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
Cristina Fernaández Cubas is today’s first entry in the ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. Below you’ll find a bit from one of her novels, her explanation for why she included it, and a bit about what Julio Cortázar called “stories against the clock.”
Through the end of the month you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
With respect to the novel El año de Gracia, I’d like to recall its origin. The starting point was a story in the newspaper El País. It was about an environmental group, “Operation Dark Harvest,” and their failed expedition to the island of Gruinard, one of the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island had been contaminated with anthrax in 1941, as a precaution against a possible biological war with Germany, and the goal of the environmentalists was to make off with soil samples and denounce the dangers posed by its mere existence. But what I really found interesting was the geographical location, its characteristics, the setting. An island closed to public curiosity, less than two kilometers from civilization, with the only people granted access being a team of scientists who, with the necessary precautions, visited the island every two years. And above all, this fact: the former inhabitants of the island, mostly shepherds, had been forced to evacuate. On the island, then, there only remained a number of sheep, abandoned to chance . . . And from there my imagination took over. I wondered about the effects of the anthrax on those flocks of sheep; I wondered if it were possible the sheep had become feral and developed murderous tendencies; I thought that perhaps, one shepherd—just one—hiding among the fog and craggy rocks, had refused to follow the order and stayed on the island . . . And so El año de Gracia was born. The story of a young man, well versed in theology and dead languages—though completely unaware of the ways of the world—whose sister Grace gives him “the gift of a year” and fate ends up taking him to the island . . . I still remember the writing process with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Gruinard gave me the opportunity to go on an anachronistic adventure in the middle of the twentieth century. And I took it as far as it would go. [. . .]
In an interview with El País you mentioned the stories that don’t let you go until you’ve finished them, that leave you exhausted, and you cite Cortázar, who calls them “stories against the clock.”
You could also call them “hijacking stories.” You can’t break free from them until you finish them. And then yes, then you can breathe easy, as if you’d just taken off an enormous backpack, a burden . . . They’re usually not very long (it would be hard to stand so much tension) and very frequently they turn rather mysterious even for the author. For a time, at least. Afterward, you start tying up loose ends, understanding where they came from and why they grabbed you like that . . . But all of this belongs to the secret life of stories.
The first word the ancient shepherd mumbled over my sickbed—or the first one I seem to remember—was Grock. At the time, confused by what appeared to be a strange being that was half sheep and half man, it didn’t occur to me that my timely visitor was capable of naming himself, and I assumed it was bleating. But the long recovery, and that strange lucidity that sometimes comes with fever, led me to babble different phrases in various languages until I understood that Grock was speaking a rudimentary English peppered with an abundance of expressions in Gaelic—a language that, unfortunately, I knew nothing about other than its mere existence—and that if I dispensed with any sort of flourish and instead resorted to the purest simplification, my rescuer’s eyes lit up, he nodded or shook his head, and he tried, in turn, to reduce his language as much as possible and limit himself to naming things.
Learning Grock’s language wasn’t terribly burdensome. What helped wasn’t so much my knowledge of English as the evidence that the old man’s peculiar syntax was extremely similar to that of primitive languages, and even to that of many of our children when, provided with a certain vocabulary, they start to express their needs. Grock’s sentences frequently began directly with the material object of interest, then moved on to the accessory information, to the how and why, to the circumstances, and only later, much later, to the real answers to my questions. I asked him repeatedly about the name of the island we were on, and his answer was: “Grock.” I tried to be much more explicit, and adding gestures and faces, I said: “Island . . . This island . . . What is it called?” The answer was invariable: “Grock.” It was obvious that he didn’t distinguish between his name and what was an object of his property. Grock had spent too many years among sheep.
But I couldn’t curse my luck. Thanks to the shepherd’s care and the bits of information I managed to drag out of him with a great deal of patience, I was able to form an approximate idea of where we were located. In an earlier time the Island of Grock had been inhabited by several families of shepherds. Later, “many, many years ago . . . ,” for reasons the old man wasn’t aware of or didn’t know how to explain, the families gathered their belongings, left their flocks behind, and abandoned the land. Only Grock remained on the island, in charge of hundreds of sheep, the mothers of the mothers of the mothers of those quadrupeds that had made such an impression on me and that, as I seemed to understand, either because they were too many to be controlled by one man, or because the shepherd avoided them, didn’t take long to go from tame flocks to feral, bloodthirsty packs. “They did very bad things to Grock,” he said. “Very bad things.” I soon discovered that the shepherd utterly despised them. When he talked about sheep, his face took on a terrifying appearance, his eyes shone with wild fury, and he reveled in reciting the long list of punishments he’d made them suffer to show them that he was Grock, the master of the island, and that they had done “very bad things.” When I finally asked him what constituted the wicked actions of those beasts (secretly afraid he’d tell me), the ferocious gleam again dilated his pupils for a moment, then was replaced, almost immediately, by an unexpected expression of tenderness. “They killed Grock,” he said.
For the first few days, I often had to resort to imagination, sometimes pure invention, to interpret the shepherd’s perplexing statements. He insisted that I was from Glasgow—though, maybe, he was using that name to mean anywhere off the island—and he seemed very surprised by the story of the shipwreck, of my rescue, and of the subsequent disappearance of the remains of the Providence. I don’t think Grock knew how to pretend, but the absurd possibility that the old man—almost like a child—might be unaware of the ship’s mysterious destination left me baffled. Again I faced the large number of enigmas yet to be solved, and I had a feeling that the limited narrative faculties of my rescuer weren’t going to be of much help to me for the time being.
I had surrendered myself to dark conjectures when Grock, who had just polished off my last bottle of gin, broke into wild laughter. I didn’t have time to be startled. As if he’d suddenly remembered the reason for his boundless joy, the old man grabbed a case that was hanging from his neck, pulled out a wrinkled card and, still laughing, handed it to me. Here I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. What I had in my hands was a color photograph, a portrait of the shepherd himself, taken by an instant camera. So the island wasn’t as deserted as I’d been led to believe. I didn’t stop to think about what sort of disturbed mind would come up with the macabre idea of photographing Grock, nor did it seem appropriate to submit the shepherd to a new interrogation. All I knew how to do was join in his laughter as a simple proof of my good intentions. Between bursts of laughter, he told me about a little box with a button you could push, and little by little, shadows would appear, then colors, and finally, the image of a man. “A man,” he said. The apparent magic of the camera was what truly amused the shepherd. I looked back at the snapshot with a shudder. I held in my hands the cold, raw embodiment of horror. In front of me, convulsing with laughter, was little more than an old, mad child who had absolutely no idea he was laughing at himself.
(Translated by Emily Davis)Tweet
Ramiro Pinilla is the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. I really like his explanation of why he chose this chapter from The Blind Ants. (And the story is pretty fantastic as well.)
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.
If there’s anything good in Las ciegas hormigas, it’s this chapter. I wrote it more than fifty years ago, but I still remember what I thought when I finished it: why isn’t the whole novel like this, and why won’t most of what I write in the future be like this? It’s the felicitous fusion of narrative language with what I hoped for and still hope for, that synthesis of rhythm, continual forward movement, ideas and more ideas, humor, expressive transparency, something like the inescapable music of a deceitfully playful Mozart that we get hopelessly hooked on. A passion for my creations? Maybe. But here the protagonists are sketched out for the entire novel, their courtship, as recounted by Josefa, establishes the roots of Sabas, whose epic downfall you can already imagine, along with Josefa’s own unconditional surrender to Sabas’s impossible stubbornness. Which buttons do you have to press to yield something like this? I have no idea.
I still remember it well. The priest said, “Sabas, do you take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife?” And then, without even turning to me: “Josefa, do you want this man to take you as his lawfully wedded wife?”
That’s what I heard, kneeling next to him, my hands and feet tied up without a rope, subjugated, defeated, and (why not?) devoted—perhaps not out of love, but controlled by some kind of irrational vertigo—furiously subdued, captured, and kidnapped while everyone watched impassively. No longer daring to rebel, even though I’d tried before, despite the fact that I’d known from the beginning it would all be useless, I contemplated what the priest had done, with his benevolent, distant face, loading the ship with cargo he wouldn’t travel with, muttering the words, unrelenting, without looking into my eyes, which were desperately asking him, “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you ask me, like all the other women, ‘Josefa, do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband?’”
He appeared one day in Berango, chewing on a piece of straw. Serious, skinny, calm, his hands in his pockets. All put together with his corduroy pants, white cotton socks, rubber-soled sandals, and checkered shirt. And an umbrella hanging on his arm.
It was a workday, a Monday, around twilight. I watched him from the garden plot my family had near the road. He was coming from Algorta, and his steps weren’t quick, but they were steady, insistent, active, each one promising another. By the time I noticed him, he was already looking at me. The distance between us wasn’t short, so he was able to stare at me for four or five minutes without appearing to, without even turning his head, chewing his piece of straw the whole time. When he reached a point where he had to turn his head, he stopped looking at me, walked past me, and continued down the road, and nobody would have said that he’d noticed me.
When I went back to hoeing, I realized who he was: Sabas Jáuregui, from the farm on the beach in Algorta, who’d lived alone ever since he found himself without a family. We all knew the story: a family of father, mother, and two sons, they were all very hardworking and had enough land to show it. Sabas’s brother died, and father, mother, and Sabas took on the work; not long afterward, the mother died, and the two men kept going as well as they could, preparing the meals themselves. When his father died, Sabas was already prepared for it, and he took onto his shoulders the work that used to leave four people exhausted. And he lived there, abandoned near the edge of the beach, completing all the chores every day before going to bed, when he’d no longer hear the undertow scraping the rocks, like before, when all his family members were still alive and he was able to rest a while before sleep would take him. Now he fell asleep before he even had time to lift his second foot off the floor.
I saw him on rare occasions, when I went to that beach with my family to gather coked coal and I’d find him with a scythe cutting grass for the cows, or carrying manure from the stable to the garden, or I’d simply see smoke coming from the chimney and figure he was frying something for dinner.
The following Sunday, six days after I saw him on the road, I discovered him among the couples who were dancing on the pelota court to the shrill music playing on the loudspeakers. He was wearing twill pants, a wrinkled brown jacket, and a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned (no tie, of course). He searched for me specifically, among the dancing couples, and finally spotted me and came over to my group of friends, rigid and deliberate, looking up, walking and moving naturally, pretending he wasn’t bothered by his shirt collar, which was stiff even though it wasn’t buttoned: he’d probably put too much starch on it when he ironed it.
He stopped in front of me and, without moving his lips, without appearing to speak, even though his words didn’t come out timid at all, but whole, determined, firm, said, “Would you like to dance with me?”
(Translated by Emily Davis)Tweet
First up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Mario Vargas Llosa, who you might know from such books as Conversation in the Cathedral or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, neither of which he chose to include as his “best piece of writing.” Instead he turned to a couple of his more recent books: The Way to Paradise and The Feast of the Goat.
Rather than excerpt his works, I’m just going to post his whole interview below—it’s really interesting.
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 selected these fragments according to two criteria. First, that each one of them had dramatic significance within the story, and that each alludes to crucial elements of the plot. And second, that these fragments might be read and understood on their own, by someone unfamiliar with the context within which they appear in my books. Two criteria that are difficult to reconcile but that I think I’ve managed to sustain with some success.
The list of unforgettable dead to whom I return time and again, in my memory or by rereading, is long and would fill several pages. Picking a small number of names from among them I have to cite the great novelists of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac; from the classics like Cervantes, Quevado, and Góngora, to Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch, to the Homeric poems I discovered in my old age, to many writers who revealed to me miracles of technique and prose in the telling of a story: Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner. The writer I have probably reread most is Faulkner. I discovered him in my first year of university, in 1953, in Lima, and since then I have never ceased to be amazed by the complexity and subtlety that his stories attain thanks to the way he organizes the points of view, the movement of the narrator, the creation of his own literary time, and also, of course, thanks to that enveloping style of extraordinary sensoriality that makes the changes in atmosphere and landscape in which the stories illuminate, or blur, or vanish, creating expectation, uncertainty, and always keeping readers in a kind of trance. Faulkner is perhaps the writer who taught me most about the type of novelist I wanted to be and the type of novels I wanted to write.
From your position with respect to Cuba and Hugo Chávez, and later as a candidate for president of Peru, you have always defended individual freedoms. What’s your perspective on the political and social panorama since 1993, when you wrote El pez en la agua? Has there been an erosion of freedoms or have they been lost?
I think all the opinions I expressed in El pez en la agua I still maintain. I might clarify some details and add others regarding phenomena like Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia that did not exist when I wrote down those memories. When I began writing, the idea was widespread that a writer had, in addition to an artistic and intellectual responsibility, a civic responsibility and should participate in the political debate regarding the problems of the time. I learned this reading Sartre, about whom my opinion has greatly changed, but I have always shared his idea that writers should engage in expressing their opinions about politics and social problems. I don’t believe writers should exempt themselves from such participation, just like I don’t believe any other citizen should either. If we want things to improve in our society, we must be involved in political life and writers can contribute to this activity without renouncing their own vocation. In the dominion of the word, for example, political language tends to be clichéd, full of the commonplace, a disseminator of slogans and mottos more than ideas. A writer can give back to politics language that is clean, fresh, that expresses concepts, ideas and not just sensations and clichés. On the other hand, a writer can add imagination and inventiveness to a world that, owing to the advance of specialization, is becoming increasingly routine and predictable, deprived of idealism and creativity. If we want democracy to survive and not to drown in dictators or in total mediocrity, it’s indispensable for us to inject imagination and novelty into democratic life. In this way writers can provide a service to the political life of nations.Tweet
The second author featured today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Evelio Rosero, the youngest author to be included in the anthology. Rosero has a couple novels available in English translation from New Directions.
What he chose to include isn’t from either of those novels though. It’s from one of his children’s books, as he explains in the interview below.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
A little while ago I had the chance to speak before a group of schoolchildren in Cali. One of the youngest, probably to keep me from talking too much, or because I already had, came up to the stage and handed me one of my books. “Read us a story,” he said. Of course, I had no choice but to do just that. It was one of my first children’s books, published in ’92: El aprendiz de mago y otros cuentos de miedo. And the story that presented itself to me when I opened the book at random was, precisely, “Lucía, or, The Pigeons,” the piece I’ve decided to submit as a sample of my best work: a children’s story. The reasons behind this choice might seem non-literary, and they are, but not entirely. This is a story written just over twenty years ago, and the whole thing anticipates what I have tried to sketch out in my novels “for adults,” especially the two most recent ones, En el lejero and Los ejércitos. Anyone who knows either of these books will agree. What surprised me the most that afternoon was the realization that a children’s story managed to fully capture something that had surrounded and terrified me my whole life: the disappeared, the forced disappearances that have taken place in my country.
One morning we woke up to find that the pigeons had disappeared. The last to have seen them say they flew frantically, violently tracing out strange hieroglyphs in the sky, letters and words and then entire lines, like an infinite poem no one could understand because it was conceived in an unknown alphabet. It had been a chaos of feathers, an icy white drizzle.
And from that moment on we never saw another pigeon in the sky, not a single one.
Lucía and I wondered what could have happened to the pigeons, where they had gone, or who had taken them. The world is different without pigeons, without their little winged bodies crossing its towns like shards of light. We will never forget them.
Watching a pigeon fly was like flying, ourselves, like when you send a kite up in the air and it is carried far, far away and it feels as though you were the kite, up there in the clouds.
Lucía and I thought often about the pigeons, so we wouldn’t forget.
“What did pigeons sound like?”
I imagine a pigeon with Lucía’s face, her long hair like wings, flying like a smile through the sky. But I don’t tell Lucía. I only know that I have thought of Lucía as though she were a pigeon. The last one.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)Tweet
I very much fell off pace with the Month of a Thousand Forests series, but by covering two authors a day, we’ll have highlighted everyone by the 30th.
The first author for today is Edgardo Cozarinsky, who was first recommended to me by Horacio Castellanos Moya when he came to Rochester. FSG and Vintage did a couple Cozarinsky books a while back, but someone needs to snap up this novel.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I looked through my most recent work, and although I am not the best judge of what I write (I don’t think anyone is) I chose “December 2008,” the fifth section of Lejos de dónde. Excerpted in this way it doesn’t have the impact that it acquires as the conclusion of the novel, but I think that it can be read almost like a short story and that the mystery of the bond that unites the characters, although unspoken, is vaguely perceptible and impregnates the situation with mystery. It contains a tone, a hidden pathos, a crushing sense of the disaster of History and of individual lives, recurrent motifs in my fiction.
When you get to a certain age, inevitably you have more dead friends than living ones. My list is long yet that doesn’t make me sad. My dead live with me and share my new feelings and my work. First of all, I want to mention Alberto Tabbia, who was my best friend and who left me his exquisite collection of books in English. He was an example of the “writer who doesn’t write” and I planned, and I still plan, to edit his notebooks. In them I found the couplet that I used as an epigraph for my novel El rufián moldavo: “To speak with the living I need / words that the dead taught me.” Also José Bianco, Silvina Ocampo, Héctor Murena, among the writers. And thinking about the crossroads that Paris was for me: Raúl Ruiz and Severo Sarduy among those of my own language, and the great Danilo Kiš among those from Eastern Europe. With my parents, the paying of debts never ends, but I am nourished by what I write.
He refilled the glasses, downing his again in a single swallow.
They were silent for a moment that seemed to stretch out, not because they were searching for words, but as if the evocation of the past, fleeting as it was, had awoken ghosts that demanded respect, imposed silence, maybe the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the East who had camped in Dresden in 1945, running from the Soviet advance, only to die, burnt to ashes by twenty-four hours of British-American bombing that served no strategic purpose, corpses carbonized among the ruins, destined for putrefaction and stench, remains that some loved-one, facing the impossibility of burial, placed inside a suitcase and carried with them on their flight to the south, in search of some corner untouched by bombs, where they could find a place in the ground; but the graves had not been consecrated, and now the specters had arisen amid the concrete and glass architecture of the twenty-first century, evading the ubiquitous neon of advertising, and had begun to slip through the shadows toward the ancient center of the city, perhaps to see how fidelity to the past, or the irrational force of patriotism, had rebuilt palaces, theaters, and churches according to their original design, rescuing from among the ruins a few stones that might have come from the Frauenkirche in order to place them among the new ones, until the baroque cathedral was returned to the city meticulously reproduced: in the same way the ancient Egyptians, when building a new temple, inserted rubble from their ruined temples into the foundations, to ensure the continuity of the divine presence, in the same way that a leftover crumb of yesterday’s bread is added to the starter for today’s loaf.
Because the dead always come back, and ghosts of victims are the most tenacious.
In that moment of silence, those ghosts were more real than the Polish woman—sixty-five-years old, poorly dyed hair, broken fingernails—and the tired Argentine at the end of a long journey: foreigners, displaced people, survivors of forgotten wars. When they spoke again, it was as if that silence had been a long night of shared secrets. They had been moved by something imperceptible they would not know how to name anyway—an invisible presence,
a gust of wind, a breath. Now they struck up a conversation that minutes before they would not have imagined.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
My strategy for BTBA reading is very simple and very biased: I read the books by women first, and if there are no books by women, then I read the shortest ones first. I start with the women because there are fewer of them, and with the short books because they make me feel accomplished.
One of the first books I read was Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), a novel by one of China’s best and strangest contemporary writers. I had been enchanted a few years ago by her short story collection Vertical Motion, which is populated by all sorts of Kafkaesque sons and animals.
Can Xue’s work is dreamlike, but not in the hazy, poetic way that that word usually implies. Rather, her stories follow the logic of dreams, particularly in The Last Lover: locations shift abruptly, characters’ reactions are unexpected or irrational, elements from previous scenes are suddenly re-assembled in new configurations. The Last Lover, a story of three couples, is perhaps best understood as taking place in a largely or entirely imaginary space. The lovers are wandering not through the world, but through each other’s dreams, which nevertheless resemble some version of the world. The book is baffling at times, and after reading it I often stood up slightly dizzy. But something about it is tenacious. Like Kafka (whom she greatly admires), Can Xue is able to create metaphors that are understood deeply and intuitively even while they elude intellectual comprehension.
The Last Lover surfaced in my thoughts again recently when I found another book by a modern-day sister of Kafka’s.
Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere) is a slim book (only eighty pages) of surreal fairy tales. In one, a woman bites the arms off three successive husbands, all named Jaan. In another, a skeleton called Lena tells of her life on an island that has “torn itself free from the ocean floor.” A third woman has written a grammar of bird language and collects apricots from her “six former husbands” (her enumeration of their respective qualities recalls Kafka’s story “Eleven Sons”).
Some of the stories are noticeably weaker than others, but in the best of them there is a certain freedom found in all good fables, including Kafka’s: the freedom to be read both literally and figuratively. Kristiina Ehin’s stories are metaphors for emotional events, usually ordinary ones like falling in or out of love, but they are sometimes very original metaphors, interesting as fiction in their own right. Like Can Xue, Kristiina Ehin encourages us to interpret her work while simultaneously hinting that interpretation is not important.
Whether or not either of these titles ends up on this year’s longlist, they deserve to be read, not only on their own merits, but as representatives of marginalized literatures. We know that only 3% of the English-language book market is devoted to works in translation; how much smaller is that percentage when we count only books by women, let alone books by women from China or Estonia? Indeed, it has taken me depressingly little time to get through all the BTBA submissions by women that I’ve received up to now. I hope that more are on the way, and that more (especially from under-represented countries) are slated by publishers for the coming years.
In the meantime, as I continue to read wonderful things by writers of all genders, I can’t help but noticing that these two, The Last Lover and Walker on Water, have a curious capacity to linger in my mind, even as technically “better” books fade from memory.Tweet
Monica Carter is a freelance critic.
As I continue on keyboard jacking the BTBA blog this week, I continue also to give praise to some of the publishers who started roughly around the time the award began and have grown right along side us. After A for Archipelago comes E for Europa Editions – the sleek and suave playboy of international literature. Europa puts out the kind of books The Most Interesting Man in the World would read. On one hand, they are gritty with their notorious list of European Noir titles; on the other hand, they are the penultimate cultivated dinner guests with authors like Jane Gardam, Steve Erickson and Elena Ferrante. Granted, they are not solely a publisher of literature in translation, but international literature is their aim as state in their mission statement below:
With offices in New York and London, Europa Editions is an independent publisher of quality fiction. The company was founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who are also the owners and publishers of the Italian press, Edizioni E/O. The idea behind the creation of Europa Editions was to capitalize on Edizioni E/O’s deep roots in European publishing to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets and to provide quality editions that had a distinct look and consistently high level of editorial standards. The Europa catalog is eclectic, reflecting the founders’ belief that dialogue between nations and cultures is of vital importance and that this exchange is facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten.
What book got me first? The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Then it was Ferrante’s Lost Daughter. I couldn’t be happier to see that Ferrante is gathering the respect and praise she is receiving currently, but as with many readers who discovered a great writer early on in their career we can’t help but wonder what took everybody so long. I have recently been emailing with one of my fellow judges and he had just finished Ferrante’s newest, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and he said that he thought it was better than the last one and that she was “the real deal.” “Of course!” I wanted to scream. Not because everybody should know of her greatness by now, but because her novels are so brutally candid about womanhood, motherhood, friendship between women, and she writes about women have that society at large considers taboo. Even though her first few novels are slim, each one infused by a different singular, suffocating voice, the Neapolitan novels are thick and cast with a Shakespearean set of characters. The pairing of Ferrante and her translator, Ann Goldstein, has given Europa a literary powerhouse that pleases both critics and readers.
Besides Ferrante, they stole my wanna-be-a- drunken-sailor heart with dedication to European Noir. Originally, Europa called it “Mediterranean Noir” but they are expanding which is wise because if there is one thing that is not getting enough attention in the publishing world, it is global noir. I am serious about this. Although there are the City noir titles by Akashic which are good, they are akin to a sample platter of authors of noir. With Europa, you get the feast. My first noir writer I encountered through Europa was Jean-Claude Izzo. He fulfilled my drunken sailor dream and then some. I read his Marseilles Trilogy in a weekend and quickly tore through The Lost Sailors and A Sun for the Dying. Again, the same translator throughout Izzo’s work, the talented Howard Curtis is that invisible presence that makes it all work as a good translator should.
Besides Ferrante and their growing list of European Noir, I can’t help but mention their artwork. They have great covers. Having worked in bookstores, there’s no better way to attract attention to a book than a really stunning cover facing out. Europa covers are easy to spot and quite diverse. I am a huge enthusiast of cover art and Europa has accomplished a difficult task by developing it’s own identity but also making each cover original and individual.
Well, Europa Editions, you’re on my dance card. I love you for your jet setting style. I love you because you would be equally comfortable drinking a forty out of paper bag or a bottle of Dom at the Ritz. You always look good even though I am never sure what to expect when I turn the page. But that’s what makes me love you, you brilliant fool.Tweet
Our love for Marian Schwartz—translator from the Russian of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair along with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard and all the Andrei Gelasimov books that AmazonCrossing has been bringing out, and dozens of other works—runs deep, which is why we’re all really excited that she won the Read Russia Prize in the Contemporary Russian Literature category.
The awards ceremony for the Read Russia Prize has taken place on September, 6 within the stately confines of Moscow’s Pashkov House, part of the Russian State Library. This biennial event, which is supported by the Moscow Institute of Translation, is designed to honor the best translators working in any language and to facilitate the further translation of Russian literature. It encompasses four categories: Classic Russian Literature, 20th Century Russian Literature (published before 1990), Contemporary Russian Literature (published after 1990), and Poetry. [. . .]
The nominees for the Contemporary Russian Literature category were Julie Bouvard for her French translation of Eduard Kochergin’s Christened with Crosses, Ives Gauthier for her French translation of Andrei Rubanov’s A Successful Life, Nicoletta Marcialis for her Italian translation of Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, Ljubinka Milincic for her Serbian translation of Georgy Vladimov’s The General and His Army, Ewa Rojewska-Olejarczuk for her Polish translation of Viktor Pelevin’s T, and Marian Schwartz for her English translation of Leonid Yuzefovich’s Harlequin’s Costume. The winner was Marian Schwartz, who was emotional and grateful as she accepted her award.
Emotional and grateful and BAD ASS.
Following this deserved victory, Russia Beyond the Headlines did a whole feature on Marian that’s both wonderful and fascinating.
It kicks off with a bit about Harlequin’s Costume, which came out from Glagoslav in 2013:
The novel is the first in a trilogy, based on the real-life adventures of Ivan Putilin, a legend in his own lifetime. In the late 19th century Putilin was a chief inspector of police, chasing St. Petersburg’s most notorious criminals. Later contemporaries dubbed him a Russian Sherlock Holmes, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, Putilin’s stories become something richer and more multi-layered than traditional murder mysteries. Harlequin’s Costume originally appeared in Russian in 2001, and its sequel, Prince of the Wind, won the National Bestseller literary prize.
OK, that sounds pretty good, but check out the jacket copy:
The year is 1871. Prince von Ahrensburg, Austria’s military attaché to St. Petersburg, has been killed in his own bed. The murder threatens diplomatic consequences for Russia so dire that they could alter the course of history. Leading the investigation into the high-ranking diplomat’s death is Chief Inspector Ivan Putilin, but the Tsar has also called in the notorious Third Department – the much-feared secret police – on the suspicion that the murder is politically motivated. As the clues accumulate, the list of suspects grows longer; there are even rumors of a werewolf at large in the capital. Suspicion falls on the diplomat’s lover and her cuckolded husband, as well as Russian, Polish and Italian revolutionaries, not to mention Turkish spies.
That’s how you sell a book. Cuckholds and werewolves.
What’s particularly interesting is that this is one of the few books that Marian translated on spec, hoping that she would find a publisher for it.
“Having translated about 70 books over the last 35-plus years, fewer than five of them, probably, have been at my initiative,” she told the Moscow audience for the Read Russia Award Presentations. “I found, appreciated, and translated Harlequin’s Costume on spec, convinced that it would find a publisher eventually.” In the end, the book was finished only with help from a grant, and it was several years before Glagoslav published it in 2013.
“My hope is that this prize will help in finding a publisher for all of Yuzefovich’s books,” says Schwartz, describing him as “one of the most overlooked authors in English translation.” She is also translating and seeking a publisher for Yuzefovich’s more recent, more serious novel Cranes and Pygmies, which won the Big Book award in 2009.
I have a feeling that a few publishers are going to be contacting her about this . . .
Another great aspect of this article is that it gets at why Marian became a translator, and what she hopes to accomplish. These bits should be really interesting to anyone new to the field—anyone hoping to translated 70+ books over their lifetime:
“I became a translator,” she says, “largely because I felt that was the one role – bringing Russian literature to the English-speaking audience – I could play best. It was something a native speaker of Russian could not do.” [. . .]
The intended readership is central to Schwartz’s perception of her role. She told RBTH last year that she would “dearly love to see more … translated books that would appeal to a broader audience.” Apart from Yuzefovich, the authors she wants to translate more of in future include Andrei Gelasimov, whose comic, poignant, accessible novels she has almost single-handedly brought to the attention of Anglophone readers. She also has her eye on Olga Slavnikova’s novel The Man Who Couldn’t Die (Bessmertny) and Dina Rubina’s novel The Petrushka Syndrome.
“What all these books have in common, apart from their literary brilliance,” says Schwartz, “is what I see as their potential appeal to the Western reader. These are books I’d like to share with the American audience.”
I don’t read this as Marian seeking out pulpy best-sellers that Americans with Twilight for, but rather that her role is bringing interesting works of Russian literature to Americans—blending her knowledge of U.S. readers and academics with her expertise in Russian lit.
Marian really is a hero and having the chance to meet her in person is one of the reasons I encourage all emerging translators to attend ALTA.Tweet
First up today is Aurora Venturini, who kicks off the whole anthology, and who published her first book in 1942 and her most recent book in 2013. That’s longevity!
I think of the Golden Age playwrights and the surprising formal hybridity they managed. Lope de Vega, for example (along with many others), used the tragicomedy to convey his characters’ development. I had those authors as a point of reference for this first chapter of my novel, Las primas. I explain what the family of the protagonist, Yuna, was like: what her mother did, what her cousins were like, her sister, her aunt Nené, and the art professor, whose role in the development of the story is crucial. Yuna’s mother feels a profound detachment from her family in particular because her husband abandoned her with two very strange daughters. One is a handicapped girl, Betina, who’s in a wheelchair. The other is Yuna, the narrator, who loves to paint. In this first part I tried to describe not only this girl’s talent when she attends a fine arts school in La Plata, where she wins prizes at exhibitions, but also the astuteness of the professor. Yuna has trouble speaking, and since she can hardly read or write, she expresses herself through painting. She meets a professor who values her very highly and who tells her they’re going to show her work first in Buenos Aires and then in Europe. He tells her they’re going to travel and she jumps on the professor to kiss him and they fall over together. “No, Yuna, that’s not done. Because men are fire and women straw and the devil comes along and blows.”
Before leaving for Paris, you received a prize from Borges’s own hands, and later, when you were eighty-five, you won another award from young Argentine writers who considered you one of their own. Narratively, Paris was like an intermezzo between Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires.
I began writing here but I love Paris very much. It was the happiest time of my life, amazing to be in Paris at the height of existentialism. I entered university in 1942 and ended up with a doctorate in Philosophy and Education. Afterward, with the Revolución Libertadora in ’55, I had to leave, and in Paris I specialized in psychology. The French authorities were good enough to give me citizenship and I was able to work. Nothing like what happened to me in Argentina after the fall of Perón, where I was attacked over and over. But no one remembers that and no one talks about it. Because people who went to war don’t talk, the ones who talk are inventing, because if someone told what actually happened no one would think it was possible. But I went to Paris and that influenced me because I was with the greatest writers. I was with poets like Quasimodo, I took courses with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I was very close friends with Violette Leduc. We had such beautiful experiences, the nights we’d get together in the Latin Quarter. And now, here, the “youth” prize for Las primas opened the door to many opportunities, the novel has been adapted for the theater several times and has been translated into many languages.
My mom carried a pointer when she taught and wore a white dustcoat and she was very strict but she was a good teacher in a suburban school for not the brightest kids from middle class families on downward. The best one was the grocer’s son Ruben Fiorlandi. My mom rapped the ones that acted up on their heads and sent them to the corner wearing the colored cardboard donkey ears. The misbehavior was rarely repeated. In my mom’s opinion a little blood makes any lesson stick. The third graders called her the third grade miss but she was married to my father who left her and never performed the obligations of a pater familiae. She worked as a teacher in the mornings and came home at two in the afternoon where dinner would be waiting because our small dark housemaid Rufina did the cooking. I was sick of stew every day. A chicken coop clucked behind the house and in the yard squash sprouted miraculously and unruly golden sunflowers stretched from the earth to the heavens next to violets and stunted roses that gave that miserable heap its perfume and that’s how we ate.
I never admitted that I learned to read time when I was twenty. That confession embarrasses and surprises me. It embarrasses and surprises me for reasons that you’ll find out later and lots of questions come to mind. One I remember especially: What time is it? Honest truth I couldn’t tell time and clocks frightened me just like the sound of my sister’s wheelchair.
She was even more of an idiot than me but she could read the face of a clock even though she couldn’t read a book. We weren’t typical, never mind normal.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom . . . murmured Betina my sister wheeling her misfortune around the garden and the stone courtyards. The vroom was usually wet with the idiot’s drool. Poor Betina. Freak of nature. Poor me, another freak, and my mom weighed down by abandonment and by monsters even more so.
But everything in this awful world passes. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to dwell too much on anything or anyone.
Sometimes I think we’re a dream or a nightmare relived day after day that at any second will stop that won’t appear on the screen of the soul to torture us any more.
That was the psychologist’s diagnosis. I don’t know if that’s all it was. My sister had a crooked spine, from behind in her chair she looked like a tiny hunchback with puny legs and massive arms. The old lady who came to darn the socks said that someone had done something to my mom during her pregnancies, the worst during the one with Betina.
I asked the unibrowed mustachioed lady psychologist what a mental disorder was.
She said it was related to the soul but that I wouldn’t understand till I was older. But I supposed that the soul was something like a white sheet inside the body and that when it got stained people became idiots, Betina a lot and me a little.
I started noticing when Betina wheeled around the table with her vroom that she was dragging a little tail that stuck out through the back of the wheelchair seat and I told myself it had to be her soul coming untucked.
When I asked the psychologist this time if the soul had anything to do with being alive she said it did and even added that when it was missing people died and the soul went to heaven if it had been good and to hell if it had been bad.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom her soul dragged more and had more gray stains every day and I decided that it wouldn’t be long before it fell out and Betina would be dead which didn’t matter to me because she made me sick.
When it was time to eat, I had to feed my sister and on purpose I’d mistake the orifice and I’d put the spoon in her eye, in her ear, in her nose, before finally her cakehole. Ah . . . ah . . . ah . . . moaned the filthy creature.
I would grab her hair and put her face in her food and then she’d be quiet. Why did I have to pay for my parents’ mistakes? I thought about stepping on the tail of her soul. The thing about hell stopped me.
Reading the catechism had burned the “thou shalt not kill” into me. But with every little bump today and again tomorrow, the tail grew and no one else saw. Only I did and I rejoiced.
(Translated by Steve Dolph)Tweet
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