Recently, one of my coworkers asked me what I like to read. I mentioned that I am primarily interested in literature in translation. He promptly showed me his Kindle full of translated Italian mystery novels.
While I do not mean to dismiss the merits of these books, they are not exactly what I was thinking of when I said literature in translation. Indeed, just because a book is translated does not make it good. Clearly there’s no accounting for taste, and yes the three percent problem is, indeed, a problem, but I’d sooner see the three percent of translated books that make it into the American market devoted to books that take risks, tell compelling stories, and reach for something beyond the average pot boiler.
Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for plot and narrative. Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams is light on both. Really, it is a collection of short prose poems that reach for heights and, sadly more times than not, fall flat. To be sure, Braschi hits the mark often enough to keep the reader engaged or at least curious to see what will follow. Landmark moments in the collection come late, as in the third section “The Intimate Diary of Solitude,” which gets more than a little meta, but wading through the earlier, duller bits is tiring. Oddly, Braschi’s lists and anaphora would be less grating were they broken into poetic lines and not crammed into a single paragraph:
This is not a book. I did not read it. I lived it. I lived it from road to road. I came across the fortune-teller on the way. And the magician too. And I found a door closed. And gates. And guards. And cowards and killers. And street spectacles. And New York City. And the moon. And the sun. And thunder. And love. And death. And trains. And visionaries. And war. And the atomic bomb. And I found my ears. And I found my soul. My self. My poet. My stars. My comet. And I wrote. And I got drunk. And I loved.
And I got bored. Not that drinking and loving and New York City are dull per se (though we’ve seen them before in better books), but the manner in which Braschi introduces them (and revisits them again and again in similar list fashion) renders these themes and images into jackhammers splitting the reader’s patience.
That said, there are more successful moments in Empire of Dreams. The before mentioned final third of the book plays with perspective by shifting persona; the author inserts herself into the story and becomes all of the characters. I admire such literary tinkering, though the conceit becomes clear before long. By the end of Empire of Dreams I felt neither anger for having slogged through a tiresome read nor reward for having taken the time to digest an experimental book.
Kudos should be reserved for AmazonCrossing, the translation leg of Amazon.com’s new publishing beast. I applaud them for taking a chance on a foreign book that surely will not net a large return (aside from not being a pot boiler, this has the curse of poetry, never a big seller on these shores). That said, I hope that AmazonCrossing’s next venture yields more satisfying results.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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