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.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller at Community Bookstore. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)
Wolfgang Hilbig made his English-language debut last year with the publications of I (Seagull Books) and The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press). Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator for both titles, brilliantly renders the bizarre beauty and breathlessness of Hilbig’s German, its lyricism, its repetitions, its many shades and shadows. Of course, to call Hilbig’s prose beautiful or breathless is to fear a misreading, for it’s a beauty bloomed in ruin, a breathlessness bound to suffocation. Landing on the BTBA’s longlist, The Sleep of the Righteous should win for its seven visions of an East Germany gone mad, back when the wall was not yet a relic, Stasi roamed wolflike through the streets, and a longing for escape blurred against the feeling of abandonment.
Hilbig finds poetry in paranoia, and his stories are strewn with wreckage and warning. Writing for the Boston Review, Tyler Curtis carefully locates Hilbig’s unease as a product of the East German surveillance apparatus: “[The] very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation.” Indeed, paranoia, particularly in its political guise, tends towards multivocality, collapsing distinctions between past and present, presence and absence, self and other—sometimes all at once. At their very best, Hilbig’s sentences are many-headed with these horrors. The harrowing story “The Afternoon” features a writer (always a writer, with Hilbig) who seeks to describe the arc of a Stasi arrest which happened long ago, but feels as if its happening outside his door right now. Between sitting down to compose and lingering on the arrest, the writer falters:
“How can you sit at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?”
The scene is scattered: table, town, hunt, all held haphazardly together by the writing act. The tension between representation and reality seeks an ethical answer; the writer’s present chronicle might stand in as a savior, called forth from the shadows of a man’s memories of his town to bear witness, but the writing act is overwhelmed, finally, by the past’s political terror, and off the story goes into the arrest. It’s a question asked of the present and the past at once, and left unanswered by both. Witness, for Hilbig, isn’t enough, even when it’s the only thing we have, and the only thing his writing can offer. But the writer must conjure these images, tormenting as they may be, or else we’d have no narrative to contend with.
The Sleep of the Righteous arrived to several comparisons (from Two Lines’s jacket copy, from the LARB) to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and, surprisingly enough, the comparison stands. Not that a riff on Poe is altogether unheard of—Bolaño sneaks more than a few into his stories—but it’s rare to encounter a mimic done well. In particular, the story “The Bottles in the Cellar” reads like pulp horror from the Eastern Bloc, uncanny enough to renew Poe’s same sense of panic, at least in this reader. The young man in the story, drunk off his family’s cider, finds himself increasingly unable to conceal his theft by refilling pilfered bottles. Humorous enough in its excess—“I had not filled them, the bottles, I had not yet disposed of them; on the contrary, I had bolstered their superior might with more and more fringe groups”—the story soon sobers, so to speak, against the threat of alcoholism: “[In] my body there was a curse like the very being of the bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open ever greedier maws within.” Of course, it all ends where you’d expect—in vomit:
“It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an Earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple.”
Vomit transforms into an image of the void. Hilbig’s horrors have the ability, like Poe’s, to explode the mundane (vomit from drink) into the cosmic (“an ocean, frozen”; “an Earth, plummeting”). But unlike Poe, whose stories hinge on allegory and metaphor to engage with the American republic, Hilbig refers again and again to the malaise and suffocation of life in East Germany, as set up in the story’s opening lines: “The old contraptions, survivors of two wars, held and held…no one generation gained the upper hand, and finally I accepted the fact that I didn’t belong to them.” The postwar generation under Communism cannot make their lives inside the glories and terrors of the past, but instead must suffice with drink and other petty pleasures that they find beneath the boot.
“The Dark Man,” the final story in the collection, twists the struggle for survival against the state back onto the state itself, or what’s left of it after the fall. The narrator, another writer, makes a trip back east to visit his mother, and begins receiving mysterious phone calls from an unknown man who demands they meet. Eventually, the story reveals that the unknown man is a former Stasi agent who was once tasked with reviewing the writer’s mail, from which he discovered an affair. At their first meeting, he describes the impenetrability of the writer’s style, even in correspondence: “A haze of writing . . . and can you even still see the life behind it? Is there actually still flesh behind the writing? Or just more writing?” As fitting a formulation of Hilbig’s style as any I’ve set down, the agent’s description cuts to the bone of the East German’s moody methodology. Living under surveillance amounts to hiding, encoding, encrypting, and who better to house the heart away from harm than a writer and his words. And though he labors hard through these seven stories to admonish the role of the writer, Hilbig always returns to the centrality of writing to resistance. Put another way: our words are the thoughts and things in our heads, graver than a gun which can be wrenched from our grasp, and their preservation is synonymous with survival—because what good our words without our heads, or our heads without our words?
Best I think to leave the last to the author of the introduction, perennial BTBA-winner László Krasznahorkai: “Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Stephen Sparks, former BTBA judge and bookseller at Green Apple Books on the Park. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Mexico, And Other Stories)
Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of a young switchboard operator’s harrowing attempt to cross a border between worlds—Mexico and the United States, but also between reality and myth, between the living and the dead, between any here and distant there—in search of her brother, who like uncountable others before him has gone north to seek out a better life. Makina, Herrera’s plucky, hard-boiled narrator, undertakes an arduous journey from one hell to another: she leaves her remote mining town where a giant sinkhole has just swallowed a man, a car, and a dog, to enter into a realm strewn with the remains of those who have tried (and often failed) the crossing. During her journey she is assaulted, badgered, shot at; she passes through a stark otherworldly landscape; she survives physically unscathed, though perhaps bewildered.
A story like this already has a certain weight borrowed from the contemporary situation on the Mexico-US border, but Herrera ballasts his novel with myth, a decision that imbues the work with an almost vertiginous depth that resounds with echoes of the ancient past. Makina’s journey is, in fact, based on pre-Hispanic myths of the underworld. In these stories, the departed are forced to traverse several levels on their way to a final destination, much like Herrera’s narrator moves from supreme confidence (as the switchboard operator, she controls all information while serving as a go-between) to uncertainty (though she sets out with disdain for the north, planning on returning quickly, Makina finds herself less certain when she finds herself there). The “end of the world” referred to in the title refers both to the novel’s mythic roots and in the finality of the border crossing: until cheap technology made cell phones and calling cards available, many of those who went north were effectively cut off from contact with the old world.
Such layering is common in the book, and is accomplished both structurally and linguistically. During a conversation with Daniel Alarcon at Green Apple Books on the Park last spring, Herrera mentioned his use of obsolete words that, stumping his Spanish readers, must surely have provided difficulties for his English translator Lisa Dillman. As an example, he explained the use of the verb “to verse,” a seemingly odd choice until one considers that its Spanish counterpart is based on an Arabic-influenced poetic term (jarchar) from the 13th century that referred to women in transition. Dillman’s solution to this and other problems is ingenious and bold.
Signs Preceding the End of the World stands on its own as an estimable work of fiction. It doesn’t need the backdrop of the current political firestorm raging over the US-Mexico border or the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe to prove its value—as long as there are borders, there will be injustice—but the fact that it so clearly and powerfully speaks to the state of migrants today renders it all the more powerful. I can think of no better reason for a book to win the Best Translated Book Award than this.
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