This match was judged by Emily Ballaine from Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
In a David and Goliath style match up, these two completely different novels from opposite corners of the globe went head to head in a literary grudge match of unreliable narrators performing acts of morally questionable parenting. Germany (a historic breeding ground of bullying and over-the-top sorts of characters) approached the match with an outlandish style of writing in an attempt to trick the reader into trusting a fundamentally untrustworthy narrator. Thailand, on the other hand, employed a strategy of lyrical, heartfelt prose geared for a young adult audience.
With the bookies in Vegas leaning heavily toward The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky from Germany, however, this match turned out to be closer than initially expected with The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva from Thailand making a daring (although ultimately unsuccessful) play for the win by pulling out all the emotional stops in its tale of a girl whose mother is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease and her search for the father she has been hidden from.
Both books deal with motherhood and more importantly the decisions mothers make for their children in surprising ways and with two mothers who could not be more different. Rosa, the hilarious and completely unreliable narrator of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is far from pleased when she learns that her seventeen year-old daughter, “stupid Sulfia,” is pregnant. Rosa does everything in her power to terminate the pregnancy, but when her efforts prove to be unsuccessful and Aminat is born nine months later, Rosa is surprised to find that she is filled with a deep well of love and affection for the little girl, so much so that she comes to believe that she could do a far better job of raising the child than “stupid Sulfia.”
This idea that mothers somehow inherently know what is best for their children is a theme that both books tackle in different ways. By the end of Hottest Dishes it becomes clear that Rosa has not only ruined Sulfia’s life, but also her beloved granddaughter Aminat’s life through her selfishness and cruelty. The mother in The Happiness of Kati on the other hand, though clearly wrong in her decision to hide Kati’s father from her, feels like a more morally redeemable character—unlike Rosa her actions do not stem from selfishness but rather a desire to protect her daughter from pain. With that said though Rosa is just a far more interesting character (as “bad” characters tend to be).
What really makes this a David and Goliath match up (although is it still correct/fair to call something a David and Goliath match up when Goliath wins?) is that The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is written for adults while The Happiness of Kati is written for young adults. There are many valid points on both sides of the should-adults-read-YA-argument, but the crux of the matter in this particular match up is that it is just inherently unfair to pit a YA book against a novel written for adults. While a touching story, The Happiness of Kati is nowhere near as sophisticated in structure or style as The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine and lacks the biting cynicism of Hottest Dishes’ lovably horrible narrator.
The larger takeaway from this match up was an angry call to arms over the sad deficit of books in translation from female Thai writers. With the match still tied after halftime, the crowd began to cheer, More Thai Literature! More Thai Literature! With typical German efficiency, however, the Germans ignored the clamor for the other team and scored four goals in quick succession, dispatching the Thai team with a final score of 5 – 1.
With that, Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine moves on to ace Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou on Tuesday, June 23rd, in what promises to be a tight match.
Tomorrow’s match—the last one of Round One—will be judged by M. Lynx Quarley and features Japan’s Revenge by Yoko Ogawa up against Ecuador’s Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo.Tweet
This match was judged by Mythili Rao, producer for The Takeaway at WNYC.
What a brutal match. These two novels hold nothing back. Read in succession, it’s hard to take in their fight for narrative supremacy without flinching. These are books about the hard truths of life we don’t wish to discover—but are nonetheless powerless to shield ourselves from.
First: South Korea’s effort. It’s easy to underestimate Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. It’s a slight volume—roughly as tall and wide as my outstretched hand and only 103 pages long. But the anguish and desperation of those pages lingered in my mind long after I finished reading. The novel follows an unnamed young woman who, when the story opens in 1988, is employed as a temp worker in a dead-end clerical position at the university. Despite her college credentials, it’s the best job she can get. It’s better than her second job, serving food, mopping floors, and washing dishes at a restaurant behind the Plaza Hotel; and it’s much better than the factory job she works screwing caps of dye onto tubes during the university’s summer break. In any case, father has been imprisoned and her mother drinks too much to hold a job, so the important thing is simply that she work. And work.
While her serious older brother scrimps and saves to make the journey to Japan (where he plans to work for a janitorial service cleaning sewers) and her bright little sister daydreams of completely reinventing herself as a lesbian, Nowhere’s narrator drifts from job to job in a state of exhaustion. Between shifts, she goes to see her boyfriend Cheolsu. His flat aspect perfectly complements her own numbness:
He just looked blank sometimes. While everyone else was tormented by a restless anxiety, like the dizziness you feel on a spring day, which made them question what they were doing with their lives, Cheolsu was yawning and working on a crossword puzzle. He knew how to accept the tedium without the ennui.
The dramatic heart of this book is built around an unforgivably frigid winter day when the narrator goes to visit Cheolsu on the army base where he’s completing service. After riding bus to the subway and then another subway to another bus, she’s told Cheolsu has left the base for training exercise. So she heads back out into the cold on another bus, carrying a bag of chicken Cheolsu’s nosy mother has entrusted her to deliver to her son. He’s not there. When she at last finds Cheolsu—back in at the headquarters she first visited—he can’t understand why she’s so delayed. The visit ends disastrously.
The narration fast-forwards a decade from there. There’s a parade of other jobs, and a smattering of new coworkers, acquaintances, and would-be lovers—but it’s as though everything began and ended in 1988. The narrator’s feeling of dislocation and hopelessness persists and softly, steadily, deepens through the book’s haunting close. In Sora Kim-Russell’s translation, Suah’s prose is cold and acrid. “Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one,” the narrator concludes. When I emerged from the subway after reading Nowhere’s final page, it was a 70 degree June day but an icy chill ran through my heart.
Enter Spain. The Happy City takes a no less deadly but measurably more complex approach. Elvira Navarro’s novel, set in Madrid, is divided into two parts. The first opens, similarly, with a young man trapped by economic circumstances beyond his control. Chi-Huei spends his early days with his aunt in China; when as an elementary-schooler he’s finally reunited with his immediate family in Spain, he’s suspicious of these strangers. As he grows, his feelings toward his family only become complicated. His mother and grandfather run a restaurant that’s supposed to ensure their future; broken by his time in a Chinese prison, Chi-Huei’s father does his best to simply comply with his headstrong wife and father’s wishes. For his part, Chi-Huei is trapped by the weight of familial duty. After Navarro describes the intimate contours of a recurring argument between Chi-Heui and his mother, she leaves the young protagonist with a bleak discovery:
Every day of his life since had arrived had been a hymn to work, to money, to efficiency—a hymn he had to sing through his excellent grades at school and his help in the kitchen and the aspirations he was required to have for the future. And all as thanks for what they earned him in good faith and with all their love, believing that this and this alone was their duty, the restaurant-rotisserie in which they all worked for aspirations that were not his own and that, to his utter disgust, were quite the opposite, though he wasn’t able to specify what this opposite was.
The second part of The Happy City follows one of Chi-Huei’s neighborhood friends, a precocious, secretive girl named Sara who becomes fascinated by a homeless man she encounters on the street. They have something powerful in common: Her imagination, like his, rejects boundaries. Sara’s parents grow alarmed when the learn of her fascination with this vagrant, but when they ground her, she only grows more obsessed. Nothing in her world is more interesting than this man who lives on the edges of society. Sara and the homeless man begin wordlessly stalking each other; eventually, they strike up a friendship.
It’s a chaste relationship, but a thoroughly corrupting one, all the same. Sara’s interest in the homeless man leaves her no time for girlish pursuits. She ignores art classes and is bored by her friends. In The Happy City’s final scene—a confrontation between Sara’s parents and the homeless man in the bar where she has been sneaking afternoon visits over potato chips with him—Navarro again demonstrates an uncanny talent for depicting the layers of tension that build up in family life. As Sara’s parents enter the bar, “They walk with the full weight of duty upon them, staring hard at the ground, and I suppose they know that I look at them, and that I am terrified.” As Sara’s father addresses the object of his daughter’s fascination, she becomes the conversation’s translator—and in doing so, learns something about her own limits.
In the end, The Happy City is the winner of this match, 3-2: Nowhere to Be Found’s best efforts simply couldn’t match the combined power of Chi-Huei and Sara’s forceful and sharply aimed narratives. After two beautiful, hard-earned goals per team, in stoppage time, Spain comes through with one more taste of net to win the game.
Next up, Spain’s The Happy City will face off against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise on Friday, June 26th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Emily Ballaine, and features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky up against Thailand’s The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva.Tweet
This book just came out from Deep Vellum and has been getting a lot of good praise, in part because no female Oulipian has appeared in English, in part because of the constraint, in part because it’s a good story outside of the Oulipian constraints . . .
I’m sure most everyone reading this blog already knows Monica. She’s a long-time reviewer for Three Percent, has served on the Best Translated Book Award committee since its inception, has appeared on the Three Percent podcast, started the Salonica website, and is a writer in her own right.
Here’s a clip from her review:
In the past, most Oulipian works have dealt with self-imposed literary constraints such as lipograms or the strictly mathematically structured Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Garréta has upped the proverbial literary stakes and not merely played with the textuality or form of the work, but she has taken gender out of the language and put the constraint only on the imaginative limits of the reader. Sphinx is innovative in the way it is written—without assigning gender to the narrator and the narrator’s love obsession, making it a cutting-edge work for queer and feminist theory and an avant-garde novel that is more effective with the Oulipian constraint than without. Considering the grammatical calisthenics performed by Emma Ramadan’s translation, these points wouldn’t have been evident as Daniel Levin Becker aptly states in his introduction (via clever footnote):
“If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference, is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.”
Enjoy the whole thing here.Tweet
This match was judged by Sal Robinson, a graduate student in library science and co-founder of the Bridge Series.
It seems hardly fair to have to face off against a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as relative newcomer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does in this round of the WWCOL, with Adichie’s Americanah, her fourth novel, up against Toni Morrison’s Home, her second most recent novel of a long and glorious career. But the world isn’t fair, and even Nobel Prize winners get old and tired, and Americanah is a better novel than Home. Americanah bristles confidently all over with commentary on race relations, on America, on Nigeria, on sex and writing and immigration, whereas Home feels like Morrison picked up the ball and ran down the field with it and threw it in the goal, yelling “You know I can fucking do this, why do I have to do this again?” That isn’t—in case you weren’t aware of this, fellow Americans—the way you play soccer, though.
Both books are about journeys away from and then back towards home, or someplace that once was home. Home is the story of Frank Money, a Korean War vet who has returned to the US and is drifting around the West until he gets a telegram about his sister Cee that reads merely “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” After a failed teenage marriage, Cee, it turns out, has gone to work for a doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It’s never quite clear what the doctor does, though part of it involves abortions, but he’s got a creepy library full of books on eugenics and he’s been experimenting on Cee. Frank has to swoop in and carry Cee off to their hometown of Lotus, Georgia, which he hated and got out of as fast as he could; it’s place where—as Morrison nails it—there’s “nothing to do but mindless work in fields you didn’t own, couldn’t own, and wouldn’t own if you had any other choice.” Frank, meanwhile, is carrying his own burdens, of returning to a still-segregated country after serving in an integrated army, the guilt and pain of seeing his two best friends die in the war, creeping alcoholism, and crucially, the recurring memory of an American soldier shooting a Korean child. Underlying this all, and kicking off the book, is a scene that Frank and Cee witnessed when they were children: a group of white men burying the body of a black man in a remote field, a body not quite dead, one of its feet still jerking. Frank eventually finds out the truth behind this scene, a truth which is about five times more horrifying than you might have even anticipated.
In other words, at every turn, this book is full of Heavy Material. A longer book might have been able to carry it. But this one doesn’t even crack 150 pages, and suffers from a sense of cutting corners, which is sometimes reflected in flat, explanatory prose, like “Lily displaced his disorder, his rage and his shame. The displacements had convinced him the emotional wreckage no longer existed.” I also felt at times that I was being led on a tour of indignities, each stop on Frank’s trip an opportunity to show how shittily African-Americans have been treated on an institutional and individual basis. And when Frank and Cee make it back to Lotus, it somewhat mysteriously transforms from the ass-end of nowhere into a paradise (there might be a Land of the Lotus-Eaters reference buried in the town’s name) of tough, nurturing women and sweet bay trees with metaphorically heavy, blasted-but-not-broken limbs. Morrison adds nuance to all these U-turns and comparisons but the book still feels rushed, more a collection of portraits and vignettes than a novel taking the time it needs to support its plot properly.
Americanah, on other hand, weighs in at a generous 588 pages, and it feels like Adichie could have gone on for much longer. Like Home, it also has two protagonists, a woman and a man: in this case, Ifemulu and her first love Odinze, who live out two different stories of immigration and return, with Lagos as their center. Ifemulu comes to the United States to go to college in the early 2000s and stays for thirteen years, eventually achieving success and making her living by writing a blog about race titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Odinze, on the other hand, who has always idolized the United States, sees his dream quashed by strict post-9/11 immigration policies and eventually ends up in the United Kingdom, from which he is finally, humiliatingly, deported, after his visa expires. Both Ifemulu and Odinze are surprised and overwhelmed by the challenges of immigration, and Adichie’s depiction of their parallel experiences makes it painfully clear how lonely and difficult it is to be an immigrant. And how strange too, if you’re a well-educated middle-class kid as Ifemulu and Odinze are, to find yourself using a false name so that you can work, setting up a false marriage to stay in the country, slipping over into a vaguely criminal life.
And then, of course, there’s race, specifically the experience of being black in America, the book’s and Ifemulu’s great subject. Adichie has a lot to say about it, and she is particularly scathing on the embarrassing ineptitude of liberal white Americans in their attempts to “relate” to black people. In the sections of the book that describe Ifemulu’s life in America, where race and its complications are often the focus, Adichie’s talent lies more in making observations than creating fully believable characters wrestling with the issues. The people with whom Ifemulu interacts in the States—her bosses, her boyfriends, her friends—seem broadly drawn to demonstrate various facets of the dysfunctional American relationship to race: the cloyingly empathetic white boss, who calls all black women “beautiful”; the blond and blue-eyed boyfriend, who, immediately after Ifemulu tells him that she has cheated on him, asks whether the guy was white. In fact, in a lot of ways, the novel feels like Ifemulu’s blog, which Adichie includes excerpts from here and there. And yet, as cartoonish as Adichie’s Americans might seem, the way that people, especially white Americans, talk about and behave in relation to race in the real world is actually outlandish, disproportionate, and awkward. The line between satire and realism runs thin in this novel.
I think, though, what finally swung me around to the book is that there’s no situation to which Adichie doesn’t seem prepared to bring her tremendous narrative gifts. For instance, Americanah is also the story of Ifemulu and Odinze’s sweet and powerful adolescent love, which is tested by their different journeys—and I’m not going to baby you on this, they get back together in the end—but just before they’re reunited, when Adichie has ratcheted up the emotional suspense to its highest hanky-grabbing peak and you don’t know if it’s all going to work out or not—she suddenly switches away and writes a long party scene where a group of Nigerian businessman (Odinze, after his return home, has gone into real estate and gotten rich) talk over the dirty secrets of the Nigerian economy. Each character, most of them new to the book, is adeptly, perfectly sketched in description and dialogue, and one of them actually says “The problem is not that public officials steal, the problem is that they steal too much.” I wanted a whole new book to grow out of that scene alone.
And if Adichie’s energy and intelligence aren’t enough for you, the Nigerian women’s soccer team has a player named Perpetua Nkwocha (according to Deadspin, she’s “considered the best African player to ever live”), so they get literature points for having a player with the same name as a font. Plus, the team’s nickname is the “Super Falcons.” Not just the Falcons, but the Super Falcons! That really can’t be improved upon. Nigeria for the win!
Next up, Nigeria’s Americanah will face off against Australia’s Burial Rites on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Mythili Rao, and features South Korea’s Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah up against Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro.Tweet
This match was judged by Meredith Miller, a Foreign Rights Agent at Trident Media Group. You can follow her on Twitter at @merofthemillers.
Assault on Paradise vs. Crow Blue pits two very different books from the Americas against one another in a David vs. Goliath match-up. Geographically speaking, Costa Rica is a mere .6% of the total landmass of Brazil, and its population 2.2% of its much larger cousin. Harder, if not impossible to measure is the significance of each country’s respective cultural histories replete with bloody colonization, uprisings, and political upheaval.
At their root, Assault on Paradise and Crow Blue are both stories of exodus—one propelled by the historical events that directly shape and forever alter one man’s life and the other a portrait of a young woman’s life indirectly shaped by the reverberations of a time and place she never knew. Through disparate means, both books achieve what I seek to gain reading literature in translation. Both stories place you directly in a time, with a people, either previously unknown or little-known, shrinking the world just a little bit more to better comprehend our shared collective experience.
In Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue (trans. Alison Entrekin), thirteen-year-old Vanja leaves her home in Rio de Janeiro for the suburbs of Denver in search of her biological father and her identity after the untimely death of her mother. Guiding Vanja on her search and assuming the role of de facto father is Fernando, an early ex-husband of Vanja’s mother with a violent past as a guerilla fighter. Multilayered, Crow Blue is also an exploration of Brazil’s sordid political history. The narrative deftly leaps from Vanja’s present day search in the Southwest, which brings together an unlikely family of three displaced souls; to Vanja’s carefree childhood on the idyllic Copacabana Beach with her mother; to the occupied portions of the Amazon in the 1970s with Fernando witness to the atrocities carried out by the Brazilian government. This is a novel that very much belongs to its characters, with prose lush and metaphorical, about the compelling need that we humans have to know who we are and from where we came.
Lisboa secures the first point for Brazil through Vanja’s keen and astute observations—well beyond her years—of migration, assimilation, family, and whether it is “possible for the people and culture of a place not to be enmeshed in the fabric of time and history.” Like many immigrants, Vanja feels the burden of being without a sense of place, observing that “after you have been away from home too long, you become an intersection between the two groups.” Like a Venn Diagram, you come to occupy the space in between. The adults in Vanja’s life have a penchant for entrusting her with their own personal histories. She, by turn, is adept at ferreting out the missing pieces of the story and filling in what is not readily offered.
In the second half, Tatiana Lobo scores successive points for Costa Rica with Assault on Paradise (trans. Asa Zatz) for its tragicomic wit, punchy, modern language in spite of its eighteenth century setting, and its unapologetic indictment of the Spanish colonization of Central America. This ambitious, sweeping historical novel follows the misadventures of Pedro Albarán, an escaped prisoner of the Inquisition who has made it to the new world in search of his own personal freedom. Unsure of the crime for which he was arrested, Pedro adopts the philosophy of “play dead dog; be all ears” and “undercover efficiency” to keep a low profile in this strange new world.
Despite his best efforts to lay low, Pedro cannot help himself from pontificating about the hypocrisies of the Church and government and from his obsessive admiration of the opposite sex, escalating his status at one point to living legend. On an expedition to atone for the governor’s transgressions, Pedro falls madly in love with a mute native woman without ever understanding her or the culture his countrymen aim to destroy. Lobo breathes a touch of Mayan mystique and mythology into the mounting tension and ensuing conflict. Though tedious at times to keep track of the many settlers’ names and back stories, Lobo has crafted an engrossing, swashbuckling tale of the tumultuous makings of Central America.
Lobo succeeds in giving a wag of the finger to the bloodthirsty Conquistadors while maintaining a smart sense of humor securing one goal for Brazil, slipping in phrases such as “crotch-transgressions” when the narrative moment calls for it. She scores a second goal for the win with the pace at which she is able to maintain throughout the story, spanning nine years and two continents.
Costa Rica: 2
Next up, Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise will face off against either South Korea’s Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah or Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro on Friday, June 26th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Sal Robinson, and features America’s Toni Morrison going up against Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when Home faces off against Americanah.Tweet
This match was judged by Rhea Lyons, a scout at Franklin & Seigal.
Judging this match up between Life After Life and Delirium was particularly difficult. I loved both novels for wildly different reasons, and struggled to find even loosely define parameters within which i could work to compare the two. In the end, it just came down to heart, which seems appropriate (you know, sports!).
Life After Life begins over and over again on a snowy day in February, 1910, as Ursula is born, the youngest daughter of a British family living just outside of London. Each time Ursula is reincarnated she makes it a little bit further in life, paying closer attention to the uneasy sense of deja vu that overcomes her just before she encounters the thing that lead to her demise the last time. She survives the influenza outbreak in 1918 by pushing her maid down the stairs, preventing her from returning from London and infecting the family. She survives getting raped—which leads to an unwanted pregnancy and being beaten to death by an abusive husband—by instead punching the young offender in the mouth when he tries to kiss her for the first time. The more lives she lives, the stronger her deja vu becomes, until she begins to realize that there is power in her knowledge of what’s to come. She ultimately tries to assassinate Adolf Hitler to try and prevent World War II, a scene which opens the novel and makes you wonder throughout the read which iteration of Ursula’s life will take her to this climactic moment.
Although this novel is set against two world wars, it’s not a novel that speculates how history would have been changed if Hitler might never have existed. Instead, the novel shows how important your own life is to you, and to your family (and yes, the world too, but to a much smaller degree). It gives importance to that subset of feelings that we so often try to simply brush aside—that sometimes unshakable desire to revisit the shoulda woulda couldas that can drive you nuts—and at once encourages you to daydream how your life might be different. In doing so, it reassures you that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already been victorious over death in countless ways you probably didn’t even realize.
This novel is also wonderfully crafted. Each time Ursula is born anew certain other key details have shifted, and although the supporting characters are all warped accordingly they are still immediately recognizable. It goes without saying that few talented writers can pull this off so flawlessly. I loved the writing, I loved the subject matter, I loved spending time with the characters. This novel left my head in the clouds, imagining how my life could be different, if I’d ever want it to be, what my true place in the cosmos is, and what really is happiness, anyway?
The competition, Delirium, takes place in Bogota in the 1980’s. It follows Aguilar, an ex-professor of literature who now sells Purina dog chow, who returns from a weekend away to find that his wife, Augustina, has suffered a mental breakdown in a hotel somewhere. The novel is told from four different perspectives—Aguilar, Augustina, her ex-lover/cartel money launderer Midas, and Augustina’s grandparents, whose POV is written in third person. Aguilar teams up with Anita, a tough, no-nonsense maid from the hotel where Augustina is found, to find out why Augustina was at the hotel and who she was with. At the same time, Augustina’s long-estranged Aunt Sofi appears and fills Aguilar in to Augustina’s tumultuous upbringing, her ability to see into the future, and how she would stop at nothing to protect her brother Bichi from being brutally beaten by her father (which happened often). Aunt Sofi also reveals the event that ultimately split their family apart and shattered Augustina’s mental health.
My experience reading Delirium was much more grounded than Life After Life. The driving force of the novel is trying to make sense of Augustina’s madness, and she can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for Colombia’s own deeply fractured self at the time, under the control of the cartel. But, it’s so much more than that— it’s about family, loyalty, love and heartbreak (I teared up when the narrator encounters his ex wife and her sons and realizes that she still has all of his clothing hanging neatly in their closet) and at the same time completely laugh-out-loud goofy (the impetus for Midas’s narrative is figuring out how to get his recently paralyzed friend to have an erection, basically). The reading experience can be slightly disorienting at times because it switches between narrators without any clear indication, and often Augustina refers to herself in the third person. Natasha Wimmer’s translation is excellent, though, and once you get a feel for each character’s voice it’s clear enough (and fun to figure out who is talking). I also personally love reading anything featuring a woman on the verge, and I think there’s something deeper to be said about our fascination with the mentally unstable female . . . but that’s an essay for another time. Maybe.
How do two wildly different yet equally supreme novels compete? By boiling them down to cheesy soccer metaphors, of course. Since there are no draws in this round, I choose Delirium as the winner, due to it’s streamlined complexity and ability to incorporate cheerful relief into an otherwise serious storyline. It made me laugh more often. Life After Life is gorgeously written, but it’s pretty bleak up until the very end.
This match ends tied 2-2 as both novels trade gracefully executed points, but Delirium pulls through with a final merciless goal in stoppage time.
Final score: Delirium – 3, Life After Life – 2.
Next up, Colombia’s Delirium will face off against Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft on Saturday, June 27th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Meredith Miller, and features Brazil’s Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa up against Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo.Tweet
This match was judged by Hannah Chute, recent recipient of her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester.
Oryx & Crake vs. The Ministry of Pain winds up being one of the stranger match-ups in terms of national identities. On the one hand, we have a novel set in a dystopian, post-Canadian future, while on the other we have an ostensibly Dutch novel about exiles that is really more Yugoslavian than anything.
I’ll start with Dubravka Ugrešić’s strange and lovely tale of Tanja Lucić, a Croatian teacher of a “servo-kroatisch” course at a university in Amsterdam, and of her complex relationships with her students, her homeland, and her language.
One of the most memorable sections is when Tanja has her students—all of whom speak Serbo-Croatian perfectly well, and who have almost exclusively come to Amsterdam from the former Yugoslavia—bring in memories of that country. Until this point it can be difficult as a reader to keep track of which student is which, but here each character’s way of speaking and choice of subject matter emerge as so distinctive that their various personalities leap off the page. The most memorable presentation is Igor’s, which details his friend Mikac’s reaction to an anthology of Yugoslav poetry. Mikac appears to be channeling Holden Caulfield in his goofy but acerbic commentary: “They’re a bunch of sickos, our poets,” he says, and “‘I know not what thou art: art thou woman or hyena?’ Shit! Did that guy get my goat!”
The narration moves smoothly between moments of syrupy intimacy between Lucić and her students (when they meet they exchange “sweet verbal saliva” and engage in “aural fondling”) and biting, bitter anger over what has become of the former Yugoslavia (Lucić expresses her disdain for “the prepacked retrofuture of the newly minted states”). This constant shifting makes the characters’ shaky and ever-changing position as exiles and émigrés all the more poignant.
Ugrešić also inserts into her narrative moments of reflection on the role of language, especially in times of war and turmoil. As she describes the breaking up of Serbo-Croatian into various regional languages: “It was a divorce full of sound and fury . . . Croats would eat their kruh, while Serbs would eat their hleb, Bosnians their hljeb: the word for bread in the three languages was different. Smrt, the word for death, was the same.” Lucić has a love-hate relationship with her native tongue; she treasures it but wonders if it is real, she loses her grip on it even as she tries to cling tighter and tighter.
Overall, Ugrešić’s novel is everything it should be: funny, tragic, strange, and thought-provoking.
Oryx & Crake is remarkable in very different ways. It is a thrilling mystery, a work of speculative fiction set in the not-so-distant future, when humanity has been all but wiped out by terrible events that gradually come to light as Snowman, the novel’s protagonist, digs back through his dark past.
Breathtaking in its scope, frightening in its ever-more-looming feasibility, Oryx & Crake is, however, no mere cautionary fable. Atwood does not just show us a frightening future in which corporate greed and the heady lure of consequence-free living have brought humanity to the brink of extinction; I can think of any number of writers who could accomplish that much. But Atwood skillfully walks the fine line between making her point effectively and hammering it into her reader’s head so hard that she forgets to write a story. Luckily for her readers, she is far too talented to make such an error.
The plot is structured with sublime pacing that compels you to keep turning the pages. Atwood moves effortlessly between Snowman’s ruined, miserable present and the past that seemed so full of promise, even if cracks were starting to show around the edges. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Atwood has not felt the need to overexplain her world. Snowman’s past is set at some point in our near-ish future, when the world as we know it has been divided into small Compounds of the intellectual and economic elite surrounded by vast “pleeblands” where anything goes. How did humanity get here? Atwood leaves it to your imagination, which I think it quite refreshing.
The beauty of Oryx & Crake’s language is particularly striking because of its contrast with the bleak realities of the novel. “A breeze riffles the leaves overhead; insects rasp and trill; red light from the setting sun hits the tower blocks in the water, illuminating an unbroken pane here and there, as if a scattering of lamps has been turned on;” Snowman’s seaside lair would almost sound paradisiacal, were it not for the devastated shell of a city strewn with bodies that surrounds him. The beauty of language becomes crucial to Snowman; he has not had human contact for some time now, and holding onto obsolete words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant”) becomes a way to keep himself whole, if not quite sane.
This is a challenging match to judge, simply because it seems to me that Atwood and Ugrešić are playing two different games. If Ugrešić is playing at something vaguely resembling soccer—down and dirty, though perhaps without enough flashiness to attract a large American audience—Atwood is more likely working through a round of chess: she is precise, prescient, and highly imaginative. Also, while the scope and inventiveness of Oryx & Crake are unparalleled, The Ministry of Pain decidedly takes home the award for humor. Both novels are, in a sense, about important current events, but Atwood is painting a picture of a looming and oft-discussed future while Ugrešić is shedding light on the lives of people who have already suffered, but who have generally been shoved out of sight.
Another point in Ugrešić’s favor is that Michael Henry Heim’s translation is just about flawless. Who else would have thought to describe a bathroom remodel as “transfiguring the looscape”? And have it sound perfectly natural in context? Though with nothing to compare it with on Atwood’s end, I’m once again left feeling a little unbalanced.
It’s a rough choice, but ultimately it comes down to this: one point each for gorgeous language. Ugrešić’s humor and delightful strangeness earn her another goal. But Oryx & Crake is so provocative, so downright thrilling, that it scores two final goals, bringing it a victory over The Ministry of Pain, 3-2.
Next up, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will face off against New Zealand’s The Luminaries on Monday, June 22nd in what promises to be a huge second-round match.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rhea Lyons, and features England’s Life after Life by Kate Atkinson up against Colombia’s Delirium by Laura Restrepo.Tweet
OK, so there are still titles to uncover for the 2015 Translation Database, but this update gives us a much clearer picture of how many translations of fiction and poetry will be coming out in the U.S. this year.
As a reminder, in 2014 (and this should be pretty close to 99% accurate), there were 591 translations published for the first time ever: 494 works of fiction and 97 poetry collections.
So far, I’ve identified 358 translations coming out in 2015: 307 works of fiction, 51 of poetry. (Once I find the time to spend a few days scouring catalogs on Edelweiss and poetry listings on SPD, this number will surely increase.)
As in most every year, French is the most translated language so far in 2015 (80 titles to date, far outpacing second place Spanish, which only has 50), and the top ten publishers of translations at this moment are: New Directions (20), Dalkey Archive (19), AmazonCrossing (15), Gallic Books (13), Seagull Books (11), Open Letter (10), Deep Vellum (9), Minotaur (9), Atria (8), and Syracuse University Press (8).
Again, I have some research to do—especially in relation to AmazonCrossing and Dalkey Archive—so don’t take these as final numbers by any means. It is fun to check in with these databases though and see what books are coming out, and from where . . .
One other thing worth noting: The next time I run these updates (probably in August or September), I should be able to break them down by male vs. female—both for the authors and translators. That should result in some really interesting figures . . .Tweet
This match was judged by Rachel Crawford, graduate of the University of Rochester and former Open Letter intern. You can follow her rants online at @loveyourrac.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is overall impressive. I try to avoid reading reviews before opening a book, and approaching it with an unbiased and fresh perspective. However, the plethora of reviews from The New York Times, Washington Post, and so forth, littered on both sides of both covers were unavoidable. In fact, they actually made it seem comparable to The Stranger––“compelling,” “gripping,” and other trigger words that imply “crime novel.” In fact, the novel does revolve around a bit of a mystery and a crime. Agnes Magnusdottir, whom Hannah Kent had researched extensively, was the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, and Burial Rites is her story.
There are several notable aspects to be highlighted about that last bit. First, Hannah Kent, as you know is representing Australia and yet the novel takes place in Iceland. Burial Rites offers Iceland’s rich cultural history and takes place after the Treaty of Kiel (meaning, while it was still ruled by Denmark, but not Norway and not Sweden), a historical event I hadn’t known of until experiencing the novel. Second, the eloquent and yet bleak prose that I found to be near euphonious when read aloud––the beauty Kent portrays in the rapidly wilting hope for Agnes, is gently woven into the novel, her first novel. I might add, Hannah Kent is also under the age of thirty.
Yet, while the story of Agnes really is a fascinating tale, Kent’s imaginative ability isn’t eclipsed by the true events. The composition is clever, and the novel serves as a literary collage. Not only does Kent boldly write in the first person of the convicted woman, but she also writes in the third person (giving access to the family Agnes is housed with, the Assistant-Reverend, townspeople, and the District Commissioner), accenting with poems from the infamous Poet-Rosa, translated excerpts from the Supreme Court Trials, and even quotations from “The Icelandic Burial Hymn”.
I haven’t felt the kind of forlorn hopelessness in a novel since perhaps Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk. One forgets that Hannah Kent has no authorial control over Agnes’s fate, and yet our Agnes transcends to a fictional character through Kent’s pen. This looming despair is something that one who finds a home in Russian literature would find darkly familiar in Burial Rites. In the way that a setting’s harsh elements can often become like characters in a novel, the Icelandic winters are indicative of a grief that, like the snow-covered mountains, becomes nearly monochromatic.
The research and passion Kent has put into exposing Agnes empathetically makes Burial Rites a good enough competitor. The exposition, the beauty of countless diacritics dotting the pages, and a description of landscape that Whitman might have written had he resented it, are all bonuses.
James Patterson’s blurb on the cover of Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger is initially a foreboding and disheartening start. The opening page is where I pull out a yellow card. Applying literary merit to a thriller doesn’t have to be a near impossibility, but The Stranger offers a particularly weak narrative and excessive, over-exuberant dialogue riddled with italicizations and exclamation marks (one of the devices attempted to evoke emotion). The backstories are rushed and vague. Fragments. Absent of literary purpose.
This all seems harsh, but when I begin reading a novel, I do so with the question in mind: There are many media that can serve to tell a story––why did this person chose to tell hers with language? Picasso’s Guernica is a good story. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a good story. Similarly, how did The Sound and the Fury revolutionize language––and doesn’t the Judas of literature, James Franco, understand that it cannot be translated to film?
What I’m getting at is the question we often ask: What makes a piece literature? Who decides what is canonical?
Well, Läckberg writes:
She loved the sight of her own blood. Loved the feeling of the knife, or a razor blade or whatever the fuck else she could find within reach that would cut away the anxiety that sat so firmly anchored in her chest . . . She also discovered that this was the only time [her parents] noticed her. The blood made them turn their attention to her and really see her.
I guess the answer to the question, why language, is lost on me here.
However, all is not lost on The Stranger. In fact, the novel may very well satiate the genre reader’s fixation of a different question, often more plot-based, begging: “What happens? What’s the point?” (Questions that hold as much weight with me as, “are the characters relatable?“––very little.) In its defense, The Stranger rather serves as a quintessential introduction to world literature to the Basic Reader in your life. For old Aunt Carol (assuming she can handle a few f-bombs), who perhaps seeks the page-turner for poolside, leisurely reading, The Stranger could be her portal out of the States. Perhaps a thriller with expectedly campy quips but dotted with umlauts and beautiful Swedish names is the gateway for this sort of audience. She might then add “the thriller” to the list of things she knows about Sweden––alongside wooden clogs, death metal, and vikings.
(This is no reprieve for Sweden, however.)
Next up, Australia’s Burial Rites will face off against either Toni Morrison’s Home (USA) or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Nigeria) on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hannah Chute, and features Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (Canada) squaring off against Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain (Netherlands).Tweet
The following excerpt is one if the student works I had the privelage to assist in workshoping at the 5th Biannual Graduate Student Translation Conference, held this May 8-9 in Ann Arbor, MI. Before finding out who the author really was, I read this excerpt, translated from the German by Chenxin Jiang, and thought I was seeing a new sample of something by Ror Wolf, an author Open Letter publlished a few years ago—which is probably why this specific piece, titled “Winter”, from the book Volatile Texts by Austrian author Zsuzsanna Gahse, was one that particularly stood out to me of the three phenomenal excerpts the students in my group brought to share. Again, I’m grateful for the experience and for being able to participate in the conference, and I hope to see as many of these bright and talented students as possible at the 2015 ALTA conference! Thank you as well to Chenxin for letting me post this! Without further ado, the excerpt . . .
Several hundred people were waiting in a great hall when the door opened and a man came in, the last one, so to speak, the one who arrived last, which means something. Actually being last isn’t easy. The people stood facing each other in two long rows, waiting, and the man walked between them, first nodding wordlessly to the left and to the right, then striding forward, holding his head high, it all came down to holding his head high. His forehead gleamed, he had big, wide-open eyes, which you could even see in profile, his nose gleamed too, or rather, his head was very round, very polished, if you looked more closely at the back of his head, it was bald and also gleaming, and as he strode forward you could see from every angle that his skin was gleaming, or rather: it was not really a head that the man carried on his shoulders, but a radiance, a penetrating glow that shone through everything; the head threw light on the other heads and figures around it, more and more light, and everyone could see with increasing clarity that a lightbulb was glowing where his head should have been, everywhere he went lit up, and as he reached the back of the long room, someone said cheers, glasses clinked, and someone else called out, the lightbulb just broke.
Helmut Heißenbüttel told me about the lightbulb a man carried as his head, he was astonished that this was even possible, but something similar had once happened to me. I stood in front of a door concealed by wallpaper, and when I opened it I found myself striding into a large hall, left and right of the door stood many people facing each other in two rows, and while I walked along between them, I could feel my skin becoming thinner and probably gleaming, I had beads of sweat on my forehead, on my nose, and on the back of my head, and I knew without even having to touch my head that it was turning into glass. I could see through my own glass and at once I saw that all the other heads had turned into lightbulbs. Then the light gradually became so bright that I couldn’t see anything, and someone called out cheers.
These days it gets dark early, at a quarter past five in Lugano, at five here in Basel, by four-thirty in Hamburg, further north the night begins at midday, and from then on everything is always artificially lit. The less daylight there is, the more important lights and candles become. The smallest fire sparks wonder, a matchstick, a smoldering cigarette. Blue and yellow lights give the place a particular tone, but the most important color is red.
Here, night falls at five in the afternoon, and from then on everything is lit in red, the red tint of winter is reflected in the puddles, red is warm, warming, festive, cozy, familiar, trustworthy, attractive, romantic, invigorating, bracing, promising, and full of memories. Not to mention that the color red has something reckless about it.
Red is the color of courage, and whether it’s courageous or not, red is always provocative,
now you’re thinking about something that I didn’t mention but am also thinking about,
we don’t have to compete with each other,
it’s all the same which one of us was the first to think that thought,
why should we have to compete,
on my account you’ve been thinking about nothing else this whole time, which says something,
in any case we can now see dark-red lips, naturally in a house that’s glowing bright red, and nearby three pastry shops have had to close down. A hostile takeover, that’s what they called it. It would stimulate growth in the red-light district. The chocolate scene is dead, twenty-three jobs were lost, and a few of the sales clerks went over to the other side, they were probably hostile to begin with. Instead of the candy stores there are entire houses full of red lamps, and in the middle of the night, the winter night, red-lipped, red-eyed women in red boots and red underwear emerge from the houses and breathe red fire.
A man with a white beard unbuttons his long red coat, discards his beard, and hurries naked into the house, that’s how it goes!, he screams, why on earth,
I am not going to figure the world out or see through it, not even in winter, and I am not pretending to be happy about it, which is to say that I’m not pretending to be happy about how the color red is abused under these or any circumstances at all. (Coughing) How did I end up here? Great, if I’ve lost my good mood I’ve lost everything, that much is clear, there’s always something that’s forbidden, and right now losing your good mood is forbidden, that is what the sales clerks at the candy stores told me too.
Show your teeth, they said,
but then there’ll be black ravens flying past,
did you think about that? Have you had to imagine everything on your own? Why didn’t you say anything?
Ravens used to be called firebirds because they love smoke and always have. They can even start fires on their own, they love to set things on fire, they still fly past smoky fires and screech, pause, and screech again, the various meanings of the color red are all the same to them!
In this case the ravens are nothing but phantoms, animated phantoms directly from
the house with red lights, the daylight reddens early in winter,
excuse me, I have something in my throat, it feels scratchy,
like having a wire filament in my throat,
and as far as the ravens go,
but you know, I don’t have to say anything
there’s something scratchy in my throat. My skin is becoming thinner, I know without having to check that it’s probably glowing, there are beads of sweat on my forehead again, but at least no one is coming round with full glasses, and no one is saying cheers.
The above excerpt from Volatile Texts was posted with permission of the translator and Dalkey Archive Press.
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .