I know everyone is still reeling from not being able to correctly guess all the finalists for the 2015 BTBA fiction and poetry shortlists before yesterday’s official announcement, so we’ll just cut right to Vince’s review:
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that these short pieces (what contemporary writers would call flash fiction) resemble fables and that Akhvlediani’s characters sound a bit like Vladimir and Estragon, Clov and Hamm, and any number of Beckett creations. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is a Beckett imitator or that his work is really all that Beckettian. The two share a tendency to explore philosophical questions through seemingly simple characters and their exchanges, but the dialectical approach is about where it ends. Which is not to say that Akhvlediani is not an absurdist. That rigid title might not fit perfectly, but it is through such a lens that I was able to find joy in Vano and Niko.
Full disclosure: I read Akhvlediani’s book, translated by Mikheil Kakabadze, immediately after finishing a short story collection by an American writer who clearly took notes during her MFA workshops. Subsequently, I enjoyed the sparseness of Vano and Niko, the immediacy of the prose, the lack of character development, and total abandonment of unnecessary description. If Hemingway’s old adage is correct, that prose is architecture not interior design, then Vano and Niko is a set of beams and girders without walls.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Following on the announcement of the poetry shortlist, here’s the list of the ten titles that made this year’s shortlist.
As mentioned elsewhere, the two winning books will be announced at BookExpo America at 2:30pm on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center.
Following that, we will be gathering at 5pm at The Folly on 92 West Houston St. Anyone interested in celebrating the BTBA and all the authors and translators who published books last year should definitely come out for this. Great way to kick off your BEA party times . . .
On with the announcement! Here are the ten fiction finalists for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award:
The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)
The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires by Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick (Argentina, Semiotext(e))
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov (Russia, Counterpoint Press)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Pushkin Press)
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago Books)
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, NYRB)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina, Open Letter Books)Tweet
Here it is, the first of the two announcements about this year’s Best Translated Book Award finalists! Listed below are the six poetry titles that are in the running for this year’s award.
The two winning books (for poetry and fiction) will be announced at BookExpo America at 2:30pm on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center.
Following that, we will be gathering at 5pm at The Folly on 92 West Houston St. Anyone interested in celebrating the BTBA and all the authors and translators who published books last year should definitely come out for this.
OK, here are the six poetry collections still in the running for the $10,000 in cash prizes (half to the author, half to the translator):
Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong (Mexico, Phoeneme)
Lazy Suzie by Suzanne Doppelt, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (France, Litmus Press)
Where Are the Trees Going? by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker (Lebanon, Curbstone)
Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, Ugly Duckling)
Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky (Russia, Ugly Duckling)
End of the City Map by Farhad Showghi, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop (Germany, Burning Deck)
Check back at 10:30 to find out which titles make the fiction shortlist!Tweet
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki, Translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Hennighan, Angola
At thirty-six years old, Ondjaki is one of the most prominent figures in Angola with a stream of diverse works to behind him to solidify his status as a mainstay African writer. Not to mention his list of awards: winner of the 2013 Jose Saramago Prize, an Africa39/Unesco City of Literature 2014 African Writer Under 40, a Guardian Top Five African Writer 2012, and winner of the Grinzane Prize for Best Young Writer 2010. His novel is the little novel that could. It came up slow on the judges, but it won’t leave. It’s a tough sell amongst the Cortázar, the ubiquitous Ferrante, the brilliance of the Hrabals, the seriousness of the Echenoz, or the linguistic leaps and narrative complexity of Can Xue. Admittedly, I am reluctant to get excited about a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps I am too old with too much cynicism. But that is what is beautiful about this novel – despite the historical setting of the civil war that lasted decades which would cause any country’s citizens to be cynical, especially their artists, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is light, almost effervescent, a testament to the true nature of resilience and hope.
Why should it win?
1. Rarely does a novel make me laugh out loud and I often question the mental state of reviewers who say “this book kept me laughing out loud,” but these few lines got me.
We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with American imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.”
2. The originality of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is present in his characters, in his scenes and in the overall narrative. It’s fun. It’s fun book to read but not in a “guilty read” type of way, but in a stylized, well-crafted literary way. The unnamed narrator’s cast of characters is unique and refreshing. Residing on Bishop’s Beach in Luanda, there’s Granmas, Soviets or “blue ants”, Comrade Gas Jockey whose gas pump is just water, Comrade Gudafterov because of the way he says ‘good afternoon’, and Pi. The way the narrator explains how a friend arrives at a particular is always entertaining:
That was how he got his name, Sea Foam, there on the shoreline of Bishop’s Beach, where there was a huge blotch of white foam deposited by the breaking waves to ensure that the water merely lapped against the sand. Only if you walked far out did you lose your footing. There the foam disappeared, but closer in, where we also liked to pick up pretty seashells, it was just clean white foam, completely white as you looked to the right and the left, with Sea Foam’s body making a dark stain in the whiteness.
“Oye, niños, es el cabello del mar… The hair of the sea, do you understand? I mean, hahaha…” He went under for a second, dipped all of his hair in the foam awash with sand and shattered seashells, came up almost breathless and then puffed a like a little whale. “I mean…I’m just a louse in the white hair of the sea.”
4. The voice is so winsome. We don’t know the narrator’s name, but his voice just captivates with its loss of innocence and his love for his friends and his Granma. Yet, it never becomes syrupy or sickening. It is simply poignant:
And I stood still.
It wasn’t only the fingers or the toes, the legs or the head and the eyes, that liked to look one way then the other. It was the stillness itself. Within me. The voice that speaks within me had nothing to say, or else it wanted to practice silence just like that.
Still from not thinking.
To feel the evening? To await a signal from the wind, a whistle like a segregated conversation taking account of the fact that the birds cried in a far-away and I could hear them? Wanting to hear mysterious sentences from Granma Catarina? Contemplating the things of Bishop’s Beach that I thought I alone saw?
Inventing minutes that were mine within the minutes of time?
Growing up with a heart and body that were fleeing from childhood? “Is someone running behind the child?” Granma Nineteen was in the habit of asking. Was time pursuing me with a body to frighten me? I felt the whole world there in the small square of Bishop’s Beach.
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is one of those rare charming novels full of spirit, humor and the craziness of politics and power’s effect on its victims. It’s not often that a gem like this can be delivered through the voice of a young boy in such a whimsical way. The styles of Ondjaki and Hennighan are simpatico and deserve the Best Translated Book Award for this redemptive and enchanting work.Tweet
It’s basically impossible to guess all 25 books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, no matter how many odd clues I post. Which is why, when we play that game, I offer a lifetime subscription to anyone able to naming all of the books. (I really hope that some year someone actually does pull this off. It would be an incredible feat.)
When it comes down to picking the books making the shortlist though . . . This is totally do able. Below are a handful of stats about the 10 titles on the fiction shortlist and the 6 poetry collections that have been shortlisted.
The first person to name all 10 fiction titles or 6 poetry ones, gets a free year’s subscription to Open Letter Books. Only one guess per person though, so make it good. And you’ll have to do this fast: Get your entry to me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu by midnight tonight. The announcements start tomorrow morning at 10am . . .
First up, here’s the Poetry Longlist and a few clues:
Now, on to the Fiction Finalists . . . First up, here’s a link to the longlist.
Man, are those clues almost worthless . . . I’ll give you one more good giveaway. In terms of languages, one language has four representatives on the list. OK . . . go! Send me your guesses!Tweet
Paris – Marcos Giralt Torrente, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain, Hispabooks
1. Marcos Giralt Torrente is a literary descendent of Javier Marías. Similar to a Marías novel, the plot of Paris advances by one step forward, two steps sideways. The prose is interior, probing, less concerned with moving from point A to point B, as to recreating the thought process of the narrator, in this case a man describing his youth, his relationship to his mother and father, and his mom’s dark secret. This isn’t to say Torrente is Marías 2.0 or as good as Marías, only that Marías’s way of seeing the world and relating this vision in fiction has been passed on—and that’s a solid reason for why Torrente should win the BTBA: he’s continuing a great literary tradition.
2. All the stuff about memory makes for a hazy, wonderful book. The subject matter—remembering his youth, his relationship to his mother—provides the narrator with ample opportunities to reflect on the nature of memory and how the workings of memory influence the way he’s telling his story. This tie between form and content makes me happy.
I remember the days that followed in the confused and disorderly way in which we always remember past events that time has done nothing to clarify. How else can I judge them except under the influence of the profound feeling of disquiet that filled me and kept me hovering between suspicion and trust, between sudden anger and tormented remorse, between an urgent, searing need to know and a proud refusal to ask the one person who had the answers to my questions, between rage at my own ensuing sense of impotence and complete sympathy for my mother’s situation, regardless of what she might have done, and regardless of whether she had or had not been honest when she told me about it later on?
3. The long, winding sentences make you slow your reading down. I love books that you can whip right through, turning pages as fast as your eye-brain can process the words, but there’s something useful and charming about books that force you to pause and have to think about sentences. Not every sentence written has to be a cinematic description of what’s happening. (Which tend to be sentences you can read really fast.) There is a benefit to prose that unfolds in a way that follows the labyrinthine way a mind processes ideas and emotions. (Which tend to be sentences you have to let sink in and/or reread.) These are the sort of books that tend to win awards—the ones you mull instead of digest.
4. The one definitive crime by the narrator’s father that we’re told that about is pretty fun. This isn’t too much of a spoiler, but the narrator’s father is absent for most of the book because he’s either in jail, or flitting about running unsuccessful scams. What we’re told about his is vague, often tangential, and generally revolves around how awful he is at remaining solvent. He hangs out with lowlifes, borrows money that he can’t repay from people he probably shouldn’t, vanishes for long periods of time, and is a constant liar. The one fraud that’s articulated in the book involves the narrator’s father teaming up with others for a bank scam in which they borrow money for a faux-business then split, knowing they’ll never pay back the loan. Most of the conspirators leave the country, but not the narrator’s dad, who instead is arrested in his home . . . when he provides the police with his fake ID.
For when the police burst into the apartment demanding to see everyone’s papers, they knew who they were looking for, but not his real name. They were hoping to arrest one Antonio José Domenech, and that was the name on the identity card that my father instinctively produced instead of his own. By presenting his false ID instead of his real one, he thus contributed to his own arrest. It’s hard to know what would have happened had he presented his genuine ID, but, according to my mother, the memory of that fatal error was enought to make the next two years of his life even more bitter.
5. This is translated by Dame Margaret Jull Costa, which is reason enough to give it the prize. Costa doesn’t get involved with mediocre projects. And she’s one of the best translators working today. (Which is saying a lot, since there are so many great translators of Spanish.) All of the quotes above demonstrate how beautifully this book is written and translated, how the prose meanders, speeds up and slows down, changing directions through repetitions, all of which is mighty hard to imagine translating . . . I’ll leave off here with one other example of Marcos Giralt Torrente’s prose in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation that stood out to me:
Time passes, and memories grow hazy, and what never dies loses intensity and inevitably, in hindsight, seems less important than it was. There are no answers to the unresolved unknowns, apart from those I myself can offer, but I shouldn’t complain. No word can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes is the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we all use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions even though what we are describing and giving our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what we can only guess at, because we can never be sure that what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged.
Christine Zoe Palau is the speechwriter at the Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. She plays accordion, writes theatre reviews for the Noho Arts District, and has recently completed her first novel.
Snow and Shadow – Dorothy Tse, Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman, Hong Kong
Muse Magazine Project
Dorothy Tse’s collection of thirteen stories will force you to experience life in ways you’ve never imagined. While often outlandish, the stories make perfect sense on a metaphysical level. Her paragraphs are paintings that transport you to bizarre places (bartering amputated limbs for sex, why not?). You don’t necessarily want to become a part of these worlds, but you do recognize the truth in them.
You will want to read these stories aloud to hear the rhythm of the language. And that rhythm, no matter how gruesome the image (an elephant-sized fridge filled with bird corpses), will make you feel as if there could be no other way to say what was said.
Absurd, surreal, and morose. Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar might pop into your head. A wife turns into a fish; a father donates his head to his son; and another father can’t distinguish between reality and a cop series he’s obsessed with. Maybe this sounds familiar, but I assure you it’s not.
For all the savage imagery of death and dismembering, the stories are filled with life and longing. The longing for sleep comes up quite a bit. A whole story is devoted to that. In “Bed,” the need for proper sleep becomes a compulsive desire.
“I longed for the lights to go out quickly, and the bed to settle into a whirlpool as thick and black as tar so I could sink into a bottomless sleep.”
The sleep that’s so coveted in “Bed,” and in some of the other stories, seems to be more connected to one’s personal freedom. Dreaming is the only time we’re really free, when we can’t control our thoughts or be controlled. Ultimately it’s the unconscious mind that takes us on these cathartic journeys that distract us from reality, and sometimes even help us transform our realities.
“The Muted Door” is a story of displacement, desire, and dialectics. It’s also my favorite.
“The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. Precisely because entering and departing leaves no trace, it becomes necessary to suggest it by means of this pantomime. Thus all doors are symbolic, and we can only grope our way blindly. Nothing limits us, nothing protects us. Decisions are impossible.”
This is followed by a stranger, as he’s called, not being able to find the apartment he’s supposed to deliver pizza to. It’s his first day on the job, his first pizza, and the fifty-minute deadline already passed. The stranger is at “an experiment, now abandoned, in the history of housing development in City 24,” also known as the Displacement Apartments.
“For the residents, the apartments are like face-down playing cards on a table top moving around, taking their doors with them in a completely random way. That is to say, when the residents leave their apartments, they have to go through the process of finding them once more, with no rules to follow.”
And when they do leave, they bring a suitcase with them so they can camp out in the corridor when they can’t find their way home.
“Their apartment is as unreachable as the motherland. Some will find themselves pressing a stranger’s doorbell as if longing in this strange land for a chance encounter with a substitute lover, or seeking to make temporary use of a warm bath, soft bedding, and comfort.”
It’s impossible to read Tse’s stories and not think about the political situation in Hong Kong, especially given the themes of metamorphosis, memory and forgetting, and exile that flow throughout this collection.
In an essay for Drunken Boat titled “The Imagination of Collapsible Umbrellas” Tse compares the arrested protestors in Hong Kong with the revolutionaries in the movie Snowpiercer, “when the leaders and intellectuals in the train think they have control of the overall structure of ‘reality’ and believe dictatorship is the best way to ensure human survival in a harsh environment, only those who dare to take a risk can break out of the unimaginative ‘reality’ and turn an unknown path into a possible way out.”
Which brings me to the final story, “Snow and Shadow,” about, perhaps, the most twisted love triangle ever. Speaking to her serving woman moments after she grafts human flesh onto the face of a deer, the princess, Snow, says, “No one can achieve real happiness unless they liberate themselves from the castle of destiny.”
This struggle for liberation is at the core of each of Tse’s stories. Anything is possible, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. With Snow and Shadow, translator Nicky Harman has earned a place in my heart alongside George Szirtes and Edith Grossman. I will seek out her work, because I know that her translations honor the original by grasping the psychology of the author, the characters and the worlds they inhabit, resulting in the truth—ugly and beautiful—every time. Isn’t that reason enough to win the BTBA?Tweet
Lori Feathers is a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing.
Baboon – Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Denmark
Two Lines Press
Baboon should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award because page-for-page it offers more surprises and excitement than any other book in the BTBA. Aidt writes like a sexed-up Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are fresh, daring and almost always unpredictable. Like O’Connor Aidt places her characters in ordinary situations and beneath the patina of comfortable domesticity we find, to our delight, the perverse and disturbing.
Along with plots that astonish, Aidt keeps readers off balance by using gender-neutral pronouns to deliberately obscure characters’ relationships to each other and defy our expectations as to how they will interact — most often in ways that are a great deal nastier than we can imagine.
But it is with her descriptions of the inconsequential that the most lasting impressions are created: a baby’s green, lollipop-stained mouth; an uncooked chicken, the habitual manner in which a woman moves her hand, the fat, falling flakes inside a child’s snow globe. The mundane becomes extraordinary when it succumbs to the scrutiny of Aidt’s perceptive eye:
I like watching people. And this woman is remarkable. She’s nearly bald. Her head must’ve been shaved fairly recently because there’s just a fine dark shadow of hair. She drinks carefully out of a small glass, something strong, maybe cognac, or whiskey, I can’t tell from here. There’s something about her that reminds me of a young animal, perhaps a deer, the same watchful nervousness. She’s wearing a suit that’s both elegant and a little too large. It’s grayish-green, brownish, like mud and dried grass. I have a sudden urge to touch her neck. A flood of images runs through my head: I think about the canvas sacks, about my childhood, about the soldiers’ uniforms, and my mother, who, much later, is standing in front of our house outside of Leipzig. It’s plastered with thick mortar and has that color so common for East German houses: grayish-green, brownish. My mother is smiling. She’s wearing a red dress.
To read Baboon is to bear witness to the unraveling of otherwise complacent lives; an unsettling experience made all the more so in the short story format, which withholds the context necessary for the reader to anticipate what will happen next. And this is a large part of the fun. But Aidt also asks us to consider whether, like us, her characters are justified in being caught off-guard or if, as one character puts it, …she’s spent far too many years down in the dark, where all that’s revealed is a fraction of what there is.Tweet
This week, Tom and Chad talk about some of the new translations that they’ve read (or are looking forward to reading) and are most excited about. Along the way are the expected digressions (including an explanation of how editing and rights work when a U.S. publisher and a U.K. publisher separately publish the same translation), and, of course, the episode wouldn’t be complete without their famous “Raves & Raves” segment (nope, not a typo. Everyone thought they were on rave duty this week, so it’s a double dose of happy!).
This week’s music is What I Want from the new album Policy by Will Butler.
And you can email us with complaints and comments at email@example.com
Winter Mythologies and Abbotts – Pierre Michon, Translated from the French by Ann Jefferson, France
Yale University Press
Winter Mythologies and Abbots was one of the first books I read as a BTBA judge, and it registered with me positively at the time. I didn’t expect it to stay with me so long, though, and slowly percolate its way to the upper reaches of my list of favorites.
The book was a originally a pair of books before translator Ann Jefferson and publisher Yale University Press got hold of them. The two parts are perfectly complementary in their new single volume, each a set of short fictions about obscure historical figures in Ireland and France. These monks and saints exist today as barely more than footnotes in ancient texts, but Pierre Michon treats their lives with the same significance as historians do kings and queens. More to the point, he bestows upon them the same level of attention that Tolstoy gives to Anna Karenina or Dickens to David Copperfield. Not that Michon is anything like as exhaustive as those authors were, but his feelings seem as intense. His imagination has made his characters real again.
It’s a further measure of his skills that they seem so despite how odd they remain. They are people whose lives are dedicated to faith and tradition, who see only the barest glimmers of rational enlightenment on the very distant horizon, and their motivations are often alien to modern eyes. Unlike most such characters in historical fiction, however, they’re not designed to allow self-congratulatory dismissal by contemporary readers. Their worldview is as complex and confused as ours, and paints as convincing a picture of medieval and pre-medieval times as I can imagine.
You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the tack Michon’s taken here with his subject and his setting is not at all one to which I’m naturally sympathetic. Neither do I tend to favor fiction without some bravura to its prose, and that’s not WM&A’s style. It’s a quiet, modest work of carefully selected detail and incident that insinuates itself into the reader’s mind. I promise that this is not a recipe that guarantees notice by a BTBA judge who’s surveying half a thousand books in half a year, but it worked like magic in this case. I can’t recommend Winter Mythologies and Abbots highly enough.Tweet
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .