21 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Yesterday we ran Part I of an interview between author Mylene Fernández Pintado and translator Dick Cluster. Part I left off with Mylene going over a little background information on their work together on A Corner of the World to be. This here is Part II of that interview.

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

MF: But of course the main thing we are discussing here is the translation. Could you describe some of the choices you had to make—and we had to make—in this book?

DC: First let me make some observations about the general issue of “translating Cuba” for U.S. readers. Sometimes the translator will need to subtly “un-teach” U.S. readers what they think they know about Cuba, un-teach notions that can get in the way of their understanding of what the writer means to say. Sometimes the translator will need to help clue in the U.S. reader to subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) that the Cuban reader understands but the one here will not. In A Corner of the World, with its many small touches of Havana life and context, it was mostly the latter. Some of these have to do with economics and social structure and customs, some with the Cuban language itself.

One of my favorite examples in terms of Cuban language also presents the eternal challenge facing translators when we have to deal with puns. Here’s what the translation says: “When I was a kid, and I read The Arabian Nights for the first time, that’s where I discovered the word peddler. Ever since, I’ve associated it with bicycles, because I imagined it must be a guy pedaling along while hawking his wares. Later I found out what the word actually meant. So simple, but now, I don’t know. I don’t want to give up on the guy who bikes through Baghdad with a basketful of plantains and boniatos teetering on top of his turban.” In the original, the pun is not “peddle” and “pedal,” but “viandante” and “vianda.” A viandante is someone who goes by on a road, a passerby. Viandas in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world are any kind of foodstuffs, but in Cuba they are specifically tropical root vegetables (such as yuca, boniato, malanga) and plantains. So it’s a play on words, but at the same time it shows how Cubans cubanize things, and I wanted to maintain both aspects. I hope it works.
A related problem of language and culture has to do with the Malecón, Havana’s curving seaside drive which you’ve already talked about, which really becomes one of the characters in your novel. But the word denotes not just the drive or boulevard—it’s also the seawall that protects the shore, and the wide sidewalk in between the wall and the drive, and more metaphorically it’s the place where the sea and land meet, which in Cuba is always tied up—again this issue—with the sense of being an island. All of this comes into play in a paragraph toward the end of the book, where the female protagonist and narrator, Marian, goes out to the Malecón, thinking about the male protagonist, Daniel. The translation reads:

London is gruff and has no seacoast. I looked at Havana, bordered by miles of ocean, but for the first time I felt the water was besieging us. What we have is a wall where sea meets land, not a beach that one can walk from end to end, setting foot simultaneously in city and sea. What we can do is to look out over the waves, which exist as a promise of the rest of the world. But the promise is unreliable. Like Daniel’s return.

That’s probably the place where, after besieging you with questions about the passage, I added the most words—words that were implied but not explicit in the original. If I hadn’t, the middle two sentences would have said only: “. . . felt the water was besieging us. The Malecón is not a beach, we can’t walk it. Only look at it from here. It exists as a promise. . .” That would have made some sense, but not much, and I think the poignancy and contradictions would have been lost.

In terms of the “un-teaching” I mentioned before, there’s a passage about how Cubans requesting visas to go abroad are met by suspicion in the embassies of the most-requested countries, embassies whose staff are:

. . . fed up with Cubans, people who were not from the First World yet not from the Third, who were neither citizens nor immigrants. People who traveled out of their own country so as to tell everyone where they went about the great charms of their home. Who lectured anyone who would listen and some who would not, drawing on their endless storehouses of nostalgia, taking full advantage of their new surroundings but always with disdainful expressions of melancholic superiority.”

The meaning there is a hundred percent clear, the words are straightforward, and getting from the Spanish to the English was not hard. But I worried that to American readers it would make no sense, or would provoke some vague feeling of disbelief, since as far as we are concerned the most-requested country is ours, Cubans here are deemed political refugees by mere virtue of being Cuban, and they are always described as having “fled,” and never quoted about any charms of their homeland or its superiorities to the U.S. So I proposed the addition of, “The embassies of the most-requested countries, in many parts of Europe, for instance. . .” which is indeed the embassies the passage was about, as Cuban readers know without this being stated. You agreed about “in many parts of Europe” and said no to “for instance” as being unnecessarily didactic, so that’s what we did.

MF: Often when it comes to explaining something that’s unknown to the foreign reader, there’s the problem of how to clarify this while maintaining the literary level, explaining without getting at all didactic and damaging any of the lyricism in the prose. In this case, and in others, you found a way of not leaving the North Americans “in China” (as we say in Cuba), nor making them feel they are reading footnotes or endnotes—the things that readers in any case avoid because they don’t want to lose the thread of the story. That’s another of the merits of this translation, the way the necessary clarifications for the reader are always done in a literary manner, as if I’d written them in the original too.

Similarly I think the translations of what in Spanish we call guiños, winks, are also very well done. These are allusions to other works whether literary or artworks but without citing them explicitly. So I like the way in which you handled these “winks” originally directed at Spanish-speaking readers, sometimes replacing them with others closer to the Anglo reader, so you keep the book’s spirit intact without confronting the Anglo reader with things that are unnecessarily unfamiliar.

DC: I remember there was one where you had an allusion to a Lorca poem that I couldn’t figure out any way to handle, but a page later, when Marian says “no hay nada más,” I asked you, what about dropping in a substitute by having her say “Only that and nothing more,” which is the kind of thing she would do. And you wrote back, “Poe is great, I’m so happy you’ve managed to give him a place in the novel, it’s perfect for winding up the internal monologue there.”

There are also some moments of Cuban history. There’s a flashback about the parents of Marian’s ex-mother-in-law’s mother, who thought they would be exempt from the social revolution of the early ’60s, because they “knew people in the new government and had even bought some bonds to finance a plan for university autonomy.” The part about the bonds was likely to say nothing to U.S. readers. So, in the translation, they “knew some people in the new government, and had even once bought some underground bonds, during the previous one, to finance a plan for university autonomy.”

When Marian gives an exam to her university students, she thinks about “las mil brujerías que habían hecho” (the thousands of pieces of witchcraft they’d undertaken), “en que mi nombre estaba en todos los congeladores o en tazas llena de miel” (with my name in every freezer or glass full of honey), and that “muchos tendrían ropa interior roja” (many must be wearing red underwear). Again without saying so much as to hit a false note for Marian’s voice, it seemed possible to help out by naming the belief systems involved, of which U.S. readers might have heard, and to specify at least the purpose of the red: “. . . the thousand charms of spiritism and Santería that must be at work, with my name inside every freezer or every cupful of honey they employed. I tried to guess how many were wearing red underwear in honor of Changó.”

MF: Religion is always a problem to deal with in translations or simply in languages that are tied to doctrines different from our own. In the book all the tone is ironic, Marian’s professor-narrator voice is skeptical, but she’s talking about beliefs or superstitions that are common in Cuba. So the honey and the freezer have to do with charms that are supposed to sweeten someone’s disposition or paralyze their evil intentions, and for the red underwear you need to know something about our religious syncretism and how Cubans have a much more informal and less ceremonious relationship with the African figures who are linked to Catholic ones. Cubans talk to them, get mad at them, it’s like when the Greek gods in the Iliad have their preferred mortals whom they defend and talk to. So in doing the translation you had to make use of your years of Havana daily life and knowledge of popular beliefs, and your feeling for how we can be believers in many things, many mixtures, which for Cubans does not imply any contradiction.

DC: I’ll end with the way the way two different characters address Marian, which presented the problem of finding American English equivalents for the terms and what they imply. Her department chair calls her “Marian querida,” while her ex-mother-in-law calls her “Marian bonita.” This presented dilemmas I batted around both with my literary translators’ workshop group and with you. “Marian querida” might be either “honey” or “sweetie.” After some discussion we agreed that “Marian, honey,” would sound more like the Cuban “Marian, mi amor,” which (in both countries and languages) a waitress might use to address a customer, or in similar situations where the people don’t know each other and where the language is less rarified than in a university. “Marian, sweetie” was more the ticket for this. “Marian, bonita,” on the hand, was—in Cuba—something completely affected and out of place. It was peninsular Spanish, and the mother-in-law was putting on airs based on once having lived there as a diplomat’s wife. We settled on “Marian, my lovely,” for that.

MF: This was an interesting point—because “bonita” in the daily Spanish of Cubans means “pretty,” but in Spain, and especially in Madrid, it’s an adjective placed after a proper name as a signifier of trust, though it can also be used when calling a spade a spade as in “Sorry, bonita, that’s not the way it is.” But in Cuba this usage simply does not exist, and I only know it because I lived in Madrid for two years. Whereas “Marian querida” is used in a maternal way by her department head. I thought it was fantastic when you told me about the debate in your translators’ group around choosing the best word for that. I thought how fantastic it must be to work in that kind of collective way, which reminded me of the days when I worked in ICAIC and we wrote articles about film and had these heated discussion that were very productive both intellectually and socially.

Anyway, all the examples you’ve given reinforce what I always say, which is that translating a book is rewriting it in new words while keeping even the subtlest of its “soul breaths” intact.

And right now, while I’m giving these responses, sitting on your back deck in Oakland which I imagine is for you like my sea-view balcony, I think about the whole chain of coincidences that have brought us here. Maybe we do have a corner of the world on that Calle 17 we both feel is the “most charming and saddest street”—which, if you follow it to its end, takes you to the Malecón, which I call the anteroom of the rest of the world. So, thanks to you for your faith like Quijote’s in this book of ours, and to City Lights for its confidence in us, and to everyone who has inspired it, and to the Havana I always carry with me.

21 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a by Alta Ifland on Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and out from Twisted Spoon Press.

Fun fact! Bogdan and Chad were at MSU during the same time, where they became friends. Here’s the beginning of Alta’s review:

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as “Niculae Berca”). The Evil Vale is located in the region of Wallachia (southern Romania) in the Carpathians, and is described as a place seemingly forgotten by time. In the Author’s Afterword, Bogdan Suceava explains that the remoteness of the place made it possible for its inhabitants to avoid Communist laws and to live according to an archaic way of life that was rare even for the Balkans.

In the world that is the Evil Vale, the news from the rest of the world, which comes by way of newspapers and rumors, gets tangled up, mixing fact and fiction, the real and the surreal, the past and the present. Niculae Berca spends the summer telling stories to his grandchildren, in which the family history is an outgrowth of the country’s history, and the stories of real heroes sound like the folktales whose protagonists are based on mythical characters. Facts are always contaminated by myth (or, one could say, as the author reminds us, that the myth itself is often born of a real event that happened in the distant past). Most of the stories are centered on a local character: the Welldigger; Old Woman Fira—a soothsayer who can predict the future and who, after being converted by Father Dimitire, still keeps her old ways; Father Dimitrie, who lives to be two hundred; the bandit Oarta Aman, who, after terrorizing the entire province of Wallachia, is killed by the king’s army, then comes back as a ghost to frighten and humiliate the German soldiers.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

By this point several judges have had an opportunity to share their thoughts about participating in the BTBA process, and it’s hard to come up with anything especially original that I can contribute. But that’s rarely stopped me from blogging in the past, so why would it now?

More than one judge, most recently fellow Northwest bookslinger Jeremy Garber, has written about the honor it is to be involved with the Best Translated Book Award. Ditto that. It’s ego-inflating whenever someone seems to care about my opinions, all the more so when it’s the people at a high-class outfit like the BTBA who do. And it’s a true privilege to think that I can play a small role in bringing attention to the huddled masses of international literature yearning to breathe freely on American shores. I’m like a lamp beside a golden door!

Disgusting paternalism aside, it really is a treat to read all this great writing from around the world. I’m a fan of literature in translation who keeps up with the work of dozens of authors and publishers, but barely a day has gone by without my finding in my mailbox a remarkable book that I’ve never heard of before. Even months away from the final voting, it would be easy for me to compile a very credible shortlist, and I have to remind myself that many more remarkable books are on their way.

What may be most exciting is that by the end of the process I’ll have as complete a picture as possible of an entire segment of the industry. We in the US see relatively little of the world’s production of fiction, which is bad, but it’s still possible (just) for me to familiarize myself with every single piece of fiction newly translated into English during this calendar year, which is fascinating to consider.

One thing I’ve observed is that there’s a broader range of work available than I’ve been finding on my own. I gravitate toward books that don’t come across like mainstream American fiction, books that through their language or form remind me they come from somewhere else, but there’s plenty of reading pleasure to be obtained from fiction that’s not focused on estrangement. Judge M.A. Orthofer has already covered some of the mystery/thriller/suspense titles that have come from abroad in 2014, and there are a number of others that could have strong popular appeal. Jonas Jonasson, for example, had a bestseller a couple of years ago with The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and he has a BTBA entry this year called The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden that’s equally entertaining.

Want proof that not all French novels are thinly-veiled memoirs weighed down by existential angst? That rumor is dispelled by Armand Chauvel’s The Green and the Red : “When Léa and Mathieu first cross paths, it is under false pretenses—Mathieu is posing as a vegetarian, infiltrating the local animal rights community for information that will force Léa’s restaurant toward a swifter demise. And while Léa suspects that Mathieu isn’t all that he appears to be, she has no idea how deep his culinary deception goes. Neither of them can deny the attraction they feel for each other, and it seems as though they might be setting a table for two … until Léa learns the truth.” Swoonworthy for the right reader, n’est-ce pas?

Bulgaria provides a companion volume for foodies via Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva. It’s a good bit grittier than Chauvel’s romance, telling of a young woman growing up under Communist rule who finds solace in the domestic arts passed down by her grandmother—the dozens of recipes that are critical to the heroine’s identity are right there in the text. As a person whose most-used kitchen utensil is a corkscrew, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Zaharieva’s story without the BTBA, and I wouldn’t have known anything about the satisfactions that it offers.

As these and other books have rolled in, I’ve realized how much I’ve missed in earlier years, and I’ve been tempted to start digging into previous longlists and back catalogs. I can’t, of course, given that I still have so much of this year’s crop to harvest. The pile of paperbacks next to my desk is inspiring, but as it continues to climb past the height of an average fourth-grader, there are also moments when I feel like sloping off in search of bad science fiction novels that can be consumed like potato chips. Until the pile actually buries me, though, I’ll persist.

20 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

Dick Cluster: Your first published story was also, coincidentally, one of the first I ever translated. It contained a sentence which I might render now as: “Here I was, standing on Calle 17 which is for me the most charming and the saddest street in Vedado, under a sun shedding its rays with a verticality completely devoid of imagination, trying to make my way through a petrified city.” That same street was full of associations for me, because I used to bicycle it on my way home from working with Cuban professors of English and from various aspects of a complicated social life in Havana. I associated it with startlingly beautiful flowering trees, the petals they cast off onto its pavement and sidewalks, the heat as described, and the blackouts that plunged long stretches into evening and midnight darkness and silence. Though you and I didn’t yet know each other or even have email contact, it already seemed that we had something in common.

Mylene Fernandez: “Anhedonia” was not only my first published story, but the first I ever wrote. I wrote it because I was home almost all day with my new baby—who, in another coincidence, is now studying English in the same university where you worked in Havana—and I heard about a short story contest. When “Anhedonia” won an honorable mention in that contest, for which I had a lot of respect, that said to me that maybe this was what I should be devoting myself to, even though I never studied writing and had never written anything, not even the poems usually written by teenagers in love.

In terms of career, I started out as an architecture major, but gave that up after a year because I didn’t like drawing. Still that one year gave me many tools of observation. Then I studied law, which taught me ways of reading and writing with great care, because in the law even punctuation marks, subordinate clauses, enumerations or ellipses all matter. It also taught me to see all the different points of view on a given situation, all the attenuating or aggravating circumstances, the attendant or consequent ones, the why’s and wherefores of everything. This is of great help in creating characters: the sum of subjective truths in every apparently objective event or action. That’s why one of my favorite films is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, for its magnificent and always disturbing exploration of the truth.

In 1994, I was working in the Cuban Film Institute [the Cuban movie production company responsible for most Cuban films] as a legal advisor, and my relationship to literature was as a voracious reader. Then that first story changed my life. This may sound like an exaggeration but it isn’t. Many years later and with a literary career that I would call a fortunate one, I’m still “the author of Anhedonia,” which has been republished and anthologized, turned into a TV special in Mexico, and there’s also a screenplay for a theatrical film out there. The story was born the same year as my son and it eventually put you and me in contact, confronting us with words and sentences that described places we had shared without knowing it.

DC: So, our first collaboration was “Anhedonia,” for Cubana, an anthology of Cuban women’s writing from the 1980s and ’90s (edited by Mirta Yáñez, co-translated with Cindy Schuster). The story is about two women, old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, who happen to meet on Calle 17. I’m often asked about what it’s like, as a man, to translate women’s voices. My answer tends to be to quote Marge Piercy who once said that one of the joys of writing fiction is “to explore lives that are not my own.” I have found this to be true both in writing fiction and in translating it. Sometimes those lives are far outside our experience, and the challenge for either writer or translator is to adentrarse, to get inside the experience by way of research, interviews, conversation—in short, by way of words. In translation, of course, it’s the author’s words that provide the main tool or path, but not the only one. At an opposite extreme from your writing set in Havana, I once translated a story by a Chilean writer about walking a dirt road through the Atacama desert, a place I have never been in a country where I’ve never been, but I’ve walked and hitchhiked through hot, dry, flat, and lonely places, and that gave me something to go along with the author’s words.

But in the case of your work, I do think there’s a special connection, because much of it is intensely about Havana, a place I’ve so thoroughly investigated, while living there and in many visits since, by looking and asking questions. This began in the 1990s when bicycles were the main means of transportation, and I would frequently begin English classes by asking for explanations of things I had seen on my ride. Those years also led me to take up translation, because they were years of constant alternation between languages. I loved doing that, and, since I was already a writer in English, literary translation offered a way to keep it up even when I was not in Cuba any more. And finally, that experience led me to understanding the complexity and contradictoriness of Cuba, so different from the clichés about that country so prevalent here, which also led me to want to share what Cuban writers on the island were writing with audiences on this side of that deep divide. The next story of yours that I translated—for another anthology of Cuban women’s writing, Open Your Eyes and Soar, edited by Mary Berg—contained a description of Havana as a place where “the unforeseen is the best synonym for plans and where chance is always better organized than anything else.” That story also has a lot to do with the divide between Cuba as Cubans see it and as foreigners do, though in this case the foreigners are Spaniards. Maybe you could say something about “Mare Atlanticum” and our process of translating it, from your point of view?

MF: “Mare Atlanticum” is the story of a Cuban woman living in Madrid with her Spanish boyfriend. They’re truly in love, both are cultured and sensitive people, with many things they share and many others that separate them. And the story is based on this, on the “island they’ve built of the things that bring them closer, that they’ve built but can’t inhabit.” Its catalyst is a concert given in Madrid by the famous Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. By the time you and I worked on “Mare Atlanticum,” I was alternating between living in Havana Switzerland, because I had recently married a Swiss citizen. You and I still hadn’t met, but now we had email contact. And through the emails I learned that you also knew Silvio’s work and had seen him in concert, and we each had stories about our relationships with his songs, stories we told each other over email while working on the text. What was most impressive to me was the way that you, to translate a text which mentioned only the titles of a few songs, searched out those songs, listened to them and read the lyrics with so much care. During our sessions of work-by-email between Lugano and Boston, in which we tried to plumb the most intimate meanings of a story about Havana as seen from Madrid, I grew fascinated by your way of understanding something as complex and distant as a Cuban living not in the U.S. but in Europe. It was a marvelous work process, and so was the resulting translation. A little while ago I sent you something written by a U.S. student who did her academic thesis about this story, using your English version, which provided proof of what I knew from the time I first read the translation—that this was my story, exactly as I’d conceived it, yet there it was in English, all the nuances and subtlety, irony, puns, melancholy, this interior island whose contours and details are conjured by evocations.

I’ve had other experiences with translations into other languages, and sometimes I’ve had trouble seeing my words in those translations, sometimes even after the translators asked me things and I tried to clarify the meanings. In those cases, when I’ve felt alienated from my own story because of a translation that did not re-create it, I’ve remembered the saying about “traduttore, traditore.” Translation is telling a story by capturing the spirit behind it without tying oneself to the words in a literal way. In our case this means keeping the values intact while making the Cuban reality accessible to someone who has never been in Cuba, despite its complexities that so often escape our attempt to trap them in adjectives or catalogues. That’s why I’ve so highly valued your manner of writing Cuban literature for readers in English. You’re extremely careful with tenses, tones, and specific details. Your questions and reflections have made our work sessions into an analysis of the story in which we both become involved on a personal level.

In addition to how well you know Havana and its vagaries, the fact that you’re also a writer makes you re-compose the language from a point of view in which the most important thing is to communicate to the English reader the sensation, the thinking, the dilemma, whatever it is. This is often very creative work for the translator, seeking a way to express—in the literal meaning of “express,” to squeeze out—such sentiments. Sometimes you’ll send me several alternative phrases or sentences in English so I can choose the one that best expresses the soul of the sentence. I find that this makes me rethink my characters, makes me ask myself new questions, as if I were re-discovering and re-evaluating what I’ve written in Spanish. The process is like when one tells a friend about a problem and knows that out of this conversation will come a solution because that friend both understands the situation and has enough distance to evaluate it, what in Spanish we call “distancia media,” not so close as to blind you nor so far as to blur your vision.

DC: We’ll go into some details about specific choices and issues involved in “translating Cuba” when we get to A Corner of the World, but I do recall one small example from “Mare Atlanticum.” There’s a moment when the Spaniards are eating Japanese food with chopsticks and the Cuban narrator/protagonist resorts to a fork and thinks “maybe they were suffering my same difficulties, only for them these constituted a delicious Western awkwardness whereas in me they testified to a terrible isolation from the world.” The original said, “un terrible falta del mundo,” which word for word is something like “a terrible lack of world,” which could rendered in many ways, but for Cubans has a lot to do not just with First World/Third World things but with living on an island, so the word “isolate” (etymologically, “to make into an island”) helps to capture that.

Finally, after our work on that story and another for the same anthology (a teenage girl coming of age kind of story), we got to meet in person when I was visiting Havana and you invited me for lunch. That was when I found out—when we both found out—that we’d been living only two blocks apart in the ’90s.

MF: It’s very striking to meet in person someone with whom you’ve shared such intimate details of your texts, with whom you’ve worked to uncover their deepest meanings and the why’s of your words. I don’t know whether you remember that you were wearing a T-shirt with a drawing from Alice in Wonderland and a sentence from the book. That seemed so perceptive on your part because it was a mark of our unspoken understanding, since my first novel opens each chapter with quotes from Lewis Carroll’s book. Then we talked about your years living in Cuba, the building where you lived so close by, and you saw the square meters that are my apartment in Havana where I write and that somehow or other are always my center and that of my texts. The way you are both sensitive and implacable with words and their inflections sometimes reminds me of the character in Alice who talks about putting the verbs and adjectives to work as if they were hired employees, one of my favorite parts of the book.

DC: Yes, Humpty Dumpty. I don’t remember that I was wearing that shirt but I do remember that the quote from Alice on it is translated into Italian! And yes, that day you gave me a copy of the novel, Otras plegarias atendidas, and also I got to take in the sea-view from your balcony, which of course I recognized when I got to the delicious scene where a character in the novel rents out chairs on her balcony to foreigners to watch the sunset for a dollar a pop, without their having to actually rub elbows with Cubans in the street. Can you tell a bit about that novel, before we move on to the new one?

MC: During several trips to the U.S. in the late 1990s for Latina writers’ events in New York, I also spent considerable time in Miami. Those experiences—unforgettable and intense in every sense—led to Otras plegarias atendidas (Other Answered Prayers), which was published in 2003.

That title is a nearly unconscious homage to Truman Capote, because without knowing that we shared the Santa Teresa de Ávila quote that says “more tears are shed for answered prayers than for unrealized desires,” that was the sentence with which I began writing the novel. Later I discovered that Capote too had chosen the phrase for his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. My novel was well received by both critics and the reading public. In Cuba it won the Italo Calvino prize and the Premio de la Crítica, and was published in Italy, in translation, by Marco Tropea Editore. It’s divided into two parts, one in Havana and the other in Miami. A reason for its success, I think, was that Cubans living in Cuba wanted to know about the life of the Cuban in Miami, and Europeans were very interested in the passages depicting life in Havana. You worked on translating some samples of the novel but we didn’t succeed in finding a publisher in English. If one day we do manage to publish it, I’m sure we’ll go back over those and discuss them all over again and doubtless make some changes. In the books of short stories that followed, I’ve continued with the theme of exile and with other more intimate and personal ones: love and its successes and failures, personal relationships and the environments that condition or nuance them.

La esquina del mundo is a fusion of all of that. A love story in today’s Havana—changing, chaotic, the relationship of a couple torn by the daily dilemma facing so many of us in Cuba, that of staying or leaving. It’s also—really I’d say it’s above all—an homage to Havana, which becomes not just the setting but a character, sometimes an accomplice and sometimes a silent observer of the others in the story. It’s everyday Havana, told with humor, melancholy, irony, in the voices and actions of its residents, very human characters with their doubts and questions, their dreams, their daily struggle in the gap between what one wants and what one can do. Although no neighborhood is specifically mentioned, the novel is set in the same area as “Anhedonia,” on the same streets where you and I were neighbors without knowing it—the streets which end at the seawall where many of us go to gaze at the sea while we think and we dream. So, again, it’s a place in which you know what it feels like to walk or bike those streets, you’ve experienced that sensation of darkness or silence in the midst of bustle and din, you’ve seen how the sea curves around the city like a belt, showing us the rest of world and isolating us as well. I often say that the Malecón is the sedative most popular among Havanans, to which we have recourse when we’re seeking serenity or unburdening or solutions. There’s a kind of therapy that consists of sitting on that Wall and watching, whether the sea on one side or the city on the other. Maybe we should talk about our re-encounter on the day of the presentation of the book in Havana.

DC: Well, U.S. publishers’ interest in Cuban writing done on the island had flagged once again, the rash of anthologies had ended, we hadn’t found a publisher for Otras plegarias, and so we kind of fell out of touch. Then I happened to be in Havana just after New Year’s of 2012 and someone said to me, “Do you know there’s going to be a presentation of a new novel by Mylene Hernández, who you translated?”, and I said “You mean Fernández?” and they said yes. So I went with that friend to the presentation and, as it happened, I grabbed us the last two copies off the sales table, which was besieged by a crowd as tends to happen in Cuba where the press runs are short and the interest is high. I waited out the crush to get it signed, re-introduced myself to you in person, and was surprised and pleased when you inscribed my copy to “el major traductor que he conocido” (the best translator I’ve met). And then I loved the book. Besides its many other qualities, it’s once again Havana I recognize—the worries, joys, and dilemmas of so many friends and acquaintances, the question of staying or leaving that weighs on the minds of so many, especially the young. I like the way the book is nuanced, its light touch, so unlike so much written about Cuba—but rarely from Cuba—that Americans see. So I proposed we should give it a shot, and this time I’d translate the whole book, not just samples.

MF: Somewhere I have a photo, it must be on my computer in Switzerland or else the one in Havana, I’ll send it to you, which shows my surprise at seeing you in front me at the presentation. The novel’s release had been really very successful in Cuba, I was feeling a little fearful of all the praise, all the critics who wrote so much about the book and readers who identified so much with the story, readers of all ages and tendencies, people who lived in Havana in very different situations, Cubans who lived abroad, and even Spaniards. My son’s teenage friends, old people, people who live and think in very different ways, people who want to leave or stay, those who love Havana and those who are bored with it. People who are happy, are depressed, are happily in love or shipwrecked by it. While I was very agreeably surprised by the book’s reception, I was almost afraid of so much attention. But when you proposed translating it on your own hook, without any offer from a publisher, I was delighted, partly because it made me happy that you saw it as something worth taking on such an uncertain voyage as the attempt to publish it in English, in a language and country so different from mine.

So we got to work, enthusiastically. I was convinced from the get-go that you understood it all, the life and thinking of the main and secondary characters, the daily lives, the dilemmas, the moral values in conflict. Still, you held up for my consideration every passage which you thought needed any clarification on my part. That was really exciting work, work that made us both happy, that we enjoyed very much without knowing where it would lead.

Then came the stage of looking for publishers—all your responsibility—and sometimes they would appear and show interest and then vanish. The finally, at the same moment, both City Lights and another publisher appeared, and we decided on City Lights, with whom you had worked well before and whom I knew from the Beat Generation writers and from sharing so many values. I’m very happy with this book, from the cover photo to the last sentence, and I want to thank everyone from City Lights who joined in with your effort . . .

Check back in tomorrow for the continuation of the interview.

17 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.

As we work our way through the 500-some new translations released in 2014, I’m going to repost on a few books that have stood out for me so far. This list is not exhaustive at all, and it is incredibly subjective, so, disclaimers. But for what it’s worth, here it is.

Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

It’s like Giralt had a direct line into the skull of Javier Marías—and, yes, this first novel from one of Spain’s biggest authors can stand up to that kind of comparison (plus, look who translated it). But Giralt is no Marías clone. Though his style is clearly indebted in this book, the concerns and narration are wholly Giralt’s. Very few authors could write a debut novel this good.

La Grande by Juan Jose Saer (translated by Steve Dolph)

From debut to swan song: La Grande was what one of Argentina’s greatest postwar authors was working on when he died in 2005. He got close enough to finishing it that I think we can consider it a complete work. It’s huge, ambitious, and very successful.

Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (translated by Kaiama L. Glover)

As publisher Jill Schoolman put it, Frankétienne is a force of nature. A poet and author with dozens of works to his name, he is also an artist, musician, and activist. In this slim book he (among other things) articulates his aesthetic of spirialism. It looks to be an amazing read.

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (translated by Matt Reeck)

Manto gets name-checked a lot as the greatest Urdu short story writer of the 20th century. After having read a few of the stories in this book, I can believe that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Just as Knausgaard’s moment seems to be fading, Elena Ferrante is heating up in the U.S. media. And with good reason.

Melancholy II by Jon Fosse (translated by Eric Dickens)

Jon Fosse’s original Melancholy was a damn good read. So, of course, I’m hoping that Dalkey manages to live up to its Nov. 11 release date so that we can consider this for the award.

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

I have to hand it to the Nobel committee—they usually end up picking writers that I find pretty interesting. I’ve never read Modiano and am eager to give this one a look. Plus, Yale has been doing astonishing work with its Margellos series, so the fact that they were on to this before the Prize is a good indication.

14 October 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the winners of this year’s European Union Prize for Literature were announced, and among the winners was Bulgaria’s Milen Ruskov, who also happens to be published by Open Letter. (Not terribly surprising, since we’ve cornered the market on Bulgarian literature in translation.)

The novel that Ruskov won for is Height (or Summit) (Възвишение) which came out in 2011, but has yet to be translated into English. If you’re interested in reading him though—and you should be, since he’s incredible talented and has a very distinctive voice—you can check out Thrown into Nature, which was the inaugural winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest that we co-run with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.

In terms of Height/Summit, this was the “Story of the Week” in Missing Slate magazine, and is described by the EUPL like this:

Summit is set in Turkish-ruled Bulgaria in 1872, the feverish period known as the Bulgarian Revival. The pretentious pomp of revolutionary ideals is filtered through the consciousness of the practical Bacho Gicho and his credulous companion Asen, in a rich, crude Renaissance language which demands to be read out loud. Ruskov’s daring blows away all the patriotic clichés, without underestimating the desperate heroism of the times.

This year’s winners of the EUPL are: Ben Blushi (Albania), Milen Ruskov (Bulgaria), Jan Němec (Czech Republic), Makis Tsitas (Greece), Oddný Eir (Iceland), Janis Jonevs (Latvia), Armin Öhri (Liechtenstein), Pierre J. Mejlak (Malta), Ognjen Spahić (Montenegro), Marente de Moor (The Netherlands), Uglješa Šajtinac (Serbia), Birgül Oğuz (Turkey) and Evie Wyld (United Kingdom). You can find synopses of their books here.

And from the official press release, here’s some info about the prizes themselves:

Each winner receives €5 000. More importantly, they benefit from extra promotion and international visibility. Their publishers are encouraged to apply for EU funding to have the winning books translated into other languages to reach new markets.

Since the Prize was launched in 2009, the EU has provided funding for the translation of books by 56 (out of 59) EUPL winners, into 20 different European languages, covering a total of 203 translations – on average 3-4 translations per book. The winners also benefit from extra visibility at Europe’s major book fairs, including Frankfurt, London, Göteborg and the Passaporta Festival in Brussels.

This year’s Prize winners will be presented with their awards during a gala ceremony at the Concert Noble in Brussels on 18 November, in the presence of the European Commissioner for Education and Culture, members of the European Parliament and representatives of the Italian Presidency of the EU.

10 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.

Valeria Luiselli ~ Faces in the Crowd

As sinuous and singular a novel as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (los ingrávidos) is (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney), it is all the more remarkable on account of it being a debut – and a most assured one at that. The Mexican novelist and essayist’s first fiction entwines multiple narratives and perspectives, shifting between them with the ease and gracefulness of a writer far beyond her years (Faces in the Crowd was published when Luiselli was 28).

The metafictional scaffolding of Faces in the Crowd is seamlessly constructed and its bibliocentric façade entrenches it within a rich tradition of referential Latin American literature. Mexican poet Gilberto Owen figures prominently into the multi-threaded plot that concerns a literary translator-cum-novelist. Owen himself narrates a great deal of Luiselli’s story, encountering along the way the likes of Ezra Pound, García Lorca, William Carlos Williams, Nella Larsen, and Duke Ellington. Though separated by more than a half-century, the characters’ lives appear to embrace as Luiselli plays with notions of temporal fidelity.

Faces in the Crowd, beyond its gorgeous writing and superb composition, is modest yet striking, measured yet salient. Luiselli is quite clearly a gifted writer and with the concurrent publication of her essay collection, Sidewalks, she ought to be garnering some much-deserved attention. Given the evident range of her myriad literary talents, it will be most interesting to see what comes next.

*Earlier last week, the National Book Foundation named Luiselli one of 2014’s 5 Under 35 (as selected by Karen Tei Yamashita).

**The Story of My Teeth, Luiselli’s second novel will be published by Granta in 2015.

Bohumil Hrabal ~ Harlequin’s Millions

Set in a “little town where time stood still,” Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht) is an elegantly written work of reminiscence and remembrance. Full of exquisite, expressive prose, the late Czech writer’s novel features an aged female protagonist/narrator reflecting on years past and moments elapsed. Hrabal’s rhythmic sentences and chapter-length paragraphs reveal the nameless lead’s life story (personally, politically, and professionally) – as well as those of her husband, Francin, and his older brother, Pepin. Their dalliances as residents in a local castle-cum-retirement home alternate between the wistful and the jubilant.

While touched by moments of melancholy, Hrabal’s tale tends more towards the nostalgic than the languid or rueful. As the titular song “Harlequin’s Millions” plays unendingly throughout the castle grounds, melodic memories of the novel’s richly drawn characters unfurl as well. Harlequin’s Millions is an evocative tale of aging that effortlessly mingles the bitter and the sweet.

Milena Michiko Flašar ~ I Called Him Necktie

A rhythmic, melodically paced novel of sorrow and rumination, I Called Him Necktie (translated from the German by Sheila Dickie) is an unassuming literary gem. Written by Milena Michiko Flašar, a young Japanese/Austrian novelist, the story features two main characters (Taguchi, a 20-something hikikomori, and Ohara, a late middle-aged former businessman) each suffering from a self-imposed alienation and existential denial. As they slowly become acquainted with one another, these two vividly composed protagonists begin to open up and reveal all they’ve been unable to share with those closest to them. Taguchi and Ohara recount their respective hardships, disappointments, and losses, finding both solace and wisdom in each other’s perspective.

Flašar’s doleful tale explores the interconnectedness of lives and the reliance we have on others in times of need. The sentiment expressed in I Called Him Necktie is genuine and tenderly portrayed. Never maudlin, even for an instant, Flašar’s empathetic, compassionate story hums with sincerity and grace. The first of Flašar’s works to appear in English translation, I Called Him Necktie is an unforgettable novel that effortlessly plumbs the depths of human emotion – exposing a rich vein of mercy amidst the pervading malaise.

8 October 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago I had a dream that I was dropping my daughter off at a “Reading Tutor” to study for some sort of standardized “Reading Comprehension” test for fifth graders. When I got to the shopping mall for tutors (dream!), I found out that, not only had her tutor quit, but that “Reading Comprehension” had been eliminated from schools as a whole because it was “worthless” and that students needed more time for engineering and making things.

I totally wigged out in my dream and went on a very Chad-like rant, spouting totally bullshit statistics about how the average American could only comprehend 40% of what they read, and without students reading and studying reading and thinking about reading, that number would drop to 5% within the next decade and we would be living in a world of people producing copy for people who—even if they could physically read the words—would understand shit.

Does this really seem all that farfetched? College students these days have basically no interest in the humanities (the 15% at Stanford seems like an exaggeration or outlier), and outside of college, the desire to “understand” literature has always been backburnered by a fascination with plot and whistles.

I’ve experienced this sort of “comprehension problem” myself. I read way too many books and articles and shit that I only vaguely remember a week later. So frequently I realize that I’m reading just to finish things and not to savor the style and way the book is constructed. I’ve found that I have to slow myself down, let things settle, mull them over—all processes that run counter to our app-heavy, distracted world.

This isn’t necessarily an anti-technology, atavistic bit, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for “slow reading” and being bi-literate. Like with the recent finding that people spend as much on ebooks as print books we are likely to always have two ways of processing text: on screen, where there are innumerable advantages to bouncing around, looking things up, skimming for key points, binging and purging on information, etc.; and in print, which lends itself to circling back, deeper periods of concentration, a different sort of “comprehension,” one which may not lead to a witty tweet, but can change the entire way you think about people, places, yourself.

College would be the perfect place to learn these skills, but with the cost, the internal pressures, the disincentives for going into academia, it wouldn’t be that surprising to hear of a university closing out most of its humanities in favor of more popular majors with brighter (re: lucrative) futures. This would be the worst thing that could happen to our culture. We need to up the average reading comprehension! 40% just won’t do!

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by John Lambert (FSG)

You know that game that English majors/professors play where they admit, secretly, in embarrassed tones, over too many glasses of Chablis, which authors they haven’t read, but obviously should’ve? Where someone admits that they found Moby-Dick boring and everyone titters and condemns? Well, Carrère is my answer to that. Which, knowing my audience, really is pretty embarrassing. I own almost all of his books, am interested in all of it, but . . . something always gets in the way. That has to change. Starting soon, I’m going to probably read, most all of the words that he wrote. Slowly.

Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New York Review Books)

Since no one I know in Rochester was willing to go watch game four of the Dodgers-Cardinals series with me, I’m watching at home, drinking beers, and writing this. Just a warning for whatever comes below. Right now it’s 0-0 heading to the bottom of the fourth inning.

Also, Esther Allen is the best. Anything she decides to devote her time to translating is definitely worth reading. This is true of a handful of translators—Susan Bernofsky, Bill Johnston, Marian Schwartz. The translators who are at the point where they can pick and choose their projects—and who have that rare gift of good taste—are the ones that I’m willing to follow anywhere. Zama just proves this point.

The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino (Open Letter)

Technically, this is the first non-translation we’ve ever published. Also, this is the book that left both Kaija and I in tears. And will for anyone who knew Mike Heim. I’m going to save my maudlin stuff for our letter to subscribers, and maybe a separate post, but MHH made the world a better place and I’m really proud that Esther, Sean, Russell, and the other contributors allowed us to publish this. It’s a book that truly adds something to the discussion about translation and translators. If you’re at all interested in this subject, please read this book. You might cry, but it’s a worthwhile cry.

The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Other Press)

We got a poetry submission earlier today that included this “selling point”: “Even if [my poems] are bad I want everyone to read them and enjoy them.” Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Tel Aviv Noir edited by Etgar Keret, translated from the Hebrew by Assaf Gavron; Tehran Noir edited by Salar Abdoh, translated from the Persian by several translators; Helsinki Noir edited by James Thompson, translated from the Finnish by several translators (Akashic Books)

The Nobel Prize in Literature is going to be awarded tomorrow, and although I want to try and convince myself to believe that there’s a possibility that Mikhail Shishkin will win, changing the fortunes of Open Letter forever, I’m sure either Murakami will win or someone whose work I should’ve read years ago.

Nevertheless, by tomorrow evening, approximately 500 American book commentators will have written this article:

Today, the Swedish Academy once again awarded the Nobel Prize to an obscure East European author that I’ve never even heard of. What bullshit! Why would they award this honor to someone that we, here in America, don’t even read? Why pass over Philip Roth, the Greatest Living American Author, who, remember, is AMERICAN, isn’t getting any younger, and is American. Instead, just like with Herta Mueller and that Elfriede lady, that group of Swedes intentionally found some difficult, strange writer whose books probably only sell 300 copies—and all to foreigners! This is an outrage. They don’t deserve this award! Their books suck! I’m never reading a Nobel Prize winner again until PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH

Monastery by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Bellevue Literary Press)

Every year that the Cardinals make the playoffs, bunches of articles are written about how shitty Cardinals fans are. A lot of these come from Deadspin and revolve around the idea that Cardinals fans suck because they feel like their team does things “the right way,” and can’t understand why people don’t like them.

I usually shrug these articles off — including the recent Wall Street Journal “report” detailing why the Cardinals are the most hateable team in the playoffs — but for some reason, this year I’m extra-sensitive and have spent way too much time analyzing why these bug me so much.

It’s understandable that people will hate any team that’s successful on a regular basis, like Manchester United or the 90s Yankees, but hating a team’s fan base is slightly different. Sure, there are some awful Cardinals fans out there (like these assholes), but that’s true of basically any group of fans—some of them are great people, some are total dicks, and most are just normal. It’s possible that the “Boston Cardinals” wouldn’t get so much shit, and that this is part of the media world’s distrust of the Midwest, or if Cardinals fans weren’t referred to as “The Best Fans in Baseball” (which is stupid), but at the core, a lot of these articles are just mean-spirited and attempt to make people like me feel like a jerk for liking a particular team.

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate,” which is especially true when it comes to sports. I just wish people hated the owners and the teams and the crap parts of sports, like screwing up a town’s finances for a new stadium, or suppressing data on concussions, instead of hating fans.

Mostly because of Ozzie Smith, I’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan for over three decades. I grew up in Michigan, and was into baseball when Detroit won the World Series in 1984, but for whatever reason, I loved the speed and efficiency of those mid-80s Cardinals teams. Vince Coleman. Willie McGee. Etc. And ever since, for 162+ days of the year, I’ve known whether they won or lost, living with them in a way, and I think that’s something that, for sports fans, is a good thing. No matter who you like, having a team can add something to your life. The joyful pain of following sports is great for a lot of people. These have been special years for a Cardinals fan, but that will change, again. But I’ll still pay attention.

Who Is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko, translated from the German by Arabella Spencer (New Vessel Press)

I’m pretty sure that over the past three weeks, I’ve started more than 80% of my emails with “Excellent!” Where did this tic come from? And why “excellent”? Is anything really that “excellent” in the daily Open Letter operations? At best these emails contain “good” or “passably interesting” information—but nothing that’s really, truly excellent.

Ironically, I just received an email with this subject line: “‘Excellent,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘important’—Melania G. Mazzucco’s Limbo (FSG; 11/4).” A list of semi-meaningless crutch phrases all in a row!

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

I love this book. These stories are so pointed, sharp, aggressive, and filled with bad things happening. I also love Naja, and if you have a chance to see her while she’s on tour, you should go. She’s charming and an incredibly interesting writer. Next year, Open Letter is bringing out her first novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors. Both of these books should be finalists for the Best Translated Book Award.

Author and Me by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Dalkey Archive)

I don’t think we’ve received a review copy of this yet, but based on this excellent Kirkus review, I’m definitely going to check it out when it arrives. Just check out this line from the review:

Audaciously, Chevillard doubles down on this provocative setup by embedding a brief novella within one of the author’s footnotes—a 40-page footnote that’s hard on the eyes but oddball fun, casting the hero in to a slow-moving chase of an ant that also makes room for a love affair and a circus.

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Min-gyu Park, translated from the Korean by Amber Hyun Jung Kim; The Square by In-hun Choi, translated from the Korean by Seong-Kon Kim; Scenes from the Enlightenment by Namcheon Kim, translated from the Korean by Charles La Sure; Another Man’s City by In-ho Ch’oe, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton; The Republic of Uzupis by Haïlji, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Dalkey Archive)

This morning, I gave myself a belated birthday gift and went in for an hour-long deep-tissue, full-body massage. I usually don’t do this, but on top of having a bit of extra money thanks to my birthday last week, my mom had a “minor” stroke last Saturday (minor is in quotes because, although she’s OK now, in my world the words “stoke” and “minor” in no way belong together), which totally fucked me up. The amount of tension in my back had gotten so bad that I thought my spine might just crack in half.

During my massage—performed by the “Best Massage Therapist” in Rochester according to the City Paper—I kept waiting for her to be shocked by how messed up my back was. All I wanted was the confirmation that I was the tensest individual she’d encountered this week. “Holy shit, those knots! You’re a stress warrior!” Everything can be turned into a competition.

Tristana by Benito Perez Galdos, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (New York Review Books)

The Cardinals won! I didn’t think there was any way they would be able to beat Clayton Kershaw—probably the best pitcher in baseball, and possibly the NL MVP—three times in a row, but there you are! This means that I get to watch them for at least another week! (That is how I judge this. I still don’t think they’ll win it all, but I want that final disappointment to be as far off in the future as possible.)

More pertinent—how is this the first translation of this book? Galdos is often compared to Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy, wrote dozens of novels, and Luis Bunuel made a film version of this book. Most interesting though, according to Wikipedia, “A national subscription scheme was set up to raise money to help him, to which the King and his Prime Minister Romanones were the first to subscribe.” That’s kind of awesome, and hard to imagine any politicians doing that today.

8 October 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Finally, after weeks of putting this off, here is the long anticipated podcast about Roberto Bolaño’s Little Lumpen Novelita.

The reason it took so long to get to this was because of Tom’s new job as the Deputy Director at Albertine, the most beautiful Franco-centric bookstore in New York (and/or the whole U.S.). We talked shortly after the official launch of the store, which generated a ton of fanfare.

So, in addition to talking Bolaño, and talking about this man

we talked about Albertine, it’s upcoming festival, and other aspects of Tom’s new job. (Just a note of clarification—Tom is still working for New Directions as well.)

Oh, and we also talk a bit about the Royals-A’s game that was going on while we were recording. And now I’m safe in saying that I’m really glad all the West Coast AL teams are out of the playoffs and am really looking forward to the ALCS with Baltimore and Kansas City. (We’re planning on having Mexican author Alvaro Enrique on the podcast very soon to talk about his work, about his wife Valerie Luiselli’s work, about Spanish-language literature in general, and about the Baltimore Orioles, his favorite team. Finally, we get a baseball episode!)

This week’s music is “Divinity” by Porter Robinson. A little upbeat dance music as a counterpoint to our more languorous conversation.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com


8 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.

With so much reading left to do (as submissions continue to fill our mailboxes daily), a handful of books already stand out as some of the year’s finest original translations. Although it remains to be seen whether any of the below titles will make the longlist cut – let alone one of the ten coveted spots on the shortlist – each is an exceptional book in its own way, deserving of an audience larger than is likely and offering considerable recompense to anyone who affords it their readerly faculties.

Gonçalo Tavares ~ A Man: Klaus Klump

The first volume of Gonçalo Tavares’s remarkable Kingdom series, A Man: Klaus Klump (translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil) is the last of the four to be translated into English (after Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine). Like the others, however, this one explores themes of alienation, brutality, impotency, and power. The slimmest of the four works, Klaus Klump shares an essence with the others while being perhaps the most staccato in story and prose.

Spanning several decades in the lives of a handful of characters, Klaus Klump is set in an unnamed city – beginning amidst an ongoing war and later in the years following the cessation of (armed) conflict. With juxtaposing imagery, stark metaphors, and tight, yet evocative language, Tavares entwines the disorienting horrors of senseless ultra-violence with the psychological detachment of conflict-survival. The intensity of Klaus Klump seems all the more pronounced given how much is omitted from the story – allowing a menace or foreboding to loom throughout.

Neither Klaus Klump nor the rest of the books in the series seek to seemingly do more than show the inconsequentiality, indifference, disposability, and vapidity that so characterize 21st century culture. Klaus Klump (like Ernst Spengler, Lenz Buchmann, and Joseph Walser in the earlier books before him) populates a world where war and commerce function in codependency. Obedience is nearly superfluous, as long as appetites remain insatiable. To serve within such a system, one needn’t resort to nihilism – simply passive resignation will do.

Gonçalo Tavares is an exceptional talent and his writing seems almost limitless in scope (garnering the attention and acclaim of luminaries like the great José Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas). The Kingdom series (cycle? quartet? tetralogy?) offers a world that could not be more dissimilar to the one found in Tavares’s The Neighborhood. One not familiar with the provenance of these respective books would swear they were written by authors possessed of disparate literary tastes and temperaments. That Tavares can move so freely between works exuding terror and dread to those offering humor and charm is quite breathtaking to behold. With poems, short stories, plays, and other fiction as-yet untranslated, hopefully more (much more!) of Tavares’s work will soon be forthcoming in English.

Andrés Neuman ~ Talking to Ourselves

Talking to Ourselves (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), the second of Andrés Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation – be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging German towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. Staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can – longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution. Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort.

Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito) – but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.

With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

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Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

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