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.
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
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