31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

22 October 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I really, really want to air my massive grievances with Actes Sud and the French Publishers Agency over how poorly—and, in my opinion, unprofessionally—they handled the sales of U.S. rights to Mathias Ènard’s latest novel.

In fact, I just deleted a huge long post describing how I know it’s equally unprofessional to tweet mean things at my “colleagues,” even if those “colleagues” deceived me (and others) and treated me disrespectfully and told me that they wouldn’t sell Open Letter the rights to the new Mathias Ènard book because they needed a different press, the “right publishing house” for a work “that’s this important.” Which implies: Ènard’s earlier books aren’t that important?

It went on and on about how I was instrumental in finding Ènard a UK publisher following years of failure on the part of Actes Sud and the French Publishers Agency, but fuck little Open Letter! (Also, how is the UK press [Fitzcarraldo] still the “right publisher” for the new book, and we’re not? Can someone explain this?)1

This deleted post also went into excruciating detail about the emotional aspects of publishing—how much you put into every book, how the only reason anyone smart stays in this business is for the joy of loving the product you put out and helping connect readers to great literature. About how many times all of the players in this shitty little drama have come to me asking for favors, asking for advice, asking for data, for help, for me to take time out of my day to benefit them. And then . . . They won’t even give me a proper explanation as to why they fucked Open Letter right out of one of our foundational authors.

The post ended with me puking violent curses all over the place, lamenting over ever getting involved with French authors at all, threatening to quit publishing altogether because books don’t matter and it isn’t worth being treated like this by your “friends.” It ended with proclamations about how my new policy was to only helping people if they hire me as a consultant, and that from now on the Translation Database would be behind a paywall, data available for a commission.

It was an ugly, dumb pity party of the most therapeutic degree. (Which is probably why I started this blog way back when—cheap therapy for dealing with this industry and its egos and awfulness.)

I know we got royally fucked and unfortunately, it will take ages before I forgive the people involved. Anyone remember this?: Why Publishing Is a Thankless, Frustrating Business I haven’t forgiven that agent and laughed manically at his latest newsletter detailing all the recent sales for Grunberg books, none of which are to English publishers.

But now this is all done and I can finally move on. Tomorrow is another day. We still have a better list than at least half of the publishers out there. I’ll stand by the fact that we do more for international authors and translators than any other press there is. And even if it’s scoffed at, or underappreciated, or ignored, or ridiculed, I’m still think it’s important and will continue helping as many people in the field as I can, even when they don’t return the favor.

Besides, we still (for the time being at least) have the rights to Zone, Ènard’s masterpiece.

*

On the upside, even though Actes Sud doesn’t think we’re good enough for “important” books, we publish a few of these Mercè Rodoreda, who is every bit as good as Ènard. And whose latest book, War, So Much War is excerpted in the latest Harper’s!

A large sack suspended from a tree was swinging back and forth, and from it emerged the head of a man with a straight, taut rope behind it. His face was white, his tongue black, his lips purple. By the tree, just beneath the hanged man’s feet, was a rock; I climbed on it and cut the rope. The hanged man crashed to the ground and hit his head, frightening me so much that I was sure I had killed him instead of saving him. He was young, with black hair and bushy eyebrows. Just as I was thinking that he had surrendered his soul to God, he opened one eye and immediately closed it again. He hadn’t the strength to hold my gaze. After a while he sat up halfway, and I helped him as he struggled to climb out of the sack. He snapped at me angrily, in a husky voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave: Why did you cut the rope?

For a long time, who’s to say how long, he struggled to breathe. Give me some water. . . . I’m suffocating.

To celebrate the fact that we still publish some of the best authors on the planet (no matter what some silly little French press in Arles has to say about it), until the end of the month, we’ll be selling this Rodoreda book for $10 through our website. Just use the code HARPERS at checkout.

1 There are real facts to this story that make it more than just a “Chad lost the rights to a book he wanted and he’s pissed” sort of post. Untrue implications made to various presses. A friend poaching one of our most beloved writers—the writer that, in many ways, put us on the map. Actes Sud’s insincere and lame email to me from this morning. The possibility that they just used us—and all the money and time we’ve invested in Ènard—just to get a starting offer to bring to other presses. That they were never going to sell this to us and offered it to us under false pretenses. I understand losing authors to truly big presses offering really huge advances, but everyone involved in this story has made it clear as possible that this wasn’t that—it was a personal choice that we were “second rate.” Which is exactly why I’m pissed. That and the fact that people don’t talk honestly anymore. There’s no place for passion, Chad, publishing is a business. Get over it! But is it really “just” a business? Should it be? Don’t I deserve respect for all the work I’ve done for international literature?

....
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