The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on three works by Mahasweta Devi, and published by Seagull Books: Mother of 1084 (trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay), Old Women (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and Breast Stories (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).
Is everyone back on two feet after the AWP 2015 conference in Minneapolis? We’re just back in the groove of things ourselves over at Open Letter, and getting ready for our two Jón Gnarr events later this week!
In honor of and in no subject-matter-relation to that (as these books are pretty weighted), I wanted to post this longer review by Chris (who is a regular reviewer for Three Percent), which highlights three works by Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. The books seemed to come as a set, and I’m glad Chris undertook the task of reading this little trio of Devi’s. His review is comprehensive, and the respective ISBN and other information on the books themselves is listed in the following order: Mother of 1084, Old Women, and Breast Stories. Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women and their place in Indian society. Some of the characters in her stories are old women living in poverty, and some of them are exploited because of their lack of wealth; however, some of them are middle class (one of them is even college-educated). Regardless of their status, though, they all suffer some kind of mistreatment, whether it’s physical or mental abuse, but not all of them are willing to accept their fate. So it would appear that Devi’s works—many of which are available in English from Calcutta-based Seagull Books—would offer a powerful experience for the reader.
Unfortunately, these three selections can be frustrating reads at times, for different reasons. The shorter stories tend to be better than the longer, meandering ones that fail to keep the reader’s interest. However, some of the problems may be due to the translators’ difficulty in capturing “her innovative use of language [which] has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression,” as stated in Devi’s bio. Also, one of the books is padded with pages of analysis that may be too inaccessible for readers who just want to check out Devi’s work.
Those curious about Devi would probably want to start with Mother of 1084, a popular novel that was made into a movie in the late 1990s. The book itself was written in the early 1970s after a violent time in Bengal’s history. A few years before, the Naxalite movement, which was formed in the 1960s by a group of Indian communists that supported Maoist ideology, was gaining strength, especially among students. Leaders of the Naxalites declared that the Indian State needed to be overthrown and advocated violence not only against the government, but against all “class enemies.” In response, authorities hounded and killed them.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Pushkin Hills – Sergei Dovlatov, Translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, Russia
Pushkin Hills is about a talented but hapless writer called … well, we might as well call him Sergei Dovlatov, even though that’s not the name he has in the book. Dovlatov is really telling his own story, that of a Soviet dissident who’s unable to publish and yet unable to leave his language and his country behind. At loose ends, he makes the impulsive decision to abandon his wife, child, and life, and become a tour guide in the pastoral setting of the Pushkin Preserve, the historic home of the father of Russian literature.
When he’s not immersing himself in drink, the author’s stand-in immerses himself in the picayune details of the great man’s life and trades pedantries with visiting fans. He’s not above making things up when he’s bored, either, which he frequently is. He’s still in love with his ex, who implores him to emigrate with her to the US, but he’s not interested: “My readers are here. Who needs my stories in Chicago?” That he has no actual readers at home doesn’t matter; it’s the principle of the thing, dammit. He’s heroic in his passivity.
The real Dovlatov did eventually make it out of the USSR and became one of the most beloved émigré writers of his era (there’s a street named after him in Queens, New York). Aside from the charming roguishness of the author’s personality, is there something to his work, though? Yes, in spades (my own little Pushkin allusion). Among an excellent longlist of nominees for the BTBA, it’s an enjoyable standout. Why should it win?
Monica Carter is a writer and freelance critic.
1914 – Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, (France)
The New Press
Jean Echenoz’s novel, 1914, delivers the punch of a heavyweight yet moves with the speed of a flyweight. In fewer than 120 pages, Echenoz gives us the exhausting thirteen rounder full of power and finesse, each word making an impact, their total making a lasting impression on the reader. Like a well-trained fighter, Echenoz’s prose is spare, lean, not an inch of fat to be found – only the muscle of self-discipline can be seen.
1914 is his version of the requisite war novel for men of a certain age, or plainly, the stories of five young men sent off to be ravaged by the horrors of World War 1. The novel begins quietly enough with a detailed description of the idyllic countryside as the twenty-four year old protagonist, Anthime Sèze, cycles through it to the top of the hill as he surveys his town below. Then, from the distance, “up in those church towers, the bells had in fact begun tolling all together, ringing out in a somber, heavy and threatening disorder in which Anthime, although still too young to have attended many funerals, instinctively recognized the timbre of the tocsin, rung only rarely, the image of which had reached him separately before its sound.” Thus, war begins. Anthime, his older brother Charles, Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenal – his “café comrades” – don their ill-fitting uniforms as if in a game of dress-up, boot through town amidst parade fanfare, wave and smile as they march off to one of the worst wars in world history.
With that set-up, a reader would expect a 600-page novel. Yet, this is where Echenoz’s mastery of language shows what brevity can do. The Echenoz brand of wit is subdued while his detached, meticulous eye for detail lets us in to every scene as if he and the reader were watching everything unfold through high-powered binoculars. Echenoz’s details are hypnotizing, seemingly innocuous at first, almost wasteful, but when the scenes of war appear, that same eye for detail makes you wince, want to look away from the image in your mind that he has created.
Then you turn the page and encounter one of his devastating conclusions about war:
The sweat from fatigue and fear, take off the greatcoats to work more freely, and might hang them on an arm sticking out of the tumbled soil, using it as a coat tree.It’s true; we know it all to well – the death and destruction of war. With the centennial anniversary of World War 1 and the focus on its literature, Echenoz confidently creates an intense, gripping narrative that is just as heartbreaking as first person accounts from soldiers who actually fought in it. Equally important and no less creative is Linda Coverdale’s translation. When a novel such as this is translated, it requires a translator who can rewrite the novel with the same economy of prose and richness in description. Coverdale’s ability to remain so loyal to Echenoz’s style and tone feels effortless, which makes the translator all the more gifted. Also, Coverdale’s notes at the end of the text are fantastic. She tells you the historical context of a reference as well as the exact phrase to google to see a particle painting Echenoz is referring to or what the soldier’s rations looked like.
All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if the war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.
1914 should win the Best Translated Book Award because it has all the marks of an epic but is scarcely over one hundred pages. To create that kind of emotional depth of character and expansive narrative is more challenging to do in fewer pages than when a writer is allowed five hundred-plus pages. It should win because it takes World War 1, a much written about topic, and makes the distillation of Anthime represent the horrible damage that any war does to a soldier. It should win because the novel wouldn’t have the significance that it does have without the superb translation of Linda Coverdale. It should win because the message is too important to ignore – even if it’s a beautiful day out, we still carry the possibility of war within ourselves.Tweet
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal, Translated from the Spanish by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres, translated by Norman Cheadle, with the help of Sheila Ethier, is a standout among the Best Translated Book Award finalist in quite a few ways. Most obviously, it’s the biggest in the bunch – nearly seven hundred pages, and a brick of a book. It’s also the oldest title in the running: despite how many deceased authors are featured among the finalists (ten of the books are by authors who have died) all the titles are nevertheless post-World War II publications (in their original languages) – a rare occurrence for the BTBA longlist – and this 1948 publication is the oldest of the lot. But size and age are the least of the reasons why Adam Buenosayres should win the Best Translated Book Award.
What is this book?
Adam Buenosayres is a largely autobiographical novel set in 1920s Buenos Aires – a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Marechal was part of the vibrant developing artistic scene. It clearly owes a debt to Joyce – Cheadle suggests it is: “the first Joycean novel to be written in Spanish-language literature” – and with the action covering just the span of a few days, concentrated entirely all across one city (Buenos Aires), and employing a variety of styles and approaches, it does resemble Ulysses. It is a roman à clef, city homage, and philosophical novel – a great period- (and place-) piece that’s also a superior literary work.
Why should it win the Best Translated Book Award?
1. Julio Cortázar – BTBA-longlisted for his sublime Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – hailed the book as: “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature” in reviewing it in 1949, and it is widely recognized as one of the great novels of modern Latin American literature.
2. A character closely based on Jorge Luis Borges features in it. Borges was part of the same crowd in the 1920s, and Marechal’s thinly-disguised versions of him and other notables (notably Xul Solar – who provides the cover-art for this very good-looking volume) offer often amusing insight into these famous artists. Bonus: Cheadle notes that: “Borges never forgave Marechal for his caricature as Luis Pereda and refused even to acknowledge the novel’s existence.”
3. It offers a remarkable city-portrait, a definitive one of 1920 Buenos Aires, as impressive as Joyce’s of Dublin.
4. Marechal’s narrative is playful and varied – maybe not quite to a Joycean extent, but he certainly mixes it up here. As Marechal piles it on, the amount of material can get exhausting, but the sheer inventiveness – and the humor – consistently impress and entertain.
5. This edition – the presentation of the novel-in-translation – is exemplary. Some of the longlisted books present just the translated texts themselves – which is often enough, or even preferable. After all, it’s the text that counts, and a best translated book should be able to stand well on its own. Adam Buenosayres comes seriously annotated: there are close to seventy pages of endnotes (along with a helpful introduction), and a nine-page bibliography. That, and the fact that it’s published by a university press (McGill-Queen’s University Press), might worry readers into thinking that it’s a dryly scholarly edition. Anything but, I’d suggest: obviously, given the time and place it is set in and the autobiographical elements, some background (which the introduction provides) helps in understanding the text basics, but the novel can be read and thoroughly enjoyed without worrying about the details behind everything. On the other hand, that added background layer – of who the characters are based on, historic circumstances, and local/period trivia – do make considerably more of the book, and here the endnotes are invaluable. Cheadle’s work here is a model of academic (yet still approachable) rigor, the endnotes very detailed – about the smallest detail – and thorough.
6. Norman Cheadle’s – with the help of Sheila Ethier – translation truly is a superior work. This is one of those works where it is clear that the translator has engaged with the material not just for a few months but over a much more extended period of time. As the endnotes, and Cheadle’s other writings about Marechal, demonstrate, Cheadle has immersed himself in the author and the work for many years, and he has come to know it thoroughly. His translation reflects his great understanding of and familiarity with the author and the work. Despite the challenges the novel poses – from the use of dialect and the variety of forms Marechal plays with – the translation manages also to be an artistic and not just academic success – an exuberant, comic, and clever rendering.
7. Adam Buenosayres is one of these tries-to-do-almost-everything/magnum opus books. On a longlist that features so many short-story collections and where even many of the (more-or-less-)novels are extremely slim (Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, Letters from a Seducer, 1914, Works) it stands out as a very different kind of work (with only Saer’s La Grande anywhere in the same league). For those who like their books big, expansive, far-reaching, Adam Buenosayres is the obvious choice.
8. It’s just a wonderful read and reading experience.Tweet
First up is the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which has a killer shortlist:
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Action Books)
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, edited and translated from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (W. W. Norton & Company)
Breathturn into Timestead by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press)
Interestingly, three of these titles—I Am the Beggar of the World, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, and Guantanamo—are on the Best Translated Book Award Poetry Longlist as well.
I want Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream and Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon to win every literary prize possible, so I’m pulling for that. Although, there is a lot of stiff competition . . .
In the PEN Translation Prize, young presses—especially Two Lines—rule the shortlist:
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (New York Review Books)
The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)
Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Deep Vellum Publishing)
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)
First of all, thank the judging gods (or just the judges themselves) that the I Ching didn’t make the list of finalists. (Not much of a fan of The Man Who Loved Dogs either to be honest.) I really like the mix that’s on this list—in part because these are all books I’ve read or plan on reading when I have time again.
Baboon is the only book on this list that made the BTBA Fiction Longlist, which is curious, but a good sign about the diversity of these sorts of awards.
I’m torn between rooting for Bromance Will and Texas and Naja, but since we’re doing Naja’s novel in the fall —”Rock, Paper, Scissors“:http://www.openletterbooks.org/products/rock-paper-scissors — I’m rooting for Baboon. Go Denmark!
The winners will be announced on May 15th.Tweet
John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book?
John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?
JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:
E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.
And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.
The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
It almost feels unfair to make anyone compete with Julio Cortázar. His fantastically irreverent novel Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires was originally published in 1975, and yet it has more life in its bones (or rather, in its sixty-nine pages) than many works of our own time. Subtitled “An Attainable Utopia,” Fantomas is at once a tongue-in-cheek response to the violence of the late twentieth century and a serious critique of corporate and governmental oppression.
The book opens with “our narrator” (later revealed to be Cortázar himself) on his way to his home in Paris. On the train, he reads a comic book starring the masked hero Fantomas, whose latest mission is to stop a band of anti-culture terrorists from burning down the world’s great libraries. After our narrator’s arrival in Paris, the borders between life and comic strip rapidly collapse: Fantomas himself comes crashing in through the narrator’s window, and Cortázar must help him realize the magnitude of this global problem — at least, when he’s not lusting after the superhero’s miniskirt-clad assistants or being yelled at on the phone by a convalescent Susan Sontag.
These conversations with Sontag — all carried out over “that technological decapitation known as the telephone” — are half comedy routine and half sadly prescient analysis. At one point, the narrator presents the difficulty of their task: “Susan, the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.” She responds:
Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too — it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…
David Kurnick’s translation is nimble, confident, and pitch perfect; like Groucho Marx, he always gets the right amount of syllables for the joke. (One dialogue, between the narrator and Sontag: “‘But this isn’t going to be easy, baby.’ ‘No shit,’ said Susan.”) Fantomas isn’t just a marvelous read, though; as publisher Semiotext(e) presents it, it’s also a marvelous object. The book is nearly half images, and far from interrupting the flow of the text, they define it. Pages from the narrator’s comic books, bleary mass-reproduced photographs of urban landscapes, and a hilarious sequence of drawings by the lovechild of Goya and Gorey, whose central figures are all identified as the shapeshifting Fantomas, are indispensable to the storyline and account for a good deal of its jaunty charm.
That a “lost” work can waltz in so unexpectedly and become such a formidable contender is, I think, testament enough to its quality. For its intellectual honesty and sheer panache, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires deserves the Best Translated Book Award; moreover, I suspect it’s a title its competitors would be able to lose to with grace.Tweet
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories – Translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella
When growing up in Northern Europe, you come to expect a certain level of gloom in all good storytelling; even children’s stories are not meant to be cute. In fact, most tales that my grandmother read to me before bedtime were absolutely brutal and still fill me with equal amounts of nostalgia and unease whenever I think of them.
Some of these haunting tales were written and illustrated by Tove Jansson. They were part of the adventures of Moomintroll, a dreamy-faced, hippopotamus-like creature, which became Jansson’s most successful creation and inspired several television series, films, an opera, and theme parks in Japan and Finland. The most memorable stories for me included the Hattifatteners: silent, tall, ghost-like creatures who can’t speak nor hear and have flaring hands attached to their neckless heads that feature one set of eyes. They are drawn to lightning, which makes them electric and dangerous; they travel the sea in small boats in groups of uneven numbers and they collectively own a barometer. In one story, a character steals this barometer and they relentlessly pursue him until they get it back. In another story, Moominpappa travels to the lonely island of the Hattifatteners, discovering the secret to their weather-obsession: they cannot feel emotions unless confronted by lightning.
The storyline of the Hattifatteners is terrifying, heartbreaking, and comforting simultaneously. In that sense, Tove Jansson’s selected short stories for adults in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (New York Review Books, 2014), is not far from her children’s literature. The Hattifatteners are simply swapped with isolated people: voyeurs watching others act around them, observing and feeding off the lightning, longing to connect, unable to participate in the world.
The opening story, “The Listener”, encompasses this theme of isolation beautifully. It’s a subtle tale of Aunt Gerda, a thoughtful and attentive listener, who undergoes a sudden change.
As the years went by and Aunt Gerda’s weight of insight grew, it troubled no one that she knew so much about them. They counted on her protective faculty; they let themselves be misled by her peculiar air of innocence and neutrality. It was like telling secrets to a tree or a devoted pet and never having afterward that queasy feeling that you’ve given yourself away. But now it was as if Aunt Gerda had lost her innocence.
Sometimes Aunt Gerda sat quietly without trying to remember, simply immersed in her solar system of past and emerging lives, sensing the future changes in the lines and ovals, inevitable in the light of obvious cause and effect. She felt a desire to forestall what must happen, to draw her own lines, new lines, maybe in silver and gold since all the other colors were taken. She toyed recklessly with the idea of making the dots and ovals movable, game pieces that could shift their context and create new constellations and entanglements.
So why should The Woman Who Borrowed Memories win the Best Translated Book Award? Because it is impossible not to be moved by Jansson’s stories, translated from the Swedish with great sensitivity by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. As Lauren Groff writes in her introduction:
The terror of what’s outside makes what’s inside warmer, gentler; the light presses bravely against the danger and darkness. We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.
Jansson’s collection offers both terror and consolation for anyone who has ever been a Hattifattener on that lonely island, desperately monitoring the weather and waiting, once more, for lightning to strike.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery – Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Bellevue Literary Press
One of three titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist to feature more than one translator (Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves [which I’ll be writing more about next week] and Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres being the two others), Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – both of whom helped render Halfon’s earlier book, The Polish Boxer, into English (with the help of three other translators). Since BTBA’s inception in 2008, no Spanish-language work (in either the fiction or poetry categories) has ever taken home the much-coveted prize. Curiously – and disproportionately – some 43% of the fiction awards have gone to books translated from the Hungarian (with László Krasznahorkai having won twice, of course). For the 2015 award, eight of the twenty-five longlisted fiction titles were originally published in Spanish. With so many great books in contention for this year’s honor, perhaps 2015 will see BTBA’s first Spanish-language award winner.
Born in Guatemala City in 1971, Halfon has written about a dozen books, yet only The Polish Boxer and Monastery have yet made their way into English translation. In 2007, Halfon was named to the prestigious Hay Festival Bogotá39 list of young Spanish-language authors of great promise (along with fellow BTBA longlister Andrés Neuman). Despite being a relatively young writer, Halfon and his work have already attracted wide praise and considerable acclaim. As a one-time semifinalist for the Premio Herralde, a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and winner of the José María de Pereda Prize for Short Novel, perhaps Halfon may soon add a BTBA win to his shelf of accolades – as Monastery is well deserving of taking home the 2015 fiction award.
Composed of eight short stories, Monastery reads more like a single novel than it does a disparate collection of tales. As with its predecessor, The Polish Boxer, Monastery follows the travels of its semi-autobiographical narrator (himself named Eduardo Halfon, in keeping with the tradition of so many other self-referential Spanish-language novelists) as he alights into settings and scenarios that unfold on multiple continents. Halfon (as both author and narrator) delves into themes of individuality, personhood, and the oft-mysterious relationships that connect us to one another.
With an almost palpable reverence for meaningful experience and understanding personal history (whether his own or that of his characters), Halfon effortlessly braids lyrical language and keen observation to form a moving, reflective, and humbly resounding work of fiction. Monastery’s unassuming stories are themselves rewarding, but in collecting these far-flung moments into a single pastiche, they symbiotically meld into a rich, animate narrative – not unlike the way life itself is captured in the amassing of singular and often serendipitous occurrences and interactions.
Monastery, with its beautiful prose, vibrant imagery, and singular outlook on the abundance of individual and shared experience, deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award. As an ambassador of both worldly wonder and sublime storytelling, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, despite its brevity, is truly a marvel.
You travel a lot, he said suddenly, as he looked over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and so I remained silent, watching him sitting there in front of me, on the other side of a black metal desk. He couldn’t have been twenty. His face was beardless, dark brown, gleaming. His green khaki uniform fit him too tightly. He seemed unbothered by the beads of sweat that ran slowly down his forehead and neck. So you like traveling, he mused without looking at me, in the contemptuous tone of a new soldier. I considered telling him that all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless. But I didn’t say anything. Through the open door I could make out the noise of motorcycles, trucks, vans, a ranchera being sung on a transistor radio, thunder in the distance, swarms of flies and mosquitoes and men shouting offers to buy and sell Belizean dollars. Revolving in the corner, an old floor fan simply circulated the humid afternoon jungle heat. ~from “White Sand, Black Stone”Tweet
This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.
Works – Edouard Levé, Translated byJan Steyn
Dalkeyy Archive Press
You really have to be impressed with the fact that Edouard Levé has had three books translated into English, and all three of them have hit the Best Translated Book Award longlist. Very few writers have had that honor.
I think what this points us toward is the fact that, despite some similarities among his books, each time Levé is doing something new and different. This, to me, is what book awards should be all about: awarding authors who show an incredible range, are willing to continually take risks, resist falling into patterns, and overall produce amazing results from original ideas.
Levé did all of these things consistently throughout his too-brief career, and if he were here now I’m sure he would still be doing just that. Works was his first book, and maybe his best. It’s simply just a bunch of descriptions of possible artworks that someone might make. Of course, a lot of people could come up with an idea like that for a book, but how many people could turn that idea into a brilliantly executed book that tears apart our notions of art while offering some of the most precise, beautiful writing of the year? And who other than Jan Steyn could bring it into such equally precise and beautiful English?
Maybe out of all the titles on the longlist, Works would permit the most rereadings, would still sound the freshest no matter how many times you read it and no matter how long from now you picked it back up. It has broad, fascinating notions about what art is or could be, and it’s loads and loads of fun. Levé was always subversive and comical, even if you couldn’t always tell exactly when he was being deadpan and when he wasn’t.
A book offering all this obviously deserves an award. There’s no other way to look at it.Tweet
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