27 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.



The Last Lover – Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, China
Yale University Press

1. How did you discover Can Xue’s fiction? What led you to want to translate this book?

Prosaically enough, I discovered Can Xue’s writing in the same place that so many others have, in a classroom. I doubt there’s a survey of modern Chinese literature that doesn’t include her short story “Hut on the Mountain.” It was immediately clear she was working at a level of experimentation that was on a different plane than her contemporaries, pushing the boundaries of fiction toward something else entirely.

With The Last Lover, it was less a matter of being led to translate the book than leaping at the opportunity to do so. I met Can Xue through Jonathan Brent, then editorial director of Yale University Press, where I worked as an assistant editor in 2007–08; he shared a sample chapter of my translation with the author and the rest went smoothly enough. What kept me translating was the incredible intricacy of the text: the novel yields new insights even after a dozen readings.

2. Anything that a new reader of Can Xue should know before diving in?

When you asked me to speak with your Contemporary World Literature class earlier this spring, one of the students asked the perfect question: is it better to try to make sense of The Last Lover while reading it, or to wait until the end? Wait to the end, if you can. Can Xue’s style of writing tends to resist immediate attempts at sense-making, but to read her fiction carefully, especially in the longer form of a novel, is to realize that there are intricate patterns and motifs woven through the text.

To the extent that there is an overarching narrative, The Last Lover begins in the West and by its end several characters have journeyed to the East, whether in dreams or in person. The primary setting is an unspecified Country A, which some readers have taken to indicate a generalized Occident, and others to be an image of America. But it’s America in the sense of Kafka’s Amerika, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword. You can see how this might be a sort of commentary. The characters have names drawn from many different languages and cultures, with reversals of first and last names as well. The novel features three central couples—Joe and Maria (who have a son, Daniel), Vincent and Lisa, Reagan and Ida—with each chapter focusing on one of these figures.

A self-reflexive theme of reading follows the character Joe, who fails to separate the world of fiction from the world that surrounds him. Here’s a passage from the book about Joe’s reading:

The next day Joe took off from work. He began reading a book with only one page. The book was clothbound, with a drawing of a tall pine tree on the cover. Inside there was a single thick sheet of paper. This sheet could be unfolded to the length of the desk. The picture on the cover appeared to be of an anthill. The periphery of the anthill was densely written over with a miniature text, visible only under a magnifying glass. And once Joe looked with the glass, he discovered that he didn’t recognize a single word.

Then the book starts flapping around the room, then the room starts shaking, then there is an invasion of doves, etc.

The theme of love, too, pervades the novel, although in many ways The Last Lover explores how people are constantly moving away from each other through space and time, both real and imagined. As the distance between the book’s central couples increases, their communication deepens. These forms of communication from afar seem to echo the novel’s central parable about reading.

Finally, there is an interpolation of national history, namely the recurring reference to the 1930s Long March. Although technically the Long March was a very long tactical retreat, it allowed for the consolidation of the Communist Party at Yan’an; it began as a historical event and became a myth of national origins. Within the novel, several of the characters undergo an inner long march, which takes place in the middle of the night, in a not-quite-dream-state, and is associated with the characters Lisa and Maria. Luding Bridge, the site of a central battle during the Long March, also appears at several key moments.

Of course it’s up to the reader to parse and process these various elements—the journey from West to East, the theme of love and communication at a distance, the personal long march—but I hope that outlining them in this way might give hope to someone approaching Can Xue’s fiction for the first time.

For a reader who prefers a naturalizing or domesticating style, the translation might be difficult. Can Xue refers to her writing as having an inner mechanism, which sounds mysterious, but there is an associative logic that runs through all of her fiction. Since it was important to follow this associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow. This was in the service of leaving the reader in English with the same interpretative leeway as the reader of the original, which is a risky sort of thing. This was the first novel I translated, and in other translations I’ve gone in the other direction, but this specific text seemed to call for an extreme level of fidelity: translate everything; explain nothing.

For example, in the fourth chapter, there is a “so-called greenhouse,” a large empty room with small windows and dim lighting. There are earthen bowls arrayed on the ground with coarse sand and seeds in them. The gardener holds a seed and says, “Look, it’s already burst open, but the shoots inside can’t get out. All the seeds here are in the same condition. The flowers open inside of dreams. … the seeds still keep this shape, neither sprouting nor decaying.” The flowers that bloom from these seeds appear at other places in the novel: the character Lisa looks at a tapestry and “there floated up in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out.” There is a family whose rosebushes bloom year-round, become electrified, and are uprooted by the son, whom his father has dreamed of as a body with a rose for its head. These examples are scattered across the book, available for excavation, but might be lost in the translation if any of the individual elements were disrupted: the bowls, the seeds, the flowers.

3. The Last Lover is the second novel by Can Xue to appear in English. Unlike Five Spice Street, which appeared in English in 2009 but actually dates to 1988, it’s a fairly recent work (2005). How would you distinguish her recent books from the earlier ones? In what ways has her writing changed over the course of her career?

Can Xue is perhaps best known for her mastery of the short story: condensed meditations on a single theme, an expanded metaphor, an unnerving turn of events, a strange interaction. In recent years she has been undertaking more novel-length projects, which, remarkably, maintain the same sort of intensity but at an exponential degree of complexity. To me, it seems that the experiments with longer forms mark a key development in her approach to writing.

4. Could you point out one of your favorite passages in The Last Lover, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?

Definitely the last chapter. Toward the end of the novel (spoilers), the character Joe disappears into the world of his stories and his wife discovers this world embodied in a forest of books. As I mentioned before, much of the novel treats of separation. Here, there is a moment of joy in rediscovering family bonds, worked across the literalized metaphor of the forest of books.

That night Maria went to the study because she couldn’t sleep. Although she hadn’t turned on the light, she could see that Joe’s bookcases had turned into a dark forest of books. The books had grown large, one book set next to another vertically on the floor, the pages of the books opening and closing.

[…]

Maria touched the enormous book pages with a shaking finger. She touched one after another of the letters protruding from the pages, and those letters jumped slightly, giving off electricity. Suddenly she comprehended the book’s meaning. The book told of an ancient, deserted beach. Someone climbed onto the bank from the sea. Sea birds cried ominously in the air. “That man is Joe,” Maria spoke quietly. Then her finger touched the word “Joe.” “Joe, is it you?” she asked.

[…]

Over several decades of uninterrupted reading, her Joe had created this forest. And he hadn’t removed her from it. Once she entered, she blended into this place. In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness? She began to walk from one book to another. Dry leaves made noise under her feet; her feet touched a few small stones; she even heard the song of a nightingale. It was inside the pages of the largest book, singing and then pausing.

There was a dim light in the forest of books, but when Maria looked up she couldn’t see the sky. Was there even a sky? There were grass, stones, a path, and she heard water flowing from a spring. But the air was filled with the fine smell of old books. This was Joe’s story. This story belonged to her, forever. Maria’s heart was full of gratitude. She pricked her ears, awaiting the nightingale’s singing again.

She waited till it sang, but it wasn’t one call, it was many, many calls. One rising as another fell.

The very close of the novel turns quite dark again, ending on an intensely powerful image.

25 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.



Things Look Different in the Light and Other Stories – Merdardo Fraile, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Spain
Pushkin Press

For most of us, Things Look Different in the Light arrived late in the game. My own copy wasn’t delivered until after I’d already sent in my longlist picks. But I’m grateful that it’s on the longlist now, because this collection of stories has turned out to be so delightful.

In a year of many excellent short stories — and many Spanish-speaking male writers — Medardo Fraile holds his own. Ali Smith writes in her introduction that “generosity runs through Fraile’s writing like electricity, or like light and flowers do, but always in the knowledge that flowers wilt and light is a matter of darkness.” Light is indeed a key word in Fraile’s work. Most of his stories describe entirely ordinary events — a man attends a party, two women grow old, a sign painter makes a mistake — but Fraile casts a light that makes them suddenly surprising, touching, or insightful.

One of my favorite stories is “Child’s Play,” in which two ageing sisters try to ward off the approach of blindness and death by filling their apartment with light. They gradually extend their chandelier until it takes up almost the entire living room, its arms touching the walls and nearly reaching the floor. “In the evening,” Fraile writes, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light.

Fraile’s writing is often like this: filled with strings of marvelous metaphors, gentle humor, and light. He’s sympathetic to his characters, even or especially when they’re faintly ridiculous, and this generosity protects his stories from falling into sentimentality.

Fraile’s light touch does not, however, preclude him from addressing serious or sorrowful themes. In the story “Reparation,” a couple is robbed of their fortune while travelling by train. A few years later, the wife dies, and her grieving husband decides to become a beggar, living on charity until he has received reparations for his loss. “What one person robs another person begs,” he reasons. “Wherever there are thieves there must be beggars.”

Fraile died quite recently, in 2013. Though he was recognized throughout his life as one of Spain’s greatest writers, Things Look Different in the Light is his first publication in English. Anglophone readers too often have to wait for wonderful books; I’m glad we no longer have to wait for Fraile. Margaret Jull Costa has outdone herself with this beautiful translation; the Best Translated Book Award prize would be fitting recognition of her work, as well of the many hours of reading pleasure this book has brought me and others.

24 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Tom Roberge is the Deputy Director of Albertine Books and Bookstore Liaison for New Directions.



Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Mexico
Coffee House Press

Early in Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, she offers an explanation — of sorts — for the format of her book, a format that exists if not in service of her style, than alongside it, a fellow-traveler on the book’s quest.

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

This is a stand-alone paragraph, in its entirety, set apart from its predecessor and successor by several line breaks. And so the book unfolds in a series of observations and stories contained in paragraphs that more often that not relate to each other, but not always, much like the way the human mind functions. Its both trite and lazy to assert that this fracturing of ideas is a grotesque symptom of contemporary society, that we’re all beset by so many forms of media, by so many voices and concerns and assaults on our attention that we’re incapable of focusing on any one thought for more than a few minutes. And it’s especially trite and lazy because it presumes that people in different times and places were passive lumps of clay for whom the notion of multi-tasking, even intellectually if not physically, was an outright impossibility. It also smacks of nostalgia. All of which I say in order to say what I what to say about this book: it is all things. The structure and style, the jumping back and forth between past and present, accomplishes something mesmerizing: it paints a truly believable and empathetic and insightful portrait of life. It grabs hold of and dissects and analyzes life in all of its multifaceted glory and misery and whatever falls in between. But do not allow yourself to believe that this is a novel merely about contemporary life. No. It’s a novel about life. Full stop.

As fractured as I’m perhaps suggesting this book is, I want to make it clear the book as a whole doesn’t feel the slightest bit fractured. The paragraphs, as the book progresses, talk to each other. Stories from the narrator’s youth in New York unfold in between observations and stories of her current situation, mostly the detailed descriptions of her domestic life and how it informs not only her writing, but her ever-evolving outlook on the world at large. At one point she tells the story of Ezra Pound stripping down a poem from pages and pages of lines to what would eventually become “In a Station of the Metro.” It’s touching and literarily charming (I am a total sucker for anything related to Pound) and offers what might qualify as a manifesto in the context of this book: the idea that adornment or imparted symbolism or anything along those lines should be excised without mercy, so as to get to the heart of the thing. She follows through on her manifesto by not overpopulating the book, by keeping the narrative trajectories fairly straightforward. The result is that the important characters, the important places, have space to assert themselves, to become well-rounded and memorable. This idea also allows for stories to be revisited and re-positioned as new memories are injected into the narrative, creating, in the end, a story that has itself morphed over the course of the book, a story that comments on itself, saying, it seems: this is life; no more, no less.

* * *

The following is taken from another brilliant book, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in which she, too recognizes the inherent beauty in the quotidian. And I’m including it here in support of my argument on behalf of this book because, well, because why not.

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.

In the first sentence of this post, I mentioned the book’s quest. Here’s the thing: although there is a quest, there is no quest to or for any specific thing. No objective, no overarching morality, no ambition beyond the one that’s sitting front and center: a masterful demonstration that life and art are—or at least can be, and should be more often than they are allowed to be—quests without destinations, without endgames.

It’s no easy feat to do this with such captivating ease, and that’s why I believe this book should win.

23 April 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P. T. Smith on Jón Gnarr’s The Indian, translated by Lytton Smith and out this month from Deep Vellum.

Jón Gnarr is an actor, punk rocker, comedian, and author who created the satirical “Best Party” in Iceland and, against all odds, rose to become major of Reykjavík. He is one of the world’s most colorful politicians, and this is your chance to meet the man who has both enthralled and often flummoxed the media with his achievements and outlandish attitude. This new book explores the obstacles Jón overcame during a time in his life when he was originally diagnosed with “mental retardation” due to dyslexia, learning difficulties, and ADHD.

We have the pleasure of hosting a Reading the World Conversation Series event with Jón and Lytton at 6 p.m. tonight, at the College Town Barnes & Noble. The event is free and open to the public, and is going to be AMAZING!

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

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 comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.

As readers, we should interpret it as we do fiction: creatively, poetically, without leaving behind the emotions and the struggles, even the lessons learned, that biography offers. The Indian has everything that people want from mainstream literature: emotions, plot, likeable characters, lessons learned, personal growth, yet it is so much better—the emotions and characters more complex, the writing skillful. This is the type of book that readers deserve, both those who read widely and those who read four or five “popular” books a year.
After the opening, Gnarr leaves that ego aside for a couple chapters to tell us about his family, his parents, his significantly older siblings, his grandparents. He summarizes their lives, tells how they came to live in a suburb of Reykjavík. The Indian will be his life, his story, and he lives it in a private, isolated world, but Gnarr cares for the lives around him.

For the rest of the review, go here.

23 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Nick DiMartino, Nick’s Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.



Our Lady of the Nile – Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, Rwanda
Archipelago Books

Scholastique Mukasonga’s entertaining first novel about a girls’ school in Rwanda in 1993-1994 is far more than just a microcosm of the bloodbath to come. Our Lady of the Nile is written with the glee of storytelling and plenty of humor, depicting the whole Rwandan conflict in some very human teenagers. The titular Our Lady of the Nile is a four-story lycée located very close to the source of the Nile River, presided over by the black Madonna, a statue of the Virgin Mary that’s been repainted. The isolated, high-altitude school was built in 1953 just as Rwanda gained independence. There the girls remain virgins – or, at least, avoid getting pregnant.

Next door to the school is the neglected coffee plantation of Fontenaille, the crazy, solitary European who organizes digs for bones and is notorious for sketching the girls. Convinced that the beautiful Tutsi are descended from the empire of the black pharaohs, he tells Veronica, the most beautiful student, and her best friend Virginia that they are the return of Isis and Candace. When he shows them the Egyptian temple in his garden built over the bones of an ancient Queen, the awakened Queen’s spirit begins to seek refuge in Virginia’s dreams.

The plantation owner isn’t the only danger. The treacherous chaplain who heads the Catholic Relief Services sets aside the most beautiful donated dresses for his favorite students. His gifts require undressing in front of him. Girls at the lycée are not allowed to speak Swahili, the language of Muhammad. They are forced to eat white people’s food, which usually comes in cans. Heated tribal rivalries flare over competing methods for cooking bananas. The sixth-grade girls split into cliques based on those with breasts and those without.

The novel is a chain of interrelated stories featuring a different girl at the center of each chapter, with the same recurring ensemble of students throughout. Most dangerous is Gloriosa, a militant Hutu student prone to politician-type speeches who pries into everyone’s business as the watchful eye of the Party. Gloriosa decides to de-Tutsify the statue of the black Madonna by breaking off its nose in the night and reshaping out of clay a true Rwandan majority nose. Immaculée arrives on her boyfriend’s motorbike, and goes to the ancient woman who talks to the rain for a love spell to make him faithful. Frida is courted by the Ambassador from Zaire and becomes his “unofficial fiancée” until she gets pregnant before the marriage can take place.

Mukasonga is a playful author, and a chuckling good humor pervades the book. Her deliciously limpid, melodious style makes Rwandan daily life vividly accessible. It’s a total immersion in a way of life with its own customs and morality, with a handful of comical and compelling schoolgirls swept up in the divisive hatred of a nation, confused and vulnerable and just being teenagers. Mukasonga expertly draws together all her threads and stories in the climactic sequences to create a skilfully-orchestrated vision, both loving and fearful, of her beloved homeland ripped apart by vicious racial hatred.

22 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.



Talking to Ourselves – Andrés Neuman, Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Argentina
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award – but why it doesn’t. That would be a silly query, however, as Neuman’s novel is an outstanding accomplishment in every regard. Despite being a mere 150 pages, Talking to Ourselves offers a rich and rewarding reading experience the likes of which are difficult to discover in a book two or three times its length.

Neuman, born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, has already garnered international acclaim and a number of prestigious awards (including the Alfaguara Prize and Spain’s National Critics Prize). When he was merely 22, Neuman’s debut novel, Bariloche (as yet untranslated into English), was the only finalist for the Herralde Prize – losing out to Marcos Giralt Torrente’s Paris (coincidentally, a fellow longlist title for this year’s BTBA). Neuman likely first garnered the attention of English readers via the effusive praise of the late Roberto Bolaño.

The Chilean’s claims rang more than true when Neuman’s spectacular Traveler of the Century was published in English translation in 2012. Traveler of the Century, a nearly 600-page epic of beauty, wonder, politics, poetry, love, and translation, could not be more dissimilar from Talking to Ourselves. In fact, it’s marvelous to think that these two exceptional books were even written by the same hand (or imagination, for that matter). Whereas Traveler of the Century was a weighty novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a succinct look at illness, loss, literature, and familial bonds.

Writing in the voices of three disparate, but unifying characters (a wife/mother, husband/father, and their 10-year old son), Neuman captures the individual personalities and nuances of the trio with impressive dexterity. As father and son embark on what may well be their last journey together (on account of the elder’s terminal cancer), each of three characters strives to share their innermost thoughts – at least with themselves, if unable to do so with one another.

While Talking to Ourselves is a doleful work of fiction, it radiates a warmth and authenticity that is entirely compelling. Both Neuman’s lustrous prose and his keen insights into the inner world of the individual (and, ultimately, the questions of life, love, and death itself) meld with his natural gift for storytelling – resulting in a novel that is so beautiful, so sad, so brilliant, that one cannot imagine a single sentence out of place. It’s simply that good.

Talking to Ourselves was the very first book I read in 2014 and 51 weeks later, there wasn’t another title that had moved or captivated me so entirely. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation reads fluidly and their efforts in rendering three distinct voices is in and of itself a merited accomplishment. Andrés Neuman writes gracefully and his compassion, intellect, and sheer love of storytelling are evident on every page. Talking to Ourselves deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, perhaps most of all because it does everything masterful fiction ought to: it dazzles with prose, affects our minds, touches our hearts, and, not least, reminds as that the stories we may think are ours alone are, in fact, the same the world over.

…a question only kids ask themselves for real, and then we sick people ask it again: is it okay to lie?, is it okay to be lied to?, a healthy grown-up won’t even give it a thought, the answer seems obvious, right?, we learn to tell lies the same way we learn to talk, they teach us how to talk and then how to be quiet, I don’t know, like when you play football, for example, first you kick the ball and then, unless you’re stupid, you learn not to kick it, to move around tricking the other players, kids lie too, of course, I lied all the time when I was a kid, but, what I’m saying is, until you get to a certain age, you think it’s wrong, that is the difference, I don’t think we grown-ups are any worse, you know?, every kid contains the beginnings of a possible son of a bitch, this much I know, it’s just that kids, and perhaps we adults are to blame for this, start by dividing the world into good and evil, truth and lies, the only time it’s okay for them to lie is when they’re playing, then it’s allowed, so kids become grown-ups when they play, sort of the opposite of us parents, we play so we can be kids again, well, and then you grow up, and you lie and are lied to, and it isn’t wrong, until one day, when you’re sick, you begin to worry again about lies, you worry about them every time you talk to the doctors, your wife, your family, it’s not a moral question, it’s, I don’t know, something physical, deep down you’re scared stiff of the truth, but the idea of dying with a lie scares you even more, lies help us to carry on living, don’t they?, and when you know you aren’t going to carry on, you feel they’re no use anymore, do you know what I mean?

20 April 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on three works by Mahasweta Devi, and published by Seagull Books: Mother of 1084 (trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay), Old Women (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and Breast Stories (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

Is everyone back on two feet after the AWP 2015 conference in Minneapolis? We’re just back in the groove of things ourselves over at Open Letter, and getting ready for our two Jón Gnarr events later this week!

In honor of and in no subject-matter-relation to that (as these books are pretty weighted), I wanted to post this longer review by Chris (who is a regular reviewer for Three Percent), which highlights three works by Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. The books seemed to come as a set, and I’m glad Chris undertook the task of reading this little trio of Devi’s. His review is comprehensive, and the respective ISBN and other information on the books themselves is listed in the following order: Mother of 1084, Old Women, and Breast Stories. Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

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 and their place in Indian society. Some of the characters in her stories are old women living in poverty, and some of them are exploited because of their lack of wealth; however, some of them are middle class (one of them is even college-educated). Regardless of their status, though, they all suffer some kind of mistreatment, whether it’s physical or mental abuse, but not all of them are willing to accept their fate. So it would appear that Devi’s works—many of which are available in English from Calcutta-based Seagull Books—would offer a powerful experience for the reader.

Unfortunately, these three selections can be frustrating reads at times, for different reasons. The shorter stories tend to be better than the longer, meandering ones that fail to keep the reader’s interest. However, some of the problems may be due to the translators’ difficulty in capturing “her innovative use of language [which] has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression,” as stated in Devi’s bio. Also, one of the books is padded with pages of analysis that may be too inaccessible for readers who just want to check out Devi’s work.

Those curious about Devi would probably want to start with Mother of 1084, a popular novel that was made into a movie in the late 1990s. The book itself was written in the early 1970s after a violent time in Bengal’s history. A few years before, the Naxalite movement, which was formed in the 1960s by a group of Indian communists that supported Maoist ideology, was gaining strength, especially among students. Leaders of the Naxalites declared that the Indian State needed to be overthrown and advocated violence not only against the government, but against all “class enemies.” In response, authorities hounded and killed them.

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.


Pushkin Hills – Sergei Dovlatov, Translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, Russia
Counterpoint Press

Pushkin Hills is about a talented but hapless writer called … well, we might as well call him Sergei Dovlatov, even though that’s not the name he has in the book. Dovlatov is really telling his own story, that of a Soviet dissident who’s unable to publish and yet unable to leave his language and his country behind. At loose ends, he makes the impulsive decision to abandon his wife, child, and life, and become a tour guide in the pastoral setting of the Pushkin Preserve, the historic home of the father of Russian literature.

When he’s not immersing himself in drink, the author’s stand-in immerses himself in the picayune details of the great man’s life and trades pedantries with visiting fans. He’s not above making things up when he’s bored, either, which he frequently is. He’s still in love with his ex, who implores him to emigrate with her to the US, but he’s not interested: “My readers are here. Who needs my stories in Chicago?” That he has no actual readers at home doesn’t matter; it’s the principle of the thing, dammit. He’s heroic in his passivity.

The real Dovlatov did eventually make it out of the USSR and became one of the most beloved émigré writers of his era (there’s a street named after him in Queens, New York). Aside from the charming roguishness of the author’s personality, is there something to his work, though? Yes, in spades (my own little Pushkin allusion). Among an excellent longlist of nominees for the BTBA, it’s an enjoyable standout. Why should it win?


  • It’s short. The more I read (maybe I should say the older I get and the less time I have on earth) the more I appreciate books that say what they have to say without belaboring the point. I still love encyclopedic novels when they justify their length by being excellent, but too many of them don’t. Dovlatov’s book feels complete and satisfying and it gets the job done in under 160 pages.
  • It’s funny. Any reader would look forward to a break from unrelenting heartbreak and tragedy, but a judge who’s tasked with surveying over 500 works of fiction in a matter of months is especially grateful for a writer who knows how to crack wise in print.
  • It’s educational. This is a novel steeped in artistic tradition that drops author names like Kanye drops mics. Almost every page includes a reference or an allusion to a classic or contemporary writer, all of which are unobtrusively footnoted and explained by the translator, Dovlatov’s daughter (see her illuminating interview with the Paris Review). By the time you’ve finished the book, you can convincingly claim to have at least minored in Russian Lit.
  • It’s important. The Soviet experiment cast a shadow over the entire globe for more than seventy years, and its legacy is still shaping today’s politics in something like the way an auto accident slows down traffic long after the cars involved have been cleared from the road. Despite the massive effect the USSR continues to have on all of us, it seems to have lost steam as a literary topic. That situation needs to be rectified. Any book that details quotidian human life under the Soviet regime is significant, and an excellent one such as this is invaluable.
  • It’s a book that James Wood really likes. For proof, just read the remarkably supportive afterword he contributed to the first edition. Depending on your feelings about the New Yorker magazine’s resident critic, this might not seem like a positive, but consider this: any non-English novel that gets noted Anglophile James Wood’s praise must deserve a prize.

18 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.



1914 – Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, (France)
The New Press

Jean Echenoz’s novel, 1914, delivers the punch of a heavyweight yet moves with the speed of a flyweight. In fewer than 120 pages, Echenoz gives us the exhausting thirteen rounder full of power and finesse, each word making an impact, their total making a lasting impression on the reader. Like a well-trained fighter, Echenoz’s prose is spare, lean, not an inch of fat to be found – only the muscle of self-discipline can be seen.

1914 is his version of the requisite war novel for men of a certain age, or plainly, the stories of five young men sent off to be ravaged by the horrors of World War 1. The novel begins quietly enough with a detailed description of the idyllic countryside as the twenty-four year old protagonist, Anthime Sèze, cycles through it to the top of the hill as he surveys his town below. Then, from the distance, “up in those church towers, the bells had in fact begun tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy and threatening disorder in which Anthime, although still too young to have attended many funerals, instinctively recognized the timbre of the tocsin, rung only rarely, the image of which had reached him separately before its sound.” Thus, war begins. Anthime, his older brother Charles, Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenal – his “café comrades” – don their ill-fitting uniforms as if in a game of dress-up, boot through town amidst parade fanfare, wave and smile as they march off to one of the worst wars in world history.

With that set-up, a reader would expect a 600-page novel. Yet, this is where Echenoz’s mastery of language shows what brevity can do. The Echenoz brand of wit is subdued while his detached, meticulous eye for detail lets us in to every scene as if he and the reader were watching everything unfold through high-powered binoculars. Echenoz’s details are hypnotizing, seemingly innocuous at first, almost wasteful, but when the scenes of war appear, that same eye for detail makes you wince, want to look away from the image in your mind that he has created.

Then you turn the page and encounter one of his devastating conclusions about war:

The sweat from fatigue and fear, take off the greatcoats to work more freely, and might hang them on an arm sticking out of the tumbled soil, using it as a coat tree.

All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if the war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.

It’s true; we know it all to well – the death and destruction of war. With the centennial anniversary of World War 1 and the focus on its literature, Echenoz confidently creates an intense, gripping narrative that is just as heartbreaking as first person accounts from soldiers who actually fought in it. Equally important and no less creative is Linda Coverdale’s translation. When a novel such as this is translated, it requires a translator who can rewrite the novel with the same economy of prose and richness in description. Coverdale’s ability to remain so loyal to Echenoz’s style and tone feels effortless, which makes the translator all the more gifted. Also, Coverdale’s notes at the end of the text are fantastic. She tells you the historical context of a reference as well as the exact phrase to google to see a particle painting Echenoz is referring to or what the soldier’s rations looked like.

1914 should win the Best Translated Book Award because it has all the marks of an epic but is scarcely over one hundred pages. To create that kind of emotional depth of character and expansive narrative is more challenging to do in fewer pages than when a writer is allowed five hundred-plus pages. It should win because it takes World War 1, a much written about topic, and makes the distillation of Anthime represent the horrible damage that any war does to a soldier. It should win because the novel wouldn’t have the significance that it does have without the superb translation of Linda Coverdale. It should win because the message is too important to ignore – even if it’s a beautiful day out, we still carry the possibility of war within ourselves.

17 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Reviewa book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.

Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal, Translated from the Spanish by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier
McGill-Queen’s University Press

Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres, translated by Norman Cheadle, with the help of Sheila Ethier, is a standout among the Best Translated Book Award finalist in quite a few ways. Most obviously, it’s the biggest in the bunch – nearly seven hundred pages, and a brick of a book. It’s also the oldest title in the running: despite how many deceased authors are featured among the finalists (ten of the books are by authors who have died) all the titles are nevertheless post-World War II publications (in their original languages) – a rare occurrence for the BTBA longlist – and this 1948 publication is the oldest of the lot. But size and age are the least of the reasons why Adam Buenosayres should win the Best Translated Book Award.

What is this book?

Adam Buenosayres is a largely autobiographical novel set in 1920s Buenos Aires – a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Marechal was part of the vibrant developing artistic scene. It clearly owes a debt to Joyce – Cheadle suggests it is: “the first Joycean novel to be written in Spanish-language literature” – and with the action covering just the span of a few days, concentrated entirely all across one city (Buenos Aires), and employing a variety of styles and approaches, it does resemble Ulysses. It is a roman à clef, city homage, and philosophical novel – a great period- (and place-) piece that’s also a superior literary work.

Why should it win the Best Translated Book Award?

1. Julio Cortázar – BTBA-longlisted for his sublime Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – hailed the book as: “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature” in reviewing it in 1949, and it is widely recognized as one of the great novels of modern Latin American literature.

2. A character closely based on Jorge Luis Borges features in it. Borges was part of the same crowd in the 1920s, and Marechal’s thinly-disguised versions of him and other notables (notably Xul Solar – who provides the cover-art for this very good-looking volume) offer often amusing insight into these famous artists. Bonus: Cheadle notes that: “Borges never forgave Marechal for his caricature as Luis Pereda and refused even to acknowledge the novel’s existence.”

3. It offers a remarkable city-portrait, a definitive one of 1920 Buenos Aires, as impressive as Joyce’s of Dublin.

4. Marechal’s narrative is playful and varied – maybe not quite to a Joycean extent, but he certainly mixes it up here. As Marechal piles it on, the amount of material can get exhausting, but the sheer inventiveness – and the humor – consistently impress and entertain.

5. This edition – the presentation of the novel-in-translation – is exemplary. Some of the longlisted books present just the translated texts themselves – which is often enough, or even preferable. After all, it’s the text that counts, and a best translated book should be able to stand well on its own. Adam Buenosayres comes seriously annotated: there are close to seventy pages of endnotes (along with a helpful introduction), and a nine-page bibliography. That, and the fact that it’s published by a university press (McGill-Queen’s University Press), might worry readers into thinking that it’s a dryly scholarly edition. Anything but, I’d suggest: obviously, given the time and place it is set in and the autobiographical elements, some background (which the introduction provides) helps in understanding the text basics, but the novel can be read and thoroughly enjoyed without worrying about the details behind everything. On the other hand, that added background layer – of who the characters are based on, historic circumstances, and local/period trivia – do make considerably more of the book, and here the endnotes are invaluable. Cheadle’s work here is a model of academic (yet still approachable) rigor, the endnotes very detailed – about the smallest detail – and thorough.

6. Norman Cheadle’s – with the help of Sheila Ethier – translation truly is a superior work. This is one of those works where it is clear that the translator has engaged with the material not just for a few months but over a much more extended period of time. As the endnotes, and Cheadle’s other writings about Marechal, demonstrate, Cheadle has immersed himself in the author and the work for many years, and he has come to know it thoroughly. His translation reflects his great understanding of and familiarity with the author and the work. Despite the challenges the novel poses – from the use of dialect and the variety of forms Marechal plays with – the translation manages also to be an artistic and not just academic success – an exuberant, comic, and clever rendering.

7. Adam Buenosayres is one of these tries-to-do-almost-everything/magnum opus books. On a longlist that features so many short-story collections and where even many of the (more-or-less-)novels are extremely slim (Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, Letters from a Seducer, 1914, Works) it stands out as a very different kind of work (with only Saer’s La Grande anywhere in the same league). For those who like their books big, expansive, far-reaching, Adam Buenosayres is the obvious choice.

8. It’s just a wonderful read and reading experience.

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