Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases,. . .
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 sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.
The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in. . .
“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, I was afraid. . . . Fears are a bit like fog, as are memories. On the one hand, one dreads to go forward and plunge into a future without end, and on the other, one is afraid to retreat into the past and lose oneself in a plethora of events and tales.”
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,. . .
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 he worked. Even though he stuffed his pockets with heavy objects from the hotel, the pond was too shallow, and the water only reached his waist. At one time, Emilie was close to her uncle growing up, but she hasn’t thought of him in a long time.
Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank—no start. . .
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, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.
Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an. . .
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. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like. . .
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 Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?
As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists). . .
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 ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also. . .
“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” in Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski. I use quotation marks in an attempt to indicate that while the book is being advertised as poetry, the form hardly matches one’s expectations. This, depending on your perspective, is a good or bad thing. As I touched on in my last review, poetry is not a huge seller in these United States. If you are the sort of reader who finds line breaks infuriating and coded language obnoxious, Kopenhaga is poetry for you. If you’re a purist—look elsewhere.
Or maybe you’re used to this technique. It’s not like other writers haven’t dabbled in prose. . .
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 your immediate attention.
Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of. . .