30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon, translated (illustrated, and with an introduction) by Wyatt Mason, and out from Yale University Press.

When’s the last time you read a book, and were so moved or inspired by what you read that you immediately hotfoot it to the closest bookstore to buy up all the rest of said author’s works? I, truly, can’t remember. Maybe Patrick Süskind’s works back in 2005? (By which logic, does that mean I’ve been only moderately inspired by authors I’ve read for almost the past 10 years? Yikes . . .)

Anyway, Tiffany (who, among many other things, runs a food and book blog, tiffany ist, and who should come to Rochester post-haste and make this for me) experienced just that after reading Michon’s work, something that in its own right is inspiring to once again contemplate, discover, and stock up on those authors whose works have moved you.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

For the rest of the review, go here.

30 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

In the first of five short stories, Michon provides the intimate details of Joseph Roulin’s life as it shortly overlapped with van Gogh’s until Joseph decides to sell one of his van Gough’s pieces. Michon dives into each and every minute detail of Joseph’s life—his job, political views, excessive drinking, reaction to van Gogh’s death, and inability to appreciate why van Gogh’s art reached the masterpiece level. Each and every word is carefully calculated like each line an artist commits to the canvas. The prose fluctuates between time and space without notice as the art that is being described. This is evidence in the following excerpt:

I want it to bear his name; so that words and the rhythms of language instantly endorse the great peacoat and hat of the post office; so that words and their rhythms grow old in Marseille and remember Arles; so that words end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me—and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.

The voice of Masters and Servants is synonymous with the narrator of Wes Anderson films. The narrator is neither neutral nor impartial because his/her agenda is to paint a specific image and induce a calculated perception of the artists and their subjects. The best descriptor I could find for the narrator’s voice was that of a personification of a manifesto; one whose goal is to remind use that artists are people and art does not stand on its own without the artist lest we forget the hardships, confusions, and externalities that resulted in our beloved masterpieces. For example,

Van Gogh—who never thought as far as Rome, who was too modest or barbaric to think that far—van Gogh had thought about Marseille throughout his life; I don’t know what novel had made him imagine it to be some sort of artists’ Mecca, as he’s said, but he was surely the only artist to think it so, all because the paint Monticelli had lived and died there—done in by arrogance, misery, and absinthe, a parinter he ranked as highly as Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix—Monticelli whose painting I wouldn’t know how to judge but that they tell me aren’t so ugly . . . So van Gogh wanted to go to Marseille with Gauguin . . . who knows if a rich van Gogh wouldn’t have been as elegant as Manet, and just as smitten with etiquette. Due has never made it there: and, postmortem, he delegated Roulin.

Each of the remaining four short stories are equally delightful and enlightening in content and language. I was so moved by this work, I promptly biked to the bookstore to pick up the remaining Michon works available in English, which, as it turns out, are all part of the Yale University Press Margellos Series.

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

Interestingly, Antoon brings in the reality of war, often in a matter-of-fact way, as background and context. He neither dwells on it, nor ignores it. This isn’t a novel centered on brutalities, battles, and direct conflicts between the occupied and their occupiers. The same approach applies to the corpses, with the exception of two toward the end of the book; one might expect graphic detail that would personalize all involved—the dead men, the relatives who brought them, the corpse washer, and by extension, the reader. Again, this is not a novel of outrage against the depredations and horrors of war in a visceral manner. Instead, the personal lives of Jawad, his family, his friends, and community members are warped by the unrelenting backdrop of conflict after conflict.

Antoon writes in two different, alternating styles. One is grounded in realistic portrayals in a time of distortion:

I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were going to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seen him dead in my arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked so much like my friend, had acquired was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looked like a period which had put an end to the sentence of his life. One of the men who brought him to me said he was a shop owner and was killed in a robbery. Thank God, I thought. It’s not a sectarian killing. But does it matter to the dead how and why they die? Theft, greed, hatred or sectarianism? We, who are waiting in line for our turn, keep mulling over death, but the dead person just dies and is indifferent.

The short declarative sentences even when describing the horrific have a certain flatness of tone. Note how Antoon brings by economy of detail into one paragraph the role of corpse washer, the personal (a dead friend), violence, art-making that is life (the period at the end of a sentence), the everyday—a shop owner with friends, sectarian divisions, the finality of death.

The other mode is poetic leading to the surreal. Jawad’s first love, Reem, has just written from Amman revealing that she and her family had left Baghdad because she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has had a mastectomy:

I see Reem standing in an orchard full of blossoming pomegranate trees the wind moves the branches and the red blossoms appear to be waving from afar. Reem waves as well and her hands say Come close! I walk toward her and call out her name, but I can hear neither my own voice nor the sound of my footsteps. All I hear is the wind rustling Reem smiles without saying anything. I am closer and I see two pomegranates on her chest instead of her breasts. She notices that I am looking at them and smiles as she cups them with her hands from below. Her fingernails and lips are painted pomegranate red. I rush toward her, and when I reach her and hug her, the left pomegranate falls to the ground. When I bend down to pick it up I see red stains bathing my arm. I turn back and see Reem crying as she tries to stop the fountain of blood gushing from the wound.

Antoon does quite an interesting thing as the novel progresses, as he removes the boundaries between the surreal and real-world encounters. An example: when male relatives bring just the decapitated head of a loved one for burial. The routine of washing comes up against the ghastly. Conversely, what seems real becomes revealed as dream: a description of Jawad waiting in line to get his visa to travel to Amman—a plausible step in the progression of the plot—when a suicide bomber ahead in line detonates, and Jawad is covered in blood, and then awakens. Dream and reality, the mundane and the surreal, blur.

This merger of reality and dream comes together in the second love affair Jawad has, with his cousin who has come with her family to live with Jawad and his mother. Over a succession of nights the two insomniacs grow closer and eventually become lovers. When it is time for her family to leave and for Jawad to step forward in one last opportunity to ask for her in marriage, he balks. This is a night-time relationship and cannot be sustained in something like ordinary life, the light of day. Death and Jawad’s duties toward the dead have overtaken him.

Significant roles and symbols interweave to tie the novel tighter together: an uncle in self imposed exile because of Communist sympathies and the impotence of political parties; statues in many roles and anecdotes; normal human institutions such as universities contending with the not-normal.

Pomegranates, like those referenced in the Reem dream sequence already cited, are part of Islamic religious symbolism. One must eat all the small pieces, the arils, of the pomegranate because one will always be from a tree in paradise. Beside the building where the corpses are washed is a small garden watered by the run-off from the washing ceremony. At the center of this garden is a pomegranate tree, beloved by Jawad’s father and eventually by Jawad, who sometimes rests beside it and talks to it. Two twigs from the tree go into each coffin as a symbolic way of easing the journey of the dead.

At the end of the novel Jawad has accepted his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV showing yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies. While his sense of vocational call in the moment might be muted, and is a call always caught up in the troubling reality of death, here, however, is a moment where Jawad sees his place in his world.

The novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing, until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:

It started singing with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .

The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.

Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”

The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”

I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.

But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Grant Barber on Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, from Yale University Press.

Grant is not only a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, but has reviewed for Three Percent for forever, basically, and sometimes also performs as Chad’s stunt double at conferences.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

For the rest of the review, go here.

27 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This month, Yale University Press is publishing La Vida Doble by Chilean author Arturo Fontaine, translated by Megan McDowell.

Set in the darkest years of the Pinochet dictatorship, La Vida Doble is the story of Lorena, a leftist militant who arrives at a merciless turning point when every choice she confronts is impossible. Captured by agents of the Chilean repression, withstanding brutal torture to save her comrades, she must now either forsake the allegiances of motherhood or betray the political ideals to which she is deeply committed.

Arturo Fontaine’s Lorena is a study in contradictions—mother and combatant, intellectual and lover, idealist and traitor—and he places her within a historical context that confounds her dilemmas. Though she has few viable options, she is no mere victim, and Fontaine disallows any comfortable high moral ground. His novel is among the most subtle explorations of human violence ever written.

To mark this publication, YUP’s blog just published this interview Megan McDowell did with the author.

Megan McDowell: What does it mean to be translated for an English-speaking audience who won’t have the intimate experience and knowledge of Chile’s history that your Chilean readers have had?

Arturo Fontaine: It’s true that the Chileans, Argentines, or Spanish who have read the novel are closer to what I’m narrating. Even so, the story itself is enough. A novel is like a laboratory where an experiment is taking place, but the experiment can be repeated in other places and in other ways because what it shows is of general significance. Hopefully the readers of La Vida Doble: A Novel will be submerged in the strange and idiosyncratic world in which Lorena must live, where they’ll find not “Chileans” or “Latin Americans” but rather simply humans of flesh and bone who cross over by means of the story. Hopefully. Lorena herself says: “Listen well: don’t let the historical anecdote I’m telling constrain you; Chile’s narrow geography, either.

MMcD: A related question—in the U.S., words like “Socialism,” “Communism,” and “Revolution” have a different resonance than they do in Chile. Even for people on the left, “communism” is associated with experiences of dictatorship and repression, and doesn’t have romantic or idealistic associations that it does for Lorena, or that people in Chile are more aware of, even if they don’t share them; there is little history of socialist ideas or movements in the U.S. Is there anything in particular you think your North American readers should be aware of about Chile’s history as they read your book?

AF: Not much, really. Lorena makes things understood as they need to be understood; for example, what it means to her to belong to a radical revolutionary movement that tries to win a utopia through armed struggle, one that demands from her the complete sacrifice of her life. There have been so many movements like that, and there always will be. Whether the inspiration comes from Che Guevara, or the movement’s name is this or that, or whatever the specific content of the project for a new society, these are not essential matters. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for something that feels huge, almost impossible, is always a human possibility. The Islamic fundamentalists are painful reminders of this. Furthermore, the immediate enemy is brutal dictatorship. But the use of torture to get information out of terrorist groups is something that has happened in many countries, even in some democratic ones and not too long ago . . . I would like for the novel to show, in contrast to the film Zero Dark Thirty, the victim’s perspective, the way his or her identity as a person is gradually torn to shreds. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty—in spite of its merits, such as its momentum—takes on torture in a superficial way. It only shows us the perpetrator’s gaze, and the victim is thus dehumanized. This kind of treatment “un-realizes” cruelty. Henry James, comparing some Dutch painters with Guardi, at some point uses the expression “artistic conscience”. “The Italian,” writes James, “. . . dispenses with effort and insight, and trusts to mere artifice and manner—and a very light manner at that. . . . The Dutchman . . . feels that, unless he is faithful, he is doing nothing.” I believe in that concept. I believe that an artist must be faithful to the world he is trying to show, to the world he wants us to imagine. Kafka, for example, was a master in this. For an artist to do this superficially is an ethical failure in his work as such.

MMcD: As I worked on the book, you were very helpful and generous in answering my questions, and you also kept a bit of distance, stressing that I had to find the voice, the way to convey the book in English, which was something that I appreciated a lot—a translator couldn’t ask for a better balance. I wonder if you have spent time considering your stance on the translator’s role, or if you’ve ever been a translator yourself?

AF: I’m happy you felt that way. The novel in English is your work. La Vida Doble: A Novel should read as if it had been thought and written in English. I think your translation achieves that. It’s been your responsibility, as translator, to find an equivalent to what one reads in Spanish, but also flows in English. Translating is a creative task, an artistic and difficult one. But not impossible. Proust’s A la recherché . . . flows with a rhythm characteristic of French, of English in Scott Moncrieff’s translation, and of Spanish by Pedro Salinas, José María Quiroga Plá and Consuelo Berges. A priori, it seems like it shouldn’t be possible. I don’t think El Quijote ever had an English translation that did it justice until Edith Grossman’s. If Nabokov had read Cervantes in that translation he wouldn’t have written what he did in his Lectures on Literature. He didn’t get the humor or the humanity of Quijote. Gregory Rabassa did an extraordinary translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. When I was studying at Columbia University, Rabassa came to a translation workshop directed by Frank MacShane, who was then the director of the Writing Division. I asked Rabassa what his secret was in translating One Hundred Years of Solitude. He answered: “Before starting to work, I would spend twenty minutes reading a novel by Faulkner”.

And yes, I have published some versions—I don’t dare called them translations—of some classic poems in Spanish. Many times, I must admit, I’ve failed. For example, I’ve struggled and struggled for years trying to translate two very famous poems by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” They stood by me like two faithful dogs during my father’s long and painful illness before he died. I have never managed to translate them. I go back and try again every once in a while. The problem, of course, is their music, so interlaced with the metaphors and the meaning. These are cases when it seems like the music shapes the meaning.

Read the entire piece here. And hopefully we’ll have a review of this up shortly.

6 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

The Lair by Norman Manea, translated from the Romanian by Oana Sanziana Marian and published by Yale University Press

This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.

“Next time I kill you, I promise. The labyrinth made of a single straight line which is invisible and everlasting. Yours truly, D. This Borgesian death threat, assembled from words cut out of the newspaper and sent to Peter Gaspar, an exiled Romanian professor in upstate New York, opens up the labyrinthine plot of Norman Manea’s novel, The Lair. In this elaborate, mysterious portrait of three exiles struggling to adapt to their adopted countries, nothing is what it seems and no lines are straight. The most serious threats are the unstated ones.

Augustin Gora was the first to leave Romania. Granted asylum while in the United States on a Fulbright, Gora was able to establish himself in academia with the help of an older eminent Romanian émigré, Cosmin Dima, a literary stand-in for Mircea Eliade. But Gora has withdrawn completely to his lair of books, his “cell of papyrus” where “the past is present and the present is an echo of the past.” To Gora’s surprise, his ravishing, inscrutable wife Lu had refused to leave Romania with him. When she does show up in America years later, after Ceacescu’s fall, it is with Gaspar, now her lover.

The three form an uneasy love triangle that is soon overshadowed by the cryptic threat. Against his better judgment, Gaspar reviewed Dima’s memoirs and exposed the “Old Man’s” fascist sympathies and support for the Iron Guard in the 1930s, a red rag to Romanian nationalists at home and abroad. Not long after, a fellow émigré and former disciple of Dima’s is shot dead and the threatening postcard arrives in Gaspar’s mail. Gaspar begins calling Gora obsessively, mulling over the possible significance of minute details. Former students are drawn into the investigation—perhaps suspects, perhaps innocent bystanders—as is campus security, the state police, and the FBI.

The Lair is by turns hypnotic, baffling, and intoxicating. It is a fascinating novel of ideas whose characters are on unsteady ground, having lost their footing in the Old World and not yet found an intellectual hold in the New.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Claudio Magris’s Blindly, which is translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel and published by Yale University Press as part of their Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Yale’s World Republic of Letters Series deserves a special shout-out for all the great work they’ve been doing. At it’s core, this is a really admirable undertaking:

The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

Most importantly though, over the past few years they’ve published Edith Grossman (and some of her translations), Claudio Magris, Can Xue, Romain Gary/Emile Ajar, Witold Gombrowicz, Norman Manea, and Ranko Marinkovic, among others. (The forthcoming titles are some of the ones that I’m most looking forward to in 2013.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of Vincent’s review:

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

“It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .”

Click here to read the entire review.

15 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.

The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:

It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .

Asylum, gulag; Potato, potahto.

The adventures of Jorgenson and the experiences at Dachau all come back to the real center of the book: Goli Otok. The only certainty of the novel is that Tore was one of the unfortunate Italians who travelled across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia to help Tito build communism, only to be imprisoned on the tiny island of Goli Otok once Tito fell out with Stalin. The gulag years inform much of the, er, action, forever a point of reference for our not-at-all reliable narrator. When a paragraph begins detailing Jorgenson’s adventures, there’s more than a good chance it’ll end with Goli Otok, blending the very separate events into one hell of a dense puree. The success of the book is in Magris’s excellent prose and Anne Milano Appel’s translation. It is easy to see how this could all result in an infuriating mess, but, despite some frustrating stretches, Magris’s writing is seductive, keeping the reading going without ever making it easy.

To be sure, non-linear books that abandon convention are nothing new. In this sense, the odd structure of Blindly, which no review can ignore, is less interesting than the ideas which inevitably spring to mind even while wading through its more laborious passages, most notable being the manner in which victims appropriate other stories in order to make sense of their own. If Tore is a madman, he is indeed a “pazzo lucido,” a lucid madman, one capable of recognizing the absurdity of his own fate in context with the inhumanity of history. Could this be Magris commenting on the usefulness or fiction? The importance of history and culture? Perhaps, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one gets the sense that Tore is condemned to retell his story for the remainder of his days. Unlike the Mariner, Tore’s story is composed of many others, liberated from the constraints of experience. When Tore describes what he has read about Jorgeson in a book, he can’t help but critique his autobiographer, stealing the story for himself, becoming the Icelandic king. The appropriation tells us, and him, more about himself than any concentration camp narrative could. This, in a sense, is the usefulness of stories. We are never free from fictions, our or anyone’s, especially when it relates to some very real tragedies.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Stephen Weiner (who runs the Suspicious Humanist newsletter) about Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s Hocus Bogus, translated from the French by David Bellos and published by Yale University Press.

Hocus Bogus was one of my favorite books from the 2011 BTBA shortlist, a delightful surprise based around a fascinating, strange hoax. Stephen lays this out in the review, so I won’t rehash it here . . .

But I will say that one of the fall books that I’m most excited about is David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Doesn’t look like Macmillan/Faber and Faber have a page up for this yet, but here’s a clip from the jacket copy:

Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices fo Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron’s Avatar.

More on that as soon as we get a galley . . .

But in terms of the Hocus Bogus review, here’s the opening:

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

Click here to read the entire piece.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

More than other kids my age, I was aware of world events, especially the anti-colonial struggle sweeping the third world at the time. I vividly remember media reports of bombs going off in the French Algerian war. So it was that I was already tuned into the issues of the book. Gary took on themes that were to become of significant social importance in the future, including the environment and race relations. In Los Angeles he became a full-blown celebrity, writing articles for, among others, Life Magazine, and appearing often on television in both France and the U.S. As we shall see, this fame was exactly what he later sought to escape.

In 1945 Gary won the Prix de Critiques for his novel A European Education about anti-Nazi resistance movements. In 1974 his book Cuddles, a strange tale involving a python in a Paris apartment, was nominated for the Renaudot prize, awarded to a first novel by a new writer. It was only eligible because it was written under Gary’s secret pseudonym, Émile Ajar. He anonymously withdrew it from the contest in order not to deceive the judges. By the time he wrote Hocus Bogus in 1976, Gary had been intensely criticized by younger people who labeled him a Gaullist, part of the old, tired establishment. He was caught in the ironic dilemma of having taken a pseudonym to hide from the celebrity he had worked so hard to achieve.

Life Before Us became the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century and was also nominated for the Prix Goncourt, a prize that may not be awarded to an author more than once in his/her lifetime. Gary, of course, had already won for The Roots of Heaven. He was well aware that because of his deception, other nominees might be deprived of their chance to win. In an extremely convoluted series of events he threw the reporters, who were desperately searching for the author of this book, onto the track of his cousin Paul Pavlowitch. They had no choice but to believe that Pavlowitch, like the first person protagonist of Hocus Bogus, suffered from mental illness, which served to further confuse everyone. This was exactly what Gary had intended. The book did win the prize and was accepted by Pavlowitch. Even after the truth of its authorship was revealed, many reporters as well as academics refused to believe it, so convincing was the hoax.

Hocus Bogus is the false (but actually true) confession of Gary admitting to be Ajar, and an extremely clever critique of the literary critics. The ambiguous protagonist—Gary? Ajar? Pavlowitch?—believes he is a paranoid schizophrenic who confuses his personal paranoia with the world situations of the mid 1970s. This book is of particular interest to me because of my own schizophrenia. My whole life is involved in dealing with this debilitating condition, and yet, because I am intelligent enough to hide my disability, I am often put in the ironic dilemma of educating my friends and family as to its nature and severity. I also relate to Hocus Bogus in that I am often tortured by inner questions about my personal identity, feeling alternately that I am the only thing that exists, and that I do not exist at all.

To me, Romain Gary will remain a hero of humanist literature, not only because of what he wrote but also because of the life he lived.

10 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Adonis’ Selected Poems, which Yale brought out not too long ago in Khaled Mattawa’s translation.

Vincent Francone has written for us a few times in the past and is a reader for TriQuarterly Online, a site that should probably be on our “links” page. (And will be shortly.)

Here’s the opening of his review:

Anyone here in the United States who has paid attention to Nobel Prize predictions these last few years is undoubtedly familiar with the name Adonis, though probably unfamiliar with his poetry. This may have less to do with American philistinism and more to do with the lack of English translations of his work. Luckily, Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Margellos World Republic of Letters, has published Adonis Selected Poems remedying this situation. The book—beautifully packaged and lovingly translated by Khaled Mattawa—works well to introduce the uninitiated to the enigmatic poems of a major figure in world literature. The introduction will be, for some, a revelation and, to others, confounding. To be sure, Adonis has ambition and vision to burn, though the end results of his work can just as often bemuse as inspire.

I am always one to champion international poetry, so I was quick to get my hands on this book. Reading it, however, has been slow. This is not to say it is a slog, but a thought that often arises when wading through some of the less accessible, more inscrutable poems in this collection is whether or not western readers are able to fully appreciate these works. Could there be something lost to cultural relativism? Is it necessary to know a bit about Arabic literature to truly enjoy these poems? Perhaps, though there is no shortage of impenetrable, imagistic American poetry currently confusing grad students and, to borrow a phrase form Robinson Jeffers, duping the duped. That being the case, what is the Western reader to do with “I see a word— / all of us around it are mirage and mud Imrulqais could not shake it away, al-Ma‘ari was / its child, Junaid crouched under it, al-Hallaj and al-Niffari too”? Even with endnotes, moments such as these threaten to alienate the reader unschooled in the history of Arabic letters.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anyone here in the United States who has paid attention to Nobel Prize predictions these last few years is undoubtedly familiar with the name Adonis, though probably unfamiliar with his poetry. This may have less to do with American philistinism and more to do with the lack of English translations of his work. Luckily, Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Margellos World Republic of Letters, has published Adonis Selected Poems remedying this situation. The book—beautifully packaged and lovingly translated by Khaled Mattawa—works well to introduce the uninitiated to the enigmatic poems of a major figure in world literature. The introduction will be, for some, a revelation and, to others, confounding. To be sure, Adonis has ambition and vision to burn, though the end results of his work can just as often bemuse as inspire.

I am always one to champion international poetry, so I was quick to get my hands on this book. Reading it, however, has been slow. This is not to say it is a slog, but a thought that often arises when wading through some of the less accessible, more inscrutable poems in this collection is whether or not western readers are able to fully appreciate these works. Could there be something lost to cultural relativism? Is it necessary to know a bit about Arabic literature to truly enjoy these poems? Perhaps, though there is no shortage of impenetrable, imagistic American poetry currently confusing grad students and, to borrow a phrase form Robinson Jeffers, duping the duped. That being the case, what is the Western reader to do with “I see a word— / all of us around it are mirage and mud Imrulqais could not shake it away, al-Ma‘ari was / its child, Junaid crouched under it, al-Hallaj and al-Niffari too”? Even with endnotes, moments such as these threaten to alienate the reader unschooled in the history of Arabic letters.

But isn’t part of the reason one comes to a translated work to learn about another culture and gain an insight outside the scope of our experience? Indeed, though the complaints already leveled at poetry (elitist, intentionally obscure) seem to double when reading poetry in translation. The reader of Orhan Pamuk’s novels can maneuver through the cultural and historical references so long as the road is paved with prose. When dealing with poetry, which can be—sure, why not say it?—a little cumbersome both in and out of translation, readers may be turned off and publishers may tune out. Ultimately, this is a shame, though when a book such as Adonis Selected Poems arrives on these shores the hope is that the savvy reader will let go of provincial obstacles and just read the damn thing.

How to read Adonis, a challenging poet to say the least? The approach should be the same as when reading many of the greats: let the poems be and abandon the need for full comprehension, at least the first time through (and the poems get a lot better upon rereading). Not everything is here for our understanding, and not everything suffers as a result. Oh, there are moments when the reader has more than a good idea of what is going on (“A bullet spins / oiled with the eloquence of civilization. / It tears the face of dawn. No minute passes / in which this scene is not replayed”) and as one gets further, and the progression of Adonis’s career is revealed, the earlier, modernist poems give way to clearer, often striking work. This is evident in the penultimate section, taken from the 2003 collection
‘Beginnings of the Body, Ends of the Sea.” Here Adonis demonstrates balance between imagery and emotion: “Your mouth’s light, no redness / can match its horizons // Your mouth, the light and shadow / of a rose.” So while there are rewards throughout the book, the reader is offered little to no favors. This is not a bad thing. Poetry requires that one slow down to appreciate its mystery. It asks the reader to put in effort and attention and to slow the hell down. In an age of streaming videos, tweets, and real time news, poetry offers a rare form of solace. Essentially, works such as Adonis’s ask the reader to rethink how they define poetry. Expectations will undoubtedly be thwarted, but the effort leads to some startling places.

21 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Click here for all past and future posts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to Jeff Waxman for alerting me to Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, which Yale University Press is bringing out next March.

Why Translation Matters argues for the cultural importance of translation, and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role. As the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman writes in her introduction, “My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.”

For Grossman, translation has a transcendent importance: “Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”

Throughout the four chapters of this bracing volume, Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work, as well as her rare ability to explain the intellectual sphere that she inhabits as interpreter of the original text, inspires and provokes the reader to engage with translation in an entirely new way.

As if I wasn’t totally sold simply by the title and author (not to mention above description), this Harold Bloom quote is over-the-top:

“Edith Grossman, the Glenn Gould of translators, has written a superb book on the art of the literary translation. Even Walter Benjamin is surpassed by her insights into her task, which she rightly sees as imaginatively independent. This should become a classic text.”—Harold Bloom

March seems so far away . . .

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

27 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last night the French-American Foundation and Gould Foundation held their annual translation prize ceremony, honoring Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays in the fiction category for their translation of Small Lives by Pierre Michon (Archipelago) and Matthew Cobb & Malcolm Debevoise in nonfiction for their translation of Life Explained by Michel Morange (Yale University Press)

As Thomas Bishop pointed out in his opening remarks, it’s interesting that both winners were translated by a pair of translators. Not that this is necessarily good or bad, just interesting. He also gave a shout out to American university presses as one of the admirable publishing segments of the book business trying to do a lot of literature in translation.

Of the finalists for the nonfiction category, four of the five titles were published by university presses (the exception being Camus’s Notebooks that came out from Ivan R. Dee). The fiction category had a different make-up, but three of the six finalists were from independent presses (Archipelago, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books).

The event—which took place at the Century Association—was very well attended (standing room only!), filled with all the editors, agents, translators, and other cultural peoples involved in international lit. (Especially French literature. One of the cool things the FAF did, which I’ve never seen before, is hand out a printed list of all RSVPs, so attendees could see who else was supposedly there and seek them out . . . Actually sort of helpful for a reception of this sort, where you’re only one or two connections away from everyone else . . .

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Can Xue’s Five Spice Street (click here to order from Harvard Book Store; click here for the review), which was recently released by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series.

Before getting into the review itself, I want to mention that Can Xue and Isabel Allende are appearing together at the 92nd St. Y on April 13th at 9:00pm. And that this might be the most unlikely pairing of authors I’ve ever seen. (If you read my review, you’ll probably know what I mean.)

Here’s the opening to the review:

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

“When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.”

(For the rest—including the edited version of that paragraph—click here.)

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Admittedly, books from university presses are under-represented on this year’s Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, a situation that will hopefully change next year.

But for now, I thought that before announcing the finalists for fiction and poetry (and yes, I do know what they are, but that post won’t go live until tomorrow morning . . .), I’d take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting university presses and the translations they published this year.

At the top of the list has to be Columbia University Press. There’s no other university press in the country doing as many interesting Asian works in translation as Columbia. (Not to mention the fact that their books are handsomely designed, and paperback editions of several — such as I Love Dollars — have been picked up by very prestigious presses, like Penguin.)

The two big books that came out this year as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series (both of which could’ve easily made our longlist) are Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Chinese author Wang Anyi was actually a Reading the World book this year, and got some very nice coverage when it came out this summer. Here’s a description from an article by Howard Choy:

Spanning forty odd years from 1945 to 1986, the novel is tripartite. Book I is set in the glittery city of Shanghai during the latter half of the 1940s. Wang Qiyao, a glamorous girl from a lowly family who dreamed of becoming a movie star in her school days, takes third place in the first Miss Shanghai beauty contest after the war. She is then kept as a mistress by a politician, who is unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1948. In Book II she retreats to the countryside and soon returns as a neighborhood nurse to the fallen city in the 1950s. Associating with three men—a profligate son of the rich, a half-Russian loafer, and a photographer—she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock in 1961. Largely skipping the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Book III covers the decade after the political turmoil. The protagonist spends a simple life with her daughter and young admirers in the reviving city until her daughter gets married and leaves for the United States. With its thinly veiled allusions to Lady Yang Yuhuan’s (719-755) demise romanticized in Bo Juyi’s (772-846) oft-quoted poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” the story ends with Wang Qiyao’s violent death while protecting a box of gold bars left to her by the politician. The last thing she sees on her deathbed is the mise en scène of a bedroom murder that she watched forty years ago in a film studio. Miss Shanghai Wang Qiyao’s declining life from youth to old age can be understood synecdochically as Shanghai’s vicissitudes from the postwar to the post-revolutionary periods.

And for anyone interested in sampling this, a pdf excerpt of the first chapter is available through Columbia’s site.

Korean author Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls consists of three stories, including the title one, which “explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule.”

Bill Marx of PRI’s The World interviewed Ch’oe Yun and made this sound even more intriguing:

The World: Critics describe you as an experimental, post-modernist author, heavily influenced by Western literary influences. How have avant-garde techniques shaped your writing? In what ways have they not?

Ch’oe Yun: In each of the three works I took pains to apply the most appropriate form to the story’s world-view. I’ll grant you that this approach can appear experimental. I’ve never been one to agonize over technique, though. The notion of language and expression as constituting their own world-view is part and parcel of much of what I’ve read in Western literary thought and aesthetics.

*

Another university press that deserves a lot of praise (and actually got some as well) is Syracuse University Press and their Middle East Literature in Translation Series. (American University at Cairo also deserves some special praise for all they’ve done in making Arabic works available to English readers, but I’ll write about them separately at another time.)

The Virgin of Solitude by Iranian author Taghi Modarressi was one of the most intriguing publications to come out from this series last year. Here’s their description:

Set around the time of the revolution, The Virgin of Solitude follows the parallel lives of a transplanted Austrian woman, who has made Iran her home, and her grandson, Nuri, who desperately misses his mother but hides his longing behind a veneer of teenage bravado. As the turmoil of the revolution envelops the country, grandmother and grandson witness the dissolution of social, class, and political order, while searching for a sense of belonging.

Also, Contemporary Iraqi Fiction was a book that we positively reviewed over the summer. On the Syracuse website you can find podcasts of editor Shakir Mustafa reading and answering questions, and an interview with the aforementioned Bill Marx.

*

Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard wasn’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award (we don’t consider retranslations), this is a good example of the fine work that’s going on at Yale University Press these days. And this year promises to be even more exciting, with the launch of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series and the publication of Can Xue’s novel Five Spice Street.

There are any number of other university presses deserving of attention—University of Nebraska and Northwestern are two others with a long history of publishing literature in translation—and this year we’ll do our best to review more of their books. In many ways, that’s what a site like Three Percent exists for . . .

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