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.

16 April 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A month or so after the longlists were announced, PEN has announced the finalists for all of their literary prizes, including two translation-specific ones.

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First up is the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which has a killer shortlist:

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Action Books)

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (W. W. Norton & Company)

Breathturn into Timestead by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press)

Interestingly, three of these titles—I Am the Beggar of the World, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, and Guantanamo—are on the Best Translated Book Award Poetry Longlist as well.

I want Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream and Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon to win every literary prize possible, so I’m pulling for that. Although, there is a lot of stiff competition . . .

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In the PEN Translation Prize, young presses—especially Two Lines—rule the shortlist:

The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (New York Review Books)

The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

First of all, thank the judging gods (or just the judges themselves) that the I Ching didn’t make the list of finalists. (Not much of a fan of The Man Who Loved Dogs either to be honest.) I really like the mix that’s on this list—in part because these are all books I’ve read or plan on reading when I have time again.

Baboon is the only book on this list that made the BTBA Fiction Longlist, which is curious, but a good sign about the diversity of these sorts of awards.

I’m torn between rooting for Bromance Will and Texas and Naja, but since we’re doing Naja’s novel in the fall —”Rock, Paper, Scissors“:http://www.openletterbooks.org/products/rock-paper-scissors — I’m rooting for Baboon. Go Denmark!

The winners will be announced on May 15th.

16 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.

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.



Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Nightboat Books

Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book? 

John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.

DMLetters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?

JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.

DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?


JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:

E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.

Now, this probably won’t register immediately if you don’t read or speak Portuguese (or Spanish), but what Hilst is doing here is playing repeatedly with the word “oco,” such that you get a string of those “hollows” (“ocos”) one after the other, as well as other rhymes, assonances and consonances, a veritable seemingly untranslatable—into English—music, through the words that she uses: os cocos (coconuts), toco (stump/stub, also: I play, touch), troco (I exchange), etc. In fact, the “o/ou” (OH) and “u/o” (OOH) sounds appear in sentence after sentence, sometimes in a string of words, so that even when you don’t exactly get the “hollow,” you get the sound that embodies it. This is the work of a true poet, and someone incredibly attentive to language. There’s also a great deal of polysemy here at the phonemic level. So this was a huge challenge: how to bring this into English, since it will by necessity be lost? I had to find an equivalent but distinctly English music, and realized that English does have musical resources of its own that would work. But it wasn’t easy, and when I felt I’d figured it out, I was exhilarated. There are many such moments, but this remains my favorite, and I could read the Portuguese aloud over and over. It’s amazing how she pulls it off.
My translation:

And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
 
DM: You’ve a new collection of fiction publishing soon, some of which is set in Brazil. Have the two projects—your translation of Hilst and your writing of Counternarratives—overlapped in any way? Or did they largely run parallel to one another? 

JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.


The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.

15 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

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



Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
Semiotext(e)

It almost feels unfair to make anyone compete with Julio Cortázar. His fantastically irreverent novel Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires was originally published in 1975, and yet it has more life in its bones (or rather, in its sixty-nine pages) than many works of our own time. Subtitled “An Attainable Utopia,” Fantomas is at once a tongue-in-cheek response to the violence of the late twentieth century and a serious critique of corporate and governmental oppression.

The book opens with “our narrator” (later revealed to be Cortázar himself) on his way to his home in Paris. On the train, he reads a comic book starring the masked hero Fantomas, whose latest mission is to stop a band of anti-culture terrorists from burning down the world’s great libraries. After our narrator’s arrival in Paris, the borders between life and comic strip rapidly collapse: Fantomas himself comes crashing in through the narrator’s window, and Cortázar must help him realize the magnitude of this global problem — at least, when he’s not lusting after the superhero’s miniskirt-clad assistants or being yelled at on the phone by a convalescent Susan Sontag.

These conversations with Sontag — all carried out over “that technological decapitation known as the telephone” — are half comedy routine and half sadly prescient analysis. At one point, the narrator presents the difficulty of their task: “Susan, the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.” She responds:

Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too — it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…

That paragraph, like most of Fantomas, has not aged a day since 1975. Cortázar’s highly original adventure story, his commentary on the power of literature to imagine alternative worlds (and, equally, the human failure to realize those worlds), bears a political message as relevant today as it was forty years ago. And the author, for all his revolutionary fervor, seems to have understood that in advance: “Look, mister,” a newspaper seller tells our narrator early on in the book, “history is like steak and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.” The same goes, apparently, for the present.

David Kurnick’s translation is nimble, confident, and pitch perfect; like Groucho Marx, he always gets the right amount of syllables for the joke. (One dialogue, between the narrator and Sontag: “‘But this isn’t going to be easy, baby.’ ‘No shit,’ said Susan.”) Fantomas isn’t just a marvelous read, though; as publisher Semiotext(e) presents it, it’s also a marvelous object. The book is nearly half images, and far from interrupting the flow of the text, they define it. Pages from the narrator’s comic books, bleary mass-reproduced photographs of urban landscapes, and a hilarious sequence of drawings by the lovechild of Goya and Gorey, whose central figures are all identified as the shapeshifting Fantomas, are indispensable to the storyline and account for a good deal of its jaunty charm.

That a “lost” work can waltz in so unexpectedly and become such a formidable contender is, I think, testament enough to its quality. For its intellectual honesty and sheer panache, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires deserves the Best Translated Book Award; moreover, I suspect it’s a title its competitors would be able to lose to with grace.

14 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an editor-at-large for Asymptote and the editor-in-chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.



The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories – Translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella
NYRB Classics

When growing up in Northern Europe, you come to expect a certain level of gloom in all good storytelling; even children’s stories are not meant to be cute. In fact, most tales that my grandmother read to me before bedtime were absolutely brutal and still fill me with equal amounts of nostalgia and unease whenever I think of them.

Some of these haunting tales were written and illustrated by Tove Jansson. They were part of the adventures of Moomintroll, a dreamy-faced, hippopotamus-like creature, which became Jansson’s most successful creation and inspired several television series, films, an opera, and theme parks in Japan and Finland. The most memorable stories for me included the Hattifatteners: silent, tall, ghost-like creatures who can’t speak nor hear and have flaring hands attached to their neckless heads that feature one set of eyes. They are drawn to lightning, which makes them electric and dangerous; they travel the sea in small boats in groups of uneven numbers and they collectively own a barometer. In one story, a character steals this barometer and they relentlessly pursue him until they get it back. In another story, Moominpappa travels to the lonely island of the Hattifatteners, discovering the secret to their weather-obsession: they cannot feel emotions unless confronted by lightning.

The storyline of the Hattifatteners is terrifying, heartbreaking, and comforting simultaneously. In that sense, Tove Jansson’s selected short stories for adults in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (New York Review Books, 2014), is not far from her children’s literature. The Hattifatteners are simply swapped with isolated people: voyeurs watching others act around them, observing and feeding off the lightning, longing to connect, unable to participate in the world.

The opening story, “The Listener”, encompasses this theme of isolation beautifully. It’s a subtle tale of Aunt Gerda, a thoughtful and attentive listener, who undergoes a sudden change.

As the years went by and Aunt Gerda’s weight of insight grew, it troubled no one that she knew so much about them. They counted on her protective faculty; they let themselves be misled by her peculiar air of innocence and neutrality. It was like telling secrets to a tree or a devoted pet and never having afterward that queasy feeling that you’ve given yourself away. But now it was as if Aunt Gerda had lost her innocence.

Aunt Gerda decides to draw a map of everything she knows about everyone with neat ovals representing people and lines revealing their relationships: thefts of money, children, work, love, trust, and a single attempted murder, which makes her feel a cold thrill as she inscribes it.

Sometimes Aunt Gerda sat quietly without trying to remember, simply immersed in her solar system of past and emerging lives, sensing the future changes in the lines and ovals, inevitable in the light of obvious cause and effect. She felt a desire to forestall what must happen, to draw her own lines, new lines, maybe in silver and gold since all the other colors were taken. She toyed recklessly with the idea of making the dots and ovals movable, game pieces that could shift their context and create new constellations and entanglements.

The idea of observing, and sometimes even taking over, the lives of others reemerges throughout The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. The ultimate culmination of this manifests in the titular story where an old acquaintance steals a woman’s memories until the thief finally ends up appropriating the other woman’s life.

So why should The Woman Who Borrowed Memories win the Best Translated Book Award? Because it is impossible not to be moved by Jansson’s stories, translated from the Swedish with great sensitivity by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. As Lauren Groff writes in her introduction:

The terror of what’s outside makes what’s inside warmer, gentler; the light presses bravely against the danger and darkness. We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.

Jansson’s collection offers both terror and consolation for anyone who has ever been a Hattifattener on that lonely island, desperately monitoring the weather and waiting, once more, for lightning to strike.

13 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

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



Monastery – Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Bellevue Literary Press

One of three titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist to feature more than one translator (Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves [which I’ll be writing more about next week] and Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres being the two others), Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – both of whom helped render Halfon’s earlier book, The Polish Boxer, into English (with the help of three other translators). Since BTBA’s inception in 2008, no Spanish-language work (in either the fiction or poetry categories) has ever taken home the much-coveted prize. Curiously – and disproportionately – some 43% of the fiction awards have gone to books translated from the Hungarian (with László Krasznahorkai having won twice, of course). For the 2015 award, eight of the twenty-five longlisted fiction titles were originally published in Spanish. With so many great books in contention for this year’s honor, perhaps 2015 will see BTBA’s first Spanish-language award winner.

Born in Guatemala City in 1971, Halfon has written about a dozen books, yet only The Polish Boxer and Monastery have yet made their way into English translation. In 2007, Halfon was named to the prestigious Hay Festival Bogotá39 list of young Spanish-language authors of great promise (along with fellow BTBA longlister Andrés Neuman). Despite being a relatively young writer, Halfon and his work have already attracted wide praise and considerable acclaim. As a one-time semifinalist for the Premio Herralde, a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and winner of the José María de Pereda Prize for Short Novel, perhaps Halfon may soon add a BTBA win to his shelf of accolades – as Monastery is well deserving of taking home the 2015 fiction award.

Composed of eight short stories, Monastery reads more like a single novel than it does a disparate collection of tales. As with its predecessor, The Polish Boxer, Monastery follows the travels of its semi-autobiographical narrator (himself named Eduardo Halfon, in keeping with the tradition of so many other self-referential Spanish-language novelists) as he alights into settings and scenarios that unfold on multiple continents. Halfon (as both author and narrator) delves into themes of individuality, personhood, and the oft-mysterious relationships that connect us to one another.

With an almost palpable reverence for meaningful experience and understanding personal history (whether his own or that of his characters), Halfon effortlessly braids lyrical language and keen observation to form a moving, reflective, and humbly resounding work of fiction. Monastery’s unassuming stories are themselves rewarding, but in collecting these far-flung moments into a single pastiche, they symbiotically meld into a rich, animate narrative – not unlike the way life itself is captured in the amassing of singular and often serendipitous occurrences and interactions.

Monastery, with its beautiful prose, vibrant imagery, and singular outlook on the abundance of individual and shared experience, deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award. As an ambassador of both worldly wonder and sublime storytelling, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, despite its brevity, is truly a marvel.

You travel a lot, he said suddenly, as he looked over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and so I remained silent, watching him sitting there in front of me, on the other side of a black metal desk. He couldn’t have been twenty. His face was beardless, dark brown, gleaming. His green khaki uniform fit him too tightly. He seemed unbothered by the beads of sweat that ran slowly down his forehead and neck. So you like traveling, he mused without looking at me, in the contemptuous tone of a new soldier. I considered telling him that all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless. But I didn’t say anything. Through the open door I could make out the noise of motorcycles, trucks, vans, a ranchera being sung on a transistor radio, thunder in the distance, swarms of flies and mosquitoes and men shouting offers to buy and sell Belizean dollars. Revolving in the corner, an old floor fan simply circulated the humid afternoon jungle heat. ~from “White Sand, Black Stone”

11 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.



Works – Edouard Levé, Translated byJan Steyn
Dalkeyy Archive Press

You really have to be impressed with the fact that Edouard Levé has had three books translated into English, and all three of them have hit the Best Translated Book Award longlist. Very few writers have had that honor.

I think what this points us toward is the fact that, despite some similarities among his books, each time Levé is doing something new and different. This, to me, is what book awards should be all about: awarding authors who show an incredible range, are willing to continually take risks, resist falling into patterns, and overall produce amazing results from original ideas.

Levé did all of these things consistently throughout his too-brief career, and if he were here now I’m sure he would still be doing just that. Works was his first book, and maybe his best. It’s simply just a bunch of descriptions of possible artworks that someone might make. Of course, a lot of people could come up with an idea like that for a book, but how many people could turn that idea into a brilliantly executed book that tears apart our notions of art while offering some of the most precise, beautiful writing of the year? And who other than Jan Steyn could bring it into such equally precise and beautiful English?

Maybe out of all the titles on the longlist, Works would permit the most rereadings, would still sound the freshest no matter how many times you read it and no matter how long from now you picked it back up. It has broad, fascinating notions about what art is or could be, and it’s loads and loads of fun. Levé was always subversive and comical, even if you couldn’t always tell exactly when he was being deadpan and when he wasn’t.

A book offering all this obviously deserves an award. There’s no other way to look at it.

10 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.

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.


Harlequin’s Millions – Bohumil Hrabal, Translated by Stacey Knecht
Archipelago Books

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab – Bohumil Hrabal, Translated by David Short
Karolinum Press

James: This year’s BTBA longlist is excellent, and there are lots of books on it to talk about, but when you and I did that, George, we both gravitated toward the new one from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. We raved to each other for a while before we realized that we were each talking about a different new book—he has two on the list this year, which I’m going to say without doing any research (that’s why we have editors) is a BTBA first. I was gushing about Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab, translated by David Short, while you were selling me on Harlequin’s Millions, translated by Stacey Knecht. What makes you prefer that book?

George: Nothing much happens in Harlequin’s Millions. An elderly pensioner reflects on her life and her village. There’s no horrid tragedy in the past that shapes the characters or drives them forward. There’s no denouement lurking at the end to pull you through the book. You get to laze around in beautiful, page-long sentences deep with observation and memory. The rhythm and lyricism are powerful and subtle. I can’t believe I’m writing this. It sounds like a book I would detest. And yet it stays perched at the top of my longlist.

James: Good points. Hrabal flows like nobody else, except maybe a jazz soloist. Not pretentiously, though. He’s mostly very earthy and amusing while he’s meandering through the minds of his characters. I’d say the things you liked about HM are equally present in Rambling On, but the latter book has an advantage that the former doesn’t. Since Rambling is a collection of linked stories, all set in the Bohemian forest town of Kersko, that typical Hrabal style gets expressed in multiple voices. Each story features a different figure who has his or her own things to say about whatever’s on Hrabal’s mind. A lot of that has to do with what it was like to live under the repressive Communist regime of the 1960s and ’70s, but it usually involves a whole bunch of drunkenness, lust, and other kinds of good old-fashioned fun. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound appealing.

George: Rambling On has it over HM in that many of the stories take place in a pub or involve a pub. It catches a bit of an edge that you don’t get from a pensioner walking the halls of a one-time castle, now retirement home. Hrabal was apparently infamous for hanging out in the At the Golden Tiger pub in Prague listening closely to others’ stories. One of my favorite scenes in RO is when Mr. Belohlavek convinces everyone in the pub to go into the forest to pace off the size of a Boeing 727 that he’s in charge of landing in Prague. Oh, wait. I’m supposed to be talking about HM. All right, so there isn’t lot of pub time in HM but there are mentions of pubs that no longer exist in the little town where time stood still like Big Stomper, Heavenly Host, Bloody Paw, Cafe Pigskin. Think I would have liked hanging out in At the Golden Tiger with Hrabal on a Saturday watching footie, of which Bohumil was a huge fan.

James: A grand, Homeric catalog of vanished pubs is just about the highest pinnacle to which literature can aspire, so I have to credit HM there. But you played my trump card for me on behalf of Rambling On when you mentioned football (note to editor: stet, please; don’t change to “soccer”). There’s a scene in the book where an uninvited guest barges in on the narrator and persuades him to be buried in particularly sacred ground: “[T]he cemetery is the other side of the forest, so you’d have pine needles an’ the smell of pine right on top of your grave, but the main thing is there’s a football pitch in the forest, an’ knowin’ how fond you are of football … there’s no other cemetery like it, the ref’s whistle will easily carry all the way to your grave.” Reading about it is the next best thing to being there for you, isn’t it?

George: The narrator of HM takes an after-dinner walk through the village with “three witnesses to the old times.” No one else is on the street, no cars, no motorcycles. She can see people watching television through their windows, and realizes the entire town is watching an international football match (the 1962 World Cup?). I guess that’s enough about football. The three witnesses—a railroad engineer, workshop foreman, and the elegant Otokar Rykr, pomaded hair, pince-nez—are a curious trio. You get the feeling that they may or may not exist, which is a bit unsettling. I’m not real comfortable with unreliable narrators. Last year I got punked by Hofmeester in Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza. I’m much more of a ham and beans reader—fewer veils, less layers. Hmm. The characters are pretty straightforward in RO. You know, I’m thinking…

James: I on the other hand don’t mind at all when things get strange and phantasmagoric. I couldn’t get enough of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding from BTBA 2014, for example, which is as much both of those things as it’s possible to be. I may be coming around to HM’s side for 2015. Sounds like we’ve come to an agreement.

George: Sounds like it. The winner of this year’s BTBA should definitely be…

James: Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions.

George: Bohumil Hrabal’s Rambling On.

James: Definitely.

9 April 15 | N. J. Furl | Comments

On the heels of this week’s big announcement of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and poetry longlist, Chad and Tom run through the books that made the cut and talk about their favorites, which books are on their reading lists, who they predict will make the shortlist next month, and try their darnedest to pronounce a lot of names. Then, they respond to some viewer mail about the effectiveness of ACRs for book bloggers before Tom rants about being the patsy of a fiendish shot-buying conspiracy and Chad rave’s about the Audubon Society’s fiendish take-down of Dark Lord Franzen.

This week’s music is Choked Out by (friends of international lit) The Mountain Goats, whose new album is out this week.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

And you can email us with complaints and comments at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com


9 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.


Street of Thieves – Mathias Énard, Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books

Last year, I advanced Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, tr. from the French by Lulu Norman, for The Best Translated Book Award a book that follows the lives of a group of teenage soccer players from Sidi Moumen who become Islamist martyrs, suicide bombers in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.

This year I’m championing Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, in which one of the main characters becomes involved with an Islamist group turned Jihadist.

I hope that I’m not developing a pattern – not the French translation part, the radicalism part.

Street of Thieves is a coming-of-age story of two childhood friends set mostly in Tangiers during the Arab Spring. Lakhdar, the narrator, wants freedom – to travel, smoke weed, earn money, read French noir detective novels, have sex with Spanish women. His friend, Bassam, introduces Lakhdar to the “Group for the Propagation for Islamic Thought” for whom he becomes their seller of books and pamphlets.

After the organization severely beats a neighborhood bookseller, their paths split, Lakhdar moves away, Bassam gets deeply into the group. Bassam might be involved in a stabbing in Tangiers, a bombing in Marrakesh, and ultimately an assassination.

“Men are dogs,” says Lakhdar, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…” Exiled from his family because of an indiscretion with his cousin, Lakhdar starts with nothing, lives on the street, takes a series of jobs, goes on the run, falls in love, and ends up in a Barcelona neighborhood of junkies and prostitutes, the Street of Thieves.

Lots of big words – fate, fear, corruption, revolution, liberty, love and loyalty and tragedy, but no theme bigger than identity. Is Lakhdar more than his religion? More than his nationality? In the final pages of the book, he testifies “I am not a Moroccan, I am not a Frenchman, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.”

Love of language, the study of language, the beauty of language are all manifested in the book. Love of books – “which is the only place on earth where life is good” – certainly won this judge over.

Street of Thieves should win The Best Translated Book Award because Énard has filtered multiple complex social issues through the eyes of a wonderfully likable narrator. If I’ve made that sound dreadfully serious, it’s my mistake.

Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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.. . .

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The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

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Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

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Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

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. . .

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Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

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. . .

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The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

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Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

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. . .

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Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

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Faces in the Crowd
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Reviewed by Valerie Miles

At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .

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Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar
Reviewed by Cameron Rowe

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .

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