22 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I very much fell off pace with the Month of a Thousand Forests series, but by covering two authors a day, we’ll have highlighted everyone by the 30th.

The first author for today is Edgardo Cozarinsky, who was first recommended to me by Horacio Castellanos Moya when he came to Rochester. FSG and Vintage did a couple Cozarinsky books a while back, but someone needs to snap up this novel.

Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.

Edgardo Cozarinsky (Argentina, 1939)

I looked through my most recent work, and although I am not the best judge of what I write (I don’t think anyone is) I chose “December 2008,” the fifth section of Lejos de dónde. Excerpted in this way it doesn’t have the impact that it acquires as the conclusion of the novel, but I think that it can be read almost like a short story and that the mystery of the bond that unites the characters, although unspoken, is vaguely perceptible and impregnates the situation with mystery. It contains a tone, a hidden pathos, a crushing sense of the disaster of History and of individual lives, recurrent motifs in my fiction.

When you get to a certain age, inevitably you have more dead friends than living ones. My list is long yet that doesn’t make me sad. My dead live with me and share my new feelings and my work. First of all, I want to mention Alberto Tabbia, who was my best friend and who left me his exquisite collection of books in English. He was an example of the “writer who doesn’t write” and I planned, and I still plan, to edit his notebooks. In them I found the couplet that I used as an epigraph for my novel El rufián moldavo: “To speak with the living I need / words that the dead taught me.” Also José Bianco, Silvina Ocampo, Héctor Murena, among the writers. And thinking about the crossroads that Paris was for me: Raúl Ruiz and Severo Sarduy among those of my own language, and the great Danilo Kiš among those from Eastern Europe. With my parents, the paying of debts never ends, but I am nourished by what I write.

*

from Lejos de Donde

(Far from Somewhere)

[A Novel]


He refilled the glasses, downing his again in a single swallow.

They were silent for a moment that seemed to stretch out, not because they were searching for words, but as if the evocation of the past, fleeting as it was, had awoken ghosts that demanded respect, imposed silence, maybe the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the East who had camped in Dresden in 1945, running from the Soviet advance, only to die, burnt to ashes by twenty-four hours of British-American bombing that served no strategic purpose, corpses carbonized among the ruins, destined for putrefaction and stench, remains that some loved-one, facing the impossibility of burial, placed inside a suitcase and carried with them on their flight to the south, in search of some corner untouched by bombs, where they could find a place in the ground; but the graves had not been consecrated, and now the specters had arisen amid the concrete and glass architecture of the twenty-first century, evading the ubiquitous neon of advertising, and had begun to slip through the shadows toward the ancient center of the city, perhaps to see how fidelity to the past, or the irrational force of patriotism, had rebuilt palaces, theaters, and churches according to their original design, rescuing from among the ruins a few stones that might have come from the Frauenkirche in order to place them among the new ones, until the baroque cathedral was returned to the city meticulously reproduced: in the same way the ancient Egyptians, when building a new temple, inserted rubble from their ruined temples into the foundations, to ensure the continuity of the divine presence, in the same way that a leftover crumb of yesterday’s bread is added to the starter for today’s loaf.

Because the dead always come back, and ghosts of victims are the most tenacious.

In that moment of silence, those ghosts were more real than the Polish woman—sixty-five-years old, poorly dyed hair, broken fingernails—and the tired Argentine at the end of a long journey: foreigners, displaced people, survivors of forgotten wars. When they spoke again, it was as if that silence had been a long night of shared secrets. They had been moved by something imperceptible they would not know how to name anyway—an invisible presence,
a gust of wind, a breath. Now they struck up a conversation that minutes before they would not have imagined.

(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

12 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first author in today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entry is Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, who has a couple books available already in English, both translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa.

What’s most interesting about his work—at least to me—is his obsession with words, grammar, precise writing. Valerie explains this a bit in his bio, then touches on it in the interview. He seems like the sort of author that a lot of professors could use in an advanced Spanish class . . .

And remember, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.

Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio (Spain, 1927)

Of course, after his incursion into the world of fiction writing, [Ferlosio] rejected “the grotesque imposture of the literati,” and dedicated the years that followed to the study of grammar. Seized by this passion, Sánchez Ferlosio would spend those years in a “graphomaniacal furor” in absolute silence in terms of publishing. As he once said, “I don’t write with the immediate need to publish. I always say that I know how to knit, but I don’t know how to make a sweater.”

For reasons of mental health (grammar is tremendously obsessive), he returned to the publishing world (that doesn’t publish) in 1974 with Las semanas del jardín (a title inspired by the novel that Cervantes never managed to write). The years that followed, he dedicated to his work as an essayist and in 1986 he returned to writing fiction with El testimonio de Yarfoz.

The largest part of his most recent work has centered around essays with titles like Vendrán más años malos y nos harán más ciegos, a collection of reflections and aphorisms that won him Premio Nacional de Ensayo and Premio Ciudad de Barcelona. Like a dyed-in-the-wool bellicose intellectual, he has freely proclaimed a total lack of influence from contemporary literature, similarly his complete repudiation of television, sports, and publicity. His darts have struck such figures as Ortega y Gasset, Julián Marías, Karl Popper, and García Lorca.

His agent, Carmen Balcells, once said of him that he has written two or three hundred times as many pages as he has published. Though the number is, perhaps, exaggerated, there is no doubt that Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio is an author as irrepressible as he is indispensable. With your permission . . .

*

Critics have said that you are “the twentieth century author with the greatest lexical richness and that you use the language with the greatest precision and meticulousness. That the breadth of your narrative register does not cease to amaze, from fantasy to the objectivity of El Jarama.” All told, this precision has an impressionistic poetic and a symbolic strength. The fantastical world of prince Nébride comes to seem even more real than reality itself. In the beginning was the word. Could Yarfoz and prince Nébride be a sort of fantastical Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Prince Nébride seems to be a character of uncertain destiny.

The greatest lexical richness is false because what I have are prohibitions—self-prohibitions—and not a very broad vocabulary. For example, I can’t say “efectuar.” I never use the verb efectuar or the verb realizar. I always say “hacer” and I was greatly annoyed when I discovered that the verb efectuar was already in use in the sixteenth century. I am precise and meticulous in terms of description, but it’s not richness of vocabulary. Sometimes I have a predilection for antiquated words—some—very few, but that’s another story.

I don’t now how to apply personality and fate to these characters, but they aren’t characters of personality. They are characters of fate because they are part of a plot; here, for example, they are going into exile. They have personalities like everyone, but the manifestation of their personalities is not part of the plot. They have almost no personality, but they do have fate; things happen to them, they do things. So the previous comparison of Yarfoz and prince Nébride, because they are on horseback, is absolutely ridiculous, in the first place because Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are definitely characters of personality and all of Quixote is the manifestation of their personalities. Besides, mounts—the donkey and the horse—are subject to sumptuary norms of the time in which Quixote was written, perhaps they were in decline, but up until then the mount you rode was symbolic of your social status. It was prohibited for a peasant like Sancho Panza to ride a horse. Maybe already in the seventeenth century some peasants did because there were so many bandits who rode horses around the end of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth, but before then horses were status symbols, and the “nobleman” Alonso Quijano the Good had to ride a horse, as the word caballero (horseman) indicates. This is emphasized by, although I do not know until when, the fact that the mule was the mount of the clergy. The clerics rode mules, the caballeros rode horses, and peasants rode donkeys.

*

from El testimonio de Yarfoz

(The Testimony of Yarfoz)

[A Novel]

The Third Day of Nébride’s Journey into Exile

Apart from the escorts provided by the king, our expedition was made up of ten horses: Nébride rode one, his wife Táiz another, on another rode Sorfos, and on a horse he had just been given by Mirigalla, rode Sebsidio; Fosco, the carpenter, and Anarino, his wife, rode their own horses, each carrying one of their children; on another rode Chano, Táiz’s lady-in-waiting, on another Quiarces, the Atánida of Ebna, who had come along as the head of the household; on another was Nerigreo, the agronomist, and, finally, on the last horse, rode Vandren and myself; then came eight cargo mules and a mule driver, lent us by Mirigalla, who would return with the mule train. Only Fosco’s children and Vandren were without their own mount, and the horse the king had gifted Sebsidio was far and away the best.

