16 June 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the ninth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

At the RTW party at BEA, there were a number of booksellers and reviewers raving about this title. In fact, the fifteen free copies that FSG sent to give away were gone before the second bottle of wine was opened. (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but this really was one of the hottest RTW titles.)

With all the attention being paid to China—the Olympics, human rights abuses, etc.—it seems like there’s been a genuine upswing in interest in reading titles by Chinese writers. Especially dissident Chinese writers such as Ma Jian, whose work was banned by the government following the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue.

Politics and foreign cultures aside for the moment, the plot of this book sounds pretty intriguing:

The novel explores how fear and ignorance generate a lethal amnesia that undercuts individual freedoms and social bonds. The story weaves together a documentary chronicle of the students in [Tiananmen] square with a nightmarish tour through the consciousness of a protester, Dai Wei, who is shot in the head during the crackdown. Throughout the novel he is in a comatose state, trying to make sense of what happened as his mother struggles to keep him alive. (from The World)

A very interesting interview with Ma Jian and his translator, Flora Drew, can be found on the World Books section of PRI’s “The World” website (a section that is becoming more and more impressive everyday).

Ma Jian’s has a few provocative comments on the Olympics:

I believe that Western leaders should not play into the ruling party’s hands and collaborate in this big propaganda show. If they do, the Olympics will be a true farce because the party will have made Beijing into the cleanest prison in the world. All the undesirables, the mentally unstable people, all the dissident writers will have been detained and arrested before the event, so the atmosphere of openness will just be a charade, a piece of theater in which Western leaders will play their part.

But also has some interesting things to say about his novel:

The World: Your novel “Beijing Coma,” which centers on the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square, depicts the rebellion against the government as farcical rather than heroic. By showing how much went wrong with the demonstration, the book appears to undercut the struggle for freedom in China.

Ma Jian: For me, the events in Tiananmen Square are not romantic so I don’t wish to romanticize them. I see them as a tragedy, a tragedy because these young students had no idea of their own history, they had no memory, so when they stood up for what they understood to democracy, human rights and freedom they didn’t know what these terms meant or how to effectively bring them about in reality. And because they had grown up amid political indoctrinization they had no other reference points, no other models to follow, so when they achieved a certain level of power they turned into a miniature Communist party, with all the infighting and bickering that maneuvering for power brings.

I think it’s great that Bill Marx interviews both the author and translator, giving the translator a chance to talk about some of the difficulties/joys of translation. (It was at the Goethe Institut event last week that someone related a Peter Constantine quote that “A translator is someone who is always running into problems.”)

For instance, I find Flora Drew’s comment on the “most difficult challenge of translating Beijing Coma into English” rather illuminating:

The Chinese language doesn’t have tenses, so the past, present, and future intermingle because the language makes it easy to jump about fluidly in time. But capturing that expansive experience of time becomes tricky in the English language, where you also have to maintain a solid backbone of chronology. My goal was to retain Ma Jian’s sense of ambiguity and timelessness while also making the story understandable to an English-speaking reader.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

Read More >

Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

Read More >

La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

Read More >

Intervenir/Intervene
Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

Read More >

All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

Read More >

Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

Read More >

Nowhere to Be Found
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .

Read More >

La paz de los vencidos
La paz de los vencidos by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .

Read More >

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology
Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology by Various
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >