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 he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.
Now, fans of that book can continue. . .
“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 ask.
Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic. . .
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 these short pieces (what contemporary writers would call flash fiction) resemble fables and that Akhvlediani’s characters sound a bit like Vladimir and Estragon, Clov and Hamm, and any number of Beckett creations. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is a Beckett imitator or that his work is really all that Beckettian. The two share a tendency to explore philosophical questions through seemingly simple characters and their exchanges, but the dialectical approach is about where it ends. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is not an absurdist. That rigid title might not fit perfectly, but it is through such. . .
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 comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.
As readers, we should interpret it. . .
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 and their place in Indian society. Some of the characters in her stories are old women living in poverty, and some of them are exploited because of their lack of wealth; however, some of them are middle class (one of them is even college-educated). Regardless of their status, though, they all suffer some kind of mistreatment, whether it’s physical or mental abuse, but not all of them are willing to accept their fate. So it would appear that Devi’s works—many of which are available in English from Calcutta-based Seagull Books—would offer a powerful experience for the reader.
Unfortunately, these three. . .
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. Tristana desires independence and freedom, and she possesses the intelligence and ambition to pursue it were it not for circumstances and misfortunes that conspire in forcing her to bend to the expectations of her time.
The novel is built upon a love triangle—the twenty-one year old Tristana; her lover, the young painter Horacio; and Don Lope, Tristana’s benefactor who takes her in, alone and penniless, following the death of her parents. Although Tristana’s growing self-awareness and consequent actions propel the course of the story Tristana is an exceptional novel because of the enigmatic Don Lope.
Don Lope is fifty-seven years. . .
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 a book that should have been called The History of Silence never came to be written. Although common, failure is not easy to explain.” I prepared for a self-aware, post-modern, and concept-heavy work. While Zarraluki never abandons his exploration of silence, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The narrator and Irene dive into the philosophies of silence, into religious ideas, into odd experiments with it, but this is a novel about relationships, about complicated, emotional, thoughtful, sexual people. Zarraluki creates whole, original characters in the brush of a couple sentences, builds their relationships with the others, and then plays out. . .
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 of attempting the latter. It has quite possibly the most misleading, inaccurate cover copy of all time. Surrealism is an overused term, applied to anything odd, just to the right of realism, but Flesh-Coloured Dominoes is the most straightforward work I’ve seen called Surrealist. This isn’t a criticism of the book itself, it couldn’t be, but when you go into a story wanting the unsettling, funny, and strange, then encounter dry, if beautiful and emotional verisimilitude outside of a few occasions, it is hard not to be disappointed. In addition to claiming Surrealism, the copy tells us that Skujiņš’s novel. . .
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 in past reviews, rests with poets who seem hell-bent on insulating their art from the community at large, which is why Dunya Mikhail’s work, which work sin so much the opposite manner, is always such a pleasure. It’s enough to get me screaming back into the void.
Mikhail’s previous collection, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, arrived not to push the possibilities of poetry—there’s a prevalent wrongheaded belief that poets have a responsibility to always explore uncharted territory—but to remind readers why we go to poetry in the first place. Comprised of separate approaches, mostly written out of necessity. . .
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 an apartment above his mother and below his ex-wife, and religiously eats boiled vegetables every day for lunch at the same cafe at the same table. Claudio spends over two years obsessing about Cecilia, a doctor and fellow colleague, until the day he is able to stutter out his profession of love for her, only to proceed in engaging with her in his car a safe distance from the hospital where they work. Following and/or during this engagement (not clear), Claudio also stumbles into a relationship with Cecilia’s sister, Silva, who shortly thereafter learns she is expecting. These ingredients and. . .