A couple weeks ago I had a dream that I was dropping my daughter off at a “Reading Tutor” to study for some sort of standardized “Reading Comprehension” test for fifth graders. When I got to the shopping mall for tutors (dream!), I found out that, not only had her tutor quit, but that “Reading Comprehension” had been eliminated from schools as a whole because it was “worthless” and that students needed more time for engineering and making things.
I totally wigged out in my dream and went on a very Chad-like rant, spouting totally bullshit statistics about how the average American could only comprehend 40% of what they read, and without students reading and studying reading and thinking about reading, that number would drop to 5% within the next decade and we would be living in a world of people producing copy for people who—even if they could physically read the words—would understand shit.
Does this really seem all that farfetched? College students these days have basically no interest in the humanities (the 15% at Stanford seems like an exaggeration or outlier), and outside of college, the desire to “understand” literature has always been backburnered by a fascination with plot and whistles.
I’ve experienced this sort of “comprehension problem” myself. I read way too many books and articles and shit that I only vaguely remember a week later. So frequently I realize that I’m reading just to finish things and not to savor the style and way the book is constructed. I’ve found that I have to slow myself down, let things settle, mull them over—all processes that run counter to our app-heavy, distracted world.
This isn’t necessarily an anti-technology, atavistic bit, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for “slow reading” and being bi-literate. Like with the recent finding that people spend as much on ebooks as print books we are likely to always have two ways of processing text: on screen, where there are innumerable advantages to bouncing around, looking things up, skimming for key points, binging and purging on information, etc.; and in print, which lends itself to circling back, deeper periods of concentration, a different sort of “comprehension,” one which may not lead to a witty tweet, but can change the entire way you think about people, places, yourself.
College would be the perfect place to learn these skills, but with the cost, the internal pressures, the disincentives for going into academia, it wouldn’t be that surprising to hear of a university closing out most of its humanities in favor of more popular majors with brighter (re: lucrative) futures. This would be the worst thing that could happen to our culture. We need to up the average reading comprehension! 40% just won’t do!
Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by John Lambert (FSG)
You know that game that English majors/professors play where they admit, secretly, in embarrassed tones, over too many glasses of Chablis, which authors they haven’t read, but obviously should’ve? Where someone admits that they found Moby-Dick boring and everyone titters and condemns? Well, Carrère is my answer to that. Which, knowing my audience, really is pretty embarrassing. I own almost all of his books, am interested in all of it, but . . . something always gets in the way. That has to change. Starting soon, I’m going to probably read, most all of the words that he wrote. Slowly.
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New York Review Books)
Since no one I know in Rochester was willing to go watch game four of the Dodgers-Cardinals series with me, I’m watching at home, drinking beers, and writing this. Just a warning for whatever comes below. Right now it’s 0-0 heading to the bottom of the fourth inning.
Also, Esther Allen is the best. Anything she decides to devote her time to translating is definitely worth reading. This is true of a handful of translators—Susan Bernofsky, Bill Johnston, Marian Schwartz. The translators who are at the point where they can pick and choose their projects—and who have that rare gift of good taste—are the ones that I’m willing to follow anywhere. Zama just proves this point.
The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino (Open Letter)
Technically, this is the first non-translation we’ve ever published. Also, this is the book that left both Kaija and I in tears. And will for anyone who knew Mike Heim. I’m going to save my maudlin stuff for our letter to subscribers, and maybe a separate post, but MHH made the world a better place and I’m really proud that Esther, Sean, Russell, and the other contributors allowed us to publish this. It’s a book that truly adds something to the discussion about translation and translators. If you’re at all interested in this subject, please read this book. You might cry, but it’s a worthwhile cry.
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Other Press)
We got a poetry submission earlier today that included this “selling point”: “Even if [my poems] are bad I want everyone to read them and enjoy them.” Thanks. Thanks a lot.
Tel Aviv Noir edited by Etgar Keret, translated from the Hebrew by Assaf Gavron; Tehran Noir edited by Salar Abdoh, translated from the Persian by several translators; Helsinki Noir edited by James Thompson, translated from the Finnish by several translators (Akashic Books)
The Nobel Prize in Literature is going to be awarded tomorrow, and although I want to try and convince myself to believe that there’s a possibility that Mikhail Shishkin will win, changing the fortunes of Open Letter forever, I’m sure either Murakami will win or someone whose work I should’ve read years ago.
Nevertheless, by tomorrow evening, approximately 500 American book commentators will have written this article:
Today, the Swedish Academy once again awarded the Nobel Prize to an obscure East European author that I’ve never even heard of. What bullshit! Why would they award this honor to someone that we, here in America, don’t even read? Why pass over Philip Roth, the Greatest Living American Author, who, remember, is AMERICAN, isn’t getting any younger, and is American. Instead, just like with Herta Mueller and that Elfriede lady, that group of Swedes intentionally found some difficult, strange writer whose books probably only sell 300 copies—and all to foreigners! This is an outrage. They don’t deserve this award! Their books suck! I’m never reading a Nobel Prize winner again until PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH PHILIP ROTH
Monastery by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Bellevue Literary Press)
Every year that the Cardinals make the playoffs, bunches of articles are written about how shitty Cardinals fans are. A lot of these come from Deadspin and revolve around the idea that Cardinals fans suck because they feel like their team does things “the right way,” and can’t understand why people don’t like them.
I usually shrug these articles off — including the recent Wall Street Journal “report” detailing why the Cardinals are the most hateable team in the playoffs — but for some reason, this year I’m extra-sensitive and have spent way too much time analyzing why these bug me so much.
It’s understandable that people will hate any team that’s successful on a regular basis, like Manchester United or the 90s Yankees, but hating a team’s fan base is slightly different. Sure, there are some awful Cardinals fans out there (like these assholes), but that’s true of basically any group of fans—some of them are great people, some are total dicks, and most are just normal. It’s possible that the “Boston Cardinals” wouldn’t get so much shit, and that this is part of the media world’s distrust of the Midwest, or if Cardinals fans weren’t referred to as “The Best Fans in Baseball” (which is stupid), but at the core, a lot of these articles are just mean-spirited and attempt to make people like me feel like a jerk for liking a particular team.
In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate,” which is especially true when it comes to sports. I just wish people hated the owners and the teams and the crap parts of sports, like screwing up a town’s finances for a new stadium, or suppressing data on concussions, instead of hating fans.
Mostly because of Ozzie Smith, I’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan for over three decades. I grew up in Michigan, and was into baseball when Detroit won the World Series in 1984, but for whatever reason, I loved the speed and efficiency of those mid-80s Cardinals teams. Vince Coleman. Willie McGee. Etc. And ever since, for 162+ days of the year, I’ve known whether they won or lost, living with them in a way, and I think that’s something that, for sports fans, is a good thing. No matter who you like, having a team can add something to your life. The joyful pain of following sports is great for a lot of people. These have been special years for a Cardinals fan, but that will change, again. But I’ll still pay attention.
Who Is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko, translated from the German by Arabella Spencer (New Vessel Press)
I’m pretty sure that over the past three weeks, I’ve started more than 80% of my emails with “Excellent!” Where did this tic come from? And why “excellent”? Is anything really that “excellent” in the daily Open Letter operations? At best these emails contain “good” or “passably interesting” information—but nothing that’s really, truly excellent.
Ironically, I just received an email with this subject line: “‘Excellent,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘important’—Melania G. Mazzucco’s Limbo (FSG; 11/4).” A list of semi-meaningless crutch phrases all in a row!
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)
I love this book. These stories are so pointed, sharp, aggressive, and filled with bad things happening. I also love Naja, and if you have a chance to see her while she’s on tour, you should go. She’s charming and an incredibly interesting writer. Next year, Open Letter is bringing out her first novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors. Both of these books should be finalists for the Best Translated Book Award.
Author and Me by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Dalkey Archive)
I don’t think we’ve received a review copy of this yet, but based on this excellent Kirkus review, I’m definitely going to check it out when it arrives. Just check out this line from the review:
Audaciously, Chevillard doubles down on this provocative setup by embedding a brief novella within one of the author’s footnotes—a 40-page footnote that’s hard on the eyes but oddball fun, casting the hero in to a slow-moving chase of an ant that also makes room for a love affair and a circus.
Pavane for a Dead Princess by Min-gyu Park, translated from the Korean by Amber Hyun Jung Kim; The Square by In-hun Choi, translated from the Korean by Seong-Kon Kim; Scenes from the Enlightenment by Namcheon Kim, translated from the Korean by Charles La Sure; Another Man’s City by In-ho Ch’oe, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton; The Republic of Uzupis by Haïlji, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Dalkey Archive)
This morning, I gave myself a belated birthday gift and went in for an hour-long deep-tissue, full-body massage. I usually don’t do this, but on top of having a bit of extra money thanks to my birthday last week, my mom had a “minor” stroke last Saturday (minor is in quotes because, although she’s OK now, in my world the words “stoke” and “minor” in no way belong together), which totally fucked me up. The amount of tension in my back had gotten so bad that I thought my spine might just crack in half.
During my massage—performed by the “Best Massage Therapist” in Rochester according to the City Paper—I kept waiting for her to be shocked by how messed up my back was. All I wanted was the confirmation that I was the tensest individual she’d encountered this week. “Holy shit, those knots! You’re a stress warrior!” Everything can be turned into a competition.
Tristana by Benito Perez Galdos, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (New York Review Books)
The Cardinals won! I didn’t think there was any way they would be able to beat Clayton Kershaw—probably the best pitcher in baseball, and possibly the NL MVP—three times in a row, but there you are! This means that I get to watch them for at least another week! (That is how I judge this. I still don’t think they’ll win it all, but I want that final disappointment to be as far off in the future as possible.)
More pertinent—how is this the first translation of this book? Galdos is often compared to Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy, wrote dozens of novels, and Luis Bunuel made a film version of this book. Most interesting though, according to Wikipedia, “A national subscription scheme was set up to raise money to help him, to which the King and his Prime Minister Romanones were the first to subscribe.” That’s kind of awesome, and hard to imagine any politicians doing that today.Tweet
Finally, after weeks of putting this off, here is the long anticipated podcast about Roberto Bolaño’s Little Lumpen Novelita.
The reason it took so long to get to this was because of Tom’s new job as the Deputy Director at Albertine, the most beautiful Franco-centric bookstore in New York (and/or the whole U.S.). We talked shortly after the official launch of the store, which generated a ton of fanfare.
So, in addition to talking Bolaño, and talking about this man
we talked about Albertine, it’s upcoming festival, and other aspects of Tom’s new job. (Just a note of clarification—Tom is still working for New Directions as well.)
Oh, and we also talk a bit about the Royals-A’s game that was going on while we were recording. And now I’m safe in saying that I’m really glad all the West Coast AL teams are out of the playoffs and am really looking forward to the ALCS with Baltimore and Kansas City. (We’re planning on having Mexican author Alvaro Enrique on the podcast very soon to talk about his work, about his wife Valerie Luiselli’s work, about Spanish-language literature in general, and about the Baltimore Orioles, his favorite team. Finally, we get a baseball episode!)
This week’s music is “Divinity” by Porter Robinson. A little upbeat dance music as a counterpoint to our more languorous conversation.
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
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With so much reading left to do (as submissions continue to fill our mailboxes daily), a handful of books already stand out as some of the year’s finest original translations. Although it remains to be seen whether any of the below titles will make the longlist cut – let alone one of the ten coveted spots on the shortlist – each is an exceptional book in its own way, deserving of an audience larger than is likely and offering considerable recompense to anyone who affords it their readerly faculties.
Gonçalo Tavares ~ A Man: Klaus Klump
The first volume of Gonçalo Tavares’s remarkable Kingdom series, A Man: Klaus Klump (translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil) is the last of the four to be translated into English (after Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine). Like the others, however, this one explores themes of alienation, brutality, impotency, and power. The slimmest of the four works, Klaus Klump shares an essence with the others while being perhaps the most staccato in story and prose.
Spanning several decades in the lives of a handful of characters, Klaus Klump is set in an unnamed city – beginning amidst an ongoing war and later in the years following the cessation of (armed) conflict. With juxtaposing imagery, stark metaphors, and tight, yet evocative language, Tavares entwines the disorienting horrors of senseless ultra-violence with the psychological detachment of conflict-survival. The intensity of Klaus Klump seems all the more pronounced given how much is omitted from the story – allowing a menace or foreboding to loom throughout.
Neither Klaus Klump nor the rest of the books in the series seek to seemingly do more than show the inconsequentiality, indifference, disposability, and vapidity that so characterize 21st century culture. Klaus Klump (like Ernst Spengler, Lenz Buchmann, and Joseph Walser in the earlier books before him) populates a world where war and commerce function in codependency. Obedience is nearly superfluous, as long as appetites remain insatiable. To serve within such a system, one needn’t resort to nihilism – simply passive resignation will do.
Gonçalo Tavares is an exceptional talent and his writing seems almost limitless in scope (garnering the attention and acclaim of luminaries like the great José Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas). The Kingdom series (cycle? quartet? tetralogy?) offers a world that could not be more dissimilar to the one found in Tavares’s The Neighborhood. One not familiar with the provenance of these respective books would swear they were written by authors possessed of disparate literary tastes and temperaments. That Tavares can move so freely between works exuding terror and dread to those offering humor and charm is quite breathtaking to behold. With poems, short stories, plays, and other fiction as-yet untranslated, hopefully more (much more!) of Tavares’s work will soon be forthcoming in English.
Andrés Neuman ~ Talking to Ourselves
Talking to Ourselves (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), the second of Andrés Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation – be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging German towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.
Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. Staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can – longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution. Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort.
Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito) – but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.
With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
It is quite an honor (to say nothing of a responsibility) to be invited to adjudicate the creative output of others. In merely thinking of the myriad ways one might go about arbitrating the many facets that comprise a finished work of art – especially literature in translation – it is admittedly difficult to know how best to weigh its constituent parts. With many hundreds of novels and short story collections published in original English translations each year, most, of course, will never receive the due attention or readership they so rightly deserve. Thus it is, then, that the goal of the (eighth!) annual Best Translated Book Award (should be to highlight the titles, authors, translators, and publishers most worthy of acclaim.
A cursory glance at the list of the year’s translations reveals a wealth of notable authors from every continent. This embarrassment of literary riches is enough to make any devotee of international fiction swoon (and feel, perhaps, not a little overwhelmed). But do the household names of literature in translation (your Bolaños, Saramagos, Hrabals, Murakamis, Knausgårds, et al.) have an unfair advantage against those foreign authors for whom English-speaking audiences have yet to discover? Or might an author newly translated into English (the language with the third most native speakers worldwide) garner some disproportionate attention in hopes of not overlooking a dazzling new talent?
Do we, as discerning readers, gravitate towards the works rendered from their mother language by translators we already admire (such as Natasha Wimmer, Margaret Jull Costa, Richard Pevear, Chris Andrews, Philip Gabriel, Anne McLean, Susan Bernofsky, et al.)? In an ideal word (where translators enjoy more recognition for their accomplished efforts), our criteria would be completely objective, letting a book present itself on its own merits alone, but, alas, a subjective reality is the one we must inhabit.
And publishers? For every New Directions, Other Press, Melville House, NYRB, Dalkey, Graywolf, and Open Letter there are countless others acquiring, editing, translating, publishing, and promoting in relative obscurity. Young publishing house upstarts focusing on translation (New Vessel and Deep Vellum amongst the most promising) often have the liberty of taking greater chances on more esoteric or little-known works. With the field of publishers releasing fiction in translation growing ever more diverse (per market forces, no doubt), there is likely no greater time for a worldly reader to be alive than at this very moment.
While at first glance the prospect of working through hundreds of works to anoint a single one as the best translated book of the year may appear daunting, it needn’t be as such. As any lifelong reader or peruser of bookstore stacks knows well; somehow, as inexplicable as it always seems until the next time, the right book will (must!) inevitably find its way into our hands. Nine of us (each with disparate backgrounds, expectations, interests, strategies, and tastes), charged as we are with bringing our relative expertise and acumen to the task at hand, will certainly make our way through the year’s offerings and end up with what is (perhaps unanimously) the best translated book of the year.Tweet
Lori helped us out in the World Cup of Literature round for the U.S. vs. Belgium, and is also a member of the Board of Dallas-based Deep Vellum Publishing.
Here’s the beginning of Lori’s review:
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that contemplates what it means to accept your past.
It is 2010. Kamal Jann, a successful, middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist, lives in New York City. He is tormented by the horrors that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Sayf, the powerful head of Syria’s intelligence services. Sayf began sexually molesting Kamal when the boy was twelve years old, and three years later, Sayf ordered the murders of Kamal’s mother and father (the latter of whom was Sayf’s only sibling). Kamal’s hatred for his uncle is compounded by the fact that he later allows Sayf to sponsor his college and law school education in the United States. Murad, Kamal’s brother, remains in Syria and becomes radicalized, eventually agreeing to become a martyr in a suicide bombing intended to kill the Syrian president. Kamal learns of Murad’s intentions and travels back to Syria in an attempt to save his brother and, at the same time, avenge the murders of his parents.
For the rest of the piece, go here.Tweet
Since I am the youngest, the least knowledgeable, and by far the most superficial judge in the BTBA, it’s only appropriate that I make my first blog post about something sexy. As a judge in the much-fun World Cup of Literature this summer, also hosted by Three Percent, my write up for Croatia vs. Mexico accidentally ended up referencing my sexual mischief in June. So yeah, I’m not going to bore anyone with that again. Instead, I believe it would be appropriately disgraceful of me to dedicate this post to: not the authors, not the translators, but the book designers.
That’s right. I’m judging books by their covers.
In appreciation of the NY Art Book Fair, presented by the nonprofit Printed Matter (provider of artists’ book awesomeness since 1976), I would like to acknowledge some of my favorite covers in the BTBA so far. I feel particularly compelled to do so after witnessing an inspiring talk last week about cover design and the visual enactment of literature, as a part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. The talk was given by one of my favorite contemporary book designers, Peter Mendelsund, whose new Kafka covers you might have noticed (the series with the eyes). Mendelsund studied philosophy and literature, went on to become a classical pianist, and then suddenly decided to learn book design on his own. His appreciation for immediacy inspired me to go ahead and blog about something I have absolutely no knowledge of. Also, he claimed that developing a taste in design was super easy. Basically, you just ask yourself what looks good. So there.
First up is Quesadillas : a novel, cover illustration by Joel Holland (written by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I immediately noticed this light paperback when it came in the mail, despite the fact that it chose to arrive with books from five different publishers. The black-on-lime green cover claimed my attention, along with the cow-on-UFO illustration. What’s not to like? I started reading Quesadillas the following day, solely due to its cover.
Another well-designed delicacy I devoured because of its cover was The Guest Cat (written by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland, published by New Directions). Erik Rieselbach is behind this intriguing design (more honorable mention for him later), although the cover art is actually an oil painting by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita from 1927.
According to Christies.com, this piece of oil on canvas, entitled “Chat Couturier”, is worth $60,000-$80,000. I’m not sure if I would ever want that thing on my wall – a cat in any kind of artwork makes me uncomfortable – but as a book cover it definitely works. That stare would make anyone open anything, be it a book, a safe, or an anchovy sandwich.
Next up is Baboon (written by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press). Although broken flowers make me think of Bill Murray by default, Gabriele Wilson’s cover art mercifully exceeds my previous notions. There’s something haunting about the shadows on the petals, something stunning about this terrible flower on a pale background. I’m a fan.
Lastly, I have to dedicate a final paragraph to some books that have already been mentioned by my fellow judge, Madeleine LaRue. I will not waste your time with even more praise to these publications, but simply point out that their covers are among my favorites as well:
Our Lady of the Nile, cover art by Amedeo Modigliani (written by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, published by Archipelago Books).
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, cover design by N. J. Furl (an anthology of Spanish-language fiction curated by Valerie Miles, published by Open Letter Books).
The End of Days, cover design – yet again – by Erik Rieselbach (written by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by New Directions).
That will be all.Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.
A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.
Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.
But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.
The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.
The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.
A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.Tweet
Abilio Estévez is next up in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. Arcade brought out a couple of his books a decade ago, but the piece he chose as his “aesthetic highpoint” (excerpted below) has never appeared in English translation.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I’ve chosen this excerpt for three compelling reasons: the first, that I had a hard time writing it, much more than any other section of El navegante dormido, a novel to which I feel a particular connection. The material resisted me for some time, and that struggle, far from discouraging me, always excites me and spurs me on. There is a combative part of me that is nourished when I write. The second reason: it is a section that someone I love, my companion, finds moving. The third reason might seem like a boutade (and, of course, it is), but it has to do with me, with my own inner Mamina fleeing a great fire, not knowing whether the flight will be worth it, not knowing whether salvation exists or what that even means.
As a writer, how has your exile from Cuba affected you?
My exile from Cuba has been good for me as a writer, so far. As a person, I don’t know. The world I lived in was very small, very closed, very provincial, to put it one way. All of a sudden, I discovered that the world was a big, unfamiliar place. I discovered that no one is the center of the universe, that you’re just one passion among many, and that everyone has the same problems. This awareness is very important for a writer. There is an element of humility there that has been really useful for me. Beyond that, I’ve been able to read books that I couldn’t before; I didn’t have access to many cultures. From this perspective, my exile has suited me. From a personal perspective, it’s painful to know that you have to leave a place and won’t be able to go back. Or that if you do go back, your return implies a failure of some kind. It’s like going home not because you’ve decided to go home, but because you’ve decided to die before your time. It’s going back to the feeling of being on that island and wanting to travel and not being able to because they keep you from leaving, or make it too difficult; I have to get foreign money and visas, and then there’s the reality of coming back and having to ask permission to enter, which can be denied. The feeling that I’ve lost everything is always with me, the feeling that I couldn’t leave my home closed up and ask someone to take care of it while I’m gone, but instead that I abandoned it, and that’s a terrible feeling. It’s starting over, now, at fifty-five—I’ve been here for ten years—dealing with problems I should have faced when I was twenty, not now.
Full of danger were the roads Mamina had to travel to find refuge at the beach with no name.
It took her sixty-seven days, and the setbacks she faced were even greater in number. Two endless months and a week full of unthinkable violence. Fleeing from one end of the island to the other, from the distant soil of Oriente to arrive, without knowing why, at an unstable and Babylonian Havana.
“My own Stations of the Cross,” she would say on those rare occasions her spirits were high, or low, enough for her to talk about her journey. Accompanied by the pain of the dead left behind and under the sign of other massacres, deaths no less personal and terrible for their having been strangers, she reflected and suffered along the brutal roads of an island possessed.
Sixty-seven days amid the disasters and consequences of a race war and, to make things worse, bearing the worst possible letter of passage: her dark skin and her face—beautiful, yes, but that of a colored woman born to slaves, the pained, fugitive face of a daughter of the Mandinga and the Embuyla.
It was 1912. It had been only fourteen years since the Spanish Empire, already in terrible condition, lowered its flag, and ten since, the island having become a precarious state—a timid, intermittently democratic republic—a new flag (created by Teurbe Tolón for Narciso López) was raised from the battlements of El Morro and La Cabaña, alongside that of United States. In only fourteen years of independence, there had already been countless strikes, two wars, and two American interventions, as though the ten years of deaths, machete violence, epidemics, starvation, and internment camps between 1868 and 1878 hadn’t been enough, or as though they set the stage for the catastrophe that was, without a doubt, soon to befall the young and afflicted republic.
No one called her Mamina back then, they addressed her by her real, full name: María de Megara Calcedonia. She and her brother Juan Jacobo had been lucky enough to be born, respectively, in the relatively happy years of 1886 and 1887, when the Spanish Crown found itself obligated, after a bloody war which neither side had the distinction of winning completely, to abolish slavery on the “ever Loyal island of Cuba.”
The siblings were born in the mountains near Alto Songo, out between Dos Amantes and La Maya, in the quarters of the El Calamón coffee plantation, which at that time belonged to a formerly wealthy and still legendary family of the area, the Pageries, who, as their name suggests, were French or, rather, of French extraction. From Martinique, the Pagerie family arrived first at Saint Domingue, and from Saint Domingue, fleeing in terror from the armies of Toussaint Louverture, they ended up in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. As their surname also suggests, they were close relatives of the woman who had been Empress of the French, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born, as everyone knows, Tascher de la Pagerie. As such, the owners of El Calamón had that air typical of the Bonaparte nobility, something between stately and wild, a little coarse, that same affected haughtiness accented by a surprising touch of insecurity. Not only the stateliness, but also the wildness, the haughtiness, the affectation and the insecurity were amplified by the distance from that heart shared by every French person known as Paris, and by the everyday struggle of surviving in a land where even the most mundane undertaking becomes an event, vacillating between the tragic, the apocalyptic and, ultimately, the absurd. The Bonaparte nobility felt nobler there, but also more common, more parvenu, if that were possible.
Not very large, El Calamón was by then hardly a coffee plantation at all: it was more like a country house. It still produced a few hundred pounds of coffee, but that was not enough to maintain the familiar standard of luxury, which had not been all that luxurious for some time. The war drastically reduced production. Most of the family’s colored workers had run off to join the fight, which was as long and bloody as it was disorganized and futile.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)Tweet
Up next in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Alfredo Bryce Echenique, whose entry in A Thousand Forests includes a bit from his novel A World for Julius and a previously untranslated story, “Manzanas.”
One of the most intriguing things about Echenique’s life is the plagiarism case that he was involved in. Here’s a bit from Valerie’s intro that makes me think there’s a lot more to this story:
In 2007, Alfredo Bryce was embroiled in a bizarre accusation of multiple plagarisms. The episode, itself with the coloring of a spy novel, carried with it a certain enmity, but also the unconditional support of those who, like Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Vargas Llosa, have been uncompromising in defending their faith in the writer, who continues to steer his literary course between suffering and laughter.
And remember, you can only get Echenique’s previously untranslated story by purchasing this collection. And if you buy it before the end of the month, use the code FORESTS and it’ll only be $15.
Above all I like the pages I picked from Un mundo para Julius for their efficiency. Let’s not forget that they’re the first pages in the book and, in a condensed way, although not lacking in subtleties, they contain a lot of information about the novel’s central characters, with the exception of Juan Lucas—Julius’s stepfather and the novel’s antagonist—whose presence is implied in the nocturnal outings of Susan, Julius’s frivolous, widowed mother. But in addition to introducing the book’s main characters, these pages also introduce the book’s principal settings. The boy’s house is a microcosm of Peru, with borders that he crosses for the first time when he goes from the elegant part of the large mansion where he lives into the so-called “servants’ quarters,” an accurate reflection of a whole country that is profoundly and cruelly divided between the very rich and the very poor, and into distinct regions such as the coast, the world of the Andes, and the Amazon. From these immense and varied regions of Peru come the so-called servants of this wealthy family who, instead of taking interest in their own country, live with their eyes fixed principally on Europe and secondarily on the United States. And so Julius and his siblings attend British and American schools, where the few Peruvian teachers working there come off as deeply pretentious in the eyes of their students.
“Manzanas” is the long monologue of a young and beautiful nymphomaniac who competes with any good-looking girl who crosses her path, and who, at the same time, maintains a romantic relationship with an important musician who is much older, and is able to see her in a good light, even to overlook her infidelities. The tension comes from her admiration for the refined, cultured, and respectable man combined with her desire to surpass him in some way, petty as it may be. She doesn’t say any of this. She just suggests it. A murder, although only symbolic, might be the only way for the guilt-ridden girl to escape from her constant and spiteful obsessions and contradictions.
Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two-year-old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servants’ quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don’t touch! it’s covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants’ quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius, that fascination of “don’t touch, honey, don’t go around there, darling.” By then his father had already died.
Julius was a year and a half old at the time. For some months he just walked about the mansion, wandering off by himself whenever possible.
Secretly he would head for the servants’ quarters of the mansion that, as we’ve said, were like a blemish on a most beautiful face, a pity, really, but he still did not dare to go there. What is certain is that when his father was dying of cancer, everything in Versailles revolved around the dying man’s bedroom: only his children were not supposed to see him. Julius was an exception because he was too young to comprehend fear but young enough to appear just when least expected, wearing silk pajamas, turning his back to the drowsy nurse and watching his father die, that is, he watched how an elegant, rich, handsome man dies. And Julius has never forgotten that night—three o’clock in the morning, a lit candle in offering to Santa Rosa, the nurse knitting to ward off sleep—when his father opened an eye and said to him poor thing, and by the time the nurse ran out to call for his mother, who was lovely and cried every night in an adjoining bedroom—if anything, to get a bit of rest—it was all over.
Daddy died when the last of Julius’ siblings, who were always asking when he would return from his trip, stopped asking; when Mommy stopped crying and went out one night; when the visitors, who had entered quietly and walked straight to the darkest room of the mansion (the architect had thought of everything), stopped coming; when the servants recovered their normal tone of voice; and when someone turned on the radio one day, Daddy had died.
No one could keep Julius from practically living in the carriage that had belonged to his great-grandfather/president. He would spend the entire day in it, sitting on the worn blue velvet, once gold-trimmed seats, shooting at the butlers and maids who always tumbled down dead by the carriage, soiling their smocks that the Señora had ordered them to buy in pairs so that they would not appear worn when they fell dead each time Julius took to riddling them with bullets from the carriage. No one prevented him from spending all day long in the carriage, but when it would get dark at about six o’clock, a young maid would come looking for him, one that his mother, who was lovely, called the beautiful Chola, probably a descendant of some noble Indian, an Inca for all we know.
The Chola, who could well have been a descendant of an Inca, would lift Julius from the carriage, press him firmly against her probably marvelous breasts beneath her uniform, and not let go until they reached the bathroom in the mansion, the one that was reserved for the younger children and now belonged exclusively to Julius. Often the Chola stumbled over the butlers or the gardener who lay dead around the carriage so that Julius, Jesse James, or Gary Cooper, depending on the occasion, could depart happily for his bath.
And there in the bathroom, two years after his father’s death, his mother had begun to say good-bye. She always found him with his back to her, standing naked in front of the tub, pee pee exposed, but she never saw it, as he contemplated the rising tide in that enormous, porcelainlike, baby-blue tub, which was full of swans, geese, and ducks. His mother would call him darling, but he never turned around, so she would kiss him on the nape of his neck and leave very lovely, while the beautiful Chola assumed the most uncomfortable postures in order to stick her elbow in the water and test the temperature without falling in what could have been a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
And about six-thirty every afternoon, the beautiful Chola took hold of Julius by his underarms, raised him up and eased him little by little into the water. Seeming to genuflect, the swans, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down happily in the warm, clean water. He took them by the neck and gently pushed them along and away from his body, while the beautiful Chola, armed with soapy washcloths and perfumed baby soap, began to scrub gently—ever so gently and lovingly—his chest, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. Julius looked up smiling at her, always asking the same questions, such as: “And where are you from?” and he listened attentively as she would tell him about Puquio, a village of mud houses near Nasca, on the way up to the mountains. She would tell him stories about the mayor or sometimes about medicine men, but she always laughed as if she no longer believed in those things; besides, it had been a long time since she had been up there. Julius looked at her attentively and waited for her to finish talking so he could ask another question, and another, and another. And it was like that every afternoon while his two brothers and one sister finished their homework downstairs and got ready for dinner.
(Translated by Dick Gerdes)Tweet
Alberto Ruy Sánchez, the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series, has a couple books available in English: Names of the Air and The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth.
He also studied with Roland Barthes, which is why I included that bit from his interview.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
You studied with Roland Barthes, and that time in Paris affected you deeply as you explain in the prologue of your book of essays Con la Literatura en el cuerpo. Can you tell us more about that experience?
More a master craftsman in his workshop than a professor behind his lectern. The primary and principal teaching of Roland Barthes was not in the content of his courses, not even in his books, but in his approach to teaching, writing, and understanding the world.
He was not just a professor who gave a lecture on a subject that we students could understand and master, rather he was a craftsman who did his work, and we apprentices in his vicinity saw how he worked and tried to do our own best work, always and only learning the trade of a master craftsman. Not inputting or even imitating the content of his teachings, not turning ourselves into his followers, but into craftsmen of the power of the word and modes of realization. Creating instruments: like goldsmiths do using their hands, one should create instruments of thought and writing using one’s own body. Concepts and styles that were our own. With one fundamental, three-part question: What is the one thing that only I can do in terms of literary form and thought? What do things mean to me in particular? What is the corporeal footprint that I and no one else can leave behind on the things of this world? Writing, I soon deduced, is a way of being in the world. A very modest and very ambitious trade at the same time.
Roland Barthes gave his seminars in two very distinct forums: the massive class, which was so popular that the attendees arrived hours beforehand to get and hold a seat: a lecture that was transmitted simultaneously in other contiguous rooms. And the petit seminaire, where a few of us, no more than ten, formed a space of mutual readership in the presence of Roland Barthes who was another reader in the circle. When he agreed to be my thesis advisor and admitted me as a member of the small seminar he said to me: “You run the risk of getting disillusioned, I’m not a particularly good advisor.” And I already knew it. He had written an essay about his small seminar as a small utopist space, a sort of phalanstery. And that text had just seduced me, it made me want to be there. It was not his glory as a fashionable semiologist. Rather the quality of creating spaces where learning followed a unique form. But he did advise me indirectly in the sense of pushing me to accept the enormous challenge all artists and thinkers face when they start out: to be radically yourself.
The power of that instruction in craft, of that necessarily very personal education, multiplied its effect on me because it radiated its exemplary influence into other courses that were key for me during that time period. The next important seminar I took, studying philosophy, was that of Gilles Deleuze. And no less impassioned and formative, that of Jacques Ranciére in the field of the history of ideas and social utopias and that of André Chastel in the field of art history. Each one had a very personal way of living their trade with extreme passion. And between these four masters, more than professors, I had the foundation to construct a personal point of view regarding political life and its masks, social thought, the place of art and the creation of forms, utopias and communitarian practices and hyperindividual creation, the life of ideas, writing, poetry, reading, symbols and their ghosts. Now these are some of my themes, my obsessions. A node of interests and intensities that, I think, is key to what I am as a writer.Tweet
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
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While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .
To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .
After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .