This is the second entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was about Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Original Language: Russian
Author’s Home Country: Shishkin was born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland in 1995. After taking several shits on Putin’s Russia (here and here and I think there are others), it’s probably for the best that he’s living with the bankers.
Original Date of Publication: 2005 (Russian); 2012 (English)
Second Printing: Yes—this is one of a handful of Open Letter titles to go have gone into a second printing. (I wonder if anyone can guess the others. Not all of them are our best-selling titles, but it’s a pretty solid list of books.) It’s somehow very gratifying to open up one of our books and see “Second Printing, 2013” on the copyright page. Which is why I mention it.
Awards Won: Shishkin won three international awards for Maidenhair: the Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize in Russia, and the German translation won the International Literature Award. In terms of prizes for the English translations, well, as you can see in the image above, Maidenhair was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award . . . AND WAS ROBBED. Actually, it was up against Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is fine, OK. Although I still believe Shishkin deserved it, especially given that Krasznahorkai won the following year as well, and New Directions has won like 85% of the BTBA awards to date. (That is just an estimate.)
But beyond not winning the BTBA, there was a moment, in 2013, when Shishkin’s name was being bantered around as a possible Nobel Prize recipient. That would’ve changed Open Letter’s fortunes FOREVER, and possibly turned me into a happy person. Seeing that that obviously hasn’t happened—it’s all depressive episodes alternating with rage over here—it’s clear that he didn’t win. Currently, he’s not even listed over at Ladbrokes, so fuck us. And fuck happy.
Other Books in English: What that possible-Nobel-contender buzz did do is encourage Shishkin’s agent—well, one of them, since he jumped around quite a bit—to sell The Light and the Dark to Quercus.
Interlude. Whoa. WHOA. Before I go on whinging about this or that publishing thing, let’s take a second to consider this cover:
That is HORRIBLE. Like, bad romance novel that’s available for a dime at a library sale, or worse, rotting away in a dank little free library sort of bad. What is it with bigger presses taking our authors and then saddling them with really awkward, tone deaf covers? For example, the new Mathias Enard:
It’s almost like it’s supposed to be the cover of one of those 70s space porn books, but never quite gets there. Those colors and title treatment are straight out of MS Paint. If I didn’t know the history of this book, I’d assume that it’s self-published. And that the author was obliged to use his brother-in-law’s design. (“Jimmy’s co-workers always ask him to design their event posters. He has a real eye for it!”)
Ugh. Agents. The part of the Shishkin debacle that was the worst was the agent—and sub agent—pressuring us to sell our UK rights to Maidenhair to Quercus because “they’re a bigger publisher.” Not once did Quercus make an offer that we could accept or reject, instead we were told repeatedly that we “must do this for the benefit of Quercus . . . and the book.” That’s exactly how shitty agents work: they show you no respect, treat you as a cog in their machine, and can’t ever figure out what’s going on when you don’t see things their way. The handful of good, honest agents—there are a couple, I swear—are so refreshing to work with. The rest are just ambulance-chasing lawyers with literary aspirations. (And this is why we don’t get any good books on submission.) (And is also why there should be a caveat at the top of this post stating that the opinions are solely those of Chad, who is mostly trying to be funny. He actually loves everyone and meditates every day. His blood pressure is within the normal range, and if only you could see the smile on his face when you mention the French Publishers Agency . . .)
Anyway, you can read The Light and the Dark, which most people consider to be not as good as Maidenhair, or you can read Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, or you can just read Maidenhair, which is one of the best books published this century.
Jacket Copy: Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
An X Meets Y Comparison: Books like this can’t be put in boxes. The three storyline structure isn’t the most revolutionary thing ever, but the ways in which it twists and winds around itself, with the stability of reality (within the confines of the novel) shifting time and again elevates this into something sui generis. In a pinch, I’d say it’s like Tolstoy mixed with Joyce and a touch of Gogol. So, exactly what fans of Stranger Things are clamoring for.
Other Notes about the Author: He has beautiful, piercing eyes.
A Really Good, Lengthy Blurb: From James Meek in the London Review of Books:
The narrative habit of hopping back and forwards in time, so common in modern novels, is a superficial challenge to chronology. It’s unusual to come across a novel that is neither contingent nor consecutive. Even great monuments of modernist prose, like Ulysses, depend to some degree on the notion of consecutive chronology. To find narrative comparators to Maidenhair, the first novel by Mikhail Shishkin to be translated into English, you have to reach for outliers like Tristram Shandy or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, where time and contingency have been disassembled. While the texture of Maidenhair is quite different from either, it resembles them in that it stretches the definition of “novel.” The enveloping structure of Shishkin’s work is not so much a story as a prose portfolio, an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that’s the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery.
It sounds forbidding and obscure, but Maidenhair, first published in 2005, was a publishing hit in Russia, where it won two literary prizes, and in Germany. One explanation for this may be that the reading public has a greater appetite for experimental fiction than the cynics believe. Another may be the nature of Shishkin’s experiment, which relates to the enclosure, rather than to the entirety of its contents. Difficult as some passages are, there are long sections embedded within the book that are conventionally dramatic, even romantic, involving the quest for love embodied as grail, elixir, end.
One evening after dinner I act all the parts in the fable I learned at school, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” not doubting that everyone is going to applaud me, thrilled over my acting talents, the moment I point a moralizing finger up and say, “Now go dance your dance!” But Aunt Olya jumps up without waiting for the end, interrupting me, and exclaims, “This is all wrong! Wrong, Bellochka!” Aunt Olya explains to me the right way to understand the fable’s meaning. “The grasshopper is cheerful and sweet and lived the way one should both being good and relying on the kindness of others! She served beauty, do you see? But the ant is a scoundrel and greedy, like all the rich, a vulgar petty bourgeois!”
Longer Sample: Apparently when we updated our website, the old samples didn’t get pulled over . . . So there’s nothing to link to except for the excerpt that appeared in N+1. Unfortunately, if you’re not a subscriber, you can’t access this. So subscribe. Actually, no, fuck that. Buy the book and get a 506-page excerpt.
Personal Pitch: When we first published this book, I had two go to reasons for why I thought it was incredible: One was that Marian Schwartz—one of the best translators ever—didn’t fully get it. Over lunch once she told me about translating a section toward the end that was completely baffling until she realized it was a series of palindromes. Palindromes! I love books that keep the reader on their toes.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. That’s not all that unusual for me, but it’s probably heightened by my upcoming birthday. (I’m going to turn 41. Never turn 41.) Mostly I’ve been thinking about the number of books I have left to read in my life. Let’s pretend that technological advances and my recent trend of healthy living (I lost 23 pounds since May and am svelte for the first time in ever) allows me to get to 80. Before my mind shits out on me. (Which is asking a lot, I know.) If I read one book a week and take a couple weeks off to be with other human beings (like my kids) every year, that gives me almost 2,000 books left to read in my lifetime. Which is a pretty solid number, but one that gets smaller every year. And my “to read” bookshelf already contains at least 400 titles.
When I think about this though, my first instinct is to try and maximize which books I read. Which, I know, is dumb. Whatever the afterlife entails, I’m pretty sure it’s not better or worse based on whether you read Bottom’s Dream or not. But if I have 40 years left to think and experience literature, I want to make it count. One approach would be to read all new books in hopes of being part of some ongoing conversation. Or simply to read books that are just supposed to be entertaining. Filled with spies, murders, and sex. Beach books.
Or, I could go in the opposite direction—the professorial direction. Read the same twenty books—all agreed upon classics—over and again, and burn up 500 of the 2,000 books I have left keeping up with monographs on these Great Books.
Described like that, the rereading option sounds smug and awful. But there is something appealing—to me, at least—about finding a book or author that you need to reread every so often. I’m pretty sure all serious readers have these books/authors who they consider to be foundational to their life, and who they revisit every so often. I want to pretend that I actually live this way. That I go back to The Crying of Lot 49 or Julio Cortázar or Absalom, Absalom! or Ulysses every so often, but that’s a utter lie. I wish I did. Instead, I feel like I have to keep up with things—the books we’re publishing, the ones we’re thinking about publishing, the catalogs of my favorite presses, etc. Even now, thinking about rereading 62: A Model Kit (which I’ve been meaning to do for years so that I can then get some sort of related tattoo) feels like it would take away from reading something else that I should be reading. What’s sadder is that this compulsion to read certain new books is mostly driven by the hope of being able to interact with the cool literary kids on the Twitter. Fuck me, fuck my brain.
For the class that I’m teaching this spring—which I’ll talk about in more detail in a separate post—I’ve decided to teach mostly books that I don’t understand. Books that more or less require a second reading. Books like Maidenhair. Books that you can understand in the moment, but that necessitate a second reading—one in which you start out much more informed about the overall scope or structure. At this moment in my life, there’s something really compelling about reading books that beg me to reread them. Books that aren’t direct and obvious and meant to be immediately grasped. That excites me. Books that don’t conform to expectations or pre-determined ideas. Books like Maidenhair.
(That’s not to dismiss books—or movies, or TV shows, or comics—that are solely entertaining. Those things are totally cool as well, and definitely have a place in my life.)
Instead of constantly rushing forward, trying to get the next thing, enjoy the newest book, share the coolest new tweet before everyone else, I’d like to let some ideas develop in my mind over multiple readings or viewings. One reason translators can be so fun to talk with is because they’re one of a handful of people who read a particular book more than once. There aren’t that many serious readers left in the world with enough time to read, reread, digest, and think about particular books. At the same time, there aren’t that many books that really need to be reread and digested in that way . . .
Maidenhair IS one of those books though. Reading this once is basically just preparation. It demands something more. And even though it’s not the current trend to publish or support books that aren’t obvious and immediate, this is exactly why I got into publishing. To bring out books that you have to struggle with. In 100 years when I’m dead and forgotten, hopefully some college kid will come across Maidenhair and will have their mind changed through the struggle to really “get” it.
So buy it for that reason. And read it twice.
The second reason I used to cite for why this book is so good is the thread of the journals of the young opera singer and how the whole book is questioning how to preserve her innocence and unmitigated joy about being alive while being surrounded by the horror that is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s a great goal for living, and something that hits deep inside every time I look at my kids. How can you keep that happiness alive?
Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.
Just to as not to bury the lede, the first Read Local event is Friday, September 23rd at 6pm at Nox Cocktail Lounge. Josefine will be there to talk about One of Us Is Sleeping, which she’ll also be talking about on WXXI Connections at 1pm that same day. (So tune in!). But since most of you aren’t in Rochester, I wanted to explain a bit of the Read Local idea . . .
First off, a bit of an origin story: At the beginning of the summer, Kyle Semmel—author, translator of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and many other books—took over as the director of Writers & Books. Writers & Books is the Rochester, NY eqivalent of Minneapolis’s The Loft Literary Center or Bethesda’s The Writer’s Center. Writers & Books is home to dozens of writing classes (for adults, teens, and kids) and hosts a number of literary events, such as an upcoming appearance by David Sedaris, the “Debut Novel Series,” “If All Rochester Reads the Same Book . . . ,” and more. It’s been around for more than forty years, over which time it became the de facto hub of literary activity in Rochester.
I don’t think it’s speaking out of school, or a big secret, to say that one of the things that attracted Kyle to this position was the fact that Open Letter and BOA Editions are located here. It’s easy to shit on Rochester for any number of reasons, but given the size of the city, it’s kind of insane that there are two nationally respected publishing houses based here. Obviously, Minneapolis-St. Paul (home to Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed) and Portland, OR (home to Tin House, Future Tense) are more prominent and well-known mid-sized cities with vibrant indie publishing scenes, but both metro areas are 2.5 to 3.5 times the size of Rochester. (Minneapolis-St. Paul is 3.5 million people and Portland almost 2.5, whereas Rochester is just over a million.) The fact that Rochester is home to multiple presses that receive national attention—be it from reviews, awards, or general respect—is something the visitor’s center and local media should be all over.
Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. BOA, which has been around for forty years, has a solid base of local supporters, but their books aren’t ever covered in the local papers, except for the occasional mention of a local poet reading during Jazz Fest. This might be the fault of the local media—which is pretty milquetoast and unimaginative, if I’m being honest—but it’s also related to the problem of being a book publisher: by definition, books aren’t local, and neither are your readers.
That said, there’s no reason that a city like Rochester shouldn’t be celebrating its local publishing houses. Which is why we came up with the idea of Read Local. Like most places in the U.S., there’s a huge emphasis in Rochester on buying local, eating local, shopping at farmer’s markets, locally sourcing goods and services—and although it won’t necessarily disrupt our late capitalist moment in quite as dramatic fashion, or shrink our carbon footprint, why not involve local culture in this as well? The core concept was that every few months, we would have a local book club that would read a book published by a local press. Open Letter and BOA would have at least one slot a year, with the other ones being filled by other publishers in town. (Yes, there are others.)
In terms of specifics, we figured the book club could take place online to start, and culminate in an event with the author. But we didn’t want this to just be a reading . . . Readings are all fine and good, but holy christ, even in a place as small as Rochester, there are a ton of them. What we wanted was more of an interaction between an author and readers. Which lead to these postcards that we’ve been putting up all over town:
There are plenty of examples of reading series that aren’t just reading series—like the Literary Death Match, or Vermin on the Mount or even “Poetry and Pies” here in Rochester—and it’s not like we’re breaking all new ground here, but it is a solid attempt to try and reach readers in a different way than we have been. And to build a program that readers will get excited about and look forward to. (The idea of hanging out with a famous author over a drink is more appealing to me than any normal reading.)
Additionally, we partnered with local businesses—“Hart’s Local Grocers,”:https://hartslocalgrocers.com/ Nox, Three Head Brewing, Greenwood Books, and more soon—to sell the selected books before the event. Our hope is that by encountering the book in non-traditional locations, potential readers will be more likely to pick them up and come to the event. I suspect that most people in Rochester envision a book reading as a staid, dry event taking place in an oak-paneled room in a library. (This concept reaches far beyond Rochester.) So although it’s not revolutionary to hold a raucous literary event in a bar . . . it kind of is.
We have no real idea of how this is going to go on Friday, but hopefully a few dozen people will show up and be charmed by Josefine. Hopefully it will evolve from a short reading into more of a cocktail party with a famous author—something that’s common in places like Brooklyn, but not really here in Rochester. If you happen to be here in Rochester, come on out and grab a drink. If not, wish us luck. It would be great to see Read Local become an established part of the local literary scene—one that connects the great work of local presses with the local reading community.
Officially pubbing last Tuesday, The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen, is a spaghetti western and “philosophical gem” (West Camel). It’s also Raud’s first novel to appear in English, following an appearance in the Best European Fiction 2015 anthology.
The book has received a couple of reviews already, including the one by West Camel referenced above (“within its short length [The Brother] manages to explore in great depth big ideas about human agency and determinism”), along with one in Kirkus (“a slim but satisfying novel with archetypal resonances”), and at The Bookbinder’s Daughter (“I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters”).
To celebrate the release of this book, you can buy it now for $10 from our website by using the code EASTWOOD at check out. And to give you a few more reasons to want to grab a copy, below please find an interview with Rein Raud.
The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen
The Brother, Rein Raud’s first full-length work to appear in English, is a spaghetti western that has been referred to as “a lone Eastwood in the midst of a flock of van Dammes” (Tarmo Jüristo). It reads a bit like a fairy tale or mythical play, with a mysterious stranger (the “Brother” of the title) arriving in an unnamed town to right some wrongs. Below you’ll find an interview Rebekka Lotman conducted with Raud when The Brother was first published in Estonia.
Rebekka Lotman: Is The Brother the kind of book that you yourself would readily pick up?
Rein Raud: Yes—I at least always try to only write books that I believe the world is lacking. And you’re always most content with the latest thing you’ve written, up until there’s enough distance from it. I have to admit that the more time that passes, the more I also read books that counterbalance the visceral literary experiences of what I normally read. I don’t want to find out how awful things actually are when I’m reading, because I already know.
When I’m reading a very depressing text, I can understand that it’s outstanding literature, but when I think about what to start writing next, then I always tend to postpone pieces like that until better days, so to say, because it’s already not easy being human. Good literature doesn’t necessarily have to leave a bad aftertaste, even when it touches and moves you. In that sense, I’ve also always wanted to write in a way that might offer others support.
RL: How did The Brother come to be?
RR: Unexpectedly. The first chapter popped into my head during a seminar on freedom, in which we were discussing the concepts of liberty, and I simply came up with it out of the blue to use as an example. Afterward, I went home and wrote it down, and the rest of the story suddenly began to branch off from there. Actually, I’ve wanted to write a spaghetti western for a long time. Leafing through my old manuscripts recently, I found that my first attempt at the genre appeared in my first poetry collection, Barefoot, from 1980—a prose-poetry cycle titled “The Diner.”
RL: What fascinates you about Baricco?
RR: Baricco has the most precise parlance out of all the living writers I know—the ability to convey highly nuanced emotion in a light, descriptive language that is almost musical. Unfortunately, almost all of it has been lost in the Estonian-language translations I’ve come across. But I hope that kind of language transcends the connection to a single author and permeates—something like how Petrarch revised the sonnet in his time, or Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s theatrical language.
A school of writing like that has actually already developed in Italian literature. For instance, Paolo Giordano, author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which has won many literary awards, is a student of Baricco, and there are also others among rising new writers.
RL: Where did you get the idea to combine him with Bulat Okudzhava and Clint Eastwood?
RR: Well, I wouldn’t like to say I’ve focused on the conscious combination of influences in my text—more like I’ve simply written, and then honestly acknowledged what parts of my intellectual biography shine through in the result. But Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood are my absolute favorites in that genre, as is Eastwood’s own self-directed High Plains Drifter, which they certainly strongly influenced.
But what’s more compelling for me than the setting and plot developments is their strange method of depiction, which prefers a very large and very general scale over an ordinary medium one. Important things can happen in a way that we either don’t see them at all because we’re observing the scene too closely and they are out of frame, or else we see them from too far away and might not even notice them. I like that—events and reality transpire in their own rhythm, but we never reach them; we only come closer.
As for Okudzhava, some of his songs convey the hopes of the downtrodden very well. But musically, it’s not crucial for the song in the least. There’s much more of that in Beth Gibbon’s performance of Rodrigo Leão’s “Lonely Carrousel” or in T Bone Burnett. Even so, I hope that searching for the influences listed in the acknowledgements at the back of the book doesn’t disturb the story itself for anyone.
RL: The Brother also speaks of justice. Is the world just?
RR: The world is the way it is. I myself would say it speaks rather of the winning/losing axis. One secondary character in the novel says that everyone who wants to win by any means will always lose. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple in real life. But I suppose the establishment of the problem is defined a little by the genre, too: a nameless man wearing a big hat and a flapping coat arrives in a tiny town under the control of a corrupt group of men. What happens next is simply inevitable.
RL: Love has an important role in the book. One definition of love you propose is quite beautiful: “love springs from the ability to prefer imperfection over perfection.” Did you intentionally try to highlight love, justice, and other human values?
RR: I’ve always seen it as a problem when the negative characters in books and films are more interesting than the positive ones. Everyone “good” is cookie-cutter or anemic, for the most part, or else they’re not actually as good as they appear. I’d like this to be different in my books, because in my opinion, real-life evil and spite are actually more boring than nobleness and idealism most of the time. I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone calls this sentimentality.
RL: There are also philosophical musings, such as: “For what good is a name if it isn’t tied up in a network, connected to faces over the span of time, discovered in the trails that could demarcate the whole world?” Do you feel that you are in a teacher’s role as a writer?
RR: Not in this book, although my last, longer work Hector and Bernard was indeed a conscious attempt to bring Socratic philosophy into the contemporary world (thereby being more instructive). There are relatively few such places in this book, although I suppose I didn’t manage to separate entirely from the kind of mindset that tends to rationally present inner truths.
Remember, you can buy it for $10 by visiting our website and using EASTWOOD at checkout.Tweet
Here’s the beginning of Will’s review:
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in the first person by Kogito Choko, a septuagenarian writer with published works including The Silent Cry and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. If those titles sound familiar to you, it’s because those actually are real-life titles by Oe, The Day He Himself in particular being a part of the collection Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.
As a matter of fact, Death by Water is in many ways a direct response to The Day He Himself, and few pages go by without it being mentioned. The reason? Death by Water is essentially the story of Choko (our Oe stand-in) trying to re-write the same dramatic event of his childhood as fictionalized in The Day He Himself, i.e. the sudden drowning of his father. However, while The Day He Himself is a deliberately grotesque and stylized dramatization of the event, Death by Water is a sort of metafiction, a writer writing about the act of writing.
The plot, such as it is, finds Oe’s stand-in Choko aware of the coming end of his writing career. Besides a monthly opinion piece for the newspaper, he hardly writes anymore. Ten years after his mother’s death, he suddenly gets the chance to retrieve his late father’s old, red leather trunk, containing his notes, diary entries, and evidence of his failed coup attempt after World War II and his escape from perceived authorities leading to his death by drowning. Choko feels he can finally write a definitive version of this turn of events, as in his old age he finds his previous effort, the aforementioned The Day He Himself, to be “an embarrassingly immature piece of work.” At the same time, he becomes involved with an avant-garde theater company The Caveman Group, who in the past has dramatized Kogito’s work for the stage, and is hoping to create a new work in tandem with the “drowning novel” Kogito now wants to write. The thing is, about a third of the way through the novel, Kogito discovers his mother has already destroyed most of the trunk’s contents, and Kogito finds himself unable to continue his work.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.
Admittedly, I only started keeping track of speculative fiction (sf) in English translation last year, but this year is already better. In 2015, as far as I can tell, 20 works of sf (this includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, the weird), written in languages other than English, were translated into English. And yes, 20 is a very small number in the context of U.S. and UK publishing. However, this year is on track to bring us nearly 30 works of sf in translation (this includes short-story collections), and, being the optimist that I occasionally am, I can only see this number growing in the coming years. With works of sf in translation winning Hugo awards both last year and this year (The Three-Body Problem, The Day the World Turned Upside Down, Folding Beijing), I think it’s safe to assume that American readers are increasingly interested in speculative stories from around the world, stories from a variety of cultures and traditions that make us interrogate our own assumptions about the planet, the universe, reality, and more.
And while I’d love to talk here about all of the sf in translation coming out in 2016, I’ll limit myself to my favorite five (so far):
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
This chilling book about a faceless, crushing bureaucratic/totalitarian entity might not be marketed as “speculative fiction,” but Basma Abdel Aziz transforms Egypt’s oppressive security apparatus into the stuff of horror stories. In a world that Kafka and Murakami would easily recognize, a Gate guards the entranceway to an unmarked building, outside of which people must wait to obtain papers for anything they want to do: apply for a job, get an operation, file a complaint. The problem is, this Gate never opens, and the line of people waiting outside grows and morphs until it becomes a new organism—it’s no longer just a line of people but a new social order, with it’s own hierarchy and etiquette. And as this line expands, the Gate makes announcements akin to those in Orwell’s 1984, which attempt to rewrite history in the service of an ever-oppressive future.
Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye
This is Yoss’s second novel to be translated into English (his first was A Planet for Rent in 2015) and if you have even a shred of a sense of humor, you’ll find Super Extra Grande pretty hilarious. After all, if a story about a love-lorn veterinarian who specializes in treating the largest organisms in the universe doesn’t make you cackle, well . . . But it’s not just Yoss’s descriptions of Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo’s work digging around, for instance, in the innards of massive amoebae for lost bracelets that gives the book its vivacity; it’s also Yoss’s singular sardonic style in which nothing is sacred and we’re reminded that humanity can be pretty ridiculous in it’s own special way.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
I’m going to assume that you’ve already read The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, because how could you not read this brilliant hard-sf trilogy?? So now you’re ready for Death’s End, and I hope you’re prepared to set aside an entire day or two (depending on your reading speed) to ingest this novel in one sitting. Trust me, you won’t want to be handling dishes or children or animals while your brain churns through the complex philosophical, mathematical, and cosmological issues and conundrums posed in this book. Your mind will be reeling from a trip into four-dimensional space and across centuries, and from the mind of an alien to the thoughts of a woman whose choices will determine the fate of humankind. All the while, you’ll be drawn in by Ken Liu’s beautiful translation of Cixin Liu’s lyrical imagination.
One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon
Bleak and hushed it certainly is, but a strain of hope and optimism manage to permeate this story of two friends eeking out lives working in a dilapidated electronics market in a Seoul slum. What gives this novel its speculative angle is the fact that people’s shadows seem to be detaching themselves from their owners, sometimes piece by piece, sometimes all at once. Hwang Jungeun uses these detaching shadows, the electronics repair shops, and a broken matryoshka doll to explore the fragility of human life and the shifting sands upon which we build our cities.
Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
What gives humans that “spark” that we call life/consciousness/self-awareness? Cabiya explores this question through the figure of the “zombie”—not the lurching, muttering zombies we know from recent films but a gentlemanly, quiet zombie who works at an Eli Lilly research lab in the Dominican Republic. There, he tries to formulate a compound that will bring him back to “life,” even though he looks and acts like a “normal” person. The brilliance of this book, though, lies in its heady mixture of genres and juxtaposition of science, magic, folklore, neurology, botany, and Caribbean history.
This list is just the beginning of what you’ll find this year in international speculative fiction. Go check it out; your brain will thank you.Tweet
This is a new, hopefully weekly, feature highlighting a different book from our catalog in each post. Even though this book is pretty recent (official pub date just a few weeks ago August), I plan on going deep into our backlist in the near future.
Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Original Language: Spanish
Author’s Home Country: Argentina
Original Date of Publication: 2013
Awards Won: The 2013 Dashiell Hammett Award! (There are multiple Hammett awards. This is the one for works written in Spanish in comparision to the one for English. In 2013, Angel Baby by Richard Lange won the English version of the prize.) It’s worth noting that this is the second time Saccomanno won the Hammett Award. He also won in 2008 for a novel called 77.
Also, Andrea Labinger won a PEN Heim Award for her translation.
Other Interesting Biographical Details: Saccomanno lives in Villa Gesell, the resort town where the novel is set. Additionally, before becoming a literary writer, he wrote comic books. Some of these appear to be ongoing (at least according to what I’m gleaning from his Spanish Wikipedia entry) including Leopoldo.
Description of the Book: Like True Detective through the lenses of William Faulkner and John Dos Passos, Gesell Dome is a mosaic of misery, a page-turner that will keep you enthralled until its shocking conclusion.
This incisive, unflinching exposé of the inequities of contemporary life weaves its way through dozens of sordid storylines and characters, including an elementary school abuse scandal, a dark Nazi past, corrupt politicians, and shady real-estate moguls. An exquisitely crafted novel by Argentina’s foremost noir writer, Gesell Dome reveals the seedy underbelly of a popular resort town tensely awaiting the return of tourist season.
A Non-Jacket Copy Description: This is about Villa Gesell, a small resort town run by four corrupt assholes, and filled with violence, adultery, drug deals, and tons of other crimes that no one ever attempts to solve or rectify in any way whatsoever.
Praise from Famous People: We’re not the best at getting blurbs, but I did tell Ed Brubaker (who wrote an episode of HBO’s Westworld, which looks totally sick) about this book at BEA and he said something to the effect of “fuck yeah, I’d love to read that.” Which counts.
Praise from Booksellers: ““The first two pages of Gesell Dome, the first novel from Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno to be translated into English, are enough to seduce any reader and a testament to the vitality of international fiction. Dark, daring and epic in scope, Gesell Dome is a damning verdict of contemporary life and human nature. The novel reveals the corrupt underbelly of a resort town when the tourists leave. Abounding with shady characters, all seemingly competing for worst resident on earth, Gesell Dome becomes a chorus of corruption and greed, of savagery and ruthlessness. It’s both vicious and unforgettable. Think Louis-Ferdinand Céline on vacation in South America.”—Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore
Audience: This book will appeal to anyone who likes neo-noir novels, books that are violent, or portraits of small, corrupt towns. That’s not to say it isn’t literary—the mosaic-like form that it employs allows Saccomanno to create fascinating juxtapositions, to paint a picture of a uncontrollably violent world, and to introduce hundreds of compelling characters.
Another “X Meets Y” Formulation: Like CSI meets Julio Cortázar. Or like “The Part about the Crimes” from 2666 as told in a tabloid.
Publicity: Well, the book just came out, so there haven’t been a ton of reviews yet. (But hopefully there will be in the near future.) That said, Saccomanno was profiled in Publishers Weekly as one of the fall Writers to Watch
Saccomanno, who has been living in Villa Gesell for most of the past 30 years, began work on the book in 2005. While writing he had the sense, he says, “that the town itself was dictating the story to me.” He adds, “Tolstoy supposedly said, ‘Describe your village and you will be universal.’ That idea was the driving force behind this novel. Violence, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, blackmail, corruption, the lives that unfold in this atmosphere, all called out to me.”
PW also gave it a starred review, stating:
Never was there a cityscape as immersive, or a populace as rife with iniquity, as in Argentinian writer Saccomanno’s noirish Gesell Dome, his first novel to be translated into English. [. . .] Like Twin Peaks reimagined by Roberto Bolaño, Gesell Dome is a teeming microcosm in which voices combine into a rich, engrossing symphony of human depravity.
If you’re a local and your parents come for the long weekend, you’ll have to put up with your wife’s constipated expression. And if your in-laws come, try to keep your plastic smile from becoming facial paralysis. Because, tell me, who can put up with their parents or in-laws in the house for three days straight. And let’s not even talk about your sister-in-law and her boyfriend. And you know there’s a kind of vibe between you and that little slut. So you’ve gotta proceed with extreme caution. Then there are the kids. If they’re not glued to the TV all day long, you’ve got them on top of you, bitching that they’re bored. Forget about a quickie with your wife. After lunch, when you’re logy and feel like taking a nap, along comes the witch, telling you to take the family out for a ride. And you’ve gotta get them all into the car and take them for a spin. Head toward the beach, they ask you. Till they wear you out, and even though you know you could get trapped in the sand, you let them have their way and look for a road down to the beach through the dunes. For a while you feel like it was worth it to indulge them, driving along the shore. That half-adventurous, half-romantic feeling. Until it’s time to turn around and go back, and you realize that the car is starting to get stuck. Everybody out. Get out and push. Hand me a shovel. There’s no shovel, asshole. There’s gotta be one. Take out the mat and put it under the wheels. Help me dig. And the tide coming in. The tide. Call the Auto Club. It’s got no charge, stupid. You forgot to charge the cell phone. I’m cold, Dad. Me too, Dad. Get into the car. I told you, idiot, I told you we’d get stuck on the beach. Now it’s raining buckets.
And the tide. The tide. The tide.
Longer Excerpts: The first long excerpt I posted from the this book—which I did in a fit of excitement when I finished proofing it—is online here.
As part of our catalog, you can also read section from the beginning “here.“http://www.openletterbooks.org/pages/gesell-dome-excerpt
Personal Pitch: When I first read Andrea’s sample—the one that got her the PEN Heim Award—I was most intrigued by the structure. It’s a bit ADD, jumping from thread to thread, character to character—which is something that appeals to me personally for a few different reasons. This sort of fragmented structure eliminates a lot of the slow build, scene setting crap that I don’t care for in most contemporary fiction. In Gesell Dome, each fragment thrusts you right into a new life or situation. For example, I randomly opened a copy of the book and got this opening line, “Mable, the teller at Banco Provincia, wife of Mario Pertuzzi of Electromar, wasn’t pregnant when she and Daniel became lovers.” That’s all you need about Mabel before launching into her story. No pages of setting, no attempt to create her character through objective signifiers and objects—just a simple statement and you’re off.
Recently, like yesterday, I decided that for the time being, I was only going to read books that I knew I wasn’t going to fully understand on the first go. Thinks like Sokolov’s Between Dog & Wolf, Can Xue’s Frontier (well, reread in that case), or maybe Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I realized that the only joy I’ve been getting out of books recently (like with Fresan’s The Invented Part, Blas de Robles’s Island of Point Nemo, and Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories) is the fun of trying to figure shit out. I’ve written—and lectured—about this a billion times, about the way the brain processes declarative, concrete statements versus what happens when you’re forced to puzzle things out, but for a while, I feel like I lost my way as a reader and was seeking pleasure in the straightforward, in the books that were written to be simply pleasurable. Which is dumb, since the idea of reading the new Foer book doesn’t sound pleasurable at all. It sounds like consuming shit in order to generate new mini-rants. That’s not the way to live.
Gesell Dome isn’t “incomprehensible” like Finnegans Wake, but there is a strain on the reader to, first of all, remember who the fuck all these characters are and how they’re related, but then to also see the overall pattern. This is a book that doesn’t have a single plot, but a multitude, some of which cross, others that run parallel, all of which help create a verbal tapestry depicting a town awash in misery and desperation. And we all know that misery is much more interesting to read about than joy and happiness. Regardless, the reading experience of having to piece things together is so gratifying and fun.
Finally, this is a novel of voices, which is another reason I like to read—to hear distinct ways of saying things. I mean this on a truly ground floor, sentence by sentence, level. Obviously, hearing different viewpoints from all over the world is valuable and interesting and mind-expanding, but I really like hearing how individuals express themselves. Verbal patterns, particular word choices and tics, etc. And Gessel Dome has a lot of that. These characters relate their own private sadnesses in their own peculiar way, and as a reader, you can just let it wash over you—like the sounds of the sea that are a constant throughout the book, rising and falling, tide in, tide out—hearing from myriad viewpoints one after another, some funny, all a bit damaged, and every one unique. That polyvocality is what truly won me over in terms of this book.
Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us directly by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.
Next week I’ll be back with a different Open Letter title—a deep cut from the backlist . . .Tweet
This fall, two Open Letter authors will be on tour: Josefine Klougart (whose tour we announced a few weeks ago) will be going cross-country starting next week to promote One of Us Is Sleeping. And then, just as her tour is wrapping up, Bae Suah will be arriving in San Francisco (along with her translator, Man Booker Prize winning Deborah Smith) to visit a few different cities and talk about A Greater Music.
Both Suah and Deborah will be doing events at this year’s American Literary Translators Conference, but since those aren’t open to the public, I haven’t listed them below. For any and everyone else, you can see Suah and Deborah in action at these events:
Thursday, October 6th, 7:00 pm
Literary Death Match
Shadow Ultra Lounge (341 13th St., Oakland, CA 94612)
Friday, October 7th, 7:30 pm
Green Apple Books on the Park (506 Clement St., San Francisco, CA 94118)
Monday, October 10th, 7:30 pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97214)
Tuesday, October 11th, 7:00 pm
Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122)
Wednesday, October 12th, 7:00 pm
Volumes Bookcafe (1474 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622)
Thursday, October 13th, 7:00 pm
Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet Street, Houston, TX 77005)
Friday, October 14th, 7:00 pm
Crow Collection of Asian Art (2010 Flora St., Dallas, TX 75201)
Hopefully you can catch her at one or more of those events!Tweet
In this week’s podcast, tom and Chad preview some forthcoming books they’re excited about. Having done no solid research, Chad’s contributions are questionable at best, especially when he talks about Panthers in the Hole in relation to the COUNTRY of Angola instead of the prison that goes by the same name.
Nevertheless, they have a number of books to whet your appetite, such as one from Arno Schmidt, and the new Krasznahorkai.
This week’s music is the new single by Dan Deacon, Change Your Life (You Can Do It).
Also, just a reminder, since we changed our podcast feed, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe to the correct feed in iTunes at that link, or right here:
Or, you can just put this feed link into whichever is your podcast app of choice:
As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: email@example.com.
And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!
A few years ago, Open Letter approached and joined up with a handful of foreign publishers to bring together what we’ve named the Open Letter After Dark series.
Sounds kind of sexy, doesn’t it?
This series—which is an ebook only series—was put together with the intent to do something a little more to connect foreign publishers with translators, particularly those just starting out, and to give an extra boost to the number of books being brought into publication. It was also put together as a platform to give students working with the press a chance to get more hands-on in the production side of things: to work with translators and authors, use software to put the ebooks together themselves, gather the necessary catalog information . . . And, of course, it creates a little loophole for that wee, pesky issue of how many books we’re able to publish a year.
As is the case with many other small, non-profit presses, Open Letter Books has limited resources, capping the number of titles they can published (in a fiscally responsible manner) in a given year. For us, we’re limited to 10 new books a year. Because of these limits, we and many other presses are making tough decisions on an almost daily basis, of which books to pass on, which books to mull over, and which books, ultimately, to publish. However, with ebooks removing many of the constraints tied to print-publishing, we can increase the number of books we are able to introduce to the world of literature in translation.
But this series has a greater purpose in mind than just saving a few pennies in production costs. The beauty of ebooks is that once the book has been translated, edited, and proofed, it’s good to go on sale almost immediately, and to the delight of readers everywhere. Another benefit is that, within the After Dark series model, the foreign publishers, agents, and authors, even, are able to use this fully-treated translation to shop the book around to other publishers. Once a print publisher is found for the respective book, its time as an After Dark ebook comes to a close—but its life as a print book has found its beginning.
To kick off our After Dark series (which has been in a slow, soft-open for the last year now, and two of the three inaugural titles have been available for purchase for a bit already), we have three brilliant titles from three University of Rochester MA in Literary Translation Studies graduates. These titles were not only the three respective translators’ thesis projects, but also three books that we absolutely wanted to have in this series, for all their quirks, humor, thought-invoking and paranoia-inducing qualities. These are books you will want to read and reread, and books that, we hope, will continue to change and challenge the way each reader digests and understands literature.
Inaugural Titles – Open Letter After Dark
Medical Autobiography by Damián Tabarovsky, translated from the Spanish by Emily Davis.
All of these books will be priced at $4.99—so affordable!—and available through all ebook platforms. All three are absolutely worthy of having the Open Letter colophon on their spine (or screen), so if you’re a fan of what we do, you should definitely check these out.
And be on the look out for a couple more Isaac Rosa titles in the near future. One of Spain’s hottest young authors, his works are meandering, high-minded, and, at times, really unnerving. (The robbery scene in Land of Fear still sticks with me, years after first reading it. What would you do if someone was in your room while you pretended to sleep?)
We’ll put up individual posts about each of these titles over the next few weeks, but for now, we wanted to at least introduce everyone to the core concept.
Natalya was a student of Chad’s last school year, and is in her final year of studies at the university. This summer, she did an internship with the press and helped out with the myriad things we make them do for us (the worst is probably getting out of the car to check whether or not the Jimmy Johns doors have opened yet), including getting in touch with people about our upcoming 2nd Annual Celebration of Open Letter & Rochester. Natalya is a trooper, and a big help. Here’s the beginning of her review:
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the Cardinal family, and left me wishing I could stay for more. With its elegiac prose and sensitively developed characters, the novel is an original, emotionally potent, and heartbreakingly real exploration of the forces that bind and break families.
In addition to Saucier’s nuanced portrayal of a unique family dynamic, the inventiveness of her various characters and settings kept me constantly intrigued. The Cardinals are a fierce and feral clan of twenty-one siblings who grew up together in Norco, a now desolate and poverty-stricken mining town in Quebec. Norco was built on the short-lived prosperity of a zinc mine discovered by their obsessive and elusive prospector father; in the original, instigating tragedy of the family, he would never see an ounce of the wealth that came from his discovery, an event that would spiral into the family’s demise. As a consequence of this underlying anger, the siblings grew up united in a war against anyone outside their exclusive, isolated family: for most of their childhoods, it was Cardinals against the rest of the world. They despised the outsiders that profited from the mine and ridiculed any sign of weakness within their own ranks.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .