Josh Billings has reviewed for The Literary Review in the past, and is also a writer and a translator from Russian. His two book-length translations are Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House.
Here’s the opening of his review:
Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.
Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:
“I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.”
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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