26 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.

But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.

There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!

I love both of these books, and you can buy them from your local independent bookstore, from Amazon, from B&N, or directly from us: click here for Children, and here for Suicide.

However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!

2 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all the Jerzy Pilch fans out there, we’re going to be publishing his new book, My First Suicide, this summer, but for those of you who are too eager to wait until May, enter the contest below for a chance to win one of the 10 copies we’re giving away via GoodReads.

This new book is in the same vein as the other Pilch titles we’ve published: it’s semi-autobiographical, very funny, dark, filled with shittons of drinking and women . . . Vintage Pilch.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch

My First Suicide

by Jerzy Pilch

Giveaway ends April 15, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
12 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Sunday, the Northern California Book Awards took place, and David Frick won for his translation from the Polish of Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities. In honor of this accomplishment, we’re going to spend the day here at Open Letter with “a billion barrels of beer.” No, but seriously, we will.

If you want more info on A Thousand Peaceful Cities, you can read this tipsy post, or click here for the jacket copy, an excerpt, etc.

And for the next week (through 4/19), anyone who signs up for a new subscription will receive a free copy of this book.

For the handful of you who didn’t immediately click over to the Open Letter ordering page, you might be interested in knowing that in Poetry Translation category, John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis won for their translation from the Greek of Maribor by Demosthenes Agrafiotis.

Here’s a link to the official page at Post-Apollo Press, and below is a brief description that I swiped from “SPD”: (where you can order the book):

Demosthenes Agrafiotis’s Maribor is a book of thoughts, impressions, expressions and reflections from his travels to Hesperia (Western Europe) in the period 1980-90. The book is concerned with the constantly elusive identity of Europe as a geographic place, as a cultural gamble, as a historical problem, as a horizon for the future of humankind. “Maribor gives us both artifact—of the ephemera of communication, institutions, power—as well as blueprint for imagining an ‘alphabet of the future.’ A master of the contemporary hermetic, Agrafiotis can bring to light in one stroke both the evanescence and endurance of the writing on the wall“—Eleni Stecopoulos.

4 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the Guardian‘s New Europe Series, this morning they ran the pieces about Poland, including What They’re Reading in Poland, which focuses on an Open Letter author:

However, the literary mainstream is made up of authors who follow Witold Gombrowicz, who teaches distance from those models of Polish identity. Janusz Rudnicki, Marcin Swietlicki, Michał Witkowski and Jerzy Pilch are writers who find their own ironic ways of dealing with our literary tradition. The most important writer of this group is Pilch – not only because of his novels, but also because of his position as the country’s leading columnist. In view of the vanishing significance of literary criticism, which is now found only in niche magazines, and – I must admit with a heavy heart – the claustrophobia that affects newspapers’ cultural pages, Pilch is considered an authority on literature.

Dorota Masłowska owes him a lot. Her White and Red was the most important debut to appear in the first 20 years after independence. It is seemingly a realist novel about the dregs of society, but in fact the broken language of its heroes, full of references to pop culture and different subcultures, perfectly reflects the chaotic consciousness of all Poles living through those days of political and social transformation. Her second novel, The Queen’s Peacock, won the Nike, Poland’s most important literary award. It’s worth stressing here that awards are another substitute for literary criticism, though this is by no means an exclusively Polish phenomenon. The list of Nike laureates gives quite a reliable insight into the most important trends and names in Polish literature. Take poetry, which competes on equal terms with novels and essays for the title of the best book of the year. It is significant that the last two Nobel prizes for literature won by Poles went to poets: Czesław Miłosz (1981) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).

There’s also a nice bit in here about Reportage:

This genre-busting nature of Polish reportage is also the source of many misunderstandings. When a biography of Poland’s most eminent reporter (and the best-known Polish writer worldwide), Ryszard Kapuscinski, came out last year (Kapuscinski Non-fiction by Artur Domosławski), it provoked many arguments, including about the reporter’s competence. To what degree should a reporter be just a witness, and to what degree an author who includes his or her own outlook, interpretations and literary style? Where does journalism (non-fiction) end, and literary fiction begin? This dispute remains unsettled, just like many other arguments provoked by Domosławski’s book, such as the controversy over the attitudes that journalists and writers adopted during the communist years, or the extent to which a biographer can explore the personal life of his or her subject.

Regardless of the gravity of the charges against the so-called Polish School of Reportage, of which Kapuscinski was the most prominent representative, it is in good condition. Though it is ever rarer in the Polish press, it transfers relatively well to books. Successors of Kapuscinski – Mariusz Szczygieł, Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman – appear near the top of the bestseller lists, and their works have been translated into all of the major European languages. So reportage is still a Polish speciality, although reporters tend now to wander the world and through history in their search for interesting subjects. Szczygieł devoted his book Gottland (winner of the 2009 European Book prize) to the conflicting attitudes that Czechs adopt towards communism; Hugo-Bader has travelled through a drink-sodden post-Soviet Russia (White Heat); while Tochman has analysed the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda (We Will Portray Death Today). Young writers are following their lead: in Murderer from the Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski reports on the cultural clashes and conflicts that divide contemporary Turkey as it attempts to join the European Union.

It’s interesting and encouraging that a decent number of Polish books are being translated into English and published in the U.S. According to our Translation Database (update coming later this week—promise), 23 works of Polish fiction and poetry have come out here since January 2009. That’s not bad given Poland’s size. And this number doesn’t include all the works of reportage that have come out over that period. (Such as Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia.)

Of course, I think Pilch is one of the best. (BTW, we just received the translation of My First Suicide & Other Stories, due out in 2012.) Additionally, I’d personally recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times and Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, both of which are brilliant and sweepingly ambitious in their own way.

2 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s is mostly made up of something I wrote some time back.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated by David Frick

Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Publisher: Open Letter
Pages: 143

Why It Should Win: Because we published it; it was one of Kirkus‘s top 25 books of 2010; “by a billion barrels of beer!”

To be quite frank, Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the BTBA because he’s the best writer about the joys and long-term terrors of drinking . . . And by drinking I don’t mean in-moderation-three-drinks-a-week-in-gentrified-social-company sort of drinking, I mean the full-on-drink-away-your-life-savings-on-grain-alcohol sort of drinking.

But it’s not like Pilch’s novels are moral sludges about the dangers of excess boozing—instead, they find that perfect balance between depicting the allure of a good buzz and the waves of fear and regret that accompany a true bender.

This is more true of The Mighty Angel than A Thousand Peaceful Cities, but last spring, when proofing this book, I wrote a post (while “tipsy”) that I’m still pretty proud of, and does a decent job of explaining the differences and similarities between the two novels while capturing the drunken vibe and overall awesomeness of Peaceful.

In other words, this post specifies exactly why A Thousand Peaceful Cities should win the 2011 BTBA for fiction.

What follows is a number of excerpts from that post. (What? I was expecting to be living in a series of snow-carved tunnels for the foreseeable future, so planned ahead. Not my fault that this “snowpocalpyse panic” was brought to you by the egg, dairy, and bread industries.)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a much different book from The Mighty Angel. The narration is a bit more complicated, flipping in focus between young Jerzy and his coming-of-age experiences and the endless banter of Mr. Traba in a way that builds in complexity and insight as the book progresses. By contrast, Mighty Angel, itself an intensely powerful book, is much more confessional, direct, singular in voice and presentation.

Re: Jerzy’s adolescent adventures, one of the best bits in the book is when he describes the “angel of his first love” and his attempt to connect with her. She lives across the way in an apartment above a department store that looks down on Jerzyk’s bedroom window. So he puts a sign up that says “WHY DON’T YOU SMILE?” Finally, he catches her eye:

Now it was I who waved to her. I let it be known that I am here, that I consent to everything. I sent her missives to calm the air. I soothed her fury with the help of a mad alphabet of incoherent gestures. Finally she noticed me, and she stood stock-still. Now I slowly pointed my index finger at myself, and then I reached both hands out in her direction, which was to signify: “I will come to you right away, and I will allow you to make sport of my young and virginal body.” But she, to my great amazement, shook her head no, and she turned her unparalleled hand down, in the direction of the display window of the footwear section, which was covered with a green grating. I repeated my gesture. She doesn’t understand, I thought—or maybe she just doesn’t believe her own dumb luck.

Charmingly innocent acts like this are offset by Mr. Traba’s (I keep wanting to type “Uncle Traba,” because he is such an uncle figure, always at the kitchen table, schnapps in hand, pontificating) long-winded, hilarious, and world-wise diatribes that range from randy bits about his virginal maid (who, “departed this world intacta [. . .] In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous . . . “), to his desire to accomplish something memorable before he dies, namely, assassinating of the Communist leader of Poland.

What I ran into tonight was the boozy thread that connects Jerzy’s blossoming and Traba’s insanity with The Mighty Angel. And it became clear that if there’s one thing that Pilch excels at, it’s writing about the pernicious effects of alcohol.

Here’s a bit from the moment when young Jerzyk is drawn into Traba’s assassination scheme. In typical Polish Pilch fashion, they indoctrinate him with a drink:

And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of juniper berry vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear it in my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, I could grind Wladyslaw Gomulka [the person Traba wants to assassinate] to dust.

Ah yes, the first drunken pleasures. That moment before the bars of overwhelming neediness, the sad solitary nature of a really wicked hangover, the desire to repeat just to keep repeating, to try and recapture that first moment. That’s what Traba seems to have lived through. That’s why he knows he’s on his way out and has to do something impressive and meaningful before the booze catches him.

One Sunday, Jerzyk decides to forgo church in favor of booze. Too young to be served at a bar, he heads to Traba’s house and finds his quasi-hero, his Quixotic-hero, in a state diametrically opposed to the figure of the jolly man who talks too much and punctuates his speech with the energetic expression “By a billion barrels of beer!”

Mr. Traba lay on an iron bed, which was standing in the middle of a huge chamber that was even larger than our kitchen. Except for the bed, and the bottle that was standing by the bed, there were no pieces of furniture or any other objects, nothing. Just the numbed vastness of the waters, the castaway adrift in the middle, and a bottle full of disastrous news. Blood oozed from Mr. Traba’s cut forehead. Saliva flowed from his lips as they parted again and again. The green army pants he wore were completely soaked. The room was in the grip of the deathbed odor of a body that was passively floating in all its substances, although it was, in fact, filled with only one substance. Mr. Traba said something, whispered, gibbered nonsense, but at first I wasn’t able to catch even a single word, not even one intelligible sound. Still, I strained. I mobilized my secret talent for guessing words that had not yet been spoken, and after a moment—to tell the truth, after a very long moment—I knew more or less what it was about. The key word in Mr. Traba’s delirious narration was the word “tea,” and the entire narration was about love. It was the sentimental complaint of a man lamenting the fact that he couldn’t drink tea at the side of his beloved, since she was drinking tea at the side of another. The whole thing abounded in innumerable digressions, unintentional interjections, and unintelligible ornaments. Perhaps the general thrust of the lament—that drinking tea at the side of one’s beloved was the single dream in the life of a man—was a too-incessantly-repeated refrain, but, taking Mr. Traba’s state into consideration, everything came out amazingly fluently. After all, it was as it always was with him: the sense of his story was the basic, and perhaps the only, tie linking him with the world. The beloved’s name didn’t come up even once. Perhaps I wasn’t able to guess it, or perhaps I didn’t want to guess it. I produced a white handkerchief from the pocket of my Sunday clothes. I poured a little vodka on it from the bottle standing by the bed. I applied the dressing made in this fashion to Mr. Traba’s forehead, and I wiped the slowly drying blood.

The contrast between Jerzyk’s present possibilities (the “angel of his first love”) and the fucked past of Traba that is corroded, ruined by his unending drunkenness is what struck me so hard. The effects of drink isn’t a unique theme in literature—and this may not even be a very unique treatment—but the way this book unfolds, with Jerzyk’s innocence coming under the power of this always-blasted, comically-unhinged, potentially-dangerous man, is quite powerful and compelling. ATPC is the perfect companion to The Mighty Angel. And not just for the way you can trace back Jerzy’s drinking obsession . . .

27 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ann Kjellberg—who has not only serves as literary executor for Joseph Brodsky, but has been an editor at The New York Review of Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Artes, the journal of the Swedish Academy—recently launched a new journal called Little Star, featuring work from a host of interesting authors and a cool distribution method.

The first issue is now available and features work form Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott, Durs Grünbein, Mary Jo Salter, Padgett Powell, Lydia Davis, Tim Parks, and many more. What I think is particularly cool though is that you can either order the print edition for $10.95 plus shipping, or purchase the PDF version for $3.95. (I haven’t noticed if other magazines are doing things like this—great idea though and could really help expand the audience.)

Anyway, I recommend checking out their site and “liking” them on Facebook.

Also, and the primary reason for this post, you should check out their blog which includes an excerpt from Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities, one of my favorite books from the past months, and one which I wrote a lot about back some time ago. (Yes, I love relinking to my articles about drinking.)

Pilch is amazing, and in addition to The Mighty Angel and A Thousand Peaceful Cities, we’re going to be bringing out My First Suicide and Other Stories sometime next year.

24 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This was written late last night and set aside for, um, proofing.

For the sake of accuracy, one should never drink while proofreading. But in the case of Jerzy Pilch, it just feels right . . . After all, The Mighty Angel is—despite all of the narrator’s attempts to artfully beautify this away with words and humor—a testament to the destructive power of booze.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities will be out in a couple of months, and I’m in the process of giving it one more pass before going to the printer. As anyone in the industry will tell you, publishing has a weird impact on how you read. You read things with an eye to whether others should be allowed to read them. You read to make changes—macro and micro. You read books that no one will have access to for years, trying to figuring how to get other people will read them when they finally are available. In many ways, you read out of time and in ways that have less to do with entertainment and more to do with obligation.

Thankfully, I’m not a very good proofreader. So I end up enjoying these re-readings a lot more than I probably should. If there are typos in our books, if there are grammatical snafus, blame my lackadaisical attitude. Or, to put it in a more positive light, blame the fact that my love of reading that overrides my attention to detail.

Anyway, tonight, in trying to proof Pilch’s book, I got caught up in his representation of drinking. The way in which The Mighty Angel is prefigured in here in a really heartfelt, future-is-fucked sort of way.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a much different book from The Mighty Angel. The narration is a bit more complicated, flipping in focus between young Jerzy and his coming-of-age experiences and the endless banter of Mr. Traba in a way that builds in complexity and insight as the book progresses. By contrast, Mighty Angel, itself an intensely powerful book, is much more confessional, direct, singular in voice and presentation.

Re: Jerzy’s adolescent adventures, one of the best bits in the book is when he describes the “angel of his first love” and his attempt to connect with her. She lives across the way in an apartment above a department store that looks down on Jerzyk’s bedroom window. So he puts a sign up that says “WHY DON’T YOU SMILE?” Finally, he catches her eye:

Now it was I who waved to her. I let it be known that I am here, that I consent to everything. I sent her missives to calm the air. I soothed her fury with the help of a mad alphabet of incoherent gestures. Finally she noticed me, and she stood stock-still. Now I slowly pointed my index finger at myself, and then I reached both hands out in her direction, which was to signify: “I will come to you right away, and I will allow you to make sport of my young and virginal body.” But she, to my great amazement, shook her head no, and she turned her unparalleled hand down, in the direction of the display window of the footwear section, which was covered with a green grating. I repeated my gesture. She doesn’t understand, I thought—or maybe she just doesn’t believe her own dumb luck.

Charmingly innocent acts like this are offset by Mr. Traba’s (I keep wanting to type “Uncle Traba,” because he is such an uncle figure, always at the kitchen table, schnapps in hand, pontificating) long-winded, hilarious, and world-wise diatribes that range from randy bits about his virginal maid (who, “departed this world intacta [. . .] In peacetime conditions her exterior was a bit too radically conspicuous . . . “), to his desire to accomplish something memorable before he dies, namely, assassinating of the Communist leader of Poland.

What I ran into tonight was the boozy thread that connects Jerzy’s blossoming and Traba’s insanity with The Mighty Angel. And it became clear that if there’s one thing that Pilch excels at, it’s writing about the pernicious effects of alcohol.

Here’s a bit from the moment when young Jerzyk is drawn into Traba’s assassination scheme. In typical Polish Pilch fashion, they indoctrinate him with a drink:

And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of juniper berry vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear it in my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, I could grind Wladyslaw Gomulka [the person Traba wants to assassinate] to dust.

Ah yes, the first drunken pleasures. That moment before the bars of overwhelming neediness, the sad solitary nature of a really wicked hangover, the desire to repeat just to keep repeating, to try and recapture that first moment. That’s what Traba seems to have lived through. That’s why he knows he’s on his way out and has to do something impressive and meaningful before the booze catches him.

One Sunday, Jerzyk decides to forgo church in favor of booze. Too young to be served at a bar, he heads to Traba’s house and finds his quasi-hero, his Quixotic-hero, in a state diametrically opposed to the figure of the jolly man who talks too much and punctuates his speech with the energetic expression “By a billion barrels of beer!”

Mr. Traba lay on an iron bed, which was standing in the middle of a huge chamber that was even larger than our kitchen. Except for the bed, and the bottle that was standing by the bed, there were no pieces of furniture or any other objects, nothing. Just the numbed vastness of the waters, the castaway adrift in the middle, and a bottle full of disastrous news. Blood oozed from Mr. Traba’s cut forehead. Saliva flowed from his lips as they parted again and again. The green army pants he wore were completely soaked. The room was in the grip of the deathbed odor of a body that was passively floating in all its substances, although it was, in fact, filled with only one substance. Mr. Traba said something, whispered, gibbered nonsense, but at first I wasn’t able to catch even a single word, not even one intelligible sound. Still, I strained. I mobilized my secret talent for guessing words that had not yet been spoken, and after a moment—to tell the truth, after a very long moment—I knew more or less what it was about. The key word in Mr. Traba’s delirious narration was the word “tea,” and the entire narration was about love. It was the sentimental complaint of a man lamenting the fact that he couldn’t drink tea at the side of his beloved, since she was drinking tea at the side of another. The whole thing abounded in innumerable digressions, unintentional interjections, and unintelligible ornaments. Perhaps the general thrust of the lament—that drinking tea at the side of one’s beloved was the single dream in the life of a man—was a too-incessantly-repeated refrain, but, taking Mr. Traba’s state into consideration, everything came out amazingly fluently. After all, it was as it always was with him: the sense of his story was the basic, and perhaps the only, tie linking him with the world. The beloved’s name didn’t come up even once. Perhaps I wasn’t able to guess it, or perhaps I didn’t want to guess it. I produced a white handkerchief from the pocket of my Sunday clothes. I poured a little vodka on it from the bottle standing by the bed. I applied the dressing made in this fashion to Mr. Traba’s forehead, and I wiped the slowly drying blood.

The contrast between Jerzyk’s present possibilities (the “angel of his first love”) and the fucked past of Traba that is corroded, ruined by his unending drunkenness is what struck me so hard. The effects of drink isn’t a unique theme in literature—and this may not even be a very unique treatment—but the way this book unfolds, with Jerzyk’s innocence coming under the power of this always-blasted, comically-unhinged, potentially-dangerous man, is quite powerful and compelling. ATPC is the perfect companion to The Mighty Angel. And not just for the way you can trace back Jerzy’s drinking obsession . . .

And in a moment of tipsy confessionalism: that bit about not being able to drink tea with the woman you love is like a punch to the gut of my anxieties. My love life is absolutely brilliant these days (for long-time readers, you know what I’m talking about), but still, to be dying, drunk, alone . . . Oh, and did I mention that I might well be the nerdiest drinker in the blogosphere? Man, is this ever a long, detailed post for someone home alone with a bottle of Hennepin . . .

13 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch. Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston. (Poland, Open Letter)

The Mighty Angel is a difficult book to talk about. Although, ironically, this glass of wine is totally loosening me up. BTW, I’m writing this on Saturday night—not completely inappropriate time to be drinking. But seriously, how can one relate humor, the joy that comes from reading about a writer (named Jerzy) who is a life-long alcoholic and spends most of his time either getting out of rehab or going on the bender that will send him right back? How can a novel that relates—in painfully true to life detail—story after story of people hitting rock bottom, of people destroying their lives for another drink, another high, another lost night, how can a novel with this much pain and pathos also be incredibly fun to read?

It’s Pilch’s genius to be able to craft a narrative that’s both honest and deceiving. That doesn’t pull punches when exposing his character flaws, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he might be writing himself better, so to speak. That by putting these things down, by conveying them in a way that you can relate, that you can see the problem, that if he can do that, he can cure himself.

The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spend a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.

This sort of honest humor runs throughout the book and creates a very untrustworthy narrator. One who always believes salvation is right around the corner in the form of one girl or another who will serve as his caretaker and will cure him. And every time he ends up right back in the alco ward . . . Which makes the ending of this novel so intriguing and conversation-provoking . . .

Bit of bio info on Jerzy Pilch: he is the author of sixteen volumes, including His Current Woman (published by Northwestern University Press some time back), A Thousand Peaceful Cities (forthcoming from Open Letter), and My First Suicide and Other Stories (also forthcoming from Open Letter). Pilch’s works have been nominated for the NIKE Literary Award on four occasions, with The Mighty Angel winning the award in 2001. One interesting tidbit about Pilch is that he’s a Lutheran—obviously pretty unusual in Poland—and includes a lot of Lutheran stuff in his novels.

But going back to The Mighty Angel, I think the best place to end this post is with this observation by the narrator: “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

14 September 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

For any of you Jerzy Pilch fans, Chad is hosting an evening tomorrow at Solas Bar in NYC (232 E. 9th Street, around the corner from St. Mark’s Bookshop) to discuss Pilch’s The Mighty Angel. It’s a part of the excellent European Book Club series.

The event starts at 7 PM, and I bet you could even talk Chad into going out for a drink after the discussion. Whether going out for a drink after discussing a book about alcoholism is ironic or not, I leave to you. But as the narrator of The Mighty Angel says, “I’m aware, I really am fully aware that it’s impossible, in my case especially it’s impossible, to live a long and happy life when you drink. But how can you live a long and happy life if you don’t drink?”

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:

First up was Hannah Manshel’s review of Death in Spring for The Front Table:

In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.

Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:

From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.

Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:

Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.

And finally, Michael Orthofer is the first to weigh in on Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert (he gave it a B+):

What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Haven’t found the full list online yet, but apparently the longlist for this year’s NIKE Literary Award (the most prestigious literary award in Poland) have been announced. I’ll post an update when I find the full list, but for now, I can say that both Bambino by Inga Iwasiow and Poland Marches On by our own Jerzy Pilch are on the longlist.

And both titles are published by Swiat Ksiazki, who notified me and sent along sample translations . . .

Here’s the info on Jerzy Pilch’s book (which sounds a bit mental, and a bit like The Master and Margarita):

The protagonist – the writer’s alter-ego – has just turned fifty-two. This compulsive seducer decides to find himself a woman on his birthday. She should be different from all his lovers to date. And there have been more than a few … Just when it seems as though his search is all in vain, he gets a text message from the Devil Incarnate himself, inviting him to a ball. Legends are circulating about this party: an out-of-this-world orgy, the Rolling Stones are to be singing, and they’re keeping a zombie in the cellars of the castle… But this is just a small taste of what really is going on there! Our protagonist accidentally finds out that the local residents are planning to attack the estate that day. And this is just the start of a wild, dream-like tale.

And a short excerpt:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit of Storytelling, Amen. On the eve of my fifty-second birthday I decided that the following day I would meet a new woman. This thought had been rattling around in my brain for a long time, but it had only gradually been assuming its definitive key.

I was not undertaking a frivolity; this was neither a game not a wager. I was not giving myself an easy task—my serious and ambitious intention was, within the next twenty-four hours, to meet, get to know, and seduce an intelligent, slim girl just shy of thirty years old and at least six feet in height.

I wanted to offer myself an intensive birthday present and I wanted to test whether I could afford to offer myself an intensive birthday present. On the surface I was in good shape, but I felt that the monster dwelling inside of me was beginning to die. People still regarded me as a rogue, but in essence I was relying on reputation alone. Appearances to the contrary, cynicism was never my strong suit; the irony and instrumental nature of my stories about women had once served to conceal the wrongs I did them. Now, I used the remnants of cynicism, the remains of irony and a show of instrumentalism to mask my despair and my longing.

And a bit about Iwasiow’s Bambino

Bambino is a story about people and a place, or rather places. One of them is the Bambino snack bar, where the four main characters meet. Another is the whole of Szczecin and the surrounding area, a city that has been badly churned up by history, to which people from various parts of Poland made their way after the war. We follow the fortunes of the four heroes from before the war up to 1980. Marysia was born into a large family in the south-eastern borderlands (now Ukraine). After the war, she and her entire family were repatriated to Poland, where they were given a home in a Pomeranian village. She was the only one who managed to get away to the city, where she became a nurse. There she met Janek (and married him), a bastard from a village near Poznań who was abandoned by his mother and later tried to get his own back for years of humiliation by choosing to work for the security service, which ultimately led to the collapse of their marriage. Anna comes from Gorlice, which she left to escape an overly strict mother and a stepfather who didn’t care about her. She had a hard time finishing her studies, and got married late in life, purely for practical reasons, to a merchant navy captain who is older than her. Ula is a German by origin, and is the only one of the main characters to have been born in Szczecin. Because of the war, she almost entirely lost contact with her family, which meant that she has stayed in the city, trying to live like an ordinary Pole. Her not very ardent relationship with Stefan, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and the only man she has ever wanted to be with, was cut cruelly short by history, as Stefan was forced to leave the country in 1968.

And excerpt:

MARIA, BORN 1940

Maria carries it inside her, I swear. An image of the journey, but not only. Something that happened in the course of it. Something left far behind her. Like all the others, she has this something inside her, the threads run together, the genes, they intersect, various things can arise from this combination, and I want to find out who they are – perhaps it is actually my story, but it could just as well be not mine or anyone else’s. I want to rummage in the pictures, carbon copies and waste paper. There’s nothing to hold on to, no album, no diary, no central concept, apart from need. There are just disconnected stories instead, whatever someone has made up about himself. About the person he is. And a life, quite simply, his or whoever’s, past and continuing. That’s all we have on the subject. Centrifugal motion, stealing up from behind, the same thing but with no prospect of the same thing. The mother of all such lost illusions – that’s Maria.

I’m starting with Maria, because her name attracts me. All women are called EveMaria. This one all the more so, as if she were made out of her name straight off from the start, more than Eve, naturally, less marked out, or chosen from the crowd, but then no one ever promised her that. No one did, in naming the girl, yet that’s just what she longs for, to be designated. Thoughtlessly giving a girl that name is a way of tempting and inviting fate. It means she is marked out for sure, but let us not forget that Maria is a common name in this situation. It is sure to be the name of every third heroine whose life began in the circumstances that interest me, the ones I regard as a part of the image of the journey. Quite simply, our grannies often had that name. I’ve got nothing to be proud of, because we’ll see what happens to those names and to them further on. They were only brought here in 1957. They were brought here. They were brought by train, but first someone gave permission, issued documents and stamped their decision on them. First came their and those people’s hesitation, the decision was just about to be made, but then the hand was withdrawn, the circle turned, and they went on standing by the same fence. Until that final moment. And it wasn’t at all funny or heroic in those – of course, nowadays we say “cattle” trucks.

14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For anyone who’s not a subscriber to the Open Letter newsletter, here’s this week’s entry. (You can sign up by entering your e-mail into the box on the upper right hand side of the Open Letter homepage.)

This week’s Open Letter update is pretty simple and straightforward. To celebrate the release of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, we’re giving away ten copies of the finished book to our newsletter subscribers, Three Percent readers, and members for our Facebook group.

You can register for the giveaway by simply e-mailing me at chad.post@rochester.edu with “Pilch” in the subject line and your name and complete mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Mighty Angel is a wonderful book about an alcoholic Polish writer named Jerzy who goes in and out of the alco ward over and over, always feeling that some woman will help him clean up his life, but always ending up back at The Mighty Angel in no time. It’s a touching novel, but also one infused with a great sense of humor (i.e., chapter 4the one about plagiarizing alcoholic autobiographies), much like Pilch’s other books. (We’re currently considering another title of his for publication: A Thousand Peaceful Cities, which features Mr. Trabaone of the most brilliant unhinged characters I’ve come across in some time.)

To whet your appetite, attached below is a small sample (a longer, different excerpt is available online).

Enjoy!

Chapter 12: All the Washing Machines in the World

The eternally postponed notion of repairing my old washing machine or buying a new one eventually perished of its own accord, to a large extent independently of my foibles. In my life I’ve drunk away a vast amount of money, I’ve spent a fortune on vodka, but the reprehensible moment of drinking away a sum set aside for the repair of my washing machine has never occurred. I make this confession not with pride in my heart but with a sense of abasement. For the fact that I never drank away a sum of money set aside for the repair of my washing machine arises from the fact that I never set aside any sum of money for the repair of my washing machine in the first place. Before I ever managed to set aside a particular sum for the repair of the washing machine, I drank it away along with all the other sums of money not yet set aside for any special purpose. I drank away the money before I’d had time to set it aside for something else; therefore I can say, seemingly contradicting myself (yet only seemingly, for in the former case there was only a small quantifier, while in this case there is a large one), I can say then that in fact I did drink away the money for the repair of the washing machine. I drank away the money for a whole series of repairs, I drank away the money for all possible repairs. What am I saying, repairs? I drank away the money for an entire new washing machine, I drank away a whole series of new washing machines, I drank away a thousand new washing machines, I drank away a million new automatic washing machines, I drank away a billion state-of-the-art washing machines. I drank away all the washing machines in the world.

What kind of soul does a man have when he knows he has drunk away all the washing machines in the world? My answer is this: He has a winged soul, and his mind spins like the rotating drum in the final stages of the spin cycle. When you sense upon your heart the burden of a thousand drunk-away washing machines, it is unbearable. But when you lift your tormented gaze and see flocks of white-winged washing machines soaring across the watery heavens like squadrons of papal helicopters, you understand that you have been given more than others. You have been given an uncommon gift, and if you manage to survive, if you do not perish beforehand, you can begin a voyage in search of all the lost washing machines, and evenyes indeedin search of all lost objects in general.

7 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Thursday was “Open Letter Day” at the Harvard Crimson, as the university daily newspaper covered three new Open Letter books: The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch, Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. (Typically, these links would be to our Indie Bookstore of the Month, but Shaman Drum’s online catalog doesn’t have listings for these three titles . . . )

Will Fletcher’s review of The Mighty Angel really captures the humor and horror of this book:

he modern literary tradition—in particular, the Lost Generation writers and their contemporaries—has done something curious in romanticizing the throes of alcoholism. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald were all raging alcoholics and filled their novels with characters who acted likewise. But never before, and rarely today, does a novelist confront addiction so intimately and personally as Jerzy Pilch in his recently translated novel, The Mighty Angel.

It’s unclear for whom the narrative is intended. As the narrator, Jerzy speaks to himself, speaks to his lover, speaks to himself again (this time sober), speaks to the girl in the yellow dress, and—it seems—speaks to us as well. In his own words, he is “writing about you and [he’s] writing about [himself] not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.” His ambivalence towards alcohol abuse—and, for that matter, toward any direction for his life in general—composes the novel’s substance. This ambiguity forces Jerzy to face a constant struggle: “. . . therapists are striving to bring reality to the point of sobriety, whereas I’m striving to bring reality to the point of literature, and at a certain moment our paths inevitably diverge.”

And Jenny Lee’s praise of Landscape in Concrete is spot-on:

The dreamlike quality of the novel emanates from Lind’s ability to create sparse but symbolic landscapes and to fill them with characters whose simple exteriors incapsulate deeper historical echoes. Of course, the enchanting essence of the story is much more akin to that of the original Grimm stories than their doe-eyed Disney counterparts (it revolves around shocking wartime occurrences) but Lind’s gift for eccentric descriptions of characters and events transforms the more gruesome and explicit scenes into something strangely pallatable. Lind’s descriptions endow the starved, inhuman, and ruthless characters of the war with unreal qualities that make the whole narrative easier to digest.

Unfortunately, you can’t always go three-for-three, and in this case, it was Death in Spring that fell a bit short of Keshava Guha’s expectations:

While reading Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda’s final work, it is easy to forget how unlikely the publication of the book is. In Francisco Franco’s anti-Catalan Spain, Rodoreda faced not only suppression and exile but the extinction of her native language. Under Franco, Catalan’s very existence was threatened, banned outright in the public sphere and severely curtailed in the private sphere. In this context, while translations of Spanish language novels achieved worldwide fame and renown in the 1970s and 1980s, Catalan writers remained obscure, even after Franco’s death in 1975, when the ban on Catalan was lifted. With her translation of Death in Spring, Martha Tennent hopes to begin to redress this historic injustice.

How deeply unfortunate, then, that the novel itself cannot live up to the promise of a hidden classic. A brief work of only 150 pages, told in dense four-page episodes, Death in Spring creates a world at once strange and familiar: a nameless town characterized by brutal, gratuitous violence and the prevalence of the bizarre, narrated through an unusual set of eyes—those of a teenage boy. Rodoreda’s narrator is a remarkably dispassionate protagonist, remarking in turns on the macabre and the surreal with unflinching ambivalence.

Nevertheless, here’s one more instance of how the Harvard Crimson is one of the absolute best college newspapers out there. Good taste aside, how many other college papers review three literary titles in one day?

25 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As officially announced at Bacacay, (the official blog of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York) Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel has been selected as the September title for the European Book Club.

It’s an honor to have one of our titles selected for this program, especially since this is the first time the Polish Cultural Institute is participating. (And it’s super-cool that the book club discussion will be taking place in the Solas Bar . . . )

If you’re not familiar with the European Book Club, here’s a nice write-up that Bill posted at Bacacay:

Founded in 2008, the European Book Club is a collaboration between a handful of New York-city based European cultural institute: the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Czech Center, the French Institute Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the Instituto Cervantes. Each month, a different participating institute hosts a book club meeting, which is then “mirrored” at the Brooklyn Public Library later the same month—a measure just introduced due to the overwhelming popularity of the Book Club last year and the fact that so many people had to be turned away. So, for instance, Jachým Topol’s classic City Sister Silver will be discussed tonight at the Czech Center, and the mirror session will take place tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Next month, Muriel Barbery’s acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog will be hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française on April 13, and reproduced in Brooklyn on April 21. We’ll be holding our session in September at Solas Bar (appropriately enough), in the same second storey room of this fine East Village establishment where the St. Mark’s Bookshop reading series takes place. If you’ll be in New York then, make sure to check back here or at http://www.europeanbookclub.org sometime around the middle of August for information on how to sign up. Registration for the French session next month is already open.

24 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be unveiling the Open Letter Spring 2009 list. (All posts about this list can be found here.) This “unveiling” kicked off last week with a bit about Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, and next up is our April 2009 title, The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch.

A novel about an alcoholic novelist who goes in and out of rehab (eighteen times!) doesn’t immediately sound like the funniest novel out there. Yet, Pilch’s The Mighty Angel is a hysterical, and occasionally sobering book. The title comes from the liquor store the protagonist flees to the second he’s out of rehab, and that sort of endless cycle—hit bottom, enter rehab, recover, feel great, feel so great you need a drink, drink heavily, hit bottom—is at the center of this book.

In Jerzy’s (the protagonist, not the author) case, there’s an added bit to his cycle—the reliance on some pretty young woman to take care of him and make everything better. His belief that love can fix his life is tragic and kind of touching, and is one of the reasons why the ending is so ambiguous . . .

This still doesn’t sound that funny, but trust me, Jerzy’s (the character) imagination and wild stories about the people in rehab—Don Juan the Rib, The Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Hero of Socialist Labor—are wonderful. As is this excerpt about the potential plagiarism of an alcoholic’s “rock bottom confession.” Pilch reminds me a bit of Tadeusz Konwicki, especially The Polish Complex.

Early in his career, Jerzy Pilch was considered one of Poland’s greatest up-and-coming writers, and was even referred to by Czeslaw Milosz as the “hope of young Polish prose.” Now almost sixty, he’s a very established figure, and one of the great contemporary Polish writers. He’s been nominated for the prestigious NIKE Award on six occasions (including this past year), and won in 2001 for The Mighty Angel.

It’s also worth noting that this book was recommended and translated by Bill Johnston, one of the greatest Polish translators working today (actually, he may be one of the greatest Polish translators ever), who also translated Pilch’s His Current Woman, which was published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.

24 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Bill Johnston, who is translating Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel for us, has an interview on Polish Writing, where he discusses Magdalena Tulli and translation.

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