There’s no real official start date for the judging of the Best Translated Book Award – though maybe the announcement finalizing who the judges actually are is a good starting point. While some of us have been here before – and have probably been reading with an eye towards the 2015 prize all year already – others have only been roped into the process more recently. But in fact, while we are already two-thirds into the year (the 2015 prize is for a work of fiction, never previously translated, published/distributed in the US in 2014), it really is still early days for all of us judges. Publishers have until the very last day of the year, December 31st, to submit titles to us, and while quite a few have already gotten some nice batches of books out to us (many thanks!), experience suggests that the submission piles will only really start piling up in the coming months. (Publishers don’t have to submit titles – we’ll try to consider anything that is eligible, regardless – but it certainly helps (a lot) if they do; and while the December 31 deadline isn’t actually an absolute one (yes, we’ll (try very hard to …) look at books even after then if for some reason they’ve escaped us until then) the more time we do have to consider books, the better.)
I get a lot of these titles anyway, all year long, as submissions for possible review at the Complete Review, so I don’t quite feel I’ve suddenly been thrown into a bottomless ocean of fiction-in-translation – I’ve been wading in it all year already – , but opening the spreadsheet where we track the books and share our comments on our on-going reading can feel a bit overwhelming. The spreadsheet is based on the Translation Database Chad Post keeps at Three Percent, with the ineligible works (such as anthologies) weeded out, and kept perhaps slightly more up-to-date. So while the 2014 database currently lists 384 fiction- titles, the spreadsheet – as I write this – already lists 408. (A few more of these will probably be weeded out, while a few dozen more will likely eventually be added – such as that just-announced new Murakami work.) Still,
408 409 works…..
A few books always escape us – we just can’t get our hands on even one copy – but we do try our hardest to at least consider them all. Some admittedly more than others: it only takes a quick dip into some of the books to realize there’s not much there – surprisingly few, however: translation does tend to act as a filter: all the extra work involved in getting a book published in English translation does seem to weed out most of the truly terrible stuff.
I build my BTBA piles as the books come in (fortunately not all 400+ books at once …) and try to work my way through, setting aside the ones which I think might possibly be in the running – and flinging away the ones which I think don’t deserve or have a chance (flinging carefully, since my fellow-judges might have different views and might make the case for these later in the process). For now, everything still seems reasonably manageable – the piles aren’t too high (we’re only two-thirds of the way into the year, so a lot of books haven’t been published yet and aren’t available for us to consider – I don’t think I’ve seen even close to half of the eligible titles yet), the spreadsheet isn’t yet a blur of titles – but I know from experience that it’s important to plow ahead at a steady clip, so as not to really be overwhelmed when the serious decision-making process starts early next year.
Already four months ago, just after this year’s winners were announced, I looked ahead, suggesting some of the titles I figured would be contenders for the 2015 longlist. I’ve seen and read a lot more of the eligible titles by now, but the picture is still a pretty hazy one to me – which I think is probably for the best: there are far too many more works to get through, and too many other opinions to hear and consider for anything to be set anywhere near in stone yet …..
There are, as always, some big names and some obvious contenders, but so far I haven’t been convinced there’s an obvious break-out title (we’re not going to have a Krasznahorkai three-peat – no eligible title, this time around), and there are fairly few ‘big’ books from the most prominent authors. Yes there’s a new Murakami, which I enjoyed, but it’s safe to say it’s not one of his major works; it’ll be in the longlist discussions, I assume, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised or shocked if it doesn’t make the short- or even longlist.
Two other authors who probably do qualify as literary powerhouses by now – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante – are certainly in the thick of things with their new books, both of which are very strong. But they’re also (both) the third installment in multi-volume series, and so it’s possible that some reader-fatigue has or is setting in. I’m tipping Knausgaard’s final installment – number six, probably a couple of years off – as a likely future BTBA winner, but I don’t know if these middle-books can generate that top-level of excitement to consistently push them through to the shortlist. Ferrante, on the other hand, seems to have more momentum (and, this year, arguably the stronger book) – though the fact that it turns out this one isn’t the last in the series either might prove a bit deflating as well.
For now, it’s simply about reading – digesting as much as possible and getting those initial impressions. A bit of cream rises easily to the top, but it’ll be a few months – until we start discussing in earnest – before I really start thinking seriously about what books I’d like to see on the longlist and what books I might not have given a fair shot yet (as other judges make the case for books X,Y, and Z). Fun times – for now.Tweet
Next up in our Month of a Thousand Forests series is Ana María Matute who has one book already available in English—School of the Sun, which was translated by Elaine Kerrigan and published by Columbia University Press.
The piece that’s excerpted below is from Olvidado Rey Gudú which is “the book I wanted to write ever since I was a girl, all of my obsessions are in it.” According to Valerie Miles, this is “one of her most celebrated novels that, along with La torre vigía and Aranmanoth, make up a trilogy about a medieval court.
Unfortunately, Matute passed away in June, but left behind a huge catalog of works, including novels, short stories, books for children, and a few collections of articles. Given how many prizes she won over her lifetime, hopefully someone will bring out a few of these.
__And just as a reminder, all this month, if you order_ A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
You refer to your generation as the “shadow children” and you explain how important fairy tales were for them, and the phrase “once upon a time.” You started out writing social realism but over time you’ve shifted to the fantasy novel. Why?
Some women began to make significant inroads in literature in the postwar era. Carmen Laforet was the first, and although I’m often included in the same generation as her and Cela, she was older—I’m from the generation of the fifties. But it’s not entirely true to say that I’ve switched from realism to fantasy. It is, but not entirely. My intended style of writing forms part of the magic, you understand, of the magic of literature, of literature as invention. So that has always existed in my books and stories. But you have to take into account the time in which I had to live and develop as a writer. It was the Francoist era. First, when I was eleven years old the civil war broke out right in front of me and after I was fourteen, in my adolescence, I lived through a very long postwar period. And that left a mark on all of us, marked us decisively. This explains why I had to find a lung to breathe and to fight this man and his system. Pequeño tentro or Primaria memoria are realist, but not entirely. There is always a more poetic part. I think that social realism really killed Spanish literature for a while and I wanted to get away from it. I didn’t renounce my rebelliousness or my strong social criticism by writing literature instead of social reporting. I haven’t limited myself to telling, to narrating. I imagine. I invent. In any case, I have traveled a lot and I’ve seen how women are treated in the world and I’ve come to the realization that it’s not solely the heritage of Spain. But in a country like ours and at that time there were strong inherited prejudices.
_Did this generation of “shadow children” lose their innocence because of what they
saw so young?_
I’ve known many people for whom it’s not that they’ve lost it, it’s that they never had it. But childhood is something that’s never lost. Childhood leaves a mark. I’ve often stressed that childhood, the boy or girl that we were, is something we have inside forever and it’s a very rich place for imagination and invention.
Ondina of the Depths of the Lake had lived in the loveliest spot in the Lake of Disappearances for four-hundred-and-thirty years. Ondina was extraordinarily beautiful: smooth floating hair the color of seaweed coming down to her waist, large eyes ranging from the softest gold to dark green, as changeable as the light, and bluish-white skin. Her arms waved slowly between the deep roots of the plants, and her legs moved like the fins of a carp. A steady and shining smile, which transitioned from the pearlescent white of a shell to the liquid pink of a sunrise, floated across her lips. Any human would have felt a captivating desire to study her in all of her details—with the exception of her ears, which, like all of her kind, were long and pointed at the tips, although of a soft color between rose and gold.
Despite being the granddaughter of the Great Lady of the Lake, she did not possess a shred of her wisdom, not even a speck of the slightest intelligence—as often happens with water nymphs. On the contrary, she was so sweet and gentle, and exuded such innocence, that her profound stupidity could very well be mistaken for more poignant charm and enchantment. Like all water nymphs, she was exceedingly capricious, and her great whimsy was her Collection at the Bottom, where she had cultivated her garden of Intricate Greens with care. Ondina’s collection consisted of an already considerable display of men, young and handsome, between fourteen and twenty years of age. She liked them so much that she would often drag them to the bottom, and there she preserved them, rosy and unharmed, thanks to the sap of the maraubina plant that grows once every three thousand years among the wellsprings. But soon she grew tired of them, and however much she adorned them with flowers from the lake and crowned their heads with all sorts of glittering stones, and caressed their hair, and kissed their cold lips, they said and did nothing; and so she always needed more and more young men to distract her with variety.
Every so often, cautiously approaching the shores of the Lake, she had seen how young peasant couples caressed and kissed one another, and it filled her with envy. She had confessed as much on more than one occasion to the goblins, who, out of pity, sometimes pushed men to the bottom. Among them was the Goblin of the South, to whom she had confided her wayward obsession. “This is foolishness,” the goblins told her. “Choose a dolphin from those that roam the Southern coasts to take as your husband and stop this. Considering your youth, you can be forgiven, but tread carefully so your grandmother doesn’t find out: she doesn’t tolerate human contamination, and you can only play safely with the drowned.” “That’s what I’ll do,” she said then, contritely. “I promise not to forget.” But since she was stupid to the most remote depths of her being, she not only forgot, but persisted in her foolish desire to receive caresses and kisses from a living man. “But what for?” the Goblin of the South asked her, who, after his libations had given him his post in the Castle, the Northern region of which grazed the waters of the rising Lake, had long conversations with her. “I see no reason.” “Nor do I,” responded Ondina. “I see no reason, but so it is.”
This was the state of things when the Goblin opportunely remembered about her, her naïve nature and her foolish whimsy. This is how water nymphs were, it was said. He had met another, in the South, who had taken a fancy to donkeys, and also another, farther East, who had a penchant for red-bearded soldiers. Anything could be expected from a water nymph, except common sense.
(Translated by Lisa Boscov-Ellen)Tweet
Usually, I try and feature a work of translation as part of the “weekend reading” series, but I’m making an exception this week in order to highlight Joanna Scott’s new novel, which just came out this week.
Aside from being an outstanding novelist and short story writer (Arrogance and The Manikin are particularly worth reading), Joanna is one of the most beloved English professors here at the University of Rochester and has served on Open Letter’s Executive Committee from day one.
Even if I didn’t know her personally—and hadn’t worked with her daughter a couple summers ago—I would still be really excited about De Potter’s Grand Tour. Here’s a bit from the FSG website:
In 1905, a tourist agent and amateur antiques collector named Armand de Potter mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Greece. His body is never recovered and his wife is left to manage his affairs on her own. But as she starts to piece together his life, she realizes that everything was not as he had said. Infused with details from letters and diary entries, the narrative twists forward and backward through time, revealing a lost world of fake identities, underground antiques networks, and a husband who wasn’t what he seemed. [. . .]
Told with masterful narrative agility, De Potter’s Grand Tour is a tale as grand as the tour guide at its center. Drawing on real letters, legal documents, and a trove of diaries only recently discovered, Joanna Scott points delicately toward the story’s historical basis and unfolds a detective tale of the highest order.
Given Joanna’s literary sensibilities and intimidating intelligence, I think this is going to be pretty amazing. My copy is supposed to be available today, and with a weekend of 90 degree temperatures, it seems like the perfect way to end the summer is sitting on the beach with this book.
A couple months back FSG featured De Potter’s Grand Tour in their weekly “Work in Progress” newsletter. So if you’re interested, you can read the first chapter here.Tweet
The second author to be featured in our overview of the new collection A Thousand Forests in One Acorn is Jose María Merino, a Spanish master of microfictions. Merino is one of the authors in this volume whose work is appearing in English for the first time.
You can read other excerpts from Thousand Forests by clicking here. And this feature will continue all month—until all 28 authors have been highlighted.
All this month, if you order the book from the Open Letter site and use the code “FORESTS,” you’ll get it for only $15.
I chose the opening of my novel La orilla oscura because it is the work in which I think my literary obsessions really start to take shape: the tension between sleep and waking, the question of the double—in this case, with Spanish America mixed in—metamorphosis, the tricks that memory plays, my taste for metafiction and for texts that are nested like Russian dolls . . . Then I include three microfictions, a form I discovered after writing several novels and about a hundred short stories, because they represent not only the flexibility of the genre, but also show different aspects of my bewilderment at reality, which is the main inspiration for my writing. Finally, I chose the first story from my latest work, El libro de las horas contadas, in which I play with the idea of composing a novel as a short story writer would, and a collection of short stories and microfictions as a novelist.
The dead whose voices I hear with my eyes? My favorite books come to mind in schools, in flocks, and I find it hard to choose just a few. I will settle for a painfully incomplete historical overview of the books that have shaped me. After my first, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I read when I was seven, there were the ones I read in my childhood and adolescence, over which hung the shadow of Don Quixote—_Tom Sawyer, Kim, Around the World in 80 Days, William Brown_ . . . and a few dictionaries and encyclopedias, among which Salvat’s Universitas, where I discovered Hoffman and things like the solar system and mythology, stands out.
The fly circles listlessly around the bathroom. I look at it with disgust. What’s a bug doing in my luxury hotel room—in February, no less? I hit it with a towel and it falls, lifeless, onto to the marble sink. It’s a strange, reddish fly, not very big. It occurs to me that it is the last of a species that will disappear with its death. It occurs to me that the bathroom is its refuge from the winter. That in the garden under my window there is a plant, also very rare, which can only be pollinated by this fly. And that, within a few millennia, the presence of enough oxygen to ensure the survival of our own species will depend on the pollination and proliferation of that plant. What have I done? By killing this fly I have sealed your fate, humans of the future. But a slight twitch moves its legs. Maybe it isn’t dead! Now it is moving them with more force, now it has managed to stand, now it’s rubbing them together, stretching out its wings, getting ready to take flight; now it’s circling around the bathroom. Live! Breathe, humans of the future! But its clumsy movements bring that first, repellant image back to mind. I am snapped out of my trance. What is this disgusting bug doing here? I grab the towel, follow it, hit it, kill it. I finish it off.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)Tweet
In case you’ve forgotten, Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he’s also a regular reviewer for Three Percent and runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and Twitter-publicly apologized for ruining Murakami for me. He’s a good guy.
Have we mentioned how much we LOVE Pushkin Press’s covers I mean good hot damn.
Anyway, here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:
After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.
In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”
She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Following on yesterday’s interview with Valerie Miles I thought we’d feature the Javier Marías section from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, mainly because I like the bit about translation and find his reasoning for choosing this bit of Dark Back of Time incredibly interesting.
This is going to follow the format I’m planning on using for all the rest of the authors in this collection: a snippet from their interview followed by a bit of the piece they chose as “their best work.”
And once again, if you order the book now, from the Open Letter site, and use the code “FORESTS,” you can get it for only $15. That’s like $.02 a page. Not even shitting around.
The reason for choosing this last fragment, which is from Negra espalda del tiempo, is because out of all my work, it is the passage that has made me feel the most moral doubts. I have asked myself “should I write this, should I put this into somebody else’s mind? I have the bad luck that it has come into my mind, but should I put this into somebody else’s mind and make him or her feel as bad as I am feeling now?” It’s not that I thought of suppressing it, of course not, not so much as that, but I thought that this is a “putada” to make somebody who might not ever think this at all in his lifetime, to make him think about it, about the idea that nothing ever passes, nothing ever goes away totally. When children get hurt or are frightened or have a nightmare, one of the things a mother says to her child is “ya pasó, ya pasó,” it’s over, it’s finished. You’ve had a really bad time, but now, in the present, you aren’t having that bad time any more. And those words, “it’s over” are very consoling, very healing, as if the present were the thing that counts; it is a consolation to think that that the bad thing or the worst possible thing is over. In this paragraph the idea is that no, it isn’t like that, things aren’t always over. Things that happened are always happening, they are still happening and they shall always happen. There is an echo of Macbeth here: “it seems as if our yesterdays were all under the earth, trying to surface.” I think the fragment is not bad and it has some force, and it is convincing in a way because generally the idea would be no, it’s true that when things are over, things are better. Or you can bear what has happened because it is already past, and the past is always more bearable than the present. So to put in somebody else’s mind the idea that no, watch out, because it’s not like that, is not a very nice thing to do to potential readers.
In my case the writer I have most in mind is undeniably obvious and explicit in many of my books: Shakespeare. I have taken many titles from him for my works: Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, Corazón tan blanco, Cuando fui mortal, and La negra espalda del tiempo, which is not exactly a quote, but it comes from what he says in The Tempest about the abysm, and of course some fragments of works by him are also mentioned openly in my books, fragments from Richard III and Macbeth, and of course The Tempest and from Henry IV and Henry V.
And of course Cervantes, although in the case of Cervantes he comes to me directly in the Spanish language, but also indirectly in the English language because I did translate Tristram Shandy about 30 years ago, and it was a hard task and a long one, and Sterne was so influenced by Cervantes in that novel that in a way I would say that perhaps it is much more Cervantine than any Spanish novel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. And of course by translating that book when I was young I learned so much about writing and about the use of time in the novel, that I also have a rather permanent dialogue as it were with Sterne himself and with Cervantes as well. Of course there are many others, the authors I have translated into Spanish, because translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. If I had a creative writing school, which I would not, but if I did, I would only have students who speak at least two languages and make them translate. Because you happen to be not only a privileged reader, but a privileged writer if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt someone else’s—someone who is much better than you, always if you are translating classics at least—and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments and your writing will improve tremendously. I translated poetry by Nabokov and Faulkner, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Stevenson, Auden, Thomas Browne, Isak Dinesen, Yeats.
Of course translating well is not enough, you must have some ability for invention and some talent and a few other things, but as far as the instrument goes, that is the best possible school. Therefore, those writers I just mentioned influenced me because I did translate them, they are always very much on my mind, and I have adopted in my own writing sometimes solutions that I have found for them in Spanish. Sometimes in translation you cannot always have an absolute equivalent, but you can add something with which you compensate for what you miss. And sometimes I have even used small things; I remember having used something from Nabokov, in one of his poems he talks about the “mellow moon”; which I translated as “la luna pulposa.” Whenever I have used that expression in Spanish, I realize that I am in conversation with my Nabokov. So I have many authors in mind. Funnily enough, there are more poets who I have more conversations with when writing, and that is something that has not been pointed out very often. When critics talk about evident influences, sometimes I think, “but I have never read that author,” but they always link you with other novelists, they never think of poets and I think that one of my strongest influences can be found in the poets, which is why in Tu rostro mañana there are quotations from Eliot, Rilke, Machado, and Ashbery.
The woman watches the streetlamps while trying to protect her hair from the wind with a kerchief, an old-fashioned image not often seen any more, maybe that’s why she’s not very skilled at it and, not managing to tie the kerchief in place, she gives up, her hair flying in the wind like a banner. She has left the night behind, and her bed, and she thinks with some uneasiness about the young man still asleep there, he’s spent too many mornings there since he stayed on without ever saying he was staying, coming and going while she’s at work, leaving and returning whenever he feels like it with no explanations, as if he’d rented out a room and didn’t live with anyone, neither asking nor telling; but at night when he comes to bed in the darkness, far too late, he wakes her up like a hungry animal—like a child who can’t bear to wait—and tears off her nightgown and gets her sheets sweaty, taking up her time for rest, robbing her of her sleep to keep it for himself. The woman stays awake almost all night, thinking about what’s happened in the darkness and wondering if this was the last time, she leaves in the morning weary of her thoughts, fearful that when she comes back after all the hours in the world outside he’ll still be there, and fearful, too, that he’ll be gone; she fears both things equally and hasn’t even tried to tell him to stay or go because it also frightens her to think that he might listen to her, or that he might not, if she were to say one thing or the other, one thing and the other, if she dared. And she doesn’t know what to do so she doesn’t do anything, she just waits for the bus, chilled, watching the streetlamps hold out against the rising light of the sun as if it had nothing to do with them, during this time when their two territories coexist and do not exclude each other though they do not intermingle either, just as the real does not mix with the fictitious, and in fiction it can never be said, “It’s over now, there, there, it’s all over,” not even as consolation or subterfuge, because nothing has really happened, silly, and in the territory that is not truth’s everything goes on happening forever and ever and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out.
(Excerpt translated by Esther Allen)Tweet
As promised at various points in the past, all this month we’re going to be running excerpts from our latest book, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles. This anthology—which is so much more than an anthology—features twenty-eight great writers from the past century, each of whom picked out the handful of pages representing the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career.
Not only do you get the best of the best in here, but each author’s section is prefaced by an illuminating bio and an interview in which they address questions of influence, what they were trying to accomplish in their selected pieces, etc. This context is incredibly useful and fascinating, allowing the reader to build a sort of network . . .
Over the next month, we’ll be posting short excerpts from the collection—both from the interviews and the works themselves—starting with the interview below in which Valerie explains the project.
Also, for the month of September, you can receive a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for $15 by purchasing it through out website and using the code “FORESTS.”
Here’s the interview, which was conducted by University of Rochester MALTS graduate Katherine Rucker.
Katherine Rucker: Which authors chose works that surprised you? Were there instances when you didn’t agree with what they chose as their “best work?
Valerie Miles: I was surprised by more than a few of the choices the writers made, which charged the whole process with a far more interesting result, and sort of verified the idea that what a critic says objectively isn’t always in sync with how a writer feels about his or her own work. Yes, of course we know that, but I wanted to go farther and find a way to prove it. Not that a writer is correct and a critic mistaken, which is obviously not the case either. Just that there is a private space in which a critic, for however expertly versed he or she is in a writer’s work, cannot enter, it belongs to a writer’s private sphere. So I wanted to appeal to the writer’s complicity to enter this more intimate creative space, ask that they open the door to their studios and hand over the secrets about what they feel is their own best work; the obsessions that have finally sparked something significant, where the space between intent and result is at its minimum. I wanted to hear about the struggles they’ve had with form, or on the contrary, the felicities of a certain character, a passage, a technical accomplishment or a particular high stakes bet that aesthetically paid off.
This is what I set out to explore, that secret and intimate distance between a writer and his work. In that sense, perhaps two of the selections that I found some of the most surprising are those of Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. During my initial discussion with Mr. Vargas Llosa, which was done by email since he was in Peru at the time and I was in Madrid and later Barcelona (some of these conversations, though edited down into short introductions in some cases, were often held over a long period of time), I had mentioned novels like Conversation in the Cathedral, since it represents a truly incredible technical and structural feat, and is widely considered one of his most accomplished novels. I also thought he might choose something from The Time of the Hero, which was such an important novel in the history of twentieth-century Latin American literature, initiating the whole movement known as the “boom”, when writers emerged of the stature of Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Fuentes. It was the launch of a generation of bold new writing from Latin America that quickly took center stage. The writers of that movement have made a mark, they brought a swing into audacious technical innovations, together with a newfound linguistic élan which lasted through the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s (the pages of Granta magazine during the 80s give testament to how important translation from the Spanish was then. It was a time of great ebullience, and there was a sense that literature could help bring about social change, that it was imbued with significance beyond mere entertainment, an art form that was vital and challenging and pushing political discussions. Writing in the Americas was full of genius, and the new Latin American novel held a pole position on the map of world literature.
Instead, Vargas Llosa chose a piece from The Feast of the Goat, which touches on a theme that cuts across much of his writing, the abuse of political power in Latin America by merciless dictators and how their brutal behavior wreaked havoc over generations. He chose a fragment in which a young girl finally tells the secret of how she was brought to the dictator’s bed as a young girl and raped. He also chose another fragment, a scene from a book that is less widely known as some of his others, The Way to Paradise. Here, he brings Paul Gauguin to life and his grandmother, Flora Tristan, both of whom have left lives of a certain consequence to follow their individual ideals. Gauguin went to Tahiti to paint, and Flora Tristan to Paris to fight for women’s rights. It’s interesting that he would choose this fragment, which expresses a sort of Nabokovian flash of illumination with the strike of a match. The circumstances behind what brought Gauguin to paint his masterpiece, Spirit of the Dead Watching, which depicts his Tahitian mistress lying naked on her belly, terrified by the light of the match he struck when he entered his cabin late at night. She confused him with an ancestral ghost. Interestingly, they are both scenes of young girls in different sexual relationships with older men.
Carlos Fuentes, on the other hand, tells us cryptically that his choice, the fourth chapter of Terra Nostra, largely considered one of his more obscure novels, is his greatest accomplishment because it “has the unfortunate habit of summarizing my approach to storytelling.” I would have thought he might choose Where the Air is Clear, Aura, or The Death of Artemio Cruz, largely for the same reason as I mentioned earlier with Vargas Llosa. They are the novels that made him into a huge literary sensation at a time when the Latin American novel was experiencing its zenith. This was the last interview he gave before he died, and since then, in fact, the critics have begun revisiting Terra Nostra, it’s being studied more in universities, and there are serious deliberations regarding the nature and importance of the novel that may have been the most widely misunderstood in his lifetime.
One of the reasons I wanted to organize this project in this way, also, was to learn from the writers themselves and let them give me a good reading list!
KR: This anthology tells us where Spanish-language literature has come from. Can it also tell us where it’s going? Or, if there were to be “A Thousand Forests: Volume 2” in thirty years’ time, what are some young voices that you might expect to see there?
VM: That’s a very interesting question. I do think it gives a sense of the literary back and forth, the traffic, between Europe and the US during the latter part of the twentieth century. Europe as paradise, Europe as center, Paris particularly is itself almost a protagonist. Also Faulkner, interestingly, looms large as one of the most important influences on these generations. However the U.S. was at the time more of an enemy than a friend. It seems, though, that the North and the South have grown closer in many ways, and I would venture to say that the literary traffic is now more north and south than transatlantic, which one would think should always have been natural, but it wasn’t back in the day. The Cold War, Pinochet, it was “complicated”. But New York seems to be taking the relay from Paris as the center, where the conversation is, which I find particularly exciting.
Also, if you notice, there aren’t as many female voices as I would have liked. I finally decided I had to get this book done, it had been on my mind for many years, when Cabrera Infante died and I hadn’t had the chance to ask him the question of what he considered his best pages. And García Márquez was already too ill to respond. The Mexican Daniel Sada had passed. I think the feminine voice has been growing and hopefully when it would come time to do another volume, we could be sure to have a strong crop of women writing. But not because they are token, but because they are that good . . . a new generation of Lispecters, of Silvina Ocampos, of Carmen Martin Gaites.
KR: Of the excerpts and stories included in the anthology, which ones would you most like to see translated in their entirety in the future?
VM: I would love to see someone take Hebe Uhart on, which would be a monumental challenge for a translator, a sort of Argentine version of the linguistic panache that is the trademark of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio’s writing. She’s got such a sharp ear for language and yet she’s so terribly funny. Sánchez Ferlosio demonstrates in his choice for this anthology how the fantastic can be much more claustrophobic than any unrelenting realism! But Hebe is just one of those big old secrets just waiting to be discovered, and Andrés Neuman quoted her in the epigraph of his novel Talking to Ourselves. I think Horacio Castellanos Moya is another truly hilarious writer, but his humor is of the neurotic type, so psychologically penetrating it makes you blush, he’s an absolute master of the charming rogue. You just can’t believe he’s doing this, but there he is, just doing it! And there is nobody, and I mean nobody, as deliciously perverse as the ninety-something Aurora Venturini who had the audacity to send one of her novels in anonymously for a young writer’s award, taking it unanimously after not publishing for as many years as the age of some of the other contestants. Borges discovered her and awarded her with her first literary distinction, before she was forced into Parisian exile for having been so close to Evita Perón. Also, the Cuban writer Abilio Estévez, who is also a very talented playwright and hence so incredibly spot on with his characterization. Or the great artisan of the sensuous, the Mexican Alberto Ruy Sánchez, whose series of erotic novels are about the most arousing examples of what can be done with the form when its in the hands of such a careful, affectionate wordsmith.
Say Ramiro Pinilla three times in a row in front of the mirror. I dare you . . . A Fig Tree will appear.
KR: You spoke a little bit about the experience of working with the authors in your preface. Was there a common theme or thread that you saw in their experience as writers?
VM: I asked two questions that were the same to each one of the writers and by that measure, I was able to survey whether or not there were differences. And yes, as anyone who reads their answers can see, there was a very wide range of different and even contradictory answers, which I find one of the happiest results of all. There’s no rote! And then the third and fourth or fifth questions, the “coda” section, was to continue the path of the conversation set out by them.
So what does that mean? It means that there are as many doorways to the craft as people who have the keys. Each one, as an individual, has had to confront the blank page, and each one of them feels differently about just about everything involved. For example, I call the section where I ask them to talk about their selection of their best pages as “Dr. Johnson’s torture” because I could see how some writers just really had a hard time talking about their own creative process—as was the case of Eduardo Mendoza, for example, or the great Basque writer, Ramiro Pinilla, for whom Faulkner was a liberation and Algorta his own private Yoknapatawpha. Others, like Marías, took up the challenge and our conversation lasted an entire summer! His section really shows someone dedicated to the devices of literature and very consciously applying new techniques and innovations in point of view, in poetical associations between forms. Each writer inhabits their own personal labyrinth and that’s what makes the chance to compare and contrast these different approaches a rich experience.
After all, we needed Paris to tell us how important Faulkner was, and in a Telerama poll taken in France in 2009, Faulkner beat out Flaubert, Stendhal, Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Camus and Celine, coming in second only to Proust. Early on, in the US, he was considered a mere chronicler of the Southern condition. The Boom—Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa—are the children of Faulkner. That’s why translation is so important, it brings the periphery into the center and renews our own traditions. Sometimes we don’t see our own forest for the trees and we need a readership to appreciate what we aren’t able to see for ourselves. What would Baudelaire be without our Poe, whom Emerson used to call “the jingle man”? And what would Bolaño be without Baudelaire?Tweet
Haruki Murakami’s next book, “The Strange Library,” sounds surreal and experimental even for an author whose work features talking cats, giant frogs and malicious miniature people.
The Strange Library, which will be published in the United States by Knopf this December, is narrated by a boy who visits a library on his way home from school. An old man takes the boy hostage and forces him to memorize a large number of books. The boy eventually realizes that the man plans to absorb the information he’s memorized by eating his brain. With the help of a strange girl and a man dressed as a sheep, the captive devises an escape plan. (Men dressed as sheep have cropped up in Mr. Murakami’s work before.)
Murakami is the just the literary Hello Kitty—everywhere and unstoppable.Tweet
While I can’t claim to know whether I may be the editor Will refers to in the opening to his review (which: HAHA OH SO FUNNY WILL VERY FUNNY INDEED), I can admit to having never read a single work by Murakami. This mostly has to do with the fact that EVERYONE. ELSE. and their mothers has read and drooled over Murakami (either in earnest or forcibly), the media have done the same, and the hype just turns me off the idea of Murakami on principle. Basically: the rest of you ruined Murakami before I even managed to cracked a cover.
That said, Wills review actually has me thinking that this, a book that may not “go down as Murakami’s masterpiece,” may be the Murakami for me to start with . . . Here’s the beginning of Will’s review:
Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true, to a certain extent: Murakami, for better or worse, has a particular style, and with it come the trappings and clichéd Murakami-isms that, as a fan, you come to both love and loathe about the 65-year-old writer. He has become the master of a certain kind of metaphysical mystery wrapped in urban ennui. You’re either on board (like me), or you aren’t (like a certain editor of this website).
But anyone attempting to play Murakami Bingo with his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is going to lose. There are no parallel worlds, talking animals, or mysterious women. There’s only one passing reference each to wells and cats, both only as metaphors, and there’s really only one piece of music that’s talked about at any length. And it’s not even jazz.
This is Murakami at his most straightforward and subdued, the likes of which we’ve really only seen—in novels, at least—in Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. It is a relatively straightforward tale of friendship, depression, and memory. As such, it sheds a beacon on both Murakami’s core strengths and weaknesses as a writer, some thirty odd years into his career.
In this latest novel, the eponymous Tsukuru, a middle-aged train station engineer, reflects on his high school days, when he belonged to a group of friends so close that its importance to his life has become essentially mythic. Each of their names even contain a color—Aka (red), the temperamental brainiac; Ao (blue), the cool people-person; Kuro (black), the sarcastic comedian; and Shiro (white), the quiet beauty—except for Tsukuru, who they joked was “colorless.” This moniker takes on a whole new meaning for Tsukuru when the group unceremoniously and without explanation excise him from their circle after he leaves their hometown for Tokyo and college. Tsukuru’s sudden exile sends him into a wretched depression, from which he clearly did not come out entirely intact. Sixteen years later, in the present day, a casual girlfriend prompts Tsukuru to try and figure out just what exactly happened, in the hopes that he might be able to finally heal, and perhaps commit more fully to his present relationship with her.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
And just like that, school’s back in session.
Having students back on campus brings up so many complicated feelings. Annoyance being the first and more obvious. It’s super irritating that from one day to the next it becomes infinitely more difficult to find a parking place for you bike, that you have to wait in line at Starbucks and listen to awkward exchanges from freshman who are still trying out different personalities and trying to define themselves—mostly through failure (“Hey, Jenny, have you seen where the Bio Med building is?” “Not yet.” “It’s hella over that way.” “You say ‘hella’?” “Yeah. Sometimes I say ‘wicked cool’ as well.”), that a whole new range of job-related functions start up again (I finished and posted my syllabus early yesterday evening), that work schedules become more rigid and sneaking away for happy hour is nearly impossible.
Labor Day usually seems like such a depressing holiday for that very reason. Hell yeah—Labor Day! All the times of summer irresponsibility are over! Back to school and back to work! Grill me a hot dog and gimme a beer! It’s like the ultimate capitalist backhanded compliment-slash-fuck you.
It might be due to all the travel I did this summer—and random multi-day bike rides possibly because of my advancing age, or the Simpsons marathon I’ve been bingeing on, but I’m sort of excited about the “regular schedule” aspect the new school year brings about.
The season premier of The League is on Wednesday. I’m drafting in a fantasy football league tonight. All the big books/albums are coming out now—David Mitchell, alt-J, even Haruki Murakami. The St. Louis Cardinals are in first place. A lot more people are wearing unbroken-in clothes. The hallways at the university are as clean as old, rundown shit can be. My daughter just bought four thousand new three-subject notebooks. Every year, these same things happen.
I think it might be a bit of nostalgia creeping in, but for the first time in ages, all of this seems more comforting than depressing—like the words “autumn sweater.” So rather than lament the end of beach days and bike rides and staying up all night, I’m going to try and embrace the routine for once.
Including getting over-excited about all the new books that are coming out over the next few months.
A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions)
Let’s start here with the latest (and last? well, probably not . . .) Bolaño book. Mostly I just want to remind everyone that Tom Roberge and I will be discussing this on the September 26th edition of the Three Percent Podcast. We’re hoping to more of these “book club” episodes and would love to hear from all of you about what you thought of the book, questions you might have, etc. So please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Into the War”: by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Remember when every post about a Houghton Mifflin book opened with a slew of insults against their insufferably bad website? Well, apparently I’ve grown up a bit, but not enough to refrain from pointing out that their company website is still a hopeless pile of shit. How bad is it exactly? This is their “Author Detail Page” for Italo Calvino. If a website was flammable, I’d light it on fire.
Last month, Peter Mendelsund—the designer of all the new Calvino covers—published his first book, What We See When We Read, a fully-illustrated meditation on the relationship between reading and internal visualization. It’s not as weighty as I would’ve personally liked, but it’s thought provoking and deserves a wide audience. He also gets bonus points for including a quote from Gilbert Sorrentino slamming John Updike.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
This is the third of the “Neapolitan Novels,” and for a limited time, you can buy the ebook versions of the first two—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—for only $2.99. Just visit your favorite ebook retailer and go crazy.
Running a bit counter to my “regular schedule” joy above, I kind of appreciate the fact that I’ve waited so long to start Ferrante’s trilogy, so that I can binge on it now without having to wait a year for the next installment. It’s kind of stupid to make this comparison, but Netflix has totally fucked up our consumption habits in relation to series. Although most books still slump along at a reasonable pace, with new titles coming out every year or more, we’ve come to expect TV seasons to be available all at once, or, as is the case with a lot of people I know, we just wait until the whole season has played itself out and then binge watch everything over a weekend. It’s lunacy, but fits with the everythingnowallatonce mentality of the twenty-first century.
Books don’t work all that well with this sort of binge behavior, although FSG’s experiment with Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”—publishing all three books in the same year, the first in March, second in May, third in September—demonstrates a willingness on the part of traditional publishers to try and take advantage of our inclinations.
Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Jane Aitken (Gallic Books)
It occurs to me that publishing—at least in my little corner of it—has a sort of four-season cycle: Summer is vacations and half-day Fridays; Fall is conventions, Frankfurt, and being overwhelmed in advance of holiday sales; Winter is bookstores and publishers making bank before falling into a deep depression of either grant writing (if you’re a nonprofit) or bemoaning the lack of walk-in customers; Spring is when you prepare the lies for the rest of the year, bragging it all up at BookExpo America and sales conference. Then, Summer Fridays and hoping to see someone reading one of your books on the beach.
Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories)
After reading the first 40 pages of this, I decided that I have to use it in my spring class on “World Literature and Transaltion.” I can usually include six to eight new translations in this class, but so far the only two I’ve decided on are Seiobo There Below and Nowhere People. Seiobo since it won last year’s Best Translated Book Award, obviously. Nowhere People is kind of perfect since it’s Brazilian and, in the first 40 pages alone, features a host of “translation” issues: it opens in Porto Alegre, rather than Rio of São Paolo; two magazines are referenced that Americans probably have never heard of, Trip and DUNDUM, the latter of which comes up in this sentence, “what girl from the interior would be sitting blithely reading DUNDUM in this place, the absolute domain of middle-aged men?” which raises a few questions; the main character picks up a Guarani Indian from the side of the road, opening up discussions about Brazilian culture and racisms; and there are a few Britishisms, such as “he goes back to the main road, takes the correct turning.” Not to mention, the book is really intriguing and Daniel Hahn is fucking brilliant. Now I just have to convince him to Skype with my class . . .
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar, translated from the German by Sheila Dickie (New Vessel Press)
I’m not a fan of the title of this book—there’s something too YA about it, as if it’s going to contain the adventures of a quirky girl who calls herself Princess Frog and whose best friend committed suicide, which is why her group of unlikely cohorts called him “necktie”—but it got a ton of love at the Consortium sales conference, and New Vessel has stellar taste, so I’m 100% sure the content outweighs my weird title prejudice. Also interesting that it’s a book set in Japan written by a woman born to an Austrian father and Japanese mother who writes in German.
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles, translated from the Spanish by a number of great translators (Open Letter)
One of the most beautiful—and weighty—books we’ve ever published. And one that you’re going to be hearing about every single day this month until you finally buy a copy. (Just do it now! You won’t regret it.) Since our daily posts from the book will do a much better job of explaining this than I ever can, I want to use this opportunity to point out that this is the third title we’ve published that has “thousand” in the title. That’s called cornering the market.
Also, we started working on this book over two years ago. The editing process was intense, and every single person involved in this—Will Vanderhyden for all his editorial work, all the various interns who put up with the paperwork and word-by-word proofing I assigned them, Nate for his killer design, the Spain-USA for their support and for setting up all the upcoming events—deserves a special shout-out. Every hour that we put into is worth it, and I’m sure that everyone who ends up buying, reading, and teaching this, will totally agree.
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from French by Jessica Moore (Talonbooks)
This reminds me a bit of Tom’s rant from last week’s Three Percent Podcast episode about Salton Sea and humans fucking up nature by trying to build something like a lake:
Told on a sweeping scale reminiscent of classic American adventure films, this Médicis Prize–winning novel chronicles the lives of these workers, who represent a microcosm of not just mythic California, but of humanity as a whole. Their collective effort to complete the megaproject recounts one of the oldest of human dramas, to domesticate—and to radically transform—our world through built form, with all the dramatic tension it brings: a threatened strike, an environmental dispute, sabotage, accidents, career moves, and love affairs . . . Here generations and social classes cease to exist, and everyone and everything converges toward the bridge as metaphor, a cross-cultural impression of America today.
(Or it’s totally different.)
Rain over Madrid by Andres Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Hispabooks Publishing)
Hispabooks just keeps on crushing it. I have to say, for all my deep-rooted cynicism, this is a great time for indie presses. Hispabooks, Deep Vellum, New Vessel, Restless all launched within the past couple years. With those four presses alone, an average reader has enough material to last all year.
Digression: The other week I was hanging out with my parents and they were talking about how my cousin was “so rich” that he bought his own house in Chippewa Falls, WI. Which, after a bit of Wikipediaing led to all of us coining the term “Wisconsin Rich.” Sure, this was mostly a joke, but in a way, it’s also a powerful concept—being a certain level of “rich” that allows you to live comfortably. We don’t all need to be “Silicon Valley Rich.” I’m happy being “University Rich,” and as such, can continue spending more time trying to pass along knowledge than trying to hustle up some additional bling. (Or whatever the kids say.) So, in a way, even though the whole 3% thing is shitty and myopic and pretty pathetic, we are “Translation Rich” when it comes to reading. All of you could read only translations all year long and you’ll never run out of good material. That’s reassuring in a way.
In terms of Barba, he was one of Granta’s best young writers and is someone Lisa Dillman (who is lovely and talented) has been talking up for years. I believe Hispabooks is doing a number of his works, which is even better, since this collection of four short stories is likely to leave readers wanting more.
Victus: The Fall of Barcelona by Albert Sánchez Piñol, translated from the Catalan by WHO KNOWS (Rupert Murdoch Sucks)
Fuck you, HarperCollins. Just fuck. You.
First of all, thanks for not sending the review copy of this that I asked for. Really appreciate that. Then again, given both reviews you’ve received for this book, obviously you don’t need anyone else to champion it.
Secondly, Piñol obviously didn’t write this in English, but you would never know that given HarperCollins’s website, a website that might have just set the bar for the worst corporate website ever. (Houghton Mifflin can rejoice!) Not only is there no info about the translator—which, fine, you don’t want to put it on the book because American readers are stupid and either a) will be more likely to buy this if they think Piñol is a traditional Texas name, or b) just don’t deserve that information, because fuck ‘em that’s why—but when you click “enlarge cover image” you get that placeholder pictured above. Con-fucking-grats at being the worst at marketing your own books!
Amazon fighting book publishers for higher margins. Result might be cheaper books, but end of all remaining book shops. Monopoly for Amazon— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) August 22, 2014
That’s a fine sentiment, but coming from Rupert Murdoch, it just sounds ridiculous. Just a reminder, this is the same Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News, and whose employees were involved in a “phone-hacking and police-bribery scandal.“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_International_phone_hacking_scandal We live in a world in which people retweet Rupert Murdoch because he’s “standing up for the little guy.” The world is nonsense.Tweet
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .
While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .
To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .
After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .
Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .
The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .
One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .
In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .