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.
Also, just a reminder, since we changed our podcast feed, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe to the correct feed in iTunes at that link, or right here:
Or, you can just put this feed link into whichever is your podcast app of choice:
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Heather Cleary, BTBA judge, writer, translator, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)
In Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, carried attentively into English by Donald Winkler and shortlisted last year for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, one small town’s secrets become a universe that alternates between the tender and the terrifying, often blurring the line between the two.
Arvida is a collection of stories named after a town named after the American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis, who underwrote its construction around an aluminum smelting plant over the course of an astonishing 135 days back in 1927. As a child born to this far-flung outpost in Saguenay, Quebec, Archibald’s world was a tapestry of tales of madness, misfits, domesticated bears, and a Yeti-like cougar prowling the woods. The fact that Arvida was quickly absorbed by a neighboring town and exists, in a sense, solely as a memory only reinforces Archibald’s fascination with the mythic dimension of these private and shared histories. As he observed in an interview with the Canadian press, “growing up in a place that is so remote it’s on the edge or outside history, you never have any history except for the stories you told each other.”
There are two kinds of spaces in the narrative world of Arvida: the vast, unknowable ones of the Canadian wilderness, and the claustrophobic, unknowable ones of the home.
Archibald excels in the latter, filling domestic spaces with the minor chords (and occasional bloodcurdling screech) of gothic horror. Yet for all the attic rattlings and mythical predators that abound in this narrative world, there is nothing more frightening than the interactions among its inhabitants, or their behavior when left to indulge in isolation. As Bryan Demchinsky observed in the Montreal Gazette, “there’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking” . . . most menacingly, perhaps, among armchairs and embroidered tablecloths.
Several stories are quite direct in asserting that genuine horror belongs to the domestic or interpersonal, rather than the supernatural, realm. “House Bound,” which appears toward the end of the book, is the account of a successful contractor who buys the house of his dreams and only later realizes the true cost of his investment. “Not many people will understand me,” he reflects, “but there’s something strange about taking over an ancestral domain . . . When a man buys a place like that, he buys the nest and protective shell of someone else, someone else’s wiring, and someone else’s ideas, and he has to decide how far he’s going to go to become that person, how much of that man he’s prepared to graft onto himself.” And yet, no matter how dark the history he adopts with the place turns out to be (and it does turn out to be quite dark), in the end it is emotional and physical violence of the most mundane and terrible sort that truly haunts the family’s new home.
“A Mirror in the Mirror” is also the tale of a haunted house, though the violence that undergirds this particular story is self-inflicted, and offers a glimpse into the often desperate position of women in this narrative universe, many of whom have little agency beyond the power to make themselves disappear. Likewise, in “Jigai,” probably the collection’s most brutal entry, a Japanese girl and her mysterious foreign governess enclose themselves in a world of erotic bodily mutilation, slicing off fingers and toes, eyelids and lips while leaving their tongues intact, because “because without [pleasure], pain is only pain.”
It is to Archibald’s credit that not all the stories of the collection are written in this mode: just as unity of place opens on to a vast range of narrative settings, the book’s gothic tropes are offset and enriched by the understated tensions and literary allusions of its other tales. The first, willfully charming, story offers insight into the mind of the narrator’s father through a chronicle of his petty thefts as a young boy—the very first in Arvida, and almost exclusively of pastries. “The comedy darkens,” he observes, as he considers his father in light of these stories, “something tragic makes its presence felt . . . the idea that the fulfillment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret. My father no longer lacks for anything,” the narrator continues, “but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it.”
Arvida does not employ the fancy stylistic footwork that characterizes some of the other nominees for the BTBA this year: grounded in oral history, the book is exceptional in its attention to the rhythms of storytelling and subtle regional and demographic modulations in vernacular. Its language is also quite restrained, and Donald Winkler rose admirably to the challenge of the narrow margin of error that this implies; the range both author and translator manage to achieve while remaining anchored to the collection’s unifying conceits is truly an achievement worthy of recognition.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Jason Grunebaum, BTBA judge, writer, and translator. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad (India, New Directions)
Would you like read the book that Salman Rushdie had hoped to write with Midnight’s Children? Looking for that book that satisfies your itch for the reliably bawdy and resoundingly literary, a tale read out loud, episodically and euphorically, by your favorite Pakistani uncle—or the one you wish you had—and who never sleeps a wink?
Do your friends look at you wonky and miffed when you declare, “Give me picaresque or give me death?” Have a soft spot for wow-y stories told with countless detours and details by a manic raconteur who resides well south of the high peak of K2 but nevertheless can see the whole wide world?
Do you prefer your Partition history baked so deeply into the gooey mantle of your South Asian fiction that you don’t realize how much you’ve just learned until three weeks later while waiting at the dentist’s?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you should immediately go out and read Mirages of the Mind by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, originally published in 1990, beautifully translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, and published in English by New Directions—“this book” in today’s installment of “Why This Book Should Win.”
Let’s begin in the usual place with a bit of “Donkeyography”: the title of a short section in this episodic and delightfully meandering book.
“Donkeography” examines the important differences in perceptions of donkeys and owls in the imaginations of East and West. The reason that we’re here is that lots of bad things are about to happen to our comic hero Basharat’s automobile, but he hasn’t settled on a car purchase yet. Other possible ways of getting around are discussed in detail. “[W]ith all this talk about modes of conveyance, why didn’t I suggest donkeys and donkey-carts?” After dispensing with owls, the narrator continues:
The mascot of the Democratic Party has always been the donkey. It’s on the party flag. The entire American people were like this donkey in their single-mindedness opposition to Iran. I mean, they were numb, dumb, and frozen in place. In the West, the donkey does not inspire any satire. In fact, the French philosopher and essayist Montaigne was so impressed with the noble qualities of this animal that he wrote, “Nowhere on earth can you find an animal more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave, and serious than a donkey.” We Asians think ill of donkeys because they have some human qualities. That is, they carry loads heavier than their power of endurance and strength will allow; and they are obedient, obliging, and grateful to their master to the same degree that they are beaten.
There’s more than one way to bring down an empire, skin a cat, or take the fort. One approach is to write a book thick with psychological portraiture and voices of something like insight from the psyche’s inside. This is not that book.
Another approach is to look at a brick wall suffering from efflorescence, caked with salt and peeling away, and see each flaky layer not as rot but zest—and then endeavor to make sure each and every brick and all the natural elements that have pushed through to the surface get their fair shake so that the whole can be viewed anew, with wisdom and awe.
Balban, the horse that drew the carriage that conveyed Basharat, before he settled on the purchase of a car, and before the discussion of donkeys, was to be shot to death by the ostensibly pious Maulana, on account of the horse having run amok on the road while passing a funeral procession, which caused Basharat to be almost blinded by an errant blow to the eye by the horsewhip and both Balban and Basharat to be nearly murdered by the discommoded, grumbling mourners, while Basharat’s father, old and infirm and Balban as his best and only friend, was not informed of the execution order on the horse, but rather told simply that the horse was being sent from Karachi to the Punjab to graze for a couple of months—all the while Maulana, the supposed executioner, quietly ordered a stay for Balban, and instead put the still living animal to work on the sly, a secret that Basharat discovers after a harrowing trip to the slums where Maulana lives.
All because a friend had given Basharat unwise counsel:
A friend advised him not to let a vet put [Balban] down. He said, ‘It’s a bad way to go. It’s not pretty. When I put my Alsatian down at a hospital, I saw it dying. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards. He had been by my side through a lot. He was looking at me pleadingly. I sat with my hand on his forehead. This is a very inauspicious, a very miserable, horse. Despite his disability and pain, he served you and your children well.’
This friend arranged over the phone for Balban to be shot to death.
As run-down brick is reconstituted into a lapidary mural, something happens to the ego of the reader. “Defeat” is a strong word, and “solace” not quite happy enough for the dazzling experience that is the reading of this book. Nevertheless, the narrator advises this near the end of the tale:
How and where the defeated ego finds solace depends on a number of things—your taste, your skills, your ability to put up with failure (your patience), and the available means of escape:
__The Fantasy Past
Whichever form of intoxication you prefer. At the moment of imminent colonization, Arnold wrote about the ability of the navel-gazing East to withstand defeat:
The East bow’d low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain
She let the legions thunder past
And plunged in thought again.
And, in this arrogant meditation, centuries slip by. The most hypnotic and deepest form of intoxication available to humankind—the one that makes you indifferent to your surroundings—takes place through an admixture and imbrication of your thoughts and dreams. If you know this high, then everything else is A-okay.
A thousand miseries will dissolve into one great dream
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)
My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?
War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.
Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:
Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?
For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.
I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.
Here’s the beginning of the review:
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.
In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.
But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.
In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Ben Carter Olcott, who is a writer, editor of the KGB Bar Lit Magazine, and a bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie (France, Wakefield Press)
I can think of no better way to begin gushing about Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press; translated, exceptionally, by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) than by granting its author, Gabrielle Wittkop, the credit she claims on the first page of the novel:
Concealed beneath a hood and clad in all black, the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, laugh or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while, in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom bust like wineskins.
Indeed. The downfall is that of the Venetian Empire (Bonaparte is on the march), the women are the five doomed, successive wives of Venetian aristocrat Alvise Lanzi, who is “something of a parvenu” (via the gorged, burst women’s dowries) and a devout bibliophile for whom books are “anchor and salvation”—his bookish passivity in these events is a not-so-veiled swipe at certain atrophied masculinities—Murder Most Serene is of a robust and exultant femininity—and, indeed, as promised, these women burst—and rot, and fester, and putrefy as someone close, some criminal within, administers in secret horrible potions of Henbane, Aconitum ferox, English yew, et al. To consistently spectacular effect, literary and otherwise, well-worth citation:
She is given opium. What else is there to do? The opium brings relief but it closes her gut, too. She shrieks that she does not want to die, doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to! . . . She vomits pestilential ink, pisses blood, and from time to time, blood pours from her nose, too . . . ulcers appear all over her body, and the smell becomes so bad that no one can stay in the room. Hide, oh hide, those livid, leaden stains, the purulence, the lethal stases, apply powder or ointment.
Indeed: it is Wittkop who jolts these doomed women into life and Wittkop who sends for their poison, Wittkop whose deft hands manipulate her puppets’ desires, their irreducible, irreplaceable life strings. We are rarely allowed to forget it: Wittkop cannot and does not endure narrative “convention” that would obscure her. A broken form facilitates that breaking-in: Murder Most Serene is “a piece of writing made as if from shattered mirrors.” As such it is written in mostly short, jagged paragraphs voiced from ever-shifting, oft-anonymous perspectives. There is a personal, epistolary voice; a staccato voice that reads like a transcript of grainy security camera footage; an “impersonal” narration (though Wittkop’s idiosyncrasies are never far from the surface); and, lastly, that of the marionettist herself, Wittkop the transgressive and irrepressible—and all these are often intermingle in single paragraphs that become, by glint and dint of imagination and insight, mosaics, or as Wittkop deems them, “husks,” overlaying the “kernel” or the “core” thought. To extend her metaphor, what light rebounds from the shattered glass directs the novel: everything else is superfluous if not restriction. This is writing that flows with mind, that abhors submission to a poetics of unities, that generates, in its liberality, passages perverse, disturbing, subversive, free of cliché, and beautiful. This sequence, for example: first, a longer passage describing the birth—“Felicita Lanzi expels a bald monkey, attended by a stench of butchery and all the horrors of parturition”—of a hydrocephalic baby; then several spangling sentences—“But there are not prophecies for now. The parturient feigns sleep. A phial shatters on the stone floor. A clock rings”— then, at the baptism, in reference to a deranged church-goer exhibiting his “flaccidity,” “leaving obscene drawings between the pages of the missals”:
Shameful fascination and no less shameless repulsion serve as mutual mirrors, but the horror of the flesh prevails, perhaps, over its appeal, so that the images may contribute to the salvation of souls; disgust at fornication in all its forms may be transmuted to elevating energy, and the mystic’s vile wilting may reveal the face of his god. This is of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.
Wittkop is a disciple of Marquis de Sade, and she applies his extreme libertarianism to literary form itself, to novelistic convention, synthesizing an absolute freedom-of-form-and-content (her kin are Kundera, Barth, Cixous). That de Sade is reagent is fairly explicit: he’s quoted in the epigraph, and the substance of the book calls out in its intensity and depravity to de Sade’s aesthetic of revelatory atrocity. This excerpt from an autopsy scene is instructive:
The face is absent, obliterated beneath the pale, leathery mask of the scalp, fringed by a few remaining strands of hair, which the raven-beaked anatomist has just pulled down to the chin. Sawn open, the cranium is a casket like any other. The flesh is both flaccid and marmoreal, singularly compact and tight, like frozen fat. The skin is aqueous, one might say, sheathing the hands in heavy folds, livid stases marble the feet and legs. Every dead body is opaque and anonymous, with a hint of meanness, irremediable indigence. Carved in gray, the brain, smooth yet convoluted like a lump of Chinese soapstone, lies in a nearby bowl. An appetizing morsel.
Like de Sade’s, Wittkop’s world is motivated by hidden forces generating in body, the effluence of which is desire. As such, Wittkop the puppeteer, the character-author of the novel Murder Most Serene is a contraption herself, a humanoid reification of that that shadowy fundament within; she is something impossible in the lived-in world. Undoubtedly, these are tropes redolent of the po-mo; and MMS is certainly of that clade—but without the stench. Because of its intellectual integrity, yes, and more powerfully, because it does not devolve into irresolvable and sanctimonious koans on “lacks”: she attempts to fill in those spatialized negativities with things, places, beauty. In other words, though the world is obscure, though what fits into these vacuums must emerge decayed, depraved, Wittkop will not let it remain obscure. Her aim of revealing and through language inhabiting the literal grotesqueries of interior body, the sanctified and thus metaphoric and umbrageous flesh and blood, is illuminative. And this applies to every facet of the book, holistically, totally. Rarely is a city evoked with such lush, lusty, personal passion—Wittkop’s Venice has a body as much as any puppet-person, and she applies to it the full breadth of her copious and powerfully positive descriptive power. It is site to desperate, unknowable trysts and triages, desires of every grotesque mutation, “bejeweled putrescences”, charades, masks, debauchery, and, simultaneously, at every turn, in every breath, death. The city “held aloft on millions of felled trees . . . the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies . . . doubly dead,” is simultaneously, on its “alive” side, host to a society steeped in traditions of decadent and decaying excess—traditions on which they now rely, frivolously, Wittkop suggests, as they hurtle toward their inexorable destruction. At the Carnival of Venice, “that endemic epidemic:”
The masks ape death better than ever. Removing the refuse has become a problem, on a par with the disposal of a corpse. Baskets and pails are overflowing with filth, spewing forth their bubbling putrefaction, snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life. In the veins of the labyrinth, laborers sweep up the vile remains, exchanging lackluster obscenities and jokes.
This as the pulchinelle, Wittkop’s derisive term for the insipid and mawkish carnival goers (the name derives from the famously fatuous, drunken clown of the commedia dell’arte) “groan and rumble” as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, unwittingly consuming the city’s riches, perpetuating its death throes, having long ago turned it into a city where “nobility may be bought for a hundred thousand ducats.” The chimera of the body, urban or human, and the protean, hidden fundament of life, are thus both beautiful and utterly base, viral and destructive and the edifice itself. In a phrase: desire is the prettiest poison. That Wittkop lands squarely on that narrow line and never—never: there isn’t a stray word in MMS—deviates, and in fact illuminates what’s there, is surely an extraordinary artistic achievement.
There is so much more to say about this book—a masterpiece, in my opinion—but this one last thing I fear will go underreported: Murder Most Serene is a delight. It’s concise, fast-paced, and funny—I think you’ll find in any one of the above lengthy citations at least one morsel of laugh-out-loud wit; and I can assure you there’s at least one smart-ass quip in every paragraph in the entire book. Really, despite the seriousness of its ideas, (or because of what those serious ideas seek to undermine) MMS is a romp. Wittkop, too, is a superior writer, and I mean superior to nearly everyone I’ve ever read. These sentences are gorgeous; these sentences are so gorgeous they rekindled my belief in the efficacy of the beautiful. But when I recommend this book to friends, and they dutifully ask me why, I say this, first: Murder Most Serene will be the most fun you have reading this year. It was for me.
But do have a dictionary nearby: you’re going to need it.
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kate Garber, BTBA judge and bookseller at 192 Books. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (Israel, New Directions)
Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole, should definitely win the Best Translated Book Award. Outside of what might objectively be considered its qualifying elements, the fact is, when I think about all of the what-seems-like-thousands of books I’ve read during this award process, Moods is the one that makes my heart flutter the most. This almost makes it difficult to write anything. Like if you’ve just fallen in love, and the person is actually great, but you try to talk about this person and then suddenly it’s impossible to speak in full sentences because you’re busy blushing and remembering.
There’s something oddly witchy about this book, in that Moods is precisely what it’s named to be: moods. It is not about moods; it is moods.
It’s like a pressure chamber where Hoffmann is slowly and sometimes suddenly changing your atmosphere, making you weep then making you laugh then making you feel inexplicable guilt. Particularly affecting is his work in sadness:
Here are some other things that break the heart: An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted. A grocer whose store no one goes into. Above all, a husband and wife who don’t talk to each other. One-eyed cats. Junkyards. The stairwells of old buildings. A small boy on his way to school. Old women sitting all day by the window. Display windows with only a single item or two, coated with dust. A shopping list. Forty-watt bulbs. Signs with an ampersand (such as ZILBERSTEIN & CHAMNITZER), and when a person we love disappears (at a train station, for instance) into the distance.
Out of context, maybe that won’t make you weep. The crazy part is that the “context” that does make you weep isn’t a storyline at all. It’s the precise engineering of the pressure chamber, in which a vague list of items (which don’t seem to relate to anything) can evoke even more sadness than a seven hundred page novel where your favorite character dies in a tragic accident on the last page. I have theories about how this engineering works, but please, just try it and see what happens. This is why Moods should be named the best fiction, best poetry, best machine, and best spiritual possession of the year.
I’m flipping through the book again, and hang on, it’s just too much.
Sometimes it is discomforting honesty:
Penina Tuchner we loved like the Twin Towers, especially when they were burning.
Sometimes it is pure sensitivity:
We should call all things by their first names. All dogs. All frogs. All trees. Once upon a time we took pity on a gourd that the gardener wanted to uproot, and so we called it Simcha.
Sometimes it is depression without sadness:
Life itself should be lived like that. As in a silent film in which one sees only a single hut with a rooster strutting every so often from the left side of the screen toward the right, and a little while later coming back across it.
Once every thousand years or so a word will be heard.
Sometimes it is delight:
My father Andreas like to play tricks on people. Mostly on his sister, my Aunt Edith.
Every year, on April 1, he’d come up with another prank. Once he started muttering strange syllables and wrote a note to my aunt saying that he had vowed from that day on to speak only Mandarin.
And overall, it is a bit of everything. I’m ashamed that I can’t do it justice, but that’s okay because you’ll see what I mean once you read it.
Beyond this, Moods should win because Peter Cole’s translation is exquisite. Because it queers the line between fiction and poetry so elegantly. Also, because New Directions has published six previous books by Yoel Hoffmann, and this year is the first time I’d even heard of him. Not that you haven’t heard of him—maybe you’ve already read several of his books—but I’ve been working in bookstores for a decade and “Yoel Hoffmann” didn’t even ring a bell. I’m sure I’m partially to blame, but listen, it’s really about time that this fucking grand master becomes a household name.
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