21 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You can read the first part of this interview here, the second here, and you can click here for all Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.

Will Vanderhyden: Your fiction wears its influences on its sleeve, but not only do you fully acknowledge your literary forbearers, you repurpose, and—à la Borges, when he wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors”—(re)create them. Your books, both in form and content, revolve around and play with the work and lives of other writers, both real and invented: your narratives are full of ersatz and factual stories of great artists and writers; your writing is riddled with quotations, allusions, and rewritten/recycled/re-contextualized ideas. But out of this bricolage of references you create your own sensibility, your own voice—an undeniably original style. Can you talk about what style means to you and where you think it comes from?

Rodrigo Fresán: Ah, that is the great mystery. Over the years I have come to realize that personal style is nothing more than the way in which the wounds of successive failures stop bleeding and scar over. Out of all those things that never turn out how you thought or hoped they would, if you persevere, in the end your own style will emerge, inside of which, yes, in my case (and in everyone’s case; I just don’t have any problem admitting it and acknowledging it) many other voices coexist. I am a referential maniac. And I’m very proud of it.

WV: Even this idea of “referential mania,” is itself a reference. In his story Signs and Symbols Nabokov uses the term to describe a psychological disorder suffered by the institutionalized son of an elderly couple of Russian Jewish émigrés. This disorder causes the patient to imagine that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence” and that: “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” You’ve turned referential mania into a literary device, a way to harness information overload, to make stories out of the multitude of stories that have been personally meaningful to you at different times in your life. Is there a particular moment or experience that kick started your referential mania?

RF: I think I talked about this somewhat in response to previous questions (early exposure to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” etc.). But maybe the Big Bang . . . I remember perfectly my father coming home with the freshly released, the first, and automatic favorite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and looking at that cover and wondering who all those people were and what were they doing there, and feeling already how that image was setting in motion a referential mania that would become the incurable and delightful pathology of all my future books.



WV: The Writer has theory about the formation of the reader/writer. Can you describe that theory? And while we’re at it: who are your readers?

RF: I’ll quote myself again or, better, quote The Writer from The Invented Part: “A theory of the reader/writer: As far as the formation and/or deformation of a writer, I believe the process is a lot like the formation of the reader. When we start writing, as children, the most important thing is the hero, identification with the hero. We fall in love with the boy or girl in the story, and then take it upon ourselves to find out if they’ve starred in other adventures. So, stacks and stacks of comics and Sandokan, the Musketeers, Nemo, Jo, etcetera. And there/here is as far as most readers go (and they can stop here, no problem). To continue the adventure, into the jungle, a new kind of reader appears. A slightly more sophisticated reader, with a particular interest in the structure of the adventures and, later, a particular fascination with who created them and under what circumstances—with that living ghost called author and with the distinct possibility of other similar authors. The final and most evolved stage of reader—and writer—is one who, in addition to all the foregoing, is also concerned with and enjoys a particular style. That’s the only way you can fight back and make peace in our digital and pluralized times, electrified by writers who narrate but don’t write, by writers who simply recount but on whom you can never count when you need them the most. And there are few writers—the truly great ones—who make their style come through in their prose and, also, in what their prose tells. And thus, the miracle of a plot and a style all their own—unique, nontransferable. If there is a goal, it is certainly that—to have plot and style make space and time for a new and personal language. That the invented part of what’s told also be the way that fiction speaks and expresses itself. But—warning—never forget that the style you achieve is always—though a posteriori you try to convince yourself of the opposite, that everything was coldly calculated—just a detour along the path. Style ends up being nothing more than the hangover following a bender. What’s left behind and provokes a headache and so let’s see what we can do with this. Style is the successful distillation of a failure, the glorious, unforgettable accident. A laboratory problem, like in The Fly, like in The Hulk. That’s the only way to understand the expansive yet Prussian digression of Saul Bellow or the novelistic mutation of Shakespeare in Iris Murdoch. A thing you find when you’re looking for something else entirely.”

As far as my potential readers go, I’ve always said that I like to imagine them as people who are a lot like me but slightly more intelligent.



WV: There is a symbolic/mythic space that exists in The Invented Part and throughout your fiction called “Sad Songs.” Though its function and location seem to shift from one book to the next, I feel like it has something to do with nostalgia, with childhood memories, and with the origin of lifelong obsessions. Can you talk about this idea and it’s role in your fiction?

RF: I wouldn’t say that it’s nostalgia, rather that the past is increasingly interesting. And also increasingly big. Because yesterday keeps getting fatter, tomorrow keeps getting skinnier, and the present keeps sneaking away to purge in secret. Of all times—and I get this from Proust no less—the past is the place that’s best written and the one you can write best. It’s a place where we already were but that we can always go back to. It’s not “a foreign country: they do different things there,” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but the country where all of us were born and that we leave behind just so we can go back. In the future, we will all die in the past. Maybe that’s why they say that our entire life passes before our memory’s eyes in a matter of seconds, in the moment of our definitive goodbye, right? When it comes to childhood, everything happened there and everything that happened there keeps happening to us because—as readers or writers—we will always be animals that can only fall asleep if, first, someone comes and tells us a story. The idea of Sad Songs is, on the one hand, a joke/homage to certain tics of magical realism and, on the other hand, a very convenient and functional strategy: when I can’t think of where to go, I go and go back to Sad Songs. And Sad Songs can be anywhere in the world and even—like in The Bottom of the Sky—on another planet.

Check back in on July 12th for the fourth part of this interview—a screed about screen culture!—and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!

7 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You can read the first part of this interview here, and you can click here for all Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.

Will Vanderhyden: Now, this is a question that, in a way, the book takes as its point of departure—so it might make a good segue into talking about to what extent The Invented Part is autobiographical, to what extent the book’s primary narrator, The Writer, is you—but: what made you want to be a writer? Or, to put it another way: how and why did you end up pursuing a career/vocation as a writer? And: how is the reality of that story different from The Writer’s origin story in the book?

Rodrigo Fresán: It isn’t autobiographical, but it is the most personal in certain respects. In ways that have more to do with what I have written than what I have lived, in the sense that it is about how a writer, who is also me, thinks. In other words: I don’t have a mad sister, but I do have a very sensible son; my parents weren’t killed during the military dictatorship of the ‘70s-80s, but we did have to flee the country and barely made it out (the most precise version of that story is told at the end of Historia argentina, my first book). In terms of what it was that made me into a writer, I don’t have a precise memory of that. I always wanted to be one. Even before I learned to read and write. That’s why, in The Invented Part, I invented en epiphanic instant in the life of the book’s narrator when his writerly-vocation is activated after he almost drowns . . . As far as I’m concerned, I have always considered it a great privilege and gift to get to live and not have to betray my childhood dream of what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Not many people get to keep and concretize that. But maybe, yes, it’s all linked to my own almost-death: I was born and declared clinically dead. I had a very complicated birth. And, mysteriously and miraculously, I came back from the other side. I lived to tell the tale. To tell it and to write it.

WV: In The Invented Part, you explore the relationship between disastrous moments in the lives of certain famous artists—F. Scott Fitzgerald and his relationships with Zelda Sayre, Ernest Hemmingway, and Sara and Gerald Murphy; William S. Burroughs and the killing of his wife Joan Vollmer; the members of Pink Floyd and the loss of their original band mate Syd Barrett—and the famous works of art that emerged from the wreckage. How do these famous instances of the confluence of life and art parallel The Writer’s own situation and inform the decisions he makes in the book?

RF: I wouldn’t say they inform any of his decisions (his decisions are, in general, bad when not catastrophic), but they do function as talismans for him or as the floating remains of a shipwreck that he can cling to. Also, clearly, he thinks about them to not think about himself and a body of work (his own) that would be hard pressed to ever reach those heights. And there’s an additional application of these geniuses and figures (like the figures of Bob Dylan, the Brontë sisters, and Vladimir Nabokov in the next “installment” of the monster) all of them have something in common: they were consummate (and some consumed) rewriters of themselves.



WV: This will likely be clear to anybody who has read the book, but can you talk about where the title, The Invented Part, came from?

RF: It’s from a letter that Gerald Murphy sent to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I had already used it as an epigraph in Historia argentina and . . . we can agree that it makes a great title and it was always a mystery to me that nobody had used it. “I know now that what you said in Tender Is the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty,” writes Murphy, who—along with his wife Sara—had been upset by how, without consulting them, Fitzgerald had used their marriage as the point of departure for his second great novel.

WV: The Invented Part, like many of your books, has a triptych or three-act structure, with the long middle section divided into five subsections. Although there is a narrative arc that develops in a quasi-linear way throughout the book, there is also the sense that all seven parts are happening simultaneously: they overlap, riff off each other, and sometimes tell different versions of the same events. Where did this structure come from? To what extent was it planned and to what extent improvised? How was it written? Did you start at the beginning and write through to the end or was the final structure something that you came to later on?

RF: I always think in trios, triads, triptychs, triangles. I fear that it has to do with the influence resulting from very early exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Once I said that I write the way The Beatles recorded and it was misinterpreted in the sense that I was accused of considering myself as great as The Beatles. Well, no . . . The truth is, I said what I said thinking more about George Martin (The Beatles producer) than about The Beatles. Anyway, the headline was misinterpreted. People today just read headlines and feel compelled to retweet them right away without reading the entire interview. I wasn’t saying that I write with the same degree of genius and talent that The Beatles had, not at all. I was saying, and I explained this in the interview, that after reading a memoir by Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer, the thing about equalizing and utilizing different channels on the sound mixer ended up having a great deal to do with the way I wrote The Invented Part, whose seven parts I wrote simultaneously. I had seven files open, and I worked on a different one each day. And, at the same time, I didn’t really know where that novel was going, until my son provided me with the key, the little toy figure that appears on the cover of the original edition, which has now become a kind of little literary icon . . . I was bogged down. I had spent years writing a novel, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a plan, but it wasn’t coming together. I was stuck in uncertainty, I had five hundred pages of nothing, and then my son, Daniel, who was five years old at the time, told me he had found the cover for my next book. We saw it in the window of a stationary shop on the way to his school. It was a windup toy: a traveler wearing a raincoat and hat, carrying a big suitcase. We bought it. “I want him to be the hero too,” Daniel said. I ended up discarding that last idea, but I hung onto the toy. And that’s when it happened: it was as if I’d been wound up and set in motion and I didn’t stop until I got to the end.



WV: In this book and elsewhere you tell an anecdote about a conversation you had with the Irish writer John Banville in which you ask him what is more important, plot or style, and he responds by saying: “Style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Can you talk about this idea and how it relates to your work?

RF: What Banville said seems to me a great sentence. And a great truth. And it was a great privilege to be there and hear him say it. But in The Invented Part, I reproduce it and, I hope, politely and respectfully add to it. I’ll cite here what I say in the novel: “Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylistic plot, into the most well-plotted of styles.” In my life as a reader, the truth is that it’s harder and harder for me to read anybody who doesn’t rely on style.

Come back on June 21st for the third part of this interview, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!

31 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Here are the first few paragraphs of Rodrigo Fresán’s Kensington Gardens, translated by Natasha Wimmer:

It begins with a boy who was never a man and ends with a man who was never a boy.

Something like that.

Or better: it begins with a man’s suicide and a boy’s death, and ends with a boy’s death and a man’s suicide.

Or with various deaths and various suicides at varying ages.

I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter.

Everybody knows—it’s understandable, excusable—that numbers, names, and faces are the first to be jettisoned or to throw themselves from the platform during the shipwreck of memory, which always lies there ready fro annihilation on the rails of the past.

One thing, at any rate, is clear. At the end of the beginning—at the beginning of the end—Peter Pan dies.

*




And here’s the beginning of The Bottom of the Sky (forthcoming), in Will Vanderhyden’s translation:

Find yourself wherever you find yourself, near or far, if you can read what I now write, please, remember, remember me, remember us, like this.

Remember us, remember me, remember that in those days the inhabitants of our planet, of our miniscule universe, were divided into interstellar travelers and creatures from other worlds.

The rest were but secondary characters.

The anonymous builders of the rocket.

Or men and women enslaved by distant creatures of impossible anatomy that, nevertheless, a great mystery, always spoke our language perfectly.

Or humans who practiced the tongue of extraterrestrials that, an even greater mystery, was so similar to the English spoken by a foreigner of a not-too-distant country.

And astronaut or alien weren’t yet terms of common use.

They weren’t, like today, present equally in the mouths of children and the elderly. Those words, like a familiar taste, easy to identify at first bite for teeth both young and new or old and fake.

It wasn’t like now (think of technological jargon as a new form of pornography, of the production of military and domestic gadgets of all size and utility, of faces and bodies modified by laser procedures, of a life after life, and of alternate realities tangled in a network of small computer screens) when there are days that I’m invaded by the suspicion that all the inhabitants of this planet are, without being aware of it, writers of science fiction.

Or, at least, characters created by writers of science fiction.

Back then, in the beginning, it was different.

*




Finally, here’s the opening of The Invented Part, also translated by Will Vanderhyden:

How to begin.

Or better: How to begin?

(Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook. A sharp and pointy curve that skewers both the reader and the read. Pulling them, dragging them up from the clear and calm bottom to the cloudy and restless surface. Or sending them flying through the air to land just inside the beach of these parentheses. Parentheses that more than one person will judge or criticize as orthographically and aesthetically unnecessary but that, in the uncertainty of the beginning, are oh so similar to hands coming together in an act of prayer, asking for a fair voyage just now underway. We read: “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate;” we hear: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” And good luck to all, wishes you this voice—halfway down the road of life, lost in a dark woods, because it wandered off the right path—that the gag of the parentheses renders unknown. And yet—like with certain unforgettable songs, whose melodies impose themselves over the title and even over the signature lines of the chorus, what’s it called? how’d it go?—this voice also recalls that of someone whose name isn’t easy to identify or recognize. And, yes, if possible, avoid this kind of paragraph from here onward because, they say, it scares away many of today’s readers. Today’s electrocuted readers, accustomed to reading quickly and briefly on small screens. And, yes, goodbye to all of them, at least for as long as this book lasts and might last. Unplug from external inputs to nourish yourselves exclusively on internal electricity. And—warning! warning!—at least in the beginning and to begin with, that’s the idea here, the idea from here onward. Consider yourselves warned.)

Or better still: To begin like this?

*


Although these are distinct, they each have an element of hesitation in them. Kensington Gardens opens strong (“It begins with a boy . . .”) before undercutting that certitude (“Something like that.”), and going off into other possibilites of how to frame the story (“Or better:” “Or” “I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter.”).

The Bottom of the Sky is more imploring in its opening hesitations, questioning if there’s anyone out there to read these words, needing them to remember, before turning toward the past and trying to recover a sense of what that time was like.

After questioning its opening (“How to begin. Or better: How to begin?”), The Invented Part turns on a metafictional dime, grounding the idea that this is a book that is aware it is being written (“Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook.”) and then addresses potential critics of this stylistic approach (“Parentheses that more than one person will judge or criticize as orthographically and aesthetically unnecessary . . .”).

I’m not sure what to make of these three openings, except that there’s something familiar between the three, a sort of groping around in the narrative voice that is—to me at least—inviting and honest. Looking at these after having read all three of these books, they call to mind the idea that these books sort of drift in out of the ether, signals from somewhere beyond that are in search of a reader. Once you get deeper into any of the novels, this sort of hesitation is shuffled off to the side, but it’s as if the narrative has to lull you in first, aware that all works of fiction are essentially unstable and rely on the imagination and belief of the reader to really work.

29 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you hopefully already know, for the next two months we’ll be producing a weekly podcast and a series of posts all about Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. All grouped under the title “Two Month Review,” this initiative is part book club, part exercise in slow reading, and part opportunity to discuss and expand upon many of the fun and wonderful aspects of Fresán’s novel. Over the course of the next two months, we’ll serialize an interview that translator Will Vanderhyden did with Fresán. It’s broken up to somewhat align the responses with the section of the book being discussed that week on the podcast, although this is somewhat inexact.

That said, this first section offers up an introduction to Fresán’s work as a whole—written by Will Vanderhyden—and includes a few good questions that serve as openings to The Invented Part. We’ve already posted a few quotes from the first section of the book to whet your interest, and later this week there will be a post about the beginnings of Fresán’s books. Then, on Thursday, June 1st, the new podcast will be released, covering pages 1-45.

You can find all of the “Two Month Review” posts and podcasts by clicking here. And if you use the code 2MONTH on our website, you can get 20% off the book itself. And be sure to weigh in with your comments over at the Goodreads forum!

Rodrigo Fresán was born in Argentina in 1963, spent much of his adolescence in Venezuela, and moved to Barcelona in the late 90s where—apart from a brief stint in the U.S. as an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—he has lived ever since.

He published his first book of fiction, Historia argentina, in 1991 to great critical and commercial success, making him a reference point in a new generation of Argentinean and Latin American writers eager to escape the typecasts imposed by the global success of the Latin American Boom writers. Since that time, Fresán has published nine more books of fiction. His stories have been widely anthologized and his books translated into a variety of languages.



He has also worked as a journalist and columnist, writing prolifically for various publications in Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere. He has translated, edited, annotated, and/or written prologues for the work of numerous writers including John Cheever, Denis Johnson, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch, and Roberto Bolaño.

Fresán’s fiction has been praised by the likes of Jonathan Lethem, John Banville, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Osvaldo Soriano and described as “singular,” “virtuosic,” “irreverent,” “contagious,” and “kaleidoscopic.” He has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Geoff Dyer, and David Foster Wallace and called a “pop Borges,” a “genius inventor,” a “guru of literary trends,” and “the only pure postmodern writer in the Spanish language.”

Fresán’s writing is saturated with literary and pop culture references, particularly—though by no means exclusively—references to modern and contemporary English-language literature and to global pop culture of the 1960s and 70s. His books are typically sprawling in both form and content, eschewing conventional narrative structures in favor of more open and fragmentary forms and incorporating elements of science fiction, literary and cultural criticism, and rock journalism. His style is characterized by a hyper self-conscious, encyclopedic, and darkly humoristic narrative sensibility and a prose that is simultaneously playful, kinetic, and unabashedly prolix.

Across his expansive body of work, Fresán explores myriad subjects (Argentina’s dirty war and globalism in the 1980s in Historia argentina and Esperanto, religion and pop art in Vidas de santos, Mexican identity in Mantra, Peter Pan and the lysergic 60s in Kensington Gardens, and science fiction and 9/11 in The Bottom of the Sky, for example) invariably linked to his own obsessions and preoccupations—childhood, memory, the pitfalls of idealism, great literature, writers’ lives, art, and pop culture to name a few—with an approach marked by an insatiable curiosity and an irrepressible compulsion to tell stories.

In a way, The Invented Part—Fresán’s ninth book of fiction and second to be translated into English—subsumes all the books that preceded it. His most overtly autobiographical work to date, this novel—now merely the first book in a trilogy whose second volume has already been published in Spanish and whose third is well under way—is an exploration of the capacious mind and creative process of an aging writer, jaded by readers’ tweet-length attention spans and his own struggle to find a way to feel relevant and to keep on writing. That struggle plays out on the page, across seven novella-length sections that, in one way or another, are descriptions of the novel the writer is trying to write. All of it amounts to a novel (Can I call this a novel?) that is quintessentially Fresanian: a carefully orchestrated yet tornadic crescendo of big ideas, leitmotifs, extended metaphors, humorous lists, surreal and satirical set pieces, reflective digressions, story sketches, and “referential mania,” revolving around questions about what it means to live and create art in our globalized, hyper-mediated, and technologized post-millennial world.



Will Vanderhyden: How to begin . . . I suspect that—considering its subject and scope—this novel contains, in one form or another, the answer (or an answer) to any question I might come up with . . . But setting that suspicion aside for the moment, in the interest of establishing a framework for talking about this book, I think it might be helpful for newcomers to your work to start with some questions about where you think you fit in terms of literary traditions and trends. So, first off: to what extent do you consider yourself an Argentine writer? I know it’s facile to reduce writers to their nationality, but Argentina’s literary tradition is a unique one and your work seems both inextricably bound up in it and somehow external to it. What does that tradition mean to you and where do you fit in it?

Rodrigo Fresán: I consider myself very Argentine in the sense that I don’t consider myself Argentine at all. There’s nothing more Argentine than this, I think. Among the many and exceedingly varied disadvantages of having been born where I was born there is—if you’re a writer—one great advantage, which Borges describes in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and which, for me, is something like the trade’s tables of the law for someone who starts out writing as an Argentine in order to, suddenly, right away, as quickly as possible, turn, Argentineanly, into something else. There he writes: “What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be answered. I believe our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which one of the inhabitants of one or another Western nation may have [. . .] Everything we Argentine writers do felicitously will belong to Argentine tradition, in the same way that the use of Italian subjects belongs to the tradition of England through Chaucer and Shakespeare [. . .] Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good and adequate writers.”

And, it seems to me, there’s nothing more to add . . .

WV: You have described yourself as “a reader who writes.” Is that a better way to think about where you fit in terms of Argentine tradition, among writers whose work is grounded less in their nationality and more in their library?

RF: Yes, another very Argentine trait. In way, all the writers I admire and am interested in (the aforementioned Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Piglia, Pauls, Pron, Saccomanno, and on and on) are overflowing with books and writers. I have said it many times in too many interviews: I think that, while other literatures from Latin American and even from Spain have their roots firmly buried in the ground where they take place, Argentine literature’s roots are buried in the wall and, more concretely, in the wall of the library. The tradition of the Argentine writer is built more on the foundation of the figure of the reader than the figure of the writer. And this seems good to me, because when it comes down to it, to tell the truth, everyone who ends up writing does so because they started out reading. The true homeland of writer is his or her library. And a writer’s library is also an important part of his or her biography: a liferary. Nabokov said that the only possible biography for a writer would have to pass through the history of his or her style. I agree, but an important part of one’s style is formed and informed and deformed by the history of one’s readings.



WV: Continuing in the vein of facile classifications . . . I remember hearing an interview with David Foster Wallace where he responds to a question about whether or not he’s a realist by saying that he doesn’t know any writers—even so-called postmodernists like himself—who don’t consider themselves realists, in terms of writing about what life really feels like to them. He goes on to say: “I mean, a lot of stuff that is capital ‘R’ realism just seems to me somewhat hokey, because obviously realism is an illusion of realism.” The narrator of The Invented Part, The Writer, seems to have similar ideas, even ironically coining the term “logical irrealism” to contrast his own writing with “magical realism.” He says: “If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable. Real reality is authentically irreal . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.” Can you talk about what these various classifications mean to you and how they relate to your work?

RF: I agree with Wallace: there are many realities that are in this one just as there are many worlds that are in this one. Nabokov (a writer I’ve gone back to in recent years, more dazzled than ever), again, is useful when it comes to positioning myself on this issue in an interview: “Reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates it’s own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye. [. . . ] You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you can never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects. [. . .] We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.” And let’s go a little further: “The most we can do when steering a favorite in the best direction, in circumstances not involving injury to others, is to act as a breath of wind and to apply the lightest, the most indirect pressure such as trying to induce a dream that we hope our favorite will recall as prophetic if a likely event does actually happen. On the printed page the words ‘likely’ and ‘actually’ should be italicized too, at least slightly, to indicate a slight breath of wind inclining those characters (in the sense of both signs and personae),” he points out as a sort of editorial advice in Transparent Things. “I am no more guilty of imitating ‘real life’ than ‘real life’ is responsible for plagiarizing me,” he explains in the preface to the collected stories Nabokov’s Dozen. And more, even more Nabokov: that flower plucked by Nabokov, in that interview, as an example of how “reality is a very subjective affair” and that “I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization.” That, again, reality is nothing but “an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms.” And that, of course, there is a neutral reality that includes and involves all of us; but that, in the next breath, each of us has our own reality and entirely personal perception of that flower. And that there’s no such thing as “everyday reality” which is a term that “presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.” And still more: “‘Reality’ (one of the few words which means nothing without quotes),” he concludes in the afterword to Lolita.

The thing about “logical irrealism” was just a joke (I hope a good one) to escape from the “magical realism” that—when I first started to write and publish—every foreign publisher and academic and critic seemed to be searching for, even though it wasn’t there, in Argentine literature just because it was Latin American. In any case, Colombian or Chilean or Mexican or Peruvian writers of my generation had it much worse in that sense because their past and present were much more irradiated by their totemic writers and by the luminous shadow of the Boom. In Argentina, we were never that concerned with/interested in the Boom and, besides, all the great writers from my country embraced the fantastic genre as one/another facet of reality.

We’ll be back with more of this interview next week!

16 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Given all the Two Month Review posts and everything else, hopefully you’ll have heard of Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part by now. But in case you haven’t, below you’ll find the press release that we sent out with copies of the book to all reviewers and booksellers. (If you’re a bookseller or reviewer and need a copy, you know where to find me.)

There is a bit of an update as well. In addition to publishing The Invented Part , The Bottom of the Sky , and Mantra , we’ve just signed on The Dreamed Part the second book in the trilogy, which we’ll (hopefully) bring out in 2019.

Remember, if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off through our website.

“A lively if sometimes-disjointed paean to creativity. Invented, and deeply inventive as well, an exemplary postmodern novel that is both literature and entertainment.”—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)



One of the most respected Spanish-language authors of our times, Rodrigo Fresán (Kensington Gardens) has been praised by the likes of John Banville, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolaño, and his work has earned comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and many others.

That might all sound like hyperbole, but won’t as soon as you start reading The Invented Part, the first book in a projected trilogy (The Dreamed Part was recently released in Spanish) this novel mixes high concept science-in-fiction ideas with hilariously manic lists, and deep dives into the history of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Kubrick’s 2001, The Kinks, and more.

The plot of The Invented Part is simple enough: an aging writer whose books about how writers and writing are no longer the preferred flavor of the literary world wants to change—and extend—his life by breaking into CERN and the Large Hadron Collider so that he can merge with the so-called “god particle” and become a consciousness outside of time, one that can rewrite reality according to his whims.

Although the overarching plot is pretty wild, the book is filled with heart and humanity, with each chapter taking a different stylistic approach to the writer’s life and times, opening with a moving story of his near-death experience at a beach while his parents’ relationship falls apart, and including a section on the writer’s sister’s marriage into a wealthy family that is as insufferable as it is bizarre, resulting in her own madness. There’s also an anxiety-ridden section with the writer in the ER, panicked that he’s having a heart attack, which triggers a tidal wave of story ideas that he hopes to be able to one day write. (If only he can merge with the god particle!)

There are also incredible sections—half historical, half invented—about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gerald and Sara Murphy, about William Burroughs, about 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which add to the underlying exploration of the relationship between great art and the artists that give rise to it.

For all of its inventiveness and depth, The Invented Part is also an incredibly readable book. Fresán is an irrepressible and consummate stylist whose writing is imbued with great intelligence and insight, pop culture references and literary hijinks, unforgettable characters and mind-bending ideas. It’s a testament to the power and expanse of fiction, and reaffirms Fresán as one of the greatest novelists of our time. Overall, it’s a joy to immerse yourself in, and, like the best of authors, will leave you craving more.

Which is good, since Open Letter has already signed on two more Fresán titles, The Bottom of the Sky (May 2018) and Mantra (TBD), with plans to complete the “Parts” trilogy as well. The manuscript of The Bottom of the Sky is available for interested reviewers, and Fresán is available for interviews both in English (by phone) and Spanish (written).

Also worth noting that translator Will Vanderhyden—whose other translations include Carlos Labbé’s Loquela and Navidad & Matanza—received an NEA Translation Fellowship and a Lannan Fellowship for his work on this book. He too is available for interviews or to answer any questions about Fresán’s other books.

16 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Translator Will Vanderhyden joins Chad and Brian to provide an overview of Rodrigo Fresán’s work—especially The Invented Part. They discuss some of his earlier works (including Kensington Gardens, which is available in an English translation), different pop culture touchstones running throughout his oeuvre, related authors, and ways to approach the Invented Part.

They also talk a bit about the schedule and the future Two Month Review podcasts. The entire reading schedule is listed below, but for the next episode (June 1st), Chad and Brian will be joined by bookseller and Best Translated Book Award just Jeremy Garber to talk about “The Real Character,” pages 1-45.

Here’s the complete rundown of Two Month Review podcasts for The Invented Part:

June 1: “The Real Character” (1-45)
June 8: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Part 1) (46-98)
June 15: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Parts 2) (99-207)
June 22: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Parts 3) (208-229)
June 29: “A Few Things You Happen to Think About” (230-300)
July 6: “Many Fetes” (301-360)
July 13: “Life After People” (361-403)
July 20: “Meanwhile, Once Again” (404-439)
July 27: “The Imaginary Person” (440-547)

In addition to these weekly podcasts, there will be some bonus posts here on Three Percent, and you can share your opinions and questions at the official GoodReads Group.

Additionally, we are offering a 20% discount on orders of The Invented Part from the Open Letter website. Just enter 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout. Copies are on hand and will ship out immediately. They’re also available at better bookstores everywhere.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

2 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Punctuated by toddler Isak’s comments about Barney, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Lytton Smith discuss the main motivations behind the upcoming “Two Month Review” podcasts, which will be released weekly starting in later this month, and will focus on a single book for a eight or nine week period.

As noted in this post, Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part will be the first featured book (episodes released every Tuesday from 5/16 through 7/27), and Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will be the second (8/3-9/28).

In addition to these weekly podcasts, there is a GoodReads Group where anyone following along can post comments, questions, or other opinions.

Additionally, we are offering a 20% discount on orders of these two books from the Open Letter website. Just enter 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout. And since these are already back from the printer, we’ll ship them out ASAP—well in advance of the official pub dates.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.



7 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We don’t post these updates near as frequently as we should, but here’s a rundown of some interesting recent publicity pieces for our books.



Frontier by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Interview between Can Xue and Porochista Khakpour (Words Without Borders)

PK: You often write of surreal realities. “Other worlds,” one might even say, or “dream realities” or the realities of subconscious. But what do you think when the surface is also so surreal? For example, America right now is in chaotic, almost psychedelic, upheaval. What happens when the truth is stranger than fiction? What do you think of Trump and the chaos in America at the moment? I know things have not been easy in China either, but how do you handle it? Do you think much about politics anymore? Do you feel it matters for art? How can readers and writers alike approach this—should we immerse or ignore?

CX: As the saying goes, “onlookers see more than the player.” As an eastern artist and a foreigner who has closely watched the changes in the United States, I don’t think the current situation in the country is that strange. Although American people have a long excellent tradition of democracy, and the system of the country is relatively good, at the same time, the country also has a long conservative tradition. This tradition usually functions as nationalism. For many years the political elite who led the country followed the principle of “political correctness.” They neither really knew their own people, nor understood people in other countries. The only thing they usually did was to hold high the banner of justice for their policymaking. So I think that the phenomenon of Trump is a great explosion of contradictions. It shows that the leaders of the country are more and more out of touch with the American people. They don’t know what people think about, and how they feel about their lives nowadays. And also, the theory the leaders depend on to rule the country, to deal with their foreign affairs, is a very old one that is not suitable for the situations of the world that is changing rapidly.

Review by Amal El-Mohtar (NPR Books)

Reading this book is like trying to solve a mystery in a dream. Like the Pleiades, it’s best glimpsed without looking at it directly. Patterns recur, but to track them or expect them to lead to something is a mistake. (Imagine a Mirkwood where the only caution is not to walk the path, because to do so is to walk it forever.) Porochista Khakpour, in a beautiful, thoughtful introduction to the book and Can Xue’s work, notes that the book seems pleasurably to lengthen as we read it — and this was absolutely my experience. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation is that species of wonderful that makes you forget you’re reading a translation until they see fit to remind you, which is also deeply of a piece with Pebble Town’s absent-minded strangeness.

“Review by Beau Lowenstern”: (Asymptote)

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”



Bardo or Not Bardo and Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, transalted by J. T. Mahany and Jeffrey Zuckerman, respectively

Straight-A Review by Michael Orthofer for Radiant Terminus (Complete Review)

Volodine’s novel isn’t so much an end-of-times dystopia of the dime-a-dozen sort found nowadays (catastrophe, apocalypse, bla bla bla), as a philosophical-literary exploration of the literal, at-infinity end of times. And it’s a great success as such. No small part of that is due to tone and voice, a register captured just right in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation.

In its detail, Radiant Terminus is arguably dreary and bleak, and the novel is certainly long—but, in fact, it is thoroughly engaging, the stories unfolding, and dosed out, at the perfect pace, making for actual suspense, even beyond the constantly intellectually intriguing premises. And while an all-powerful character like Solovyei can be difficult to handle (or, for readers, to put up with . . .), Volodine deftly employs the puppet-master-man.

Tom Roberge on Bardo or Not Bardo for the Albertine Prize (Vote now to help Bardo advance to the finals!)

Like all great writers, the most enduring, [Volodine] approaches his subject matter and characters with a dazzling blend of empathy, pathos, and humor, all of which creates a pleasantly beguiling reading experience. [. . .] Volodine, however, echoing Samuel Beckett’s macabre-absurdist tradition, refuses to allow anyone to attain enlightenment without a certain number of missteps, misunderstandings, and outright failures.”

Meet the Publisher: Chad Post (Asymptote)

I just gave a different interview a couple months ago about this where I was arguing that we shouldn’t try to ghettoize international literature and translations as being super separate. Most translations tend to be high works of literature because of the nature of the small presses that are publishing these books. They tend to want to do important books and not thrillers, not romance novels, not things that are like, “Who cares, in five years no one’s going to remember this book anyway; it’s just like popcorn.” They’re investing these resources and, because they’re not going to make money and are doing this out of a passion for literature, they tend to do high literary works—pure literature. And the readership for pure literature, be it written in English or German or Hungarian or Japanese or whatever, is pretty small. But if we can appeal to that audience as a whole—instead of being like, “Oh, are you a reader of translations?” saying, “Are you a reader of literature?” Dividing those readers is not useful because we’re still talking about the same sorts of books. In comparison to Dan Brown. That’s a difference. But within that realm, it’s pretty much overlapping. I think that the booksellers and the people that are tastemakers, who are reading a lot of literary works from American writers or British Writers or whomever, are reading more and more books in translation that fit into that world and are making that more a part of their conversation.



The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden

Starred Review (Kirkus)

Think of it as a portrait of the artist as a young cultural omnivore grown old, under whose lens Heraclitus, Einstein, and Looney Tunes all have more or less equal footing. Fresán’s long novel begins with what may be a subtle nod to Proust, save that instead of retreating to a quiet room The Boy, our protagonist’s first emanation, is afoot and on the run, tearing around on street and sand, “running like that Roadrunner the Coyote can’t stop chasing.” [. . .] Studded with references to everyone from Dylan and the Beatles to Stanley Kubrick and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it adds up to a lively if sometimes-disjointed paean to creativity.

An exemplary postmodern novel that is both literature and entertainment.

15 January 16 | Chad W. Post |

This is another one of those posts. One in which I wrote a long-ass essay/diatribe that I decided to delete so as to “focus on the positive.”

In this case, I was on a roll about how sick I am of the literary field anointing four-five international authors a year and writing endless articles/listicles about them at the expense of all other books. About how the field has become a bunch of yeasayers who would rather join a chorus of “this book is the best!” instead of reading adventurously and actually finding out about books that haven’t been ordained in this way. About how reviewers don’t seem to take many risks anymore, and would rather pander, cheerleading style, for more retweets and favorites. People don’t seem as curious anymore, as willing to go out and find their own little books to champion. Maybe it’s because social media has ramped up our social anxieties to an insane degree, but it feels like people just want to be nice and safe and all in accord. Dissent is death on Twitter.

Fuck all of that. And fuck me for wasting twenty minutes trying to flesh out the argument . . . Instead, I’ll tell you about one of those books that adventurous, non-conforming readers would absolutely love: Loquela by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.



I just reread this book in preparation for a conversation with him at Wild Detectives in Dallas, and was re-wowed by the multilayered linguistic world that he creates in his novels. This is a book that owes a lot to Juan Carlos Onetti’s work (especially A Brief Life) as well as to Julio Cortázar and other Latin American works that are set in universities. I’m not going to lie: It’s a complicated book, with multiple narrators, events that recur in new contexts providing the book with a certain instability (or, reversing that statement, granting it with a certain remix texture transforming scenes into motifs that Labbé picks up and plays with in increasingly interesting ways), novels within dreams within novels. It’s a book about how art is created and how it is transformative, and there’s basically nothing like it that’s being written today.1

Rather than do a “normal” sort of reading and conversation—with Carlos reading for 10 minutes, then answering some general questions—we tried to create a way to introduce everyone to the text by asking questions, then, at three different occasions, reading separate bits from the book. I can’t reproduce that here, but I do think that it was a really great introduction to how to approach the book and that everyone who attended will enjoy the novel that much more, and have a new appreciation for it. Which is maybe what literary events should be?

We started by talking about the first main thread of the book, the sections entitled “The Novel,” which occurs every other chapter and are always in italics. This thread is about “Carlos,” a young writer trying to write a detective novel about an albino girl who is being stalked and hires a detective to try and protect her. That doesn’t end well though . . . From the very first paragraph of Loquela:

Carlos looked at his notebook and reread the last page: anticipating that the killer—whoever it was—would defend himself, the man had retrieved the gun. His head pounded and his knees were shaking. There’s a dead girl lying inside, he thought. He’d never fired a gun. His vision clouded over, his whole body pulsed as the door opened slowly from inside. He decided to fire first. And he did. The albino girl let out a soft cry and fell at his feet. He was the killer.

The bulk of “The Novel” sections are about Carlos trying to make this manuscript work. He talks about it with Elisa, he tries to figure out the plot holes, he rewrites certain events (like when the car tries to run over the albino girl), and he receives a letter from Violeta Drago (more on her in a bit).

In writing the novel, Labbé (to distinguish him from the fictional Carlos) wanted to include some of the thoughts and ideas that went into writing such a novel, which led to the second set of sections: “The Recipient.” These sections take the form of a diary in which a student writes about the novel he’s writing about Carlos. This is some At Swim-Two-Birds shit right there. These bits are more theoretical, touching upon the way ideas and books (like Onetti’s A Brief Life) influence your way of structuring events and writing about them. Here’s an abridged excerpt from one of these parts.

Things are happening.

I’ve been imagining a detective story. It occurred to me that I could write a novel of innumerable pages about a girl who, frightened because a man is apparently following her, contacts a detective to help her. She and the detective become friends, they flirt. He ends up obsessed with her and follows her everywhere. I want to sit down every afternoon, take advantage of the dead hours of summer to write. On one of those afternoons the inspiration comes to me. [. . .] That story of the girl who gets stalked by the same guy she is paying to protect her has been coming back to me every since my cousin told it at our uncle and aunt’s country house last Sunday. [. . .] That Sunday my cousin Alicia and I talked almost all afternoon. I told her I wanted to live alone that next year and she invited me to come check out her home-studio on Calle Bustamente, she could rent me a room there. And that’s where I’m writing this now. She also told me about her friend Violeta. Bored of living in the cesspool of Santiago (my cousin’s words), she moved to another city—I can’t remember which one—for a couple of years. She met a guy there, a classmate at the university, with whom she went out and then broke up. The guy was unhinged and wouldn’t leave her alone, calling her on the phone every night, following her through the streets, buzzing the intercom at her apartment and not saying anything when she answered. One day, desperate, it occurred to her to ask a professor friend from the university for help, and he managed to get the guy expelled, but that was worse: one time the guy, furious, almost hit her with his car, and another time he almost pushed her into the city’s river. She loved where she was living, but in the end Violeta had to go back to Santiago. What she doesn’t know is if the guy followed her here or if she just had the terrible luck of encountering another psychopath. Alicia was very worried when she told me this, her friend is receiving letters that are making her paranoid, lately she thinks she sees that guy on every corner. There aren’t many girls like Violeta, according to Alicia, and that’s why men go crazy for her. This is a story I’d love to be able to write.

The third narrator/set of sections in the book is written by Violeta and is entitled “The Sender.” (If it isn’t clear yet, these sections rotate throughout, in this order: The Novel, The Recipient, The Novel, The Sender, The Novel, The Recipient . . . ) Violeta is an albino student who is troubled by He Who Is Writing a Novel, a fellow student who seems obsessed with her.

There are two things worth noting about Violeta. 1) in her youth, Violeta invents a magic land called Neutria. This shows up in all three sections, sometimes as a paradise, sometimes as a university, sometimes as a real location.

What comes next is the moment in which my childhood multiplies into details I’d love to recount and cannot. Most of them were lost the instant we played together, the rest are still there, in Neutria, and you can see them for yourself. Sometimes Neutria was the land of semi-divine emperors, of infinite cruelty or kindness, whose slothful and obese courtiers, in contrast, engaged in decadent melodramas. Other times it was a simple village where farmers, shepherds, and foreigners traded honey, cheese, bread, or fruit for a song or an entertaining story. Or it was the nexus of activity for stylized spies, convertibles, casinos, firearms, hotels, highways, and femme fatales. And in the middle of all those adult faces appears a boyish one, yours, insistently inquiring what it is that we’re playing, and coldly I reply that we’re playing the city of Neutria, not expecting you to make fun of us: you talk to yourself—my mother says people who talk to themselves are lunatics. Alicia gets up, says again that it isn’t make-believe, that Neutria exists; it’s a beautiful place, incredible, we travel there on long weekends with our parents. It’s so much fun that we like to recall everything that happened there. That’s what we’re doing, remembering all the wondrous things, not inventing them.

2) At the university, she’s involved with a professor who promotes “Corporalism,” a set of literary beliefs that are intentionally hazy, but generally involve doing extreme things with your body while a writer observes and writes your flesh into the text, and also involves some quasi-Barthesian rhetoric. From the “Corporalization Manifesto”:

The reader lives and the author has died, we’ll proclaim, though our goal will be to resuscitate him, to give him what he never had: body, flesh, presence. And what will die instead is the text, the artistic product that escapes from our hands and becomes merchandise: all the time we spent spilling our blood across the page is transformed into food for publishers, newspapers, critics. That’s why we’re anemic, that’s why we need to suck up the humors of others and end up dissolved in foreign books, that’s why we die every time we read, in handwriting that is not our own, a sentence that belongs to us.

So there’s that. The last part of Loquela starts to revolve around this group, their actions and beliefs, reflecting back on everything that came before. Like I said before, this is layered. It’s a book in which there are “rabbit hole moments,” when the spiral of narrative levels is simply dazzling. And there’s this thing that happens towards the end, where there’s basically a series of beginnings, a sort of loop of possible events. For me, it starts to read like the best of electronic music. (Or anything by Mark McGuire.)) Ideas and threads resurfacing in new contexts, textures that you can lose yourself in, spaces that seem utterly alien and exciting. (Not surprising that Labbé is a musician.)



For a book that opens with an ending, I guess it makes sense for me to wrap this up by going back to the title, Loquela. It’s a strange, slippery word first used by Ignatius de Loyola way back in the middle ages, and then adopted by Roland Barthes:

Loquela is a word that designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover’s discourse.

And that’s really what Loquela is: the flux of language around death and love. It’s a book I hope you buy and that I hope we can talk about. I don’t get it, but the experience of rereading it—in which every paragraph reframed the whole book, convinced me it was about something else—was exhilarating. It may never get it’s own hashtag trend, or be a best-seller, but great literature never really does.

1 Books like this—ones that present the new, the different—are ones that excite me and, I think, used to excite a large number of literary readers before the Twitter-agree-o-verse came into being. Now, instead of reading challenging, unique things that expand your ways of thinking, people wear “Art Should Comfort the Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable” t-shirts and miss the irony.

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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