This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Steph Opitz, who reviews books for _Marie Claire, while also working with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), Kirkus Reviews, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and the Twin Cities Book Festival. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges._
I’m so excited to be deliberately reading more work in translation this year. Though, I’d guess my mailperson is less excited about this venture. Boxes of books arrive every day regularly, as I review for some magazines, but the submissions for the BTBA right now are tripling the average delivery. As an avid reader, this uptick is awesome. Also, my puppy is really into padded mailers, so it’s kind of a win-win-win at our house.
Most of the books have me reading a bit slower than average, and that’s mostly because I’m reading about places and people I haven’t read about before. It’s pretty easy to quickly read about someone more like me in the place that I’m from, but it’s slower, and a different kind of enjoyment to read about something totally new. I find myself googling places more, and relearning, learning more about, or learning for the first time parts of world history that have eluded me. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (Author), Christina E. Kramer (Translator), a story about conjoined twins, for example, filled in a lot I didn’t know about Yugoslavia (psst! In the premise Dimkovska lays out the greatest metaphor for what happened to the country).
Then there are books that are less location-relevant and more about the characters and what’s happening to them. I loved reading Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (Author), Asa Yoneda (Translator), a story about a mother and daughter attempting to grieve the loss of the the family’s patriarch, who might be haunting them.
Speaking of haunting, Erik Axl Sund’s Crow Girl (translated by Neil Smith) scared the absolute shit out of me. I’ve been trying my darndest to get more and more books between that one, so I can try to forget it. Which is to say if you love being scared by gruesome crimes: read it.
Many of the titles have been alive in the world for decades and yet, for those of us limited to reading in only one language, we haven’t had access until now. It’s wonderful to be able to read something like Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Author), Lee Klein (Translator) a book highly praised throughout the world and beloved by Roberto Bolaño, which was finally published in English this year.
I haven’t taken a class in literature since, oh, 2007, and being a judge for BTBA is a great education in world books. it’s great to have all of these engrossing, diverse “assignments” to read and think about. I feel like I’m reading some truly unique stories, which, I think, says a lot from someone who reads for a living.
Best Translated Book Award winner Can Xue is back with a new novel, Frontier, (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping with an introduction by Porochista Khakpour), which is every bit as wonderfully strange and complex as anything she’s written to date. You can win a copy through GoodReads simply by clicking on the “Enter Contest” box below.
Frontier opens with the story of Liujin, a young woman heading out on her own to create her own life in Pebble Town, a somewhat surreal place at the base of Snow Mountain where wolves roam the streets and certain enlightened individuals can see and enter a paradisiacal garden.
Exploring life in this city (or in the frontier) through the viewpoint of a dozen different characters, some simple, some profound, Can Xue’s latest novel attempts to unify the grand opposites of life—barbarism and civilization, the spiritual and the material, the mundane and the sublime, beauty and death, Eastern and Western cultures.
A layered, multifaceted masterpiece from the 2015 winner of the Best Translated Book Award, Frontier exemplifies John Darnielle’s statement that Can Xue’s books read “as if dreams had invaded the physical world.”
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Unlike my fellow BTBA judges who have published blog posts before me, I am not going to tease you with cursory reviews of the books I am reading.
This decision is due in part to the fact that the books have been slow to arrive to the hinterlands of Norman, Oklahoma, where I teach at the University of Oklahoma. But also because the University of Oklahoma celebrated last week one of its best kept secrets: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which gave me occasion to think about what it means to evaluate foreign literature.
The Neustadt is a biennial prize awarded during even years since 1970 by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The first recipient was Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. In 1972, the prize was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez, who ten years later would earn the Nobel Prize. That same year, 1982, Octavio Paz became the seventh Neustadt recipient. Eight years later, Paz would also go on to win the Nobel. It is this pattern that has led many to call the Neustadt the precursor to the Nobel. Like the Nobel and the Neustadt, the BTBA recognizes international literature. It differs, however, in that it is awarded to a translated book.
At last week’s opening night reception, Chad Post, founder of Open Letter Books, Three Percent, and the BTBA, was charged with introducing the 2016 laureate, Dubravka Ugrešić. As publisher of three of Ugrešić’s translated books, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture, and Europe in Sepia, Chad has worked closely with Ugrešić. His affection for the Croatian—she prefers European—writer is obvious.
During his introduction, among many humorous anecdotes, Chad recounted that the only request Ugrešić had of Open Letter Books was that the diacritics be removed from her last name. Her rationale was that her name was hard enough for readers to pronounce without the added confusion of Croatian diacritics. Hence, Dubravka Ugresic was born.
Immediately, I remembered an anecdote recounted by Valeria Luiselli about Mexican author Sergio Pitol, whose Trilogy of Memory I translated. Writing in Granta, Luiselli recalled that when she first happened upon one of Pitol’s books, she thought he “was a dead Eastern European or Russian writer whose real name was probably Sergei Pytol.” “For decades,” she added, “Mexican publishers had us reading works by Guillermo Shakespeare and Federico Nietzsche.”
This odd habit of domesticating names was not limited to authors; on the contrary, it applied equally to their characters, whereby Gregor Samsa became Gregorio, Anna Karenina, Ana, and the Count Alexey, the conde Alejo.
This practice points to a wider strategy among translators (and publishers): the erasure of the foreign in translated texts. For a translated text to be marketable, the argument goes, it must be readable. In this domesticating logic, readability is synonymous with fluency; in other words, for a text to be fluent, the translator must be invisible, and, in order for a translator to be invisible, he must domesticate. Lawrence Venuti examines this phenomenon in depth in his groundbreaking work, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.
A byproduct of this logic is the all-too common refrain, “This book reads as if it were written in English,” which runs counter to Walter Benjamin caveat that “it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language.” The translator, Benjamin adds, “must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language,” which is achieved to greater effect by foreignization.
Edith Grossman echoes Benjamin’s injunction in Why Translation Matters: “Literary translation,” Grossman writes, “infuses a language with influences, alterations, and combinations that would not have been possible without the presence of translated foreign literary styles and perceptions, the material significance and heft of literature that lies outside the territory of the purely monolingual.”
This, of course, is only possible if the translator resists the temptation to domesticate her translation, to find an equivalent for every idiom and metaphor, to rewrite the syntax so that it conforms to the strictures of the receptor language, to recur to linguistic formulae and set phrases unique to the receptor language that trick the reader into believing he is reading a text that was written in English.
In an interview for Asymptote, the very insightful and equally gracious Rosie Clarke asked me what I hoped English-language readers would gain from my translation of The Art of Flight. This is perhaps the best question that could be asked of anyone who translates into English (and infinitely more interesting than the all-too-often and always banal question intended to solicit from the translator a new metaphor for translation). My answer was:
“I hope they also realize they are reading a foreign text. I am not a fan of domestication. I think to say that a translation reads as if it were written in English is unfortunate. I know that most translators consider it a compliment, but I do not. All translators praise the ability of translation to ‘enrich’ the target language and culture, but it cannot do that if translators erase the foreign from the text, if they find English equivalents for every metaphor or idiom. Translation will only enrich the receptor culture and language if translators allow foreign aspects of the source text/language/culture to be visible. The translator can disappear without making the text’s foreignness disappear.”
As the books that comprise the Best Translated Book Award competition begin to reach my homestead on the vast and distant Oklahoma prairie, and I’ve begun to read them, Rosie’s question will be in the forefront of my mind.Tweet
It’s been a few weeks since the last podcast, but Chad and Tom are back with a over-stuffed episode that starts with a recap of recent events before turning to Barnes & Noble’s plans for their concept stores followed by a lengthy discussion about international crime authors.
Here’s a complete list of articles, authors, and books discussed in this episode:
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones;
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series;
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, transalted from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates;
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies;
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang;
The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl, translated from the Danish by K.E. Semmel;
And finally, this is the addiction network commercial that Chad was going on about.
This week’s music is “Dis Generation” from We Got it from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service, the new—and final—album by A Tribe Called Quest.
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This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías and translated by Margaret Jull Costa is probably my favorite book of the year. Anyone who has read a novel by Marías will see all the familiar hallmarks: circular, philosophical writing that hits a theme, retreats and then returns, over and over, almost obsessively, to try and “figure it out.” The themes themselves are also characteristic to Marías’s body of work: history, morality, secrets, betrayal, how much can we ever know another person and when is it dangerous to know too much? Through all of this lies an unspoken sense of danger and, of course, the writing. The writing.
The themes that figure in Thus Bad Begins are also prevalent in Marías’s masterful trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. The Franco regime is, if not in the forefront, always present, to remind the reader that the past is never quite through with us. The novel takes place in 1980 and focuses on the Muriels, an unhappy couple living in Madrid. Eduardo, the husband, is a B-movie filmmaker and the story is told by his then-young assistant, Juan. The unhappiness of the Muriel marriage is one of the great unknowns of the novel, for Juan has firsthand access to the family and witnesses a strange and abusive relationship between Eduardo and his wife Beatriz. Eduardo is somehow punishing Beatriz and she not only accepts the abuse but behaves in a way that appears she’s deserving. Juan’s youth gives him the advantage of seeming innocence, of being easily ignored and yet, in one brief passage Marías describes that:
Someone only has to notice you—cast an indolent glance in your direction—and there’s no withdrawing, even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything. Even if you try to erase yourself, you have been spotted, like a distant shape on the ocean that you can’t ignore, that you must either avoid or approach.
Soon the young narrator is tasked by Juan with an indelicate favor, to befriend a close associate, a prestigious doctor and find out if certain, unscrupulous rumors about the doctor are true. Juan’s innocence, and his curiosity about the state of the Muriel marriage, lead him into a Madrid just waking up from fascist rule. Besides a wonderful lesson in contemporary Spanish history, Thus Bad Begins takes the reader into the psychology of civil war: how people (and sides) who have wronged one another—often neighbors and friends—are suddenly expected to forgive each other, or at the very least, remain silent, in the face of a new government. Reading this now, the book has an almost immediate relevance.
Thus Bad Begins contains strands of similar DNA, found in earlier novels, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White. But a reader going into a Javier Marías novel knows what to expect. There is eavesdropping. There is tailing, or following. There are conversations overheard. There is a sensual and palpable sense of danger. Yet Marías uses these tropes to his advantage, telling a sophisticated story, with grand eloquence, about universal truths. One always feels they are in the hands of a master when reading a book by Marías. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is graceful and natural and I couldn’t recommend this wonderful book any more highly. Additionally, it’s a great starting-point for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading Javier Marías before. They will see a Spain awakening from dictatorship and may, in different ways, see a not-so-distant future for America.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Jeremy Garber, events coordinator for Powells and freelance reviewer. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Esteemed translator Margaret Jull Costa has five books in contention for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas (New York Review Books), Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (Open Letter), On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (New Directions), Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías (Knopf), and Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions). Jull Costa translates from both Spanish and Portuguese and has rendered some of each language’s most well-regarded authors, including Nobel laureate José Saramago, the singular (and multitudinous!) Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queirós, Luisa Valenzuela, and Bernardo Atxaga, amongst many others. As a working translator for three decades (her first novel-in-translation was published in 1987), Jull Costa has won a number of awards in recognition of her work and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014.
Despite Jull Costa’s prodigious output, in the first nine years of the award, she has only once made the shortlist—in 2015, for Medardo Fraile’s evocative short story collection, Things Look Different in the Light (Pushkin Press). With five strong works under consideration for the forthcoming prize, will 2017 be the year Jull Costa finally adds a Best Translated Book Award to her many accolades? In looking more closely at three of these books, it’s evident that her quality translations ought to have her squarely in the conversation.
Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes passed away in August 2015, leaving behind some ten novels (On the Edge and the long out-of-print Mimoun being, as yet, his only two translated into English). On the Edge is a dark, tense, and foreboding tale set in the wake of the global recession that robbed so many of so much. Easily one of the year’s finest and most important works, Chirbes’s novel stands out as a marvel of what fiction is capable of doing (and, oh, that inescapable cover!). Valerie Miles’s excellent essay, entitled “The Life and Times of he Great Rafael Chirbes,” was used as the book’s afterword and offers an incomparable glimpse of both the author and On the Edge itself (her piece also appeared on Lit Hub). Below is my review of On the Edge (which originally appeared on Three Percent in December):
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.
Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away [in August 2015] at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).
Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophoboia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.
Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. Just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.
With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.
Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.
Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amidst the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge_breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s _On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbes’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.
Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same.
Javier Marías’s reputation as a writer of high-quality literary fiction surely precedes him and if the Swedish Academy sees fit to recognize his impressive body of work (Your Face Tomorrow [translated by Jull Costa] alone ought to qualify him), a Nobel Prize would be a deserved coda to an already illustrious authorial career. Thus Bad Begins, his newest novel to be translated into English, is certainly not Marías finest outing (which is hardly a slight, perhaps like saying Blonde on Blonde isn’t this year’s Nobel laureate’s most accomplished album)—yet is still possessed of all the characteristic trademarks that have made him, or, more precisely, his fiction, consistently amongst the best in translation. Marías’s The Infatuations (Knopf, also translated by Jull Costa) was longlisted for the 2014 BTBA. Some thoughts on Thus Bad Begins:
Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up. So much so that they often ask to lose it, ask for it to be taken away, banished from their sight, which is why they not only applaud the very person intending to take it from them, they even vote for him.
With over a dozen of his books available in English translation, Javier Marías’s stateside renown seems to grow deservedly with each new release. His most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins (Así empieza lo malo)—named best book of the year by Spain’s El País in 2014—is a domestic drama set in 1980, immediately following Franco’s regime. A brutal, loveless, spiteful, and often cruel marriage is metaphor for a distrusting populace struggling to move beyond the authoritarianism and betrayals of decades past. While Marías’s characters reveal slowly the motivations for their actions, his story (incorporating the best elements of a convincing mystery) builds toward a gripping conclusion—leaving devastated individuals and a tormented legacy in its wake.
Offering stark insight into the erosive qualities of small deceptions and minor treacheries, Marías, as always, deftly navigates realms psychological, political, and philosophical. Thus Bad Begins isn’t Marías’s strongest outing, but, that said, it is still, nonetheless, an exceptional effort (especially given that he has penned such consistently tremendous works). If written by another author, this book may well be considered the peak of said progenitor’s output, but given the Spaniard’s seemingly limitless ability to compose first-rate fiction, Thus Bad Begins pales slightly when compared to some of his other works. All the same, Thus Bad Begins invariably impresses, adding yet another resplendent feather in the cap of a (hopefully) future nobel laureate.
_“In fact, anything you’re told, anything you didn’t personally witness, is pure rumour, however wrapped up in oaths it comes, all swearing the story to be true. And we can’t spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations. When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.”
The Hamlet line from which the title is taken is wonderfully ambiguous and well befitting a novel of such emotional subterfuge. Is “worse” left behind or still yet to come?
Like far too many (most?) authors in translations, Enrique Vila-Matas has yet to enjoy the English-speaking audience he deserves—despite being championed by the likes of his friend Paul Auster. The Spanish writer has published over three dozen books, with Vampire in Love being his eighth rendered into English. A collection of short stories spanning his career, Vampire in Love offers a glimpse of Vila-Matas that hadn’t been apparent in his mostly meta-fictional novels (Bartleby & Co. [translated by Jonathan Dunne], Never Any End to Paris, and Dublineqsue are some of his best). Twice shortlisted for the BTBA (in 2008 for Montano’s Malady [translated by Jonathan Dunne] and in 2012 for Never Any End to Paris [translated by Anne McLean]) and included on the longlist for another (in 2013 for Dublinesque [translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean]), Vila-Matas’s books make for an always fascinating, engaging outing (even if one doesn’t quite know what to expect beforehand, much like his prolific Argentine compatriot, César Aira). Vampire in Love is as good a place as any to start reading Vila-Matas. While short story collections do not sometimes garner the acclaim of their lengthier brethren, Vampire in Love can surely hold it’s own against other contenders for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:
The first collection of Enrique Vila-Matas’s short stories to appear in English translation, Vampire in Love features 19 stories from throughout the Spanish author’s estimable career. Most noteworthy (and quite surprising to this reader) is that save for a couple selections, nearly all of the stories forego the metafictional, self-referential, and literary milieu well familiar to readers of his previously translated works. The stories which compose Vampire in Love reveal an almost entirely different side to Vila-Matas’s fiction—many dealing with death, life’s hardships, and the mystery of the uncertain.
With oft-remarkable prose, wit, and more than a little playfulness, Vila-Matas’s short fiction reveals an artisan as comfortable (and as skillful) in brevity as he is in longer form. Vampire in Love ably demonstrates the wide variety of storytelling hues available on Vila-Matas’s literary palette. The standout stories in Vampire in Love include “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” “They Say I Should Say Who I Am,” “Greetings from Dante,” “The Boy on the Swing,” and the titular tale.
I remember—probably because it seemed to foreshadow something that would affect us later on—the long speech he made that day about how we human beings are all carriers of poisons and inner devils that can undermine our most marvelous achievements.
Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.
There’s little I like better than small, unique books that can fit into my back pocket. This years BTBA considerations bring tantalizing prospects that contain elements of narrative architecture which intrigue or surprise. It takes courage for an author to take the nuts and bolts of fiction to create a structure familiar enough to the reader but, yet, altogether original. Just as courageous is the translator who sees that architectural construct and recreates it with identical effect using different tools. Here are a few authors and translators who have dared to so and succeeded.
French born Roger Lewinter is the epitome of esoteric. His fiction isn’t immediately accessible – there is an adjustment period when reading his fiction. While most authors use time and space as the foundation of a linear narrative, Lewinter uses time and space to build mini structures within each sentence, crafting concentric sentences the spiral to a fine point. With Lewinter, beginning a sentence is an entryway to a maze that guides you through a labyrinthine use of time that ends back at the beginning. He is at his most intricate in The Attraction of Things, a fictional treatise on the magnetism of things and how we are inexplicably drawn to them without knowing why. His sentences can last pages, filled with clauses, stories, references and narrative ephemera, as evident in the following sentence where the narrator declines an invitation from a friend and delves into the history of a mutual acquaintance:
At the time, connection by means of cross-invasion, where the question of knowing who is who ceases to be relevant – because one becomes the other, completed through him – , was, I though, of no interest to me; while I had prepared myself for it by studying , for a year and a half, through an arbitrary choice that I couldn’t really explain to myself, since it vaguely annoyed me, The Man without Qualities, by Musil, the theme of which is the approach, by a novice, of this state; and when I had taken on the task of translating the Fränger into French, I discovered that it had been translated into English by precisely those who would afterward translate The Man without Qualities; while twelve years later, in 1976 – after having translated, in 1969, a first collection by Groddeck, and indentified, in 1974, through the objective and apparently fortuitous sequence of the translations, a convergence between the redistribution of sexual roles that implicated the Groddeckian understanding of sickness and, in Bosch’s work as interpreted by Fränger, the disintegration of the body, which the spirit, through Adamite eroticism, masters even its transports -, I discovered that an American psychoanalyst, Grotjahn, in The Voice of the Symbol, published in1972, had already drawn a connection, through reading Fränger, between Bosch and Groddeck; when in June 1963, with Geneviève Serreau, during the course of dinner in the kitchen, the conversation naturally turned to The Man without Qualities, I note how much I preferred Tonka, a novella that, in sixty pages, incomparably condenses that which remains vague in the two thousand pages of the novel; not learning until October 1981, after her death, that what had struck Geneviève Serreau in 1954, leading her to work for twenty years for Les Lettres Nouvelles, was her reading Tonka, which Les Lettres Nouvelles had just published I translation; and while I didn’t succeed Jean-Francois in her maid’s room, I recommended to Geneviève Serreau, in September 1963, that Fränger, about which, inexplicably, Jean-Francois had spoken to her; and, equally captivated by this book, she had it accepted for publication by Les Lettres Nouvelles; with a patience that I didn’t understand was intended for me, orienting me then in the space from which, through her gaze, radiated the highest pitch of divine madness.
As intellectual as Lewinter’s style may be, and perhaps intimidating, it leads to moments of poignancy that are luminous, most notably in the short story “Nameless”, found in Story of Solitude. Preceded by two pieces – one a micro fiction about his encounters with a household spider and one, a short story about his dedication to two camellia plants – that seamlessly and oddly set up the yearning and evanescence of a chance encounter with a young man who works at a market he frequents:
… “I’ll mark the price” –, had captivated me by their intonation – in April, at the first book that I had bought from him – he was just starting out at the flea market –, his face had made me look at this fly and the way his jeans fell to his sneakers; from that time on avoiding paying him attention –; thus bewitched by sweetness – although – I realized – the possession burning within me proceeded from the trance that I was in to write, the one nourishing the other to the point where, soon, I was uncertain which would prevail – , particularly since, one Wednesday in September, he had read me – passing by his stand without stopping, I had looked back, not knowing that his gaze had followed me pensively – , responding to my greeting from then on with this conscious candor that, in his voice, had gripped me; his coquetry – sporting at each market another T-shirt – lemon, pistachio, raspberry, lavender, plum –, before stripping his chest bare in the sun, the adolescent suppleness of his body, which made life stay a moment on his most fragile grace, troubling –, in contradiction to the solitude in which he seemed to move, ending in subjugating me; thus finally going to the flea market to subject myself his fascination – antagonist of the book, in which I sought, by grasping my mechanism of ascendency, to exorcise the passions that were binding me to my body, so that in its void something unknown might arise – as one plays Russian roulette, the admission magnetized by his approach wanting to escape me; while now, when I realized that I had left him there, the sweetness he inexorably aroused in me froze, from the evidence that something inconceivable had come to pass at the moment when, in front of the density of his body in its unbearable splendor, I’d drawn back;
The sentence continues to even a more lovely emotional depths, but in this example Lewinter’s uncanny gift for dissecting the abstract and unspoken aspects of attraction and self-awareness raises fiction to a higher level. To this point, Rachel Careau is to be commended for her recreation of Lewinter’s vertiginous prose. I am excited by her translation that serves as a diaphanous scrim for Lewinter’s ornate narrative architecture.
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, translation and afterword by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy, a publishing project)
Just under 130 pages, The Weight of Things is weighty itself, in theme and tone. Fritz, an Austrian novelist, had a cult following and instant critical acclaim with the publication of The Weight of Things, her debut novel. The novel feels both as a step backward in time – it deals with the horrors of WWII – and a step forward because its structure isn’t linear but fragmented and impressionistic producing a singularly innovative style. There are moments in the novel where the reader is displaced, disoriented, looking for some type of structural anchor. But to think this is a weakness or a stylistic flaw undermines the effect of the novel. Tonally, Fritz creates an overwhelming sense of foreboding that proves haunting; the horrific isn’t plainly laid out in all its grotesqueness but constructed in a spectral-like fashion that permeates every scene. Although the scenes aren’t linear, Fritz draws us a tragedy of WWII featuring a two soldiers – Rudolph and Wilhelm, a young, unstable mother of two, Berta, and her shrew of a sister, Wilhemine. There is perspicacity and searing satirical commentary that pops up to ground the novel in the quotidian that Fritz does skillfully in this section “Berta Greets Wilhlem; Does Berta Schrei Have a Visitor?” set in a mental hospital:
By now Head Nurse Gotaharda had left Ward 66 to the visitor and his secrets, and Wise Little Mother watch Wilhelm and Berta closely from the corner of her eye. Scarcely ten minutes had gone by since the Wound of Life had made its treacherous entrance into the Wise Little Mother’s realm. It was that whore of a Head Nurse, who threw herself into the arms of anyone who came her way, who had befouled their corner of eternity, and weighed upon the Wise Little Mother now, a heavy burden. The old woman resolved to alert Berta to the evil forces around her.
“You must reflect on what is happening here, Berta dear. Reflect and be careful. Life is a wound, and this wound…this wound is slow to heal.”
The novel though structurally may feel vague, but it enhances darkness of the themes – madness, motherhood, war, and society – for a lasting emotional impact. Again, translating something demands a translator who truly understands all that the novel encompasses in order to render even something similar in the translation. Mr. West honors Fritz by regenerating her singular voice. Besides Fritz, the Dorothy Project is putting out some fantastic work by women, including another tiny wonder and recent biblio-crush, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden.
The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems, translated by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)
Wakefield Press has become of my favorite presses out there because they consistently put high quality, unique works that make you feel like you’ve just scored something magical and timeless when you read one of their publications. By far, The Cathedral of Mist is going to be one of those works that I will read from time after time, always being inspired by something new within its pages. Williems, a Franco-Belgian fantasist, work is a collection of prose and two essays – on both reading and writing. I couldn’t help but think, after reading The Cathedral of Mist, that Willems had applied Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and On Poetic Reverie and Imagination to perfection. His Elysian stories transport you to realities so vivid, even knowing they don’t exist, feel otherwise.
Willems voice is humorous, light, hopefully resigned to his imagination, and this combination infuses his pieces with a touching nostalgia. I can’t help but be in awe of Edward Gauvin’s translation (he has many fine translations…) that captures Willems’s essence. Whether it’s a story about a man is visiting a count where he ends up sleeping, with the count’s permission, the Countess in a bed outdoors surrounded by a Finnish forest or traveling through he Balkan Mountains with a German ethnologist accompanied by a shepherd who wears a “the flute of Orpheus on his belt,” Willems is charming. From the beginning of each story, Willems pulls you immediately into his voice and imagination, demonstrated beautifully by the opening paragraph of “The Palace of Emptiness”:
Victor lived like a kite, which is to say, tethered. Storms – he had frolicked on them until the age of twenty-five – strained without ever breaking the string that tied him to childhood. He finished his schooling as an architect, married Micheline, and never knew a moment’s vertigo.
His lyrical, celestial imagination is best displayed in the titular story about an architect who, tired of granite, builds a cathedral made out of mist. Through his description, we only wish we could visit a place as enchanting:
The great nave was worthy of admiration. One hundred and fifty-four columns of mist flowed slowly, upward, meeting in seven keystones. There the capor condensed into droplets of water that fell one by one, at random. The goldsmith Wolfers had sculpted admirable irises to catch them on the ground. The deep blue blossoms bristled with slender steel fillets that each drop of water moved to a sustained song. This music, which the fashion of the day deemed “violet,” replaced the bells the architect V. had not been able to hang in the steeple of mist. But instead of taking wing like the sound of bells, this sound could be heard only by visitors, and traveled to a place very deep inside them. Like harness bells on that little horse pulling a sleigh through the night we bear within it glided toward that farthest part of ourselves beyond which music dies in sweet agony.”
These works deserve a readership and undoubtedly will have significant ones, although they may be a bit off kilter for the mainstream reader. No mistaking their craftiness or that each author and translator are able architects building something new and original with the elements of fiction.
Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:
The Subsidiary could have easily become a book where the form is more impressive than the content. The author, Matías Celedón, composed the book using a set of office stamps purchased at a library sale in Santiago, Chile. The stamps allow for moveable type, though restrict the author to only a few lines of text per page. The book, beautifully published by Melville House, reproduces the hand-stamped pages, lending the novella a sort of authenticity, as if the pages are directly taken from an office. And the story Celedón creates is of a nightmare, albeit a fragmentary one, that asks the reader to fill in the blanks. The nightmare is one of senseless oppression married to bureaucracy, which readers may easily see as commentary on Chile’s time under the rule of Pinochet. But these formal concerns—the stamps, the political commentary—do not detract from the effect of the words on paper. The pages are simple and clean, but they communicate a very believable terror.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
Part Jessica Jones, part China Miéville, Radiant Terminus (trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman) is one of Antoine Volodine’s craziest, longest, and most compelling books to date. And you can win a copy simply by entering the GoodReads contest below.
The most patently sci-fi work of Antoine Volodine’s to be translated into English, Radiant Terminus takes place in a Tarkovskian landscape after the fall of the Second Soviet Union. Most of humanity has been destroyed thanks to a number of nuclear meltdowns, but a few communes remain, including one run by Solovyei, a psychotic father with the ability to invade people’s dreams—including those of his daughters—and torment them for thousands of years.
When a group of damaged individuals seek safety from this nuclear winter in Solovyei’s commune, a plot develops to overthrow him, end his reign of mental abuse, and restore humanity.
Fantastical, unsettling, and occasionally funny, Radiant Terminus is a key entry in Volodine’s epic literary project that—with its broad landscape, ambitious vision, and interlocking characters and ideas—calls to mind the best of David Mitchell.
Click the “Enter Contest” button below for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (and translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson) that we’re giving away through GoodReads this month.
“A real revolution in Brazilian Literature.“—Benjamin Moser
Long considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century Brazilian literature, Chronicle of the Murdered House is finally available in English.
Set in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, the novel relates the dissolution of a once proud patriarchal family that blames its ruin on the youngest son Valdo’s marriage to Nina—a vibrant, unpredictable, and incendiary young woman whose very existence seems to depend on the destruction of the household. This family’s downfall, peppered by stories of decadence, adultery, incest, and madness, is related through a variety of narrative devices, including letters, diaries, memoirs, statements, confessions, and accounts penned by the various characters.
Salacious, literary, and introspective, Cardoso’s masterpiece marked a turning away from the social realism fashionable in 1930s Brazilian literature and had a huge impact on the writing of Cardoso’s life-long friend and greatest admirer—Clarice Lispector.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .