This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I have yet to find a review of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (translated by Siân Reynolds) that even mentions what I think is the most important formal element of the novel—without which a whole series of both criticisms and praise that it receives are entirely moot. Of course it deserves both criticism and praise, but I’m pretty sure that those who ignore this key for interpretation are simply reviewing a novel that doesn’t exist.
Fair warning: what follows will include (or will, in fact, focus on) spoilers; also will probably be totally uninteresting if you haven’t read the book, so go read it first.
I’m going to quote the very last page of the novel, which should almost be enough, just saying, hey, why are you guys ignoring this? You’ll recall that this final portion is Lucie’s voice, after everything has happened and she is out in the middle of nowhere, psychologically recovering.
Valentine did what she judged she had to do. Like everyone. I often think of all the things I should have said to her, and I listen to what she might have replied. I have told myself the story so often that in the end I’ve put together what I really know, inventing scenes that I didn’t see, to make the story stand up, the way I imagine it happened. It was when the narrative started to get going that I began to feel better. Gradually, I’ve come back to life. One day, I realized that I’d been awake for several hours and hadn’t yet thought about Valentine. I felt like Noah at the moment the dove comes back with a little olive branch in its beak. The truth I’ll never know. What remains is the story I’m telling myself, in a way that suits me, a story I can be satisfied with.
In these final sentences, we discover that Apocalypse Baby is not just a novel written by Virginie Despentes; it is a novel by the protagonist, Lucie. It is the story she tells herself to help her recover and survive.
Although this really changes everything, so many elements that I could write a whole series of posts, it is mostly important for negating the most common criticism I hear. There’s this frequent gripe that the big twist—where Valentine blows up a building shortly after Lucie and the Hyena bring her back to Paris—comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t appear well-founded enough. Or, . . . the motivation for her extreme actions seemed deeply unconvincing. Or, . . . the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for — after which statement, this review contrasts Despentes’ “twist” to a comment made by Gillian Flynn that “thriller-writers must be ‘fair’ to their readers, passing on enough information to allow them to solve the puzzle (while also making damn sure that they’re thrown completely off course).” Or, Apocalypse Baby’s bombastic climax is poorly developed and so carries little emotional weight.
I’d be happy to criticize certain elements of the novel, but in no way should it be criticized for this particular success. Remember what this is: It is a post-traumatic personal narrative, a very intentional retelling of events to appease Lucie’s psychological trauma. So, obviously, the explosion-twist had to “come out of nowhere.” Lucie was specifically given the responsibility of finding and returning Valentine; if she didn’t find a way for her story to remind her that there is no way she could have known what Valentine would do, then it would be a different novel. A third-person detective novel would give hints—but this is a first-person work of narrative therapy, in which even the ostensibly third-person sections are just scenes which Lucie has imagined.
Seeing this as essential is not just the sort of theoretical nitpicking that would make for an easy and fun college essay. Ignoring this twist in perspective is basically like ignoring the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. There’s really no point to the book without it.
Once this is acknowledged, a whole slew of things become much more interesting. The various genres that pop up to shade different scenes. The question of why the protagonist is the most boring character. The nagging feeling that the section about Valentine’s Arab cousins is uncomfortably degrading, possibly racist. Every page takes on a different meaning. It is not a snapshot of various socio-economic groups in contemporary France, as presented from Virginie Despentes’ supposed fictional realism; it is an expression of the way that the post-traumatized brain can view everything differently. This is also supported by Despentes’ preoccupations in her films and writings. If Valentine’s destructive action were the author’s primary focus, we would have seen much more of her psychological build up. But in this novel, her focus is the undeserved but unavoidable feelings of guilt which women can feel, but which they can also survive by the telling of stories. What could be a more reasonable interpretation in light of her other work?
The primary critique I’d make is that I wish Despentes had found some way to make us feel unease about narrative perspective throughout the book. For example, if we were questioning the narrator’s identity in the third-person sections (brilliantly done in Jan Kjærstad’s trilogy, The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer), or if there were multiple levels of perspective going on (brilliantly done in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which is a diary by the protagonist “edited” by an unknown character whose edits usually contradict the general reader’s opinions about the diary).
Regardless, I recommend printing out the text on the last page of Apocalypse Baby, taping it onto the cover so you don’t forget, and re-reading the novel. It will be a much more satisfying experience.Tweet
This is another one of those posts. One in which I wrote a long-ass essay/diatribe that I decided to delete so as to “focus on the positive.”
In this case, I was on a roll about how sick I am of the literary field anointing four-five international authors a year and writing endless articles/listicles about them at the expense of all other books. About how the field has become a bunch of yeasayers who would rather join a chorus of “this book is the best!” instead of reading adventurously and actually finding out about books that haven’t been ordained in this way. About how reviewers don’t seem to take many risks anymore, and would rather pander, cheerleading style, for more retweets and favorites. People don’t seem as curious anymore, as willing to go out and find their own little books to champion. Maybe it’s because social media has ramped up our social anxieties to an insane degree, but it feels like people just want to be nice and safe and all in accord. Dissent is death on Twitter.
Fuck all of that. And fuck me for wasting twenty minutes trying to flesh out the argument . . . Instead, I’ll tell you about one of those books that adventurous, non-conforming readers would absolutely love: Loquela by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.
I just reread this book in preparation for a conversation with him at Wild Detectives in Dallas, and was re-wowed by the multilayered linguistic world that he creates in his novels. This is a book that owes a lot to Juan Carlos Onetti’s work (especially A Brief Life) as well as to Julio Cortázar and other Latin American works that are set in universities. I’m not going to lie: It’s a complicated book, with multiple narrators, events that recur in new contexts providing the book with a certain instability (or, reversing that statement, granting it with a certain remix texture transforming scenes into motifs that Labbé picks up and plays with in increasingly interesting ways), novels within dreams within novels. It’s a book about how art is created and how it is transformative, and there’s basically nothing like it that’s being written today.1
Rather than do a “normal” sort of reading and conversation—with Carlos reading for 10 minutes, then answering some general questions—we tried to create a way to introduce everyone to the text by asking questions, then, at three different occasions, reading separate bits from the book. I can’t reproduce that here, but I do think that it was a really great introduction to how to approach the book and that everyone who attended will enjoy the novel that much more, and have a new appreciation for it. Which is maybe what literary events should be?
We started by talking about the first main thread of the book, the sections entitled “The Novel,” which occurs every other chapter and are always in italics. This thread is about “Carlos,” a young writer trying to write a detective novel about an albino girl who is being stalked and hires a detective to try and protect her. That doesn’t end well though . . . From the very first paragraph of Loquela:
Carlos looked at his notebook and reread the last page: anticipating that the killer—whoever it was—would defend himself, the man had retrieved the gun. His head pounded and his knees were shaking. There’s a dead girl lying inside, he thought. He’d never fired a gun. His vision clouded over, his whole body pulsed as the door opened slowly from inside. He decided to fire first. And he did. The albino girl let out a soft cry and fell at his feet. He was the killer.
The bulk of “The Novel” sections are about Carlos trying to make this manuscript work. He talks about it with Elisa, he tries to figure out the plot holes, he rewrites certain events (like when the car tries to run over the albino girl), and he receives a letter from Violeta Drago (more on her in a bit).
In writing the novel, Labbé (to distinguish him from the fictional Carlos) wanted to include some of the thoughts and ideas that went into writing such a novel, which led to the second set of sections: “The Recipient.” These sections take the form of a diary in which a student writes about the novel he’s writing about Carlos. This is some At Swim-Two-Birds shit right there. These bits are more theoretical, touching upon the way ideas and books (like Onetti’s A Brief Life) influence your way of structuring events and writing about them. Here’s an abridged excerpt from one of these parts.
Things are happening.
I’ve been imagining a detective story. It occurred to me that I could write a novel of innumerable pages about a girl who, frightened because a man is apparently following her, contacts a detective to help her. She and the detective become friends, they flirt. He ends up obsessed with her and follows her everywhere. I want to sit down every afternoon, take advantage of the dead hours of summer to write. On one of those afternoons the inspiration comes to me. [. . .] That story of the girl who gets stalked by the same guy she is paying to protect her has been coming back to me every since my cousin told it at our uncle and aunt’s country house last Sunday. [. . .] That Sunday my cousin Alicia and I talked almost all afternoon. I told her I wanted to live alone that next year and she invited me to come check out her home-studio on Calle Bustamente, she could rent me a room there. And that’s where I’m writing this now. She also told me about her friend Violeta. Bored of living in the cesspool of Santiago (my cousin’s words), she moved to another city—I can’t remember which one—for a couple of years. She met a guy there, a classmate at the university, with whom she went out and then broke up. The guy was unhinged and wouldn’t leave her alone, calling her on the phone every night, following her through the streets, buzzing the intercom at her apartment and not saying anything when she answered. One day, desperate, it occurred to her to ask a professor friend from the university for help, and he managed to get the guy expelled, but that was worse: one time the guy, furious, almost hit her with his car, and another time he almost pushed her into the city’s river. She loved where she was living, but in the end Violeta had to go back to Santiago. What she doesn’t know is if the guy followed her here or if she just had the terrible luck of encountering another psychopath. Alicia was very worried when she told me this, her friend is receiving letters that are making her paranoid, lately she thinks she sees that guy on every corner. There aren’t many girls like Violeta, according to Alicia, and that’s why men go crazy for her. This is a story I’d love to be able to write.
The third narrator/set of sections in the book is written by Violeta and is entitled “The Sender.” (If it isn’t clear yet, these sections rotate throughout, in this order: The Novel, The Recipient, The Novel, The Sender, The Novel, The Recipient . . . ) Violeta is an albino student who is troubled by He Who Is Writing a Novel, a fellow student who seems obsessed with her.
There are two things worth noting about Violeta. 1) in her youth, Violeta invents a magic land called Neutria. This shows up in all three sections, sometimes as a paradise, sometimes as a university, sometimes as a real location.
What comes next is the moment in which my childhood multiplies into details I’d love to recount and cannot. Most of them were lost the instant we played together, the rest are still there, in Neutria, and you can see them for yourself. Sometimes Neutria was the land of semi-divine emperors, of infinite cruelty or kindness, whose slothful and obese courtiers, in contrast, engaged in decadent melodramas. Other times it was a simple village where farmers, shepherds, and foreigners traded honey, cheese, bread, or fruit for a song or an entertaining story. Or it was the nexus of activity for stylized spies, convertibles, casinos, firearms, hotels, highways, and femme fatales. And in the middle of all those adult faces appears a boyish one, yours, insistently inquiring what it is that we’re playing, and coldly I reply that we’re playing the city of Neutria, not expecting you to make fun of us: you talk to yourself—my mother says people who talk to themselves are lunatics. Alicia gets up, says again that it isn’t make-believe, that Neutria exists; it’s a beautiful place, incredible, we travel there on long weekends with our parents. It’s so much fun that we like to recall everything that happened there. That’s what we’re doing, remembering all the wondrous things, not inventing them.
2) At the university, she’s involved with a professor who promotes “Corporalism,” a set of literary beliefs that are intentionally hazy, but generally involve doing extreme things with your body while a writer observes and writes your flesh into the text, and also involves some quasi-Barthesian rhetoric. From the “Corporalization Manifesto”:
The reader lives and the author has died, we’ll proclaim, though our goal will be to resuscitate him, to give him what he never had: body, flesh, presence. And what will die instead is the text, the artistic product that escapes from our hands and becomes merchandise: all the time we spent spilling our blood across the page is transformed into food for publishers, newspapers, critics. That’s why we’re anemic, that’s why we need to suck up the humors of others and end up dissolved in foreign books, that’s why we die every time we read, in handwriting that is not our own, a sentence that belongs to us.
So there’s that. The last part of Loquela starts to revolve around this group, their actions and beliefs, reflecting back on everything that came before. Like I said before, this is layered. It’s a book in which there are “rabbit hole moments,” when the spiral of narrative levels is simply dazzling. And there’s this thing that happens towards the end, where there’s basically a series of beginnings, a sort of loop of possible events. For me, it starts to read like the best of electronic music. (Or anything by Mark McGuire.)) Ideas and threads resurfacing in new contexts, textures that you can lose yourself in, spaces that seem utterly alien and exciting. (Not surprising that Labbé is a musician.)
For a book that opens with an ending, I guess it makes sense for me to wrap this up by going back to the title, Loquela. It’s a strange, slippery word first used by Ignatius de Loyola way back in the middle ages, and then adopted by Roland Barthes:
Loquela is a word that designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover’s discourse.
And that’s really what Loquela is: the flux of language around death and love. It’s a book I hope you buy and that I hope we can talk about. I don’t get it, but the experience of rereading it—in which every paragraph reframed the whole book, convinced me it was about something else—was exhilarating. It may never get it’s own hashtag trend, or be a best-seller, but great literature never really does.
1 Books like this—ones that present the new, the different—are ones that excite me and, I think, used to excite a large number of literary readers before the Twitter-agree-o-verse came into being. Now, instead of reading challenging, unique things that expand your ways of thinking, people wear “Art Should Comfort the Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable” t-shirts and miss the irony.Tweet
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago. As a reminder, you can stay up to date with all BTBA goings on by liking our Facebook page and by following us on Twitter. And by checking in regularly here at Three Percent.
The Story Of My Teeth is an experimental novel, but not one that any coffee-house denizen twisting his mustache and wearing a beret will be able to keep and lord over you as a privileged work of literature written for the few. If anything, Valeria Luiselli brings literary know-how and attachment to the masses with the simultaneously entertaining and insightful story of Gustavo Highway Sanchez Sanchez.
Sanchez is a one man traveling circus and auctioneer who makes an art of selling his teeth in black-market auctions. The teeth in question each belong to a different historical figure, and behind each dental attachment, is a story that Gustavo spins in order to sweeten the cavity in what is otherwise a useless commodity. The stories he tells in order to make a sale seem far fetched and somewhat unbelievable, but there is always a customer. Perhaps it is Gustavo’s past as a simple security guard at a Juice Factory that keeps the auction-goers from questioning his sincerity. Even in his final auction lot, where he sells the very teeth he had implanted into his mouth—none other than the original teeth of Marilyn Monroe—the reader’s suspension of disbelief is held. Even beyond the realization that it is Gustavo’s own son who buys his teeth . . . with Gustavo attached.
While the structure of Luiselli’s second novel (her third book to be translated into English) is fragmented and as digressive as Gustavo’s auctioneering, what lies at the core is the power of stories and the interpretation of such to make individual meaning for the people consuming them. After a tragedy in Gustavo’s life that once again centers on his teeth and the theme-park wonderland where he lives in seclusion, we are brought into his biography through the re-interpretation of an auction catalog where a contemporary cast of literary characters, including Latin American novelists such as Yuri Herrera, Cesar Aira, and even Luiselli herself show up in simultaneously hilarious and insightful ways.
If the dizzying array of style and structure isn’t enough for readers, there is the integrated translation of sorts that took place during Luiselli’s first drafts of the novel. The Jumex Juice factory isn’t just a location that the central character of the novel once worked, but a real factory outside of Mexico City where a group of workers met regularly to discuss and help form the fragments of the novel. Furthermore, Christina MacSweeney, who translated the text into English is more present in the story as the author of the book’s Seventh section, “The Chronologic,” which is a timeline of the events surrounding and contained in Teeth’s story, which not only serves as a brief history of Latin American literature, but aids in creating an entirely new book when compared to the original Spanish publication of the novel.
In the end, The Story Of My Teeth is more than just a novel . . . as all novels that impact our lives are. It is a testament to not only the work that goes into translation, but also to the value of storytelling in a world that sometimes seems to commodify authenticity through our all-access lifestyle. A lifestyle that can seem bland once the curtain of mystery is pulled away only to reveal another character waiting behind it.Tweet
I was hoping to send Bill Johnston a bunch of questions about Tomasz Różycki’s Twelve Stations over the weekend, but the general exhaustion from MLA, Greyhound bus rides, and doing three events in three days won out. With a little luck I’ll have something from him to post next Thursday.
In the meantime, I thought for this week I’d post a few quotes from the part of the poem I’ve read with some initial reactions.
As someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry, I tend to gravitate to collections at two very different ends of the spectrum: crazy experimental things that are completely divorced from the prose that I usually read, or poems that are more narrative based (like Twelve Stations) and feel comfortable, like fiction with line breaks.
Although that might seem like the case, the reading experience is very different when you’re reading fiction—especially conventional, “realistic” fiction—and reading a poem like this. With a novel, you can focus on pulling out the essential elements of plot, character, theme, etc., amid a wash of extra words that fill things out by adding texture and adjusting the book’s pacing.
Poetry, even narrative poetry, is more condensed. As a reader—and I know this is veering into Oprah Book Club territory here, but if there’s one thing I’d like to do with these RTWBC posts, it’s talk about books as a reader and not as a critic trying to show off my intellect—I appreciate the experience of having to slow down, go back a few lines, pause. In starting Twelve Stations, I found myself rushing past things, as if it were a story that I could gloss and still get it. There’s something to be said for dialing it back and taking extra time to read.
In Bill Johnston’s intro (which I referenced here), he mentioned the “gawęda, a long-established Polish literary tradition of prose writing in which the pleasure of pure storytelling trumps the need for tidy narratives and overarching plots.” This influence is evident right from the start, and really enjoyable. I like the ramble. And the lists. Reminds me a bit of Rabelais, although not as vulgar or extended, I suppose.
There’s an effusiveness to this poem that’s palpable on every page and somehow—through the lists? the abundance of language?—creates a sort of bustle, a fullness of motion, which drives the book as a whole. In contrast to a lyrical poem about a thing/emotion/moment, the first four “stations” of this book feel like they’re running towards something, gleefully veering out of control, or rather, almost spinning out of control, instead coming back to particular touchstones within the scene to keep the whole thing grounded. Reading this book is a bit of a trip.
Finally, this bit below also has a bit of the Polish history that Bill also addressed in his introduction. It’s interesting to think about a group of Poles moving into a bunch of abandoned houses and towns, creating a community with a set of habits and typical actions different from the people who had been living there, and different from the rest of Poland. For whatever reason, that concept really intrigues me.
So, to give you a sense of how all of those things seem to work together, and to try and convince everyone to get on board with reading this, here’s a long excerpt from the opening section of the poem:
He entered, then, through the wide-open door of a building
and proceeded directly to a first-floor apartment.
First he knocked, yes indeed, he knocked and waited a moment,
but hearing no reply he depressed the handle of the door.
He was not in the least surprised at the local practice
that permitted all doors and windows and gates
to be left open on the outside, notwithstanding intercoms
and all the break-ins, robberies, and crimes against property so common today.
In other regions of that venerable city, in such a place
one would see chains, bars, barb wire strung across balconies,
mad dogs and, even worse, mad pig-dogs white or pink in color,
with tiny eyes, imported from Anglo-Saxon lands, capable
of biting an automobile in two or gnawing through the door behind which
the birthday guests would be standing, flowers and a modest gift
in hand. The owners of such beasts, as they went to bed with a sweet sense of security,
would come in time to resemble their own defenders,
eventually assuming their stance, their habits, their diet.
Thus it was often in Poland, or rather in the land that since the war
has always been referred to as Poland; but not here. This realm here
was governed by its own laws. A person arriving uninvited
would sometimes have to search the entire apartment for their host,
who, leaving every door unlocked, was presently taking a nap
in a distant chamber, snoring beneath a heap of blankets, head wrapped
in a towel or dressing gown, such that any attempt to wake him would be madness.
So it was now.
Vince has brought up a lot of interesting points in this “review,” and questions the relationship of the reader’s response to a book to the perceived value of a book. I’ve had many similar reading experiences: a book has been, by all logistical elements, a fine book, I can identify it as being well written, can think of a handful of other people who would love it to bits—and yet for me it didn’t quite click. But whether or not that’s reason for me to state that a book is lacking in some way… I’m not so sure that’s always the case.
Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review!:
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished Berlin by Aleš Šteger, I am reminded of Jarrell’s idea because I am supposed to be writing a review of Berlin and I realize that I am not Šteger’s ideal reader. I came to the book with expectations and am, to be completely honest, disappointed. But so what? A book didn’t do what I’d hoped it would do. Does that make it a failure?
Of course not. It makes it a book with a specific vision that seemed well suited to my tastes and interests, even if the execution was different than I’d imaged. I love books that make interesting use of cities. I love the way G. Cabrera Infante made Havana such a part of his work; I adore how Ciaran Carson writes about his native Belfast; I’m awed by Faulkner’s ability to spin gold out of rural Mississippi. The list goes on: Bukowski’s L.A.; Auster’s New York; Joyce’s Dublin. As someone who has spent a lot of effort writing stories and poems about a city I both love and hate, I should have been more receptive to Šteger’s book. After all, this is a poet writing in prose about his individual encounters with Berlin. Sounds like my kind of book.
And it is. Sort of. Berlin is a book of quick prose pieces by a Slovenian poet about his time in Berlin. Most of the miniature essays are accompanied by photos, some of which make up the most stunning parts of the book. There are allusions to other great writers who walked the Berlin streets, as well as a humorous exchange with a fellow poet, and tiny details (food, bakeries, the weather) that add up to something indeed, though I will admit that I am not exactly sure what. This is evidence of my response as a reader, not Šteger’s failure as a writer, though it makes an objective review difficult.
For the rest of the review and more deep thoughts, go here.Tweet
As you probably know, this month’s Reading the World Book Club prose selection is The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, which is translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West and published by Dorothy.
Danielle Dutton—a highly regarded author and founder of Dorothy, a publishing project—offered to write a short piece about how she came to publish this wonderful, unsettling book.
We’re lucky to have a few brilliant friends—so brilliant we officially put them on our Advisory Board—who occasionally make the best recommendations. One of these is Jeremy Davies (excellent writer and editor in his own right), and it’s through Jeremy that we first heard about Marianne Fritz. He suggested I check out the essay on her work by Adrian Nathan West (aka Nate) that was online at Asymptote, so I did, and the essay I believe linked directly to a translated excerpt from what was at that time called The Gravity of Circumstances (for the book, the title was changed to The Weight of Things, which we all thought worked better, rhythmically, in the places where the phrase appears in the text). The excerpt was from a particularly harrowing dream sequence. It’s Berta’s anxiety dream: dark and surreal and poetic. I loved it. I couldn’t really imagine what the rest of the book would be like from that excerpt, though, so I reached out to Nate (whom at that time I didn’t know) and asked him if he had a completed manuscript of the book. He didn’t, but he said he could do a rough translation of the rest fairly quickly, and so he did. The book was, in different ways, so much stranger and also less strange than the excerpt suggested. It was shockingly sad and complicated, knotty and good. We took it on and edited it with Nate, who was a pleasure to work with—and The Weight of Things was born.
One thing I particularly like about this story is that it was exactly what I hoped would happen when I started Dorothy, a publishing project; I wanted to talk about good books with people who love good books (in fact, in the first year or so, we weren’t open for submissions but rather were looking for people to send in suggestions of other people’s books, whether these were OP or unpublished manuscripts). It’s actually hard to imagine people who love good books more than Jeremy and Nate, and the book’s warm reception among readers and critics has been edifying for all of us.
Thanks so much for featuring it at Reading the World!
Danielle Dutton, editor
I finished reading The Weight of Things on my flight to MLA and plan on posting some personal thoughts and reactions when I get back to Rochester. (Today I’m in Houston for an event at Brazos at 7, then will be in Dallas for events Tuesday and Wednesday night. If you live in either of those cities, you should definitely come out!) And if any of you have any thoughts about the book, please post them in the comments section below, on Twitter with #RTWBC, and/or at the Facebook group.Tweet
Last month we got the news that Kaija Straumanis—our editor and graduate of the University of Rochester’s MA in literary translation program—had won the AATSEEL1 Award for the Best Literary Translation into English for her translation of Inga Ābele’s High Tide.
As part of their annual conference, ATSEEL held their award ceremony just this past Friday in Austin, TX at the AT&T Conference Center on the University of Texas Campus. (Which was a pretty swanky building. Maybe ALTA will end up having their conference there someday . . .)
Anyway, here’s a picture of Kaija after she won:
And here’s an image of the citation for the award:
This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Literary Translation into English goes to Kaija Straumanis for High Tide, her translation of Inga Ābele’s Latvian novel Paisums. The judges—Ellen Elias-Bursac, Vitaly Chernetsky, and Joanna Trzeciak Huss—read and reviewed 38 books published in 2013 and 2014. After careful deliberation High Tide rose to the top. Spanning nearly four decades and told in reverse chronological order, Ābele’s High Tide is a bracing, honest, existentialist exploration of the protagonist Ieva’s psyche and the constellation of emotional presences in her life. The novel takes us backward in time from post-Communist Latvia through the time of the Awakening and ultimately to the Communist period. What impressed the judges about Kaija Straumanis’s translation is the lyrical quality of the lines. This is a novel that reads like poetry. Logic is given a long leash in a prose that is evocative and electric. Ābele’s is a performative prose in which words call for one another, and Straumanis succeeds in finding the words that both issue and answer that call. But just as resonant as the language of the novel, is the depth of the emotions it portrays and elicits. In one of High Tide’s most powerful and moving passages, we are given access to the thoughts of Ieva’s grandmother, deprived of her voice by Alzheimer’s. Her deepest desire is simply to feel the warmth of a human body. In “The Attack”—the chronologically, thematically, and structurally central part of the book—a western journalist issues a verdict on Eastern and Central Europe, that when the Iron Curtain fell there was nothing behind it, no literary masterpieces hidden in drawers, no sacred resources. This novel is one long counter to this verdict. The sacred resources of Eastern Europe are lives deeply lived, felt, and shared, a set of which crisscross in these pages, and are brought to us through two women, the writer and the translator. Indeed, there are moments in this book when one feels completely connected, when it is as if “in a brief flash, you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second all three of these persons unite in you.”
Congrats to Kaija for winning this award. It’s especially cool that this was her thesis project at the U of R. I’m sure that for years and years she will continue to introduce English readers to more excellent books from Latvia.
To celebrate this award (which isn’t really Kaija’s first, but is the first for one of Open Letter’s books!) from now until Sunday, January 17 at midnight, we’re offering High Tide for 30% off. Just click that link and use HIGH TIDE at checkout.
1 AATSEEL is the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages.Tweet
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.
The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.
With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.
It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.
Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.Tweet
Before getting into the poetry side of our Reading the World Book Clubs, I just want to remind everyone that you can share your thoughts and comments about these books/posts in three different ways: in the comments section below, on the Reading the World Book Club Facebook Group, and by using #RTWBC on Twitter.
For this intro post, I thought I’d list five reasons why I chose to start the poetry RTWBC with Twelve Stations by Tomasz Różycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.
1.) This is a narrative based poem. I like more abstract poetry that plays with language, forms, meaning, etc., but for my first attempt at running a poetry book, I thought it would be nice to start with something that’s more narrative based. Although based on Bill Johnston’s introduction, the “narrative” aspect of this seems a bit incidental . . .
It’s a sort of mock epic about restoring a Catholic church in what used to be the eastern part Poland and is now the Ukraine. Bill Johnston does a fantastic job explaining the cultural background of this poem, but in short, after World War II, the eastern part of Poland was given to the Soviet Union, whereas Upper and Lower Silesia were incorporated into Poland, becoming the western part of the country. (Oh, those shifting Polish borders.)
To further complicate things, the Germans living in what became western Poland moved back to Germany, and the Poles of what used to be the eastern part of Poland took over their abandoned houses and towns. Which is why the older generation is essentially “returning home” to the Ukraine to restore the church.
2.) The humor. I heard Bill read a part of this at Translation Loaf, and it was incredibly funny in a very Polish sort of way. Rather than try and explain that myself, I’ll let Bill take over:
Różycki’s mock epic has strong affinities with the gawęda, a long-established Polish literary tradition of prose writing in which the pleasure of pure storytelling trumps the need for tidy narratives and overarching plots. The gawęda goes back at least as far as Henryk Rzewuski’s Pamiatki Soplicy (Memoirs of Soplica, 1839) [. . . ] and stretches to the 20th century, where it left deep traces in the work or writers as otherwise diverse as Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) and Wiesław Myśliwski (b. 1930). Polish audiences know not to expect much in the way of plot resolution in such books; they read for the sheer exuberance of the narratorial voice, for the recounting of endless amusing incidents, and, going deeper, the delight of spendin ghours wiht a writer who is, simply put, good company. [. . .]
Though the form doesn’t draw attention to itself quite the way that, for example, rhymed verse does, a large part of the poem’s pleasure resides in its irrepressible torrent of words. Its comedy inheres as much in the exaggerations, excesses, and playful absurditites of the language itself as in those of the story and the characters.
Definitely a Chad sort of book.
3.) The fact that this is a contemporary work that’s made a huge impact. This poem was originally published in 2004, when Różycki was 34, and won the Kościelski Prize. Since that point, its made its way onto school reading lists, has been adapted for the radio, and has been performed in theaters throughout Poland. This sort of reaction to an epic poem is definitely more likely to happen in a European country than in the U.S., but still, that’s impressive.
4.) Because Bill Johnston. There are so many good Polish translators working today, but I have a personal soft spot for Bill. He’s a great person, incredibly talented, has a wonderful sense of humor, and picks some amazing projects. Over the past decade he’s translated Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, which was one of the first books Open Letter ever published; Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, which is one of my favorite books of all time; and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which is one of the great works of twentieth-century science-fiction.
Oh, and remember this t-shirt? Which served as my indoor soccer team’s jersey for a season, and which I still wear? The front of which looked like this?
(Unfortunately, these are all sold out.)
5.) To give a shout out to Poland. Poland is also the Guest of Honor at BookExpo America in Chicago this summer, and was one of the main organizing forces behind the New Literature from Europe that took place last fall. The Polish Institute is great to work with, and over the past year has taken a lot of great editors over to Poland to learn about their literature and culture. There are so many great Polish writers and great translators from the Polish. And as most of my friends know, I’m mostly Polish! So why not honor this fascinating country and its wonderful literature by featuring one of its most notable contemporary poets?
Overall, I’m really excited that we’re starting the Reading the World Poetry Book Club off with this poem and am looking forward to reading what everyone has to say about this particular book.Tweet
Here’s the beginning of Will’s review:
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so beautiful, or that feels so right in my hand. I didn’t have much interest in guns before, but the moment I saw it, all I could think about was making it mine.”
The “I” here is a young man named Nishikawa. He’s probably in his 20s, because he’s a university student, but beyond that, there’s not much to glean from his personal life, because he’s not one for introspection. Much more fascinating is his new object of obsession, and like a man sleepwalking through life, Nishikawa finally seems to have a purpose: to use that gun.
For a debut novel, there is a lot to like here. Despite some clunky and repetitive prose, Nakamura knows how to ratchet up the tension, as we slowly progress from Nishikawa simply owning the gun, to taking care of the gun, to bringing the gun around with him, until finally, feeling like he needs to shoot that gun, at something or someone. Even as readers we know this is a foregone conclusion, but Nakamura, particularly as we barrel into the climax, knows how to employ multiple bait and switches to keep us guessing as to Nishikawa’s ultimate fate.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .
I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .