I first met Urvashi Butalia at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair back some years ago, and was immediately wowed. There are few people in the world as intelligent, out-spoken, sharp, and charming as Urvashi. And her publishing house, Zubaan Books, is incredible.
Since that time, I’ve hung out with Urvashi in London, Salzberg, and Sharjah, where she called me out on a panel for being too “Euro-centric” and not talking about countries outside of the U.S. and UK where books are written, published, and sold in English. (She was right; I was shamed.)
Anyway, I was really pleased to come across this interview with Urvashi about “how her publishing project and feminist ideology have evolved” over the past ten years. Here are a few excerpts:
How have your concerns as a publisher changed over these years?
Zubaan has broadened its base, focused more keenly on translation, and on finding a younger profile of writers. As a publisher, I have been especially concerned with the issue of copyright. Although I believe copyright is important, I also see the point of people wanting free access to knowledge. I feel that publishers, especially those who are not in the business for the commerce but for political reasons, are obliged to think about how we can take this forward.
In my own role as a publisher, I am thinking of a mix of copyrighted books and creative commons, of bookstores and books for differently-abled people. We must start making audio books, for instance. As I grow older, I realize the need for books with large print. At some stage, we were keen to do books for new literates. We still haven’t given up on that.
To what extent has feminist publishing been able to address the lived realities of women at a pan-Indian level?
I am aware that by publishing in English, from Delhi, we are constrained by class, language, location, and so on. But we have made a conscious effort to bring in the voices of marginalized women. We also work with publishers of other languages. In 1989, we did a book called Shareer ki Jankari (About the Body), about women’s bodies, written by 75 women from the villages of Rajasthan who did not have the wherewithal to print it—the kind of project that feminist publishers dream of.
When these women came to us with the book, they imposed only one condition: that we would not sell it for profit. We started with a print run of 2,000, but before the copies had arrived from the printers, the women had canvassed in villages and presold 1,800 copies. Over the years, we have sold some 70,000 odd copies.
And, the most poignant quote in the whole piece:
There is also a real fear as to whether small publishing is going to be eaten up by the biggies. It’s always been my dream to prove that feminist publishing can survive, its politics intact, in the commercial marketplace. I used to be completely convinced of this, but now I am not so sure.
Again, here’s a link to Zubaan’s fiction list for those of you interested in reading some great works from Indian women writers.Tweet
I’ve been meaning to read Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century ever since we ran Jeremy Garber’s review back in April 2012. And then it made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, which further peaked my interest. But man, it’s a 500+ page book—something that’s never easy to fit into a reading schedule packed with editing projects, other reviews, etc., etc. When the paperback edition arrived on my desk though, I was sold—I had to make time to read this. So, on the long train rides to and from BookExpo America, I did.
Since this book has been in the Three Percent ether for a while, my review isn’t exactly standard . . . It’s an attempt to go one step beyond a typical plot-related book review and open it up a bit. I’m not sure this 100% works (I wrote it on GoodReads while watching a soccer match), but hopefully it’s interesting if for no other reason than that I alluded to it on last week’s podcast.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s the opening:
When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.
For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.
Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)
Click here to read the full piece.Tweet
As promised, here’s an excerpt from Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven which we’ll be bringing out next year. It’s a pretty amazing text, which, as you’ll see, is filled with intertextuality, literary games, and horrible smells. Enjoy!
Lutz Bassmann passed his final days as we all did, between life and death. A rotten odor stagnated in the cell, which did not come from its occupant but from outside. The sewers in the city were fermenting, the docks in the harbor were emitting a rancid signal, the covered markets were stinking terribly, as they often did in the springtime when both the waters and the temperature began to rise. The mercury in the thermometers was never below 34 or 35° Celsius before sunrise, and it always rose back up from its nightly drop to give way to oppressive grayness. Puddles of moisture had reformed their apparitions on every wall. In the hours preceding dawn, darkness grew in power in the depths of lungs, under the bed, under the nails. Clouds burst into cataracts under the slightest pretext. The noise of the storm haunted everyone. Ever since Bassmann began to feel unwell, the rain had not ceased its patter against the prison’s façade, furnishing the silence with the sound of lead. It streamed over the exterior, crossed over the edge of the window, and gloomily drew lines of rust beneath the bars, onto the bulletin board that certain guards had baptized as the “union board” and which resembled a very old cubist or futurist collage, very dense, very faded. The water zig-zagged between the photographs and the newspaper clippings that Bassmann had pinned there, and which helped support him in his stay in the high-security sector, among us: this immobile voyage had already lasted for twenty-seven
years, twenty-seven long, long, longer-than-long years. Then, the already-dirty liquid met up with a thin blackish ribbon wending its way to the bottom of the wall, thus mixing with the infiltrations from a leak in the plumbing, perhaps in the toilet’s evacuation pipe. No doubt there, yes, in this pipe, or in a pipe of the same kind. Over several months the humidity had pierced the cement and gradually expanded. Hence, when atmospheric pressure dropped, the stench rose. Hence these waves that heavily velveted the surroundings, similar to the vapors of a cadaver on the march toward the nothing. The administration was waiting for Bassmann’s death before undertaking any renovations. With their obtuse frankness common to horrible bipeds, and without snickering, for in their impatience to see the end of history they did not even snicker anymore in front of him when they spoke of his end; the guards had made this known to the prisoner. Bassmann himself was not waiting for anything. He was sitting facing our damaged portraits and looking at them. He contemplated the spongy, almost-illegible photographs, the obsolete portraits of his friends, men and women, all dead, and he looked back on who knows what trouble and, at the same time, glimmering marvelously, that he had lived in their company, at the time when they were all free and shining, the time when all of us, from the first to the last, were something other than. But that’s not important. I have said “our” faces, among “us,” all of “us.” This is a process of the literary lie, but one which, here, plays with a truth hidden upstream of the text, with a not-lie inserted into the real reality, elsewhere rather than in fiction. Let us say, in order to simplify, that Lutz Bassmann was our spokesperson until the end, both his and that of everyone and everything. There have been several spokespeople: Lutz Bassmann, Maria Schrag, Julio Sternhagen, Anita Negrini, Irina Kobayashi, Rita Hoo, Iakoub Khadjbakiro, Antoine Volodine, Lilith Schwak, Ingrid Vogel. This list that I give contains deliberate errors and is incomplete. It follows the post-exoticist principle according to which a portion of shadow always subsists in the moment of explanation or confession, modifying the confession to the point of rendering it unusable to the enemy. To objective appearances, the list is only a sarcastic way of telling the enemy one more time that they will learn nothing. For the enemy is always part stalker, disguised and vigilant among readers. We must continue to speak in a way that denies the enemy any profit. We must do this even as we testify before a tribunal whose competence we do not recognize. We devise a solemn proclamation, in a language that appears to be the same as that of the judges, but it is one that the judges listen to with dismay or boredom, as they are incapable of making sense of it . . . We recite it for ourselves and for men and women not present . . . In no circumvention of phrase our remarks coordinating with the magistrates’ understanding . . . There was nothing extraordinary about the rain that sounded and rang out in Bassmann’s agony in this period; it was completely expected in the month of April. In this region that is touched by the tail-end of the monsoons, we were in the habit of associating springtime not with green rebirth as is the tradition in occidental literature, but with the slow and loud din of the deluge, mugginess, and mephitic atmospheres. Inside of the prison, pestilences alter in intensity by the second as they circulate in an unpredictable manner that prevents any immunization. A feeling of suffocation tormented us from dawn-to-dawn. It is not surprising to discover that psychosomatic illnesses spring up during this phase of the prison calendar. Added to the respiratory troubles are the troubles of solitude. It was extremely difficult for us to converse between cells, on account of all the background noise, from the monotonous sweeping and the trickling that kept on at every hour, muddying the content of our messages. That year, the “we” was even more than normal a literary lie, as much a convention of fiction as Lutz Bassmann was alone. Now he was alone. He had reached the moment of our common adventure that several of us had described, in books completed or otherwise, as that of ultimate defeat. While the last surviving member on the list of the dead—and, this time, it was Bassmann—stammered his final syllable, then, on this side of the story as well as beyond it, only the enemy would keep strutting straight ahead, undefeated, invincible, and, among the victims of the enemy, no spokesperson would now dare come to interpret or reinterpret any of our voices, or to love us. Lucid in spite of the split personalities corrupting his agony, Bassmann sought only to communicate with the deceased.1 He no longer tapped on the washbasin pipes or on the door, saying, for example, “Calling cell 546,” or on the ealed siphon behind the toilet bowl, asking for cell 1157, or on the bars of the window, saying “Bassmann here . . . please respond . . . Bassmann is listening . . . please respond . . .” Now he knocked nowhere. He concentrated his regard on us, the photographs of those who had preceded him in disappearance, and he made the smallest of murmurs pass through his lips, pretending not to be dead and reproducing a whispering technique that the most tantric among us had many a time used in their romånces: with an audible exhalation, the narrator prolongs, not his or her own existence, but the existence of those who are going to dwindle into nothing, because the narrator is the only one who can preserve their memory. Word by word, moan after moan, Lutz Bassmann struggled to make last the mental edifice which would eventually become once again dust. His breath merged with the putrid sewers that wandered through the prison. He still tenuously held on to reality and he managed to keep together fragments. He managed to keep his voice from giving out again. So that for one hour more, two and a half hours, one more night, the worlds that we had built with swift carpentry and defended would persist. Mental edifice . . . Worlds . . . Swift carpentry . . . What is . . . Huh? I will respond. We had called that post-exoticism. It was a construction that was connected to revolutionary shamanism and literature, literature that was either written by hand or learned by heart and recited, as the administration through the years would sometimes forbid us any paper material; it was an interior construction, a basis of withdrawal, a secret welcoming land, but also something offensive that participated in the plot in the naked hands of certain individuals against the capitalist world and its countless ignominies. This fight was now confined solely to Bassmann’s lips. It was suspended in a breath. As thirty years of incarceration had left his mind feeble, and reduced his creative spirit to scraps, his final murmurs no longer obeyed the logics of pioneers, combatants, oneiric footprints, or enthusiasm, without which the post-exoticist project had produced no more than two or three works. During his agony, Lutz Bassmann uniquely wished to move the embers that he had guarded, and not to be absorbed too quickly along with them by the nothingness. But even before, from the beginning of the ten years, maybe because he estimated that the confidants were already unattainable or no longer existed, it seemed that he had lost his creative spark. His latest works, his final romanesque jolts, took shelter under rather unattractive and uninspired titles, such as To Know How to Rot, to Know How Not to Rot, or Structure of Deconstructed Obscurity, or Walk Through Childhood. These are narrative poems and Shaggås, supposedly-compact pieces diluted into vast arrièregarde logorrheas that one can take no pleasure in reading. There are also romånces, such as About-Face Vandals, One-Thousand Nine-Hundred Seventy-Seven Years Before the World Revolution, and even The Mantis, but the brooding that inspired them has devolved into nothing communicable. Their encryption is vain, their undeniable beauty is vain, maybe simply because no one—No one listens. No living being other than Lutz Bassmann is paying attention. In such works, the idea of connivance with the reader, so oily and so generously spread onto the clockwork of official literature, has been disregarded to even the smallest detail. Here we have the terminal rumblings, the ultimate punctuated throaty rasps of post-exoticism . . . POST-EXOTICISM. That word again. Here again this heavy term. Around it we have circled, from the beginning, like vultures around a carcass. WHAT IS POST-EXOTICISM? An insolent question, very unwelcome on the day of Bassmann’s death, but its appearance here demonstrates that a half-century after
Minor Angels, by Maria Clementi, sympathizers, on the outside, have not . . . Demonstrates that the incarcerated have been left alone. A symposium on post-exoticism was organized with Lutz Bassmann’s involvement before the 00’s of the 21st century, eighteen or nineteen years ago. It lived more or less in 1997. Beyond the walls of the prison, this must have been an age of hollow editorials, or of reflux toward what official literature itself considered as the worst. Two popular chroniclers had been sent to us by a cultural magazine in general circulation, subsidized I believe by mafia industrialists in meat and construction. I say “I,” and “I believe” but this is again just a matter of pure convention. The first-person singular serves to accompany the voice of others, it signifies nothing more. Without damage to the understanding of this poem, one can consider that I have been dead for ages, and not take the “I” into account . . . For a post-exoticist narrator, anyway, there is not the thickness of a piece of cigarette paper between the first-person and others, and hardly any difference between life and death. But let us classify the problems. I spoke of two salaried employees of the dominant ideology, two virtuosos of journalism, of stardom and writing, a man and a woman who, for the occasion, had muted their mercantile convictions and come before us wearing the faded finery of intellectuals neither spineless, nor completely orthodox. They wanted, they announced, to inquire about prison literature, and shine a new and favorable light on romånces, several volumes of which had appeared outside of the prison, under the signature of one of our figureheads. I also think that General Intelligence desired to evaluate the state of our forces and to form an opinion on the persistence or extinction of our capacities to harm, on the chances of the survival of egalitarian propaganda in the new millenium. The journalists presented themselves by insisting on their capacity as novelists sometimes at odds with the authorities, as, like in all totalitarian societies, those who are approved by the censor are also those who have the right to express themselves officially against the censor, and they articulated their author names with a casual humility, hoping maybe to impress us with their notoriety, with the value that credit agencies and the public recognize, but, as we were indifferent to this kind of authority, and as their magazine had never inspired anything in us but contempt, they became again before us what they were in both reality and in the world of media: two mercenaries of speech, Niouki and Blotno, Niouki the woman, Blotno the man, capable of theorizing on art and philosophizing on the fate of the people, capable over several hours of adapting themselves to our vision of the world, of entering into a dialog with us, and even of getting friendly with us, capable of everything. They had five or six afternoons; they worked with us in turns, according to a program that we thwarted as quickly as possible. Anonymous, imperturbable, silent, a police officer attended the sessions and recorded us on a tape recorder. We were summoned to the interview room one after the other. The Blotno faced us with a notebook and pen, no doubt because he had been informed that only the police would be allowed to listen to the taped recording. As he was constantly scribbling, he hardly ever lifted his eyes in our direction, eyes that shone with a relative absence of insincerity, very blue, a myopic, almost Prussian blue. If I stray from the striking color of his irises, I now feel powerless to describe his physical attributes, the particularities of his head. In a pinch, I believe I could remember his corpulence. He was about medium-sized. The Niouki is less nonexistent in my memory. Her chest seemed to me like that of a cow or a cowgirl. Her breasts had made an impression on me, but I don’t remember exactly what that impression was. For that matter, they weren’t of any interest to. Lutz Bassmann went first and kept his mouth shut the whole time. In
order to break the drawn-out silence, the Niouki summarized the stages that, according to her, post-exoticism had passed through since Minor Angels, Maria Clementi’s first romånce, written in 1977.
1 [1. FRAGMENTARY INVENTORY OF DECEASED DISSIDENTS
Arostegui, Maria (1975)2
Bach, Mathias (1991)
Bartok, Giovan (1991)
Bassmann, Lutz (1990)
Bedobul, Kynthia (1988)
Breughel, Anton (1975)
Breughel, Istvan (1985)
Campanini, Giuseppe (1988)
Clementi, Maria (1975)
Damtew, Oleg (1998)
Dawkes, Ellen (1990)
Domrowski, Monika (1998)
Draeger, Manuela (2001)
Echenguyen, Irena (1981)
Echenguyen, Maria (1976)
Fincke, Elia (1998)
Garcia Muñoz, Maria (1985)
Gardel, Wolfgang (1975)
Gompo, Khrili (1980)
Heier, Barbara (1991)
Henkel, Maria (1980)
Hinz, Mario (1998)
Hoo, Rita (1992)
Iguacel, Maria (1975)
Khadjbakiro, Iakoub (1977)
Khorassan, Jean (1996)
Kim, Petra (1992)
Kobayashi, Irina (1991)
Koenig, Astrid (1990)
Kronauer, Elli (1999)
Kwoll, Maria (1975)
Lethbridge, William (1992)
Lukaszczyk, Vassilissa (1987)
Malaysi, Jean (1979)
Malter, Hugo (1990)
Marachvili, Türkan (1992)
Marconi, Ivo (1992)
Mayayo, Erdogan (1998)
Nachtigall, Roman (2000)
Negrini, Anita (1977)
Nordstrand, Verena (1986)
Ossorguina, Raïa (1986)
Ostiategui, Leonor (1996)
Ostiategui, Pablo (1996)
Peek, Marina (1998)
Petrokian, Aram (1992)
Pizarro, HansJürgen (1998)
Reddecliff, Dimitri (1990)
Retsch, Dorothea (1975)
Retzmayer, Rita (1979)
Retzmayer, Zeev (1976)
Samarkande, Maria (1978)
Santander, Monika (1982)
Sauerbaum, Maria (1996)
Schnittke, Maria (1980)
Schrag, Maria (1975)
Schwack, Lilith (1979)
Sherrad, Aidan (1990)
Soledad, Irena (1977)
Soudaïeva, Maria (1975)
Sternhagen, Julio (1975)
Tarchalski, Yasar (1990)
Thielmann, Maria Gabriella (1992)
Thielmann, Ralf (1982)
Velazquez, Sonia (2000)
Vlassenko, Jean (1987)
Wallinger, John (1991)
Weingand, Anita (1986)
Wolff, Rebecca (2001)
Wolguelam, Jean (1975)
Zhang, Yann (1977) ]
2 Year in parentheses indicates date of incarceration at highsecurity
Next year we’re going to be publishing Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven, a book that I’m super excited about, and which help explain (somewhat) Volodine’s crazy-awesome project. If you’re a regular listener to the “Three Percent Podcast”: you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about how interesting Volodine’s work is—in particular, Minor Angels and We Monks & Soldiers, both of which are masterfully translated into English by Jordan Stump. (Also worth noting is Naming the Jungle, which New Press published way back, but which I have yet to read.)
As with everything Volodine does, that last statement needs to be unpacked. See, We Monks & Soldiers is written by Lutz Bassmann, one of Volodine’s heteronyms.
Actually, that’s not entirely true either. See, Volodine is a heteronym as well for a French schoolteacher who writes this truly weird, incredibly knotty, endlessly fascinating books under a host of heteronyms. He’s like the French Fernando Pessoa, but more obsessed with the apocalypse.
So, over the past twenty-some-odd years, Volodine, along with counterparts Lutz Bassmann, Elli Kronauer and Manuela Draeger, has written some 40 books (mostly novels, but also some young adult novels, and poetry, such as Bassmann’s Prison Haikus, which will make more sense in a second), many of which inhabit one shared universe. Of sorts.
I can’t claim to know nearly as much about Volodine’s wildly imaginative—and revolutionary—project as J.T. Mahany (author of this review of Bassman’s Les aigles puent and this one of We Monk & Soldiers, and is the translator of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven), but basically, in Volodine’s collective world, shit has gone wrong, or is just about to go horribly wrong. Humanity is on the decline, the spiders are taking over the interior, and capitalism—that dirty bitch—is still unstoppable and fucking is all up.
And all the post-exoticist writers are in jail. Dying.
What is post-exoticism exactly? Well, you can read our forthcoming book (of which I’ll post a sample in just a minute), but in short, it’s a literary movement that employs certain techniques to evade censorship, convey secret messages and ideas of thought, and change the world. In other words, it’s dangerous shit. Hence, the jailing.
To tie together a few of these threads: Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven is written by Volodine about Bassmann’s last days in prison. It explains a lot of the tenets and techniques of the post-exoticist movement (so far as they can be explained . . . for example, Lesson Five, “Let’s Talk about Something Else,” is a list of things the post-exoticists have and haven’t done. They make these long lists to deter the enemy . . .) and is a great starting point—or continuing one—for anyone entering Volodine’s world.
One interesting post-exoticist story: On the jacket copy of Minor Angels, it references the fact that Volodine doesn’t believe the meaning of the book can be found in the text itself, but rather in the dreams that the reader has while reading it. I’m prone to really strange shit entering my dreamstate, so this book was like LSD for my unconscious. But better yet: While J.T. was reading this book he woke up one winter night outside in his pyjamas having sleepwalked himself right out of his apartment. Unfortunate for him, this was a bittercold night and he had locked himself out. See! Dangerous shit.
Anyway, the main point of this post—aside from delaying the bookkeeping and database work that I should be doing right now, and giving me a chance to wax enthusiastic about one of my favorite forthcoming books—is that J.T. found the interview below with the three main Volodine heteronyms and I really wanted to share it.
Also worth noting: We’re planning on following up our Volodine book with a Bassmann one and Draeger one. Bassmann’s been published by the University of Nebraska, but Draeger has yet to be published by a nationally distributed press. Hopefully we’ll be able to do all three books within a 12-14 month window so that there’s not too much of a delay—once you get sucked into Volodine’s world, you’re going to want more . . .
Here’s the “interview,” which, to be honest, will make more sense if you’ve read Minor Angels, We Monks & Soldiers, and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven:
Your main character trait
Antoine Volodine: Stubbornness.
Lutz Bassmann: Rigidity.
Manuela Draeger: Passion. More exactly, the lucidity at the heart of passion.
Your favorite animal
Antoine Volodine: Tigers. But not paper ones. And also Iponiama Oshawnee, who lives at 17 rue des Soeurs-Tchouvanes, in Valkoumeï.
Lutz Bassmann: Robins. And also cats when they’re not eating robins.
Manuela Draeger: Elephants. No, actually, wooly crabs, trying to float as high as the moon. Or no, rather, eggs. Eggs in general. They’re the promise of an animal. Last but not least, Lili Niagara, the batte, with whom I used to be madly in love.
The defeat, historical or otherwise, you consider the worst
Antoine Volodine: The collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lutz Bassmann: The New Economic Policy instantiated by Lenin in 1921.
Manuela Draeger: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Your favorite slogan
Antoine Volodine: Two or three: DON’T DREAM UNSTRAGE DREAMS! IF MISFORTUNE ARISES, YOU MUST DIE APPROPRIATELY! YOU ARE A WINDOW PANE, NO FLY CAN IMAGINE YOU!
Lutz Bassmann: I will give several: GOLDEN DRUMS, THEN SILENCE! IF YOUR FACE IS CLEAR, CUT OFF YOUR MASK! IF THERE ARE STILL RUINS, DEMOLISH THEM! IF THERE ARE STILL CRUMBS, BURN THEM!
Manuela Draeger: I think I might give a few: BLACK WAVES, SCREAM, BREAK! CHANANES’S DAUGHTERS, SING, REGROUP, ATTACK! A THOUSAND SECRET MASTIFFS IN EACH ONE OF US!
Your most oft-recurring dream
Antoine Volodine: Flying while sitting like a fakir, but without a flying carpet, about fifty centimeters off the ground, at a hopelessly slow speed.
Lutz Bassmann: I am walking around a house on a deserted coast. It’s raining, I’m taking shelter under a giant umbrella. I make a complete turn around the house. I am silently exorcising it. From time to time, people that I know try to leave, through the windows, through the doors, but they collapse before they can get outside. I know the house is going to burn. No words are spoken. Everyone is terrorized, and I continue tracing circles as I walk in the damp grass.
Manuela Draeger: I am speaking with other prisoners, with dead friends. We are on the shore of a lake at daybreak. The vegetation is luxurious. The landscape is extremely beautiful. Instead of contemplating in silence, we talk. From time to time, one of us leaves our group and approaches some wavelets. She stays unmoving, petrified, then she returns and reintroduces herself into the conversation. We talk feverishly about a clinic where you can get memory transplats. The deabte is on the sorrow provoking the transplants. I don’t know why, we know we should stop and admire the water, the light, the trees, but we keep reluctantly chatting on subjects that don’t interest us.
Your favorite landscape
Antoine Volodine: The Hoggar Tassili.
Lutz Bassmann: An urban scene. For example Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong.
Manuela Draeger: The ice field when bears walk across it.
The ritual you would like to perform
Antoine Volodine: Knocking three times before opening the shutters.
Lutz Bassmann: The last cigarette.
Manuela Draeger: Does Bolcho Pride from Eleven Dreams of Soot count as a ritual? If so, I’d like to participate in it.
The quality you appreciate most in a combattant
Antoine Volodine: In a female soldier: her coming back alive. In a male soldier: his knowing to run when all is lost.
Lutz Bassmann: Silence after the battle.
Manuela Draeger: Knowing how to walk with eyes closed until the end. Knowing how to die, knowing how not to die. Knowing how to walk with eyes open until the end.
Your favorite hero or heroine in the real, historical, or fantastical world
Antoine Volodine: The stalker in Stalker.
Lutz Bassmann: Chow Yun Fat in The Killer.
Manuela Draeger: Louise in Thelma and Louise.
What you hate the most
Antoine Volodine: Hypocritical reformism, friendly nationalism, warrior nationalism, a speaker’s bad faith, bony fish, the Russian mafia, spiders.
Lutz Bassmann: The self-satisfaction of social democrats, capitalism in all its forms, the obscene insolence of traitors. Swallowing oysters. Hearing the prison guards’ antisemitic jokes.
Manuela Draeger: Barbarism. The imbecility of barbarians, their humanistic and democratic proclamations. And also dishes with chicken gizzards. And in literature when I’m thought of as a clone of Antoine Volodine.
The fault you indulge in the most
Antoine Volodine: Sympathy for sympathizers of the ninth stinking category (intellectuals).
Lutz Bassmann: Excessive severity towards enemies of the people.
Manuela Draeger: Assassinating assassins.
What keeps you from going mad
Antoine Volodine: Having seen madness up close. The pills they give me. I don’t know what they’re called.
Lutz Bassmann: [no response]
Manuela Draeger: The fear of going mad.
The music you would like to hear when you slide into the Bardo
Antoine Volodine: Naïsso Baldakchan’s Third Golden Song.
Lutz Bassmann: If there are musicians, I would like them to try to play a quartet by Brahms or Kaanto Djylas. If there is no one, I would like to hear Grodzo tapping on the pipes and grills.
Manuela Draeger: Like in Eleven Dreams of Soot, I would like to hear at the last minute the voice of the Soviet songstress Liudmilla Zykina. The song doesn’t matter, but one like the girls were listening to in the fire: a very melancholic, very simple song, of unspeakable beauty. The first two words in Russian are “Sronila kolietchko.”
The present state of your mind
Antoine Volodine: After having the idea to listen one last time to Naïsso Baldakchan’s Third Golden Song, I’m a little worried.
Lutz Bassmann: I’m waiting.
Manuela Draeger: I’m looking at the barred window, the sky darkened by twilight, and I’m thinking that I will never see the Aurora Borealis again.Tweet
The new issue of New Books in German has been out for a little while, but it’s pretty loaded and deserving of a mention for anyone who might have missed it.
I am delighted to introduce issue 33 of New Books in German: spring is finally springing here in London and our bright yellow plumage captures the vernal mood. After the focus on Berlin and Zurich in our previous issues, we now head to Vienna, Austria’s capital, to savour the diverse literary life of the city on the Danube. Mary Penman’s article on Vienna’s Book Fair and ‘Festival of Reading’, Lesefestwoche, captures the variety of literary offerings throughout the city during one of Austria’s newest and most imaginative literary festivals. Samuel Willcocks’ piece on Vienna’s independent publishing scene showcases some of the forward-thinking and innovative publishers who are a vital force behind Austria’s new literary talent. And we hear about last summer’s inspirational gathering at the European Literature Days, set amid the breathtaking scenery of Spitz an der Donau.
This issue is chock-full of reviews of new work by gifted Austrian writers. The first four novels profiled in these pages, by Eva Menasse, Barbara Frischmuth, Robert Schindel and Michael Köhlmeier, demonstrate the breadth of high quality writing in contemporary Austria. We also feature an interview with Ross Benjamin, the US translator of Austrian literary superstar Clemens J. Setz, revealing fascinating insights into the unique style and composition of his latest novel, Indigo. As a testament to the vibrancy of Austrian literary life, the authors of two of our four debut novels – Anita Augustin and Isabella Straub – were born in Austria, while the remaining two – Hannes Stein and Pyotr Magnus Nedov – were raised there.
The first piece that caught my eye is this conversation between Lucy Renner Jones and Ross Benjamin about Ross’s translation of Clemens Setz’s Indigo.
Lucy Renner Jones: Setz comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if Indigo has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane . . . is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny?
Ross Benjamin: Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world.
LRJ: I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does?
RB: Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the Englishspeaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. Setz is that rare thing, an original.
For anyone who’s intrigued—which I’m sure all of you are, now—Norton is going to publish this book in the near future. (We’ll definitely review it as soon as possible.)
Another house experimenting with rewrites and remakes is Bernhard Salomon’s Labor Verlag, just around the corner from St Stephen’s Cathedral. I left the tourist crowds behind, climbing worn stone steps into the palace of a nineteenth-century merchant prince, and heard the colourful story of how Salomon ‘founded a publishing house by accident,’ as he puts it. The author of six novels, Salomon felt that Austrian publishing had lost sight of the narrative drive. When a brothel owner gave him €3,000 seed funding, he published two successful short story anthologies, and then a breakthrough title – Elfriede Vavrik’s autobiographical Nacktbadestrand (‘Nudist Beach’), about an octogenarian’s sex life, which stayed on the bestseller lists for weeks on end in both Germany and Austria. Salomon then entered into a joint venture with a major German house so that he could split the Labor list off as a dedicated venue for new novels. [. . .]
Indeed, Vienna has long been a city for writers from all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s Exilliteratur Preis is the equivalent of Germany’s Chamisso Prize for immigrant authors. Two of these young newcomers publish with Edition Atelier: Ilir Ferra with Rauchschatten (‘Shadows of Smoke’), set in Albania in the totalitarian 1980s, and Melica Bešlija with Sarajevo in der Geliebten (‘Sarajevo in the Woman She Loves’), a story of same-sex love in Bosnia after the war. Atelier’s Jorghi Poll told me that ‘the kind of authors who could never get noticed in Germany have that chance in Austria.’
Jen is a former University of Rochester student, and a translator from German. Her first book-length translation, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later (Open Letter Books), comes out next week.
Here’s the beginning of Jen’s review:
“At night Amarâq is coated with a darkness as viscous as unmixed colors, neither the fjord nor the mountains, valleys, lakes, or the river exist, there is only a black mass, a void that spreads across the landscape sporadically, pressing what’s left but leaving holes that it fills with abstract elements, moving pictures, waves of light in a sea of light.
At night Amarâq becomes a broad plain that melts the two dimensions into the third, the earth with the sky—suddenly everything is sky.”
Immediately, Anna Kim’s Anatomy of a Night (translated by Bradley Schmidt) draws us in and confines us to a small, five-hour sliver of life in Amarâq Greenland: an impoverished Inuit village that is plagued by a wave of suicides. Over the course of these pages—through deep personal ties and chilling alienation—the topics of poverty, isolation, and suicide swirl around the inhabitants of the town. Is it the poverty and isolation that drives these folks to take their own lives? Is the strained history between Greenland and Denmark a factor? Or is there something more, something deeper and ingrained in Amarâq?
Head over here for the rest of the review.Tweet
This post-BookExpo America podcast (with special guest, Bromance Will/Will Evans, the man behind Deep Vellum Press) is all about the good and bad of the country’s largest trade show for publishing. Mostly, it’s a series of rants—not necessarily about the show itself, but about the crap that craps it all up. From tech-speak nonsense to Mitch “Fucking” Albom, this is one of the funniest and most fiery podcasts we’ve recorded to date.
The opening and closing music is No Eyes from the new Baths album, Obsidian. (Which is, to date, probably my favorite album of 2013—especially the second half.)
JT—as we know him—is an MA in Literary Translation Studies student at the University of Rochester, and a recent addition to the superfandom of Volodine’s work. He’s also working on a translation of Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven (Le Post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze, Gallimard 1998), forthcoming from Open Letter Books in Fall 2015.
Here’s a bit of his review (which is followed by a little excerptfrom Les aigles puent):
If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine fatigue setting in. One more mention of what his books do to your dreams, of postexoticism, prison literature, Untermenschen, or people with blends of Eastern European, Mongolian, and Middle Asian names, and you’ll start bleeding from your ears, right?
Sorry, but we’re not done yet.
Yet unpublished in English, Les aigles puent, a novel by Lutz Bassmann (one of Volodine’s many reoccurring faces/names/characters), is the tale of a man named Gordon Koum who has just returned from an assassination mission for the Party, only to discover that his home city has been devastated by a (possibly nuclear) bomb. Everything is completely and irreversibly demolished, turned to black ash and soot. Everyone whom Gordon Koum loved—his wife, his children, his comrades—is dead at the hands of these “witch bombs.” As he picks through the rubble, Gordon quickly realizes that everything is hopeless, that all is lost. Maddened, irradiated, and wracked with sorrow, our protagonist sits on a bit of rock and waits for death, his only companions a dead bird stuck in the tar, and a golliwog that had miraculously survived the blast. He uses his gift for ventriloquism to converse with them, and tells them stories of his lost friends: Benny Magadane, Antar Gudarbak, his wife Maryama Koum, and many others.
Copied below is all the information DW Gibson sent me about applying to participate in the Translation Lab that will be going on at the Ledig House this fall. As you can see below, the Translation Lab is a 10-day residency for four English language translators and the four authors that they’re working on. Which is an incredible opportunity. The deadline for applying is July 15th, so get on it!
Translation Lab, Fall 2013
Writers Omi at Ledig House, a part of Omi International Arts Center, has been awarded a grant from Amazon.com to fund Translation Lab 2013, a 10-day special, intensive residency for four collaborating writer-translator teams in the fall of 2013.
Writers Omi will host four English language translators at the Omi International Arts Center for 10 days. These translators will be invited along with the writers whose work is being translated. All text-based projects—fiction, nonfiction, theater, film, poetry, etc.—are eligible.
This focused residency will provide an integral stage of refinement, allowing translators to dialogue with the writers about text-specific questions. It will also serve as an essential community-builder for English-language translators who are working to increase the amount of international literature available to American readers.
The dates for Translation Lab 2013 are November 6-15, 2013. All residencies are fully funded, including airfare and local transport from New York City to the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY. Please note: accepted applicants must be available for the duration of the Translation Lab (November 6-15, 2013). Late arrivals and early departures are not possible. Please do not submit a proposal unless both parties involved (translator and writer) are available for all dates.
Writers Omi will be accepting proposals for participation until July 15, 2013.
Translators, writers, editors, or agents can submit proposals. Each proposal should be no more than three pages in length and provide the following information:
- Brief biographical sketches for the translator and writer associated with each project
- Publishing status for proposed projects (projects that do not yet have a publisher are still eligible)
- A description of the proposed project
- Contact information (physical address, email, and phone)
Proposals should be submitted only once availability for residency participation of the translator and writer has been confirmed. All proposals and inquiries should be sent directly to DW Gibson, director or Writers Omi at Ledig House at: dwgibson [at] artomi.org.
First things first: In 2012, AmazonCrossing published more works of fiction and poetry in translation than any other press except for Dalkey Archive, and is the largest publisher of literature in translation so far this year. More about that below.
Before getting into all of that though, here are some basic statistics. According to our Translation Database1, here are the overall number of translations published in the U.S. since we’ve started keeping track:
2008: 360 total (278 fiction, 82 poetry)
2009: 363 (291, 72)
2010: 344 (266, 78)
2011: 374 (304, 70)
2012: 453 (384, 69)
2013: 300 (249, 51)2
So, in terms of the simple bean counting of all this, the number of works of fiction in translation being published in the U.S. is growing pretty nicely. Actually, the 26.3% increase from 2011 to 2012 is incredibly impressive. That’s like ebook sales type growth.3
What accounts for this jump? I don’t want to paint too optimistic a picture here, but there are more presses doing translations each and ever year, and basically everyone involved in publishing literature in translation is doing a little bit more.
Let me preface the list of publishers with a few extra statistics: In 2010, 137 presses published at least 1 translation, and the top 10 publishers brought out 10.6 books/piece, and the average for the top 20 was 8.
In 2011, 146 presses did at least one translation (up 9 over 2010), with the top 10 publishing 12.1 books on average, and the top 20 doing 9 books on average.
2012 was followed the same trend: 153 presses (up 7 over 2011), with the top 10 bringing out 15.1 translations on average, and the top 20 averaging 10.6 books per press.
Talking in ratios and percentages, the presses doing the most translations have increased their output dramatically over the past three years, from 10.6 for the top 10 in 2010, to 15.1 in 2012—a 42% increase.
On top of that, there were 16 additional presses that published at least one work in translation in 2012 compared to 2010. That’s pretty significant considering that there were “only” 137 presses publishing lit in translation in 2010.
Who are these top 10 presses? Here’s the breakdown for 2012:4
Dalkey Archive: 32 books
Seagull Books: 16
Europa Editions: 15
American University at Cairo: 12
Open Letter: 10
Other Press: 10
New Directions: 9
Yale University Press: 8
That’s a pretty stellar list, and not that much different from 2011.5
What’s most interesting to me though is that in 2013, this top 10 switches in one important way: To date, AmazonCrossing has 24 titles in the database and Dalkey Archive only has 19. (Europa Editions, Open Letter, and Pushkin Press follow with 10 each.)
The 2013 database is probably 60% complete or so, so it’s possible this might change, but given Amazon’s growth over the past few years, I kind of doubt Dalkey will surpass them. And for the sake of what follows, I’m not sure it matters. Regardless of the final tally, AmazonCrossing is a major player in the world of literary translation publishing.
So, what does this mean? First of all, I think it’s interesting that of the 10 presses listed above, Amazon and FSG are the only ones who aren’t nonprofit/independent/university presses. It’s hard to compare these two though, since FSG is a traditional press, is part of the multi-national Macmillan, and has been in business for decades. Amazon, as a company, is barely 20 years old and has been publishing translations for, like, three. Also, the vast majority of these books aren’t available through independent bookstores. Not because Amazon doesn’t want to sell them there, but because those stores see Amazon as the biggest threat to their continued existence, they’d rather not stock these things.6
One can speculate all one wants over why Amazon would spend their money on doing these books—especially books like Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which, at 700+ pages, must’ve cost a fortune—and postulate all sorts of secret, secondary reasons, but the fact of the matter is, they are publishing a lot of books, employing a lot of translators, and, apparently, selling them pretty well (see: all the Olivier Pötzsch books and the Apocalypse Z series). That plus Amazon’s giving program which has supported a dozen (or more) translation-related initiatives, and it’s clear they’re a major contributor to the business of translation.
On the flipside of this, did anyone notice who’s not on the top 10 list of publishers of literature in translation? Archipelago. The press that’s won more Best Translated Book Awards than any other press in the country. Which just goes to show that this sort of bean counting is valuable, but not necessarily related to literary quality. (Although I think they have a handful of books that are BTBA worthy—see Andrei Gelasimov’s works—AmazonCrossing has yet to make the longlist.) Which raises other questions I hope to explore later this summer about the impact of particular books and the positive, outsized importance of particular works of literature in translation.
But for now, visit the Translation Database page and see what’s come out, coming out, and worth reading. I’ll be using this over the next few weeks to provide a BTBA 2014 preview, a list of translations to read this summer, etc., etc. It’s a fun database to put together, and leads to all sorts of weird and interesting things, such as Hashish: The Lost Legend.
1 Which, just to remind everyone, only keeps track of original, never-before-translated works of fiction and poetry that are distributed (in ways beyond just Amazon.com) in the United States.
2 Obviously the info for 2013 is incomplete at this time.
3 It’s really not, but ebook gurus love to use meaningless percentage statistics to claim that this is the only future!, so I figure these sorts of hyperbolic number games are par for the course.
4 All of this info is available in the downloadable Excel files linked to at the top of this article. I’m just cutting and pasting.
5 The top 10 in 2011 were: Dalkey Archive, AmazonCrossing, Knopf, New Directions, Seagull Books, Europa Editions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, FSG, New York Review Books, Open Letter.
6 At the risk of upsetting
the people at Melville House tons of people, this situation plays right into Amazon’s rhetoric about serving customers. The traditional line on indie bookstores is that they make these sorts of books—obscure translations, literary books not found at the chain stores, bookseller cult classics, etc.—available to readers everywhere. But as much as I love bookstores, outside of the top 100 or so, this is a fallacious claim. They don’t want to carry most anything that’s not by Stephanie “Fifty Shades” Rowling. And in this instance, a few dozen translated books a year aren’t being made available to their customers. Those readers who are interested in, say, Icelandic literature have to go to Amazon to buy Hellgrimur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning or Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply to a Letter from Helga. For Amazon’s PR department, this is fucking golden. They are serving a set of subset of readers that the independent stores (and B&N) are categorically ignoring. Sure, we’re talking about a subset of readers here, but for PR purposes, that doesn’t matter as much as the message itself: You can get everything from Amazon, or you can shop the prejudice laden, restrictive collection of books that Indie Store X has made available. I don’t necessarily support this, I’m just saying that such an statement could be made and is tricky to argue with. It’s why critics of Amazon should, and do, focus on Amazons business practices and labor issues rather than on how Amazon services customers versus a traditional bookstore.
When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense. . .
“At night Amarâq is coated with a darkness as viscous as unmixed colors, neither the fjord nor the mountains, valleys, lakes, or the river exist, there is only a black mass, a void that spreads across the landscape sporadically, pressing. . .
If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine. . .
Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres is a stunning and engaging collection of eleven Russian gothic tales written by various authors during the early Soviet Era, all but two stories of which are featured in English for the first time ever. These. . .
“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy.. . .
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .