The other day, a popular site on the Internet posted an article on True Detective and the various theories surrounding the show. I had a very bad reaction to this article, claiming on Twitter (the World’s Most Reliable Opinion Source!) that it was “anti-reading/anti-thought.” People got upset. Very upset. There was name-calling. It was so Twitter!
But, seeing that 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what I meant—and why I think this particular article is both insulting and dangerous—I thought I’d use this space to expand on my original sentiments and try (maybe) to use this post about a hit HBO show to say something about reading culture in general.
First off, if you haven’t been watching True Detective, close this tab on your browser and download the first six episodes now.
For the rest of you, you know the basics: In 1995, two homicide detectives attempt to find a serial killer. Meanwhile, in 2012, thanks to a ritual killing with similarities to the earlier murders, those same two detectives are being questioned by two new cops about the events of 1995. (And 2002.)
Simple enough. More or less. But, as with any well-formed piece of art, there are references (primarily to weird fiction and The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers), there are visual and verbal hints at how the whole story fits together, there are interesting techniques (like the birds in the sky) that complicate the point of view and the way the story is being told . . . In other words, this is—at least through the first six episodes—a carefully put together piece of art opening itself up to be “read.”
Every spring I teach a World Literature & Translation course, and at least a couple of sessions revolve around the unanswerable question of “why we read in the first place.” (Which is further complicated when you ask “why we read literature in translation at all.”) There are many reasons to read—for entertainment, to be educated, etc.—and one thing I like to talk about is the difference between the way the brain works when you read neo-realistic, “cinematic” writing (e.g., if you read about walking across sticky linoleum, opening the refrigerator and feeling the cold air on your face, your brain fires in a way very similar to what happens when you do that in real life) versus more “puzzling” prose in which it isn’t immediately clear what exactly is going on (e.g., The Sound and Fury and many other books that beg for you to pay attention to something other than the immediate descriptions). “Reading,” as I’m defining it, is paying attention to, and making sense of, the things an artist does that aren’t just painting you a straightforward picture.
Bob’s Burgers is a fantastic show. My kids endlessly repeat its funniest lines. I don’t think it’s as entertaining as Archer, but it’s rock solid. It’s not a show that I feel like I need to “read.” For the most part, it’s all right there. Quick witted with predictable characters that you think you “know” and episodes that follow the “normal” sit-com structure.
But if someone got really into “reading” Bob’s Burgers, that’s great! That’s what makes art fun to experience. That’s why—and granted, Bob’s Burgers isn’t equivalent to Kubrick—Room 237 is so damn good. It’s a documentary on how people read. How they see and interpret patterns. That’s the best thing you can hope for as an artist. That someone will think about your work in a way that takes it from the “cold air of the refrigerator” to something grander.
That is not what the aforementioned article is about. In fact, the opening two paragraphs pretty much insult anyone who has approached True Detective in this way. And, in my opinion, that series of insults is dangerous.
Possibly you’ve noticed, but a lot of people on the internet are obsessing over True Detective. A great many of them seem to be either unemployed or underemployed, because they’re hanging out all day every day on Reddit or the True Detective Facebook page, offering frankly incredible levels of detail in their analyses of the show.
If you’re capable of understanding that words mean things, you already know where I’m going to take this. According to this author, anyone who is “obsessing” over True Detective is “unemployed or underemployed” (aka A LOSER) mainly because they are posting their incredibly detailed thoughts on Reddit (NERD!).
Basic Message: People who “read” True Detective and share their thoughts, ideas—you know, pretty much the shit that makes you excited about experiencing someting interesting—those people are nerdy unemployed losers.
The amount of intricacy involved in their interpretive work would impress some biblical scholars, I think.
Interpretation: In case you didn’t get my first set of insults, here’s one more.
There are a fair amount of places where it feels like people are departing significantly from the text to get to their theories, so to speak.
Not only are you spending too much time—you unemployed nerd!—talking about this show, but you’re essentially wrong.
As someone who’s been watching the show more for the languid beauty of it and the greatness of Matthew McConaughey’s acting,
What the hell is this? So, you watch the show for two reasons—it’s languid beauty and Matthew McConaughey—and are subtly implying that those who don’t are doing something wasteful and wrong?
I confess that reading all this stuff over the last two days has been a revelation. First of all, I discovered that people really . . . see a whole lot of layers here that I don’t.
In other words, you don’t believe in their “readings” and therefore, they are all wrong. And should just watch the show for Matthew McConaughey (who, admittedly, totally kills it).
I think of this as a good document of the journey of two troubled detectives through a years-long movie case, but the internet audience’s reaction seems to be conditioned by years of puzzle shows like Lost to expect an ulterior motive behind every plot development.
I’m not sure I follow this sentence at all, but leaving aside the “years-long movie case,” I just want to open up a bit of a gap between the “puzzle shows like Lost” and noticing motifs and deciphering hints and making connections in a very well-done TV show that involves three timelines and some mysterious symbols and a bunch of murders.
And boy oh boy, are they experts at dreaming those ulterior motives up.
There’s no way to see this line as anything but one last insult.
To sum up: Sharing ideas and theories about a well-crafted TV show means you’re unemployed and that you’re watching for all the wrong reasons. It’s just entertainment, man! Just watch Matthew McConaughey and leave the thinking alone!
This is not good. This is a bad message. This is not what we need.
Personally, I’m very invested in a future filled with people who love to read books that aren’t simply “escapes.” Not that they shouldn’t read “escapist” literature—in which you feel the refrigerator’s coldness—but that they can also enjoy books/movies/TV shows/music that provides your mind with enough space and images to think and puzzle and read and enjoy. Without that sort of art—and more importantly, an appreciation of that sort of art—I just don’t see the point.
What’s funny/sad is that the website in which this article appeared receives more than 3 million visits a month. That is WAY more than Three Percent. And INFINITE times more than the number of Twitter followers I have. So why exactly did my tweet—claiming this article is “anti-reading/anti-thought” for the unstated reasons described above—generate a couple dozen angry tweets from the writers and editors at this website? I’m not sure. I have some ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself.
But that’s it. That’s why that article irritated me. I would say the same thing if it appeared in the New York Times. Although I’m sure the editors at the New York Times wouldn’t be quite so defensive. On Twitter.
As an interlude in our 2013 round-up series—the Nate & Tom Movie Podcast will be coming soon—Tom and I decided to talk about his recent trip to L.A., where he met with Michael Silverblatt of the amazing Bookworm, and about a couple of recent articles that have been making the rounds in social media and whatnot. Namely, we decided to talk a bit about George Packer’s Amazon article in the New Yorker, and the provocatively titled How Iowa Flattened Literature.
This week’s music is Thumpers’s Unkinder (A Tougher Love), which is perfect podcast music, and, unfortunately, the only really good song from this album.
The deadlines approach – well, that one first, big deadline: with the Best Translated Book Award longlist due to be announced March 11 we judges have to decide what makes the 25-book cut. Twenty-five titles seems like a lot, but the procedure is that each of us submits our top-ten list (on March 1), from which the top sixteen vote-getters make the longlist, and then each judge gets to add one personal choice to round off the list, for a total of twenty-five titles. So each of us only gets to select ten+one titles. (Last year, only six of my top-ten choices for the longlist made it (with a seventh then slipping on as the plus-one).)
Since my top-ten/must-have list currently stands at roughly fourteen titles (fluctuating daily, as two or three titles different fall in and out of favor, depending on my mood …) this is proving a more arduous exercise than I had hoped. Twenty-five slots would be easy (well, easier … maybe) to fill), but ten feels really, really tight.
There are half a dozen or so titles that I simply can’t not put in my top-ten (which, in cruel-tease-form I won’t name here – though I’m probably sufficiently on the record regarding my feelings about them elsewhere …) – because I think they are really the most deserving (and, in some cases, because I worry that they might otherwise be overlooked) – but after that it gets complicated. There are a couple of titles that so many judges already seem to feel enthusiastic about that I’m not sure I need to put my full weight behind them yet – books by recent BTBA winners like Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans or Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, for example, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle II, among others. But it’s hard to leave off any title that I truly want in the running: one favorite not making the initial cut is okay, since we each get to add that one personal selection, but likely there will be several that don’t get enough votes, making for quite a quandary with that lone personal selection…..
There are a lot of titles at the upper margins, the ones that I think I could make a case for – clear top-25 titles, to me, but maybe not top-ten (though some days I’m convinced title X is, other days title Y …).
There are the big novels my name-authors: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time (translated by Edith Grossman, The Economist just recently reminding us that: “Its author, one of Spain’s leading writers, has been unjustly ignored in the English-speaking world. With this book, he should get the acclaim he deserves” (though Entertainment Weekly (yes, well …) suggests the novel moves at: “the pace of a narcotized elephant” …)), Christa Wolf’s City of Angels.
There are translations that have already won translation prizes: Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker, which won (under a different title) the British counterpart to the BTBA, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 and Dimitri Verhulst’s Vondel Translation Prize-winning The Misfortunates. And I was already on a translation-prize-jury that found Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her to be a worthy winner – the 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize – so how can I not longlist it this time around? (Sure, the competition might be tougher here – certainly there are a lot more titles in the running – but this remarkable piece of work (and the excellent translation) continues to stand out – helped also by the fact that it’s different from almost everything else we’re looking at.)
There are the smaller works that linger nicely (and often don’t seem to have gotten enough attention). Sure, Amélie Nothomb’s Life Form is kind of simple much of the way – but in its conclusion totally won me over. Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back – among the least-Dalkeyesque of the (many) Dalkey Archive Press titles to consider – has been among this year’s most pleasant reading surprises. The same goes for Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, a rare (okay, the only …) translation from the Hindi we get to consider. And while Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is the rare smaller (paperback original, too) title in translation to get pretty widespread coverage I still think it’s widely misread as a story-collection: I find it comes together beautifully and very effectively as a unified novel-whole. And then there’s a book like Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, which held me rapt and whose strangeness still haunts me.
Finally, there’s than annual search for a worthy ‘genre’ title – a top-notch thriller, solid sci-fi, or the like. There were certainly mysteries and thrillers galore to consider this year (like every year), but it was not a great year – with the highly touted ones feeling particularly derivative. I suppose Ogawa’s Revenge might be considered genre, of sorts (horror). Otherwise, there’s only one of these titles in my mix: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End (and not just because of the author’s awesome/ridiculous name – touché!), which certainly hasn’t gotten the (‘mainstream’) attention it deserves.
Of course, time is not yet up, the decision doesn’t have to be made yet. I still have a few
weeks days of reading ahead of me, a few more books to discover and consider. Part of me hopes to find another gem – but part of me also worries: what then? which book gets knocked off the already too-long list?
Our latest GoodReads Giveaway is for Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, which may well win the prize for the best Open Letter title ever. And, along with Navidad & Matanza, it’s in the running for one of the best blurbs:
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”—Gary Shteyngart
This novel, which is coming out in May, is the second book of Michalopoulou’s to come out in the U.S., the first being I’d Like, which Dalkey brought out a few years back. (And both of which are translated by Karen Emmerich.) It’s a book about two women—Maria who relocates to Greece from Africa, and Anna who moved to Greece from Paris—and their lifelong “friendship” that is filled with both unquestioned support and bitter competition.
The structure of the novel, and the way it fills in the details of their present day relationship (which is reignited when Anna’s daughter ends up in Maria’s art class) with flashbacks to the tumultuous events of growing up in Greece in 70s works incredibly well, and provides and interesting look into the impact politics can have on friendships and life in general.
We’re giving away 20 copies, so if you’re a GoodReads user, be sure and sign up below.
Also, we’re in the final stages of planning a reading tour for Amanda that will take place in April. More information about that in the near future.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators, is an editor of The Cahiers Series ,and co-hosts the podcast entitled That Other Word. He has authored a study of Franz Kafka in the work of three international writers (Northwestern University Press, 2010) and curated the second volume of Music and Literature magazine (Krasznanorkai/Tarr/Neumann), and recently edited a translation issue for The White Review.
Minae Mizamura’s A True Novel was my great discovery this winter. Alongside Faris al-Shidyaq’s eccentric classic, it ranks among the most memorable books I encountered as a judge for this year’s BTBA.
The book’s length is misleading: once caught up in the narrative (which gets traction almost immediately), I found it impossible to read in draughts of less than 150-200 pages. The characters fascinate, as do Mizamura’s manner of relating their histories. But the pleasures of A True Novel exceed those of the conventional storytelling kind. Mizamura is an author profoundly concerned with literary tradition and she pulls off several feats here, merging a shishosetsu work (first-person Japanese autobiographical narrative) into a honkaku shosetsu (panoramic Western novel), while successfully recasting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a postwar Japanese setting. Its effect recalls the greatest of Yasujiro Ozu’s films or Chekhov’s shorter fiction: a deep humanism is palpable beneath the dispassionate narrative. I’m still astonished by how much Mizumura has managed to include about Japan’s transformation from defeated imperial power to economic powerhouse—all without sacrificing the intimacy of a chamber play. I first became aware of this novel thanks to Caroline Bleecke’s review at Music & Literature, which provides helpful context about A True Novel’s formal ambitions and Mizumura’s previous efforts.
Writers from Transylvania have a special place in Hungarian literature. Their use of the language is particular and, in many cases, peculiar—they evince a sensitivity to words not uncommon among speakers of a minority language. Ádám Bodor is one of the region’s giants, andThe Sinistra Zone his masterpiece. Entertaining, odd and strikingly true to the spirit of that twilight zone where Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary meet, Sinistra is a classic example of what Michael Hofmann has called “celestial provincialism”: a “blend of allegory, surrealism, fantasy and exuberant narrative … derived from Hašek and Kafka.” The world of Bodor’s novel will be immediately familiar to his contemporaries from the once-Soviet Other Europe. Here is a passage by one of its most prominent representatives, Polish novelist Andrezej Stasiuk, about a visit to the region that inspired Sinistra:
We drove to the Sinistra district. Everything here belonged to the mountain refilemen, to Colonel Puiu Borcan, and, when he died, to Izolda Mavrodin-Mahmudia, also holding rank of Colonel and called Coco for short. From the Baba Rotunda pass, we had a view of Pop Ivan; in the valley crawled narrow-gauge, wood-burning locomotives. The inhabitants of Sinistra wore military dogtags on their chests. Everyone who came here and stayed was given a new name … Diluted denatured alcohol was used here to dry mushrooms, and it was drunk with the fermented juice of forest fruits. The frosted glass for the Sinistra prison was made by Gabriel Dunka in his workshop: he frosted a pane by putting it in a sandbox and walking on it with his bare feet for hours. He was thirty-seven and a dwarf. One rainy day he picked up a naked Elvira Spiridon in his delivery van and for the first time in his life smelled a woman’s body, but loyalty triumphed over desire and he turned her in… All this supposedly took place near Sighetu Marmației, but I learned about it only two years later, in Adam Bodor’s Sinistra District, and the story has pursued me since. Pursued me and replaced the flat spot on the map. Once again, the visible pales before the narrated. Pales but does not disappear. It only loses its force, its intolerable obviousness. This is a special quality of auxiliary countries, of second-order, second-tier peoples: the ephemeral tale in different versions, the distorted mirror, magic lantern, mirage, phantom that mercifully sneaks in between what is and what ought to be. The self-irony that allows you to play with your personal fate, to mock it, parrot it, turning defeat into heroic-comic legend and a lie into something that has the shape of salvation. —from On the Road to Babadag (Harcourt, 2011)
Other highlights of winter readings include A Most Ambiguous Sunday by June Young Moon (Dalkey Archive), whose stories “Mrs. Brown,” “Drifting,” and “Animals Songs of Boredom of Fury” share the deadpan humor that makes reading Beckett or George Saunders such fun;
Bullfight, the flawless debut of Japanese master Yasushi Inoui;
The Errors of Young Tjaž by Florjan Lipuš (Dalkey Archive), a strange and discomfiting account of childhood in postwar rural Austria;
and Life Form by Amélie Nothomb (Europa), a refreshing, funny, and clever counterpoint to some of this season’s sterner submissions—despite its own dark subject matter.
Finally, I’d like to draw attention to three titles that were published in 2013, but proved ineligible because of a previous translation. Stig Dagarman’s A Burnt Child, trans. Benjamin Mier-Cruz (Minnesota); Ahmet Hamdi Tanipar’s The Time Regulation Institute, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin); and Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark, trans. John Nathan (Columbia) are all remarkable novels, and would have appeared on my longlist were it not for having been published previously. Here’s hoping they receive the attention they—along with their latest translators, and the publishers who commissioned them—deserve.Tweet
Allison is another of the students at the University of Rochester in our lovely MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and her review was also written as an assignment for Chad’s publishing class. Allison is also one of the faces behind the relatively new ELTNA, the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, and the translator of Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s The Last Love of George Sand. She’s also got a mean kickball kick and a baking genius husband.
Here’s the beginning of her review:
A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.
This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.
For the rest, go here.Tweet
Last year we brought out Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, one of my favorite books of the past few years. (And a title that deserves to at least be shortlisted for this year’s BTBA . . .)
At the time I talked to Arnon about doing two of his other books—The Man without Illness and The Asylum Seekers—since we all love his work so much, and thought that Open Letter could serve as a home for some of these older books. He seemed thrilled about this.
We made an offer to his new representative, Oscar van Gelderen (who took over Arnon’s properties after Ira Silverberg went to run the Literature Department at the NEA, but is primarily a Dutch publisher), and after following up with him a half-dozen times—he held our offer for months upon months—we received the following reply this morning:
It took some time before we could respond to your offer, the reason being we are looking carefully at the publishing situation in each country wherein Arnon is published.
And although we have enjoyed working together with Open Letter on Tirza, we have decided not to accept your offers for Arnons books. Sales for Tirza have been quite poor, as far as we can judge (when do we receive royalty statements?), and visibility in the media has been limited. We love the Open Letter list, its quality, but we feel Arnon needs a publishing house with more sales power. We dont mean this in a disrespectful way, au contraire, we know how Open Letter operates and we can see the upsides of that strategy too, but we need more power and marketing force in order to get Arnon the breakthrough he deserves (in each and every country).
For the moment we have put things on hold in the USA and UK, we want to decide in a later stage whom we want collaborate with. Arnon is currently writing his novel about his mother, a book, we feel, with lots of sales potential. For us it would be thé Grunberg book to break open the market, get him out there, and find the readers he truly deserves.
In the meantime, please send us some more information regarding sales of Tirza, we are curious to know how it sold sofar.
All the best,
Oscar van Gelderen
Arnon Grunberg Agency
Yeah, it’s still pretty disrespectful, buddy.
The sales have been modest—over 2,000 copies, but still—which is one reason we’re moving to Consortium for sales distribution. We’ve been doing all sales representation ourselves (and with the help of the fantastic George Carroll out in the Pacific Northwest), and that’s much more complicated and difficult now than it was 10 years ago. Literary books—in translation, in a crowded marketplace—will probably always sell between 1,500 and 4,000 copies on average, but hopefully Consortium will push us toward the larger end of that spectrum.
Back to kvetching: Last April, Arnon sent me a translated version of an article he had written about Greece, in hopes that I would be able to find a magazine interested in publishing this. Under normal circumstances, this would be an agent’s job; my assumption was that Oscar doesn’t know that U.S. landscape as well as I do, and was looking for some help.
So, for no money or other considerations, I spent some time talking to various publications and eventually got Andrew Leland from The Believer interested and the piece appeared in the September 2013 issue of the magazine. You’re welcome, Oscar!
Putting aside my emotions for a second, let’s consider how wise a move this is on Oscar/Arnon’s part.
In case you’re not aware of Arnon’s publishing history in the U.S., in 1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out his debut novel, Blue Mondays. A few years later, 2001 to be exact, St. Martin’s brought out Silent Extras. Three years later, Other Press brought out two of Arnon’s books, Phantom Pain and The Story of My Baldness. Then, in 2008, Penguin brought out The Jewish Messiah. And finally, in 2013, Open Letter publishes Tirza.
For a lot of international authors, that’s a damn fine run. Over the course of 16 years, five different publishers brought out six of Arnon’s books. The part that might be troubling is the five different publishers. Conventional Wisdom states that if a publisher sells an acceptable number of copies of a particular author’s book, they like to go on with that author, build a backlist, etc. My guess—and maybe I’m wrong—is that FSG, Penguin, Other Press, didn’t get the attention and sales that they were looking for, which is why they only did 1-2 books then moved on.
From a typical agent’s perspective, this is not a good thing. Publishing people talk, partial sales information becomes accessible, and any new editor considering a new book from this author can look back on this pothole-filled publishing history, and . . . probably think long and hard about signing on the author’s new book.
So, in contrast to having a situation in which Arnon had a publisher willing to do 3+ of his novels—more than any other previous publisher—Arnon is now going out into the marketplace with a lot of baggage . . . I wish him luck. All I want is to be able to read more of his books—something that probably won’t be possible (Especailly for his backlist titles) for the foreseeable future.
Then again, there always is the self-publishing route . . .Tweet
Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he also runs the Good Coffee Book Blog. Here’s an excerpt from his review:
Before escaping to Wales, Emilie was a translation studies instructor who has been working on a thesis on American poet Emily Dickinson. She was fired after it was revealed that she’d had an affair with a student. She confessed the affair to her husband (most of the characters’ names are not revealed until the climax) but then fled, leaving her cell phone on the ferry. Once she arrived in Wales, she decided to rent the farm for the last two months of the year. The only things she brought with her were a mattress, some books, a portrait of Dickinson, and some painkillers.
The farm has a field with ten white geese. Despite the field being surrounded by barbed wire, the geese begin to disappear. Emilie suspects that a fox might be eating them and feels guilty about it; also, she’s only “renting” them, so when there are only six left, she builds them a shelter that they end up spurning. “They ran off the wrong way in a column or scattered, as if understanding that it was hard to choose between six separate birds. . . . Panting, she scooped up a few pebbles and threw them at the geese. ‘Ungrateful, dirty, filthy, stinking, pig-headed creatures!’ she shouted. ‘I’m trying to bloody save you!’”
Ironically, Emilie, who smokes and takes her painkillers with alcohol, seems to be the one who needs saving. Early in the novel, she’s attacked by a badger after resting on its stone circle near the house. Nobody believes that the bite on her foot came from a creature commonly perceived as peaceful. “That’s impossible,” more than one person tells her. However, this “badger story,” as it comes to be known, is not just a running gag used during the story’s lighter moments.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Following on last month’s announcement of the longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the six-title short list was revealed yesterday.
This year’s six novels are wide-ranging in both subject matter and style. They include: a prison novel from Morocco; a story about one family’s dispersal around the globe, from 1950s Iraq to the modern day; a police hunt for an Iraqi Frankenstein terrorising Baghdad; one man’s search for knowledge as he travels around North Africa and the Middle East; the grim reality of one family’s struggle to survive in present day Aleppo and a psychological thriller played out in a psychiatric hospital in Cairo. [. . .]
Saad Albazei [chair of the judging committee] comments: ‘This year’s longlist was full of excellent books – a reflection of the overall quality of Arabic fiction published this year – so it was a real challenge to whittle the list down to just six. The shortlisted novels are varied in their narrative styles and language: from discovering virtual reality to the mingling of fantasy and reality, they also include classical language and multiple narrative voices and demonstrate the Arabic novel’s ability to flower despite the harsh realities of daily life.’
And here are the six shortlisted titles with short descriptions:
Aziz is a pilot at the air force base who loves flying and forgets his cares when he is up in the air. It is flying that he thinks of on his wedding night, rather his 16 year-old bride, Zina, waiting in the adjoining room. The following morning, he leaves his house at the crack of dawn, not to return for 18 years. His wife, Zina, looks for him everywhere – in prisons, offices, cities and forests – asking questions and following false leads, only to be disappointed. However, one day – in the bar where she and her sister Khatima work – a stranger presses a scrap of paper into her pocket. It takes her on one last journey in search of her husband . . .
Tashari deals with the tragedy of Iraqi displacement of the past few decades, through the life story of a female doctor working in the countryside in southern Iraq in the 1950s. The narrative also follows her three children, who now live in three different continents, particularly her eldest daughter who has also become a doctor and works in a remote region of Canada. The title of the novel, ‘Tashari’, is an Iraqi word referring to a shot from a hunting rifle which is scattered in several directions.
No Knives in this City’s Kitchens is a profound exploration of the mechanics of fear and disintegration over half a century. Through the story of one Syrian family, it depicts a society living under tyranny with stifled aspirations. The family realise that all their dreams have died and turned into rubble, just as the corpse of their mother has become waste material they must dispose of in order to continue living. Written with shocking perception and exquisite language, from the very beginning this novel makes its readers ask fundamental questions and shows how regimes can destroy Arab societies, plundering lives and wrecking dreams.
A researcher stumbles across a manuscript and attempts to edit it, to make it into a doctoral thesis. Entitled The Journeys of ‘Abdi, the manuscript is an account of one man’s journeys from Morocco to the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia in search of knowledge, written in the manner of Moroccan intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun. ’Abdi’s journey turns into an examination of Arabic and Muslim society, with ’Abdi emphasising the need for Arabs to learn from Europe in order to achieve social progress.
After five years of self-imposed isolation, Doctor Yahya returns to work at the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital in Cairo, where there is a surprise in store for him. In ‘West 8’, the department in charge of determining the mental health of patients who have committed crimes, he meets an old friend who reminds him of a past he is desperately trying to forget.
Hadi al-Attag lives in the populous al-Bataween district of Baghdad. In the Spring of 2005, he takes the body parts of those killed in explosions and sews them together to create a new body. When a displaced soul enters the body, a new being comes to life. Hadi call it ‘the-what’s-its-name’; the authorities name it ‘Criminal X’ and others refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’. Frankenstein begins a campaign of revenge against those who killed it, or killed the parts constituting its body.
YES! I’m so glad Frankenstein made it. I really hope this book wins . . .Tweet
Based on the above paragraph and all the awesome that it contains, this book really shouldn’t need much more introduction: it’s a guide to adventuring, which is cool; the translator’s name is Napoleon, which, right on; it’s from Wakefield Press, one of my all-time favorite small presses. It is common practice at the Open Letter office that, when a new Wakefield review copy comes in the mail, Chad enters it into the “Translation Database” and then promptly hands the book over to me, at which I point squirrel it away and exclaim several things, including but not limited to “Shit yes,” “Mine,” “OmgomgWakefield,” and “I’M SQUIRRELING THIS AWAY.”
There are myriad reasons why I love Wakefield Press so much (they’re also the publisher behind the ENG translation of Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy), but I fell in love with their books after reading René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays. Pataphysical Essays was a book I wish I had written a review on, but was never able to bring myself to do it—partially due to laziness, but mostly because I had no idea how to write about a book I loved so much but could only peripherally understand. Pataphysical Essays is one of the most insane things I’ve read in the past few years; it’s so scientifically non-scientific, and a joy to find so much humor and delight in something that confused me. It’s absurd, it’s profound. And boils pataphysics (and the world) down to the beautiful equation of:
To know x = to know (Everything – x)
ANYWAY. Back to adventuring. Even without mind-blowing mathematics my brain can stomach, Mac Orlan’s guide (originally commissioned by Blaise Cendrars), is a witty and tongue-in-cheek book/commentary that essentially outlines two types of adventurer—the active and the passive—which of the two is better, how he must function in order to be successful, and warnings for individuals “wishing to seek literature in life.” Here’s the beginning of the review:
For the rest, go here.Tweet
Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be. . .
“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other,. . .
A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where. . .
Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs,. . .
In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as. . .
Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”
Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full. . .
“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”
So reads a typical aphoristic “poem”. . .
If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding. . .
It is destined that we will all become our parents. Some try to avoid it while others embrace the metamorphosis. Either way, it never fails— children eventually become their parents. A Fairy Tale is a psychological novel told through day-to-day. . .