14 September 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a new, hopefully weekly, feature highlighting a different book from our catalog in each post. Even though this book is pretty recent (official pub date just a few weeks ago August), I plan on going deep into our backlist in the near future.



Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

Original Language: Spanish

Author’s Home Country: Argentina

Original Date of Publication: 2013

Awards Won: The 2013 Dashiell Hammett Award! (There are multiple Hammett awards. This is the one for works written in Spanish in comparision to the one for English. In 2013, Angel Baby by Richard Lange won the English version of the prize.) It’s worth noting that this is the second time Saccomanno won the Hammett Award. He also won in 2008 for a novel called 77.

Also, Andrea Labinger won a PEN Heim Award for her translation.

Other Interesting Biographical Details: Saccomanno lives in Villa Gesell, the resort town where the novel is set. Additionally, before becoming a literary writer, he wrote comic books. Some of these appear to be ongoing (at least according to what I’m gleaning from his Spanish Wikipedia entry) including Leopoldo.



Description of the Book: Like True Detective through the lenses of William Faulkner and John Dos Passos, Gesell Dome is a mosaic of misery, a page-turner that will keep you enthralled until its shocking conclusion.

This incisive, unflinching exposé of the inequities of contemporary life weaves its way through dozens of sordid storylines and characters, including an elementary school abuse scandal, a dark Nazi past, corrupt politicians, and shady real-estate moguls. An exquisitely crafted novel by Argentina’s foremost noir writer, Gesell Dome reveals the seedy underbelly of a popular resort town tensely awaiting the return of tourist season.

A Non-Jacket Copy Description: This is about Villa Gesell, a small resort town run by four corrupt assholes, and filled with violence, adultery, drug deals, and tons of other crimes that no one ever attempts to solve or rectify in any way whatsoever.

Praise from Famous People: We’re not the best at getting blurbs, but I did tell Ed Brubaker (who wrote an episode of HBO’s Westworld, which looks totally sick) about this book at BEA and he said something to the effect of “fuck yeah, I’d love to read that.” Which counts.

Praise from Booksellers: ““The first two pages of Gesell Dome, the first novel from Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno to be translated into English, are enough to seduce any reader and a testament to the vitality of international fiction. Dark, daring and epic in scope, Gesell Dome is a damning verdict of contemporary life and human nature. The novel reveals the corrupt underbelly of a resort town when the tourists leave. Abounding with shady characters, all seemingly competing for worst resident on earth, Gesell Dome becomes a chorus of corruption and greed, of savagery and ruthlessness. It’s both vicious and unforgettable. Think Louis-Ferdinand Céline on vacation in South America.”—Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore

Audience: This book will appeal to anyone who likes neo-noir novels, books that are violent, or portraits of small, corrupt towns. That’s not to say it isn’t literary—the mosaic-like form that it employs allows Saccomanno to create fascinating juxtapositions, to paint a picture of a uncontrollably violent world, and to introduce hundreds of compelling characters.

Another “X Meets Y” Formulation: Like CSI meets Julio Cortázar. Or like “The Part about the Crimes” from 2666 as told in a tabloid.

Publicity: Well, the book just came out, so there haven’t been a ton of reviews yet. (But hopefully there will be in the near future.) That said, Saccomanno was profiled in Publishers Weekly as one of the fall Writers to Watch

Saccomanno, who has been living in Villa Gesell for most of the past 30 years, began work on the book in 2005. While writing he had the sense, he says, “that the town itself was dictating the story to me.” He adds, “Tolstoy supposedly said, ‘Describe your village and you will be universal.’ That idea was the driving force behind this novel. Violence, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, blackmail, corruption, the lives that unfold in this atmosphere, all called out to me.”

PW also gave it a starred review, stating:

Never was there a cityscape as immersive, or a populace as rife with iniquity, as in Argentinian writer Saccomanno’s noirish Gesell Dome, his first novel to be translated into English. [. . .] Like Twin Peaks reimagined by Roberto Bolaño, Gesell Dome is a teeming microcosm in which voices combine into a rich, engrossing symphony of human depravity.

Sample Paragraphs:

If you’re a local and your parents come for the long weekend, you’ll have to put up with your wife’s constipated expression. And if your in-laws come, try to keep your plastic smile from becoming facial paralysis. Because, tell me, who can put up with their parents or in-laws in the house for three days straight. And let’s not even talk about your sister-in-law and her boyfriend. And you know there’s a kind of vibe between you and that little slut. So you’ve gotta proceed with extreme caution. Then there are the kids. If they’re not glued to the TV all day long, you’ve got them on top of you, bitching that they’re bored. Forget about a quickie with your wife. After lunch, when you’re logy and feel like taking a nap, along comes the witch, telling you to take the family out for a ride. And you’ve gotta get them all into the car and take them for a spin. Head toward the beach, they ask you. Till they wear you out, and even though you know you could get trapped in the sand, you let them have their way and look for a road down to the beach through the dunes. For a while you feel like it was worth it to indulge them, driving along the shore. That half-adventurous, half-romantic feeling. Until it’s time to turn around and go back, and you realize that the car is starting to get stuck. Everybody out. Get out and push. Hand me a shovel. There’s no shovel, asshole. There’s gotta be one. Take out the mat and put it under the wheels. Help me dig. And the tide coming in. The tide. Call the Auto Club. It’s got no charge, stupid. You forgot to charge the cell phone. I’m cold, Dad. Me too, Dad. Get into the car. I told you, idiot, I told you we’d get stuck on the beach. Now it’s raining buckets.

And the tide. The tide. The tide.

Longer Excerpts: The first long excerpt I posted from the this book—which I did in a fit of excitement when I finished proofing it—is online here.

As part of our catalog, you can also read section from the beginning “here.“http://www.openletterbooks.org/pages/gesell-dome-excerpt

The novel was also excerpted in both Jewish Fiction and Lit Hub.

Personal Pitch: When I first read Andrea’s sample—the one that got her the PEN Heim Award—I was most intrigued by the structure. It’s a bit ADD, jumping from thread to thread, character to character—which is something that appeals to me personally for a few different reasons. This sort of fragmented structure eliminates a lot of the slow build, scene setting crap that I don’t care for in most contemporary fiction. In Gesell Dome, each fragment thrusts you right into a new life or situation. For example, I randomly opened a copy of the book and got this opening line, “Mable, the teller at Banco Provincia, wife of Mario Pertuzzi of Electromar, wasn’t pregnant when she and Daniel became lovers.” That’s all you need about Mabel before launching into her story. No pages of setting, no attempt to create her character through objective signifiers and objects—just a simple statement and you’re off.

Recently, like yesterday, I decided that for the time being, I was only going to read books that I knew I wasn’t going to fully understand on the first go. Thinks like Sokolov’s Between Dog & Wolf, Can Xue’s Frontier (well, reread in that case), or maybe Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I realized that the only joy I’ve been getting out of books recently (like with Fresan’s The Invented Part, Blas de Robles’s Island of Point Nemo, and Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories) is the fun of trying to figure shit out. I’ve written—and lectured—about this a billion times, about the way the brain processes declarative, concrete statements versus what happens when you’re forced to puzzle things out, but for a while, I feel like I lost my way as a reader and was seeking pleasure in the straightforward, in the books that were written to be simply pleasurable. Which is dumb, since the idea of reading the new Foer book doesn’t sound pleasurable at all. It sounds like consuming shit in order to generate new mini-rants. That’s not the way to live.

Gesell Dome isn’t “incomprehensible” like Finnegans Wake, but there is a strain on the reader to, first of all, remember who the fuck all these characters are and how they’re related, but then to also see the overall pattern. This is a book that doesn’t have a single plot, but a multitude, some of which cross, others that run parallel, all of which help create a verbal tapestry depicting a town awash in misery and desperation. And we all know that misery is much more interesting to read about than joy and happiness. Regardless, the reading experience of having to piece things together is so gratifying and fun.

Finally, this is a novel of voices, which is another reason I like to read—to hear distinct ways of saying things. I mean this on a truly ground floor, sentence by sentence, level. Obviously, hearing different viewpoints from all over the world is valuable and interesting and mind-expanding, but I really like hearing how individuals express themselves. Verbal patterns, particular word choices and tics, etc. And Gessel Dome has a lot of that. These characters relate their own private sadnesses in their own peculiar way, and as a reader, you can just let it wash over you—like the sounds of the sea that are a constant throughout the book, rising and falling, tide in, tide out—hearing from myriad viewpoints one after another, some funny, all a bit damaged, and every one unique. That polyvocality is what truly won me over in terms of this book.

Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us directly by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.

Next week I’ll be back with a different Open Letter title—a deep cut from the backlist . . .

22 October 15 | Chad W. Post |

Last night I got a bunch of people excited on Twitter (my feed is a bit more . . . schizoid than the official Open Letter feed, although you should follow that one too!) about Guillermo Saccomanno’s Gesell Dome, so I thought I’d share a bit more about this book.

We signed this on a while back, shortly after translator Andrea G. Labinger won a 2014 PEN Heim Translation Grant for her work on this.1 She sent us a longish sample (similar to this one but a few times longer)

This is a novel in voices, all set within Villa Gesell, a real-life resort town a few hours from Buenos Aires. Like most resort towns, it’s very popular in the summer months, but the winter is a bit of a slog. Like most small towns, this Villa is corrupt as fuck. There’s a group of “Kennedys” who pull all the strings on public projects, awarding contracts to relatives, not really giving a shit about the local citizens who spend 700+ pages cheating on each other, killing each other, committing suicide, suffering generally.

It’s a book told in fragments, with a single story stretched out over pages as it’s interrupted by anecdotes from Dante (who runs the local newspaper), first-person reflections. ads for any number of self-help and other groups, and other random things. Given this format and given the endless violence, it’s like Dos Passos mixed with Roberto Bolaño’s “The Part about the Crimes.”

Reading books like this—a fragmentary mosaic of sorts—requires letting the rhythm of the text take you over. The hundreds of characters, dozens of voices take you over and impose themselves, creating their own tragic, comic beats. Last night I fell into this book in the most complete of ways. It went from being “really, really good” to blowing my shit away completely. Which is why I’m sharing it here.

Enjoy! The book comes out next August and I’ll post more information as the time grows closer.



You know, I had this idea, jefe, Remigio says. We could make a pile of dough. The two of us, partners.

Partners in what, Dante asks.

In a novel, Remigio goes on. A pile of dough. With the secrets I know about this Villa and your flair for writing, we’d make one hell of a novel. I tell you what I know about everybody. And you write it.

A best seller, Dante goads him on. That’s what you’re thinking of.

But secret, a secret best seller. One that’ll never get published.

I don’t get it.

Simple, jefe. You write a novel about the Villa, one chapter for each character. Chicks and dudes. When the chapter’s done, I leap into action. I go see the person and tell them someone is writing a novel about the Villa. And that the person, a chick or a dude, shows up in one chapter. I give them a copy of the chapter to read. When they read it, they’re gonna want to kill themselves. Who wants their deepest secrets made public. Imagine the Villa’s secrets, the involvements, because here everyone is involved, in one way or another, with everyone else. When the characters read their part in the novel, the first thing they’ll think of is how to keep their chapter from coming out. And they’ll pay up, for sure. Since everyone here has a price, figure it out. Bingo! Everyone pays up. We’ll make a fortune.

A secret text, Dante says.

Call it whatever you want, jefe. You’re the one in charge of words. My job’s just to collect the dirty laundry. Yours is to write about it. And then I go by to collect.

And when the novel’s finshed, Dante asks. What then.

We’re not gonna be dumb enough to publish it. Our best seller’s gonna be a secret. That’s the cool part. Whadda you say.

We’d have to think it over carefully.

I’ve already thought it over, Remigio says. The only thing left is for you to make up your mind.

And what about fame, Dante asks. Because every writer is after glory. Let’s say I like fame.

Don’t give me that fame stuff, jefe. Death isn’t serious. Besides, what do you expect from posterity, tell me: a street with your name on it. Think it over right here and now. What matters is now, enjoying life.

Now the night envelops the car as it pulls up to the first lights of the Villa. Through his dark lenses, a blink of shimmer. Dante lights another cigarette. In spite of the shadows, Remigio scrutinizes him through the rear view mirror.

Don’t tell me it’s not a good idea, he says. Look how your face has changed. Imagine for a second what it would be like. We rake in the money and split. Think it over, jefe. It’s not every day such a great opportunity comes along. And when it does, you can’t let it slip away. You could get yourself not one Chiquita, but thousands of ‘em, whichever Chiquita you like. You know how many Chiquitas are on the horizon.

If everything is written, so too is the next act. And against that one, we cannot rebel. The most we can do is to read it. In the facts, in the sky, in the wind. But our condition as readers is conditioned. Beforehand. Never afterward. We don’t know what we’re here for. Sometimes we think we suspect why. But our suspicions can never be confirmed. Among other reasons, because when we think we’re sure of a cause, the effect unnerves us: it responds to a different reason. If we are nothing but texts, we are innocent. It’s true that these lines of reasoning aim to free us of guilt. As long as we are words, we might reason, let no one be blamed. In any case, the guiltiest party is none other than the author of our days. And yes, to believe that God is the author of our story doesn’t free us of guilt, but it does offer some relief. God is our consolation. Though if we really think about the matter, God is crafty: all He does is deceive us with readings, force us to doubt everything all the time, even His own existence. And then we ask ourselves if any greater evil than that – constant doubt – can be written, a doubt that gradually becomes suspicion, and so we end up suspecting not only everyone else, but ourselves as well. No, I’m not the one who’s writing this line.

*


If you’re a local and your parents come for the long weekend, you’ll have to put up with your wife’s constipated expression. And if your in-laws come, try to keep your plastic smile from becoming facial paralysis. Because, tell me, who can put up with their parents or in-laws in the house for three days straight. And let’s not even talk about your sister-in-law and her boyfriend. And you know there’s a kind of vibe between you and that little slut. So you’ve gotta proceed with extreme caution. Then there are the kids. If they’re not glued to the TV all day long, you’ve got them on top of you, bitching that they’re bored. Forget about a quickie with your wife. After lunch, when you’re logy and feel like taking a nap, along comes the witch, telling you to take the family out for a ride. And you’ve gotta get them all into the car and take them for a spin. Head toward the beach, they ask you. Till they wear you out, and even though you know you could get trapped in the sand, you let them have their way and look for a road down to the beach through the dunes. For a while you feel like it was worth it to indulge them, driving along the shore. That half-adventurous, half-romantic feeling. Until it’s time to turn around and go back, and you realize that the car is starting to get stuck. Everybody out. Get out and push. Hand me a shovel. There’s no shovel, asshole. There’s gotta be one. Take out the mat and put it under the wheels. Help me dig. And the tide coming in. The tide. Call the Auto Club. It’s got no charge, stupid. You forgot to charge the cell phone. I’m cold, Dad. Me too, Dad. Get into the car. I told you, idiot, I told you we’d get stuck on the beach. Now it’s raining buckets.

And the tide. The tide. The tide.

*


Once there was a sea lion. It washed up on this beach, to the south. For days it was stuck in the sand. It looked like it was dying. Wounds all over, abrasions.Along its flanks the skin was open, its flesh red, purple, dark. Every so often it moved its head. It was dying slowly. The beach dogs came over to it. Although the sea lion hardly moved, none of them got too close. If the sea lion, always in the same place, moved just a little, the dogs would back up, barking. Then came a long weekend. The tourists brought their children to see the oddity. The kids gathered stones . And threw them at it. A fun game, stoning it. The boldest ones, goaded by their parents, went after sticks to poke in its wounds. The parents seemed to enjoy it more than their children. You should’ve seen how they cheered them on. Till a southeaster knocked over the crowd of adults and children. The rising tide dragged the sea lion back into the ocean. No doubt when they returned to the city, the kids would have a good story to tell. A children’s tale. And they lived happily ever after.

*


Look at me: if there’s one gift I’ve got, it’s talent. I had the talent to come here. Mine was a literary decision. Because there’s nowhere else as ideal as the Villa if you want to write. No sooner did I get set up in a house in the forest than I got started on a novel. With what I inherited from my old man, who was a judge, since I’m not not the spending kind, I could and still can affort art. I gave him the first half of the novel. A combination of Henry Miller and Raymond Carver, my masters, from whom I leared to seek and find my own voice. Fly, Crazy Heart, it’s called. But I didn’t finish it. What happened was, when I was halfway through I got into songwriting. Because I also have talent for music. I wrote twenty-four, all at once. For a double album: I Surrender, I was gonna call it. Romantic songs, protest songs, metaphysical stuff. Kinda like a combination of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, with a touch of Bob Marley, too, but with my own personal seal, because I’ve got a style. I’ve always played, since I was a boy. First I played piano. Then I turned to guitar. One afternoon when I wasn’t thinking about anything, I picked it up and that’s how it went, first one, then another, and another. And without weed or booze. I’m not trying to tell you all twenty-four are brilliant, but there’s material for an album. They’re more like variations on the theme of the novel, which is autobiographical. And there they are – any time now I’ll go back to music. What happens is that having talent isn’t so simple. For example, when I was about to sign on with an independent label, I started thinking about the album cover and I got into painting. I always had talent for the visual arts. As a kid I won several sketching contests; I went to a painting workshop and even took part in a collective exhibition. A style somewhere between Rothko and Pollock was what my first stuff was like, but with a vibe of my own. I almost had the sample ready: Fly, Crazy Heart. Of course, the images I captured had to do with my personal thing. And that’s what I was into till recently. But I hit a dry spell. Sometimes inspiration takes its time. Sometimes it comes sooner, when you least expect it. And this place, I mean, it’s ideal if you’ve got talent. Now I’m taking it easy. You know, inspiration means a lot in art. And around here there are lots of people like me, people with talent, who understand you. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ceramics and I’d really like to set up a little kiln out back, but I don’t want to rush things. It’s not a matter of going around starting a lot of stuff without finishing anything. It’s the risk of having talent, you know. That’s why the thing I don’t give up on is soccer. And I don’t miss a single Wednesday match with the boys. I’ve been living in the Villa for thirty-seven years and I’ve never missed a Wednesday soccer match. Because having talent for soccer and being a ten like me isn’t easy. You’ve gotta control talent like the ball. Because talent can result in a goal scored against you. What counts is precision, discipline, staying in shape.

*


Anita López tells the story at Gonza’s funeral. She had trouble getting over what happened to her in the classroom. She was teaching The Slaughteryard, as she never tires of explaining, when Julián Mayorano pulled out that automatic pistol. She was writing on the board. She’d felt the class’s silence, a silence that always makes you think before turning around, because if they’re quiet it’s because they’re doing something. She turned around. It wasn’t the kind of silence she’d thought. It was the silence of terror.

Julián Mayorano, standing, poking the gun barrel into his mouth. She doesn’t remember what she said to the boy, if she managed to say anything at all. Julián didn’t look like he was listening to reason. The silence was all that could be heard. She walked toward the boy, holding out her hand, hoping he would hand over the weapon. Please, Anita said. The only thing that came out of her was that please. With her hand extended. She was close to him when Julián squeezed the trigger.

The son of a well-known family, the Mayoranos, owners of one of the important home goods stores around here, Julián had a car, a motorcycle. He was a good student, not outstanding, but a good, hard-working kid. He was dating the adorable Gabrielita Ferri, daughter of a very Catholic family. Gabi was the one who cried for him the most. That boy had everything, says Anita to anyone who wants to listen. He must’ve also had a reason to kill himself.

We found out a few months after the classroom suicide, when Gabi’s started to show. She refused to have an abortion. Julián threatened to kill himself if she carried the pregnancy to term. She replied that if she had to choose between the two deaths, she preferred his. And Julián granted her wish.


You’re welcome! You should be able to preorder this in the near future, and for now, you can always add it to your GoodReads shelf.

1 Sorry, on a footnote kick today. But does it seem wrong to anyone else that you have to live in New York to serve on the Heim Translation grant committee? As a result, I’ve never been asked to serve, and our competitors essentially have first crack at all the books submitted for the award. Doesn’t seem right to me at all . . . I mentioned this to the PEN Translation Committee when they mentioned this qualification at a public event. I call this geographical discrimination! Good thing the judges didn’t snap up all the great works. Maybe they’ll wait until we build an audience for them first. (Kidding!)

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

But while she intensely lived her own small roll in the general evolution of humanity and of her individual, personal story, every day, every hour, every minute a huge, central part of her mind was consumed with a ferocious, forbidden desire: the anticipation, anguish, fear, and craving of her next meal.

Marina’s fervid obsessions over food can be incredibly overbearing at times which adds to the novel’s urgency. As she chronicles her roller-coaster history with weight loss and her new difficulties dealing with the near starvation level diet, we learn much about how food truly affects every minute of Marina’s life. More than once she entertains the possibility of cooking a human or animal to deal with her hunger, and these instances do not even happen in her most manic times of the addictive cycle. Her character is raw and truthful in ways literature often does not allow itself to go. With this in mind, however, Marina’s relationship with Alex can at times come off as inauthentic and corny compared to the raw edge the reader has gotten so used to with other aspects of the book. Overall, the book offers an incredible new look into the cyclic addiction to food and fans of dystopian literature, political parables, and food aficionados will find this to be a newly relevant twist on an old tale.

25 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Allie Levick on Ana Maria Shua’s The Weight of Temptation, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger and available from University of Nebraska Press.

Allie is another of my students from last semester. Few more of these to run over the next couple weeks . . . But if you’re interested in reviewing for us, get in touch. Kaija is taking over the book review editor job and will be looking to assign a ton of books in the near future.

Back some time ago, Emily Davis reviewed Ana Maria Shua’s Death As a Side Effect for us, which was also translated by Andrea Labinger and published by Nebraska. Shua is an interesting writer, and it’s great that Nebraska is continuing to support her and introduce her to an English-reading audience.

Here’s the opening of Allie’s review:

The Reeds is a camp just like any other: it has your usual hierarchy of campers, over-enthused counselors, and lovely scenic views surrounded by imposing fences and ravenous guard-dogs. It is a place that could only be found in your worst nightmares, a camp which could make even the most enthusiastic attendee cry out for their mother with horror. The Reeds is the camp to go to if you are serious about losing weight and is the frightening, dystopian focus of Ana Maria Shua’s newly translated novel, The Weight of Temptation.

The majority of this twisted tale focuses upon Señora Marina Rubin, 207 pounds, and her six-month stint at The Reeds weight-loss camp. Marina is an average “fatty,” paying the exorbitant sum to attend the premier camp run by the Professor and his Tutors. As expensive as the camp is, the only worse option is leaving early and paying the enormous breach-of-contract fee. Marina is lucky that her over-eating has not gotten horribly out of control because, here, the Professor would condemn her to a life like that of her new friend Aleli, with her jaw wired shut sipping all of her meals through a straw. The novel tracks Marina’s seemingly impossible journey through weight loss and the social structure in her new home. From her experiences in The Clockwork Orange, the chateau where campers are electrocuted to be classically conditioned to become adverse to food, to the rumors surrounding the mysterious close-by children’s camp, The Inferno, Marina’s life has been turned upside down. Her new relationships with fellow camper Alex, a restauranteur, and Carola, a rebel resident of The Inferno, will seal her precariously balancing fate at The Reeds.

The Weight of Tempation, Shua’s fifth work to be published in English, came out from the University of Nebraska Press. Translated from the original Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger, a professor of Spanish emerita from the University of La Verne in Southern California, the novel grips you at your stomach from the opening page. The reader is given unique insight into the manic head of an addict, the language of which shows just how crazed Marina can be at times.

Click here to read the entire piece.

23 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

The world lost an incredible writer this past week. Jewish-Argentinean author Alicia Steimberg, best-known for her novel Musicians and Watchmakers, died suddenly of a heart attack one week ago. To commemorate her life and works, JewishFiction.net has published an early-release excerpt of her novel Innocent Spirit, which was scheduled to print in the upcoming August issue.

Says editor Nora Gold of Steimberg: “During the preceding months, [Steimberg] and I were in touch a number of times . . . Even in the short time we corresponded, it was obvious what an unusual person she was: full of warmth and completely unpretentious.”

Click here to read Steimberg’s excerpted novel. Her text grapples with tensions of faith, social status, and coming-of-age in a devoutly Catholic society: “. . .we never discuss our respective misery,” her middle-school narrator confesses. “In our class there are at least two girls who are driven to school by a private chauffeur. It’s a sure bet they don’t leave used sanitary napkins under their dressers. And they don’t carry a thermos with hot coffee and milk into their bedrooms, either, in order to be able to get up in the icy mornings when it’s colder inside the house than out.” Steimberg poignantly and precisely captures the confusion and insecurity of adolescence, as well as the devastating sense of “otherness” experienced by her Jewish narrator.

Following the excerpt, translator Andrea Labinger shares a moving tribute to Steimberg. The author’s irrepressible, joyful spirit comes to life in Labinger’s prose: “Alicia never distinguished between the minutia of everyday life – the aroma of coffee, a recipe for pastel de papas, the intimate language of eroticism and the erotic intimacy of language – and her constant preoccupation with the “big,” transcendental questions. Like most great souls, Alicia didn’t take herself too seriously.”

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Book Review section is a piece by Emily Davis on Ana Maria Shua’s Death as a Side Effect, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and available from the University of Nebraska Press.

Emily Davis a MALTS student here, and translates from Spanish. As you might be able to tell from the final line of her review, she wrote this months ago, at which time she emailed it to me and I promptly misfiled it. So.

Emily’s review is really positive, and makes this sound extremely interesting, and like a possible BTBA longlist title . . .

bq.If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 November 11 | Chad W. Post |

If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Death as a Side Effect is a book about aging, death, absence, coldness, fear, and entrapment—which, taken as a group, makes it sound like a horribly depressing read. It isn’t, though, because even amid the darkness there are bright sparks of humor. Take, for instance, a bit of Ernesto’s evidence of his mother’s going crazy: “Yesterday Mama threw a pot of stew down the stairs,” or his comically erudite description of a part of his reaction to having witnessed an act of violence: “As the car had new upholstery, I was circumspect enough to vomit on the street before I climbed in.” It is especially in such careful word choice and construction of tone that Andrea G. Labinger’s translation shines, as the prose seamlessly shifts among the range of emotions in this novel, as in Ernesto’s darkly humorous reflection on his dying father’s belongings:

Sadly, I realized there was nothing, absolutely nothing there that I might want to keep, except maybe that naked, reclining woman, whose oversized breasts were salt and pepper shakers and which struck me as the most touching symbol of my father’s bad taste and his enthusiastic vitality.

In addition to the temporary—and incomplete—lightening of mood afforded by these periodic dollops of humor, there are also moments of hope—hope for some kind of freedom—such as this dream of Ernesto’s:

I fell asleep. I dreamed I was flying. With a single leap, I gained altitude and soared through the air, very high above the city. It was pleasant, and it filled me with immeasurable pride. In my dream, I realized that flying was very unusual. Only I, among all men, could fly, only I in the entire history of the human race. I advanced effortlessly, feeling the breeze against my face, floating with an ease I never had in water. Then, without any transition, we were in the country, and I had gathered together a group of acquaintances to watch me fly. I ran and leaped, trying to rise, but my leaps were just that: enormous leaps, twenty or thirty yards long, that lifted me quite a bit above the ground. No matter how hard I attempted to run full speed, to try every which way, it did me no good. In real life, these boundless leaps would have been extraordinary. In the dream, they were simply proof that I couldn’t fly. The observers began to play poker.

His freedom is imperfect, its exercise incomplete, the outcome laughable and a touch unsettling; but still, the dream hints that there may be something beneath the surface that threatens the fearsome authority of the dystopia, something that flirts with a sort of balance in Ernesto’s world that could, perhaps, make it tolerable after all.

In the screwed-up world of Shua’s novel, perhaps the only sanity rises from Goransky, the film director with delusions of grandeur for whom Ernesto works as a scriptwriter and later as a makeup artist. Goransky has made only one successful film: a short documentary set in Antarctica. Still, he has dreams even bigger than he—“an enormous, heavy man with the brightest eyes you could ever imagine, in constant motion, a hippo on amphetamines, a bear hypnotized into thinking he was a squirrel”—dreams of making the great feature film of his era, a film also set in Antarctica. He throws a party to support his film project—a Coldness-themed party, which is at once over-the-top decadent and ridiculous, as well as strangely comforting in its absurd play at an alternative world:

There was a tea for Arctic foxes. And a cluster of Lapp huts, where exquisite dishes were served, not always in keeping with the central theme of the party as far as ingredients were concerned, but authentic in their presentation. The roofs of the huts sloped to the floor, and in the terribly hot interior, attractive, sweaty men, bare-chested and dressed in reindeer hide pants rolled up to their knees, served oysters shaped like snowflakes with white sauce and meringue, and extra-tender unborn veal steaks rotating over a fire, as if they were a single slab of flesh stuck to the enormous femur that served as a central skewer: a bear leg.

By turns horrifying, touching, thoughtful, comical, and even absurd, Death as a Side Effect is not likely to disappoint. And at just over 160 pages, you can probably still squeeze it into your summer reading mix.

7 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liliana Heker’s El fin de la historia (The End of the Story), is a novel about the Argentine “Dirty War” told through three women: Leonora, a revolutionary in Argentina who is captured, tortured, then sells out her ideals to save herself and her daughter, falling in love with one of her captors and instigating a pr campaign to improve Argentina’s image; Diana, an aspiring writer trying to tell the story of growing up with Leonora, their dreams, etc., and the moment that death became an integral part of Argentine life; and Hertha, a famous writer who tells the story of Diana trying to tell her story.

This is a complex book with a complex set of goals. In her own words, Heker set out to answer a number of questions in writing this novel.

“How to describe this betrayal, how to describe a torturer and his own view of the truth and with what other truths should one confront him? I have tried to blur the border between documentation and fiction. Above all, my text is meant to be fact as literature with all the problematic and ambiguous implications which such an attempt entails.”

To accomplish this, Heker created a narrative with multiple narrators, a disjointed, fragmented vision of reality that is almost a literary representation of life in Argentina during this period of fear and terror. As the reader learns early on, Diana is myopic, a fact Heker emphasizes in order to explain the apparent haziness of the information presented in telling Leonora’s story. Diana is trying to write the story of her former friend Leonora who turned her back on her comrades and her ideals. She starts the story again and again, on napkins, receipts, etc., never able to adequately tell Leonora’s story. (Like her myopia, this scattering of fragmented texts also comes to represent Argentine society at the time.)

There are some fairly intense scenes in the book, and through all the layers of narration and other postmodern games, the fear of living in Argentina during the “Dirty War” does seep through and is quite captivating. Once the reader realizes that this is metafiction taken to another level—it’s not just the novel of Diana trying to write a novel, rather it’s Hertha’s novel about Diana trying to write a novel—there is a sense that the book is overly structured, that it’s layers have become more obfuscating than enlightening. That said, it’s an interesting portrayal of a dark part of Argentine history and does deserve an English audience.

The End of the Story
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger
172 pp.
Unpublished in English Translation

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