Sunday, April 24, 2011

I’m Still Here! & Happy (Belated) World Book Day

Yes, I’m still here, though I’ve been on a bit of an unexpected hiatus. Fortunately, most of the reasons are related to good things: I had a wonderful time at the London Book Fair where I was so caught up in the Russian market focus program that – oh, horrors! – I didn’t even realize until a few days ago that I missed hearing Kazuo Ishiguro. London wore me out but now I’m looking forward to Book Expo America next month.

A Russian friend wrote to me late last night, wishing me a happy World Book Day… I’d seen articles mentioning the significance of April 23 – among other things, it’s the day Shakespeare and Cervantes died and the day Nabokov was born – but didn’t realize until today that it’s formally known as World Book and Copyright Day. Quite apt, considering concerns about piracy and electronic books.

In a related note, I picked up a special copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at the London Book Fair: it’s part of a World Book Night 2011 program, under which 25 books, in print runs of 40,000 each are being distributed… a million books in total, all to be tracked online, with the hope that people will share the books with friends. It’s a great idea, supported by dozens of publishers, patrons, and sponsors. The titles are varied to capture diverse readers: from Love in the Time of Cholera to poems by Seamus Heaney, from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And so on. World Book Night will be celebrated on April 23 in 2012.

So happy World Book Day, a day late!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aira’s Literary Conference

A whirl of work, itinerant cold symptoms, and travel preparations slashed into my reading time over the last couple weeks… but I did manage to read and finish a novella, César Aira’s The Literary Conference, Katherine Silver’s translation of El congreso de literature. The Literary Conference is short and full of offbeat surprises -- plus I’m getting ready to go to a literary conference of sorts myself, the London Book Fair -- so I’ll keep this post brief, too.

The Literary Conference is a wonderfully metaphysical short novel told by a man, (not) coincidently named César, who is a translator and a scientist with a unique cloning method. He goes to a literary conference, which the reader barely sees, with the goal of cloning a Mexican writer. Of course the project goes haywire in a very dramatic and odd way.

The book’s plot is fun and unpredictable, blending genres, but I enjoyed César’s thought process, which often appears random, even more. The Literary Conference begins with César’s story of how he found pirate treasure. He says it wasn’t genius that enabled him to solve the long-time mystery of the treasure:

What happened (I shall try to explain it) is that every mind is shaped by its own experiences and memories and knowledge, and what makes it unique is the grand total and extremely personal nature of the collection of all the data that have made it what it is.

César goes on to relate this thought to the books we read, which made me happy because this is something I think about all too often. Indeed, who reads the same sets of books? And how do those odd combinations affect our thinking? Then there’s this, which César mentions while his clone incubates. This sums up my state of mind as I prepare to travel and finish up this post at Logan Airport:

For someone who travels as little as I do, for someone who leads a very routine life, a trip can make an enormous difference; it is the objective equivalent of cerebral hyperactivity.

I think the attraction of The Literary Conference comes more from the charm of César’s quirky voice, thoughts, and combination of experiences than a single brilliant idea or conclusion. Even if César’s mind sometimes feels a hair too hyperactive, this short book contains lots of enjoyable scenes and observations. The Literary Conference is on the shortlist for the Best Translated Book Awards; I don’t read Spanish but thought Silver’s translation read very nicely, capturing and creating a voice.

I’ll leave analysis of the book’s “translations” and narrative shifts to M.A.Orthofer of The Complete Review. I think he does a nice job summing up the book without revealing too much.

Up Next: I have no idea! Probably something I find in my travels…

Disclaimer. I received a review copy of The Literary Conference from New Directions, a publisher with whom I have discussed translations. Read the first pages of the book here.