For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush. (Catalonia, Peter Owen)
The set-up of The Enormity of the Tragedy sounds like a dirty joke for the Viagra generation: Ramon-Maria wakes up one morning with an “indefatigable erection.” After many “experiments” trying to “relieve” his condition, he goes to a doctor and finds out that his erection is a symptom of a rare and fatal disease that leaves him with two months to live.
But one of the things that makes this novel so interesting is the fact that it doesn’t devolve into penis jokes and sexual set-pieces. Instead, Monzo focuses a lot on the “tragedy” in the title, treating Ramon-Maria situation—his fatal condition and the fact that his stepdaughter plots to murder him—in a straightforward, natural way. Monzo’s warmth as a writer ensures that the book is still funny, it’s just not the sort of slapstick comedy of errors that the initial description seems to point to.
Before reading this, I had read a couple Monzo stories, but that’s it. (Not much has been published in English, although in the interest of full disclosure, Open Letter will be publishing Benzina and Guadalajara over the next year.) This book blew me away though. Peter Bush’s translation is wonderful, and the way that Monzo crafts his story—playing Ramon-Maria’s attempt to “live large” (pun only half-intended) over his last few months against the adolescent struggles of Anna-Francesca. As the novel progresses and the plot becomes more complicated, everything builds to an inevitable conclusion that is also a bit shocking. And definitely not the punchline to a dirty joke.
When this first came out, I wrote a full-length review, which included this passage that does paint a decent picture of the Monzo universe:
Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.
In terms of Monzo himself, he’s considered one of the best contemporary Catalan writers. He even gave the opening speech when Catalan was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. This speech is another good example of his playful, self-referential style:
Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.
Monzo is an important writer, both for his novels and him many short story collections, and truly deserves to be on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist.
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .