Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Before encountering the massive, indispensable Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, I was already a fan. I enjoyed The Hour of the Star and was jolted by the existential brilliance of The Passion of G.H. However, enjoying something and writing about it can often be mutually exclusive. You see, I’m in over my head. Lispector looms large in my mind, a giant, and to attempt writing about her work in any critical way will only expose my shortcomings. More than anything, I’m an enthusiast. I love books and authors not because I always understand them but often because I don’t. The beauty and strangeness of the language, the veil of mystery that hovers above the text—this is what I love most about literature. Did I fully understand Bolaño’s 2666? Or Adler’s Speedboat? Or Paul Metcalf’s Genoa? Of course not. Yet my love for them is powerful and authentic. My favorite books are the ones that demand to be revisited, that contain the ineffable, that bring a sense of wonder, even a blissful confusion. And so, being in waters too deep, I’ll simply list the reasons why you should (and you really should) read the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector
1. She’s utterly, and without exception, a singular writer.
2. She doesn’t indulge the reader or suffer fools.
3. She writes sentences like: “The sun caught in the blinds quivered on the wall like a Portuguese guitar.”
4. The mythology which surrounds her is deserved.
5. Read as a whole, the Complete Stories is the entire breadth of a literary genius’ artistic life expressed in stories.
6. Like many New Directions books, it’s also an object of art. As such it’s something for guests to envy and/or covet. In this spirit, three copies should be acquired: one for the coffee table, one for the shelf with the other Latin American greats and one, of course, to read.
7. She mixes the domestic and the mythical seamlessly.
8. In her stories there exists no “known,” only the act of grasping and searching for the known.
9. She’s perhaps more enigmatic than even Franz Kafka or Fernando Pessoa.
10. There’s often a humdrum, domestic setting softly rearranged by a kind of ecstatic madness (of language, of character, or both).
11. The translation by Katrina Dodson is lucid and a feat of translated literature.
12. Her stories are dense with the mystery of being alive.
13. The story “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” opens with: “If you’ve never stolen anything you won’t understand me. And if you’ve never stolen roses, then you can never understand me. I, when I was little, used to steal roses.”
14. Epiphanies aren’t cheap and her stories are replete with them.
15. She’s silly, obtuse, complex, irreverent, satirical and mournful often inside a single paragraph.
16. She will undoubtedly lead you to other Latin American greats like Machado de Assis or Silvina Ocampo or Liliana Heker. Trust me, there’s tons.
17. When she smacks against the confines of language, the reader witnesses her frustration and is all the richer for it.
18. She has more registers in a single story than many 500 page novels.
19. The interior world and the exterior world are given equal attention, often at the same time.
20. The story “Brasilia” is worth the price of admission.
21. Her writing is religious or mystical without trying to be; it simply is.
22. Lispector had no regard for the “rules” of writing and this disregard grants a freedom and vigor evident throughout the book.
23. She’s indulgent and pragmatic: she will digress on a whim and then smack the reader with the point that she’s making.
24. A morning of solitude, a cup of coffee or tea and her stories will bring unequivocal bliss.
25. She contains multitudes.Tweet
Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFeathers. (And Anne, if you’re reading this, THIS is why I gave you a weird “I THINK I MET YOU BEFORE BUT HOW” look at ALTA in Tuscon—I had just assigned your translation of this book for review, which explains why your name was so very fresh in my memory. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to meet you in person!)
Here’s the beginning of Lori’s review:
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses holding your newborn for the first time or meeting the woman who will become your wife? For Heiner it is the 224 weeks he endured as a political prisoner at Auschwitz. What marks Held’s novel as an important addition to the large body of historical fiction about the lives of camp survivors is her exploration of Heiner’s psychological need to embrace his Auschwitz experiences rather than struggling to repress or overcome them.
The narrative begins in the early 1980s and skips forward and backward across what Heiner calls his “three lives” relative to Auschwitz—before, there (which “lasted forever”), and after. Raised in Vienna, Heiner joins the communist party at a young age and later, after the Nazis occupy Austria, he is arrested on political grounds, sent to Auschwitz and labeled R.U.—“Return Unwanted.” At Auschwitz Heiner does not shield himself from the daily horrors inflicted upon him and his fellow prisoners. He is determined to survive, to be a repository of the camp’s atrocities, and after the war to expose what he witnessed. Following the war Heiner fulfills the commitment he made to himself, publishing essays about survivors’ experiences and testifying as a witness at the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials. But he never overcomes the guilt of not acting out, of failing to demonstrate his humanity by openly defying his captors at least one time during those years in captivity.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Yesterday I posted a bit of a screed against lists, followed immediately by a list of the six translations everyone’s talking about. My hope is to produce a bunch of lists featuring literature in translation from 2015, all organized by various rubrics that can allow you to find a handful of recommendations with a minimum of posturing and “best-ness.”
On the first podcast of the year, Tom and I talked about our reading goals for 2015. I can’t remember the exact number or percentage, but I vowed to read more books from these sorts of underrepresented countries, since I tend to fall into the habit of reading a ton of writers from France and the Southern Cone, despite knowing full well that there are a lot of great books coming out from other parts of the world.
So, for today, here are four recommendations of titles from countries whose literature tends not to get as much attention as books from Western Europe and South America.
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)
One of the best books AmazonCrossing has ever published. (Well, out of the handful I’ve read, that is . . . ) Despite Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature Series, Korean books still don’t get the attention and respect they deserve.
It’s too early to really call this, but it looks like Bae Suah is going to be the exception to that. Sure, Kyung-Sook Shin got some good press for Please Look After Mom, but I’m not sure how well that sold, and her ensuing titles didn’t get nearly that amount of attention. (Doesn’t help that she went from being published by Knopf to being published by Other Press.)
On the other hand, Nowhere to Be Found was just named to the longlist for the PEN Translation Prize and Open Letter will be bringing out a new novel of hers next October. I wrote a longish review about this book, which opens as follows:
In Nowhere to Be Found, her second work translated into English following Highway with Green Apples, Bae Suah does more with character and narrative in 60 pages than most novelists accomplish in 300. With concise, evocative prose, Bae merges the mundane with the strange in a way that leaves the reader fulfilled yet bewildered, pondering how exactly the author managed to pull this all off.
Plot-wise, Nowhere to Be Found is pretty straightforward. Set, for the most part, in 1988, the unnamed narrator is a young temporary worker at a university in Gyeonggi Province as a sort of administrative assistant and works part-time at a nearby restaurant, running herself ragged in order to support her semi-appreciative family. Not much of the narrator’s life outside of work is depicted. Although she does have a boyfriend of sorts, it’s complicated both by his being away in the military and by the fact that his mother thoroughly dislikes her for being lower class.
This book is great, as is the one we’re bringing out. Get on the Bae Suah train now! And if you’re looking for other great Korean titles to read, grab a copy of The Vegetarian by Han Kang when it comes out in early 2016.
Home by Leila Chudori, translated from the Indonesian by John McGlynn (Deep Vellum)
I could easily have included one of the two Eka Kurniawan titles that came out this year on this list as an Indonesian representative, but those books have gotten some play, and I wanted to use this chance to draw some attention to John McGlynn.
First, in terms of the book itself, it’s a family saga that revolves around Dimas Suryo, a journalist who escapes Indonesia just before Suharto took over. He ends up in Paris with a few of his compatriots, where they open and Indonesia restaurant and dream of returning to their homeland. (Which won’t happen.) Thirty years later, as Suharto’s regime is crumbling, Dimas’s daughter decides to make a documentary on Indonesia for her final project . . .
Written in straight-forward prose, Home is mostly interesting to me for its historical information and the way that it bounces throughout time and point of view to tell this history of exile. It would make a great book club book, and unfortunately was overshadowed, in terms of review coverage, by Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, which happened to come out at almost the exact same time. (Doesn’t help that Beauty covers the same period of history, but in a much different way.)
With one exception (Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata), the only other Indonesian titles that have been released in the U.S. are from the Lontar Foundation, a nonprofit in Jakarta dedicated to promoting Indonesian literature, which was co-founded by John McGlynn, the translator Home. From what I know of John, he’s the Will Evans of Indonesia. He’s translated and edited over 100 works of Indonesian literature, is the Indonesian correspondent for Manoa, and has edited a special Indonesian Lit issue for Words Without Borders. Almost single-handedly, he’s been introducing Indonesian literature to the world since 1987!
The Knight and His Shadow by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French (Senegal) by Alan Furness (Michigan State University Press)
A full review of this is forthcoming for Three Percent, so I won’t spend too much time on the book itself here. I do want to share the opening of Michael Orthofer’s review at the Complete Review, though, especially since it was one of the only outlets to have covered this book. (Proving once again that if you want to know as much about international literature as possible, you have to read Complete Review and the Literary Saloon.):
As befits a novel featuring a knight in its title, The Knight and His Shadow is fundamentally a quest-tale: Lat-Sukabé receives a message from the woman he still loves but who disappeared from his life eight years earlier, Khadidja—a cry for help: “Lat-Sukabé, come before it’s too late.” He sets out for out-of-the-way Bilenty, where she is apparently to be found, but his account is from his time in the nearby town where he has to arrange the pirogue-trip to Bilenty.
The novel is presented in three acts, covering the three days of his stay there, a holding pattern of sorts. Having embarked on his quest, he must see if he really has the will to see it through—a journey that, he comes to realize, might be something completely different from what he had expected (or talked himself into), Khadidja’s siren-call not quite what it seems to be and his quest perhaps a more personal one than it ostensibly seems.
Diop structures the novel cleverly. Having Lat-Sukabé narrate the account might already hint that this is also a story of personal (self-) discovery, but the transitions lead the reader—and the protagonist—there in an unexpected way.
What most impresses me is how MSU Press has decided to publish a series of translations from Africa and the Middle East. They published books from Senegal, Jordan, and Tanganyika in 2015, and have an Algerian book coming out early next year. Although getting attention and readers for these books is an uphill battle for a university press (for anyone really), they can quickly become one of the go-to presses for finding books from these parts of the world—regions that more commercial houses tend not to pay much attention to, but which we readers deserve to know more about.
Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf, translated from the Russian (Moldova) by Boris Dralyuk (Phoneme Media)
I’m including this here in part because its been compared to Bruno Schulz, in part because it’s only the second book from Moldova to come out in the past eight years (The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by the amazing Ross Ufberg being the other), and in part because Phoneme Media deserves as much attention as possible.
First, here’s the first paragraph of the book itself:
One day a freight arrived from Grigoriopol with no head car, but no one noticed. No one even noticed that no one noticed. People often pay no heed, at times, to things they later don’t notice. No one, in fact, knows where this head car is—whether it arrived from Grigoriopol, whether it will arrive, whether there’s even a railroad in those parts.
(This story also includes a Gypsy, which gets an automatic thumbs up from me.)
In the short time they’ve been publishing, Phoneme Media has done some incredible things. They published Diorama by Rocio Ceron, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry. They did Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, which may be the only collection of indigenous Mexican poetry I’ve ever seen. (And which may well make my “Poetry Books I Would Read if I Read More Poetry” list.) The did The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo. They brought out Uyghurland by Ahmatjan Osman, which is the only book in the Translation Database translated from the Uyghur. They’ve published several books by Mario Bellatin. Overall, thanks to David Shook’s vision, they’ve become one of the hippest, most notable presses for finding strange, beautiful books from languages and parts of the world that are underrepresented.
I’m pretty sure that over the next few years—with the launch of Tilted Axis, expansion of MSU and Phoneme and others—it will become easier and easier for readers to find books from parts of the world that have historically been underrepresented. To be honest, looking over the list of books from 2015, I was kind of shocked how hard it was to find books from non-traditional countries. Sure, there are four titles from Georgia and seven from Egypt, but only one from: Angola, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Curacao, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tunisia. Added together, these countries accounted for 20 titles published in translation in 2015. By contrast, 94 came out from France along.Tweet
Following on my last post, here’s the first entry in my manic series of year-end lists.
To kick this off, I thought I’d start with the list of the six books in translation that were the most talked about this year. I did some really heady numerical analysis to determine this—searching Facebook mentions, retweets, aggregating all the other year-end lists out there, tallying GoodReads reviews and images of bookstore displays—and came up with the works of fiction from 2015 that you should read if you want to be part of the general literary conversation. These are the “water cooler” books, the titles that, if you mention them randomly at a bar, someone might vaguely have heard of them. Conversely, mentioning them around anyone involved in the world of international literature will feel almost redundant.
I wouldn’t be surprised if all six of these made the shortlist for the next BTBA. And if you haven’t read them, you might want to. They’re not all on my personal list of 2015 favorites, but no one will scoff at you for spending a week with any of these.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
I read volume one of Ferrante’s quartet last year, and am currently listening to volume three, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave. To me, personally, all of the books are fine. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t get me all that excited either. I guess in my opinion, the prose isn’t doing anything new, and this is a time in my life where I’m waiting for something new and different to blow me away. That said, soap operas have an addictive quality to them, and reading/listening to the life-long interactions of a group of people from the neighborhood plays to that directly.
If you want a slightly different opinion, check out David Kurnick’s piece in Public Books. I literally got an email from a publicist about this as I was putting together this post. Quick scan of the piece: He likes Ferrante!
In Ferrante, by contrast [to Franzen and DeLillo], we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.
Sphinx by Anne Garreta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum)
There are two very notable things about this novel (at least on the surface): 1) it’s the first work by a female member of the Oulipo to make it into English, and 2) there are no pronouns in this love story about A**.
Tom Roberge liked this book more than I did (in part, maybe, because I was distracted by the pronoun thing, which is interesting, but I’ve seen that before, and pulling that off is more mind-blowingly difficult in French than English), and spent a lot more time getting into the real meat of this book.
Garréta’s unnamed narrator, a seminary student turned DJ, also becomes infatuated with someone, a dancer known as A***, early on in the course of the story. And yet to compare what then unfolds (and how, in terms of story-telling) in Sphinx to that in Queer is indeed an odious comparison. Like all of Burroughs’s writing, Queer is gritty and disheveled, the beauty found in the mess itself, in the enjambment of disparate and unflinching insights into the human condition. Sphinx, on the other hand, is more poetically beautiful, a breathtaking portrait of obsession and pursuit described with such pervasive lucidity, such self-awareness, such lyrical resonance, that the story often feels like a spectral presence. [. . .]
Both are novels of pure, unadulterated, all-consuming obsession. A form of psychological addiction that infects the mind like a drug. A desire—a need—so unbounded and palpable that life before the object of desire is rendered meaningless, or at least preliminary, a trial run for the real thing. Inhabiting these narrators’ mind space is intoxicating, pure and simple. And I can’t think of a better reason to read, which is perhaps why, now, when recommending Sphinx to customers, I say, merely: “Trust me; it’s amazing.”
None of this praise is as valuable as the fact that one of the people from Pentatonix has been pushing it to all of their fans. One of the many reasons that Deep Vellum’s first year has been so wildly successful.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)
I’m pretty sure this was the only literary translation to be a finalist for this year’s GoodReads Reading Good People’s Choice Golden Book Awards. (Or whatever they’re called.) That’s pretty impressive, given that almost all of the other books were either insanely popular and trendy, or just bad. (Note: To Kill a Watchman won for fiction, so, yeah . . . )
I read this book immediately after I finished grading all the exams for my spring course, and while on the way to BEA in NY. Whenever I get done with my “required” reading, I tend to devour a bunch of stuff immediately, only some of which sticks in my mind. Which is why I probably need to reread this. I remember liking it, liking the way it plays with language, liking the general conceit and the issues it brings up, but also feeling like it was a bit slight. (I did apparently give it four-stars on GoodReads though.)
As time has gone on and more and more people have told me about how this is one of the greatest books of the year, I feel like maybe I read it too quickly and passively, that maybe I should go back and revisit it, so that it can “get under my skin” the way it did for BTBA judge Heather Cleary:
It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
It’s worth noting that And Other Stories is bringing out a new Herrera book—The Transmigration of Bodies—in May 2016.
My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Similar to the Ferrante, I’m trying to catch up with the cool kids and am only on volume three of this seemingly endless series. I’ve talked on the podcast about what I like about Knausgaard—the glacial structural movements of each volume, the fugue-like time-shifts of the narrator’s memories, the mundanity of it as an antidote to the overblown nature of a lot of contemporary books—and I’m not sure I have much more to add about that here.
I do want to complain about the weird nature of the media love fest for Knausgaard—it’s like most of these reviewers just discovered that there’s literature being written in other languages, and probably can’t name five other living Scandinavian authors, much less speak intelligently about any of their books—but why bother. We all know that there’s very little appreciation of divergent opinions in mainstream review coverage, and once an author has been “chosen” every magazine and paper and blog and listicle generator imaginable will have to voice their opinion, oftentimes to the detriment of covering better books from the same country. This is how Murakami Haruki becomes the one Japanese author everyone has to write about, despite the fact that there are several others equally worthy of this sort of media fawning. (Although most aren’t published by Knopf, which does, for
better or worse, make a difference.)
There’s nothing to be done about this—people in the media act like sheep and all want to have their voice heard about the big books everyone is talking about—and it’s not like Knausgaard is completely undeserving, it’s just frustrating to people who actually read a significant amount of international literature and actually know a lot about works from a particular country or region. Instead, there’s basically no point in publishing anything from Norway for the next few years, because it will be such an uphill battle getting attention for it, and any reviews you do get will just compare it to Knausgaard.
But whatever—that’s the sad lament of an every-struggling publisher. You should read these books since most everyone else has. (Or has taken an unwavering stance against him.) Or, better yet, read his review of Houellebecq’s Submission.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (New Directions)
Talk about getting all the love! This book is on every single year-end list I’ve seen, and a few others highlighting the best covers of the year.
The rebirth of Lispector—whose books have been available in one translation or another for decades—really started with Ben Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star back in 2011. That was followed by the release of four of her novels (three in new translations, one translated for the first time ever) in 2012, which generated a lot of attention for Lispector (in part because of Ben Moser’s unflagging enthusiasm). It all reached a crescendo with this massive volume though, which brings together all of her stories into one chunky, attractive volume.
I’ve yet to dive into this, although I have read a couple of the included volumes in their past translations. What I hope will happen a result of #LispectorFever is that New Directions retranslated The Apple in the Dark. I generally like Gregory Rabassa’s translations, but I feel like a new translation is well-deserved and would help find a much larger audience for one of her most ambitious novels.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)
Luiselli’s rise has been meteoric! In 2014 when I entered her novel Faces in the Crowd into the first ever World Cup of Literature (a contest she damn near won), it seemed like only a handful of people had read her. Now, with the publication of her third book and second novel, she’s being featured in the New York Times, New Yorker, Lit Hub, NPR, Slate, Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, you name a media outlet and I’m sure they’ve run something about this book.
Which is all really wonderful. I’m actually using this book in my spring class, in part because I really like Valeria and her writing, in part because the story of how this came to be—and how it was edited in translation—opens up so many great topics for my students to think about and debate.
In short: Luiselli wrote this for the Jumex Foundation as a sort of serial novel for the workers at the Jumex juice factory. In the vein of the professional readers at the Cuban cigar rolling factories, she sent the workers one chapter at a time, which was distributed as a sort of chapbook to everyone at the factory. Some of these workers formed a reading group, and all of their comments about that particular section were sent back to Valeria, who listened to them, then wrote her next installment.
For the editing process, Chris Fishbach of Coffee House treated this like a book originally written in English, editing it more like an original text than a work in translation. (By contrast, most editors of translation focus on syntax, grammar, word choice, register, tone, etc. It’s still complicated and intensive, but slightly different.) The whole project became more collaborative with Christina MacSweeney adding a “Chronology” to the book that doesn’t exist in the original Spanish edition, and with Coffee House publishing a “Fact Check” booklet created by their proofreader. This is more than a simple novel—it is an artistic enterprise that is very layered and fascinating. And it features one of the most distinctive, enjoyable fictional voices in recent memory.
It’s worth noting that all six of these books—which truly are among the most talked about translations of 2015, all statistical jokes aside—are from independent and nonprofit presses, and that four of the six are by women writers.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a list that’s a bit more loopy.Tweet
If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few months, you’ve probably come across one rant or another about listicles and lists in general. Aside from the ones on the ROC in Your Mouth blog I think most of these things are pretty stupid.
Actually, let me refine that a bit: “Best of” lists can serve as really useful guides for narrowing down the seemingly endless choices available to us today. The other day there was a guy reading as part of the Rochester Writers Series whose last book was number 3,027,054 on Amazon. I see these numbers all the time (I think my book is at 1,113,000), but only rarely does it really hit home that there are three million books that have sold more copies on Amazon than that one. Three million. Just paring down which TV shows to watch in a given week can be hard enough, and no one wants to invest $15 and a dozen hours in some books that sucks. Theoretically, these lists can help guide you away from the bad and toward the good.
My main problem is that a lot of the sites that rely heavily on these tend to present them as some objective evaluation while positioning themselves as a sort of tastemaker. “These are obviously the best albums of the year, because they were praised by such sure-fire review sources as Pitchfork.”—a line from basically every Pitchfork year-end list ever.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have The Year in Reading lists on The Millions. I’m not sure if they’re done with the 2015 iteration of this yet or not, but at current count there are around 450 different authors and cultural critics recommending 3-10 different books they read this year and liked a lot. I know this is one of the most well-trafficked “year-end” book events out there, and I do poke around a bit on it myself, but it’s too enormous for me to process and so very subjective. I like being able to click on the authors I like to see what they’ve been reading, but I’m not sure what that means in the end.
There is a sort of compulsion to make these sorts of lists though. If you’re in this game—blogging, reviewing, bookselling, promoting, whatever—you want to make your opinion known. Given the fact that I read 90+ books this year, I’m sure some of the booksellers and critics have read upwards of 200 or even 250 different titles. After you’ve read so much, you have to process that knowledge and share it with people.
Boiling this all down, I feel like all of these lists say more about the source than about the books themselves. Without looking, I already have a feel for what’s on the New York Times Books of 2015 list. (Lauren Groff, Ferrante, other examples of conventional, well-crafted narratives.) I can guess what type of books are on Scott Esposito’s year in review. And I’m sure a lot of people could guess what I’d list as my five favorites of 2015. Nevertheless, I want to share something, put my own thoughts into this “best of” game . . . or, more importantly, give readers some sort of guidance when it comes to works in translation that came out this past year.
So what I decided is that I’m going to make as many year-end lists as I can think of. These won’t be terribly long (4-6 books), but will represent a variety of different categories so that you can find some suggestions depending on what it is you want to read/find out about. I’ll try and do one of these a day for the next week or so. Like “6 Days of Random Lists” or something.Tweet
Yesterday, to celebrate #TranslationTuesday (which is only slightly less popular than #TacoTuesday and #2DayIsCatDayEveryDayIsCatDay), World Literature Today announced their fourth annual list of 75 Notable Translations.
I’m not going to reprint the whole list here—click above to see the full list—but I do have a few general comments.
First off, the list is pretty great. As you’ll see in a few minutes, I have some thoughts about year-end lists and am going to be running approximately a billion over the next couple weeks. That said, if you’re looking for an overview of a ton of great translations, this is, hands down, the best place to start.
On a selfish note, Open Letter has SIX titles on this list:
Naja Marie Aidt, Rock, Paper, Scissors, K. E. Semmel, tr.
Hubert Haddad, Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters, Jennifer Grotz, tr.
Gail Hareven, Lies, First Person, Dalya Bilu, tr.
Andrés Neuman, The Things We Don’t Do, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, tr.
Mercè Rodoreda, War, So Much War, Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent, tr.
Antoine Volodine, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, J. T. Mahany, tr.
Deep Vellum also has six titles on the list, and New Directions ranks third with four books. (These three presses make up 21% of the total list. And I’ll never burn out on seeing something like that given how Penguin Random House and HarperCollins make up like 85% of all other year-end lists.)
University Presses are also strongly represented on this list. Led by Michigan State University Press (my alma mater! whose football team better beat ‘Bama like a god damn drum on New Year’s Eve) with three titles, university presses have eleven books on the list. (A solid 15% of the total.)
Again, you can find the whole list here, and to give you a bit of a taste, here are five books on here that I personally haven’t read, but definitely want to and am using this as a prompt to move them up my “to read” list:
Blai Bonet, The Sea, Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent, tr. (Dalkey Archive)
Horacio Castellanos Moya, The Dream of My Return, Katherine Silver, tr. (New Directions)
Boubacar Boris Diop, The Knight and His Shadow, Alan Furness, tr. (Michigan State University Press)
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Sleep of the Righteous, Isabel Fargo Cole, tr. (Two Lines Press)
Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mari Yoshihara & Juliet Winters Carpenter, tr. (Columbia University Press)Tweet
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads to a tidy little room with a desk. Inside this room, he feels a profound sense of peace. The problem is that Björn is the only one in the office who can see the room.
Björn is a new employee at “the Authority” at the start of the novel. He describes himself as ambitious and smart, but within a matter of pages, it becomes clear that he’s unreliable. He reprimands a co-worker for allowing the files on his desk to spill onto Björn’s, an obvious overreaction. We begin to realize that the whole office is concerned about Björn’s strange behavior when the manager, Karl, sends an email to the entire staff that says: “We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope.”
What follows Karl’s email is the revelation that Björn sees a room nobody else can, and that, while Björn thinks he is inside the room, he is actually staring at the wall. Karl and the staff confront him about this behavior, but Björn, so convinced of his own reality, insists that everyone else is delusional or conspiring against him.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
After reading this excellent Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog yesterday (for a typical highlight, scroll down the “cookie press”) I really wished we could do something this for publishing. Like, make ignorant, funny jokes about the finalists for the National Book Awards. Or the Hater’s Guide to Literary Websites. (“Want to know about what ‘fancy’ lit-parties Paul Morris attended in NY last week while you were trying to put your kids to bed? Check out LitHub!” “BuzzFeed is great for those times when you want to find a real book to read, but decide that a gif is just so much better.”)
I even started compiling a list of 2015 translations to hate all over. Unfortunately, Simon & Schuster only did one translation this year, so that was a bit tougher than usual.
So I decided, why limit the hate? This could be part of that weekly book column that you never write because you’re too busy doing favors for other publishers and translators! There are so many awful things in this world—books, commercials, publishers, pretentious coffee places—that deserve to be ridiculed a bit. I know some of these are going to end up pissing people off, but the lovefest that the literary world has become is really boring and hypocritical. Most of those people are only chummy when they have a book coming out, or really want you to do something for them. And if we can’t ridicule ourselves, then what’s the point?
Book That I’m Reading: The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk (Pantheon)
When Stephen Sparks and I were polling people for our “100 Best Translations of the Century (So Far)”—a book project that most editors think we should just write for free and put online, which is proof that people are exploitative idiots with no self-awareness of the things they say and crap they publish—this book was recommended at least a half-dozen times. And so far, it’s pretty good!
There are two main plots to this book that, even if I hadn’t read the jacket copy, seem destined to intersect. In one, Atile’i, a “second son” growing up on a semi-mythical island, is sent out to sea to die because, well, he’s the “second son.” Some of his chapters trend toward becoming info dumps, establishing the peculiarities of Wayo Wayo through long expositions of the traditions and beliefs of this small, sea-worshipping island. (“If you are so careless as to eat an asamu, you will grow a ring of scales around your navel, a ring of scales that you could never finish peeling off your whole life long.”) At the same time, the social texture of this island—they worship Kabang, there are Sea and Earth Sages—brings it alive and is reinforced by the almost fantasy-novel tone of the writing.
Another day, the Earth Sage took the children to the field in the hollow, to the place where the akaba grew. One of the only starchy plants on the island, the luxuriant akaba, a word that meant “shaped like the palm of a hand,” seemed to raise innumerable hands in supplication to the sky. The island was small and the people lacked faming tools, so pebbles were piled around the plots, to keep the soil moist and to serve as a windbreak. “You must love the land, my children, and ring it in with your love. For the land is the most precious thing on this island. It is like rain, like the heart of a woman.”
This style is in stark contrast to how the Alice sections are written. Alice lives in Taiwan, where she is a writer and professor who wants to kill herself following the loss of her husband and son. (They disappeared on a mountain climb.) Her sections are straight realistic, and start to bring in the environmental themes that seem to be the backbone of this narrative.
A few minutes later, the car rounded a stretch of coastline, formerly the most famous in Haven. Years before, a developer had gone in, shoveled away part of the mountain, filled it in, firmed it up and built an amusement park. And then, with the full backing of that mayor who was knee deep in corruption charges, the developer kept right on digging away at the mountain wall on the other side of the site. But a major earthquake over nine years ago had caused the foundations of most of the facilities to shift, rendering the rides inoperable. The company filed for bankruptcy to avoid having to pay compensation. What with the rising sea level and the encroaching shoreline, the uncleared cable-car pylons and Ferris wheel looked stranded now.
I still have a ways to go with this, but I think I’ll stick with it. Something that hasn’t happened much of late . . .
Book I Want to Read: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by Timothy Bent (Picador)
Last Friday I picked up Carrère’s The Adversary, hoping for something that would suck me in for an hour or two while my daughter was at gymnastics practice. Instead, I stayed up till almost 3am reading that book, going deeper and deeper into the bizarre world of lies that Jean-Claude Romand built around himself. (If you want to know more about this book, I’d recommend reading this review.)
Once I plowed through that, I wanted to read all of Carrère’s books one after another. He’s been on my list forever, but so far I’ve only made it through The Adversary and Limonov. But the first one I want to start with is his biography of Philip K. Dick.
I am a devout fan of Dick. I think I’ve read two-dozen of his books, and I love the worlds he creates, his particular voice, the sheer feats of imagination found in his novels. And given Amazon’s recent adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (which I’m totally going to watch now that I’m done with Jessica Jones), it seems like the perfect time to get back into the PKD world.
Ed Park recommended I Am Alive and You Are Dead to me years ago, but also said that it was largely based on Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, which, at that time, I had just read. So I thought I’d wait until I had mostly forgotten that biography. A few years of drinking and reading has washed it almost completely away, so I think the time is right!
Book I Will Not Read: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated from the Estonian by Christopher Moseley (Black Cat)
I love Estonia and the Baltics in general and, for the most part, dig what Grove/Black Cat brings out, but man, I’ve been rejecting Kivirähk for the better part of a decade now, and with good reason.
The first time I ever met with the wonderful people from the Estonian Literature Centre, they pitched Kivirähk’s first book, The Old Barny. Yeah, “Barny.” They gushed about it, how funny it was, how he was the hottest Estonian author writing today, etc., etc. Actually, here’s a quote from the ELIC website:
Andrus Kivirähk is a most remarkably prolific, innovative and powerful figure on the Estonian literary scene of today, probably the most beloved and talented Estonian writer nowadays. He is a virtuoso who can easily shift from one style to another, producing short stories, newspaper columns, pamphlets and dramatic texts, writing for children and for TV, varying black humour with even unexpected tender sensitivity, making one smile through one’s tears.
I got none of the humor or innovation from the sample of “Barny” that I read. In part, possibly, because it’s so wedded to the folk tales of the region, of which I understand nothing. Besides, I shy away from anything including werewolves and “treasure-collecting beings called kratt.” No no no no no.
A few years later, at Frankfurt, Ilvi from the Centre pitched The Man Who Spoke Snakish. I basically gave up on this immediately, since “snakish” is dumb. But just wait:
The ‘man who speaks Snakish,’ and who is befriended by snakes, is called Leemet and belongs to a tribe of forest people in medieval Christian Europe. He is born and grows up in a period of changes, and is the last one to retain the life-style and to keep the secret of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who earlier has defended the land, but now has fallen into eternal sleep.
Mythical giant Frog of the North. I’m out. Done. No way.
Well, for some reason or another, Grove ended up publishing this. Everyone who worked on this book is fantastic, but wow is this not a book I’m ever going to spend a weekend reading. The language is so artificial and jacked up that it seems like a bad joke.
“It was slops,” she used to say to me. “You know, Leemet, I don’t believe anybody actually likes it. This bread-eating is really just showing off. They want to appear terribly fine and live like foreigners. Now a nice fresh haunch of deer is quite another thing. Now come on and eat, dear child! Who did I roast these joints for?” [. . .]
My mother was bored in the village; she didn’t care for work in the fields, and while my father was striding out to go sowing, my mother was wandering around the old familiar forests, and she got acquainted with a bear. What happened next seems to be quite clear, it’s such a familiar story. Few women can resist a bear, they’re so big, soft, helpless and furry. And besides that, they are born seducers, and moreover terribly attracted to human females, so they wouldn’t let slip an opportunity to make their way up to a woman and growl in her ear. In the old days, when most of our people still lived in the forest, there were endless cases of bears becoming women’s lovers, until finally the man would come upon the couple and send the brown beast packing.
Really?! Four hundred pages of this? I just can’t.
To be fair, according to Grove’s publicity page, some people like this book. Like Lit Hub. And Entertainment Weekly.
But as someone who has read more than one Estonian author, I think you should pass this one by and instead read Mati Unt, Tõnu Õnnepalu, or Rein Raud. Or buy an Open Letter book. They’re all 40% off till the end of the month.Tweet
I’ve written about Paper Republic in the past, praising all the resources they’ve collected to promote Chinese literature. It really is a great site, as I was reminded recently when Nicky Harman drew my attention to their 2015 round up of Chinese literature and the Read Paper Republic feature.
The first page is pretty straight forward, but it’s great to see so many works translated from the Chinese—including fiction, poetry, YA, nonfiction—in one place, along with all the awards Chinese literature in translation won this year. (Such as Can Xue winning the BTBA for The Last Lover.)
Read Paper Republic has been going for a while, but this is the first time we’re writing it up, so I’ll let them explain what it is:
We at Paper Republic are a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Our new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water.
Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.
So, as of this week, they’re half way done. There’s a whole list of accomplishments on that page, but at its core, the simple process of publishing 26 stories, essays, and poems, is rather amazing. I can’t think of a better source for publishers to identify Chinese authors to publish in translation. And for readers, this is a wonderful way to get a sense of what’s out there. Definitely worth visiting and poking around.
Having just glanced through the twenty-six published pieces, here are two that caught my eye:
Painless, by Yerkex Hurmanbek, translated by Roddy Flagg
I love that name—Yerkex Hurmanbek—and the opening is pretty dramatic:
Nobody in the village noticed that my brother’s six-year-old daughter had chewed off all her fingers. Only her little palms were left, like two tiny shovels. But more mobile and fleshier, with a child’s warmth. She took bowls of food using her palms like pincers. The sight stopped her mother’s heart for an instant; the right ventricle blocked and wouldn’t let the blood through so the breath caught in her throat. It was a bit like when their pasta-maker choked on a lump of dough, or the neighbour’s tractor spluttered to a halt outside.
Regurgitated, by Dorothy (Hiu Hung) Tse, translated by Karen Curtis, also sounds really good:
The news that a son had been eaten came at three thirty-three in the afternoon.
At first the news was no more than a current of air brushing past the old faded clippings on the Democracy Wall and the apolitical colors of the national flag. Everything was scattered by the breeze like blossoms in azalea season. The professor bent down, and then further down, to pick up a broken finger of chalk in the classroom. As the news in his head gradually fragmented into an inverted vision, the classroom door suddenly burst open. From under the floor rose the hypnotic hum of a megaphone; the lily-white legs of the female students hung upside-down from the ceiling. Someone noticed a shudder pass through the professor’s shoulders, like an electric shock.
I think I have a think for cannibalism today . . .Tweet
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
Like any good potboiler worth its salt, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun wastes no time setting up its premise: “Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it, I’m not really sure. I’ve never seen something so. . .
Heiner Resseck, the protagonist in Monika Held’s thought-provoking, first novel, This Place Holds No Fear, intentionally re-lives his past every hour of every day. His memories are his treasures, more dear than the present or future. What wonderful past eclipses. . .
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Perception is reality.” To Björn, the office worker who narrates Jonas Karlsson’s novel The Room, the reality is simple: there’s a door near the bathroom that leads. . .
I recently listened to Three Percent Podcast #99, which had guest speaker Julia Berner-Tobin from Feminist Press. In addition to the usual amusement of finally hearing both sides of the podcast (normally I just hear parts of Chad’s side. . .
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .