19 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s “Why This Book Should Win” fiction entry is from Rachel Cordasco, former BTBA judge, and curator of Speculative Fiction in Translation.



Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (France, Open Letter Books)

In Radiant Terminus, we have a novel that disturbs and enthralls, sucking us in to a nightmarish void of a world that might be Purgatory or the Buddhist “Bardo” or some dystopian point in the near/far future. Needless to say, in this moment when the “Second Soviet Union” has fallen and nearly all mammalian life on Earth has died, one wonders if such a distinction even matters anymore.

Antoine Volodine, author of “post-exotic” works, has created a cast of characters who move across this wrecked yet lush landscape, seeking some sort of (radiant?) terminus where they can finally find shelter and rest. They converge on a small commune that is slyly named “Radiant Terminus,” run by a man named Solovyei, who spins and declaims his own epic narrative prose poems that tell of his malicious capacity to bring people back—but only partly—from the dead. And then there are people like the Gramma Udgul (and Solovyei himself?), whose exposure to high levels of radiation have rendered them, in some sense, immortal.The title itself suggests a terminal that emits radiation (e.g., energy unleashed by nuclear reaction)—thus an end point that is always in flux.

Often, the narrative itself starts sounding like Solovyei’s strange and haunting prose poems (or vice versa), the sentences building up momentum as they amble along toward a terminus:

The time did come when those who had the talent declaimed epic chants, invented poetic or comedic monologues, or recited propaganda texts that had stuck with them in their earlier life, or parts of communist, post-exotic, or feminist romances. The audience accompanied them by approving or voicing speeches, as we did in the old days during Korean pansori performances, when Korea still existed and we still believed in beauty, the future, and the impossibility of death.

Volodine’s deft manipulation of irony and careful weaving together of narrative perspectives and voices, all stage-managed, perhaps, by Solovyei, makes Radiant Terminus worthy of the BTBA prize. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve wandered across the bewildering landscape of Volodine’s own mind, and how many authors have you read who can do that? Exactly.

19 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, the 2018 longlists for the Best Translated Book Award were released and were loaded with books translated from the Spanish. Eight works of fiction and one poetry collection. Nine titles total out of the thirty-seven on the combined longlists. That’s just a smidge under 25%. Twenty-five percent! One-quarter of the best books published in 2017 were originally written in Spanish.

As much as I love Spanish language literature—and always have, probably since reading Cortázar in college—this seems kind of incredible. Outsized. Statistically significant. I’m tentatively planning on writing about the regions that tend to be overlooked by the BTBA (Africa, Asia, India), and some of the reasons why (lack of eligible books being the biggest), but given the fact that I was already going to write about two Spanish books this week, we might as well take the time to dig into this situation and see if the prevalence of Spanish books on the BTBA lists is in line with current publishing trends, or if something else is going on.

Before moving on to other forms of analysis, let’s see if the dominance of Spanish books in the 2018 Best Translated Book Awards is unusual or just run of the mill. It’s probably going to turn out to be recency bias, but I have the sense that Spanish always represents on the BTBA. And wins. Like with Yuri Herrera and Diorama and other books. Like, hmm. Maybe I’m wrong.

As you may have noticed—and if not, take this post as a sort of public announcment—you can now search the Translation Database for all previous BTBA titles. You can get the longlist or shortlist for any given year, find out which books from which presses have made it, or, as befits this post, see how often various languages have been represented.

Of the 249 longlisted fiction titles in the database,1 56 are translated from the Spanish. That would be an incredible 22.5%. Or 5.6 a year. Not that far removed from this year in fact. To put those numbers into perspective, here’s a chart detailing the ten languages with the most titles to have made the longlists.



Unsurprisingly (?), French doesn’t lag that far behind Spanish in BTBA representation. But that’s for the longlists. Let’s see what happens when we narrow this down to the finalists.



The gap widens! I guess. But really, there’s not that much of a difference between Spanish and French on here, and when you think about the overall number of speakers—220 million French vs. 500 million Spanish—French seems like a bit of an underdog, despite their long history at the top of the European publishing scene.

I think we need to dig a bit deeper before making any sort of conclusion. Up to now we’ve only been looking at raw numbers devoid of context. Is it really that surprising that no Hindi titles have made the longlists? What if I told you that there have only been five eligible Hindi titles over the eleven years of the award? Compare that with the fact that only three Japanese books have made it—out of 221. I’m no where near smart enough figure out those probabilities, but I can totally crank out some charts looking at how likely it is for one of the three most-translated languages—Spanish, German, French—to make it to the BTBA fiction longlist.

Let’s start with the three-year averages for the number of titles published from these languages:



Two observations:

1) I don’t think I can explain the dominance of French fiction. I don’t feel like I can name very many French authors, and yet, it’s almost always the most translated language. I don’t think that I’ve included a French book as the impetus for one of these weekly rambles for all of 2018.2

2) What the fuck, German literature? If this chart was a year-by-year thing, I would write off that decline as a small sample, but theoretically, by looking at three-year averages, we should be filtering out most of the noise. Given the cultural investments, the raw number of German books written every year, the promotional publications, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the je ne sais quoi of German lit (sorry), this is surprising. Disconcerting. A trend to watch.

Now, given that baseline, here are the three-year rolling averages for the percentage of books from those same languages to make the BTBA longlist:



LOOK AT THOSE SPANISH BOOKS! I CALLED IT!

There’s probably a hot take to be written about 2013—the moment when Spanish surpassed French as the “most literary language.” It probably involves statements about “Bolaño’s lasting influence” and the Granta special issue and some U.S. demographics. I’ll bet you could unpack that shit into a PhD thesis with the right advisor.

OR, you could write a thesis about the ways in which the increase in the number of languages with at least one translation has impacted the Big Three and their stranglehold on the marketplace.

OR, you could check publication against proliferation (sales) and try and figure out if the Spanish trend was predictive—there were more books, then more sales—or responsive—way more sales for Spanish titles around 2007-2009, so let’s double-down on the trend—or random—there is no correlation and this situation just developed.

OR, is there something about the makeup of the BTBA jury—especially among the booksellers and translators—that tilts things in favor of Spanish titles.

There are so many options . . . This narrative doesn’t feel very fulfilling at all. Numbers are frustrating that way.

One more thing: At the top of this, I made an off-handed remark about Spanish books always winning the BTBA. Not true! Only three Spanish titles have won the Best Translated Book Award—Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera was the only work of fiction, with both Diorama by Rocio Ceron and Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik winning for poetry. Perceptions, man. Perceptions and biases. It doesn’t matter what’s factual, it matters what you remember and believe.

*


I just had a text exchange with the “Beer Reporter” for our local newspaper. Which has zero relevance, except in the way that proliferation and quality aren’t always in sync.

Thanks to middle-age and trends, we have like 42 new breweries here in Rochester—all fine, none spectacular. They support each other and make sure that an excessive proportion of paychecks are spent on beer instead of other forms of cultural entertainment.

That’s totally fine, I think. But when it comes to our biggest brewery—Genesee—I’m a bit of a hard ass. Everyone knows that I’m a contrarian for life, but I honestly don’t care for or against Genny or Genny Light. It’s beer in the way most books are books. It’s functional. (Sorta.) If you drink a few pitchers, you’ll definitely feel it, like how if you read all five hundred John Grisham books, you’ll know words.

Here were the Rochester-centric jokes I came up with in our texting to describe Genny:

“It’s like a Xerox of Bud Light!”

“I Kodak, and never will, see what you see in that beer.”

“Something, something, Wegmans!”

“Genny is great. My parents and uncles love it, which is heartwarming, since old people also deserve beer.”

*


Let’s talk about poetry!



Letters So That Happiness”: by Arnaldo Calveyra, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Argentina, Ugly Duckling Presse)

This is a very different collection from Stormwarning, the poetry book I tried to write about last week. (I do a thing with my kids where I pretend that I can’t remember the name of anything and invent word combinations like a living Queneau poem. Every object and location has about fourteen different names in the Post Vernacular, which is both semi-amusing and fairly confusing. If I were writing this for them—which I wouldn’t, unless the poems were on YouTube—I would’ve called last week’s collection “Stormblaster” or “Storm Soldier” or “Snow Warning” or some other dumb ass shit like “Winter Wonder Times.” I have done this bit for so long that I have literally torn apart my own memory and feel like most of my days are just highlights from the inevitable onslaught of early-onset dementia. Never buy into your jokes too much, kids, they’ll bite you in the “Blizzard Blaster” in the end.)

I still don’t feel like I have the terminology to talk about poetry. I set about this self-challenge with the simplest of ideas—if you read enough, and try hard enough, you’ll figure out a way to say more than uhhhh, that poem is funny! I’m only to weeks in, but I feel like poetry is all barrier. And I’m not even looking at poems that are confined by form, that are playing with some Alexandrine rhyme scheme or particular pentameter. (Not the right terms, I’m sure. Alliteration. Assonance. Enjambment.)

Without someone—or some piece—to unlock the key, I feel like I’m all surface when it comes to evaluating these collections. Like week I wrote about joy, this week I want to talk about unsettled language—the aspect of Calveyra’s poetry that’s so salient that’s it’s cited in the afterword as the singular reason for why these poems appealed to Borges:

What captivated Borges and Mastronardi in 1959 was Calveyra’s singular use of syntax and language. It is often said that Calveyra invented a new grammar that could release time and place from the stasis and confinement that words inescapably mark.


Yep. That. Which I completely agree with, and which can be found throughout. Here are a couple samples:

The boy came back by the mettle of the night. The military had taught him to steal and whistle for anything. Now whistling he forgot stealing. Feathered casuarina trees quieted to his step. But because they’d never met the winds that travel from a sadness to a happiness, there was no breeze to wake the nests sleeping in their fist: for them, he was returning, one of so many from the village.


And, from a different poem:

As if it were ever almost here this forever company in the cave of a shiverer’s winter, together with the dog we found your day, I jump up on the hill that hurries to take me back to bring you happy daisies.


This is all off-kilter and not pretentious—two qualities I gravitate toward. But where to go from there?

Setting aside any deeper analysis of the style of the poems, or the technical tricks Calveyra employs as being beyond my paygrade, I instead am drawn to the ways in which these feel like poems of childhood, of a sort of pre-linguistic way of encountering the world that allows for a possibility of happiness. The twists of his language seem a bit different than the Russian formalist conception of enstrangement to me, and are more like smudges of one’s worldview—a way of seeing and saying before everything is codified and has a “correct” way of being described.

Which sort of connects with the title, Letters So That Happiness. “Letters” is ambiguous—these aren’t proper letters, but some of this “smudging” of the world involves a few slipped letters—and “so that happiness” can what? Exist? Be recaptured?

The afterword talks about how Calveyra was trying to capture the language of Entre Ríos, his hometown, but I feel like it’s capturing that language through the lens of youth, of play. Here’s an example that’s probably a bit too on the nose, but demonstrates what I mean:3

Hopscotch singing rounds with one foot on the ground and the other without anywhere.

Coming! Coming! and already in the marrow sky, grace wobbling, life long. And let’s pick a square with all our names to stand one little afternoon minute resting flamingo gentle foot.

That afternoon when we all win, we’ll be watching each other from our resting squares and not stepping on the lines.

When the soles of your feet aren’t named anymore, named pebble anymore, named all back at the beginning anymore, the only foot of the little late afternoon will go on begging entry and already all back at the beginning-ginning again.


So pleasant, so much twist in the expected words. This collection has the feel of nursery rhymes reimagined through a rural landscape. I like the voice. The simplicity of the happiness. There is warmth here and I dig it. Also, there are exclamation points!

*




I want to give a quick nod to The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza, translated from the Spanish (duh and or obviously) by Camilio Ramirez for New Directions. Cool book! It’s like Tomb Song but with more acid and alcoholism. I think? I read a third and had to stop, but for you plotsters out there, it’s an autobiographical novel (I should end with “full stop” since that’s all anyone reads these days when they’re not reading YA) about a young man who takes care of his mom after his dad throws acid over her face. It’s legit fucked up, and although it’s now a cult classic, it was originally self-published, and that’s saying something. What it’s saying about art and commerce and originality and telling one’s life, I’m not sure, but something. Something for sure.

In November (I think), I’ll try and write a gigantic post—one that involves me drinking a plethora of whiskeys—about the position of auto-fiction, fictionalized autobiographies, non-fiction tinged fiction in today’s literary scene. There’s so much of it now (see Ben Lerner, see Knausgaard, who will obviously [and or duh] be the occasion for this post) that some readers see it as some new, hipster trend. There is a long history there, there are differences, there are—and this is what interests me—ways in which the approach ends up highlighting form more than content. There’s a lot to say. And Tomb Song and The Desert and Its Seed can be captured into that conversation.

Two other quick things, left unexplored:

1) Books about damaged faces. Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another. Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Others. The writing of skin. On skin. Skin-like. Replacement and reconstruction. The self as the image portrayed.

2) Self-published literary successes. There is the one? Sergio de la Pava? Who is literally not of this time and makes words fun by unconventionalizing the under-workings of words. Biza is different, yet the self is throwing its work into the ether. The cojones of standing by your works in relation to the gratitude, the admiration achieved in later years.

———————-


1 For the curious, there was a book that made the longlist one year, but wasn’t technically eligible. (It was a reprint.) We’re not going to repeal the BTBA designation—I mean shit, we’re not the NCAA or anything—but the title isn’t actually listed in the database. I’m sure you can sleuth it out if you’re really interested.

2 Actually, I have: The Perfect Nanny!

3 There’s not an assertion I can make about poetry that I can’t equivocate a sentence later. I know this breakdown is childish, simplistic, easy to dismiss. I don’t have this sort of public anxiety when it comes to fiction—I’m more versed, the hours with the form have been logged—although it may all come down to a famous poet telling me that my favorite poems from a particular collection were the “easy” ones. I’m gun shy. But trying!

19 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning’s poetry entry into the Why This Book Should Win series is from BTBA judge—and Riffraff co-owner—Emma Ramadan.



Astroecology by Johannes Heldén, translated from the Swedish by Kirkwood Adams, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, and Johannes Heldén (Sweden, Argos Books)

Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology is an art object, and merely describing it won’t do justice to the weighty beauty of it you feel when holding the book in your hands. A compromise: Some of the images and accompanying text can be viewed here. It’s a hardcover book of photographs accompanied by short texts that are in turn accompanied by footnotes, translations of images into words and words into other words. The glossary at the end is itself a continuation of the book’s poetry, with entries like “horizon, as far as the human eye could see” and “loneliness, standing outside the flock. Walking towards the school building at the end of summer. Darkness in the storage room. The sound of footsteps. Laughter.”

Heldén describes nature and the world around us, but there’s something sinister lurking in these pages. Flipping through the book, it might seem like a collection of beautiful photographs of plants, animals, landscapes in nature, but the accompanying text subtly explores nature’s brutal confrontation with us. Humankind’s negative influence on the world seeps into the pages. A picture of a tree stump is captioned “October 10, 2011, a 24-hour long clip of the engine sound from the fictional starship U.S.S. Enterprise was uploaded to YouTube.” An aerial photograph of trees is accompanied by a description of the roar of engines and drones crowding out the sound of the wind, crowding out even the sound of breathing. We encounter a dead dormouse, there’s an apocalyptic atmosphere: The only light: the emergency generator of the hospital.

Heldén’s glossary plants us firmly in the future: “badger, Meles meles, four-legged animate object (last confirmed sighting in 2027).” “blue whale, the last blue whale was hunted into a shallow bay in the Arctic in 2026, where she beached and expired after several hours struggle to return to deep waters.” Every animal mentioned is now extinct. And often their former actions and movements are described as though the glossary were someone’s diary, keeping record of the specific habits of various insects and animals around his or her property. What kind of future is this?

Is it the end of the world? Are we the end of the world? The layers of Heldén’s text are so all-encompassing and in such intense juxtaposition that sometimes we forget this is not a simple documenting of someone’s garden and their pleasant discoveries captured in photographs. Soot from burnt-out stars falling slowly to the ground. I tried to write their existence, their consciousness, like code into the interspace.

The text is also woven with Heldén’s sporadic philosophical musings, inner thoughts inextricably bound up in the outside world. A question: what would a secret language be called interspersed between raindrops. These are Heldén’s photographs, and through them he brings us into his construction of a future universe. For Astroecology is, essentially, a work of science fiction shattered into images, text, intertext, the pieces coming together to expand the genre, both of science fiction and of poetry.

18 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mark Haber of the BTBA jury and Brazos Bookstore has today’s fiction entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series.



Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Bolivia, Simon & Schuster)

There is a lot to be said for subtlety, the quiet ability to tackle the heavy issues—family, history, politics—with a restraint that conveys deep emotion without being heavy handed. Affections, Rodrigo Hasbún’s first novel to be translated into English is a breathtaking example of this.

Affections, translated by Sophie Hughes, begins with the Ertl family, newly arrived in Bolivia from Germany after World War II. The father, Hans, an ex-cameraman for the Third Reich, is fixated on finding Bolivia’s lost city of Paitití. I suspected, of course, that the novel would follow the patriarch as he went on a quixotic journey into the jungle, a little madness and malaria, perhaps a lost treasure. However Hasbún is not that type of writer and Affections is not that type of book. Instead, a series of short vignettes, narrated mostly by Hans’ daughters, comprises most of the novel. Before you know it a decade has passed, the daughters are young women and Monika, the eldest, has become a Marxist guerrilla.

In many ways Affections is a book about what doesn’t happen, or what happens between the pages, hidden among lost chapters that the reader is asked to fill in. A quiet book that takes so many unexpected turns, so many amazing shifts it begs to be read more than once, not just for the wonderful language (and Hughes’s skillful translation) but to see if you have perhaps missed something.

I found this book so deft and cryptic, so unexpected and light. Affections is an exercise in restraint (the book and the translation). It deals with family and revolution without once hitting a cliché. In fact, this book is a book that refuses any simple answers. This seems a year of loud and maximalist books, which is great, but this quiet gem should be read and revisited and cherished for the story as well as the execution.

18 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s entry from the BTBA poetry longlist is from writer and translator Tess Lewis, who also has a title longlisted on the fiction side of things.



Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabart, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I love ordinariness. Rejected, pedestrian conversations and scenes, days and nights left behind are all things that move me. And I feel a desire to dress them in new clothes. Perhaps I wanted to capture an enormous pleasure in my poetry . . .

                     “Poetry on Poetry”

The city of Calcutta is constant presence in Bhaskar Chakrabarti’s poetry, although an elusive and ghostly one. Chakrabarti is every bit the city poet that Baudelaire is, but he wends his way through his beloved metropolis as a swimmer rather than a flâneur. In some poems he merely dips a toe into the stream that swirls around and past him. In others he submerges himself fully and lets himself be carried by the current. In still others he sits on the bank, his back to the city, and looks inward or simply remembers. The Calcutta Chakrabarti evokes and celebrates is not, however, the one we have often heard or read about elsewhere. There is little sign of the bustling streets filled with life and affliction, the faded grandeur offset by vivid colors and heady Coffee House intellectuals usually associated with this city of many goddesses and cultures. Chakrabarti’s Calcutta is a city of memories and particulars, of loneliness and melancholy, of beautiful women glimpsed from a distance and fleeting deities.

For Chakrabarti (1945–2005), there is little point in looking for the exotic half-way around the world or even in nearby neighborhoods. The crucial thing is to find a connection to the mundane, the familiar; “even writing four or five ordinary lines / About tender blades of grass is better” than “struggling on with symbol, imagery and resonance” in poems from the day before yesterday. Observed with the proper attention, the foreign becomes familiar and the familiar is seen fresh.

Arunava Sinha’s translation from the Bengali deftly navigates these poems’ shifts in register from elevated reflection to earthy exclamation. In the title poem, the poet reflects on the small but real joys a life dedicated to art can bring, yet quickly deflates the swelling sentimentality.

The days aren’t passing badly for the two of us
Though it’s true we haven’t been to the hills,
We haven’t been to the seaside for three years now
And poverty, it’s no small annoyance
Constantly borrowing money and asking my sister for help
Still, one or two interesting things do happen
Tonight, for instance, you exclaimed: There, it’s raining:
We went up to the window
But it was only the sound of someone pissing on the roof next door
Or the other night, I was writing in the tiny room
With the light on—someone from the street said loudly:
Go to sleep, motherfucker.

                     “Things That Happen”

Most of the poems in this collection, however, are in a more reflective tone of sober nostalgia. Indeed, many were written after Chakrabarti began treatment for an illness that brought him frequent hospitalization and regular confrontations with mortality. Sinha’s sonorous, sinuous lines evoke the elusive comforts Chakrabarti finds in poetry that calls up, however futilely, absent beloveds and lost familiars.

Because you’ll come, I’ve snagged a wicker chair
I wonder, will you come? Will you really come?
Two decades have passed—or four? I still sit in the darkness
Why this loneliness, why this pulse in my veins
You are mild (fragrant air), peace, peace in my nerves, panacea

                     “The Language of Giraffes”

Readers of Things That Happen are quickly swept up by the soothing, inviting flow of Chakrabarti’s poetry, but sooner or later a gentle tug of danger even despair between the lines will send them back to firm ground, unsettled but with senses sharpened.

18 April 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad and Brian (welded at the hip) were joined by “Stiliana Milkova”:https://www.oberlin.edu/stiliana-milkova of Oberlin College’s department of comparative literature to discuss the final moments of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. While we learned that Chad doesn’t like Elena Ferrante, and Brian was betrayed by an old community of writers, and Stiliana used to study the poetics of erotic Eastern European poetry, they addressed the importance of quantum physics to the book. This post will highlight some specific moments where Gospodinov discusses these theories in this section in preparation for the conclusionary post next week.

The Place of Quantum Physics

It’s fitting that The Physics of Sorrow is ending with a lesson in quantum dynamics. While the previous section—Global Autumn—started the discussion of possibilities, as Gospodinov continued to rewrite earlier themes in a more transparent way, the entire book has been rooted in the complexity of what is seen and what isn’t—ideas at the heart of quantum physics.

Gospodinov established this relationship between light and time through the Minotaur as a thematic anchor. He highlighted the importance between the dark labyrinth that the Minotaur wandered and the moment of his death as Theseus drags him into the light to be gutted. Additionally, children were hidden to keep them safe, whether those safe places were the stomachs of their parents, barns or basements. Time capsules, whether buried deep in the earth or shot into the dark of space, contained a moment frozen in time for those who would crack them open and look upon their contents. And, building upon time capsules, memories—now in the form of stories—could be saved in the light. In these shelters, hidden away from light, people and objects were safe from the gazes of others and, were safe, as we come to learn in this section, from certainty.

And issues of possibility and certainty are at the forefront throughout this last section (and the Epilogue). In “Quanta of Equivocation” Gospodinov provides a set of key ideas to read the rest of this section—and arguably the rest of the book. The first explains a basic principle of quantum physics.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, as early as the 1920s quanta act like particles only when we observe them. The rest of the time, hidden from our gaze, they are part of a scattered and supposedly disinterested wave, in which we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Everything there is possible, unforeseeable and variable. But once they sense we’re watching them, they instantaneously start acting as we expect them to, orderly and logically.


And the other statement on the nature on how what we don’t see behaves.

The world behind our backs is some kind of undefined quantum soup, says a Stanford physicist—but the second you turn around, it freezes into reality. I like that definition and never turn around too abruptly.


And, finally, a statement on the nature of possibility regarding the two previous rules.

That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened—because they’re of the same order—possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.


Gospodinov has constructed reality within The Physics of Sorrow that relies on being witnessed. Things that light shine on—things that are seen—are then seen are set, while things left in the dark are timeless and uncertain. While next week I’ll approach these transformations between uncertainty and certainty in more detail, this idea is evident in the contrast between the Prologue and the Epilogue.

Burnt at Both Ends

I’m drawn to a familiar mindscape from March when we first dove into this piece for the Two Month Review. I was frantically flipping through the pages trying to construct a suitable sample to have something large, unwieldy, but vaguely accurate to say about the piece in the introductory blog post. I noted the shifting voices, the short sections, the diagrams, and lists and started to drown—in a good way— with the many directions that Gospodinov was guiding us through my own interpretation of the novel. I walked away—from the sampling—feeling something I’ve only said about a few projects: a book didn’t suit the content and form of the book.

Originally, I described something along the lines of a hallucinatory nightmare in a sensory deprivation tank—a description I feel (and hope) Gospodinov would appreciate—as a way to better experience The Physics of Sorrow, something haunting yet phenomenologically exhaustive. But as the novel ends and I meet that brilliant clash of red and yellow and flip the cover back over to that broken Minotaur, I need to return to my beginning recant some of my original comments.

Alongside the most arrogant interpretation to my original comments, Gospodinov accepts, acknowledges, and addresses the limitations of a book for the novel, and this acceptance is rooted in his decisions on how the piece ends. We see this through the end mirroring the start. If you’d recall, the prologue to The Physics of Sorrow opened up with a series of short profiles on births and lifetimes—some clearly human, others not, and a few left with very little to identify.

On closing, Gospodinov returns us to these entities at their moment of death, which breaks the sense of infinite possibilities that this section has explored through the discussion of quantum physics and developing alternate takes on so much. This cap to the book closes the chances of this going on forever but still reaffirms the obsession that Gospodinov has expressed towards collecting memories, collecting fragments, and exploring possibilities.


17 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This afternoon’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from BTBA judge Adam Hetherington.



Remains of Life by Wu He, translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry (China, Columbia University Press)

I’m not sure how to define historical fiction. How true does regular fiction need to be to become historical fiction? Is historical fiction something more than entertainment? If so, is it less entertainment than entirely fictional fiction? (Has anyone ever stayed within realism and written entirely fictional fiction, not bringing in some small history, some personal history? I doubt it.) Is this novel—which is maybe not even all that fictional—historical fiction? I’m not sure it really even matters, I’m just having trouble imagining a way to pin this book down long enough to write about it. It’s a book built on the past but that needs the future too, the time ahead.

On October 27, 1930, at a sports meet on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, the Atayal tribe rose up against the Japanese colonial regime, slaying one hundred and thirty-four people in a headhunting ritual. The Japanese response brought the tribe to the brink of genocide

That part is true, if that kind of thing matters to you. The impetus of Remains of Life is something like an investigation into this event, The Musha Incident. In the afterword, author Wu He writes:

This novel is about three things:

First, the legitimacy and justification behind Mona Rudao launching “The Musha Incident.” In addition to the second Musha Incident.

Second, the Quest of Girl, Who was my next-door neighbor during my time staying on the reservation.

Third, the Remains of Life that I visited and observed while on the reservation.

All this happens concurrently, in a single unbroken, stream-of-consciousness paragraph, with fewer full stops than there are days in the week. In the text, translated by Michael Berry, a conversation with one of the villagers (the “Remains of Life”) can spark a winding, philosophical assessment of the facts of the Musha Incident—

History records the facts, but contemporary history never investigates the facts, it instead investigates the “legitimacy of historical incidents”

—which can eventually abruptly be broken by the appearance of Girl, Wu He’s neighbor and guide who introduces him to even more of the Remains of Life, characters allegorically named, and sometimes renamed, for how Wu He sees and thinks of them: Girl; Boss; Pimp-Bastard; Old Man; Playboy; Skinny Monkey; any of whom might want to talk about any imaginable thing, even their thoughts on the honesty of the novel being written by Wu He.

I need to be loyal to the true face of my writing.

Clause by clause, the novel grows. Conversation, rumination, and observation are modes used to braid Wu He’s three threads, all inspiring and clarifying each other. The past refracts and informs the present, and the way we carry ourselves through the present dictates how we can think about the past. The novel builds. It cycles, it morphs, it reacts. And it grows. The block of text just keeps growing, like life. The relentless prose brings to mind Thomas Bernhard, or even Pierre Guyotat in some regards, but the effect of the prose is to me most like W.G. Sebald. There’s a shared bravery in their not explaining that which can not fully explained, and a peace in looking at it anyway. The text of Remains of Life is not showy circumlocution, or the kind of modernist mishmash you probably think of when you hear “single unbroken paragraph” or “stream-of-consciousness.” It’s a careful, thoughtful accrual of exactly what all an honest man can take in while carrying on. It’s a difficult book to read, though not because it’s hard to pay attention to, or hard to follow—t’s actually delightful, line by line—but because the structure of the book forces the reader into the same position as the narrator: because there are no breaks or refrains, you have to take what you read and carry it with you, forward, into the future and into meaning.

I don’t give much thought to the past destroying the present or the present destroying the future, that’s how I will spend my Remains of Life—in bed with my mind devoid of all thoughts and contemplation

To circle back to my initial questions, Wu He’s Remains of Life is historical fiction, though it doesn’t function remotely like any I’ve read before. It certainly deals with history. It’s a way to start thinking about it, at least. But the reason it should win the Best Translated Book Award isn’t that it’s great historical fiction, it’s that it’s decisively present fiction in a way that no other book I’ve read is. The overlapping layers of consciousness and threads of story serve to collectively mirror back a life; a man, heartbroken, does not so much investigate as he does accrue. He has freewheeling conversations with everyone he encounters because he wants to know more, and they have conversations with him because he listens. He gathers. He adds to himself without reducing the people around him. Their existences are also true. The past becomes both more and less clear. He meditates. He’s trying to understand a number of things, but he doesn’t know if that’s possible, or even predict how he might go about accomplishing understanding. He meditates. He’s content to just try. He carries forward into his own ever-changing Remains of Life. So he goes on, his eyes, his ears, and his heart all wide open, available for whatever happens in the next conversation, or on the next line.

17 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from BTBA judge and Riffraff co-owner, Emma Ramadan.



Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling Presse)

I would happily and readily make the argument that of all the books on the BTBA poetry longlist this year, Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism was without a doubt the most difficult to translate. Made up of six book-length poems, the poems in Before Lyricism get at a version of reality that can only be accessed by making someone hear and see an image through the written word.

The shape of the forest has
The shape of a jellyfish
That you catch in your hands and it slips through
As a wave
Pushes it out
Perhaps this happens
Because
It moves
Without
Opening seashores
That are white
And
The fresh ones glisten
While the others
Are white all through
You’ll find too the bones of the drowned


Now I’ll push out my heart
But no
Since jellyfish
Have no blood


If I pretended for so long to be writing poems, it was only so I could speak of the forest.

These poems don’t have a setting or a thread of movement. The most accurate thing would be to say that these poems are set in Vakalo’s mind and in our minds and nowhere else. Poems that seem to start out as straightforward descriptions peel apart in our hands as we read, every line taking another layer with it so that what we are left with is a series of jarring images that reverberate with an energy of abstraction. Her translator Karen Emmerich describes in an excellent interview for Tupelo Quarterly, “That’s what all of reading Vakalo feels like to me: being in the sea in a moment of utter calm, and then finding that the water I’m standing in is so many more things than I thought—and the calm of the sea and of me becomes host to an undercurrent, if not of fear, then of astonishment at the unfamiliar.”

At night people betray one another
And when the forest
Begins
To smother you
You cry out
As if
You were not in
The forest


Vakalo pushes the Greek language to its limits, stretching its syntax and playing up its room for ambiguity. As Emmerich elaborates in her translator’s note at the end of the book, “Before Lyricism is intensely inward-looking in its disruption of conventional grammar and syntax, which render it resistant to familiar modes of translation . . . Greek is an inflected language in which word endings indicate grammatical function . . . Writers can manipulate these elements in such a way as to push their texts to the limits of intelligibility . . . Vakalo does just that: she intensifies the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek by recasting its syntax in unexpected ways.”

If this poem is filled with the beating of wings
It’s because you hear birds

                              You don’t just see them

Emmerich spent over a decade translating these poems. The difficulty, she says in her Tupelo Quarterly interview, is that “what Vakalo is doing in this regard simply isn’t something that English can do. The languages aren’t the same. In many places, given the tyranny of the word order in English, there are clear subjects or objects for my verbs, in places where there aren’t for hers. What I tried to do instead was just let other forms of ambiguity exist, syntactical, grammatical, interpretive . . . I wanted there not to be a clear image, always, but rather a sense of something . . . I just had to let myself go, mess with all the pieces and make something I thought was equally disturbing, mixing issues of innocence and guilt in a similar way of effacing the boundary between actor, action, and effect . . . Yet the cumulative impression is somehow still comprehensible. There’s a point, a thing to understand but not untangle.”

Striking the spider
The spasm as it falls
And its legs contract and tangle
In three closed corners
The whole spider shrinking
Death when it suddenly comes
With a swift pain from the strike
And that power you have in your hands
The image of these moments gathers
As passing you saw it on the wall
Creeping with its eight legs
In an odd rhythmic arrangement
The rapid change
In the scene, starting with the strike,
Transforms the innocent into intent.


Emmerich’s stunning translation is nothing short of miraculous in its ability to evoke the same feelings of both alarming confusion and immediate comprehension in her English readers as Vakalo was able to evoke in her Greek readers. This book shimmers with a new layer of reality, with new poetic possibilities, and it is a gift to English readers to be able to access both.

16 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This afternoon’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from writer and Russian translator, Andrea Gregovich. She also interviews literary translators about their new books for the Fiction Advocate blog.



Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Open Letter Books)

Writing why Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller should win the Best Translated Book Award is like trying to describe a bizarre, exhausting dream that felt important but wound up buried too deep in your subconscious for words to make sense of now that you’re awake. As I was reading this beautiful mess by Iceland’s Guðbergur Bergsson I kept thinking to myself, how is this even a book? And how did translator Lytton Smith not descend into madness bringing it into English? This isn’t hyperbole, the book is that much. It’s a monumental piece of work in a meta sort of way, and that’s why it should win the BTBA.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is ostensibly a collection of fictitious notebooks written by a cranky old man with a mind full of literary brilliance and egotistical bitterness, a man with a lot of opinions who is generally ticked off about everything. Even though the book is printed in a standard typeface, it reads like journaling. It’s full of errors, has a haphazard page layout, and its elderly ramblings are often barely penetrable as they weave in and out of the fragmented Iceland stories and intellectual manifestoes. Sometimes the narrative switches recklessly from one topic to another without warning—I swear it switched mid-sentence at one point, but now I can’t find that part to tell you about it. As I was looking for this passage I did, however, find a page on which Tómas is complaining about the cat and right in the middle of his anecdote for some reason is written, “(something is wrong with the text here).” I also found another funny section where he’s unhappy about the kitchen habits of his tenants and says, “This is ugh and yeuch, Bubbi.” A big part of reading this book is noticing these foibles, laughing and baffling over them, and usually not finding a clear explanation for them. Instead, you just accept their absurdity and recognize that they are weirdly wonderful. Your own personal collection of these odd buried treasures is, I’d say, what you can look forward to taking away from your reading of this strange book.

I’m sure fictional character Tómas Jónsson, who is very much concerned with his literary image (the title tries to claim itself a “bestseller” after all), would not have wanted these notebooks published in the state of shambles they’re in. And that’s part of the book’s wild charm: it’s one of Iceland’s twentieth-century literary masterpieces, and yet it captures the exact opposite of, say, a poised and polished tale of Vikings or fairies (as an English-language reader might try to expect out of Iceland). Iceland is sloppy, frustrating, and grotesquely authentic in this book. It’s the literary equivalent of sneaking away from the tour guide taking you past all the tidy and respectable historical monuments in Reykjavik and instead venturing into an apartment building on a side street and peeking through a keyhole into the gritty, authentic domestic life going on in there, with its chamber pots, chipped dishes, laundry messes, and smells of soup. But that metaphor doesn’t go far enough—you’re looking not just inside an apartment, but deep into the mind of the man who owns it, which becomes a rare glimpse into the psyche of Iceland itself.

In trying to describe Bergsson’s book, I feel I’ve written an inevitable word salad, perhaps not dissimilar to the salads of Tómas Jónsson himself. I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the crux of why this book should win the BTBA, which aims to award both the book and the translation. So on that point: imagine what a labyrinth of rabbit holes and mayhem this book was for a translator to contend with. How did he even know what was happening from one sentence to the next!? How does one faithfully translate a text that borders on impenetrable into something that can be even be read? Lytton Smith not only got the job done, he did it with humor, nuance, and beauty. He let the crazy stuff be opaque and difficult, but also depicted those scattered moments of poetic beauty and philosophical wisdom with the artful language necessary for a reader to discover them amid the textual chaos. He also made sure the silly parts about cats, chickens, and chamber pots came through with the punchy cadence they deserved. So the translation is a feat in and of itself, and the book finally finding its way into English is a triumph of Iceland’s literary community, which has kept Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, originally published in 1966, from slipping off the radar and into obscurity all this time (as you might expect such a loose baggy monster in a relatively obscure language to do).

I’ve not read all of the finalists, but I’m confident no other translation vying for the Best Translated Book Award in 2018 simply is what it is with as much vigorous impossibility as Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Not even Fever Dream. Even if this paragraph amounts to more word salad, let that vigorous impossibility be the reason this book should win.

16 April 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between now and the announcement of the BTBA finalists on May 15th, we’ll be highlighting all 37 longlisted books in a series we call “Why This Book Should Win.” The first post is from BTBA judge and Ebenezer Books bookseller P.T. Smith.



The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter Books)

In an earlier post, about Remains of Life, I asked “Why continue?” I tried to understand why I keep on reading even when I’m not sure what to make of a book, if I’m not sure I think it is good enough to keep reading. My final answer, shown by its presence on the longlist, is that sometimes that book sticks with you for a long time, and you admire it more and more in retrospect. I’m not here to write about Remains of Life though. I have another question, one that leads me to another book.

Why read? The earliest answer in my life was “I enjoy it.” As a kid, Jim Kjelgaard was my favorite author. I had no friends to talk to him about, I didn’t think about what I learned reading them, didn’t think about their affect on me or my brain. His books tell the story of a boy, his dog, and adventure. Those three things brought me joy. As an up-his-own-ass high school and college kid, I came up with reason after reason other than “I enjoy it” to read. All were some version of trying to be better, smarter, more worthy. Thankfully, some professors taught a course called Textual Pleasure, and I’ve never again forgotten to read for pleasure. A more intricate pleasure, deeper one than boy, dog, adventure, but pleasure all the same. Seeking to understand what exactly brings the feeling can itself be a pleasure.

I have no memory of the last time I had a reading experience as pleasurable as reading Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part in Will Vanderhyden’s translation. That pleasure has remained, infecting my life and how I think (I’m writing this while listening to The Kinks, a band I have no connection to, but they’re scattered in The Invented Part, so why not, and I’m having a blast). A few friends have said that The Invented Part broke reading for them, as in nothing else compares, so the gap in pleasure leaves them cold while they make their way through another book. It’s the opposite for me.

For the first time in my life, reading had become a nearly entirely anhedonic experience for me. For a year, longer, I had been falling deeper towards this. First I found pleasure in a book, but longed for how it would have made me feel some time ago. Then I couldn’t sit and read for as long a time as I used to. I began to not look forward to picking up a new book. Eventually, I could hardly read at all. I’d put the words in my eyeballs for however long I could manage. I would read sentences that I recognized I should appreciate, should send some of those tingles down my spine or spark something in my neurons. But nothing came. It was a loss of sense of self.

Then I came The Invented Part. I felt pleasure, joy, excitement, and I laughed. My brain was on fire and my spine tingling. I read almost two hundred pages in a sitting, the first time I’d done that in memory. I was reading something new. The novel is full of excitement and love, for its characters, for music, for other books, for reading, for the experience of art and life, for culture high, low, and middle. Fresán seeks all of that out, and pulls it together brilliantly. He does things I didn’t know the novel could do, but without it being a purposeful gesture, a thing that calls attention to itself. It’s naturally new, this novel couldn’t exist any other way, but before it did, I couldn’t imagine it.

It is everything. It’s heady and complex. Its sentences are beautiful. It’s weird as all hell and realism doesn’t matter. Its characters are full and real and you care deeply for them. It can make you laugh and it can break your heart (I tried to construct a better version of “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” because fuck you it’s true). I’m not going to pitch a plot because it’s complicated and fragmented and sort of plotless but you’ll also be hooked by whatever story it’s telling at the moment. It’s clever and snarky and mocks. It is utterly sincere. It is generous. It is welcoming. Will Vanderhyden understands all of this about the book and captures all of it. Thank the gods he’s going to be bringing us the next two in this trilogy. There’s little I want more from this life.

When I finished, I could read again. Nothing has compared, but that’s okay. They don’t have to. Books are my love. So reading is sex? Not every time you have sex with your love will be the best sex you ever have. That’s okay. It’s still going to be pleasure, and there’ll be little specifics, shades of it you appreciate. You just treasure those times that were amongst the best. That’s what other books are for. The Invented Part was the most pleasure I’ve had reading in five years, longer maybe. It’s the best book I’ve read in that time. I don’t say these things lightly. I hate the hyperbole of language around books. I don’t know any other way to talk about this one.

The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

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I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

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Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

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The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

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