And here’s the final post in the “Why This Book Should Win” series for the 2014 BTBA fiction longlist. I’ll post a handy guide to all of these posts later this afternoon, but for now just enjoy Bromance Will (aka Will Evans, the founder and director of Deep Vellum) wax enthusiastic for his favorite book from the past year.
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Archipelago Books)
The past is everything, the future nothing, and time has no other meaning.
I won’t play games, there are no secret agendas here: Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by the incomparably amazing independent publisher Archipelago Books, should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for two reasons, both of which fulfill whichever the criteria of what a “best translated book” should be: 1) it is the best book I read in the last year; and 2) it is the best work of translation, the work of a genius author translated by a genius translator, I read in the last year. Not only is it a damn good book, which I’ll get into below, but it’s the best damn translation by the best damn translator in the game: Dr. Sean Cotter.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
I suppose I should write a disclaimer: Sean Cotter is a friend. He lives in the Dallas area, where I live. We frequently eat at Mediterranean buffets together. I’ve put together readings for him in town. I trumpet the cause of Sean Cotter. This may make you think I’m biased towards him, but that’s not entirely true. The reason I do all of these things and the reason why I am even writing this piece is not because I’m friends with Sean Cotter but rather that I’m Sean Cotter believer. I believe in this man’s talent as a translator that transcends your earthly opinions of human relationships and whatever notion of bias means in this instance. When I sit with him at lunch I basically just ask him how the hell he could actually manage to translate this beast of a novel, and even after he’s explained it to me over and over again I’m still in awe.
What every person had intuited at some point in their lives somehow, suddenly, became clear: that reality is just a particular case of unreality, that we all are, however concrete we may feel, only the fiction of some other world, a world that creates and encompasses us . . .
But back to the book itself—Blinding is a masterpiece. It was an instant bestseller when it appeared in Romania (God bless the Romanians). Blinding first book in a trilogy that takes the form of a butterfly tracing out the history of Cărtărescu’s family history: the full title of book one is Blinding: The Left Wing. The other two books, as yet untranslated, include book two, “The Body,” and book three, “The Right Wing.” The left wing of the butterfly-novel is the history, or rather, the legend, of Cărtărescu’s mother; the right wing tells the story of his father; the body is about the author himself. It’s an imaginative format, and is made apparent to the reader throughout the novel by the central figure/motif/metaphor/symbol/icon of the butterfly that links all of the stories taking place across time/space. Chapters alternate in narrative points of view and throughout the history of Cărtărescu’s mother and her ancestors, from the narrator philosophizing about the nature of our existence in this universe sitting in his room overlooking Bucharest’s skyline in the present day to magical stories of gypsies and resurrected zombies in rural 19th-century (or before?!) Romanian hinterlands, to WWII-era Bucharest and its bombed-out aftermath under the Soviet stooge government.
Space is Paradise and time is inferno. How strange it is that, like the emblem of bipolarity, in the center of a shadow is light, and that light creates shadows. After all, what else is memory, this poisoned fountain at the center of the mind, this center of paradise? Well-shaft walls of tooled marble shaking water green as bile, and its bat-winged dragon standing guard? And what is love? A limpid, cool water from the depths of sexual hell, an ashen pearl in an oyster of fire and rending screams? Memory, the time of the timeless kingdom. Love, the space of the spaceless domain. The seeds of our existence, opposed yet so alike, unite across the great symmetry, and annul it through a single great feeling: nostalgia.
The complex layout of the novel isn’t so complex when you read it, I swear, it is fun and breathtaking and will carry you away in the epic sweep of very sentence. I can’t tell you what happens in the novel, because there is no plot per se, unless you describe in the terms I attempted to above: the novel is Cărtărescu’s creation myth for his mother’s side of the family; the mythmaker, the storyteller, is the axis of the many stories that spoke out from his mind into a work of beautiful, complex genius.
I remember, that is, I invent. I transmute the ghosts of moments into weighty, oily gold.
In a year of stiff competition, including from Archipelago’s other leading candidate for the BTBA, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two—Blinding stands apart as a work that transcends the intimate thoughts of the central male narrator and expands a vision of reality to include all dimensions of time and space. Seriously, it’s a wild read. And it’s weird to see Knausgaard compared to Proust, when Knausgaard’s My Struggle reminds me far more of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you live fully inside the minutiae of mundane daily existence wherein the narrator making his way through the world. Cărtărescu is far more akin to Proust in that he traces out the full extents of what the human mind and its capacity for memory can contain and create at once: the brain is a dangerous tool, and the weapon of memory can destroy us even as it liberates us out of the mundanity of our existence. Memory is everything, and you have the power to create memories out of nothing. Blinding is an experiment in memory-creation. Mythmaking is memory-creation. Memory is power. Memory is existence.
You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membranes . . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago . . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination for ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!
I read a lot of translations by a lot of translators but the fact of the matter is the Blinding is a perfect reminder of the importance of world literature being translated into English as the ability to expand not only our artistic consciousness and understanding of the world but blowing apart the very limits of our own reality. I volunteered to write this piece because I read Blinding and it blew my mind into a zillion pieces, it is wholly unlike any other novel I have ever read, so unique and refreshing that I now see the world in new ways, and that’s why I read books in the first place, and the fact is that it is so miraculously wrought a novel that I cannot help but write a piece extolling the translator’s talents in rendering the weirdest turns of phrases and run-on sentences that mark the genius Cărtărescu’s work into a breathtakingly original English that extends the limits of what we imagine our own native language—our own native minds—can fathom.
Under my skin, tensioned and fresh, run tendons that activate the levers of my fingers. And my fingers move, because we do not doubt ourselves. Because what flows within the borders of our skin is not only blood, lymph, hormones, and sugar: more importantly, our belief flows.
Sean’s translation is imaginative and creative, fearless and flawless. He has captured the manic, mad majesty of Cărtărescu’s mind as they trace the fantastical branches of Cărtărescu’s family tree and the labyrinthine shadows of Bucharest so lovingly described throughout centuries of history—which is the history of Cărtărescu himself, his ancestors, his family, his city, and his active, whirlwind imagination. There has never been anything written in the English language to prepare you for the originality of vision and language that you will find within the pages of Blinding.
What else would I be but a neuron, with a brain as my cellular body, spinal marrow as my axons, and nerves as my numberless dendrites? A spiderweb that feels only what touches it. Yes, each of us have a single neuron within us, and humanity is a dissipated brain that strives desperately to come together. And I wonder, quaking inside, whether the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the dead are nothing more than this: the extraction of this neuron from every person that ever lived, their evaluation, and the rejection of the unviable into the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and construction of an amazing brain—new, universal, blinding—from the perfect neurons, and with this brain we will climb, unconscious and happy, onto a higher level of the fractal of eternal Being.
Blinding should win the 2014 Best Translated Book Award because it is the best book of the year, and Sean should win the first ever back-to-back BTBA award for a translator because he is a master of the English language and brought Cărtărescu into my mind. Into our minds. Into our collective consciousness. Into our collective memory. And for that he should be awarded eternal life. Legend.Tweet
The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Grant Barber on Elsewhere, an anthology of poetry edited by Eliot Weinberger, and out from Open Letter Books and co-published by the Poetry Foundation.
If you’re a fan of Eliot’s essays and commentary (such as 19 Ways), a fan of poetry, or both, this is a slim volume that’s sure to please. Not only is it a quick breakdown of some of the best poets from around the world, but it also takes a different approach to understanding what it may feel like to be “other.”
Here’s the beginning of Grant’s review:
What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson, Elfriede Jelinek, and László Krasznahorkai among the architects, playwrights, painters, and philosophers. Weinberger certainly belongs in such company; anything he writes can be assumed to be interesting, different, intellectually engaging. The essay collections he writes—and Elsewhere can be considered to be an extended meditation/essay—puts him as well alongside Rebecca Solnit, Lawrence Weschler, Sven Birkets, and Ilan Stavans.
Elsewhere consists of poems, all in translation, by writers of the Modernist era (by Weinberger’s use here roughly 1910s-1940s) illustrating a broad sensibility that Weinberger calls the sense of being “elsewhere”. . .
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Twenty-four hours from now the 2014 BTBA finalists will be announced—will In the Night of Time be on the list? Below are my reasons why it should be.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In the Night of Time is a huge book. Six-hundred and forty-one pages of very mannered, wandering prose depicting the general chaos of the Spanish Civil War, and the personal chaos that architect Ignacio Abel undergoes during the war’s buildup. It’s more of an emotional book than a political one, with most of the “action” revolving around Ignacio’s love affair with a young American, and the harm this causes to his wife and family.
That’s all fine, but reason number one that I think this book should win the BTBA is for the way in which it depicts the terrifying ambiguity of the start of a war. Throughout the first 400+ pages of the novel, war is always on the horizon. Franco’s Fascists are nearby, moving toward Madrid, gathering support from the general populous fed up with the Republican Party. Molina’s presentation of the way in which the newspapers are completely unreliable at this time—several characters point out how the advances and retreats never quite add up—and that most people don’t think anything will come of the revolutionary uprisings around the country, is kind of terrifying. And then everyone starts carrying guns, “just in case” . . .
The sense of loss portrayed at the end of the book, once Ignacio is in America, working at a small liberal college and war has officially broken out, is incredibly powerful and saddening. I’ve always been interested in the Spanish Civil War and its craziness, and this novel reinforced my desire to learn more about the various nuances of the conflict.
But sticking with this novel, and why it should win, there are two more things that I want to point out. First, the prose itself. As I read this, I was frequently reminded of Javier Marias. Going back to an adjective from above, Molina’s writing is very “mannered.” Which is true of Marias as well. But where Marias tends to circle around and around a particular thought or action, Molina has a bit more forward motion.
He didn’t pretend. It was easy for him to talk to Adela and his children and not feel the sting of imposture or betrayal. What happened in his secret life didn’t interfere with this one but transferred to it some of its sunlit plenitude. And he didn’t care too much about the ominous prospect of immersion in the celebrations of his in-laws, usually as suffocating for him as the air in the places where the lived, heavy with dust from draperies, rugs, faux heraldic tapestries, smells of fried food and garlic, ecclesiastical colognes, liniments for the pains of rheumatism, sweaty scapulars. A sharp awareness of the other, invisible world to which he could return soon made more tolerable the painstaking ugliness of the one where he now found himself and where, in spit of the passage of years, he’d never stopped being a stranger, an intruder.
Also, this is translated by Edith Grossman, one of the most important translators ever. Her contributions to world literature—both in terms of her translations, like her Don Quixote from a few years back, and in terms of her own writing, like Why Translation Matters—deserve to win all of the awards.
Finally, from a reader enjoyment perspective, I finished this book in just over a week. Every chapter—each of which almost stand alone and little set-pieces advancing a couple parts of the overall story in a way that defies traditional, linear storytelling—was compelling and brought me right back into the world of this haunted man, on the run from the self-destruction of his homeland, where his betrayed wife and abandoned children are maybe still alive, and kept me reading. This is a shit argument, I know, but the fact that Molina’s writing has the power to keep me reading is some sort of internal proof that this is a damn good book—one deserving of the BTBA.Tweet
We’re down to the last three longlisted titles, so we’re going to have to cram these in before Tuesday morning’s announcement of the fiction and poetry finalists. I’ll be writing the first two, Bromance Will will bring it home tomorrow evening.
The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (FSG)
It’s not surprising that Sjón’s books read like musical compositions. A lyricist, member of the board of the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and sometime singer, Sjón has been involved in Iceland’s amazingly creative music scene for some time now. In my opinion, this is why his earlier novel The Blue Fox works so well. The prose is concise, the voices play off each other incredibly well, and the book’s underlying architecture help it to do more in 100 pages than most authors pull off in 300+.
The Whispering Muse is a different sort of book: there’s a stronger, more linear plot (in 1949, Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander obsessed with the influence of eating fish on the Nordic peoples, is on a boat with Caeneus, who entertains the passengers of the boat with his stories of the Argo and retrieving the Golden Fleece); the passages are a bit longer, less immediately poetic; and it’s a bit funnier. That said, it’s distinctly Sjónian.
Most of the humor derives from the fussy speeches of Valdimar Haraldsson, former editor of Fisk og Kultur and author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, who just won’t stop talking about how a diet rich in fish is the recipe for Nordic superiority:
In its early stages the human heart resembles nothing so much as the heart of a fish. And there are numerous other factors that indicate our relationship to water-dwelling animals, were it no more than the fact that the human embryo has a gill arch, which alone would provide sufficient evidence that we can trace our ancestry back to aquatic organisms. [. . .] The same was true of the aboriginal settlers of Scandinavia, who followed the edge of the ice sheet when the great glacier began to retreat at the waning of the Ice Age. Instead of following in the footsteps of the herbivores and the predators that preyed on them, they kep tot eh seashore, benefiting from the easy access to food.
It would be superfluous to describe in detail the Nordic race’s astonishing prowess in every field. People have observed with admiration the extraordinary vigor, stamina, and courage with which these relatively few dwellers of island and shore are endowed.
Vadimar is a great protagonist/narrator precisely because he’s such a drag to listen to and be around. He’s funny—in a pathetic sort of way—but also annoying as shit. (Which is why everyone would rather listen to Caeneus’s tale.) That’s a hard thing to pull off, and one solid reason why Sjón deserves this year’s BTBA.
A lot of the other reasons I think this should win are personal. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that I love Iceland and would give anything to retire there (or start Open Letter’s Reykjavik office). Great people, music, books, and hamburgers. What more does one need?
And Sjón? One of the kindest, most down-to-earth, wonderful writers I’ve ever met. He was responsible for getting Can Xue into the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, which, in my opinion, is reason enough to give him this award.
Plus, this was the only “original” book of the three that FSG brought out last year, a publishing plan that helped launch his career in the States and ensures that his future books will be desired and supported by a healthy group of fans. The matching covers and simultaneous release was a bold move on the part of FSG, and I love to see an innovative, literary press get rewarded for things like this. So, go Iceland!Tweet
There are books on long lists that are obvious contenders—the long ones, the challengingly complex ones, the ones that have been talked about all year (here’s looking at you My Struggle II)—and there are those easier to pass over, to see as filler—novellas, short story collections—but which need to be recognized for the less immediately apparent award worthiness, and Orly Castel-Bloom’s Textile, translated by Dalya Bilu, is one of the latter.
The story of a contemporary Israeli family, Textile is in many ways, the best ways, a deceptive novel. The characters are familiar tropes, with the aloof, self-centered scientist as father and the controlling, vain, and emotionally manipulative mother, with a detached son off in the military, and a rebellious daughter making questionable decisions in her romantic life. In the hands of many authors, these are lazy side characters while more is invested elsewhere, but in Textile, bringing complexity and life to them is the heart of the book. Again and again, contradictions arise within a character, a tug between selfish choices and selfless ones, connection and detachment, profit and morality, and each time the contradiction is contemplated, whether by the character or by the narrator, we see that these people are more human than trope.
These are flawed, nearly unlikeable humans: a mother who pays a man to leave her daughter, a scientist who takes over a potential colleague’s life on meeting. Difficult to like characters is nothing new, but in Textile, something else is on offer. Just as one of the reasons to read in translation is a new take on what was once familiar, so it is a reason to read women writers. With the female characters especially, because they steer close to what are often sexist stereotypes, it is refreshing to see that not avoided, but confronted head on—taking negatives that we expect to see in men and women in lazy literature, and letting them exist next to positives and contradictions, as they do in people outside of books.
One of the ways Castel-Bloom accomplishes these interactions is in the structure of the book. Each chapter is broken down into what almost amount to anecdotes. They move from character to character, place to place, time to time. Sometimes connections are made from one to the next, sometimes intentionally, other times unknowingly. More often, they disconnect, turn away from the previous section. Characters connect with another not face to face, but in their own private thoughts, as ordered by Castel-Bloom: when the mother ends a section trying to avoid thoughts, the next section begins with her son doing so successfully. One may get lost deep within their thoughts, selfishly, aimlessly, and in the next section, a character in an outgoing mood may think fondly of that selfish person, or reject someone who moments before thought fondly of them.
This is just one of the ways that Textile is subtly complex, and terrifically consistent. Since the sections can be flashbacks or move linearly, and when linear, are overlapping, it is easy to imagine Castel-Bloom moving them again and again, seeing how each plays off the previous and the next, until the arrangement is just right, always digging deeper into each character’s identity and relationship to others. This is a reflection of how they are with each other too. Brother and sister loathe each other when her boyfriend is around, but in their own one-on-one, they support each other. Alone, daughter has little respect for her parents, but when a stranger is unhappy with her father, she rushes to the defense. They are isolated from each other in their selfish ways, but aware of it, and try to fight it, even as they repeatedly fail, disappointing both others and themselves, while we, the reader, see the pain of this disappointment from all sides.
All of this is to say that Textile is a book that amongst award-devouring beasts can be overlooked but absolutely should not be, and more than not overlooked, deserves to win the BTBA. The sentences are often stilted, awkward, near-clunkers, but wondrously, perfectly so. It is a book of people turning cold shoulders, of turning away from their best possible selves, and of blunt satire and mocking. Sentences are matter of fact, but saying much behind that straightforwardness, so sentences that almost fail, but instead match every aim of the book is a new type of prose to appreciate. Dalya Bilu’s translation efforts (and here let’s take a moment to castigate presses that hide the translator’s name deep on the copyright page and nowhere else, even more disappointing somehow from a press that by name should be speaking for the often denied voices) faced a specific challenge, walking a line between risking blame for “mistakes” and letting the purposeful awkwardness fit so masterfully with the tone of Textile.Tweet
Reading The Devil’s Workshop you come up against a remarkable and frightening historical reality: that the memory of the mass killings of World War II is most flawed, faded and even purposefully obscured precisely in those places where it was the most severe. At one point a western visitor to the commune that pops up around the site of the former concentration camp of Terezín makes a recriminatory speech to the Czechs how Western Europe has carefully tended cemeteries for its war dead, whereas here everyday life takes place on the very spots where people were killed or sent on to Auschwitz and no one seems to care. Of course, you could read about this imbalance in a history book or article, but the way Jáchym Topol is able to dramatize this amnesia and ignorance has the kind of effect no dispassionate recounting of figures could ever hope to achieve.
The novel is split into two parts, both attempts to memorialize the genocide that took place during the war. The first part revolves around an international commune of a decidedly bohemian bent in Terezín that publicizes the plight of the crumbling former camp site in the face of government disinterest that becomes outright hostility. The second part sees the narrator enlisted in a similar, though far more perilous cause, to help create a very different kind of museum of genocide in Khatyn, Belarus, a place where victims of Nazism far exceeded those in his native wartime Czechoslovakia.
Any novel that delves into humanity’s darkest horrors brings with it a certain set of assumptions – moral certainly, but also aesthetic, literary, stylistic. Here you have a book that deals with genocide and totalitarianism, so you can imagine a number of stylistic approaches: stark, steely prose to reflect a cold and painful reality; or pages without paragraph breaks, breathless, an unyielding barrage of images; or labyrinthine sentences to combat the inadequacy of memory so evidently on display here. But Topol has thrown all these assumptions out the window and written a book which is both entertaining and extremely beautiful. In fact, it would be the most unlikely (and undesirable) request at a bookstore counter ever made, but if someone were to ask for a fun book about genocide The Devil’s Workshop would be my pick. At no point though does the book’s fast pace and humor lessen the horror and impact of what its depicting. Both the pace and the humor are in a large part the result of Alex Zucker’s outstanding translation, which navigates between Topol’s colloquial style and the weighty issues the book is touching on.
Then there is the question of current relevance. You would think a book orbiting around crumbling, neglected and even non-existent memorials to World War II genocide wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in our front page news. But it’s almost as if events in the Ukraine, Russia and Crimea have brought scenes and themes from Topol’s novel directly onto our TV screens. The election poster for the Crimean Referendum showing a swastika superimposed on one Crimea and a Russian flag superimposed on another looks like it could have been pulled off the novel’s book cover. More importantly, the way the terms Nazi and fascist are being cynically thrown around in the current conflict show the degree to which this dark era of history remains misunderstood where it was most deadly and that Eastern European complicity in genocide is very far from being acknowledged.
But what brings The Devil’s Workshop above and beyond the issues it represents and the history it covers, and why it should win The Best Translated Book Award, is its sheer artistic force. It is never just a political or historical novel. Both memorial sites, for example, have networks of tunnels underneath them, are peopled with earnest, often troubled youth and are connected to people with tragic and shadowy pasts. But as evocative and developed as the symbolism gets it never gets reductive. There is never just one way to read this labyrinthine story.
To describe the bizarre imagery Topol evokes in the novel’s most powerful and disturbing scenes the word surreal seems inadequate, even quaint, though it may well be the first word to come to mind. This isn’t Paris but the killing fields of Belarus, and if the surreal is often conjured up by referring to “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” then what The Devil’s Workshop produces is the result of a meeting of two ruthless ideologies in a place far bloodier than a dissecting table, and of course of a master writer converting it into art.Tweet
Casey O’Neil is a bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books. These days, he most often reads standing up, with a small sleeping daughter strapped to his torso.
How to describe a book as affecting and unusual as Tirza I could cobble together a few puffed-up jacket blurb superlatives—something like, “Hilarious Disturbing Subtle Horrific Masterpiece,” or maybe “Psycho-Cultural Familial Catastrophic Tour-De-Force.” But no, the best way to proceed in this instance is to accept that, confined to this meager space, I won’t be able to do justice to this irreducible book.
So I should start by admitting that I was totally unprepared for Tirza. To be honest, I would be scared to meet the person who is prepared for it. Two paragraphs in, I understood the caliber of writer I was dealing with. By the second page I had already laughed out loud. And from then on I was hopelessly immersed in the pathetic, compelling world of Jörgen Hofmeester. In his more restrained and classy jacket blurb, J.M. Coetzee says, “The wit and sardonic intelligence that shine through Arnon Grunberg’s prose make it a continual pleasure to read.” He’s absolutely right. Grunberg has that rare and most welcome of gifts: every sentence he writes—and I mean every sentence—is interesting. Whether he’s describing the apron chosen for sashimi chopping or the lamp chosen for human skull smashing, Arnon Grunberg is an absolute delight to read.
And if that were all, if Tirza were nothing more than a razor-sharp, comical evisceration of a hapless suburban father bumbling through his life with only his misguided devotion to his youngest daughter to provide some semblance of sanity, well, that would be more than enough to justify the price of admission. But in the midst of all this wit and sardonic intelligence, there emerges a slow, steady, disquieting rumble. Where at first the audience might have been comfortable—and even delighted—to sit back and watch Jörgen Hofmeester squirm and play the fool and fall on his face, eventually a slow boil and a sudden shift change everything. The prose is as light as ever. There is still plenty of laughter. We will gladly follow Arnon Grunberg wherever he leads us, but only once it’s too late do we realize that he has brought us to the edge of the abyss. And then, of course, he expertly hurls us into it.
Sam Garrett renders Tirza in flawless English, and there is something profound and unexpected in this translation. The novel’s attention to the fine line between privileged self-pity and vile brutality feels, at least to this reader, distinctly American. On one level this is ridiculous. This is a Dutch novel, rooted in Amsterdam, and the United States has little or nothing to do with it. Perhaps even the thought is just a symptom of my American selfishness. But I can’t help but feel there is a shared abyss here. And this connection points toward the sublime possibilities for fiction in translation: that a book taking place in a country almost 5,000 miles away, written in a language I don’t understand, can feel like it’s speaking directly to me.
Tirza deserves to be unleashed on as many readers as possible. It deserves to win the Best Translated Book Award for 2014.Tweet
This is a review I’ve been sitting on a while and I apologize for that—but after a quick trip to NYC for a fantastic evening with Bulgarian authors and their readers at 192 Books, and before a whirlwind of Greek, Danish-Bulgarian, and Latin American events, looking back on this title was a nice, relaxing place to stop at mid-week. A little fable-esque, a little social commentary, a little simple and charming illustration: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a great read and chock-full of talking animals.
Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:
Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”
Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.
One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in January 2015. Her essay chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, was published by Von Zos this past fall. Other fiction, criticism and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other journals. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud was the first book I wrote about for Three Percent, and I jumped at the opportunity to write about it again now that we’re nearing the announcement of shortlist selections. Having read other books on the list, and even seven months after my first reading of City of Angels, I can say with confidence that I still think it should win.
The book’s translator Damion Searls, a deft craftsman, boasts another book on the longlist this year: Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her. Though Her Not All Her is also quite impressive, Searls’s work on City of Angels is exceptional. The book is a jagged exploration of memory across three time periods – Wolf’s childhood, the post-World War II years including the rise of the Berlin Wall, and the present-day (1992) opening of Christa’s Stasi files followed by a year spent in Los Angeles researching a missing piece of the past: the correspondent of her late friend Emma, whose letters are signed, simply, L.
Wolf slides and jumps around, making subtle, unexpected connections between places and events by ordering scenes back-to-back, sandwiching them together thematically (the 1992 L.A. riots and the Berlin uprising, for example), or connecting them linguistically (such as her descriptions of cities in states of sickness or health, using anatomical terminology). City of Angels is fragmented but not sprawling; it reads like a personal notebook in which the character Christa diaries but also keeps a record of her research, personal and professional. Though it covers a lot of historical and geographical ground, it holds together beautifully in the narrative of Christa’s present-day self-exploration.
City of Angels is an examination of history as much as it is an examination of memory. Christa claims not to remember the wrongdoing her Stasi file exposes: several years spent as an informant for the German secret police. And throughout City of Angels, we at turns believe her and believe her ability to deny out of necessity. While the newspapers flay her, Christa’s grief is consuming; she is thrown into a depression from which she can only emerge incrementally, through meditations on intelligence and surveillance, the human need for storytelling, translation, war, revolt, political bureaucracy and forgiveness.
Wolf was a lifetime scholar, and City of Angels is dense with her literary and philosophical influences, as well as references to her peers and other artists and thinkers, mostly Germans, or in Freud’s case, Austrian. Freud’s titular overcoat undergoes a slow transformation along with the progression of Christa’s character, and discussions of Freud’s work. But also, a daytime excursion takes Christa and others from the Institute to the homes of Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht; a dinner conversation elaborates on Arnold Schoenberg’s influences on Mann; Marx, of course, figures largely in her reflections; in a bookstore, Christa buys Art Spiegelmans’s Maus upon someone’s suggestion; and, brilliantly, American culture seeps into the story’s fabric: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck.
As the setting for the book, Los Angeles forms a warm counter to cold Berlin. Christa goes for drives along Wilshire Boulevard with others from the Institute, eats plein aire lunches, anticipates the next shift of the San Andreas Fault, closely observes the local population in its many colors and textures, watches Star Trek and pontificates on the strengths of the Enterprise crew: “[A]s usual Star Trek was on Channel 13 and I followed Captain Picard and his crew in shameless delight, given over to the outer-space adventures of the Starship Enterprise, where the Picard crew demonstrated that unconditional discipline could go perfectly well with mature humanity ennobled by masculine understatement.” We see that, even or especially in the face of tragedy, humor can be a balm.
In addition to the Jelinek, Searls translated another last year, A Schoolboy’s Diary by Robert Walser, that was notable in particular for his excellent translation, though unfortunately ineligible for the award, as some pieces in it had been translated previously. But as a pair, Wolf and Searls are perfectly suited for each other. Searls brings a light and elegant touch to City of Angels, and his writing is infused with the delicacy and complex inter-weavings Wolf would have intended. Wolf’s background as a critic is clear in her need to fuse unexpected relationships. The book, overall, has the effect of being the work of a rigorous thinker looking back through history with new and difficult insight, and a clear view of the present.Tweet
As meta as it may be for an award to win an award, I’m incredibly excited that the Best Translated Book Awards won the inaugural “International Literary Translation Initiative Award” at today’s London Book Fair Book Industry Excellence awards ceremony.
I know it’s hokey, but I’ve been hoping for years that some part of Open Letter—one of our books, the press itself, etc.—would win something like this. I feel like everyone involved with the press does such great work, and really deserve some extra recognition. Especially all the judges that have worked on the BTBA over the past years, reading hundreds of books and helping promote so many great works of literature in translation.
Also, Amazon deserves a shout-out for helping the BTBA move to the next level. Being able to give out $20,000 in cash prizes to the winning authors and translators helped bring more prestige to this award.
If anyone reading this is in Rochester and wants to celebrate, come to the Daily Refresher at 9pm where I’ll be pretending I’m in London . . .
Thanks again to Monica Carter for accepting on my behalf and for sending this awesome picture!
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