnev’s time as leader of the Soviet Union was described as “stagnation,” but Putin’s Russia is beginning to take on a similar tone; my favorite line in a book I translated by the journalist Oleg Kashin had to do with the “scum of Putin’s stagnation“—but a different word for stagnation, something more along the lines of “timelessness.” Putin’s Russia exists outside of time, the rest of the world moves on, goes forward, and Russia stays Russia, the elites at the top in Moscow getting infinitely wealthier, while the rest of the country slides further into irrelevance, malaise . . . timelessness. Prilepin gets at that, but with a dose of the little joys that come from our most basic human instinct: love (cheesy, eh?). And where the line between Zakhar-author and Zakhar-narrator is drawn, I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.

Prilepin was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in Russia—this loss/change of homeland figures prominently into Sin, as well as the writing of the new generation of Russian authors, those who were born Soviet but became Russian, and who plumb the depths of Russian and Soviet history to build a literary identity that straddles time and geopolitical space. The closing story in the novel, “The Sergeant,” is set on the borderlands of Russia, still in Russia, yet outside of the country, set among a small contingent of soldiers guarding an outpost just beyond their base (think “Restrepo” but with Chechens in place of Afghans), where the title character (it is never stated who Zakhar is in this story, it could very well be the narrator, who only goes by The Sergeant) engages in a running inner dialogue with himself about why he and his comrades are made to serve on this hostile frontier and their relationships with the land they’re fighting for:

He couldn’t remember when he had last pronounced this word—Homeland. There hadn’t been one for a long time. At some point, maybe in his youth, his Homeland had disappeared, and in its place nothing had formed. And nothing was needed.

Sometimes there was a forgotten, crushed, childish, painful feeling beating in his heart. The sergeant didn’t admit it and didn’t respond. Who hadn’t felt this . . .

It’s hard for anyone outside of Russia to understand what the Caucasus region means to Russia (and I’m not about to try and describe it), but regardless of its political importance, it has played a role in the development of countless Russian writers from the days of Pushkin and Lermontov to Tolstoy and now Prilepin, who himself served in the OMON (Russia’s most badassmotherfucker division of paramilitary forces, kind of like the SWAT team mixed with Special Forces) in the Chechen wars of the late 1990s. Can you imagine a place in America where you are IN America and yet simultaneously OUTSIDE of America? I know Texas seems like that place, but it’s not, and I for one can’t imagine it . . . it’s insane. And it’s a Russian reality still today, a borderland at the edge of an empire where radically opposed cultures have been in conflict for centuries. It’s a place where men become boys and boys and men alike die every day while the military and political stalemate continues.

And speaking of stalemate, I particularly like the end of the story “Wheels,” which continues in the all-too-common theme of “Russia as a train that doesn’t know where it’s going” motif that exists in contemporary Russian literature. But I like Prilepin’s take on it, when the narrator Zakhar is running alongside the traintracks at the end of the story and falls, the train rushing past him as he lays on his side, and you can feel the stagnation of life in Russia today:

My foot slipped, and I fell on my side, on to the gravel bank, and immediately, at that very second, I saw the black shining wheels steaking [sic] past with a terrible roar.
I gathered gravel in my palm, I felt the gravel with my cheek, and for a few minutes I couldn’t breathe: the huge wheels burnt the air, leaving a feeling of hot, stifling, mad emptiness.

This excerpt is a perfect extract to take out of Sin, both for its display of Prilepin’s prose (which is always rushing forward, he is very easy and enjoyable to read, and for some reason, my pulse is always up when I read him, his stories morph into page-turners the more you get inside Zakhar-narrator’s head) as well as some of the problems of this translation Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas, and this publication by Glagoslav: there are frequent grammatical and spelling mistakes throughout the text, as if the editor fell asleep on the job, or their word processing document’s spellcheck went on the fritz. At the same time, the first sentence of the extract shows a particularly Russian standard of punctuation that drives certain American readers crazy (I know I am not alone in this). I stand by translators’ rights to adopt whatever style they want in their work, and if Patterson and Chordas chose a style that adheres more closely to the Russian punctuation (which I have double-checked, and it does), that is fine, but at the same time, sentences like that above are left choppy, fragmented, and in need of some breathing space. This work would be greatly enhanced with a translator’s afterword (I hate prefaces of all types, especially when they talk at length about the book you’re about to read).

Also of note, the layout and font of this book are awful. It looks like it was a manuscript smuggled out of someone’s 95 version of Word in a size 13 Verdana font, with awkward paragraph and line spacing; plus the margins are massive on the left side and too close to the binding on the right, with plenty of room at the top and bottom of the page. And the cover: whose portrait is that on the front? I wish it was Prilepin’s, but I don’t think it is (he looks quite striking: tall and broad-shouldered with a shaved head, his picture is on the back cover). And how many more books are going to come out of Russia with goddamn St. Basil’s Cathedral on the cover (Rasskazy is guilty of this too, and even Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia)? What message does that send to any potential reader? Not a damn scene in this book takes place in Moscow, it would be like reading a book that takes place in Texas that has the Empire State Building on the cover. Why? In the end, these are not unimportant quibbles I have with the book, and I do not mean them to be personal attacks against publisher, editor, or translator—but as, apparently, the target audience for this book (I received an unsolicited email from the publisher advertising the book while still a graduate student in a Russian program), I do hold everyone to a high standard of quality—Prilepin is arguably one of the greatest writers in the world right now, and this is his debut in the literary world’s dominant language (of the moment), throwing his name into the hat for the first time in serious discussion of Western literary recognition (not that that is everything)—if you expect a reader like me to buy a book and enjoy it, I want it to be a book worth holding in my hands, a book without mistakes on many pages, and a book that I will hold on to and cherish and share.

With that said, I hope the second edition (or future American edition) corrects some of those mistakes, and that many more of Prilepin’s books make it in to English.

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, translated from the Russian by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas and published by the quasi-mysterious Glagoslav Publications.

This has been an angry week at Three Percent. First, I dissed Alejandro Zambra’s latest book, then I got pissed off and paranoid about book awards, which should’ve been the end of the anger, but then yesterday, Kaija, the supposed “nice one” at Open Letter, went all unhinged, which is why I have 3-4 posts lined up for today that are all positive and nurturing and about unicorns and ponies and nice things.

First up in Bromance Will’s review of Sin, which sounds like a pretty interesting book, and which Will must’ve reviewed in a positive let’s-all-read-the-great-Russians!

Zakhar Prilepin is one hell of a writer, and an interesting figure to boot. Sin is an exciting debut in English for one of one of Russia’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers.

Though this is his first novel published in English, Prilepin has written a lot: four novels, three books of short stories, plus a couple of books of essays, plus he’s a full-time journalist writing for an independent newspaper he started in Nizhny Novgorod (the fifth-biggest city in Russia), where he lives, and his columns and interviews frequently appear in national newspapers and magazines. Last time I was in Russia, summer 2011, his newest novel, Чёрная обезьяна (Black Monkey), was everywhere—in the front of every bookstore, in kiosks in the Metro, and his face and name were in every magazine and newspaper I came across, from the massive state organ RIA to the hipster cultural mag Большой город. [. . .]

Sin is a novel in stories—well, eight stories and a cycle of poetry—and it is fun and easy to read (with a highly sympathetic and likeable narrator, if that’s your thing). The stories jump around time periods in the life of the narrator, Zakhar (or Zakharka, as he goes by when he’s younger), from a summer in his grandparents’ village at seventeen (“Sin”), through a courtship with his beloved as a young man (“Whatever day of the week it happens to be”) through marriage and fatherhood (all the rest of the stories). At various points he is a writer, a bouncer, a bread truck un-loader, a soldier, and an office worker. He loves his girlfriend and (later) his wife and his children and the puppies that live in the courtyard of his apartment building, and he has some friends of moderately ill repute that are alternately amusing and sad that he likes to drink with.

So far, so good. Sounds interesting—a novel-in-stories in which one story is a cycle of poetry?!

“My foot slipped, and I fell on my side, on to the gravel bank, and immediately, at that very second, I saw the black shining wheels steaking [sic] past with a terrible roar.

“I gathered gravel in my palm, I felt the gravel with my cheek, and for a few minutes I couldn’t breathe: the huge wheels burnt the air, leaving a feeling of hot, stifling, mad emptiness.”

This excerpt is a perfect extract to take out of Sin, both for its display of Prilepin’s prose (which is always rushing forward, he is very easy and enjoyable to read, and for some reason, my pulse is always up when I read him, his stories morph into page-turners the more you get inside Zakhar-narrator’s head) as well as some of the problems of this translation Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas, and this publication by Glagoslav: there are frequent grammatical and spelling mistakes throughout the text, as if the editor fell asleep on the job, or their word processing document’s spellcheck went on the fritz. At the same time, the first sentence of the extract shows a particularly Russian standard of punctuation that drives certain American readers crazy (I know I am not alone in this). I stand by translators’ rights to adopt whatever style they want in their work, and if Patterson and Chordas chose a style that adheres more closely to the Russian punctuation (which I have double-checked, and it does), that is fine, but at the same time, sentences like that above are left choppy, fragmented, and in need of some breathing space. This work would be greatly enhanced with a translator’s afterword (I hate prefaces of all types, especially when they talk at length about the book you’re about to read).

Also of note, the layout and font of this book are awful. It looks like it was a manuscript smuggled out of someone’s 95 version of Word in a size 13 Verdana font, with awkward paragraph and line spacing; plus the margins are massive on the left side and too close to the binding on the right, with plenty of room at the top and bottom of the page. And the cover: whose portrait is that on the front? I wish it was Prilepin’s, but I don’t think it is (he looks quite striking: tall and broad-shouldered with a shaved head, his picture is on the back cover). And how many more books are going to come out of Russia with goddamn St. Basil’s Cathedral on the cover (Rasskazy is guilty of this too, and even Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia)? What message does that send to any potential reader? Not a damn scene in this book takes place in Moscow, it would be like reading a book that takes place in Texas that has the Empire State Building on the cover. Why?

Yeah, it must just be one of those weeks . . . But on a serious note, read Will’s review, it’s extremely interesting.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

Maidenhair will be available to purchase from our very own Open Letter Books on October 23, 2012.

Here’s part of Will’s review:

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Click here to read the entire review.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

“Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.”

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Since his first novel came out in 1994, Shishkin has won Russia’s three most prestigious literary prizes: the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Big Book. Despite his prodigious and award-winning talents, Maidenhair is his first novel published in English, and will be formally released on October 23, 2012 by Open Letter Books. Shishkin’s former day job was as an interpreter in Switzerland; and he splits his time these days between Zurich and Moscow – both facts play in to the characters in Maidenhair. He has previously taught for a semester at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and is returning to the USA in spring 2013 to teach a seminar at Columbia and to give talks across the country relating to Maidenhair. The international nature of Shishkin himself plays in to the narrative structure of Maidenhair, as his characters inhabit positions across the globe and throughout history all at once; the émigré Russian writer of the past has given way to the globalized Russian writer of the 21st century, wherein borders are insignificant, the author is at once entirely Russian and at the same time entirely a global citizen.

At its core, Maidenhair is a novel of ideas that reads like a 21st-century Tolstoy, concerned with the big questions of life, death, love, and everything in between:

…here, in the trenches, people never talk out loud about the main thing. People smoke, drink, eat, and talk about trivial things, boots, for instance… (251)

Maidenhair is a novel that talks about the main things constantly: faith and spirituality; the importance of enjoying fleeting moments of beauty in the face of death; throughout, the quest for love, affection, and human ethics touches on every character, and make themselves apparent in philosophical dialogue, mythological references, and spiritual ruminations:

Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air. (150)

Maidenhair is at the same time, like the great works of Russian literature, above politics and timeless. Its narrative grace and the power of its ideas would feel every bit at home in literary salons alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov 1902, though it was written a full century later.

To discuss the plot of Maidenhair feels vulgar. It is hard to describe and seemingly banal. But as Zakhar Prilepin (another incredible contemporary Russian author who is awaiting his first published translation in America) discussed at a recent Read Russia event at Book Expo America, the plots of the greatest works of Russian literature are all exceedingly banal: young man kills a pawnbroker and an investigation follows; a young woman cheats on her husband with a young officer. What makes these stories original is not their plot but the presentation of the author’s ideas and their critiques of social mores that exist at once across the globe. So it is with Maidenhair. The plot is, in fact, rather banal; four narratives are interwoven throughout the novel: stories told by Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland to a Russian interpreter working for the Swiss government; the interpreter’s trips to Italy and his subsequent estrangement from his wife and son; letters written by the interpreter to his son, addressing him as an emperor of a far-off made-up land, all starting out with, “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and incorporating elements of historical and mythological texts the interpreter is reading on his breaks from work; and diary entries written by an Isabella on whom the interpreter was supposed to write a biography, who the not-so-average Western reader might not know is the famous Russian singer of the first half of the 20th-century, Isabella Yurieva*.

The interpreter is the only character that ties the four narratives together. The reader lives inside the nameless interpreter’s head, with the narratives combining throughout as a mixture of things that he is reading at the time (a lot of mythology and classical history), things he is working on (including the diary entries and the extensive Q&A sections with asylum-seekers), and things he is doing (trips to Italy, writing letters to his son). The style is confusing to discuss, but easy to read, because Shishkin repeats the themes of humanity’s interconnectedness throughout history and fate.

You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing. We’re blind from birth. We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel… (268)

Rather than discuss the plot structure and the “action” in the book, so as not to give away any of the brilliance in the text, it must be said that Maidenhair is a novel not to be understood (to use Shishkin’s own quote), but to be felt at every turn of the page, a novel to be processed as the narrative progresses, though the further you read, the less time matters, and you find yourself living inside a narrative world where everything is connected, and everything is happening all at once:

Before I just couldn’t understand how all this could be happening to me simultaneously, but I am now, loupe in hand, and at the same time I’m there, holding him close and feeling that I’m about to pass out, dying, I can’t catch my breath. But now I understand that it’s all so simple. Everything is always happening simultaneously. Here you are writing this line now, while I’m reading it. Here you are putting a period at the end of this sentence, while I reach it at the very same time. It’s not a matter of hands on the clock! They can be moved forward and back. It’s a matter of time zones. Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks. (497)

Shishkin has declared in Russian-language interviews that Maidenhair is a novel about everything, and in more recent novels he attempts to solve humanity’s crisis of life and death. Maidenhair is no different.

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty! (328)

Everything in the book makes sense together, even when reading and the narrative shifts from the singer’s diary in the 1920s to the interpreter’s mystical Q&A session with a refugee to Rome and to letters, everything is connected to the greater whole of what Shishkin is attempting to create, an entire universe of beauty, of yearning for love, of life in the face of death, of the history in everything, all tied in to the much greater questions of God’s role in everything:

The divine idea of the river is the river itself. (24)

The title of the book is emblematic of Shishkin’s themes of God and love at the same time: maidenhair is a type of fern that grows wild in Rome, the Eternal City that plays such a central role in the novel. Yet in Russia, maidenhair is a house plant that cannot grow without human care and affection:

For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after. (500)

Even the epigraph to Maidenhair is so significant to the work that it deserves to be quoted, for it contains the essence of what Shishkin is up to:

And your ashes will be called, and will be told:

“Return that which does not belong to you;

reveal what you have kept to this time.”

For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.

–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII

The theme of the word is one of the big themes that recur throughout Maidenhair in each narrative, with the importance of the recorded dialogue in the interpreter’s mission or in the diary entries of Isabella. The themes are complex and deep, but the sentiments expressed in them, the emotion of the characters that come through in the text, are all human and completely relatable. The most important themes that are discussed throughout the work include God (faith and spirituality), fate (and the individual), time (and time/space), war (across time and history), history (or the power of memory), diaspora (especially interesting as Shishkin spends much of his time outside of Russia, yet remains a quintessentially Russian writer), intertextuality (as a narrative and rhetorical style, and for the novel’s use of text-in-text-in-text), Russia’s role in the world (and their view of themselves in the world), the role of art in human society (the power of beauty to transcend the mundane day-to-day), migration/immigration (and the connection to paradise myths), mythology (of all stripes), Rome (after all, it is the Eternal City, so emblematic of humanity’s Eternal Problems) . . . The list could go on forever, the themes are huge, the book is a page-turner, not in the sense of plot-twists, but in the sense that every page contains a new revelation.

May I make one recommendation to you, the future reader of this brilliant novel? If so, please be an active reader while you read this book: keep a pen in hand, Post-It notes at the ready, or your e-book highlighting function at the ready, because every single page in this book contains ideas encapsulated in perfect quotes that you will want to revisit, along with the entirety of the novel, time and time again.

Maidenhair is the first Russian book of the 21st-century to appear in English translation that can be truly counted as an instant classic in the broad field of world literature, capable of being taught in university classrooms and discussed in book clubs for centuries to come. Every individual, every emotion, every idea that humanity has ever generated and will forever generate is encapsulated in the 500 pages of Maidenhair. With its perfect combination of style and substance, Maidenhair might just be the book you’ve been waiting your entire life to read.

*Editor’s note: The original review post listed Isabella Yurieva’s name incorrectly as Isabella St. George.

27 July 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Will Evans joins us to talk about contemporary Russian literature (READ THIS BOOK) and the Read Russia initiative at this year’s BEA. (Sidenote: click on that link just to see the section at the bottom left corner where you can share the page via “Socialist Media.” Seriously.) We talk about Zakhar Prilepin, Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Danilov (who looks a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly, see below), and Oleg Kashin.

Read More...

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and is available from New Directions.

Here’s part of his review:

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

Click here to read his entire review.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

The book is a much easier pill to swallow for the reader than the film; even casual readers can dive right in to the text and find themselves immersed in the world that Krasznahorkai creates, all thanks to George Szirtes’ superb translation (which supposedly took eight years to finish, one of the reasons for the twenty-seven year delay!!). Each chapter consists of one long unbroken paragraph, which gives a sense of breathless anxiety that propels itself along with a darkly funny narrative touch throughout, and makes the reading of the work seem much less frightening than a casual reader might think when they read the words “one-paragraph chapters.”

That’s not to say that the text is easy to digest, because if you truly think about what you’re reading, you are bound to feel some sense of disconsolate melancholy, which seems to be precisely the state of being that Krasznahorkai is the master of describing:

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity . . . and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

The plot is a classic “return” story: the remaining dozen inhabitants on a failed collective farm (or estate, as it is called in the text) in late-era Communist Hungary exist in a hopeless void of inaction after a mysterious character named Irimiás had come into their lives several years before with the promise of redemption and then subsequently disappeared and is presumed dead; but his return to the collective farm, along with his sidekick Petrina, is the narrative backbone of the novel. The first six chapters exist as six spokes along the same time/space axis: six different narrative points of view prepare the reader for Irimiás’ return by following different characters as they make their way to the bar on the estate, culminating in the drunken dance at the center of the novel that gives the novel its name. The next six chapters recede in number from VI to I as the characters process Irimiás’ return and make plans for the future. Krasznahorkai has said that he likes the idea of the tango as a dance that involves moving forward only to move backwards again, and so he structured the novel, at least in terms of the chapters, along a tango course—forward motion, then backwards again as everything is resolved/dissolved.

The dance of the tango, forward and then backward again, like the feeble steps of the estate as they slog their way through the fields towards a vague Promised Land, demonstrates how far outside of our human understanding of time this novel works. All sense of time is gone in Satantango; the action could have taken place in the 1980s, or yesterday, or 100 years ago; time is an immaterial and forgotten element of existence. None of the clocks seem to work, or if they do, they’re set to the wrong time. And on a cosmological scale, a book about Hungary’s geological history morphs into a work of prophecy, wherein billions of years of natural history culminates in a here and now devoid of historical resonance—time is nothing here, the end is coming:

. . .the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense—confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived . . . he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering only possible hope.

Irimiás, whose return offers the residents’ only hope of salvation, is the most important character in the novel; he is given three chapters through which his motives, intentions, and character traits become known, yet he remains the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel and in recent literary history. What drives Irimiás is a question that Krasznahorkai does not answer. Is he savior or antichrist, or just a conman, or all of the above, or none of the above? He is alternately described as “Lord of Misrule” and “a great magician,” and he is prone to bouts of philosophizing, denouncement, and moralizing, though he is also upbraided by the Communist authorities who dispatch him on a mysterious mission after he is released from prison. The vagueness in Krasznahorkai’s portrait of Irimiás is deliberate, and corresponds to similar treatment of the novel’s main questions throughout.

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The core issues at the heart of Satantango are big-topic issues of existence and the lack of existence: the beginning and the end of humanness, humanity, history, politics, economics, progress, death, redemption, salvation loneliness, despair, the apocalypse. Krasznahorkai provides no answers to any of the questions he poses. The work could be read as a condemnation of the Soviet-Communist system of economic and social constructions; or it could be read as a biblical metaphor; it could be read as a satire of mankind’s susceptibility to fall victim to every conjurer, ruse, and Ponzi scheme; or it could be, and this is most likely, all of the above, none of the above, and a something else that exists just outside of our human understanding.

They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn’t understand what had happened to them in the last few hours. What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other ‘like filthy pigs when the swill is late’? What made it possible for people like them—people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom—to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over? What explanation could there be for them to ‘have eyes’ only for the ruinous, stinking, desolate aspect of their future home, and completely lose track of the promise that ‘what had fallen would rise again’! It was like waking from a nightmare.

Out of all the insanely influential world writers and works to whom Krasznahorkai is compared (Saramago, Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Bulgakov, etc.), Satantango most closely resembles Gogol’s Dead Souls, another novel (or poem, as Gogol called it, a tag that I would not hesitate to apply to Satantango as well, especially with the accomplished poet George Szirtes at the helm of the translation) with a conman at the center, traveling across a ravaged countryside alternating between scenes of the darkest hilarity and the banality of the everyday, all the while painting a timeless portrait of humanity rotten at the core without any hope for change.

And for what it’s worth, in an era of digital ownership, the hardcover first edition of Satantango that New Directions put out is simply gorgeous; the black traced-line cover is striking, and the inside front and back covers feature black matted paper with silvery white text of reviews of Krasznahorkai and Satantango. The book feels damn good to hold in your hands and read, and in sum, Satantango is exactly the type of book worth buying because the value of the physical product contributes to the invaluable content of the text itself. Read it, buy it, hunker down with the endtimes.

5 July 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Our pals over at Publishing Perspectives have an interesting couple of pieces up this morning on the fantastic Russian writer Master Chen (the penname of Dmitry Kosyrev): one is an interview with the author, and the other about a Kickstarter campaign started by Russian Life Magazine to fund the translation and publication of Master Chen’s Silk Road Trilogy: The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, The Pet Foal of the House of Maniakh, and The Pet Monkey of the House of Tang.

Master Chen was at a bunch of Read Russia events at BEA, and it was a pleasure to hear him speak about his work. There are a vast number of fascinating Russian writers who have yet to have any of their works translated into English, Master Chen among them, who blow my mind with the fantastic creativity of their ideas and the originality of their writing styles. If you think you know a lot about Russian literature because you’re fond of the classics, you would be pleasantly surprised at how much diversity there is in the Russian literary world today.

In the interview with Daniel Kalder on Publishing Perspectives, Master Chen discusses his style as a mixture of thriller and high literature, a unique Russian form of genre writing, as popularized by Boris Akunin:

Where do you fit on the genre spectrum?

Well, if you can imagine a cocktail of James Clavell and Robert Silverberg shaken with a bit of Salman Rushdie and sprinkled with Somerset Maugham, that’s about where I belong. Christie and Simenon have nothing to do with me, since I’m not sure I write detective novels as such. Sometimes I think that I write music, only problem is I never learned how to write it down, so I use letters.

His work features prominently Asian themes and stories, Master Chen’s area of expertise, like those that make up the Silk Road Trilogy:

Your story in the Akashic “Moscow Noir” anthology was set in contemporary Moscow, but hinted at the Soviet past. Usually however you set your stories in the East. Is there a reason why you avoid the Soviet Union and Russia?

Fear of competition, probably. I love being a monopolist. Nobody among Russian writers knows the things I know, so why should I dump my advantage, especially in the Asian Age that is already here?

There is one more thing which I felt when I was working on my latest novel The Wine Taster which, after all this time, is about Russia (but begins in Germany and ends in Spain). Even though it is a clear case of monopoly again, since no Russian writer knows about wine as much as I do, I still felt that I did not quite like writing about Russia, it’s kind of a constraining task for me, locking myself within Russian borders. Anyway, look at how many “real” Russian writers there are, still nagging at it: hopeless country, hopeless people, things are so bad…They were doing it in the 19th century, they’re still doing it. You don’t need me if you buy their depressive lamentations. I’d rather tell my readers: the world is dazzling, it offers you so much fun, stop banging you head against the same old wall, there are so many things to learn and to do. And by the way, if you know the world, then maybe you will start seeing your own country in a different way.

The idea of Kickstarter campaigns to fund translations is brilliant—anything to see more translations released in English is a good idea—and I think we will see many more crowd-funded projects from independent and small presses (and authors, of course, looking to self-publish) in the future, the same way many musicians and record labels are using Kickstarter to to fund music video shoots, recording sessions, and album releases. The upside for the creator is that you are in direct communication with your audience, something the publishing world could only stand to improve upon, and the upside for the audience is that they feel like they have a direct impact on the creation of a product they want to see; it’s a novel take on the market economy, and I hope to see more worthwhile projects funded any way possible.

Support the project to translate Master Chen into English, head over to the Silk Road Trilogy’s Kickstarter page and donate what you can, and think about any other foreign authors deserving of translation campaigns on Kickstarter, then let us know your thoughts!

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

At the Read Russia event at Book Expo America last week (was it really only last week!?), Overlook Press announced a new project, the Russian Library initiative, supported by Read Russia and the Russian government that is going to result in the publication of 125 works over the next ten years that span all a thousand years of Russian literary history to create an official, singularly-released, uniform edition of Russian literature, from the great early Russian epics to, hypothetically, the present day.

As a Slavophil with a penchant for history who now works in publishing, a bunch of people hit me up about Overlook’s project, asking what I thought about it. And I’ve been marinating my sentiments for over a week, trying to weight both the positive and the negative, and then Chad asked me to write about it, so I guess I’ll have to give it my all. I love this project, I love Overlook and Ardis and anyone who publishes anything from Russia, and I love all of the works that will be included in this series, though not all 125 titles seem to have been compiled yet. And yet I have some serious problems with everything. According to Overlook’s press release:

“Selected titles will have been nominated and commissioned by an Advisory Board of distinguished scholars, translators, and academics. The series will feature not only the obvious great masterpieces of Russian literature by Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, but other major works that continue to remain unknown outside Russia, for example, early texts from the Russian literary canon such as the early works as The Primary Chronicle (1113), The Lay of Igor (1185), and The Novgorod Chronicle (ca. 1200). These will be followed by nine centuries of Russia’s rich literary tradition to the present day. THE RUSSIAN LIBRARY editions will be designed and produced to an elegant standard format, each volume introduced and critically annotated by appropriate scholars.”

This is a massive achievement, worthy of praise. But let’s talk about the reality of the situation here. The Russian government is behind this, via the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, and they are presumably bankrolling the entire project (because no one in the right minds actually expects that even the most dedicated Game of Thrones fan is actually going to go out and pick up The Lay of Igor just because Overlook is bravely publishing digital and attractive print editions of the epic). This “Russian Library” initiative is meant to invoke the great national library collections of the world, like The Library of America. But any time a government gets involved in the publication of anything, there’s reason to be wary, and innumerable questions arise: what are their intentions, what is their endgoal, and why will certain works be selected but not others?

My biggest problem with the “Russian Library” project is a problem that infects the entire publishing industry and which, of course, inspired the title of this blog (and the reason why I’m here). Considering an estimated 3% of everything published in America every year is a translation (shout out to the Three Percent idea!), but only an estimated 0.3% of the total are original, new translations, why would we continue to pour so many dollars and resources behind projects to republish and republish the Dostoevskies and Tolstoys of the world, authors who have had fantastic translations done numerous times since their original Constance Garnett translations over a century ago, and who are already republished and retranslated far too often every year?! To give this project some credit, this might be the first time some of the epics have been released to the public in their full, unedited form (I’m not really sure if these will be edited, nor am I sure if they’ve ever been released in their full form in the States, I read them in Serge Zenkovsky’s awesome Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales), and it remains to be seen how many of the 125 books will not just be reprints (I doubt any of these works will be retranslations, though Russian translators in the States could sure use the work) – I hope it’s more than one.

So who is the target market for this ambitious project? My guess is American politicians, because I don’t believe scholars of Russian history constitute a large enough of a share of the market for books these days. I think, quite plainly, that the Russian government wants to boost its image abroad. And what is the one thing that everyone in the world unequivocally likes about Russia? Hint: the answer is not vodka; the answer is literature. But if the Russian government really wanted to support its image and Russian literature abroad at the same time, they shouldn’t have to reissue Crime & Punishment for the umpteenth time, they’d support the writers of today who live and breathe Russian literature or the authors who were repressed and/or swept into the dustbin of history (only to be rescued by fine folks like NYRB, whose publications of Platonov, Grossman, and Krzhizhanovsky are worthy of the highest praise) who could be held up as bright and shining examples of how Russian literary culture perseveres, despite political tugs-of-war and name-calling.

The Russian government does not, however, typically support contemporary Russian literature. They do not support the translations of contemporary Russian literature abroad, and it seems like the Russian government would much rather forget that Russian literature is alive and well, with the innumerable Russian authors who are still waiting for their first translated publications in the States, prominent Russian names like Prilepin, Bykov, Shishkin (whose first English translation is finally coming out this fall through Open Letter, or even authors who have had only a limited number of their works ever published in English, like Ulitskaya and Slavnikova (who both should be included in this set, considering her work with Overlook), Petrushevskaya, Sorokin, or Pelevin.

The Russian government would be better served by supporting financially the publication of all kinds of Russian literary endeavors abroad through international presses like Overlook, NYRB, Open Letter and others, and especially those precious few organizations that currently support Russian translations abroad: the Prokhorov Fund’s ‘Transcript’ project (headed up by the amazing Irina Prokhorova, the literary sister of Brooklyn Nets-owning oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov) and the new Center for Translation in Moscow. So Russian government, good for you for finally seeing the value in your long cultural history for export abroad, but it’s time to act on that in the here and now and stop publishing so many reprints of 19th-century Russian literature and work on righting the wrongs of your politically-repressive history of suppressing great literature and get all of the great works that have never been translated in the past thousand years printed and distributed in America ASAP. Then that will be something I could stand up and applaud whole-heartedly.

1 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Courtesy of old college friend Naomi Firestone of the awesome Jewish Book Council, here’s an insane blog post that seems too insane/amazing to be true from a fellow North Carolinian on the blog Ocracoke Island Journal:

Some weeks ago I decided that I wanted to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lou Ann loaned me her copy. At more than 1100 pages, reading it in bed required as much strength as balancing a box of bricks in my hands. In my senior years I have developed arthritis in my thumbs, which made the effort not only difficult, but painful.

I had read about half of the novel when I was given the gift of a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes and Noble. Although I am committed to supporting my neighborhood independent book store (Books to be Red), and enjoying honest-to-goodness books, the .99 Nook edition was so lightweight that it has made reading War and Peace a genuine pleasure. For those of you who have not tackled this tome as yet, it is a page-turner.

As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….” Thinking this was simply a glitch in the software, I ignored the intrusive word and continued reading. Some pages later I encountered the rogue word again. With my third encounter I decided to retrieve my hard cover book and find the original (well, the translated) text.

For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern….”

Someone at Barnes and Noble (a twenty year old employee? or maybe the CEO?) had substituted every incidence of “kindled” with “Nookd!”

If this story of intrepid word replacement is true, it’s another remarkable example of the. It’s a form of censorship, plain and simple, that takes advantage of EVERYONE . . . it takes advantage of the meaning of the word in a text, the role of the translator, the role of the publisher, the role of the reader, and the role of Barnes & Noble to keep their dirty money-lovin’ fingers out of the e-readers they are providing to the reading public. Want to compete with Amazon? Go for it, I’m all about it. But this isn’t the way to do it, and if Barnes & Noble keeps it up, they will most certainly hear of it with mass market rejection far beyond what they and their peer big-box retailing institutions have suffered. Dammit, I hate any example of anybody making Jeff Bezos look better by comparison.

Your thoughts?

31 May 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Friend of Three Percent, Lisa Hayden Espenschade, who runs the incredible Russian literature blog Lizok’s Bookshelf posted the shortlist for the über-prestigious Big Book (Bol’shaya Kniga) Prize. Big Book is one of the “big three” Russian literary prizes, along with the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller (or NatsBest).

Our old Open Letter pal Mikhail Shishkin won the Big Book last year for his Letter-Book (Pis’movnik), with Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (Metel’) coming in second and Dmitry Bykov’s Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Ostromov, ili Uchenik charodeya) coming in third. The Big Book Prize fund distributes 6.1 million rubles (~$183k) annually among the first, second, and third prize winners, and is sponsored by a number of Russian businesses and banks along with the Russian Ministries of Culture and Print, Media and Mass Broadcasting.

There will be a Big Book Prize presentation event at Book Expo American next Thursday at 10am featuring past winners Mikhail Shishkin, Dmitry Bykov, Vladimir Makanin, Pavel Basinsky, and, supposedly, the Big Book finalists:The way the wording on Read Russia’s website describes the event (“Big Book Prize: Presentation of the Big Book Prize, Russia’s most prestigious literary award, plus a “Meet and Greet” with prize winners.”), I still can’t tell if they are really planning on announcing the 2012 Big Book winner at BEA, which would be awesome, or if they were just trying to present to an American audience the idea of the Big Book Award and will make the announcement for the prize winner in November, as stated in Russian media reports.

The shortlist features a number of readers whom neither I nor Lisa have read, both of us are only familiar with Prilepin’s Black Monkey, so we have a lot to catch up on before the prizewinner is (allegedly) announced in November! Without any further ado, here is the shortlist, in English no less (!), with transliteration and translation provided by Lisa herself.

  • Maria Galina: Медведки (Mole-Crickets)
  • Daniil Granin: Мой лейтенант… (My Lieutenant . . .)
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Мэбэт. История человека тайги (Mebet. The Story of a Person from the Taiga)
  • Vladimir Gubailovsky: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Aleksandr Kabakov, Evgenii Popov: Аксёнов (Aksyonov)
  • Vladimir Makanin: Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Чёрная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)
  • Andrei Rubanov: Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)
  • Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories)
  • Lena Eltang: Другие барабаны (Other Drums)

A huge thanks to Lisa for her tireless work in alerting English readers to what’s going on in the world of Russian literature. Check out her posts for reviews and insider tips on what’s going on in the world of Russian literature, and I hope to meet her at BEA next week!

31 May 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Next week, Book Expo America, “North America’s premier meeting of book trade professionals,” will take over the Javits Center in NYC. This year’s guest of honor at BEA is none other than RUSSIA, your humble author’s area of beloved expertise, and Russia will be the focus of a TON of super-cool events/panels/readings/parties as well as the “2012 Global Markets Forum” (aka: the business of books in and out of Russia, including my favorite Russian indie publisher, Ad Marginem Press!) all between June 2-7 as part of BEA’s READ RUSSIA 2012 initiative.

According to the fine folks at READ RUSSIA: “Russia’s 4,000-square-foot BEA exhibition space at the Javits Center will host presentations for industry professionals on the Russian book market, Russian literature in translation, and new works by Russian writers, publishers, historians, and journalists.”

Open Letter’s own Mikhail Shishkin, whose incredible English-language debut, Maidenhair, comes out October 13, will be one of the many contemporary Russian writers present at BEA. He’s part of a panel at 4:30 on Wednesday with Andrei Gelasimov, and will sit in on the presentation of the “Big Book” (Bol’shaya Kniga) Award Thursday at 10am.

Shishkin will also be doing a discussion with translator-extraordinaire Marian Schwartz and Open Letter publishing wizard Chad Post, hosted by The Bridge Series at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo on Thursday night at 7pm. So come and hang out with the Open Letter family at any of these awesome events and meet Shishkin, who is, from all accounts, a hilarious and awesome dude who speaks highly fluent English, so you don’t have to suffer through one of those awkward translator-trying-to-make-jokes-work moments. The good times will fly free.

Also, check out this bad boy under the Russian “Writers at BEA: Featured Writers” section:

WRITERS AT BEA

Featured Writers

Look familiar? Oh yeah, that’s not Mikhail Shishikin, nor is it Zakhar Prilepin, Dmitry Bykov, or any of the contemporary writers who will actually be at BEA, it’s our old friend Aleksandr Pushkin, who of course died 200 years ago, and who will only be present at BEA in the form of a tattooed portrait on my arm, but whose birthday we will allllll be celebrating on Wednesday in “true Russian fashion” (you can guess what that means)!

But READ RUSSIA is a killer endeavor, filling the streets of NYC with some of the greatest living Russian writers (especially Shishkin and the mustachio’d Bykov and the intensity-in-ten-cities Prilepin, but I really really wish Mikhail Elizarov were there!), and giving the publishing world a much-needed glimpse into the Russia beyond the classics and outside of the overtly political commentary in Western media and literature about the country.

Check out a full list of READ RUSSIA events all over NYC here or a list of all Russian-related events at BEA here.

31 May 12 | Will Evans | Comments

I’ve been reading the Three Percent blog for over a year now, and now here I am, sitting in Chad’s office, writing a blog post for Three Percent to introduce myself to the Three Percent Army – the cult of translated literature, the gang of literary ruffians who make up the core audience of Three Percent, Open Letter, and all literary endeavors worldwide. Today is my third day as an Open Letter summer intern (or, as my BEA badge would have me called, an “assistant editor”!), and I’ll be posting some items on the Three Percent blog all summer, so this is an introduction into the mouth of madness that you shall all enter at various points throughout the summer.

I graduated from Duke University a few weeks ago with a MA in Russian Culture – literature, media, politics, history, you name it, I study and love it – and became aware of Three Percent (and Open Letter, and independent, nonprofit, and translation-friendly presses) and the universe of how translated literature functions in the world around the time I started my MA program in fall 2010. I spent three months last summer in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where I took some classes and translated the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin’s first novel, Fardwor, Ruissa! A Fantastical Tale from Putin’s Russia (Roissya Vperde: Fantasticheskaya Povest’). In the process of translating, I was drawn into the world of translators and publishers who make the magic happen – getting translated books into the hands of readers like myself. That’s when I came across Three Percent, and became a regular reader, which led me to buy the Three Percent e-book, in which I took note of how Chad declared a need for more publishers of translated literature and more recognition given to the translators and the publishers.

Around the same time, my wife accepted a summer association position at a law firm in Dallas, and I began brainstorming things to do in Dallas for the rest of my life with a Russian degree, and BOOM, the idea was born that I would start a publishing company in Dallas (which is, nicely enough, home to the American Literary Translators Association!). All I needed was some experience in the business, and after a quick email to Chad asking for some professional advice and expertise, I’m in Rochester, reading Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair in preparation for all of his BEA appearances (plus his event w/ Marian Schwartz & Chad at McNally Jackson!) and copy-editing the new Quim Monzó . . . learning the ropes, and enjoying the hell out of it.

I’m new to this business, but I love it. I will be at BEA next week, and would love to meet with anybody and everybody. Hopefully I can compare literary tattoos with Tom Roberge and mustaches with Dmitry Bykov and brainstorm ideas about my future publishing company with those-in-the-know. See y’all in NYC at BEA.

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