XXIX. The “Path of the Iscobascos” is described in the Grágidos as a passageway carved out of living rock, but we would never have been able to imagine the monumental construction we would encounter that morning. We had only traveled a distance of eight hundred horses—not along the path leading to the cliffs, but on a path running perpendicular to that one, heading west, through the lush coolness of cedars and yews—when turning to the south we saw the path start gradually to drop underground, as if burrowing into the rock. We descended to a point where the walls of rock flanking the path closed in a vault over our heads, forming an underground tunnel. My sense of direction led me to believe that the mouth of the tunnel was perpendicular to the line of cliffs such that, if it continued in a straight line, inevitably there would be a light at the other end. But this was not the case; instead it continued to drop, maintaining the same angle, through the heart of the living rock, banking slowly to the right. It got so dark that our guide lit a torch, by which light I saw the great craftsmanship of the stone carvers, no hollows or protuberances, and I could see a channel, about a foot wide and a foot deep along the right hand wall, coursing with clear, fast-moving water. Soon, however, a light appeared and the tunnel opened into a room with a circumference of at least two-hundred-and-fifty horses, positioned parallel to the vertical face of the precipice that we had encountered days before. The tunnel was the entryway to a ramp cut into the stone wall of the Meseged, forming a sort of lateral groove, so that not only the floor was stone, but the right-hand wall and the ceiling were stone as well; on the left, it was open to the air, but a thick stone parapet came up to a safe height. It was a kind of overlook cut into the wall but always descending, almost rectilinear, with only a few protrusions and recessions in the hard stone wall. The channel of water still coursed rapidly to our right. Soon we saw that at a distance of approximately one-hundred-and-fifty horses the ramp seemed to dead-end against a wall, on a landing that was either wider than the path, or cut deeper into the rock; but when we came up to the wall, we saw that at the landing another tunnel opened into the rock; this second tunnel also curved, but not as sharply as the first one, delving into the rock, and always descending, inscribing first three quarters of a helicoid to a point where, turning back on itself, it rotated a final quarter of a circle, arriving parallel to the cliff face once again, giving way to another ramp, identical to the first, but the inverse of it because now the stone was on our left and the emptiness on our right. Seeing this, we understood, in essential terms, what the so-called “Path of Iscobascos” was: if we had been able to look down at it from the plain, we would have seen a succession of zigzagging ramps cut into the stone, mysteriously connected at the ends by tunnels that penetrated the heart of the rock, always descending, inverting and dropping to the next ramp, emerging parallel to the cliff face thanks to the doubling back or inverse curvature of the last quarter of a circle. In the end, the totality was not structurally different from a great spiral staircase, but one that had been pressed flat, except at its extremes, against a single plane. The guide told us that the landings at the ends of the ramps, along with the square recesses that appeared here and there, greater in number all the time approaching the center, were pullouts for carts that crossed paths while descending and ascending, for resting mules, fixing malfunctions, or any other eventuality. Before long we saw water tanks, troughs, and even small gardens, jutting out over the luminous abyss. In places where the rock seemed unstable, the parapet extended in columns to the bridge that formed the ceiling, all of it carved out of living rock, not a single fabricated feature. Our admiration for that prodigious construction increased at each new ramp: I even thought I saw the melancholy dissipate in Nébride’s eyes, replaced by a glow of joy for the past and excitement for great public works.

(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

8 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Juan Marsé, who has a few book available in English translation: Golden Girl, Lizard Tails, and Shanghai Nights.

In this excerpt he talks a bit about this background and his time in Paris, which led to Últimas tardes con Teresa.

__All this month, if you order_ A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.

Juan Marsé (Spain, 1933)

Like the character of the Pijoaparte, you came from outside the powerful and influential bourgeoisie and literary groups and you made it on your own. Was that hard?

It was sudden and almost improvised in the sense that, though I liked reading a lot, I never studied at a university and barely even in secondary school. When I was thirteen years old my mother told me that I had to drop out of school and start working. This wasn’t a problem and didn’t upset me at all—I wanted to get out of that school. They made us recite the rosary every day; it was a terrifying thing. It was an awful, old-fashioned school, and I was excited to do something that would get me out of there. So, when I decided to submit my first draft to an editor, I knew no one in the literary world, I had no idea what a literary life could be like. And then I met this group of people who were very refined, but who, on the other hand, with respect to social and political ideas of the nation, were openly leftist. I realized right away that these people were “señoritos” from the country’s upper class—Goytisolo, Carlos Barral, Castellet—and for them, I was probably the first working-class person they knew. They advised me right away to get out of the country, and I’d been wanting to travel, so I published my first novel and I went to Paris. I lived with abandon. They thought while I was in Paris I would write, but I wrote absolutely nothing. I bought books—or sometimes stole them because I had no money at first—and went to the cinema to see movies that weren’t shown here, and listened to music and went to the theatre . . . in other words, I devoted myself to living. A love affair now and then . . . in the end—freedom. And I joined the Party and became close friends with Jorge Semprún, who taught us classes on international politics. And it was there I conceived of Últimas tardes con Teresa. I gave a few talks in Spanish to some young French students, they were upper class, very refined, and one of them was named Teresa. Nothing at all to do with the character, but that’s where the name came from. Then I quit my job at the Pasteur Institute with Jacques Monod, a famous researcher who won the Nobel Prize. My first novel was translated and published by Gallimard, the famous publisher who translated Faulkner and Dos Passos, Maurice-Edgar Coindreau. I worked in film; I started translating screenplays from French into Spanish for co-productions in France and Spain. But Últimas tardes was already in my head and I needed to come back. And taking advantage of a film that was being shot here and in Paris, I came with the crew and I stayed.

To finish the story, when I got back to Barcelona everyone asked: “So, how was your experience in Paris?” I told Carlos Barral, “I didn’t bring anything.” That is to say, yes, I brought an idea that I’m going to start working on right away, but it doesn’t take place in Paris, it takes place here. More than anything I remember a conversation with old man Lara, who said to me in his Andalusian accent: “How is it possible that you came back from Paris without a novel? Those French women will do anything. Not one story about a French woman? Those things sell like pastries.” Everyone was a little frustrated with me about that. And I started to work on Últimas tardes con Teresa.

*

From Últimas tardes con Teresa

(Last Evenings with Teresa)

[A Novel]

The flash of some terrible reality leaping, as its way is,

out of the heart of spring. Because youth . . .

—Virginia Woolf

Years later, looking back on that passionate summer, both of them would recall not only the suggestive light that fell on every event, its variety of golden reflections and false promises, its illusions of a free future, but also the fact that, in the middle of their mutual attraction, even in the heat of their summer kisses, there were shadows where the cold of winter was already nesting, the fog that would eclipse the mirage.

—Are you honest with me, Manolo? Sometimes I’m scared . . .

—Scared of what?

—I don’t know. Is this real, what’s happening to us?

The internal erosion of the myth took place without weakening Teresa’s growing love for the boy from the south. His true character was revealed to her precisely (and it took only three nights) when she realized she hadn’t been seduced by an idea, but by a man. First came a feeling of disorientation, a need to reevaluate certain notions about the strange world in which we live, when she made some unexpected connections, the scandalous way illusion wrapped itself around reality.

On a Sunday afternoon of sun and sudden showers, it was the end of August, Teresa insisted they go into a popular dance club in Guinardó. They had taken refuge from the rain in a bar across the street from Salón Ritmo, where a crowd of boys and girls, who arrived running through the rain, were waiting to go in. Manolo mentioned that years ago that place had been his favorite dance club. “Why don’t we go in?” she said, her eyes lighting up. “You won’t like it, that place is full of degenerates,” Manolo said. But she insisted (“Rain and no car, what else can we do?”) and he had no choice but to indulge her whim. Right then the rain was coming down in torrents. Manolo took off his jacket and used it to protect the girl as they crossed the street. Teresa leaned against him and smiled. At the ticket window a fat, pink man was smoking Ideales and Teresa tried to bum one. “Don’t be rude,” joked Manolo. “Oh be quiet, hombre. This will be fun, you’ll see.” Boys: 25 pesatas, Girls: 15. “Discrimination,” said the happy university girl. One drink included in the cover. Performing: Orquesta Satélites Verdes, their singer Cabot Kim (Joaquín Cabot), Maymó Brothers (Afro-Cuban rhythms), Lucieta Kañá (young Catalan cuplé performer) and some other big names from that era. “This is going to be great,” said Teresa. From the beginning she showed an odd excitement. Exclusive, special appearance by Trio Moreneta Boys (the lovely sounds of sardana fused with modern rock). “Spectacular,” said Teresa as they went in, “I can’t wait.” The place was packed and loud, no room to move on the dance floor. Men dressed to the nines, with sardonic eyes and impertinent expressions roved around in tight packs, harassing girls, leaning over them, scrutinizing their necklines and whispering come-ons. Almost all of them were Andalusians. The fiery looks Teresa received were more than suggestive. Manolo’s constant presence at her side saved her from an advance that, if she were alone, would have moved beyond simple admiration. Fortunately, on that day she was dressed plain enough for church (white pleated skirt, blue blouse with a high neck, and a wide black belt), which, in that milieu, might have made her the subject of mockery if it hadn’t been for her long, blonde hair and lustrous, sun-flattered skin, two charms that betrayed her, that is of course if she wanted to pass unnoticed. There were stationary groups of girls in the galleries and in chairs lined up around the dance floor, whispering among themselves every now and then. At the far end, on a small stage were the Satélites Verdes dressed in sequin shirts, their singer (unusually melodic, according to popular opinion) with a thin, black mustache and a nasal, Gregorian voice. Previously, the place had belonged to an old cultural and recreational workers society (Home of the Weavers Guild), which, along with their Choir, their Library, and their Theater—now converted into Salón Ritmo—had disappeared along with the Republic. Outdated and solemn decoration: four walls with plaster crown molding embossed with bouquets of flowers, bunches of grapes, and coats of arms—a face within, an illustrious name below (Prat de la Riba, Pompeu Fabra, Clavé). Glorious Catalans, leaders of orfeó i caramelles, the long lost labor movement, whose severe profiles seemed to express scorn for the Sunday invasion of illiterate Andalusians. In the first floor gallery, through the rancid odor of the wooden box seats, wandered the ghost of a familiar, artisan spirit that reigned in the past and that today occupied one remaining refuge: the stockroom for beverages and artifacts. It had been a library and billiard room, now it housed the mutilated and still quivering remains of Catalan translations of Dostoevsky and Proust alongside Salgari, Dickens, the Patufet, and Maragall, and rusted trophies and old Home of the Weavers standards sleeping alongside the dream of oblivion.

(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on the post about Amanda Michalopoulou’s upcoming events, here’s a list of all three Reading the World Conversation Series events taking place this month.

Women in Translation
Thursday, April 10th, 6pm

Welles-Brown Room
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation and reading with Bulgarian authors Albena Stambolova (Everything Happens as It Does) and Virginia Zaharieva (Nine Rabbits), and Danish author Iben Mondrup (Justine, forthcoming from Open Letter in 2016) and translator Kerri Pierce to discuss their writing and careers—both in their home countries and abroad.

Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm

Gowen Room
Wilson Commons
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation and reading with Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou and translator Karen Emmerich as they read and discuss Amanda’s Why I Killed My Best Friend.

“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopoulou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiosamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’” –Gary Shteyngart

Latin American Literature Today
Tuesday, April 22nd, 6pm

Gowen Room
Wilson Commons
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

A conversation with two of the authors included in Granta Magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-language Novelists” issue—Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves) and Carlos Labbé (Navidad & Matanza, Loquela), and translator and University of Rochester alum Will Vanderhyden, on their latest words and current trends in Latin American Literature.

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J.T. Mahany on Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden, and out next month from Open Letter.

Carlos Labbé was one of Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has quickly become a Name to Know in the world literature sphere. Both Carlos and translator Will Vanderhyden, along with Andrés Numan, will be at the University of Rochester April 22nd for a Reading the World Conversation Series event. (If you’re in town then, definitely, definitely join us!)

Incidentally, Will (a.k.a. Willsconsin) and J.T. (who wrote the following review) were cohorts in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and not only brought to the table their skills as translators, but also brought amazing projects to the press (Open Letter will also be bringing out Labbé’s Locuela in a few years, in Will’s translation, and Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven in J.T.‘s translation next year).

Enough UROC and Open Letter promotion—all you really need to know is that if you’re a literary nerd boy or girl, Labbé’s work will be right up your alley. Here’s the beginning of J.T.‘s review:

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

Do you remember how many times we discussed that Wittgensteinian way of looking at things? And how many times we talked about idealism? That objects don’t exist, dear Sabado, only words, which build and break, build and break.

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on. Like in the scene where Alicia is on the beach and encounters the journalist; we’re given information, but it doesn’t immediately appear to be of much help or use:

In that moment she should’ve begun telling him about the Vivar family, about her childhood, about Boris Real, the longing, Bruno, her father’s chemistry laboratory, the woman, the sirens, the hadón, the bloodless body of James Dean that’d given her nightmares until she was thirteen; yet all three of them sat in silence.

The most “coherent” plot of the novel consists of the wealthy Vivar family, and the disappearance of their two children, Bruno and Alicia, from the beach between the small towns of Navidad and Matanza, in Chile’s sixth region. An investigative journalist, who had recently done a human interest story on the Vivar family, tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but the most he can conclude is that the Vivar siblings abandoned their abusive parents to travel the country, accompanied by their uncle Francisco Virditti, or perhaps the investment banker Boris Real, or perhaps the Congolese thereminist Patrice Dounn. The mysterious experimental drug called hadón—said to cause intense feelings of hatred—might also be involved, or maybe it’s just a myth.

What makes Navidad & Matanza great is its ambiguity, its ethereal quality. By the end you wonder if you’ve even read a novel at all, or a jumbled collection of confused notes, or a set of disconnected events dictated by the rolling of dice. This short work makes you question again and again the reliability of its narrators, right down to their overlapping and multifaceted identities. It’s packed with clues, and definitely warrants a second read-through, which will only serve to bring out more tidbits you might not have noticed the first time around, bringing the myriad ends a little closer together. And yet . . . Do the connections between people, places, and things really exist, or is it only in your head? The question of what really happened lingers in the air, begging to be played with, but promising no concrete answers.

“Literature is a lie. Embrace the wind.”

28 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Copies of Navidad & Matanza arrived in the office on Friday, so we’re finally able to give away 20 copies via GoodReads. All the information about the contest is below, but first, a bit about about the book itself, starting with the greatest blurb we’ve ever included on the front of one of our titles:

“Carlos Labbé’s [Navidad & Matanza] begins to fuck with your head from its very first word—moving through journalese, financial reporting, whodunit, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler, Nabokov to David Lynch.”—Toby Litt

Even putting aside the very compelling statement that this book is going to “fuck with your head from its very first word,” that’s quite a line-up of influences . . . All of which are completely accurate.

This isn’t an easy book to describe—there are a few related storylines, one involving scientists making a drug of hate, and another about their attempt to play a “novel-game” in which they take turns creating a story (a game that Labbé actually played and that we’ll post more about later), which all ties into the disappearance of two children . . . Here’s my best attempt at formally describing this novel:

It’s the summer of 1999 when the two children of wealthy video game executive Jose Francisco Vivar, Alicia and Bruno, go missing in the beach town of Matanza. Long after their disappearance, the people of Matanza and the adjacent town of Navidad consistently report sightings of Bruno—on the beach, in bars, gambling—while reports on Alicia, however, are next to none. And every clue keeps circling back to a man named Boris Real . . .

At least that’s how the story—or one of many stories, rather—goes. All of them are told by a journalist narrator, who recounts the mysterious case of the Vivar family from an underground laboratory where he and six other “subjects” have taken up a novel-game, writing and exchanging chapters over email, all while waiting for the fear-inducing drug hadón to take its effect, and their uncertain fates.

A literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman, Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is a work of metafiction that not only challenges our perceptions of facts and observations, and of identity and reality, but also of basic human trust.

For the Spanish literature obsessed out there, you may recognize Carlos Labbé’s name from Granta’s special “Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue from a couple years back. Not only was Labbé included, but an excerpt from this book was in there. (But in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.)

If you missed that issue, you can read an excerpt from the book on our site, where you can also just pre-order the book if you don’t want to fool around with this GoodReads contest stuff.

But if you are up for trying to win a free copy, here’s how you enter:


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé

Navidad & Matanza

by Carlos Labbé

Giveaway ends February 10, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Contest closes on February 10th, so enter today!

25 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Next year, Open Letter Books will published Chilean author Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which I guarantee will immediately become a favorite of Bolaño and Zambra and Chejfec and Saer fans everywhere. I think this book is going to blow everyone away (specifically looking at you, Scott Esposito) and very well could win that year’s Best Translated Book Award.

I’ll be plugging this more and more over the next few months, but in the meantime, Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), who is a translator in the University of Rochester’s translation program, just published one of Labbé’s (very) short stories at Alchemy. Here’s the opening:

Emerge, hate first myself and then the mechanical sound of the alarm clock. Be grateful, bury my face in the pillow, put first one foot and then another on the cold floor. Turn on the water heater, run naked to the shower, piss, touch my nipples, sing gringo songs from the radio that have the word God in them, turn off the hot water first so as to freeze, for an instant, my hairy hide. Plug in the electric razor, splash my face with cologne, dry each of my toes and suck my palm because it tastes like soap. Open a window, feel the nakedness of my back against the air coming in from the street, stretch socks over my calves, dress in yellow overalls, draw my damp hair back, pause and close my eyes. Eat oatmeal with milk. Murmur a name, press the elevator button, wave to the crying doorman, hear honking horns, take the colectivo, plead, want, fake, pay, slam the car door as hard as possible, go into the gas station, greet or not greet, put the marker on zero, squeeze the trigger of the nozzle, fill the tank, fill the tank, fill the tank, perspire, guess the color of the next vehicle, touch the crotch of the calendar model and feel that it is paper. Three o’clock, take off my hat, wash each finger of my hand, find the scissors and take them with me, put the tip of my index finger in my left eye, feel I have something and that something comes to life.

Click here to read the full piece.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Vanderhyden on Severo Sarduy’s Firefly, which is translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and published by Archipelago Books.

Will Vanderhyden (aka “Willsconsin,” which separates him from “Bromance Will” and “Will Cleveland” and all the other Wills that roll through the ROC) is one of the current MA students in the translation program here at the university. (Speaking of, if you’re interested in the program—which is incredible, and has an extremely high rate of publication success—you should apply now. In addition to learning about the art and craft of translation and having a great group of people to learn with and from, you get to work with me here at Open Letter . . . In our new, super-cool offices!1) He specializes in Latin American literature, and is currently translating a few things that Open Letter will be bringing out . . . More on that in another post.

For now, here’s the opening to his review of Sarduy’s Firefly:

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 Yes, we’re moving again. But this time the move is into a space that’s both appropriate (a suite where we all to work together! with space for grad students!) and permanent. Pics TK, but if I’m MIA on the blog for a couple days it’s because I’m trying to unpack all of my accumulated shit.

14 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To read Severo Sarduy, in the words of Rolland Barthes, is to be “gorged with language,” immersed in “the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.” Firefly, the first novel from the Cuban born Médicis Prize winner to be translated into English in over a decade, is a funny and sad coming-of-age story. In keeping with Barthes’ description, Sarduy’s prose—skillfully rendered in Mark Fried’s translation—is virtuosic delight. The syntax is playful, overflowing with expressive modifiers and colorful descriptions that masterfully evoke the swarming excess of the tropics, and the libidinal chaos of adolescence.

Firefly is set in a fictional city—Upsalón U—where the whole history of pre-Castro Cuba comes together in a asynchronous jumble of symbols and cultural markers: hurricanes, slave markets, seamy brothels, mystical cults, radios, jukeboxes and baseball caps (even a big screen TV) coexist in the fluid disorder of a dream or hallucination.

The novel’s protagonist, Firefly, is an aimless, adolescent boy, “a spidery map of bones” with an “oversized head” and a penchant for misadventure. In the opening chapter, as a hurricane rages outside, Firefly, frightened by the storm, is mocked and ridiculed by his family. Humiliated and angry at always being the butt of the joke, he takes his revenge by serving them cups of linden flower tea spiked with rat poison. “So that no one will know I’m afraid.”

In the hospital, surrounded by his comatose family, Firefly pretends to be dead to avoid being blamed for their state. His scam is quickly uncovered by “two retired luminaries of the island’s medical community”—Isidro (an “obese . . . pile of blubber”), and Gator (“olive-skinned, long and bony, all obtuse angles and kinks”). This contrasting pair of quack doctors reappears at random moments throughout the rest of the story, coming to represent the island’s corruption and to embody Firefly’s paranoia and exile from the world of his childhood.

Firefly manages to escape from hospital and he is taken in by Munificence, a “towering” woman who runs a charity school. She provides him with a place to sleep and a job as an errand boy. From that point on, Firefly passes through a sometimes-funny sometimes-surreal series of experiences: he falls in love with the redheaded nymphet, Ada; he discovers the pleasures of alcohol; witnesses acts of corruption and cruelty; catches a case of Lethargy cubensis—a hilarious made up illness, cleverly poking fun at lazy, alcoholic Cubans; runs away; and visits strange brothels and nightmarish sex shows. Sarduy’s pacing is masterful, building a spiraling, downward momentum that has the feel of a week of binge drinking or a bad acid trip. That results is a sort of beautiful mayhem, where nothing makes sense and everything is false, what Firefly describes as “a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream.”

Sarduy sets Firefly’s confused search for identity against the backdrop of a decadent island world replete with crooked characters and rotting landscapes. “He felt blindfolded and alone at the center of a grotesque, cackling circle spinning around him.” It almost seems cruel the way Sarduy treats his young protagonist, he is allowed no relief, no way out, nothing stable to latch on to; he finds only loneliness, turmoil, ambiguous sexual impulses, and the shameful betrayals of his own young body.

He sensed in an opaque way, as if he had received an unspoken but fatal warning, that he would always be lost, disoriented, lacking an interior compass, as if the entire Earth were a laborious labyrinth or a perverse mirage of movable walls someone had contrived just to get him lost, to bring him down.

By the end of the novel, in a way, Sarduy has brought him back to where he started when he poisoned his family: resentful and alone. But he has also been transformed; experience has made him disillusioned, his resentment has expanded. “Man is the shit of the universe,” he tells himself near the end of the novel.

Now he knew people were capable of anything: of selling off father and mother, of turning over to the Inquisition and the stake the one they were pretending to protect. Capable of treachery, of usury with their loved ones. Of lies.

Everyone deceived. Everything nauseated. But deep down, he told himself, he was thankful: he had seen the true face of man, his essential duplicity, his need as unquenchable as hunger or thirst, for trickery, for wretchedness.

The lesson he has learned is one of despair and distrust: the world is a rotten place, full of deceitful, cruel people. And in the end: “He swore he would return to exterminate them all.”

Though Sarduy’s tone sustains comic, absurd notes throughout the novel, the story is essentially one of loneliness and alienation. Sarduy lived more than half of his life in exile. He left Cuba for Paris shortly after Castro came to power in 1960 and never went back. Firefly—first published in Spanish in 1990, just three years before Sarduy’s death—feels like a meditation on exile: Sarduy’s exile from his home country, the geographical and political exile of Cuba, the existential exile of adolescence, and the social and cultural exile of marginalized sexual orientations.

The intricate narrative structure and surrealist moments in Firefly resemble some of the stories of Julio Cortázar. The overflowing lyricism of Sarduy’s prose evokes the neo-baroque style of his fellow Cubans Alejo Carpentier, and José Lezema Lima. And it is this, the verbal richness, the luminous intensity of the language that marks Firefly as the product of a truly unique and talented writer. The novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The juxtaposition of a strange, somewhat bleak story with the vibrant mosaic of Sarduy’s writing is fascinating and powerfully engaging. Here again it is worth mentioning the work of the accomplished translator Mark Fried, whose English rendering captures beautifully the exquisite texture and lively rhythms of Sarduy’s prose.

For readers of Latin American literature in English, Sarduy is often eclipsed by fellow Boom writers such as Marquez, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. He is difficult to classify, but clearly was a dynamic force in avant-garde literature in Latin America from the 1960s until the 1990s. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English, however, as Susan Jill Levine states in the preface to her translation of his earlier novel Cobra: “Sarduy characterizes the place of Latin America in Western civilization perhaps more authentically than the writing of some of his more accessible colleagues in the mainstream.” He deserves more attention. One can only hope that Firefly‘s English publication will spark renewed interest in the singular brilliance of this indelible master of Spanish language fiction.

....
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