I wanted to write a lot more about this, but I’m running out of time . . . Here are a few clues about the fiction and poetry finalists for the 2016 Best Translated Book Awards. The shortlists will be officially unveiled tomorrow morning (Tuesday, April 19th) at 10am over at The Millions.
That should get you started . . . I suspect that someone will be able to guess at least seven of these titles.
As in years past, the first person to email me and correctly identify all ten titles will receive a complimentary one-year subscription to Open Letter.
Over on the Poetry side of things:
OK, since this is a bit easier, I’ll give the first person to guess all six a complete set of Open Letter poetry titles.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Monica Carter, former BTBA judge and writer whose fiction has appeared in The Rattling Wall, Black Clock, Writers Tribe Review, and other publications. She is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in World Literature Today, Black Clock and Foreword Reviews. She is the Project Coördinator for Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools. She is currently working on her novel. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (China, Grove Press)
“I left some portions of the document in my drawer, and handed over others. The parts I handed over described my contribution and loyalty to Re-Ed, while the ones I left behind in my drawer contained material I hoped to use for a novel after I succeeded becoming a new man. I didn’t know which of these was more important to me, just as I didn’t know which is more important – the life of an author, or his works.”
Yan Lianke is a distinguished novelist not quite recognized as he should be in his own native China despite having been nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning the Franz Kafka Prize, which is based on an author’s oeuvre to date. He is revered in China although most of his works have been banned there, including Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village (a run was published but then recalled) and his current work, The Four Books, which never found a mainland publisher. Political dissension doesn’t make a literary work great, but a continual effort to challenge bureaucratic revisionist history of one’s own government provides a strong foundation for honest, compelling, exemplary work especially in the face of reprobation. The Four Books is morbidly farcical, a literary feat that few authors can achieve, but more importantly stuns with its complexity that appears simple, its messages that seem to be reductive reboots of communist propaganda and its styles varied yet fluid enough to be utterly readable.
This is not an “entertaining” book, although it entertains. It is a book of importance and by the fact that it is banned in the author’s homeland; it no doubt will be included one day in the canon of great Chinese literature.
The Four Books chronicles the time of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and also sardonically includes the use of red blossoms as rewards for good deeds based on Mao Zedong Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) that promoted open expression of the regime in order to let intellectual ideas flourish. Of course, Mao did a quick turnabout deciding that those intellectuals who took advantage of that freedom should be imprisoned for their counterrevolutionary ideas. As part of Mao’s economic initiative to reign victorious in grain and steel production over the West, where the “United States is a pair of balls, and England, France, Germany and Italy are cock, balls and feces,” he collectivized farming in rural areas and established Re-Education districts for rebellious criminals.
The novel opens with the setting of the ninety-ninth district located on the embankment of the Yellow River where the goal was to assign each criminal “a number and re-educate them through hard labor.” The characters that figure prominently in this district are the Child, a low level leader in the Party whose ideology is based on an adolescent viewpoint of the world, Communism and the concept of reward and punishment, followed by intellectuals only referred to by their former profession: the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and most importantly, the Author. Almost a character itself, Chinese color symbolism imbues each page using red, white, yellow and black often and effectively to represent traditional interpretations ranging from beauty to imperial power to Communism.
Lianke shrewdly structures the book with alternating excerpts from four books. Translator Carlos Rojas stylistically creates fluidity and vibrancy throughout the novel with his language and interpretative choices. It opens with Heaven’s Child, an anonymous book written in holy language borrowed from a pastiche of religious texts including the Bible and The Four Books of Confucius. Then he alternates with excerpts from Criminal Records in which the Author records the infractions of his fellow district criminals and is promised by the “higher-ups” “that as long as you finish the this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be a leader of the country’s writers.” With the rationed ink and paper he is given, the Author also begins his memoir, Old Course, an intimate first person account of his thoughts, his gradual devolvement from witness of the ninety-ninth to a gradual obsession with growing wheat bigger than an ear of corn. The fourth book is also the final chapter that is the Scholar’s partial version of The New Myth of Sisyphus. The Scholar’s unfinished philosophical text about what he has learned from living in the Re-Ed District states that once humans become acclimated to the conditions of punishment, humiliation and debasement, harsher forms must be introduced make them understand the idea of hardship and challenge. Lianke turns up Camus’s myth into a futile exercise that involves the draconian task of not only rolling the rock up the hill, but down it as well.
As a symbol of the Communist Party, the Child is demanding, easily provoked, craves attention and wants to be constantly rewarded by the “higher ups.” The intellectuals make promises to him in order to gain paper red blossoms, which once they gain one hundred twenty-five, they will be allowed to leave and return home. He makes them swear that if they don’t mean it they say he makes childish, melodramatic demands like asking them to take a gun (placed on a platter), shoot him in the chest and make sure that he falls forward, not backwards.
Even though through raiding all the counterrevolutionary books of the intellectuals he is usually caught reading comic books emphasizing the simplistic nature of the bureaucracy as well as its lack of substantive provocative ideas. Paralleling the belief system of Christianity, even though the Theologian is forced to give up his copy of the New Testament for the Child to burn, Child’s is fascinated by a picture of Mother Mary. He ends up believing in the mythological nature of the stories of Genesis to justify the actions of the Politburo in Beijing.
Determined to earn enough red blossoms to return home, the Author goes to live by himself so he can produce wheat as big as ears of corn. At first, he encounters a feeling of freedom and renewed vitality to write but then in order to keep his promise of growing this Monsanto-esque wheat stalks, he devolves into chained slave vulnerable to the perils that threaten his wheat including bad soil, sun, and sparrows (one of animals of the Four Pests Campaign the Mao created in order to kill these pest that threatened the grain). He cuts himself to mix his own blood with water to make the stalks grow bigger. He forgoes sleeping in his hut to guard his wheat from disaster and continues bloodletting until he is pale and too dizzy to walk back to his hut. His desperation is palpable when he thinks, “Instead I wanted to crawl back, and in the process show all of the wheat plants how much I had sacrificed for them, like parents who exaggerate their illness in order to get their children’s sympathy.”
While the “higher-ups” demand unrealistic wheat production and steel production from the labor camps, the land is barren with no hope of producing food for the Re-Ed workers and starvation results. When it is clear that the Great Chinese Famine hit the rural provinces hardest, some Re-Ed districts were faced with incidents of cannibalism. When it occurs in the ninety-ninth, the Scholar brings it up to the Child:
“The Scholar stared at the Child and said, “But at the very least we can’t permit people to eat each other, right?”
The Child open the picture book he was holding to a page near the end, and said, “Early on, there was a devastating famine, and people died throughout the land. There was also an enormous flood in which nearly everyone drowned, and only Noah’s family survived.”
The satirical nature of the Author that Lianke employs in the beginning of the book slyly progresses to horror when the he realizes survival seems unlikely for anyone:
“I retreated to the middle of the room and told the Scholar not to look. The Scholar then walked over to the corpses lying on the innermost cot. As soon as he reached the bed, I recognized the two bodies that belonged to the Theologian and a young associate professor. The Theologian originally had not been on his bunk. Feeling flustered, I went over and pulled back the sheet covering the Theologian’s body, and immediately felt a wave of nausea run through me. The body had no arms or legs, instead merely his trunk was lying there, like a corpse that has been disinterred after many years. I quickly covered him again with the sheet before the Scholar could see it and retreated from the room. I squatted in the doorway and repeatedly dry-heaved, as thought there were a clump of putrid grass wedged in my throat.”
Lianke lays out the slow burn of this genocide by insidiously eliminating basic human rights and primal needs from each character. The only expression of sexual (which is forbidden) and romantic love happens between the Scholar and the young, pretty Musician. Ultimately, after being reported by the Author, they are brutally abused for their behavior and endure degrading behavior in order to obtain food for each other.
The realization that no matter how many red blossoms they collect, they are doomed to die without dignity or recognition. Loyalty to the Party is the highest goal which none of the criminals can ever achieve when the requirements are constantly changing.
It’s not simply that The Four Books should win because Lianke continues to challenge the tragedies of China’s past and their denial in the present of those tragedies, but because he represents the curiosity of a writer who refuses to let them be ignored. The Four Books, as well written and as devastating as it is, confronts history and the roles we play in it. It’s a powerful testament to the courage Lianke renders as the obligation of a writer. Shouldn’t more writers do this with each novel they write? The Four Books should win for the voice it gives to the millions who died without recognition, without acknowledgment that they even existed.Tweet
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Djibouti, Seagull Books)
for miniature republic
The Djibouti writer Abdourahman Waberi’s name will be familiar to BTBA followers for his novel Transit, short-listed in 2013. The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper is Waberi’s first collection of poetry and there is a palpable sense of urgency to these lean poems. Size, of course, is not a reliable indicator of impact or import. Waberi sees his small native land as part of the cradle of mankind, of homo erectus, to be exact. Here, humans first stood, first put one foot in front of the other, joining gesture, movement and breath into a kind of freedom. And it is that instant, that conjunction, that inspires Waberi to imagine man making “that first gesture in the bed of [his] pages.”
Writing poems, for Waberi, is “a matter of strictest necessity.” He sows these “modest pebbles” in readers’ paths, not to guide them—Waberi is suggestive, not prescriptive—but as markers to use in charting their own way to a meaningful life free from the tides of economic, financial, ecological, and spiritual excess that are washing over the world. “Another path of life is possible, apparent in the creases and folds of this collection.”
These spare poems are laconic but evocative, conjuring up desert landscapes, a nomadic tribe, or his small country’s struggles with civil war and extremism. He sees the wind as a calligrapher, covering the dunes with words.
brush in hand the wind sketches
landscapes of words
sculpted mountain slopes
This is a landscape that has witnessed much suffering, great and small. The Somali bullet,
. . . bloom of a new genus
all transports of joy
all shedding of tears in the name of love
drawn from the bittersweet milk of peace
is countered by a lame herdsman who laments
with my skinny legs
I’ve crossed vast desert sands
with my short strides
I’ve kept up with my camels’ pace
so why should I care
if my shrew of a wife slanders my name!
Unsparing in their frankness, Waberi’s poems are also finely attuned to the beauties and joys in a harsh landscape of “tortured geology” and happy simplicity. Waberi enjoins us to “let nomadic words live” for they, as much as any others, can open up new worlds and lead us to “the tree of knowledge [which] has wings to surpass the horizon.”
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Charlotte Whittle, translator, and editor at Cardboard House Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)
Guadalupe Nettel’s unsettling autobiographical novel, which follows on the success of her story collection Natural Histories, recounts the disorienting childhood of a girl coming to terms with living in her own skin. From the psychoanalyst’s couch, the narrator recalls a youth marked by trauma and displacement, and details the magnified perceptions and small-scale metamorphoses of her coming of age. The Body Where I Was Born is a story of a girl learning to inhabit a body, and of how the body inhabits its surroundings. In her exploration of this process of becoming, the author trains her gaze on the uncomfortable discoveries of youth many of us would prefer to forget. Nettel’s prose is elegant yet unadorned, and her translator, J.T. Lichtenstein, has preserved the book’s matter-of-fact and sometimes deadpan tone in her skillful rendering of the novel.
Born with a birthmark on her cornea, the young Guadalupe is subjected to a series of corrective treatments and forced to wear an eye patch the color of her skin. This gives her the uncanny appearance of having only one eye, making her classmates “curious and uncomfortable,” and initiating Guadalupe into her status as an outsider. The treatment regimen also involves exposure to black light: “for this, my parents built a wooden box that my small head fit into perfectly, then they lit it up. In the background, like a primitive cinemascope, drawings of animals went around and around: a deer, a turtle, a bird, a peacock.” The image anticipates Guadalupe’s withdrawal into her own world, where animals will become her protective totems.
In a defensive gesture, Guadalupe grows hunched and turns in on herself. Critical of her posture, her mother nicknames her “Cucaracha.” Partly as a result of this, Guadalupe comes to identify with the kingdom of insects, creatures that provoke the same mix of curiosity and revulsion she feels she causes in others. This process of identification reveals Nettel’s interest—also visible in Natural Histories—in the distasteful and beastly aspects of existence, those from which we might prefer to look away. Guadalupe’s cold, distant grandmother, with whom she is forced to live after her parents abandon her, banishes her from lunch “exactly how one might throw an undesirable insect outside so as to not have to squash it in front of guests.” Around the time of her first stirrings of sexual desire, Guadalupe sees in the mirror “something similar to the caterpillar found dead in my shoe.” Even as she discovers the latent potentialities of her young body, she creates an “alternative geography” for herself, recognizing that “I really did resemble the cockroaches that travel through the marginal spaces and buried pipes of buildings.” It is fitting then that Guadalupe reads Kafka, and recognizes her kinship with Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis: “Nowhere in the story does it say exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was, but I quickly gathered it was a cockroach. He had turned into one; I was one by maternal decree, if not by birth.” Guadalupe’s identification with the indestructible cockroach and with the ancient trilobite places her within a tribe of tough-shelled survivors.
While Guadalupe’s narrative is profoundly intimate and personal, it is also punctuated by far-reaching events that marked the era of her childhood. She grows up surrounded by members of the diaspora prompted by a series of Latin American dictatorships. Recalling the Villa Olímpica where she lived, built in 1968 to accommodate athletes and journalists attending the Olympics, Guadalupe associates it with the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco on the eve of that same event. And in 1985, she and her mother watch in shock as a Mexico City in ruins, after the earthquake that killed thousands, appears on the television in their living room in Aix-en-Provence.
A child of the 1970s, Guadalupe is subjected to experimental practices typical of the decade. She attends a Montessori school, and witnesses her parents’ flirtations with open relationships, communal living, and the predictive capacities of the I Ching. But despite their apparently liberated mindset, her parents are still conditioned by the mores of their own childhoods, and subject to curious blind spots and inconsistencies in their parenting ethos. When, after years of insisting that no truth should be withheld from their children, Guadalupe’s father disappears, it takes years for Guadalupe to discover the truth of his whereabouts.
One of the book’s most memorable episodes concerns the silent communication between Guadalupe and Ximena, daughter of exiles from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In a ritual of “marvelous symmetry” the two girls see each other from their windows and each recognizes the other in her isolation; they return to their respective windows night after night to quietly watch one another. It is as if each had found in the other a companion to share the quiet, intuited truths of their afflictions. But while Ximena sets fire to herself and escapes “once and for all from the cage of her life,” Guadalupe is already on her way to developing the cockroach-like carapace that will shield her.
The novel’s epigraph “I always wanted / to return / to the body / where I was born,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song” is borne out in the final sequence, in which the eye surgery Guadalupe’s mother has been planning is ultimately deemed unsafe: returning from the journey, Guadalupe accepts her body and the marks it bears, saying: “my eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently: . . . I decided to inhabit the body where I was born, in all its peculiarities.”
The Body Where I Was Born captures the alienation of a childhood spent in solitude, and is a powerful testimony of a woman claiming her agency and her place in the world. In its measured, incisive prose, the small incidents of adolescence carry as much weight as the global, political events that frame them. We are thus invited to witness the evolution of a hardened, resilient self that wears its wounds like stamps of survival: “these tattoos and scars we add with our personality and convictions, in the dark, by touch, as best we can, without direction or guidance.” Nettel’s complex, probing testimony of survival and Lichtenstein’s deft translation make The Body Where I Was Born a strong contender for the BTBA.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie (Afghanistan, Holy Cow! Press)
This collection, subtitled “Women’s Poetry from Herat Afghanistan,” bears moving witness to the extraordinary impact both poetry and translation—usually seen as minor, or marginal pursuits—is able to have on both our intellectual and emotional lives. In her introduction, powerhouse translator Farzana Marie explains that “poetry holds an exceedingly revered place in the consciousness of the people of Afghanistan,” its orality lending it endurance in a country where so much else has been repeatedly destroyed. Her tight editorial focus makes this anthology as effective as a single-poet collection; poems by eight young women from Herat, an ancient city near the border with Iran, all written post-2001 (in other words, post Taliban). The feeling is one of an intimate circle, especially as the latter seven are in some sense disciples of Nadia Anjuman, the poet whose work opens the collection and who was widely seen as the city’s leading literary light until her untimely death, a victim of domestic violence.
Two things about this book blew me away—one was the strength of the writing itself, and another was the astonishing work of its translator, whose time in Afghanistan has been spent volunteering at orphanages, on active duty in the US Air Force, and as a scholar of Persian literature. Crucially, though, Farzana Marie is also a poet in her own right, and an extremely gifted one, with the literary sensibility needed to carry off the tricky task of making poetry which relies heavily on strict forms like the ghazal and end rhymes come alive in English, substituting internal and slant rhymes to retain the music of the original (these translations beg to be read aloud). Here, in one of Nadia Anjuman’s most famous poems, rhythm, line-breaks and vowel sounds combine to produce an effect both heady and heavy, the long “u” at the end dulling the poem into a soporific stupor, similar to the way that earlier repeated “full” hung alone like a weight or a stopper, bringing any hint of exuberance up short.
I’m full of the feeling of emptiness,
An abundant famine
boils me in my soul’s fevered fields,
and this strange waterless boiling
startles the image in my poem
I watch the new-living picture,
a peerless rose
blush across the page!
But barely has she first breathed
when streaks of smoke begin
to obscure her face and fumes
consume her perfumed skin.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to interview Farzana herself as she’s currently recuperating from a stroke (and fundraising to pay for treatment), but her publisher Jim Perlman, at the wonderfully-named Holy Cow! Press, found time to answer a couple of questions.
How did you come to publish the book?
a.) We first became aware of Farzana Marie (her birth name is Felisa Hervey) in 2012 when we accepted her poem “Be-long-ing” for an anthology we were putting together called The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home. In her bio notes, Farzana wrote that she was currently studying for a Ph.D. in Persian Literature at the University of Arizona. In the winter of 13/14, wanting to escape the frozen tundra of northern Minnesota, I planned a two-week visit to Tucson where I have extended family. I decided to contact Farzana and set up a meeting. We met for lunch, and during our conversation, she mentioned that she’d translated a collection of contemporary poetry by Afghan women and was looking for a publisher. Soon after returning to Minnesota, I received a copy of that same manuscript. Although Holy Cow! are known primarily for writing by midwest regional American authors, I felt that Load Poems was a powerfully unique and historically important book. So, we went for it.
How does it feel to be longlisted?
b.) We’re overjoyed that Load Poems has been selected for the BTBA—the nomination confirms for us the wisdom of taking this bold step in publishing Farzana’s ground breaking collection, and it will definitely encourage us to seek out other translations to add to our list.
For those who are interested, here’s a clip from the reading tour for this collection:
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.
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