26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first read Almost Never by Daniel Sada, I thought it was a lock to be a finalist for the 2013 BTBA. It’s a strange book that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay ending with three pages of this:

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Ecstasy-sex. Sinking-in-sex. Sex that shapes. Sex that sparkles.

Yes, once again I’ve decided to highlight a sex book that I thought would make the BTBA longlist.



But Almost Never is more than a book about a man obsessed with sex—it’s a stylistic masterpiece that’s incredibly intricate, unlike anything I’ve read, and exquisitely translated by Katherine Silver.

I don’t have a lot of time to write all the things I’d like to say about this book, but I do want to point out my favorite part of the opening chapter:

Now comes a description of Demetrio’s job: his workday went from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, sometimes six, more infrequently seven.

That’s it. Nothing about what he actually does (at this point), just the time he spends there. Which is so wonderfully telling for this particular character.

Quickly: Sada is considered by many to be one of the greatest contemporary writers to come out of Mexico, was praised by Bolaño, and his novel Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe is considered to be untranslatable. (According to Rachel Nolan of the New York Times it really does sound pretty daunting, what with its “650 pages, 90 characters and use of archaic metric forms like alexandrines, hendecasyllables and octosyllables.”)

Katherine Silver actually received an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on more Sada, so hopefully there will be additional books of his to consider for future BTBA awards . . .

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Graywolf Press.

This is the fifth book of Petterson’s to be published in English translation, the most famous being Out Stealing Horses, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was named a Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times and many other publications.

Here’s the opening of Larissa’s review:

On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”

Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.

To read the complete review, click here.

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”

Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.

Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.

“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.

Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.

Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.”

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I want to do a podcast sometime about the difficulties of reading. Everything from the amount of time it takes to read a book (and where that time comes from) to what makes a particular book (Finnegans Wake for example) tricky to get into, to books that one avoids because they “seem” like they’d be a bit of a grind. There’s a lot about this topic that I find fascinating, and a huge part of it revolves around the distance between what is expected of a book—”Gravity’s Rainbow is just so nonlinear!”—and the actual process of processing the words on the page.

One of the reasons that a lot of people give for why they do (or why they should) read international fiction is to “get a sense of what life is like in other cultures.” Which is sweet and admirable and maybe a bit LolliLove, but makes a degree of sense. Or does it? Why do we assume that a Japanese writer is going to “explain” something about Japanese culture? Is it because American writers like cough Rick Moody cough and Richard cough Ford cough can’t stop being so American? Or is this some sort of weird imperialist hangover, where we expect the Columbians we employ to entertain us to explain what life is like where they’re from?

All of this comes into play when approaching Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which was just published by Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Spanish. For anyone unfamiliar with Atxaga, and to be honest, this is the first of his books I’ve read in full, he’s considered to be the greatest contemporary writer from the Basque Country. And his earlier translated books—Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son—have much more to do with Basque life than this novel, which references France in the title, is set in the Congo, and takes place in the early 1900s featuring mostly Belgian characters.

If you think I’m playing this up too much, just check this quote from The Independent: “Don’t be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.”

I totally agree—this is a complex novel that coasts along with “deceptive” simplicity. Does it matter where Atxaga comes from? The book isn’t even translated from Basque . . .

For someone intrigued by the complexities of reviewing literature in translation, this raises a good deal of questions: how to evaluate a translation from a language the original text was translated into for instance. Or, should this be considered within the context of Basque (or Iberian) literature, or is it more appropriate to discuss it alongside books like Heart of Darkness? Is it possible to judge this book on its own terms, and what does that mean?

I’m going to cop out right now, and admit that I don’t have an answer for any of these questions. Instead, I’m just going to approach this review like I approached the book, looking at the plot, the craft, and the things I find interesting.

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

One of the most obvious, yet striking, aspects of Atxaga’s book is the way in which he constantly shifts perspective, retaining a certain distance (see the excerpt above) while “peeking over the shoulder” of various characters. This isn’t a unique narrative technique, per se, but the way in which he does it fuses so well with the plot that the two are inseparable—the duel is inevitable because this is a novel the needs a climax, but at the same time, the duel is inevitable because each player in the novel has to react to surrounding events in a particular way. This perspective jumping isn’t the most advanced of narrative techniques, but it’s done in such a way that it opens up scenes and complicates them in interesting ways. From Chapter XVIII:

The canoe almost capsized when Van Thiegel jumped into the prow, landing heavily on one side of the craft; fortunately, he managed, with another jump, to reposition himself in the middle, where Livo and Donatien were rowing; soon the canoe stopped rocking violently from side to side and they could get underway.

After that opening, here’s a few bits from the next few paragraphs, all describing Van Thiegel’s actions: “Van Thiegel stood up, beating his chest with his fists,” “he shrilled,” “they could hear the drumming . . . he cupped his hands round his ears so as to hear better,” “he was walking with great determination” Theses are from the first six paragraphs, which provide a straightforward depiction Van Thiegel’s purposeful existence in the world. Then suddenly:

Livo was carrying a stick he’d picked up form the ground, and suddenly he struck Donatien roughly on the thigh with it. Donatien looked at him, surprised.

From then that point onward, the chapter—which is disturbed, which is violent—is conveyed through the lens of Livo’s perspective. He becomes the “he” that reflects upon Van Thiegel’s physical impact on the world. Again, not that this is all that special a technique or interesting a critical observation, but the way that perspective opens up the narrative in a whole new direction is both interesting in terms of plot and morality: What should Livo do with Van Thiegel when he rapes and murders a girl just because she liked the wrong man?

In some ways, this book is perfect for a high school English class: you can open up these possibilities in such nice ways in a classroom, engaging students in myriad issues that are essentially unresolvable. It unfolds in a way that’s identifiable and intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, points to why Atxaga set this novel in a country that wasn’t his—where the book could take on a more grandiose universal sense of meaning that would be overshadowed if it was all “Basque Country this” and “Basque heritage that.”

Now the thing I find interesting is none of these things. They’re all cute and curious, and fun to dissent and unspool, and explain why reading rocks when all the other expectations and time stuff doesn’t get in the way, but the one thing I’ll take away from this book, is the descriptions of the various characters who have their minds split into various parts. As things get intense, Van Theigel frequently describes his mind as being “split into two,” and then four, and then an infinite number of parts. This is described in ways that resemble a state of drunkenness, with one’s mind flipping from one image/subject to another, and to a state of craziness, in which a normally normal person isn’t sure what he thinks is OK and what’s not. Donatien has a similar situation in which all of his siblings “speak to him” inside his mind and advise him what to do. In contrast to Van Theigel’s sort of dissociative disorder, Donatien reads more like someone with multiple personality disorder.

In a mysterious way, this feels like the heart of the novel, with characters black and white, colonizer and colonized, christian and killer, all experiencing this dissolution of self and sort of randomness of thought leaving them open to outside, more cosmic influences.

But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Get past the non-Basque, Basque aspect and let the book stand as a book that is meant to entertain, illuminate, question, and inform.

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a thing I wrote about Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which just came out from Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

This is the third Atxaga book that Graywolf has published, the other two being Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son. All (?) of his other novels are available in English translation as well, including The Lone Man and the The Lone Woman, but aren’t technically for sale in the U.S.

Anyway, here’s a bit of the review:

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

“Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.”

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

To read the whole thing, just click here.

8 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

WG (Wije) Karunasena is a Sri Lankan sportswriter who has been forced into retirement because he is a drunk. He is also on a fast track to an early death. But he can only write when he’s intoxicated, and his lifelong fascinations for cricket and alcohol propel his obsessive search for Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer who had a brief but spectacular career during the late 80s and early 90s. Mathew is able to accomplish impossible and yet for some reason, in spite of his exceptional abilities, he disappears, not only from the cricket field but from the world in general, after playing very few matches, including a test match that takes place in an empty stadium. Struggling to make sense of his life and accomplish something meaningful and lasting, Wije and his neighbor Ari leave behind their families and depart on a journey to locate Mathew. They have both seen Mathew play, which is the only evidence they have that he ever existed. People refuse to speak of him, and all records of him have been erased.

Cricket is the lens through which Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew shows a very telling portrait of the country. While the book is very much about cricket—it is littered with relevant descriptions and diagrams—it would be just as easy (but admittedly less fulfilling) to simply skip the sections of the book that are full of jargon. Because this book isn’t a book about cricket per se, but about how Pradeep Mathew became a legend when people simply stopped talking about him. His legend outlasted his presence in Sri Lanka, and fueled the obsession that carried Wije through the last few alcohol-blurred years of his life.

The narrator’s unreliability makes the line between fact and fiction very hard to draw. Many of the tales, in spite of being framed as reality, are surreal. Wije’s estranged son is trying to get the manuscript published in fulfillment of the old man’s dying wish, despite the awareness that the manuscript is flawed and full of the ramblings of a senile alcoholic, as seen in the attempt to censor him:

Karunasena has been known throughout the industry as a shady character, some say he suffered from mental illness in his final years. This book is gutter journalism and it would be irresponsible to publish and taint our national team who has brought such glory to our nation.

In fact, it is revealed that the more fantastical anecdotes are the ones that are true, while the more believable ones are false, but what is true and what is false is not distinguished. There are references to matches and players that actually existed functioning alongside invented characters, and along with realistic descriptions of cricket. Upon attempting to conduct research as to whether Pradeep Mathew really existed, I came across a website dedicated to the cricketer, which is mentioned in the book itself as being created by Mathew’s son but potentially could have been created by Shehan Karunatilaka himself. There are fantastic and unbelievable confrontations, riots, and conspiracies, and the gradually unveiling of hidden truths about Sri Lanka. And then there’s the fact that Karunatilaka is revealed to be the pseudonym of Wije’s son who is publishing the book within the book. This emphasizes the inability to distinguish fact and fiction.

This novel is very deliberately crafted, from the fumbling and often confused tone taken by the narrator, to the factual details interspersed with fiction. It is difficult to determine whether Pradeep Mathew is a real man or a fabrication or a legend made of a little bit of fact and a little bit of fiction, and furthermore it is an experience to wade through the dense text over the course of several days, much like a game of cricket itself.

8 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which is available from Graywolf Press.

Here is part of the review:

WG (Wije) Karunasena is a Sri Lankan sportswriter who has been forced into retirement because he is a drunk. He is also on a fast track to an early death. But he can only write when he’s intoxicated, and his lifelong fascinations for cricket and alcohol propel his obsessive search for Pradeep Mathew, a cricketer who had a brief but spectacular career during the late 80s and early 90s. Mathew is able to accomplish impossible and yet for some reason, in spite of his exceptional abilities, he disappears, not only from the cricket field but from the world in general, after playing very few matches, including a test match that takes place in an empty stadium. Struggling to make sense of his life and accomplish something meaningful and lasting, Wije and his neighbor Ari leave behind their families and depart on a journey to locate Mathew. They have both seen Mathew play, which is the only evidence they have that he ever existed. People refuse to speak of him, and all records of him have been erased.

Cricket is the lens through which Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew shows a very telling portrait of the country. While the book is very much about cricket—it is littered with relevant descriptions and diagrams—it would be just as easy (but admittedly less fulfilling) to simply skip the sections of the book that are full of jargon. Because this book isn’t a book about cricket per se, but about how Pradeep Mathew became a legend when people simply stopped talking about him. His legend outlasted his presence in Sri Lanka, and fueled the obsession that carried Wije through the last few alcohol-blurred years of his life.

Click here to read the entire review.

5 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito’s been on about Daniel Sada for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his work, especially the “Joycean,” “Rabelaisian,” novel Almost Never, which wont he prestigious Herralde Prize for Fiction, and which Graywolf is bringing in April in Katherine Silver’s translation. Yes, April. 2012.

Well, to my grand surprise, a galley arrived here this morning:

Here’s a description:

This Rabelaisian tale of lust and longing in the drier precincts of postwar Mexico introduces one of Latin America’s most admired writers to the English-speaking world.

Demetrio Sordo is an agronomist who passes his days in a dull but remunerative job at a ranch near Oaxaca. It is 1945, World War II has just ended, but those bloody events have had no impact on a country that is only on the cusp of industrializing. One day, more bored than usual, Demetrio visits a bordello in search of a libidinous solution to his malaise. There he begins an all-consuming and, all things considered, perfectly satisfying relationship with a prostitute named Mireya.

A letter from his mother interrupts Demetrio’s debauched idyll: she asks him to return home to northern Mexico to accompany her to a wedding in a small town on the edge of the desert. Much to his mother’s delight, he meets the beautiful and virginal Renata and quickly falls in love—a most proper kind of love.

Back in Oaxaca, Demetrio is torn, the poor cad. Naturally he tries to maintain both relationships, continuing to frolic with Mireya and beginning a chaste correspondence with Renata. But Mireya has problems of her own—boredom is not among them—and concocts a story that she hopes will help her escape from the bordello and compel Demetrio to marry her. Almost Never is a brilliant send-up of Latin American machismo that also evokes a Mexico on the verge of dramatic change.

But what’s really exciting about this—and the reason why I’m going to read this as soon as I’ve fulfilled all my other reading obligations—is the prose itself. Check the opening:

Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied, ambiguous sex, as a game that baffles then enlightens then baffles again; pretense-sex, see-through-sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life lived. Conjectures cut short during a walk on a pale afternoon. Block after block, ascending, then descending. A strain in the step as well as the mind. The subject was one Demetrio Sordo, tall and thin, almost thirty, fond of the countryside wehre he plied his trade with a modicum of pleasure, but for recreation: what thrills? Nightly games of dominoes in seedy dives, and those strolls—few and quite dull—of a mere mile or two; or a cup of coffee in the evening, always solitary and perfectly pointless; or the penning of letters to known but already ghostly beings. Hence a rut, and—what should he do?: think, already anticipating certainties and doubts: lots of naysaying, and more reshuffling, all of which helped him find the spark he’d been lacking without taxing his brain on that overcast afternoon. Sex was the most obvious option, but the trick would be to do it every twenty-four hours. If only! A worthy disbursement, indeed. So that very night the agronomist went looking for a brothel.

You can pre-order your copy now . . . Also worth noting that this is part of Graywolf’s Lannan Translation Series, a collection of books in translation sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. This series includes Per Petterson, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Bernardo Atxaga, and many others.

20 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Taylor McCabe on The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which is translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan and available from Graywolf Press.

Taylor McCabe (aka “Intern #1”) is a student here at the University of Rochester where she’s majoring in French and English and is on the Fencing Club. She’s also hard at work editing the “Best of Three Percent” book that we’re putting together . . . (More info about that in a few weeks.)

Nathacha Appanah is a French-Mauritian of Indian origin, and this is the first book of hers to make its way into English. Appanah was a guest at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival and participated in the “Great Books: An Inheritance of Literary Wealth” event, which you can listen to here. Books: An Inheritance of Literary Wealth

Taylor wasn’t 100% sold on this book, which nevertheless sounds like it will appeal to a lot of readers. (And for a slight contrast, this review from the NY Times is a bit more positive.)

Indian-born Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is clearly meant to be touching. The story, told in flashback, revolves around Raj, a nine year old boy who lives with his mother and abusive father on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and David, an orphaned Jewish refugee who has been indefinitely detained on the island of Mauritius while on a pilgrimage between Nazi occupied Europe and Palestine. After a brief meeting on opposite sides of a fence at the jail where David is contained and Raj’s father is guard, the two boys become friends (despite a language barrier that seems to become inconsequential later in the book) while Raj is in the camp’s hospital after a vicious beating from his father.

Shortly after Raj is sent home, an enormous storm causes a breach of security at the jail, and the boys orchestrate an escape. Raj brings David to his home, where he and his mother conspire to hide the young escapee from Raj’s father and the prison officials sent to track him down. Raj begins to see David as a replacement brother—thus the title—for the two brothers he lost in a mudslide approximately a year before meeting David.

I think of The Last Brother in a touching movie-trailer montage: cut from the scene of the old man in the graveyard to two young boys on the opposite sides of a jail yard fence, then flash to the bewildered boys wandering around amidst overgrown trees. Think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas meets Slumdog Millionaire.

Click here to read the complete review.

20 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Indian-born Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is clearly meant to be touching. The story, told in flashback, revolves around Raj, a nine year old boy who lives with his mother and abusive father on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and David, an orphaned Jewish refugee who has been indefinitely detained on the island of Mauritius while on a pilgrimage between Nazi occupied Europe and Palestine. After a brief meeting on opposite sides of a fence at the jail where David is contained and Raj’s father is guard, the two boys become friends (despite a language barrier that seems to become inconsequential later in the book) while Raj is in the camp’s hospital after a vicious beating from his father.

Shortly after Raj is sent home, an enormous storm causes a breach of security at the jail, and the boys orchestrate an escape. Raj brings David to his home, where he and his mother conspire to hide the young escapee from Raj’s father and the prison officials sent to track him down. Raj begins to see David as a replacement brother—thus the title—for the two brothers he lost in a mudslide approximately a year before meeting David.

I think of The Last Brother in a touching movie-trailer montage: cut from the scene of the old man in the graveyard to two young boys on the opposite sides of a jail yard fence, then flash to the bewildered boys wandering around amidst overgrown trees. Think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas meets Slumdog Millionaire.

This is not to say that the book, translated from the French (Appanah has lived in France since 1988), is necessarily bad—it reads like a summer blockbuster waiting to happen, the movie everyone goes to see (whether to beat the heat with theatre air conditioning or because it actually looks good, it’s impossible to tell), and that leaves a lot of moms sobbing at the end and clutching their squirming twelve year old sons.

In fact, the main issue, I felt, with this novel was that most of it was simply so unmemorable—or, to be more exact, that it felt like a reproduction of any other book I had ever read before, either about an impoverished childhood in India or about the plight of the Jewish refugee during the Nazi occupation. The end of the book, however, takes a turn for the better, when the tragic downfall of the boys comes purely through their own stupidity: David’s malaria, which was being treated while he was at camp, cannot be dealt with when he is roaming the island with Raj as the boys attempt to make it back to the village where the bodies of his two brothers were lost.

On the ground, I clung to him and I wept and pleaded, as I have never had the chance to do with those others whom I have lost. There is no need to dwell on what I said. Irrespective of country, language, age, social status, what we say at such times is no more than a variation on the same phrases, the same words. Don’t leave me. I ached everywhere, there was a taste of blood in my mouth, but I went on pleading, I was begging him to wake up. After a moment I laid his head on my shoulder and stroked his hair with the flat of my hand. I knew this action made one feel better. My heart was bursting with grief, it is as simple as that and amid the sultry heat of the trees and ferns I wept, I wept like the child I was.

While this style of Appanah’s was definitely interesting, her attention to the old man telling this story in flashback often felt like the disembodied narrator, popular in film, was lending his voice to describe the actions I could already clearly see unfolding. So if you want to read The Last Brother, more power to you—after all, it’s charming enough, and an incredibly quick read—but don’t expect to become too attached, because a month from now you won’t even remember you read it in the first place.

3 February 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Recorded in Philadelphia at the recent Modern Language Association convention, Chad Post and Erica Mena meet Lawrence Venuti and discuss his translation of the Catalan poet Ernest Farres’s Edward Hopper: Poems.

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7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Edward Hopper, a poetry collection by Catalan author Ernest Farrés, translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Graywolf Press.

I’ve been interested in this collection for a while—partly because I love Catalan lit, but also because Quim Monzo’s Gasoline (which we’re publishing in April) opens with a Hopper image, which seems like an odd coincidence. (Or maybe not, since it’s not like Hopper’s unknown or anything.)

Anyway, Erica and I interviewed Larry Venuti about this book for our forthcoming Reading the World podcasts, and it was an absolutely amazing conversation. Larry’s explanations of how the project came about, all the theoretical and practical implications, his unpacking of one of the poems . . . very amazing.

That will be online soon (er, relatively speaking), but in the meantime, I want to encourage everyone to check out Alluringly Short, Erica’s new blog about poetry, translation, and poetry in translation (there’s a great post about Chilean Poetry definitely worth reading). And instead of trying to write a one-sentence bio, you can find out more about Erica via her entry in the Making the Translator Visible series.

And here’s the opening of her review:

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

Click here to read the full review.

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

The ordering of the poems is brilliantly narrative, moving from the self-reflective interior to a railroad station and train that takes Hopper/Farrés from a rural setting to the archetypal city and eventually through middle age to Cape Cod. The bulk of the book is comprised by a sequence of cityscapes, including Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks, 1942” as an existential dialogue between the man and woman in the painting confronting the realization that “nothing in life is irreplaceable.” These insights, sometimes heard in the voice of Hopper, sometimes in a muted Farrés, and sometimes in the voice of the subject of the painting (which is always ultimately the self of the artists) border on the overly philosophical. It is the ironizing context of retrospective engagement with modernity, and the plurality of persona, that pushes these reflective moments into poignancy. Voyeurism and aural intrusion into the painting implicate the reader as well as the poet/painter/translator in these mini-dramas in which every subject is self. “Hotel Room, 1931” exemplifies this, spinning into the dizzying progression of time:

          At the hotel a woman in her underwear
          pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
          in low spirits and bone-tired,
          she’ll start to pace around the room
          leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
          that reeks of mustiness.
          A week later they’ll be no
          tangible results. A year later
          she’ll be the object of caresses.
          Another four and no lullabies.
          Another ten and the delicate balance
          between youth and age will be gone.
          Another twenty and she’ll cling
          to an expansive ethics of listlessness
          and Triumph of the Will.
          Another century and nobody’s
          going to remember a thing about her.
          In two centuries there’ll be
          no polar ice caps. When five
          billion years go by,
          there won’t even be a sun.

The fixed moment in history recorded in the painting expands into present and future—a bleak shared future of oblivion. We intrude on the intimacy of the moment, as Hopper does, and intrude on the intimacy of the moment of Hopper’s painting it, as Farrés does. This woman, privacy violated, becomes the catalyst for an ironic nihilism in which we are “directly implicated” (“The City,” 1927).

The city poems pulse with motion and frenzy, the fears and passions of a young Hopper/Farrés. In “The City, 1927” we along with him are submerged “deep down, in the very marrow, amidst a whorl / of elliptical subjects, colorful scenes.” Here, the careful density and pace of sound and rhythm in the language is evidence of a masterful translation, and Venuti’s Farrés is most powerful in places like “Summer in the City, 1949”:

          The man is looking for trouble,
          thrills, sublime ecstasies, places
          short on folklore, deals,
          calculated approximations, objects
          of desire that grab
          your attention and keep
          your cool, the latest rage
          at your fingertips, binges,
          infatuations, sexual icons,
          irrefutable proofs, joyrides, advice
          within parentheses, green lights, comfy shoes,
          forms of expression that presuppose
          supremacy, free tickets to the game,
          ways of killing time that are reckless and frenzied,
          the upper hand before bellyaching, answers
          as plain as the nose on your face.
          The woman, however, is looking for love.

The building, pulsing momentum of desire, of the city, and of moving through life is enthralling. The places where syntax slips over the enjambment—“grab,” “keep” and “rage” sliding into “advice” and “answers”—brush against the erotic tension of this poem, and the concise unenjambed second sentence of the poem counterpoints the cascading frenetic energy of male desire. Just glancing across the page at the Catalan reveals Venuti’s masterful treatment of the poem, which in the Catalan is one line shorter and doesn’t place the woman on a line of her own. There’s also the surprise of “bellyaching” which glides smoothly in the voice of Hopper, until the startling realization occurs that this is Hopper speaking Catalan and so “bellyaching” is a moment of linguistic impossibility that prevents the reader from becoming too comfortable with the language.

The frenzy of youth and the city thread through the bulk of the book, tempering bit by bit as the feminine (the presence of Nivison, Hopper’s wife and model for many of his female figures) becomes more prominent. The diction becomes mimetic of the journey out of the city to the bucolic Cape Cod setting, expanding into placid, airy and languorous description. The prosaic overtakes the poetic as comfort and familiarity replace the angst and frenzy of youth. Towards the end, as we fall into a comfortable rhythm, we are told:

          You’ve got this down pat. We sketch orbits
          around a highly valued microcosm,
          a landscape composed of organic dust,
          and calmly accept that the march of time
          will make us different from what we were,
          filling with meaning what was empty
          emptying of meaning what contained it.
          (“Sea Watchers,” 1952)

In “Sun in an Empty Room, 1963” (my personal favorite Hopper painting), which is placed near the end of the book, Hopper via Farrés via Venuti tells us:

          I rediscover myself and leave a sign.
          . . .
          All the same, I’m not moving very far.
          No matter where you go, you never find
          the way out of the labyrinth.

The labyrinth of these poems are much more than an homage to Hopper. They are a rediscovery. A new look at the intricate stories that make up the imagined life of one of the most important twentieth century U.S. painters. A poetical-fictional biography that succeeds in its imaginative power to entice the reader into believing it as truth, which of course it is. Like the works of great art they illuminate, these poems reveal a moment (of life, of time, of history) in its fullest dimension. In this book’s ambitious transcendence of the individual, Farrés shines through Hopper as a poet to pay attention to.

3 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s posts are all Minnesota related . . . Using Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia as the entryway, the City Paper has a great feature on Graywolf Press, one of the largest—and most successful—nonprofit presses in the country. The press is directed by Fiona McCrae, who is nicely featured in the article, and who happens to be on Open Letter’s executive committee:

Graywolf, which has about 10 full-time employees, including four in-house editors, was even further off the map when it was founded in 1974 by Washington state idealists Scott Walker and Kathleen Foster. Just south of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, in the microscopic burg of Irondale, they constructed a small edifice surrounded by raspberries that they called the “print shack.” They couldn’t have done it without the assistance of the guy next door who raised chickens. [. . .]

Attempting to ease its transition from a hand printer of limited-edition books into a full-on trade publisher, Graywolf came to the Twin Cities in 1984 on the suggestion of a few advisors, who correctly predicted that foundation money would be easier to come by here. [Ed. Note: Minneapolis is the only city in the country with a well-developed base of foundation funding for nonprofit publishing. Which is why so many nonprofit publishers—like Coffee House and Milkweed and Graywolf—have made Minneapolis their home.] Ten years later Walker relinquished his duties to McCrae, a director at a major publishing house who was born in Kenya and grew up just north of London. She had a background that couldn’t have been more different from that of Graywolf’s freewheeling founders, having risen through the ranks at Faber & Faber headquarters in London. “I [first] worked for this grand old chairman called Charles Monteith. He had found Lord of the Flies in the slush pile. He was really an old-fashioned British publisher. Beckett was his author, and he’d get little postcards from him in the mail.” In the mid-‘80s she worked under editor Robert McCrum, whose authors included Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, and—in her first introduction to Minnesota—Garrison Keillor. “I thought it was much more fictional than it turned out to be,” she says of his work. “I had no idea until I moved up here.”

What I like best about this piece—which does a good job of profiling Graywolf and their success—are the numerous baseball references comparing Graywolf and the Twins:

When Graywolf published the book in April of last year, the transaction turned out to be the literary equivalent of the Red Sox snatching David Ortiz from the Twins for $1.25 million in 2003. [. . .]

Like the Minnesota Twins, another small-market business that is up against better-funded competition, Graywolf must rely on solid fundamentals and player loyalty to succeed.

But whereas the Twins lost Johan Santana to a higher bidder, Graywolf won’t be losing its heavyweights anytime soon. [. . .] In fact, big-name free agents are defecting to Graywolf.

25 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the tenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from “World Books.”:http://www.theworld.org/pod/worldbooks/wbpod5.mp3

New European Poets is a perfect example of the type of books Reading the World was created to promote. Over 300 large pages of poetry from more than 45 countries/regions (including Sapmi!) and a few hundred poets. The breadth of this anthology is impressive and admirable, and taken as a whole this is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in reading (or publishing) European poetry.

The introduction by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer (the two primary editors who were assisted by twenty-three regional editors) is very interesting, especially the explanation they give of the goal of the anthology:

Our goal in putting together this anthology was not to pretend to present a comprehensive view of European poetry today—that would be impossible. Europe has nearly 750 million inhabitants and, depending on how you count, more than forty languages. In organizing an anthology simply of one nation’s poets, it’s difficult enough to determine, without the benefit of hindsight, which writers are important and will one day be influential. An anthology of European poets presents a whole host of additional problems—questions of national representation, translations, intranational languages and identifications, the politics of national boundaries, and so on. Nonetheless, we felt that it was important to bring this wholly imperfect endeavor to an American audience for three primary reasons: (1) the trajectory of European poetry has continued beyond the European poets known to an American audience; (2) culturally and historically Europe is radically differnt than it was just a few decades ago, and thus a reexamination of Europe’s poetry seems due; and (3) American poetry readers and poets seem to be less engaged with European poetry than they once were, which is a shame.

Right on.

....
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