This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stacey Knecht, BTBA judge and translator from the Czech and Dutch. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Russia, FSG)
There I lay, on my little yellow sofa, felled by the flu. The first three days were foggy, inside and out, but on the fourth day my eyes began to clear, and I reached for the fat Russian novel that had been waiting next to me ever since the fever hit: The Big Green Tent. Given my penchant for things Slavic, and the fact that the second half of a flu is usually easier than the first, this promised to be a pleasurable recovery.
It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.
These lines, at the start of Chapter One (they appear again halfway through the book, as if to remind us of their significance), sum up not only the book itself, but also the style in which it’s written. The novel unfolds, “following the natural course of events,” to reveal the cast of characters and the storylines one has come to expect from “the dear, dead, nineteenth-century Russians,” as my favorite literature teacher used to say, the kind of book in which we’d write a list of all those characters on the inside cover. Yet the author of The Big Green Tent, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, is still very much alive, widely acclaimed, and “an outspoken protester of the Putin regime” (The Atlantic, December 2015). The events she describes, the post-Stalin years up through the early 1990s, are palpably recent; and repression, unfortunately, is timeless.
Perhaps to ensure that the reader is aware of the fact that history can and does repeat itself, Ulitskaya brings past and present together, blurring our sense of time. There are passages here that echo those dear, dead Russians:
The storm took place at half past two in the morning. It was like an opera or a symphony—with an overture, leitmotifs, and a duet of water and wind. Lightning bolts flew up in columns, accompanied by incessant rumbling and flashes. Then there was an intermission and a second act. Maria Nikolayevna’s heart pains, which had plagued her all day, stopped immediately, as did Captain Popov’s headache, from which he had been suffering for the past twenty-four hours. He even managed to get some sleep before going to work. The only thing he didn’t manage to do was put a stamp on the document. But he could do that later.
Boris Ivanovich loved his mother-in-law; in her he saw Natasha, but with a more decisive character. In his wife, Natasha, he saw features of his mother-in-law — the first signs of a gentle fullness, small lines around the mouth, and a burgeoning soft pouch under the chin. Good, healthy stock. The generous plumpness of Kustodiev’s women, but all the more alluring for it.
Then, just two pages later, we’re reminded that this is a different era entirely:
What he was looking for was lying on his own desk in his office in the form of photocopied pages from Stern magazine. These were cartoons: gigantic letters spelling “Glory to the Communist party of the Soviet Union,” and under them a crowd of people and dogs trying to reach the sacred words. The words themselves were made of sausages: boiled salami, with circles of white fat where they had been sliced. [. . .] Another cartoon depicted a mausoleum made of the same kind of salami, with the word Lenin written in sausage links.
I’d be very happy for The Big Green Tent to win the BTBA 2016. The prose is rich, the translation, strong, the themes, relevant. There’s history, and humor, and a pinch of folklore. But above all: it cures the flu.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Tiffany Nichols, who will start her Ph.D. studies this upcoming fall and is a contributor at to Three Percent. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)
My first rather obvious reason as to why The Things We Don’t Do should win the Best Translated Book Award relies on the prestige already gained by Andrés Neuman. Neuman was introduced to the English-speaking audience with Traveler of the Century, a work which I personally believe is the War and Peace of the twenty-first Century. As Jeremy Garber points out in his Three Percent review of the work, Neuman “has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards.” Further, Neuman was celebrated by Roberto Bolaño (in verified print— Between Parentheses). In discussing Neuman’s first novel, Bolaño states:
In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch) and on no few occasions Neuman pulls it off with frightening ease. . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know what the future holds for them. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like that happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.
Personally, I believe we can drop the mic here as to why Neuman should win the BTBA. Namely, (1) Neuman is still writing, and (2) Neuman has assumed a position of literary prestige in the Spanish-speaking world (and the English-speaking world)—All of Bolaño’s criteria having been met. . .
Most works of literature stay with us for a short period of time upon completion. However, there are a select few that sneak into our thoughts weeks and months (even years) after completion. These works are challenging and thought-provoking not only during the act of reading, but also appear in one’s thoughts without provocation when the mind is busy handling our daily lives because the subconscious needs time to make its own assessment of the work within the greater context of time and the reader’s own identity. The Things We Don’t Do (along with his other works) is one of such work. Neuman’s aforementioned prestige and now his ability to write literature with staying power—the case is building for a winner.
Focusing on the work itself, The Things We Don’t Do is divided into five parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or often forget completely while carrying out their day-to-day activites. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest books to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the clues one can observe from a clothes line.
True to this established style, Neuman places observations that are so globally ubiquitous that anyone could engage with his work as if there was a direct channel between the reader and the work. These observations are so simple and stated with such finesse that any reader will be forced to provide his/her undivided attention to the work. Examples (absent context) include:
. . . [I]n today’s session he declared that people born in the ‘70s are orphans through excess. That is to say, a generation that feels unprotected due to its parents’ overprotectiveness.
Ariel was, so to speak, a classically envious person. And, like all people of his kind, his fury turned against his own interests and slowly ate away what little happiness he had.
. . . [M]y male neighbor on the third floor, who takes the trouble to sort out his washing by size, type, and color. Never a shirt next to a hand towel. He lives alone. I am not surprised. How can anyone possibly sleep with someone unable to trust in the hospitality of chance? No doubt about it, my obsessive neighbor is a master of camouflage.
Scattered through the entire collection, the reader will also stumble across clever mind games, which add to the intrigue of the work as a whole and demanding the reader’s attention (and later that of the reader’s subconscious) despite the deceivingly simple and unencumbered prose. Further, Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to these mind games, result in a work that becomes quite endearing to the reader without a scintilla of kitschiness. In addition, each story starts from a point of zero and flourishes into concepts that cannot be predicted or sensed until they occur, amplifying the suspense which is often laking from a short story collection. As Neuman himself states:
The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.
Turning to the end of the work, the last section of Things We Don’t Do is comprised of series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference pertaining to the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements to test whether the collection passes muster which can only come from an author who is aware of not only his craft, abilities, comfort with language, and peers, but also one who understands what came before and what will come after. To contain such a dare in one’s work is yet another reason why The Things We Don’t Do should win.
In closing, just as Patti Smith carried Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal throughout the world in a small metal suitcase, I have done the same with The Things We Don’t Do (albeit, a generic polyester Samsonite suitcase). Like Astragal for Patti Smith, The Things We Don’t Do has become a “trove of bittersweet memories” probably because The Things We Don’t Do is “a book [that] tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.” I rest my case as to why this book should win.
(It should also be noted that The COOP at Harvard University believes that The Things We Don’t Do is a perfect alternative to doing your homework. So you do not have to take my word for it.)
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”
Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.
The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.
The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.
Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.
The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.
End of argument.
To celebrate this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, we’re going to have two separate parties. The first is on Wednesday, May 4th at 6:30pm at The Folly (92 W Houston, NYC). That’s where we’ll announce the two winning titles. (For those of you who can’t make it in person, be sure and tune into The Millions where the info will be posted promptly at 7pm.)
Here’s the official invite to that event:
Since not everyone is based in New York, and since we wanted to do something special for booksellers, we’re having a second event on Wednesday, May 11th at 5pm at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago). A number of BTBA judges will be there, along with food and drink.
Here’s the official invite. (And yes, you can come even if you’re not a bookseller.):
I’ll be at both of these—hope to see you there as well!
For any and all booksellers out there looking to promote the Best Translated Book Awards—or for anyone who just has the BTBA spirit and likes to hang things on their walls—we’ve designed a series of shelf-talkers and posters that you can download, print out, and use in your displays.
If you click on any of these below, you’ll get a 8-1/2” x 11” high res jpeg. Print that out, slap it on a wall, table, display case, whatever, add some titles from the BTBA longlists, and you have a very stylist Best Translated Book Award display! Feel free to go nuts.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller at Community Bookstore. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)
Wolfgang Hilbig made his English-language debut last year with the publications of I (Seagull Books) and The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press). Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator for both titles, brilliantly renders the bizarre beauty and breathlessness of Hilbig’s German, its lyricism, its repetitions, its many shades and shadows. Of course, to call Hilbig’s prose beautiful or breathless is to fear a misreading, for it’s a beauty bloomed in ruin, a breathlessness bound to suffocation. Landing on the BTBA’s longlist, The Sleep of the Righteous should win for its seven visions of an East Germany gone mad, back when the wall was not yet a relic, Stasi roamed wolflike through the streets, and a longing for escape blurred against the feeling of abandonment.
Hilbig finds poetry in paranoia, and his stories are strewn with wreckage and warning. Writing for the Boston Review, Tyler Curtis carefully locates Hilbig’s unease as a product of the East German surveillance apparatus: “[The] very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation.” Indeed, paranoia, particularly in its political guise, tends towards multivocality, collapsing distinctions between past and present, presence and absence, self and other—sometimes all at once. At their very best, Hilbig’s sentences are many-headed with these horrors. The harrowing story “The Afternoon” features a writer (always a writer, with Hilbig) who seeks to describe the arc of a Stasi arrest which happened long ago, but feels as if its happening outside his door right now. Between sitting down to compose and lingering on the arrest, the writer falters:
“How can you sit at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?”
The scene is scattered: table, town, hunt, all held haphazardly together by the writing act. The tension between representation and reality seeks an ethical answer; the writer’s present chronicle might stand in as a savior, called forth from the shadows of a man’s memories of his town to bear witness, but the writing act is overwhelmed, finally, by the past’s political terror, and off the story goes into the arrest. It’s a question asked of the present and the past at once, and left unanswered by both. Witness, for Hilbig, isn’t enough, even when it’s the only thing we have, and the only thing his writing can offer. But the writer must conjure these images, tormenting as they may be, or else we’d have no narrative to contend with.
The Sleep of the Righteous arrived to several comparisons (from Two Lines’s jacket copy, from the LARB) to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and, surprisingly enough, the comparison stands. Not that a riff on Poe is altogether unheard of—Bolaño sneaks more than a few into his stories—but it’s rare to encounter a mimic done well. In particular, the story “The Bottles in the Cellar” reads like pulp horror from the Eastern Bloc, uncanny enough to renew Poe’s same sense of panic, at least in this reader. The young man in the story, drunk off his family’s cider, finds himself increasingly unable to conceal his theft by refilling pilfered bottles. Humorous enough in its excess—“I had not filled them, the bottles, I had not yet disposed of them; on the contrary, I had bolstered their superior might with more and more fringe groups”—the story soon sobers, so to speak, against the threat of alcoholism: “[In] my body there was a curse like the very being of the bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open ever greedier maws within.” Of course, it all ends where you’d expect—in vomit:
“It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an Earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple.”
Vomit transforms into an image of the void. Hilbig’s horrors have the ability, like Poe’s, to explode the mundane (vomit from drink) into the cosmic (“an ocean, frozen”; “an Earth, plummeting”). But unlike Poe, whose stories hinge on allegory and metaphor to engage with the American republic, Hilbig refers again and again to the malaise and suffocation of life in East Germany, as set up in the story’s opening lines: “The old contraptions, survivors of two wars, held and held…no one generation gained the upper hand, and finally I accepted the fact that I didn’t belong to them.” The postwar generation under Communism cannot make their lives inside the glories and terrors of the past, but instead must suffice with drink and other petty pleasures that they find beneath the boot.
“The Dark Man,” the final story in the collection, twists the struggle for survival against the state back onto the state itself, or what’s left of it after the fall. The narrator, another writer, makes a trip back east to visit his mother, and begins receiving mysterious phone calls from an unknown man who demands they meet. Eventually, the story reveals that the unknown man is a former Stasi agent who was once tasked with reviewing the writer’s mail, from which he discovered an affair. At their first meeting, he describes the impenetrability of the writer’s style, even in correspondence: “A haze of writing . . . and can you even still see the life behind it? Is there actually still flesh behind the writing? Or just more writing?” As fitting a formulation of Hilbig’s style as any I’ve set down, the agent’s description cuts to the bone of the East German’s moody methodology. Living under surveillance amounts to hiding, encoding, encrypting, and who better to house the heart away from harm than a writer and his words. And though he labors hard through these seven stories to admonish the role of the writer, Hilbig always returns to the centrality of writing to resistance. Put another way: our words are the thoughts and things in our heads, graver than a gun which can be wrenched from our grasp, and their preservation is synonymous with survival—because what good our words without our heads, or our heads without our words?
Best I think to leave the last to the author of the introduction, perennial BTBA-winner László Krasznahorkai: “Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)
Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.
A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.
Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.
Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)
It may be only through humor that one can willingly enter the haze of Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume. The text—translated from Arabic by the renowned William M. Hutchins, and published by ANTIBOOKCLUB—tugs at the insides of anticipation until they are strewn across a table, staring back at you like doctored images of a woman you have never met but have just married.
The image is of Katia, a Frenchwoman, but mostly a name, who embodies promise and release for Ali Jarjar, a man who “from an early age [. . .] toughened himself by training his bladder’s urinary control, his lungs’ resistance to coughing, and his memory’s avoidance of vagaries.” A man with pride knotted in self-restraint. A man who incessantly dangles himself before the local women “who sold tea to the poor, women who were maids, and women who were immigrants.” Women he abandons, “enveloped in a warm dream and in the fantasy of a happy life.” Jilted, because like the cracks in the town walls of Gha’ib (or, “Nonexistent”) they are easy to overlook yet undeniably there. Women who, much like the ever-present squeaky doors of the neighborhood, denounce intimacy because “a door that opened quietly and smoothly was respected by no one.”
But Katia is a promise so intoxicating that men die writing poetry for her:
Beautiful Katia: where are you?
Where is desire for this melancholy flow
And where is the pure river of letters that will course through
your blood with love and affection?
Katia is the exception, who oils the doors of Gha’ib with the anticipation of her arrival:
She will make us famous in the whole world by documenting us in a video, she will send us the money necessary to develop the neighborhood and to bury its sewers and fill its potholes, she will care for our stray dogs and cats, she will ask some of us to migrate and live with her in Paris, and perhaps she will fall madly in love with one of us and ask him to marry her.
Katia is the Angel, who renames the stores and paints houses blue.
Katia Cadolet—the image and the undoing.
Hutchins’s translation of Elsir’s French Perfume elicits sense from absurdity. It is a book dominated by fragrance of passion so annihilating because of its very absence. Its scent becomes the promise for the physical, but ultimately lacks the body—leaving only notes of overpowering delusion and heady expectation. It inflames a slow burn of want for the need to touch the intangible. This is a text that deforms the mind as it pulls one into the rituals of preparing for passion—for there is nothing closer to skin than scent, and only at the loss of restraint does reason unravel.
Why should this book win? Because “it was the desperate hope of a man without any hopes.” And because, once, you too must have loved the image of a ghost.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by George Carroll, former BTBA judge, sales rep, and international literature editor for Shelf Awareness. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Angola, Archipelago Books)
In Why Geography Matters, Harm de Blij writes that Americans have a dangerous geographic ignorance of other countries, particularly China. And if we’re iffy on China, we’re totally clueless about Africa, and worse, we don’t care.
So it’s satisfying that two of my favorite books on the BTBA longlist are set in sub-Saharan Africa—Tram 83 (Fiston Mwanza Mujila / Roland Glasser / Deep Vellum) and A General Theory of Oblivion (Jose Eduardo Agualusa / Daniel Hahn / Archipelago Books)—Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, respectively. Both books are also on the Man Booker International Prize—you know, the other translation prize.
The basic plot of A General Theory of Oblivion is that a light-sensitive agoraphobic walls herself and her white German Shepherd in her Luandan apartment for 30 years, eventually living off roof garden fruits and vegetables and the pigeons she traps, using diamonds as bait.
Outside her building, Angola is approaching the tail end of the War of Independence.
Dark and brutal when it needs to be, sensitive and thoughtful when it should be, the book is a bit of a riffle shuffle. It’s the callbacks,1 for a lack of a better word that I loved most in A General Theory of Oblivion. Characters who seem like one-offs or throwaways re-enter the book as major characters. It all leads to a denouement, minus all of the chuckles of, say, Comedy of Errors.
If the book title isn’t enough to entice you, the chapter titles should be:
Our Sky is Your Floor
The Substance of Death
On the Slippages of Reason
The Subtle Architecture of Chance
About God and Other Tiny Follies
Daniel Hahn’s translation is up with the best of his work. Is there anyone as consistently good as Hahn?
The reason A General Theory of Oblivion should win the Best Translated Book Award, or at least advance to the shortlist, is that the number one seed, the other book translated from the Portuguese shouldn’t be a shoe-in. Seriously—Villanova beat North Carolina. Leicester City could win the Premier League.
1 My favorite part of the television series Arrested Development was the callbacks. Well, second to the classic lines:
Michael (to GOB): Get rid of The Seaward.
Lucille: I’ll leave when I’m good and ready
I made a fool of myself with one of the series writers, now novelist Maria Semple at a book tradeshow. Rather than tell her I that was excited/interested in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I asked her a raft of questions about how they writers built callbacks into the episodes
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Lucina Schell, editor of Reading in Translation. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)
One Out of Two is a philosophical fable disguised as spinster fiction. From the dream team behind Almost Never (Graywolf, 2012), giant of Latin American literature Daniel Sada and acclaimed translator Katherine Silver, this compact hundred-page book is tightly stitched with the same perfectionism as its twin heroines’ tailoring output. On the surface, it is a delightful romp to be devoured in one sitting, but linger longer with the text and it raises profound questions about the desire for union with another person versus personal independence. “Then: intimacy as an idea that unravels.”
The spinster plot concerns Constitución and Gloria Gamal, identical twins who have only grown increasingly alike with age. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves from one another, the twins delight in accentuating their similarities by wearing matching dresses, styling their hair in the same way, and mirroring each other’s mannerisms. The Gamal sisters are as interdependent as they are fiercely independent. Orphaned as children, they flee the aunt who raised them and her constant exhortations to “‘get married soon and have loads of children!’” as soon as they come of age, and use their inheritance to buy a house in a small desert town and start a tailoring business, which quickly thrives due to their strong work ethic.
Their aunt’s advice continues in the form of increasingly contradictory letters, “Get married, you silly girls, and be quick about it! But don’t flirt with the first young man you meet; you have to be coy, give yourselves airs, or you’ll regret it . . .” But the twins don’t much care, focusing their attention instead on their growing business, until one day they receive an invitation to a family wedding. Now 42, and without any prospects, this might be their last chance to snag husbands! Their aunt suggests they distinguish themselves by hair style, but the twins have spent too many years refining their similitude to have any hope of looking different now. Thus, only one will go to the wedding, and they decide which with a coin toss, the first of many perfectly chosen metaphors for their predicament. When Constitución Gamal returns with a suitor, the twins concoct an elaborate ruse to share the man, thus putting their years of studied imitation to the test, because, “what’s mine is yours.” (The repetition of this marital maxim throughout the novel reminds us that the twins are in a sort of marriage already.) The narrative voice, peppered with folksy interjections and perfectly matched idiomatic expressions, reads like an omniscient town gossip, never letting us forget the twins are being watched. Yet, we revel in their abandon as they decide “To wit: let people think whatever the hell they like.”
This all sounds like a fun farce, but we are in the hands of a master stylist. As Sada pushes every cliché to the breaking point, it springs back with deliciously surprising prose. We can feel the pleasure he takes in crafting the bodice-ripper landscape in which Gloria takes the budding romance to the next level on “Constitución’s” second date with Oscar, while her sister watches from a few feet away: “To the chagrin of the observer, this Johnny-come-lately was painting the walls of her own scenario with wild and passionate hues splashed across the distance, cloud pompoms dripping with ocher and deep red settling in between the hills.” Constitución contemplates hurling a stick at her imprudent sister, but worries it will only land in the nearby bush, releasing a cloud of butterflies. In every flight Sada takes, Silver hugs his sentences as tightly as the twins press against walls while spying on each other.
The novel shifts seamlessly between genres and low to high literary diction, as when the twins, each falling in love, evolve from “one out of two or two in one” to, “A triangle, to put it simply: three gnawed points and a conjugation: or to put it indirectly: two similar points and a third one far far away. Passion conjugated: repressed, obsessive, in full conformity with the rules of the game”. The unusual, yet consistent use of colons—at times many in a single cascading sentence—sets up constant equations or analogies, and creates a staccato rhythm that heightens the growing tension as the inevitable marriage proposal approaches. Meanwhile, frequent sentence fragments remind us that the twins are only whole together. On a syntactic level, the novel is refreshingly suspicious of virtuous individualism.
But Oscar, a rancher, is hardly an ideal match for either of the twins, and increasingly, they realize their infatuation with him is more fantasy than true love. Oscar’s greatest ambition is “to one day open, next to any road whatsoever, a huge restaurant for truckers only, serving carnes adobadas and fresh tortillas, where there would be a jukebox and a dance floor and some shabby sluts—who would double as grub-slingers—available for pickup.” As Oscar drones on about his current reality, raising pigs and goats, one of the twins “conjured up abstract images that consisted of small arrows being shot at sentences—we could call them precepts—of the most profound transcendence.”
We expect the proposal to end in tears, the story to end in tragedy, with Oscar rejecting the twins when he finds out the truth. But the subversive, even feminist, conclusion to this fairytale is one of its best features. The deal-breaker ends up being the prospect of losing their business, to join Oscar in his distasteful venture: “because it would be unbecoming for the so-called better halves to compete with each other”. Turning the coin toss on its head, the twins make “An about face!” Together they are better halves than either could ever be with another man.
One Out of Two is much more than two in one. In few pages it manages to cover and subvert various literary genres, virtuosically, hilariously, while leaving us to ponder paradoxes such as, can true independence only come from perfect union with another human?
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