In addition to being a new name in our reviewer pool, Kseniya was one of Granta’s “New Voices” series:http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/New-Voices-Kseniya-Melnik in 2010, and has written a book of short stories, forthcoming in May of this year.
Originally published in 2006, Prilepin’s novel is still very timely and relevant to current world events. Prilepin has been called “the most important writer in modern Russia, a sensitive and intelligent critic of his country’s condition,” and is someone not afraid to express his social consciousness—a trait that easily makes him one of the country’s most popular and acclaimed contemporary authors.
Here’s the beginning of Kseniya’s review:
When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of the cultural elite had an opinion on it. There was even a hatchet job by the president of Russia’s largest commercial bank; the banker-cum-critic received an avalanche of responses rebuking his review. Many reviewers disagreed with the Prilepin’s political beliefs, but acknowledged that the novel is a literary masterpiece. Already widely translated in Europe, this book struck a raw nerve, to say the least. The timely English edition, featuring an excellent translation by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker (with Alina Ryabovolova), and a heartfelt forward by Alexey Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, will introduce America to a unique talent as well as the kind of Russia very few foreigners have seen. For the soul of the country is never in the news headlines; it is in literature. Sankya succeeds brilliantly in plunging the reader into the psyche of the young people on the fringes of the success story Russia projected to the world during the Sochi Olympics.
Twenty-two-year-old Sasha Tishin—or Sankya, as his grandmother calls him—and his friends are members of the Founders, an extremist right-wing group loosely based on the now-banned National Bolsheviks. The Founders want to tear down the corrupt government, destroy Western-style capitalism, and build a better country—one based on dignity, on ideals, one close “to the soil,” something like the Soviet Union but not quite, not so bureaucratic. If that sounds vague, it’s because in the beginning the Founders don’t have a plan beyond demonstrations, which often devolve into street vandalism. The book opens with one such protest. Sasha and his friends narrowly escape the riot police, but even the possibility of jail hardly scares Sasha. He will survive it, he thinks, because he’d survived his mandatory army service, a notoriously harsh ordeal in Russia.
For the rest of the piece, go here.Tweet
Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.
Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.
While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.
Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.Tweet
And, following on the posts about Amanda Michalopoulou’s tour and the announcement of the Reading the World Conversation Series events, here are some details about a few upcoming Bulgarian literature events that might interest you.
Bulgarian Fiction Night at 192 Books
Tuesday, April 8th, 7pm
Albena Stambolova and Virginia Zaharieva will be in conversation with Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis about their books and Bulgarian literature as a whole.
PLUS, as a bonus, Kaija will be able to announce the winner of this year’s Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest during the event.
Celebrating Bulgarian Writers with Elizabeth Kostova
Sunday, April 13th, 3pm
55 Haywood St
Asheville, NC 28801
Talented Women of Indie Presses
Thursday, April 17th, 7pm
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640
This event features Daniela Olszweska (Cloudfang::Cakedirt) along with Albena Stambolova and Virginia Zaharieva. Also, Hopleaf has awesome beer.
Celebrating Bulgarian Literature in Translation
Friday, April 18th, 6pm
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
5751 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
Following on the post about Amanda Michalopoulou’s upcoming events, here’s a list of all three Reading the World Conversation Series events taking place this month.
Women in Translation
Thursday, April 10th, 6pm
Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Bulgarian authors Albena Stambolova (Everything Happens as It Does) and Virginia Zaharieva (Nine Rabbits), and Danish author Iben Mondrup (Justine, forthcoming from Open Letter in 2016) and translator Kerri Pierce to discuss their writing and careers—both in their home countries and abroad.
Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation and reading with Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou and translator Karen Emmerich as they read and discuss Amanda’s Why I Killed My Best Friend.
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopoulou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiosamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’” –Gary Shteyngart
Latin American Literature Today
Tuesday, April 22nd, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
A conversation with two of the authors included in Granta Magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-language Novelists” issue—Andrés Neuman (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves) and Carlos Labbé (Navidad & Matanza, Loquela), and translator and University of Rochester alum Will Vanderhyden, on their latest words and current trends in Latin American Literature.Tweet
Amanda Michalopoulou’s second novel to appear in English, the brilliantly titled Why I Killed My Best Friend, doesn’t officially come out until May 20th, but we released it a couple months early for her cross-country tour.
The book details the lifelong ups-and-downs of two best friends who meet in grade school when they both move back to Greece from other countries. (The narrator longs for her beloved Africa, Anna has been growing up in the refined atmosphere of Paris.) Like any best friends, they are also intimate rivals, a rivalry that is reignited years later when Anna reenter’s Maria’s life and basically takes over Maria’s radical political group. This mixture of Greek politics and the emotional turmoil that comes along with best friendship make this an incredible book that really does end with with a death . . .
If you’re not sold yet, here’s Gary Shteyngart’s blurb: “Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”
Now the tour:
Exhibit X Reading Series
Thursday, April 10th, 7pm
341 Delaware Ave.
Buffalo, NY 14202
Reading the World Conversation Series: Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
Amanda Michalopoulou with Translator Karen Emmerich
Wednesday, April 16th, 7:30pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
Center for the Art of Translation: An Evening with Amanda Michalopoulou
Friday, April 18th, 6pm
The Book Club of California
312 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Reading at City Lit Books
Sunday, April 20th, 3pm
City Lit Books
2523 North Kedzie Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60647
There are also events in the works at Brown University and Princeton. As soon as we have the details confirmed, I’ll post about them here and will put them in our recently resuscitated Translation Events Calendar. (If you have an event you want to add to this, simply email kaija.straumanis [at] rochester.edu.)Tweet
Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.
Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!
Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .
Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)
Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.
I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .
There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.
Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.
Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!
Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?
It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)
I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.
I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)
This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.
Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)
If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!
Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)
This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.
And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”
Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!
Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.
And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.
Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.
Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)
Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?
This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)
Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.
The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.
All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.
The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?
Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:
Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.
Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)
A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.
And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:
I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”
Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.
With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)
I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)
We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.
So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.
But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.
Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.
Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:
The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”
That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.
Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.Tweet
Ariel Starling is a writer and student of literature in Paris.
Written largely as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the obvious image at hand for A True Novel’s structure is that of the Russian matryoshka doll. But perhaps a better metaphor would be an origami crane, for reasons as aesthetic as cultural. Beginning with the premise of one mysterious character, Mizumura folds her narrative in intricate and occasionally surprising ways, carefully turning over her material and examining it at all angles, to produce an ornate, singular, and solidly three-dimensional structure.
In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.
However, A True Novel is much more than a recasting of Wuthering Heights—and much more than simply the formula of the western novel told in Japanese. I would argue that the meat of what makes A True Novel so exceptional is contained in its prologue. At nearly 200 pages, the prologue could well satisfy as a novella in itself. Though it begins as a more or less traditional prologue about Mizumura’s decision to write the book, it quickly becomes a metafictive account of the narrator’s relationship with Taro Azuma.
Though Mizumura (or presumably her fictional alter-ego) was never close with Azuma by any means, she meets him in New York as an adolescent girl through her father’s network of Japanese businessmen living in America. He first enters the story as the reticent yet highly-motivated private chauffeur of an American acquaintance, but we learn along with Mizumura through hearsay of his meteoric rise to powerful multi-millionaire. This branch of the narrative not only establishes the charisma of Taro Azuma, but follows the rise of Japan as a global economic power and analyzes the ideas of the American Dream and self-made man as things impossible in the rigid social order of Japan. While the young Mizumura longs for her homeland, Azuma states that there is nothing for him in Japan, and that he has no interest in returning. This friction between East and West as Mizumura resists assimilation and the English language—even as she devours western classics in Japanese translation—is only the first of many tensions of opposites which Mizumura handles deftly in A True Novel. Another tension is structural: while Mizumura sets out to write a honkaku shosetsu, by placing the autobiographical prologue as the first frame of the narrative, the “large” western honkaku shosetsu is contained in the “small” Japanese shishosetsu.
This framing occurs when, as a visiting instructor at an American university, Mizumura is visited by a stranger from Japan. On a dark and stormy night, he tells her how he came to know Taro Azuma. Mizumura is struck by the resemblance of Azuma’s life story to Wuthering Heights and feels compelled to write it down—and thus the honkaku shosetsu component of A True Novel is born.
While the central love story between the impoverished Azuma and well-to-do Yoko is undeniably powerful, it is this intricacy of structure that propels A True Novel from being a good book to a great one. Azuma and Yoko’s relationship is placed firmly in its historical context, and Mizumura uses their relationship to illuminate generations of Japanese history and carefully examine the westernization of Japan and the downfall of the Japanese aristocracy. All the while, this westernization is turned on its head in her original form of containing a western honkaku shosetsu in an eastern shishosetsu, effectively “Japanizing” western literary tradition.
All told, A True Novel is a masterful work of contemporary Japanese fiction, which fully deserves a place on the global stage of world literature—as well as the Best Translated Book Award.Tweet
Blogging for judge Jenn Witte is Clark Allen, an artist living in New Orleans. His work is easiest found on his site, rentcontrolkhole.com.
In essence, perhaps, the fantastic is a hermaphroditic entity. It breeds in solitude, in moments of quiet reflection where the mind is free to rave alone and meditate on the banal to the point of absurdity. It is the psychedelic experience of deprivation, unsocialized, removed from societal conveniences that would temper it. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whose name alone takes on an unreal quality to his new American readers, wrote extensively under conditions such as these; conditions unique to the staunch, over policed twentieth century Soviet Russia. A state whose lack of outlet would inadvertently and somewhat ironically promote the fantastic. Krzhizhanovsky was solitary, censored, and barring friends and contemporaries, largely unread. Residing in a small, cell of a room, he middled over stories for an audience that would never appear in his lifetime.
Only now with its aptly titular story, Autobiography of a Corpse, are American readers beginning to see the scope of Krzhizhanovsky’s solitary endeavors. These are tales of between-spaces and non-spaces. They are both literally and philosophically detailed in stories such as “The Collector of Cracks”, in which an author communes with one of his own characters, a hermit who begs of the Lord, “Give me power over all the cracks, great and small, that are crannied into things.” Through such interactions he examines the gorges in both the physical earth and time itself. In “The Pupil” he similarly dissects human perception. This time his vehicle is a lover, who in an evening has a discourse with the reflection of himself in his beloved’s eye. From this he learns the pattern in which his partner’s heart has moved and will move. He learns that he will soon be abandoned to live out his days with only his reflection deep inside of her, forgotten, like all the lovers before him. In Krzhizhanovsky’s stories pianists lose their fingers, and most men lose their way.
It is through the acknowledgement of these losses and non-spaces however, through the discussion of the empty and forgotten, that Krzhizhanovsky gives them life and purpose. In a near stoic, matter-of-fact tone he meditates on the bizarre relationship we have with what has gone missing. Funny that this writing was doomed to be left behind by the man who wrote it, yet posthumously discovered, translated, repackaged and distributed.
An old Indian folktale tells of a man forced to shoulder a corpse night after night- till the corpse, its dead but moving lips pressed to his year, has finished telling the story of its long finished life. Don’t try to throw me to the ground. Like the man in the folktale, you will have to shoulder the burden of my three insomnias and listen patiently, till the corpse has finished its autobiography.
By reading this now we rouse Krzhizhanovsky’s resting bones, and for a collection of his work to win the Best Translated Book Award this year, well, that would be nothing short of poetic.Tweet
If you’re into short, sweet, and messed up crazy-type flash fiction bits, this book would be right up your alley. The jacket copy alone is a great hook, informing would-be readers that:
The characters that inhabit this world – reckless she-goats, morose fish, somnambulistic theologians, poignant old ladies, dying dictators, and dead poets, to name just a few – have nothing in common save for the fact that they instruct us on the human condition. Available in Ornan Rotem’s translation (who also added typograms to go along with the text) these edifying stories, with all their sadness and humour, are a writer’s tour de force and a reader’s delight.
She-goats, somnabulism, and sad-sack fish? Yes please!
Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:
Stalin is Dead has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no one really experiences in their day-to-day life. After reading Stalin is Dead, I was troubled by this descriptor. Yes, Stalin is Dead contains numerous surreal situations, but they are not surreal within the familiar systems, such as a governmental system, of Kafka’s works. Stalin is Dead is more along the lines of the surreal absurdities of Clarice Lispector. I only mention this because while there is overlap between those who love Lispector and those who love Kafka, these individuals will be equally bothered and distracted from the text of Stalin is Dead due to the preconditions invoked by the kafkaesque descriptor.
Coming to this conclusion, it was not so surprising to realize that the subtitle—“Stories and aphorisms on animals, poets, and other earthly creatures“—is a better means of setting the context in which Stalin is Dead was likely intended to be consumed. The stories and aphorisms can be organized by daily observations in life, smug views of payback, and shock flash fiction—not the familiar backdrops of Kafka.
For the rest of the review go here.Tweet
How’s this for a plot: the 16th century poet, Camões, is exiled from Portugal, his native country, for, what else?, falling in love with the wrong woman. He is sent East to the dysfunctional, claustrophobic, and imperiled colony of Macao. On the way there, the ship he is a prisoner on wrecks; he barely escapes with his life. After finally and fortunately arriving on Macao, he falls in love with Pilar, the governor’s daughter, essentially repeating the mistake the got him banished in the first place…
That alone would be worthy of your attention, but there’s more: in the 20th century, an unnamed radio operator, a man who says he is neither sailor nor landlubber, begins, as the ship he sails on moves further east, to tune into Camões’ story, essentially transferring places with the poet, who has somehow managed to tunnel through time. Late in the novel, after Camões has been banished yet again, this time to the then inhospitable Chinese mainland, he trades places with the radio operator…
In its rough outlines, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (translated by Paul Vincent) sounds like the a great genre novel—time-travel! possession! conspiring monks! But like other great modernist works—this one was originally published in 1932—it uses its subject matter as a means to play with expectation and certainty. It is a strange book, at times difficult to follow as it shifts between characters and centuries, but it is also something of a page-turner. It brings to mind Joseph Conrad, but without quite the same ponderousness, and somewhat remarkably, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Paul Vincent’s translation captures the odd beauty of Slauerhoff’s singular novel, rich in atmosphere and incident. It’s the kind of book many of us on the BTBA panel live for: an undisputed classic that, after an inexplicably long time, makes its way into English. Thank god we have publishers like Pushkin Press who endeavor to bring books like this to light. It stands on its own, but taking all of this into consideration, The Forbidden Kingdom deserves to win the award.Tweet
Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .
What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .
Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .
When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .
Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.
The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .
This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .
I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.
Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of. . .
For Lukas Zbinden, walking is a way of life. At eighty-seven, he is still an avid walker and insists on going for walks outside as often as possible, rain or snow or shine. Now that he lives in an assisted. . .
Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own. . .