14 May 08 | Chad W. Post

Since Reading the World 2008 is almost here—it technically runs through the month of June, when bookstores across the country display twenty-five translated titles (warning pdf) from fifteen different presses—I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight each of these books on the site.

And there’s no better place to start than with Columbia University’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, which was translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan. This is especially relevant, since PRI’s “The World” just interviewed Michael Berry about the translation. (More on that below.)

First, here’s a description of the book from the Columbia UP website:

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”—a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication-only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

Publishers Weekly gave this a starred review, calling it “A beautifully constructed cyclical narrative,” and “impossible to forget.”

And it’s worth noting that several of her other books are available in English.

The interview with Michael Berry is quite good, especially this description of the book:

The World: In what ways will the novel surprise Western readers?

Berry: I think many readers may be surprised by the initial absence of characters and story. In their place is a beautiful essayistic section depicting various facets of the city: the longtong or labyrinth-like alley neighborhoods, the pigeons that soar through the Shanghai sky, and even the abstract rumors that float through its back alleys.

It is only later that the author brings us into the world of her protagonist Wang Qiyao, whose story begins at a film studio, the place where dreams are created. While this opening sequence may come as a surprise for some readers (and may even account for the lack of enthusiasm many U.S. publishers initially displayed for the book), it is a beautiful piece of writing and, more importantly, those essayistic sections are what really tell us that this is not just the story of Wang Qiyao, it is the story of her city – Shanghai.

As the novel progresses, other surprises come via the brilliant way in which Wang gradually reincorporates these essayistic sections back into the body of the novel, interweaving them with the characters’ stories, until the reader discovers that they are actually one organic whole. The reader will also be enchanted by the novel’s structure, which revolves around three distinct eras in the heroine’s (and city’s) life and the powerful resonances that echo across time.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Indian
The Indian by Jón Gnarr
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .

Read More >

Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories
Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .

Read More >

Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

Read More >

The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >