This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tess Lewis, BTBA judge, writer, translator from the French and German, and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Brazil, Phoneme Media)
ma’am, do you have a mallarmé in your house?
do you know how many pessoas die every year
in accidents with mallarmé?
statute of mallarmamento
In Rilke Shake, the Brazilian poet, Angélica Freitas, whips up a powerful tonic for even the most stubborn case of anxiety of influence: one cup Rilke, a pinch Gertrude Stein (farting in the tub), two tablespoons Poundian cadences, a dash of Marianne Moore, and toasted Blake, with five hundred hollygolightlies thrown in for good measure, the whole lot shaken not stirred.
Freitas’ antic irreverence and exuberant poetic license are contagious but don’t come at the expense of depth. Even as she “smooth[es] the rough edges of farce,” life’s sharper blades intrude in her poems as heartbreak, poverty, loneliness, depression. In family sells it all, a litany of loss, sacrifice, and shady survival strategies ends as expected. “family sells it all / for next to nothing / . . . you know how it goes.” Even the luxury of perfect teeth are no match for market forces: “perfect teeth, listen up: / you’re not going to get anywhere.” Gathering rosebuds or reading great literature is fine as far as it goes, but an empty stomach will have its way.
ah, yes, shakespeare is very nice, but beets, chicory, and watercress?
and rice and beans, and collard greens?
. . .
life’s tough, perfect teeth.
but eat, eat all you can,
and forget this chat,
and dig in.
Tragedy and heartbreak can strike at any time, even lunchtime, say, as in boa constrictor.
the creak crack
of bones breaking
a single tear escaping
it was like love
the lack of air
blood rising to the head
where history begins.
Translator Hilary Kaplan won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate these poems. She has done the grant and Freitas’ poems justice, capturing the many shifts in tone in and between the lines, from playful to wry to sardonic to pathetic, even sentimental, to deadpan and back to playful, sometimes within a single poem. For all of Freitas’ lyric clowning, it’s clear she takes poetry too seriously not to dismantle it and use it to her own purposes.
to live in the ellipses
need to dissect
the frog of poetry—
don’t abolish the pond.
leaper, leap in
to the great leap.
Yes, reader, leap in with both feet, leap in often. But don’t take just my advice, listen to the statute of dismallarmament—“be a patriot, surrender your mallarmé. olé”—and order a Rilke Shake today.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Tony Malone, founder of Tony’s Reading List. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, AmazonCrossing)
Anyone with more than a fleeting interest in literature in translation will be aware of the lack of women published in English, but Korea seems to be a country that could buck this trend. Despite the passing of the grande dame of K-Lit, Park Wan-suh, and the aging of other major writers of that generation (O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun), there are several female writers ready to make a splash in the West. Over in the UK, Han Kang is the one who has made the biggest waves so far, but across the Atlantic it is Bae Suah who might become the new face of K-Lit, particularly if she takes out the Best Translated Book Award this year. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.
Nowhere to be Found is one of two Bae Suah novellas released by AmazonCrossing (both translated by Sora Kim Russell), and what it lacks in size, running to only around sixty pages in print form, it makes up for in quality and emotive writing. Bae’s narrator is a young woman in her mid-twenties, stuck in the lower rings of what young Koreans call “Hell Choseon,” a country where those who fail to excel at school are destined for a life of crappy, badly-paid jobs (and those who do can look forward to working 100-hour weeks while being screamed at by their boss for the next fifty years). Although the story was originally published over twenty years ago, I suspect little has changed since the story first appeared in Korean, and anyone in a country where the working classes are exploited will be able to empathize with the characters (which, I guess, would be just about all of us . . . ).
With the nameless narrator finding herself as the main breadwinner for her family, for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the book, she is forced to work almost around the clock. Friends and family assume that she will marry her high-school friend Cheolsu, an average guy in the middle of his mandatory military service, yet she is not the kind of woman to simply give in to keep everyone else happy, even if getting married to a spoiled mummy’s boy will make her life a little easier. Just as is the case in the earlier novella, Highway with Green Apples, Bae’s character is a strong woman in a society geared towards serving men’s needs, perfectly willing and able to stand up for herself when necessary (and when she says she doesn’t like chicken, just go with it . . . ).
What lifts Nowhere to Be Found above Highway with Green Apples (and many of the BTBA longlist titles), though, is the way the writer spends half the story creating a tone before suddenly shattering it in a few brief paragraphs, the casual account of a humdrum daily life giving way to a frenzied moment of passion and self-harm. This pivotal moment half-way through the story turns the action on its head, preparing us for the second part of the book, which we now suspect might not be as calm as we were expecting. In fact, it becomes ever more confused. After a bizarre visit to Cheolsu’s army camp, in the course of which she begins to lose touch with reality, the narrator’s life drifts slowly along until we return to the scene we glimpsed at the heart of the work, which this time is even more disturbing . . .
Of course, none of this would work unless it were well-written, and Bae, even at this early stage of her career, manipulates the story masterfully. She excels in sudden shifts of pace, deliberate attempts to unsettle the reader, and you often find yourself being dragged from the middle of one anecdote into another, as if the narrator had just remembered something and needed to get it off her chest before continuing with her tale. Whether it is random asides about subway stations full of people she used to know (and others she will meet in the future), or stories about her brother’s past relationships, everything she comes up with is interesting and also somehow linked to the bigger picture, providing another detail which may, or may not, help us to understand what her story is all about.
For those who enjoy it (and I suspect many will), Nowhere to Be Found is a frustratingly brief glimpse of the abilities of an excellent writer, but never fear—help is at hand. Two longer titles will be released later this year, Recitation from Deep Vellum and A Greater Music from Open Letter (with the latter publishing another title in 2017), news that will gladden the hearts of those who are desperate for more of Bae’s work. It appears that the future of literature in translation may well lie with writers like Bae Suah and her countrywomen, and I, for one, welcome our new female Korean overlords (or should that be overladies . . . ).
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Gwen Dawson, founder of Literary License. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)
This year’s longlist is very strong, but I have no problem making the claim that The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud deserves to be at the head of the list. No other book on this longlist will force you to reexamine your reading of one of the Western world’s most studied novels like Daoud’s novel will. On top of that, this novel will expose your unconscious reading bias and, if you’re like me, make you feel pretty guilty in the process. If I were an English professor, The Meursault Investigation would go on my syllabus next semester.
In this novel, Daoud takes on Albert Camus’s The Stranger (sometimes translated as The Other or The Outsider) and dares to tell the other side of the story. For those few of you who escaped having The Stranger as assigned reading in school, it is widely regarded as the classic existential (or, some say, absurdist) novel. Camus wrote it in French and first published it in 1942. To summarize, in the first half of the novel, the protagonist Meursault ends up shooting an “Arab” on a hot sunny beach out of either boredom/ennui or heatstroke (the critics disagree) and, in the second half, he languishes in his jail cell waiting for death while questioning the meaning of life. Meursault eventually concludes, “Nothing, nothing mattered . . .” The story is told in the first person in unadorned, almost acetic, prose.
Daoud comes at this same story from a different angle. His protagonist Harun is the surviving brother of Musa, the “Arab” murdered by Meursault in Camus’s novel. In Harun’s world, The Stranger is a kind of memoir by Meursault, describing his crime and its aftermath. The Meursault Investigation is Harun’s first-person response to Meursault’s narrative, albeit fifty years after the crime. For Harun, Meursault murders Musa first by calling him what he is not (Arab), second, by refusing to call him what he is (Musa), and third, by shooting him five times. All three are inexcusable, and as readers of The Stranger, most of us were complicit in the first two murders, only recognizing the five bullets as wrong.
Unlike many readers of The Stranger, Harun refuses to accept the label of “Arab” for his brother:
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test . . .
Meursault also neglects to give Musa a name or even a body. Without a body, there’s “a weird funeral” and an “empty grave,” and, understandably, Harun is angry about this:
Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name. H’med or Kaddour or Hammou, just a name, damn it! . . . But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.
The brilliance of Daoud’s work here is that many of his readers will be recognizing these gaps in the classic story for the first time. When I read The Stranger in ninth grade (I think), all of the focus was on Meursault’s motivations in shooting “the Arab” and his resulting struggle to define the meaning of his life. I don’t recall thinking much about the Arab whose death animates Meursault’s famous philosophizing. This is where the guilt comes in. Why didn’t we think about the murdered man and his family when we read The Stranger? And when we didn’t, why weren’t we taught that we should?
I don’t have space here to unpack all the masterful ways in which Daoud engages with Camus’s novel except to say that the resonances are multilayered and reward close reading. One point of contrast, however, is notable. Both novels were written originally in French, but where Camus writes with spare efficiency, Daoud employs a lush, descriptive language. John Cullen’s translation of Daoud captures the warmth and sensuousness of the language as well as Harun’s conversational tone. The stark difference in linguistic style between the novels highlights the different worlds inhabited by these two protagonists, even though they walk on the same streets.
The Meursault Investigation is uncomfortably thought-provoking in the best way. It deserves to be read and studied alongside its classic companion. Even with only a passing familiarity with Camus’s The Stranger, Daoud’s novel is a rewarding read. The Meursault Investigation’s brilliance, however, becomes most obvious when read right after reading (or rereading) Camus’s classic. It is then that its complex interactions with the classic are best appreciated.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kevin Elliott, BTBA judge and bookseller at 57th Street Books. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)
If you read the initial reviews of Beauty Is A Wound from all of the usual media suspects, you might get the feeling that reading Kurniawan’s is akin to picking up a Marquez novel crossed with George R.R. Martin and run through a collander of Indonesian history. Forgive the kitchen reference. I cook when I’m feeling anxious or otherwise seriously affected by a novel or other work. And believe me, you will be affected when you read Beauty Is A Wound . . . Far far more affected than the death of one of your favorite characters or a multi-year wait for the next volume. I’m still so shaken, stunned, horrified, and amazed, that these noodles will most likely sit in my sink for a few days. Despite what you’ve read about the contents elsewhere, Beauty Is A Wound is one of those novels that sticks inside of your gut and churns long after you finish, making it difficult to forget . . .
. . . it may also need a disclaimer, as some of the contents will be extremely triggering to some readers.
What a way to start a post about why this book should win, huh?
Indonesia has been a thinly represented country in contemporary translated literature, but we were lucky enough to see three separate novels released in 2015 (Home by Leila S. Chudori from Deep Vellum, and another novel by Kurniawan, Man Tiger published by Verso). Each novel approaches Indonesia’s brutal history in unique ways, but this is the novel that reaches the farthest in every direction and succeeds on many levels in creating a multi-layered narrative which delights, informs, and disturbs in equal dose.
Blending elements of magical realism, allegory, satire, and a skewed marriage-plot sensibility, the novel begins with Indonesia’s most beloved and beautiful prostitute, Dewi Ayu, rising from the grave to tell the story of her own history and that of her three beautiful daughters who are all beset by terrible tragedy. But perhaps the primary reason for Dewi’s strong willed return to life is to visit her fourth daughter, to whom she gave birth just before dying. Her name is Beauty, and she is blessed with an ugliness that Dewi does not understand or approve of.
Among various characters who are introduced and storylines that seem destined to go nowhere (though Kurniawan displays his skillful storytelling most while threading disparate plotlines together), beauty with a lowercase “b” plays a pivotal role. Tragic ends, brutal interactions, and more than a little bit of sexual violence by way of husbands, suitors, and other male lovers swirls around the centerpiece of beauty. Though not graphic or obsessed over in the text, the rape and brutality in the novel targets physical beauty, yet character of Beauty is repeatedly dismissed as one who is immune and devoid of value. The male characters we are introduced to are the ones pointing the finger, and because this unfortunately plays in a contemporary western setting as realism, it’s difficult to remember that each character is in some small way a personification of an era and setting of Indonesia’s deceptive and bloody past. It’s easy to forget the satire since the world of the novel is so immersive and skillfully laid out.
There is even a point in the middle of the book where it is as if nothing were wrong with ignoring the brutality of the narrative at hand. A chapter begins “Once upon a time” as a fairy tale would. It’s as if nothing were wrong with the grotesque worship of beauty and the selfish means in which it is pursued and dominated. As if even the fairy tale itself should be swallowed like a spoonful of sugar. But even this chapter slowly reveals itself as an allegory of the bastard revolution promised to the country under new rule.
And that’s the hidden and true beauty of this novel. It draws you in so that, as a reader, no matter how far removed you try to place yourself, every terrible detail offends while every joke brings a laugh. The layered texture of its storytelling provide readers with multiple ways to approach the novel, including tuning into the allegory or choosing to read the entire novel as a multi-generational ghost story.
Kurniawan’s ambitious writing is filled with a joyful necessity and Annie Tucker’s translation seems to capture this by being straightforward and simple where the story needs and precisely elegant elsewhere (and knowing the difference between the two). There’s also a feeling of discomfort that comes from reading a novel like this, but the discomfort may very well be intended when reading about a history of place that is often ignored . . . and while realizing that even a people experiencing struggle in light of a fate they have no control over will often find strength to laugh in the face of those who seek to control them. To find beauty in what is not mandated or considered acceptable and to forge ahead is a strength of Kurniawan’s country and a strength that comes through the darkness of the novel.
After reading the last line of this book, I kept going back to reread passages that I couldn’t shake from my memory. Beauty Is a Wound lived inside of me long after the last page was closed. At first, there were single lines and passages that made me think I didn’t want it to win, but it was its unflinching nature, all-encompassing ambition, and astounding narrative achievement that convinced me it should.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Betty Scott from Books & Whatnot. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
Frankly, any one of the novels in the Neapolitan Quartet should take the prize in almost any conceivable matchup (except cover design—but trust the famous aphorism). Each maintains an impossible tension through a pretty significant number of pages, all of which seem entirely necessary. Each of them contains a breadth and depth of character to a degree that’s both uncommon and uncommonly well executed. Each adds a layer to the rich relationship established in My Brilliant Friend while mapping the cracks in its foundation, but it’s not until The Story of the Lost Child, the stinging coda, that a reader can truly understand that Ferrante isn’t just putting a life between these covers but life itself.
Birth. Death. Marriage. Divorce. Bigamy. That’s just a start. Classism. The labor movement. Feminism. Autochthony. That’s still not the half. While all of these subjects appear in the Neapolitan novels, they’re also questioned. Do they matter? Maybe. How do we know what matters? Who knows. Who knows anything?
Starting with the first novel, Ferrante’s style mimics thought and conversational speech, and while much of it is grammatically incorrect, it’s not ignorance on her part or Goldstein’s error but a deliberate choice. When Ferrante questions language, learning, and communication itself, it becomes clear that the wandering sentences and meandering paragraphs are no accident. The Story of the Lost Child establishes that this is for a purpose and to an end—while some readers will look past these structural elements and focus on the drama, the fourth book gets incredibly meta. That we read it in translation makes it even more so. At one point, it describes a translated review of a translated book in a conversation that is being spoken in a second language. Ferrante highlights language and thrusts it to the fore repeatedly. The opposition between the Neapolitan dialect and formal Italian is just one example. It’s tied to other oppositions—emotion and reason; formulation of identity and its destruction; authenticity and pretense; knowledge and ignorance; the two main characters—and the characters call them into question about as often as they can without it becoming a schtick or interfering with the action.
To take so many disparate elements and connect them not only to a solid narrative arc with a phalanx of arresting characters but to language itself is a nearly impossible feat. To question communication both on the linguistic level and as a concept while so perfectly communicating both the minute details that make life concrete and the immense range of emotion present in human existence is more difficult still. I can’t think of another book whose form so spectacularly follows its function, undermining itself as it builds itself down to the sentence level, which in turn mirrors the novel’s events. That it does this while addressing enough weighty ideas for a hundred philosophy courses and covering the pulpy, lurid parts of life that “respectable” literature often omits or marginalizes? That’s certainly a prize-winning feat. If there’s an award for novels that induce dizzying mental tug-of-war, one for books that undermine themselves while proving their own points, or books that make you care deeply about the characters and then damn you for caring. The Story of the Lost Child should win those first. Then, it should win the BTBA.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Deborah Smith, BTBA judge, translator from the Korean, and founder of Tilted Axis Press. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets, edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström (India, HarperCollins India)
This has been my first year as a co-judge for the BTBA, and it’s been an enormous privilege. We’re all incredibly proud of our longlist; the quality is top class, but the breadth of languages (Tamil! Zapotec! Dari!) and the fact that 7/10 of the books are by women is also exciting and important. I’m a passionate believer in the inseparability of aesthetics and representation, and in Calvino’s concept of translation as stylistic evolution; rather than a worthy box-ticking exercise, actively seeking work from literatures as yet little-known in English is one of the most effective ways of sourcing writing which feels genuinely new—a seemingly impossible feat these days.
The incredibly violent reaction to the four female Tamil poets whose work is collected in Wild Words gives alarming confirmation to Malayali translator and scholar J. Devika’s assertion that “translating women authors from regional languages is an important escape route from the overbearing and overwhelming patriarchies that have shaped and continue to shape regional literary publics.” We should be doubly grateful, then, to translator Lakshmi Holmström, for bringing these brave, wild words to a wider audience, and for producing translations of such arresting imagery and tonal variety.
Paths by Salma
Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.
Equal gratitude goes to the book’s publisher, HarperCollins India—their commissioning editor and rights manager Manasi Subramaniam first brought the book my attention when she contacted me to suggest some potential authors for Tilted Axis Press (we’re publishing two novels by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, both translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). She’s a passionate advocate for translating India’s regional literatures, which, as you’ll see in this interview I did with her, is not the easiest job in the world.
How do you feel about the longlisting?
Hearing about the longlisting of Wild Words for such a prestigious award gives us immense joy. I’m so glad and grateful that awards like this one even exist.
How did you come to publish the book? What made it stand out for you, and what has the reception been like?
The reception has been absolutely fantastic. The reviews have been unanimously positive and admiring. I just wish poetry would sell more!
This is an unusual book for many reasons: it’s poetry, it’s translation, it’s an anthology, and it’s all women. All four of these things excite me for very different reasons, and I love that there exists a collection such as Wild Words that manages to bring them together. I actually chanced upon this book in its earlier edition, which was published as a bilingual Tamil-English book by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House. I’m a Tamilian myself, so I was very taken with the book, as well as with the reasons for putting together these 4 poets in particular.
In 2003, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets—particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma (an activist and political who is also the subject of a brilliant documentary—Ed), Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani—charging the women with obscenity and immodesty. The response of the Tamil literary world was markedly violent. A lot has changed since then—but a lot remains unchanged still.
What’s the status of India’s regional literatures, as opposed to work written originally in English?
Indian fiction in languages other than English represents the richness and diversity of our tongues in ways that only multiplicity can. There’s so much wonderful work happening in the Indian languages (English is an Indian language too!) and it seems only fair that the languages all translate into and out of each other. If we don’t keep doing that, these voices will never be heard outside of their languages. Intercultural understanding seems increasingly important in a country like India that’s both global and multilingual. While critics and reviewers are incredibly receptive to translated literature, it does seem harder and harder to get the reading public as excited about translation as we ourselves are. So—while we are able to do high-quality translations and work with other publishers and translators—it remains a problem of numbers. We also have to depend on scouts when it comes to languages we are not familiar with.
What’s it like trying to get publishers outside the subcontinent interested in these translations?
I haven’t had a great deal of luck getting publishers internationally to pay attention to our translations. I do want them to have a wider market and be published in the U.S. and the UK, but I think perhaps that the English-speaking world’s interest in translations is still restricted mostly to the European languages. There’s the odd success story here and there, but it isn’t as yet easy for me to pitch translations to the U.S. and UK publishers that we work with.
Here’s the trailer for the documentary of Salma mentioned above:
As you’ve probably noticed, the Why This Book Should Win series has basically taken over the website. Our plan is to highlight all 35 titles longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards before the announcement of the finalists on Tuesday, April 19th. Most of these posts are written by BTBA judges, although a number of reviewers, booksellers, readers, and Three Percent fans are contributing as well.
We’ve been lining people up for these posts as fast as possible, but we do have a handful of titles waiting to be assigned. So, if you’ve already read one of these, and are interested in writing something up for the website (I’ll need it by the end of the week), just email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu. First come, first serve. And remember, these posts don’t have to be carefully crafted reviews—just passionate responses on why these particular titles are so great.
Here are the books that we still need people to cover:
A General Theory of Oblivion
Nowhere to Be Found
The Body Where I Was Born
The Four Books
Thanks in advance!
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Amanda Nelson, BTBA judge and managing editor of Book Riot. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)
The two kinds of literature I most gravitate to are: 1) epic, sweeping, generations-long East-of-Eden-War-and-Peace-ish narratives; you know, old-fashioned stories that draw you in and shove you deep into the lives of the characters and 2) shorter, more introspective, less plot driven punch-in-the-gut books that use words and sentences like a razor to cut out your heart; you know, the ones you have to read with a pen so you can underline each perfectly crafted thought. The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector is somehow (miraculously) both of these things. That is why it should win.
It’s odd to think of a huge collection of short stories as in any way comparable to the multi-threaded Steinbecks and Tolstoys (and Dickenses and George Eliots and etc.), and it’s true that the characters in Lispector’s stories don’t appear and re-appear. You’re not following a single person or family from birth to death, but you are following Lispector from (artistic) birth to (actual) death, and her characters are so human, so vivid and flawed and normal and strange and real, the stories could be and are about everyone and no one. All the happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
One of the most remarkable things about this collection is that it is so complete. You can follow the writer’s development from the beginning of her career through her artistic maturity and into and out of the more experimental phases, accompanying her along all the twists and turns of her mind until she died. There are so few female authors (especially from the middle class, especially mothers) with a body of work that begins at young adulthood and continues into old age, that isn’t interrupted by the necessities of marriage or children or caring for aging parents. There is nothing at all wrong with a writer not writing anymore or taking pauses to do those things—it’s just notable that the gaps you so often find in the work of women because of necessity is not really present here. Editor Benjamin Moser says it best in his introduction: Clarice was a “woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end.”
That inherent feminist thing happening in the book is also notable in the stories themselves, and while we judges have spent time debating just how accidentally (or maybe not) misogynistic some of the long list might or might not be, there’s no ignoring that the Lispector is simply better at portraying women than pretty much any other candidate (the Ferrante and Nettel being the only real competitors). Lispector gives us the inner lives of women from childhood through very old age. Not only are women underrepresented in literature in general and literature in translation specifically, but when they are present it’s so often as a plot prop or object through which the male characters (or authors) can discover things about themselves. That is not Lispector’s game: her women are real, they wrestle with marriage, they struggle with motherhood, they make art, they are bored, they have affairs, get old, play the “cool girl” game long before Gillian Flynn’s Amy gave it a name in Gone Girl. Lispector’s stories all in one place say: we have always been here.
That’s the macro, now about the micro: Lispector is precise at a word-for-word level. To put on my I-Was-Raised-Southern-Baptist hat, I was constantly put in mind of a verse in the book of Hebrews about the word of God being a double-edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow, while reading these stories. She’s doing surgery with sentences. A few tidbits:
Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. (“The Smallest Woman in the World”)
I also knew that only a mother can resolve birth, and ours was the love of those who rejoice in loving: I was caught up in the grace of having been allowed to love, bells, bells ringing because I know how to worship. (“The Foreign Legion”)
And out of a whole lifetime, by God, sometimes the only thing that saves a person is error, and I know that we shall not be saved so long as our error is not precious to us. (“Mineirinho”)
I’m going to tell you all a secret; life is fatal. We keep this secret in muteness each faced with ourselves because it’s convenient, otherwise we would make every instant fatal. (“Soul Storm”)
And on the translation: well, what an undertaking. To translate the work of a lifetime, to maintain its uniformity without losing the nuances of what changed about her style or tone or voice over time? It’s an admirable feat. Dodson catches that slight, off-kilter weirdness that Lispector’s language has, that low-level-buzz of unease, without being awkward or missing a word or leaving a verbal pothole for the reader to stumble over and cause you to fall out of the story. It’s seamless, it’s strange, it is very, very good.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)
This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.
Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.
Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.
So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.
So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.
“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”
Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.
If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.
In this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom read through all thirty-five titles on the two Best Translated Book Award longlists making comments about the books they’ve read and the ones that interest them. Then Chad tries his hand at guessing which ten fiction titles will make the shortlist. (Spoiler: He ends up picking fifteen either because he can’t count, or because this is a really difficult group to pare down.)
Next week they’ll be discussion the Reading the World Book Club titles for March: The Vegetarian by Han Kang and Diorama by Rocío Cerón. (And with a little luck, they’ll even have a special guest.) If you have any comments or questions about those titles, post them at the RTWBC Facebook page, or send them to threepercentpodcast [at] gmail.com or to chad.post [at] rochester.edu.
This week’s music is Don’t Make Me Wait by Emma Pollock.
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