23 April 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P. T. Smith on Jón Gnarr’s The Indian, translated by Lytton Smith and out this month from Deep Vellum.

Jón Gnarr is an actor, punk rocker, comedian, and author who created the satirical “Best Party” in Iceland and, against all odds, rose to become major of Reykjavík. He is one of the world’s most colorful politicians, and this is your chance to meet the man who has both enthralled and often flummoxed the media with his achievements and outlandish attitude. This new book explores the obstacles Jón overcame during a time in his life when he was originally diagnosed with “mental retardation” due to dyslexia, learning difficulties, and ADHD.

We have the pleasure of hosting a Reading the World Conversation Series event with Jón and Lytton at 6 p.m. tonight, at the College Town Barnes & Noble. The event is free and open to the public, and is going to be AMAZING!

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.

As readers, we should interpret it as we do fiction: creatively, poetically, without leaving behind the emotions and the struggles, even the lessons learned, that biography offers. The Indian has everything that people want from mainstream literature: emotions, plot, likeable characters, lessons learned, personal growth, yet it is so much better—the emotions and characters more complex, the writing skillful. This is the type of book that readers deserve, both those who read widely and those who read four or five “popular” books a year.
After the opening, Gnarr leaves that ego aside for a couple chapters to tell us about his family, his parents, his significantly older siblings, his grandparents. He summarizes their lives, tells how they came to live in a suburb of Reykjavík. The Indian will be his life, his story, and he lives it in a private, isolated world, but Gnarr cares for the lives around him.

For the rest of the review, go here.

23 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Nick DiMartino, Nick’s Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.



Our Lady of the Nile – Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, Rwanda
Archipelago Books

Scholastique Mukasonga’s entertaining first novel about a girls’ school in Rwanda in 1993-1994 is far more than just a microcosm of the bloodbath to come. Our Lady of the Nile is written with the glee of storytelling and plenty of humor, depicting the whole Rwandan conflict in some very human teenagers. The titular Our Lady of the Nile is a four-story lycée located very close to the source of the Nile River, presided over by the black Madonna, a statue of the Virgin Mary that’s been repainted. The isolated, high-altitude school was built in 1953 just as Rwanda gained independence. There the girls remain virgins – or, at least, avoid getting pregnant.

Next door to the school is the neglected coffee plantation of Fontenaille, the crazy, solitary European who organizes digs for bones and is notorious for sketching the girls. Convinced that the beautiful Tutsi are descended from the empire of the black pharaohs, he tells Veronica, the most beautiful student, and her best friend Virginia that they are the return of Isis and Candace. When he shows them the Egyptian temple in his garden built over the bones of an ancient Queen, the awakened Queen’s spirit begins to seek refuge in Virginia’s dreams.

The plantation owner isn’t the only danger. The treacherous chaplain who heads the Catholic Relief Services sets aside the most beautiful donated dresses for his favorite students. His gifts require undressing in front of him. Girls at the lycée are not allowed to speak Swahili, the language of Muhammad. They are forced to eat white people’s food, which usually comes in cans. Heated tribal rivalries flare over competing methods for cooking bananas. The sixth-grade girls split into cliques based on those with breasts and those without.

The novel is a chain of interrelated stories featuring a different girl at the center of each chapter, with the same recurring ensemble of students throughout. Most dangerous is Gloriosa, a militant Hutu student prone to politician-type speeches who pries into everyone’s business as the watchful eye of the Party. Gloriosa decides to de-Tutsify the statue of the black Madonna by breaking off its nose in the night and reshaping out of clay a true Rwandan majority nose. Immaculée arrives on her boyfriend’s motorbike, and goes to the ancient woman who talks to the rain for a love spell to make him faithful. Frida is courted by the Ambassador from Zaire and becomes his “unofficial fiancée” until she gets pregnant before the marriage can take place.

Mukasonga is a playful author, and a chuckling good humor pervades the book. Her deliciously limpid, melodious style makes Rwandan daily life vividly accessible. It’s a total immersion in a way of life with its own customs and morality, with a handful of comical and compelling schoolgirls swept up in the divisive hatred of a nation, confused and vulnerable and just being teenagers. Mukasonga expertly draws together all her threads and stories in the climactic sequences to create a skilfully-orchestrated vision, both loving and fearful, of her beloved homeland ripped apart by vicious racial hatred.

22 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.



Talking to Ourselves – Andrés Neuman, Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Argentina
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award – but why it doesn’t. That would be a silly query, however, as Neuman’s novel is an outstanding accomplishment in every regard. Despite being a mere 150 pages, Talking to Ourselves offers a rich and rewarding reading experience the likes of which are difficult to discover in a book two or three times its length.

Neuman, born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, has already garnered international acclaim and a number of prestigious awards (including the Alfaguara Prize and Spain’s National Critics Prize). When he was merely 22, Neuman’s debut novel, Bariloche (as yet untranslated into English), was the only finalist for the Herralde Prize – losing out to Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris (coincidentally, a fellow longlist title for this year’s BTBA). Neuman likely first garnered the attention of English readers via the effusive praise of the late Roberto Bolaño.

The Chilean’s claims rang more than true when Neuman’s spectacular Traveler of the Century was published in English translation in 2012. Traveler of the Century, a nearly 600-page epic of beauty, wonder, politics, poetry, love, and translation, could not be more dissimilar from Talking to Ourselves. In fact, it’s marvelous to think that these two exceptional books were even written by the same hand (or imagination, for that matter). Whereas Traveler of the Century was a weighty novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a succinct look at illness, loss, literature, and familial bonds.

Writing in the voices of three disparate, but unifying characters (a wife/mother, husband/father, and their 10-year old son), Neuman captures the individual personalities and nuances of the trio with impressive dexterity. As father and son embark on what may well be their last journey together (on account of the elder’s terminal cancer), each of three characters strives to share their innermost thoughts – at least with themselves, if unable to do so with one another.

While Talking to Ourselves is a doleful work of fiction, it radiates a warmth and authenticity that is entirely compelling. Both Neuman’s lustrous prose and his keen insights into the inner world of the individual (and, ultimately, the questions of life, love, and death itself) meld with his natural gift for storytelling – resulting in a novel that is so beautiful, so sad, so brilliant, that one cannot imagine a single sentence out of place. It’s simply that good.

Talking to Ourselves was the very first book I read in 2014 and 51 weeks later, there wasn’t another title that had moved or captivated me so entirely. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation reads fluidly and their efforts in rendering three distinct voices is in and of itself a merited accomplishment. Andrés Neuman writes gracefully and his compassion, intellect, and sheer love of storytelling are evident on every page. Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, perhaps most of all because it does everything masterful fiction ought to: it dazzles with prose, affects our minds, touches our hearts, and, not least, reminds as that the stories we may think are ours alone are, in fact, the same the world over.

…a question only kids ask themselves for real, and then we sick people ask it again: is it okay to lie?, is it okay to be lied to?, a healthy grown-up won’t even give it a thought, the answer seems obvious, right?, we learn to tell lies the same way we learn to talk, they teach us how to talk and then how to be quiet, I don’t know, like when you play football, for example, first you kick the ball and then, unless you’re stupid, you learn not to kick it, to move around tricking the other players, kids lie too, of course, I lied all the time when I was a kid, but, what I’m saying is, until you get to a certain age, you think it’s wrong, that is the difference, I don’t think we grown-ups are any worse, you know?, every kid contains the beginnings of a possible son of a bitch, this much I know, it’s just that kids, and perhaps we adults are to blame for this, start by dividing the world into good and evil, truth and lies, the only time it’s okay for them to lie is when they’re playing, then it’s allowed, so kids become grown-ups when they play, sort of the opposite of us parents, we play so we can be kids again, well, and then you grow up, and you lie and are lied to, and it isn’t wrong, until one day, when you’re sick, you begin to worry again about lies, you worry about them every time you talk to the doctors, your wife, your family, it’s not a moral question, it’s, I don’t know, something physical, deep down you’re scared stiff of the truth, but the idea of dying with a lie scares you even more, lies help us to carry on living, don’t they?, and when you know you aren’t going to carry on, you feel they’re no use anymore, do you know what I mean?

20 April 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on three works by Mahasweta Devi, and published by Seagull Books: Mother of 1084 (trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay), Old Women (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and Breast Stories (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

Is everyone back on two feet after the AWP 2015 conference in Minneapolis? We’re just back in the groove of things ourselves over at Open Letter, and getting ready for our two Jón Gnarr events later this week!

In honor of and in no subject-matter-relation to that (as these books are pretty weighted), I wanted to post this longer review by Chris (who is a regular reviewer for Three Percent), which highlights three works by Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. The books seemed to come as a set, and I’m glad Chris undertook the task of reading this little trio of Devi’s. His review is comprehensive, and the respective ISBN and other information on the books themselves is listed in the following order: Mother of 1084, Old Women, and Breast Stories. Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women and their place in Indian society. Some of the characters in her stories are old women living in poverty, and some of them are exploited because of their lack of wealth; however, some of them are middle class (one of them is even college-educated). Regardless of their status, though, they all suffer some kind of mistreatment, whether it’s physical or mental abuse, but not all of them are willing to accept their fate. So it would appear that Devi’s works—many of which are available in English from Calcutta-based Seagull Books—would offer a powerful experience for the reader.

Unfortunately, these three selections can be frustrating reads at times, for different reasons. The shorter stories tend to be better than the longer, meandering ones that fail to keep the reader’s interest. However, some of the problems may be due to the translators’ difficulty in capturing “her innovative use of language [which] has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression,” as stated in Devi’s bio. Also, one of the books is padded with pages of analysis that may be too inaccessible for readers who just want to check out Devi’s work.

Those curious about Devi would probably want to start with Mother of 1084, a popular novel that was made into a movie in the late 1990s. The book itself was written in the early 1970s after a violent time in Bengal’s history. A few years before, the Naxalite movement, which was formed in the 1960s by a group of Indian communists that supported Maoist ideology, was gaining strength, especially among students. Leaders of the Naxalites declared that the Indian State needed to be overthrown and advocated violence not only against the government, but against all “class enemies.” In response, authorities hounded and killed them.

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.


Pushkin Hills – Sergei Dovlatov, Translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, Russia
Counterpoint Press

Pushkin Hills is about a talented but hapless writer called … well, we might as well call him Sergei Dovlatov, even though that’s not the name he has in the book. Dovlatov is really telling his own story, that of a Soviet dissident who’s unable to publish and yet unable to leave his language and his country behind. At loose ends, he makes the impulsive decision to abandon his wife, child, and life, and become a tour guide in the pastoral setting of the Pushkin Preserve, the historic home of the father of Russian literature.

When he’s not immersing himself in drink, the author’s stand-in immerses himself in the picayune details of the great man’s life and trades pedantries with visiting fans. He’s not above making things up when he’s bored, either, which he frequently is. He’s still in love with his ex, who implores him to emigrate with her to the US, but he’s not interested: “My readers are here. Who needs my stories in Chicago?” That he has no actual readers at home doesn’t matter; it’s the principle of the thing, dammit. He’s heroic in his passivity.

The real Dovlatov did eventually make it out of the USSR and became one of the most beloved émigré writers of his era (there’s a street named after him in Queens, New York). Aside from the charming roguishness of the author’s personality, is there something to his work, though? Yes, in spades (my own little Pushkin allusion). Among an excellent longlist of nominees for the BTBA, it’s an enjoyable standout. Why should it win?


  • It’s short. The more I read (maybe I should say the older I get and the less time I have on earth) the more I appreciate books that say what they have to say without belaboring the point. I still love encyclopedic novels when they justify their length by being excellent, but too many of them don’t. Dovlatov’s book feels complete and satisfying and it gets the job done in under 160 pages.
  • It’s funny. Any reader would look forward to a break from unrelenting heartbreak and tragedy, but a judge who’s tasked with surveying over 500 works of fiction in a matter of months is especially grateful for a writer who knows how to crack wise in print.
  • It’s educational. This is a novel steeped in artistic tradition that drops author names like Kanye drops mics. Almost every page includes a reference or an allusion to a classic or contemporary writer, all of which are unobtrusively footnoted and explained by the translator, Dovlatov’s daughter (see her illuminating interview with the Paris Review). By the time you’ve finished the book, you can convincingly claim to have at least minored in Russian Lit.
  • It’s important. The Soviet experiment cast a shadow over the entire globe for more than seventy years, and its legacy is still shaping today’s politics in something like the way an auto accident slows down traffic long after the cars involved have been cleared from the road. Despite the massive effect the USSR continues to have on all of us, it seems to have lost steam as a literary topic. That situation needs to be rectified. Any book that details quotidian human life under the Soviet regime is significant, and an excellent one such as this is invaluable.
  • It’s a book that James Wood really likes. For proof, just read the remarkably supportive afterword he contributed to the first edition. Depending on your feelings about the New Yorker magazine’s resident critic, this might not seem like a positive, but consider this: any non-English novel that gets noted Anglophile James Wood’s praise must deserve a prize.

18 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.



1914 – Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, (France)
The New Press

Jean Echenoz’s novel, 1914, delivers the punch of a heavyweight yet moves with the speed of a flyweight. In fewer than 120 pages, Echenoz gives us the exhausting thirteen rounder full of power and finesse, each word making an impact, their total making a lasting impression on the reader. Like a well-trained fighter, Echenoz’s prose is spare, lean, not an inch of fat to be found – only the muscle of self-discipline can be seen.

1914 is his version of the requisite war novel for men of a certain age, or plainly, the stories of five young men sent off to be ravaged by the horrors of World War 1. The novel begins quietly enough with a detailed description of the idyllic countryside as the twenty-four year old protagonist, Anthime Sèze, cycles through it to the top of the hill as he surveys his town below. Then, from the distance, “up in those church towers, the bells had in fact begun tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy and threatening disorder in which Anthime, although still too young to have attended many funerals, instinctively recognized the timbre of the tocsin, rung only rarely, the image of which had reached him separately before its sound.” Thus, war begins. Anthime, his older brother Charles, Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenal – his “café comrades” – don their ill-fitting uniforms as if in a game of dress-up, boot through town amidst parade fanfare, wave and smile as they march off to one of the worst wars in world history.

With that set-up, a reader would expect a 600-page novel. Yet, this is where Echenoz’s mastery of language shows what brevity can do. The Echenoz brand of wit is subdued while his detached, meticulous eye for detail lets us in to every scene as if he and the reader were watching everything unfold through high-powered binoculars. Echenoz’s details are hypnotizing, seemingly innocuous at first, almost wasteful, but when the scenes of war appear, that same eye for detail makes you wince, want to look away from the image in your mind that he has created.

Then you turn the page and encounter one of his devastating conclusions about war:

The sweat from fatigue and fear, take off the greatcoats to work more freely, and might hang them on an arm sticking out of the tumbled soil, using it as a coat tree.

All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if the war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.

It’s true; we know it all to well – the death and destruction of war. With the centennial anniversary of World War 1 and the focus on its literature, Echenoz confidently creates an intense, gripping narrative that is just as heartbreaking as first person accounts from soldiers who actually fought in it. Equally important and no less creative is Linda Coverdale’s translation. When a novel such as this is translated, it requires a translator who can rewrite the novel with the same economy of prose and richness in description. Coverdale’s ability to remain so loyal to Echenoz’s style and tone feels effortless, which makes the translator all the more gifted. Also, Coverdale’s notes at the end of the text are fantastic. She tells you the historical context of a reference as well as the exact phrase to google to see a particle painting Echenoz is referring to or what the soldier’s rations looked like.

1914 should win the Best Translated Book Award because it has all the marks of an epic but is scarcely over one hundred pages. To create that kind of emotional depth of character and expansive narrative is more challenging to do in fewer pages than when a writer is allowed five hundred-plus pages. It should win because it takes World War 1, a much written about topic, and makes the distillation of Anthime represent the horrible damage that any war does to a soldier. It should win because the novel wouldn’t have the significance that it does have without the superb translation of Linda Coverdale. It should win because the message is too important to ignore – even if it’s a beautiful day out, we still carry the possibility of war within ourselves.

17 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Reviewa book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal, Translated from the Spanish by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier
McGill-Queen’s University Press

Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres, translated by Norman Cheadle, with the help of Sheila Ethier, is a standout among the Best Translated Book Award finalist in quite a few ways. Most obviously, it’s the biggest in the bunch – nearly seven hundred pages, and a brick of a book. It’s also the oldest title in the running: despite how many deceased authors are featured among the finalists (ten of the books are by authors who have died) all the titles are nevertheless post-World War II publications (in their original languages) – a rare occurrence for the BTBA longlist – and this 1948 publication is the oldest of the lot. But size and age are the least of the reasons why Adam Buenosayres should win the Best Translated Book Award.

What is this book?

Adam Buenosayres is a largely autobiographical novel set in 1920s Buenos Aires – a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Marechal was part of the vibrant developing artistic scene. It clearly owes a debt to Joyce – Cheadle suggests it is: “the first Joycean novel to be written in Spanish-language literature” – and with the action covering just the span of a few days, concentrated entirely all across one city (Buenos Aires), and employing a variety of styles and approaches, it does resemble Ulysses. It is a roman à clef, city homage, and philosophical novel – a great period- (and place-) piece that’s also a superior literary work.

Why should it win the Best Translated Book Award?

1. Julio Cortázar – BTBA-longlisted for his sublime Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – hailed the book as: “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature” in reviewing it in 1949, and it is widely recognized as one of the great novels of modern Latin American literature.

2. A character closely based on Jorge Luis Borges features in it. Borges was part of the same crowd in the 1920s, and Marechal’s thinly-disguised versions of him and other notables (notably Xul Solar – who provides the cover-art for this very good-looking volume) offer often amusing insight into these famous artists. Bonus: Cheadle notes that: “Borges never forgave Marechal for his caricature as Luis Pereda and refused even to acknowledge the novel’s existence.”

3. It offers a remarkable city-portrait, a definitive one of 1920 Buenos Aires, as impressive as Joyce’s of Dublin.

4. Marechal’s narrative is playful and varied – maybe not quite to a Joycean extent, but he certainly mixes it up here. As Marechal piles it on, the amount of material can get exhausting, but the sheer inventiveness – and the humor – consistently impress and entertain.

5. This edition – the presentation of the novel-in-translation – is exemplary. Some of the longlisted books present just the translated texts themselves – which is often enough, or even preferable. After all, it’s the text that counts, and a best translated book should be able to stand well on its own. Adam Buenosayres comes seriously annotated: there are close to seventy pages of endnotes (along with a helpful introduction), and a nine-page bibliography. That, and the fact that it’s published by a university press (McGill-Queen’s University Press), might worry readers into thinking that it’s a dryly scholarly edition. Anything but, I’d suggest: obviously, given the time and place it is set in and the autobiographical elements, some background (which the introduction provides) helps in understanding the text basics, but the novel can be read and thoroughly enjoyed without worrying about the details behind everything. On the other hand, that added background layer – of who the characters are based on, historic circumstances, and local/period trivia – do make considerably more of the book, and here the endnotes are invaluable. Cheadle’s work here is a model of academic (yet still approachable) rigor, the endnotes very detailed – about the smallest detail – and thorough.

6. Norman Cheadle’s – with the help of Sheila Ethier – translation truly is a superior work. This is one of those works where it is clear that the translator has engaged with the material not just for a few months but over a much more extended period of time. As the endnotes, and Cheadle’s other writings about Marechal, demonstrate, Cheadle has immersed himself in the author and the work for many years, and he has come to know it thoroughly. His translation reflects his great understanding of and familiarity with the author and the work. Despite the challenges the novel poses – from the use of dialect and the variety of forms Marechal plays with – the translation manages also to be an artistic and not just academic success – an exuberant, comic, and clever rendering.

7. Adam Buenosayres is one of these tries-to-do-almost-everything/magnum opus books. On a longlist that features so many short-story collections and where even many of the (more-or-less-)novels are extremely slim (Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, Letters from a Seducer, 1914, Works) it stands out as a very different kind of work (with only Saer’s La Grande anywhere in the same league). For those who like their books big, expansive, far-reaching, Adam Buenosayres is the obvious choice.

8. It’s just a wonderful read and reading experience.

16 April 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A month or so after the longlists were announced, PEN has announced the finalists for all of their literary prizes, including two translation-specific ones.

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First up is the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which has a killer shortlist:

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Action Books)

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (W. W. Norton & Company)

Breathturn into Timestead by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press)

Interestingly, three of these titles—I Am the Beggar of the World, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, and Guantanamo—are on the Best Translated Book Award Poetry Longlist as well.

I want Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream and Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon to win every literary prize possible, so I’m pulling for that. Although, there is a lot of stiff competition . . .

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In the PEN Translation Prize, young presses—especially Two Lines—rule the shortlist:

The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (New York Review Books)

The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

First of all, thank the judging gods (or just the judges themselves) that the I Ching didn’t make the list of finalists. (Not much of a fan of The Man Who Loved Dogs either to be honest.) I really like the mix that’s on this list—in part because these are all books I’ve read or plan on reading when I have time again.

Baboon is the only book on this list that made the BTBA Fiction Longlist, which is curious, but a good sign about the diversity of these sorts of awards.

I’m torn between rooting for Bromance Will and Texas and Naja, but since we’re doing Naja’s novel in the fall —”Rock, Paper, Scissors“:http://www.openletterbooks.org/products/rock-paper-scissors — I’m rooting for Baboon. Go Denmark!

The winners will be announced on May 15th.

16 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.



Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Nightboat Books

Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book? 

John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.

DMLetters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?

JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.

DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?


JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:

E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.

Now, this probably won’t register immediately if you don’t read or speak Portuguese (or Spanish), but what Hilst is doing here is playing repeatedly with the word “oco,” such that you get a string of those “hollows” (“ocos”) one after the other, as well as other rhymes, assonances and consonances, a veritable seemingly untranslatable—into English—music, through the words that she uses: os cocos (coconuts), toco (stump/stub, also: I play, touch), troco (I exchange), etc. In fact, the “o/ou” (OH) and “u/o” (OOH) sounds appear in sentence after sentence, sometimes in a string of words, so that even when you don’t exactly get the “hollow,” you get the sound that embodies it. This is the work of a true poet, and someone incredibly attentive to language. There’s also a great deal of polysemy here at the phonemic level. So this was a huge challenge: how to bring this into English, since it will by necessity be lost? I had to find an equivalent but distinctly English music, and realized that English does have musical resources of its own that would work. But it wasn’t easy, and when I felt I’d figured it out, I was exhilarated. There are many such moments, but this remains my favorite, and I could read the Portuguese aloud over and over. It’s amazing how she pulls it off.
My translation:

And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
 
DM: You’ve a new collection of fiction publishing soon, some of which is set in Brazil. Have the two projects—your translation of Hilst and your writing of Counternarratives—overlapped in any way? Or did they largely run parallel to one another? 

JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.


The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.

15 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.



Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
Semiotext(e)

It almost feels unfair to make anyone compete with Julio Cortázar. His fantastically irreverent novel Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires was originally published in 1975, and yet it has more life in its bones (or rather, in its sixty-nine pages) than many works of our own time. Subtitled “An Attainable Utopia,” Fantomas is at once a tongue-in-cheek response to the violence of the late twentieth century and a serious critique of corporate and governmental oppression.

The book opens with “our narrator” (later revealed to be Cortázar himself) on his way to his home in Paris. On the train, he reads a comic book starring the masked hero Fantomas, whose latest mission is to stop a band of anti-culture terrorists from burning down the world’s great libraries. After our narrator’s arrival in Paris, the borders between life and comic strip rapidly collapse: Fantomas himself comes crashing in through the narrator’s window, and Cortázar must help him realize the magnitude of this global problem — at least, when he’s not lusting after the superhero’s miniskirt-clad assistants or being yelled at on the phone by a convalescent Susan Sontag.

These conversations with Sontag — all carried out over “that technological decapitation known as the telephone” — are half comedy routine and half sadly prescient analysis. At one point, the narrator presents the difficulty of their task: “Susan, the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.” She responds:

Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too — it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…

That paragraph, like most of Fantomas, has not aged a day since 1975. Cortázar’s highly original adventure story, his commentary on the power of literature to imagine alternative worlds (and, equally, the human failure to realize those worlds), bears a political message as relevant today as it was forty years ago. And the author, for all his revolutionary fervor, seems to have understood that in advance: “Look, mister,” a newspaper seller tells our narrator early on in the book, “history is like steak and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.” The same goes, apparently, for the present.

David Kurnick’s translation is nimble, confident, and pitch perfect; like Groucho Marx, he always gets the right amount of syllables for the joke. (One dialogue, between the narrator and Sontag: “‘But this isn’t going to be easy, baby.’ ‘No shit,’ said Susan.”) Fantomas isn’t just a marvelous read, though; as publisher Semiotext(e) presents it, it’s also a marvelous object. The book is nearly half images, and far from interrupting the flow of the text, they define it. Pages from the narrator’s comic books, bleary mass-reproduced photographs of urban landscapes, and a hilarious sequence of drawings by the lovechild of Goya and Gorey, whose central figures are all identified as the shapeshifting Fantomas, are indispensable to the storyline and account for a good deal of its jaunty charm.

That a “lost” work can waltz in so unexpectedly and become such a formidable contender is, I think, testament enough to its quality. For its intellectual honesty and sheer panache, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires deserves the Best Translated Book Award; moreover, I suspect it’s a title its competitors would be able to lose to with grace.

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