This week’s podcast features a true roundtable discussion, with Tom and Chad being joined by Caroline Casey from Coffee House Press, Mark Haber and Jeremy Ellis from Brazos Bookstore, Stephen Sparks from Green Apple Books, and Danish author Naja Marie Aidt (Baboon, Rock, Paper, Scissors) to discuss the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute. One of the funniest podcasts to date, they break down what Winter Institute is, why it’s so important for the future of bookselling, and what various publishers get out of attending. They also make fun of all the crappy crutch phrases you find in jacket copy.
This week’s music is the Flaming Lips rendition of 21st Century Schizoid Man.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week, the tenth version of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute took place in Asheville, NC, at a resort straight out of The Shining.
I know! You should’ve seen the main lobby with it’s 40’ ceilings, giant fireplaces, and hidden passages. It was like something out of Hogwarts. (Actually, I have no idea if that’s true. I’m still pretty clueless when it comes to Harry Potter.)
For anyone not in the business, Winter Institute started ten years ago as a way of having the bookseller educational programs—which usually take place just before the start of BookExpo America—at a different time and place, one where it was basically all booksellers resorted off in such a way that they could share relevant information about the business of bookselling without having the Sweet Potato Queen thrusting books at you non-stop. (Not to pick on this particular book, but if you’ve been to BEA, you know that it’s filthy with over-the-top attempts to get the attention of booksellers and reviewers. Just check out the Ellora’s Cave stand and their calendar stud muffins.)
Over the past decade, Winter Institute has evolved, and is heavily underwritten by publishing houses. But even so, it’s much more classy and information-focused, rather than a buzz-producing free-for-all. For example, if a publisher sponsors Winter Institute at the mid-level (which is thousands of dollars), they get to bring two employees and spend four total hours “speed dating” with booksellers (Winter Institute is HOT), pitching a handful of books and making new connections. There are other sponsorship benefits, and most publishers arrange dinners with key stores, but nevertheless, it’s all pretty subdued and really focused on relationships and business practices.
You’ll be able to hear a lot more about this on the podcast that’s going up soon, and which features a handful of booksellers, publishers, and Naja Marie Aidt.
For years I’ve been trying to get to Winter Institute, and now that I finally made it, I’m going to be there every year going forward. It’s the best way to learn about new stores, reconnect with booksellers you don’t get to see that often, and party with other book people. Everyone working in this oftentimes thankless business needs a few days like this.
One of my favorite moments of Winter Institute was going to the special Consortium dinner with my former boss—Sarah Goddin of Quail Ridge Books! I had no idea she was going to be there, and Consortium had no idea that we had worked together, so it was a special sort of random reunion.
Since I love North Carolina (the far superior Carolina) so much, I spent a couple days after Winter Institute driving over to Raleigh-Durham, trying to find the apartment complex I lived in back in 1999 (I failed), meeting up with John Darnielle to talk about Mercè Rodoreda and book tours, and checking out all of the great bookstores. Although The Regulator seems to have shrunk quite a bit since the time I lived there (which, granted, was forever ago), the Triangle still has some incredible independent bookstores. Flyleaf in Chapel Hill is gorgeous and so well stocked (and is a store I wouldn’t have visited had I not met the very charming Travis at breakfast during Winter Institute) and over at Quail Ridge, the “International Literature” section I helped set up before Y2K didn’t do shit is still there, bigger and more international than ever.
I have no grand point to make with this intro . . . except maybe that it was rejuvenating. I would love to be back in Carolina, where there are great bookstores and breweries (sorry, Rochester, but you just can’t compete), and where I didn’t have to wear a winter jacket (it is -60 here right now, I think). But beyond the natural beauty and general coolness of Carolina, there’s that special internal joy that comes from talking with booksellers like Mark Haber and Jeremy Ellis and Robert Sindelar and Stephen Sparks and Brad Johnson and Jeremy Solomons and Paul Yamazaki and Rick Simonson and Sarah Goddin and everyone else that I talked with, but can’t remember right now.
Despite all the hardships it faces in our tech-obsessed world, bookselling is alive and well, and still populated by that special subset of book lovers who truly help make this whole book culture thing work.
The Knight and His Shadow by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French by Alan Furness (Michigan State University Press)
Given that MSU’s men’s basketball team kicked the living shit out of Michigan last night, I have to take a minute to say GO SPARTANS! and give a shout out to my alma mater, and to say that I will savor every minute of a Kentucky loss. I have friends who love Kentucky in that way that you do when your family tree is a straight line and teeth are considered an optional accessory (sorry, sorry), and I’d be happy for them if Kent— Screw that. That’s a total lie. I can’t stand Calipari and his dirty recruiting and am sick to death of Dickie V, who has never held a skeptical position in his life and who has obviously spent way too many hours researching thesauri for new ways to say “Calipari and what he’s done with this program is nothing short of spectacular! He’s a diaper dandy winner, baby!” Please, ESPN, retire him. Let him write a weekly column from Florida where he can hang out with all his shady sports friends and verbally fellate all the “blue blood” teams that he loves.
In terms of this book, this is the only work of fiction from Senegal listed in our Translation Database. I know there are countries (like Chad, just, you know, as an example) that have zero titles available in translation, but it’s still crazy to think that, if you want to read some recent Senegalese literature, you have exactly one choice.
On the upside, this sounds spectacular. It includes a character who is hired to “sit before an open door and tell stories into an uncertain darkness, unable to see the person to whom she speaks.” Plus, it’s great to see MSU Press getting into the translation game. The only thing that could be better is if MSU interrupts Kentucky’s “Pursuit of Perfection” in the NCAA tournament. Dickie V would never recover . . .
Flesh-Coloured Dominos by Zigmunds Skujins, translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis (Arcadia)
Look, it’s Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis’s second full-length Latvian translation to be published! With a country of this size (3 million speakers worldwide?), it’s crucial that someone become a spokesperson/go-to translator who can act as a cultural conduit, or literary ambassador. Without a Kaija, Latvian literature would be even less well-known . . . And someone like Skujins, who is considered one of the top Latvian writers of the twentieth century, would remain unknown outside of this relatively small group of readers. Every country needs a few Kaijas.
Speaking of, here’s a picture of her while translating this book.
Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Open Letter)
2015 is going to be a huge year for Open Letter in terms of sales and publicity. I can easily see a handful of our titles on next year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist (Georgi Gospodinov, Naja Marie Aidt, Andrés Neuman, Gail Hareven), and it all starts here, with this book that is part-revenge fantasy, part-literary game. The follow up to the BTBA winning The Confessions of Noa Weber (also translated by Dalya Bilu, and sadly out of print from Melville House), Lies, First Person is about a female writer whose uncle molested her younger sister while writing his much-reviled book Hitler, First Person. Decades later, the uncle is making the rounds, apologizing for the upset his book cause, but Elinor isn’t ready to forgive anyone . . . Instead she decides to take matters into her own hands and get the ultimate revenge for what he did to her sister. Hareven complicates this storyline by exploring the gap between truth and lies in fiction, transforming a simple tale of abuse and vengeance into something that’s emotionally powerful and intellectually stunning.
No one writes with the warmth and honest of Hareven. She may well be the first female writer to claim the BTBA twice.
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Howard Curtis (New Vessel Press)
Since we just posted a great review of this by Peter Biello, I’m just going to quote from there:
In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago. . . . The immersive power of the novel comes from the narrator’s voice. He begins each paragraph somewhere, then wanders somewhere else, jumping idea to idea, often without starting new sentences. The reader must slow down to figure out whether he’s integrating dialogue into his prose or recalling something someone once said or mocking someone. But in forcing us to slow down, the author has invited us to occupy the narrator’s mind perhaps more intimately than we would otherwise.
Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, which Archipelago brought out a few years ago, is brilliant, and I’m sure that this new novel is as well.
Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Max Blecher, translated from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim (New Directions)
On its own, this sounds like a curious, strange book to read. According to the ND copy, Blecher “paints the crises of ‘irreality’ the plagued him in his youth: eerie unsettling mirages wherein he would glimpse future events.” Structured through a sort of dream-logic, this book probably isn’t for everyone, but will inspire some hard core fans.
Personally, I’m excited to read it because it’s a Michael Henry Heim translation. My love of MHH is unwavering (if you haven’t already, you should read The Man Between), and I know for certain that if he chose to work on this, it’s definitely interesting and worth reading. At the same time, the idea of reading the book Mike was working on when he passed away makes me sad . . . I know there are dozens of books he did that I have yet to read, but still, there’s something about the “final” one that makes me just miss him.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (McSweeney’s Books)
New Zambra! I may not have been the biggest fan of Ways of Going Home, but given the greatness of The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai, I will always and forever read every new book Zambra writes. This is his first story collection, and features eleven stories (or, according to McSweeney’s, “eleven brief novels,” which is really brilliant marketing speak, since stories don’t sell) that are archived in a folder labeled, “My Documents.”
Zambra is always a fun read, and he really is at his best in the short form, so this has a lot of promise. (It’s books like this that make me wish I only taught books I’ve already read, and thus would have more time for fun reading . . .)
The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Melville House)
When she spoke to my class last spring, Karen Emmerich talked a bit about this book, in particular about the role politics play in this novel and in Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou. Not that the two books are similar, but both involve Greek political things that probably need to be explained to American readers.
The Scapegoat is about a murdered American journalist, a man who confessed to the crime under torture, and a young boy who sets off to find the truth. The bit about this that most caught my attention is that it’s based on the real story of CBS reporter James Polk, the namesake of the Polk Awards.
Also, as with Michael Henry Heim, I’m always interested in projects that Karen decides to translate. Which makes me want to run a poll/write an article about what it takes to become one of those sorts of translators (whose name signals true quality and can get me to pick up anything), and who exactly falls into this grouping . . . hmm . . .
Me, Margarita by Ana Kordzaia-Samadashvili, translated from the Georgian by Libby Heighway (Dalkey Archive)
Out of all the Georgian books Dalkey has published in their series, this is the one that I’m most interested in reading. Mostly because of this blurb:
“An unmatched achievement that simultaneously fascinates and alienates. What does cynicism taste like? And what color is disillusion? Me, Margarita is powder blue and tastes refreshingly bittersweet.“—Emil Fadel, octopus-magazin
I’ll buy a side of disillusioned cynicism for $15.95.Tweet
Today, Trafika Europe is launching an Indegogo campaign to help fund its forthcoming venture, Trafika Europe Radio. Set to start this fall, Trafika Europe Radio will stream original and partner-produced audio content, including: readings and performances; discussions with writers, translators, readers and publishers; “literary” music; festivals, book fairs, launches, and more.
From their press release brochure:
“Trafika Europe Radio offers a whole new window on Europe. With partner-produced series covering the 47 countries of Council of Europe, our online station will bring you in-depth features from across the continent—not just the EU!”
For more information on Trafika Europe Radio, go here.
For more information on their Indiegogo campaign, and the campaign itself, go here.Tweet
Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago.
The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.
Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This year’s edition of the Festival Neue Literatur, which features new writing from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S., will take place this upcoming weekend (February 19-22) and is loaded with interesting events.
Here’s a video overview of the festival itself:
You can find the complete schedule here, but I especially want to call your attention to this particular event:
“For the Love of Translation”
(Saturday, February 21, 12:30-2:30 at the Bowery Poetry Club)
With: Michael Reynolds (Europa Editions) & Tim Mohr (translator) discussing The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine from the German, Michael Wise (New Vessel Press) & Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press, Translator) discussing The Good Life Elsewhere from the Russian, Katie Raissian (Stonecutter, Grove Atlantic) & Susan Bernofsky (translator), discussing The Beautiful and the Necessary from the German, and Chad Post (Open Letter) & Lisa Boscov-Ellen (translator), discussing A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Spanish.
Moderator: Sal Robinson
Featured editors and translators will pair off and discuss a memorable literary translation. Their discussion will not only recount the critical decisions of their editing coordination, but will demystify their collaboration process.
I’m really excited to be able to participate in this year’s festival and have the chance to talk with Lisa about her work on our amazing anthology. And it’s an honor to share the stage with such an amazing group of editors, publishers, and translators!
All the events in the festival sound great, but one other one that I want to call some attention to is also taking place on Saturday:
“Money Changes Everything”
(Saturday, February 21, 6-8pm at Powerhouse Arena)
With: Anna Weidenholzer, Matthias Nawrat, Jonas Lüscher, Adam Haslett
Moderator: Eric Banks
Is money making the world go round or under? What are the effects of today’s ever more impenetrable financial system on social mobility and the life of the imagination? What, exactly, is trickling down?
That sounds like the basis for an interesting discussion . . .
Anyway, I hope to see a bunch of you there!Tweet
In case you missed it, or in case you’re itching to put together a panel proposal in two weeks’ time, Barnard College will be hosting a translation conference at the beginning of May.
The conference will be held the weekend of May 1st and 2nd. From the conference website:
“This conference seeks to take the pulse of current research in Translation Studies and to map emerging and innovative approaches in the field. Our aim is not merely to examine the role of translation in academic settings; it is also to explore the relationships universities might foster with other sites where translation is at work. To be held in New York City, with its rich tradition of publishing literature in translation, the conference will include not only traditional panels and lectures, but also readings and convivial gatherings. In this manner, we seek to strengthen ties among the translation community.”
Though the call for papers hasn’t been officially extended, the committee has set a cut-off date of February 28th to stop reading abstracts. UPDATE: CLOSED TO SUBMISSIONS. The committee regrouped and has decided it has enough material—apologies for any inconvenience.
More information on the conference can be found here.Tweet
This month, Wilkins Farago is publishing the translation of an award-winning children’s book, One Red Shoe by Karin Gruss with illustrations by Tobias Krejtschi, in the US (the book can be purchased both at the publisher’s website, and at Amazon.com). The story is a look at the impact of conflict on children who live in war zones, specifically a child in the Gaza Strip. Hannah Johnson, deputy publisher of Publishing Perspectives, translated the book from German into English.
Q: Though you have worked in German with your work at the German Book Office in New York, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and as the Deputy Publisher of Publishing Perspectives, this is the first book you’ve translated. How did you come to translate this book?
Wilkins Farago publisher Andrew Wilkins and I have known each other for several years. Andrew is the managing editor of Publishing Perspectives’ show dailies during the Frankfurt Book Fair, so we have the opportunity to work together and see each other every year. In 2013, he discovered One Red Shoe in Frankfurt. He brought the German version of the book to our office, and asked my opinion. It’s unusual to see a children’s book tackle tough subjects like war and violence without downplaying the gravity of these events or glossing over the trauma. We both thought the book was something special. After Andrew bought the English rights in 2014, he asked if I’d like to do the translation.
Q: Though you speak, read, and write in German often for your work, how did you find the role of translating for publication?
When speaking or writing, it isn’t necessary to think about how another person might say something. You can use your own style. Translation requires you to stay loyal to the author’s original tone, to use phrases and words that came from someone else. The tone of One Red Shoe is particularly important because it’s how the author is able to portray a gruesome event without over-traumatizing younger readers. It was a challenge for me to make sure the mood that the text conveys was just right.
Q: How much collaboration did you have with the author?
Q: Were there any challenges you hadn’t anticipated in capturing the emotion and tension of the story?
Perhaps because this is a children’s book and the text on each page is short, every word carries more weight. I got hung up on a couple phrases where my English translation wasn’t doing justice to the original German. And given the balance this book strikes between conveying the impact of war on children yet not turning off potential readers because of this tough subject, I felt extra pressure to make each word count.
Q: Do you have plans to translate more books in the future?
I’d certainly consider translating shorter works again. It’s rewarding to be a part of the process that makes a book like this available to many more readers.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery (Bellevue Literary Press)
Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Like a companion volume or literary reverberation, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery continues the itinerant wanderings begun in his beautifully-composed The Polish Boxer. Monastery’s narrator, a certain Eduardo Halfon, encounters and engages the world around him – be he beside the West Bank barrier, seeking an intimate jazz performance in Harlem, or visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Reflective and reminiscent, the short stories/tales/vignettes that make up Halfon’s second work translated into English are effortlessly gratifying. Halfon needn’t employ a stylistically singular prose style (although he writes magnificently) or rely on compelling, convoluted plots to evince the wonder of the world around him. Each of the eight pieces contained within Monastery offers a melodic yet transitory glimpse of the seemingly insignificant moments that eventually merge into memories of consequence.
Halfon, honored as one of the Bogotá 39, has about a dozen works to his name. El ángel literario (“The Literary Angel”) – a 2004 semifinalist for the Premio Herralde (won previously by the likes of Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Daniel Sada) – appears to be, like both Monastery and The Polish Boxer after it, an astounding semi-autobiographical work that blends genres and transcends the merely fictional. Seeing more of the Guatemala City-born author’s works in translation would be a gift.
Maybe it was her driving. Maybe it was the combination of hash and the heat inside the Citroën and the adrenaline rush I’d gotten with the soldiers. Maybe it was something much darker and more fleeting. I rolled the window all the way down, stuck my head out and, breathing in the warm fresh air, thought of other walls. Chinese walls and German walls and American walls. Holy walls of temples and damp mossy walls of cells. The brick walls of a ghetto, the walls surrounding an entire people imprisoned in a ghetto, starving in a ghetto, dying slowly and silently. All of a sudden, I saw or imagined I saw on the wall (we were driving very fast and my eyes were almost closed and my pupils were dilated) the all-black figure of the girl in the Banksy painting: her black braid, black bangs, little black skirt, black shoes, black face looking up, her whole body facing up toward the sky as she floats up the wall with the help of a bunch of black balloons held in her tiny black hand. It occurred to me, my head halfway out the window and already experiencing a delicious lethargy from the hash, that a wall is the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the other. A palpable concrete manifestation that attempts to separate us from the other, isolate us from the other, eliminate the other from our sight and from our world. But it’s also a clearly useless manifestation: no matter how tall and thick the construction, no matter how long and imposing the structure, a wall is never insurmountable. A wall is never bigger than the spirit of those it confines. Because the other is still there. The other doesn’t disappear, never disappears. The other’s other is me. Me, and my spirit, and my imagination, and my black balloons.
Navidad & Matanza (Open Letter)
Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
It is a game. Not a novel. There is no story. Only rules.
A metafictional, heady tale of disappeared children, a novel-game coauthored by laboratory subjects, and a hatred/fear-inducing drug called hadón, Navidad & Matanza is the first of Chilean-born writer Carlos Labbé’s works to be published in English. Excerpted previously in Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2010 issue (as “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable”), Navidad & Matanza’s labyrinthine story within a story is both sinister and foreboding.
Labbé, a novelist and screenwriter (who penned his master’s thesis on Roberto Bolaño), deftly weaves an intricate, enigmatic story into and around itself. Navidad & Matanza could be the hallucinogenic amalgamation of a César Aira plot with setting and characters conceived by Bolaño – if written using Oulipo-style constraints. Though less than 100-pages in total, Labbé’s novel has an inebriating effect that persists well after the book’s conclusion. With ample imagination and commanding style, Navidad & Matanza certainly marks Labbé as a young author from whom we ought to anticipate great, fascinating things to come.
To that end, five friends of similar interests and I had come up with a system that, in the beginning, seemed like an original and fascinating discovery. A novel-game. In short, it involved rolling dice, moving your token to a space with prefigured plotlines and formal constraints, writing a text according to those constraints and, that night, mailing this text to the other participants. Everyone had been assigned a day of the week, except Sunday, a day of rest. It was a game of complex rules and seduction. And the result was out of control.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With the start of spring (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is) less than six weeks away, the BTBA longlist announcement draws ever closer (early April!) – and, as such, we judges continue our evaluation of the year’s fiction in translation. Reading and considering so many disparate books never loses its appeal, nor, despite the varying quality of the texts, the pleasure of being exposed to books that might have otherwise been overlooked. With nearly 500 works in contention for this year’s esteemed prize, the list of eligible titles, at first glance, may seem both daunting and overwhelming – yet, as it must, the proverbial wheat separates itself from the chaff. With less than two months to go before the longlist is revealed, a number of books seem to have found favor with many of the judges. The below titles are but a small sample of the exceptional books that more than one jurist has been especially enamored of (and, thus, may – or may not – make their way onto the much-anticipated longlist):
The Symmetry Teacher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
The sixth of Andrei Bitov’s works to be rendered into English, The Symmetry Teacher is a masterful, postmodern metafictional novel long on flair, but short on fervor. Like the nesting dolls mentioned within, The Symmetry Teacher contains stories within a story within a story.
Subtitled “A Novel-echo,” (“Translated from a foreign tongue by Andrei Bitov, retranslated into English by Polly Gannon”), the novel begins with a note by Bitov himself, recalling a book he had read many decades ago by an obscure English author named A. Tired-Boffin (an anagram for Andrei Bitoff). The book, The Teacher of Symmetry, despite Bitov’s exhaustive searchings, was never to be located again – thus he set out to retranslate it from memory. Tired-Boffin’s The Teacher of Symmetry features as its protagonist an enigmatic author named Urbino Vanoski (whom, later in the novel, composes poetry under an anagrammatical pseudonym). Portions of Vanoski’s novels are excerpted as chapters (with names altered by Bitov – as outlined in an included chart relying on Tired-Boffin’s curious propensity to name chapters in a categorical manner based on grammatical tenses) and compose the bulk of Bitov’s singular tale.
Sound confusing? It’s not. Sound tedious? Far from it. Perhaps in the hands of a less talented writer, this construct would seem like mere affectation, but Bitov’s literary gifts are prodigious and nothing about The Symmetry Teacher comes off as contrived. If you like your fiction tidy, plot-driven, full of banal dialogue, and stuffed with artificial flavorings, however, this surely isn’t the book for you.
So many of Bitov’s (Tired-Boffin’s [Vanoski’s]) stories – or novel excerpts, rather – are wonderfully imagined; ranging from a writing society that expels members upon completing a work, to a marooned poet enamored of a woman with transformative abilities, to a king who decides to pen an additional volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica (when not altering the composition of the night sky).
The Symmetry Teacher is bewitching, but never strays into the bewildering. The Russian author’s new novel is frequently humorous and wildly imaginative. Neither a proper puzzle nor riddle to be solved, Bitov’s book instead invites readers to consider language and literary construct through the façade of playful fiction. If there’s anything to be found lacking in The Symmetry Teacher, it’s that while intellectually intoxicating, it has so little emotional effect. Nonetheless, it contains some undeniably gorgeous writing and impressive feats of artistry.
We are capable of destroying a primitive ideal, but are not capable of erecting in its stead a more capacious one that would include what we have ruined. If a person were paid money for what is characteristic of him, and not for those distortions and aberrations by which he accommodates himself to success, the prime minister and great scholar would experience the comfort of their places, and so their happiness, like Gummi out there chopping wood. If everyone, having discovered his inmost secret wish, could be allowed to engage in the simple pastime that made him happy, the world would descend into idiocy and a golden age would reign on earth. It is only due to the fear of loneliness that people are not all mad – and they are all mad because they accept the conventionality of social existence while failing to examine it in their minds. The therapy of real work is possible only in paradise.
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (Semiotext(e))
By Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
In the Argentinian master’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia, literary superfriends (Cortázar, Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, and Alberto Moravia) battle the forces of capitalist excess and international bibliocide. Inspired by his participation in the second Russell Tribunal (1975, Brussels), as well as his inclusion in an issue of the Mexican comic book series, Fantomas, la amenaza elegante (#201, “La inteligencia en llamas”), Cortázar published this self-referential, metafictional novella to help spread the word about the tribunal’s report (on human rights violations in Latin America).
With numerous cameos by other prominent writers of the era (Norman Mailer, Eduardo Galeano, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, et al.), Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires retains the original comic drawings from the Mexican series in which they first appeared. Crafting a fictional narrative around the graphic story and his work with the tribunal, Cortázar takes aim at the various exploits of multinational corporations and the rapacious effects they’ve had (and continue to have) on human rights, environmental well-being, creative culture, and national sovereignty. While very slim in length, Fantomas cleverly combines comedy, politics, literature, and an unsettling reality into a single remarkable work.
Although Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires does not, of course, set out to solve the centuries-old corrupting influences of American corporate interventionism, it does, however, (further) demonstrate Cortázar’s seemingly limitless creativity. Rather than composing an editorial screed, Cortázar instead allowed the brilliance of his storytelling (and the comic book illustrations) to succinctly convey the grave threats that still endure after many decades. Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires is fun, fresh, fantastical, and an absolute delight to behold.
“Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too – it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad simply because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…”
By Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
By unanimous jury decision (which included Roberto Bolaño), Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris was awarded the 1999 Herralde Prize (Andrés Neuman’s as yet untranslated Bariloche was the runner-up). The Spaniard’s debut novel is a remarkable work of remembrance, reconciliation of memory, and the tenacious effects of formative moments. Giralt Torrente’s narrator, a man reflecting back on a number of unanswered questions from his youth (most notably, the time his mother spent living in the French capital city without him – and the relationship they both had to his oft-absent father), spends nearly the entirety of the novel reflecting, recalling, re-imagining, and re-processing the events of childhood. With stunning prose and impressive psychology insight, Paris is a meditation on the nature of memory and the ways it binds our present to the past. Giralt Torrente’s debut novel is a masterful feat.
When we think about the past, it’s hard to resist both dividing it up into blocks in accordance with the pattern of events that have made most impression on us and attributing powers to it that it does not have, allowing ourselves to believe that the arrival of a particular date had the ability to work some radical transformation on us. Until the death of my father, we say, I was like this or like that, when we should really say that on such and such a date, something that already existed inside us began to make itself manifest or visible. Such nonsense is merely the reflection of a still greater error of thinking, the belief that we change suddenly rather than gradually, as if we could not possibly be influenced by opposing but simultaneous impulses.Tweet
Today’s podcast is a special one, featuring PEN Translation Committee co-chair (and talented Czech translator) Alex Zucker to talk about what translators do and should get paid, and to break down where all the money goes in publishing a work of international literature.
In comparison to some other Three Percent podcasts, this one is wall-to-wall information, and is sure to spark a number of debates, discussions, and reactions. Enjoy!
This week’s music is The Wind that Cried the World by The Phantom Band.
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