Monday, December 31, 2012

Fire: Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief

I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a long time ago, probably in high school: about all I remembered until last week was that firemen started fires rather than preventing them. And their specialty was burning books, which were outlawed.

Same as mine.
Price: $1.25 
When Ray Bradbury died earlier this year and I read, a little later, Russian fiction that referred to him, I took out my old copy of Fahrenheit 451. The glue in the binding cracked and the pages were yellowed, but the story itself felt ridiculously up-to-the-minute, despite having been written in the fifties. The biggest surprise was that Bradbury all but predicted reality TV, viewers’ extreme attachment to TV characters they think of as family, and viewers’ extreme attachment to their TV parlors and equipment. Even Christ has become one of the TV family, making, as one character says, “veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.”

The personal stories of Guy Montag, the fireman who begins collecting books and doubting his work, and his TV-addled wife Millie, felt secondary to me compared to Bradbury’s dystopian world, where people drive so super-fast that billboards are super-long and people no longer listen to each other because their TV friends seem realer than their real friends.

[Now, watch out for spoilers…] Montag’s sudden, fiery separation from his job and his wife are less surprising than the fact that his escape is carefully tracked and presented by the media. Even more interesting, though, is that Montag finds readers—some are former professors—who memorize books so they can recite them. This reminded me of Soviet-era samizdat (self-publishing, often on a typewriter) and memorization of forbidden poems. The idea of carrying books around in one’s head, combined with the pictures of future TV and the relative peace outside the city (there’s also a war going on…) made the book well worth rereading.

I read another book involving book burning—Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—but it’s set in the past, Nazi Germany, instead of the future. The Book Thief is probably as familiar these days as Fahrenheit 451 so I won’t go into detail... you probably already know, for example, that Death narrates this thick novel about a girl named Liesel Meminger who goes to live with a foster family in a town called Molching. I very rarely read young adult books but this one caught me, probably because I thought Zusak made a wise choice in making Death his first-person narrator. For one thing, as an omnipresent and omnipotent narrator, Death can offer, occasionally and a bit officiously, historical details that readers might or might not already know. But Death (the narrator) is also surprisingly compassionate and humorous, as is Zusak’s book, thanks to characters like Liesel the book thief, her accordion-playing foster father Hans, and her friend Rudy who reveres Jesse Owens, a dangerous habit in Nazi Germany.

Up Next: Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Where There’s Smoke (on the Cover): Halfon’s Polish Boxer

There are times when cover art truly does complement—and perhaps even compliment—a book’s content: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer really is a smoky wisp of a book, with just 188 smallish pages and several ethereal plot-like lines that float through ten stories of varying length. I read the book in the English translation of the Spanish original El boxeador polaco, which was translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead, and Anne McLean… with the help of Halfon, who lives in Nebraska but frequently returns to Guatemala, where he was born. Their work, which crossed many time zones, feels seamless, creating one voice.

The Polish Boxer is almost as difficult to describe as smoke, too: these linked, first-person stories are thoroughly imaginable and tangible, but they also dissipate, blending together like smoke and fog, leaving lovely traces of meaning as Halfon explores identity and meaning. Halfon’s made-for-metafiction-narrator is an academic named Eduardo Halfon. On the first page, Halfon-as-teacher describes a classroom scene meant to instruct readers, too, mentioning an essay by Ricardo Piglia that discusses “the dual nature of the short story,” which contains a visible narrative and a secret tale. This first story, “Distant,” tells of a scholarship student who writes poetry; he meets after class with Halfon, making the individual student feel like a secret tale set against the backdrop of a more visible, public narrative about class meetings.

Halfon begins dropping hints about the Polish boxer—and his grandfather and Auschwitz—in the next story, “Twaining,” about a trip to North Carolina for a Mark Twain conference. We continue on to “Epistrophy,” in which we meet Eduardo’s dishy girlfriend and hear Serbian-gypsy pianist Milan Rakic play music not listed on the program, than advance (after a quick stop in “White Smoke” at a Scottish bar that’s not in Scotland) to “The Polish Boxer,” which begins with the number, 69752, tattooed on Eduardo’s grandfather’s arm. Eduardo’s grandfather tells him it’s his telephone number, tattooed so he won’t forget. We know that’s not true.

The Polish boxer, according to the grandfather, is someone who helped save him in the camps… but the story turns out to be (maybe? truly?) untrue, even if it sounds like a great story. Even better, on the last page of the book, two of Eduardo’s grandfather’s friends discuss him, offering details that don’t quite match Eduardo’s memories of his grandfather, showing, once again, the shiftiness of identity and how we describe it.

I particularly enjoyed the story line about Rakic, in which Eduardo flies to post-war Serbia—wars are important in The Polish Boxer—to find the man, who’s sent him postcards from all over as he tours. Eduardo enlists the help of gypsies in Serbia, who look at Rakic’s photo and say he can’t be a gypsy. The gypsies, Eduardo says, look as if “they existed outside of this world.” I think the same could probably be said about Eduardo, his grandfather, his girlfriend and her orgasm drawings, the elusive Milan Rakic, and all the rest of us. A number tattooed on an arm may be indelible and it may symbolize a lot, but identity—in the sense of a person’s real, personal depths—is something as elusive and subjective as a wisp of smoke.

Disclosures: I picked up a copy of The Polish Boxer from Bellevue Literary Press at BookExpo America. Thank you!

Up Next: It remains to be seen… 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is that annoyingly near-perfect book that I admire tremendously for its technical qualities but can’t quite find myself loving because it feels too hermetically sealed. I’m sure you already know about the book: it won a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle award, and lots of other honors. And one chapter of the book is written and presented in PowerPoint form.

A Visit from the Goon Squad strings thirteen stories, one of which is written in PowerPoint form, though you already knew that, into a novel that zigs and zags between characters and times, returning often to two core figures. Bennie is described on the back cover as “an aging former punk rocker and record executive.” Sasha is “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs.” Put in more direct terms: as a kid, Bennie was in a band called The Flaming Dildos, which I take as a name that refers to fakery and imitations of, ah, more real things, and Sasha is a klepto who loves to keep and display what she steals.

During the course of the book, Egan introduces us to those same Flaming Dildos, a bunch of San Francisco teenagers, including Bennie, who want to be punks, and shows us how they and the people around them behave and age, not always very gracefully. Time is the goon squad here and Egan neatly threads this and other motifs, like Sasha’s stolen goods, through the stories. Conformism and its “non” are everywhere, too: Bennie and his friends aren’t much punkier than I was. Sure, I went to see the Dead Kennedys when a friend decided to be a punk promoter one summer but my spikes were really a bracelet, not something dangerous.

“Neatly” is my problem with A Visit from the Goon Squad: I enjoyed reading the book, looked forward to reading it, and think it’s very, very good, but it feels a little too much like how Bennie hears digitized music:
Too clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead.
The italics are Egan’s. And the voices in Goon Squad were a little digitized for me, not quite gritty or distinct enough to make some of the chapter-stories in Goon Squad feel fully polyphonic or convincing. One of the most interesting chapter-stories was “Selling the General,” which connects less to Bennie and Sasha than most of the other pieces and describes the efforts of Dolly (a.k.a. La Doll), a p.r. specialist attempting to improve the image of a dictator. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the story is less connected and less music-related than most of the others.

The final story-chapter, “Pure Language,” set in a future New York City, imagines even more ubiquitous uses of mobile devices and txt language than we have now (*shudder*) but the hero is the guy without an online presence, “a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched.” And there, again, is my misgiving about the book, a misgiving that feels slight and churlish: the book lacks real rage. That may be intentional but I can’t be sure because the book felt so polished, so cleanly written and so careful, even a tiny bit high-flown. In other words, it felt technically perfect but most of the tone and language felt so smooth—too controlled, digitized, and ironic—that they crowded out the book’s messages and characters for me.

Disclosures: I bought my own copy of the book. I met Jennifer Egan, a college classmate I never knew in college, at a reading in Portland several years ago. I’ve read and enjoyed most of her books, particularly Look at Me.

Up Next: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer, another book of linked stories.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cutting Humor: Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City

Dolly City, a wonderfully sick and absurdly humorous novel that I read in Dalya Bilu’s translation from the Hebrew, gets off to a strange start that offers a feel for what’s to come. When Dolly’s goldfish dies, she takes the fish out of the bowl and then does this:
I laid the fish on the black marble counter, took a dagger, and began cutting it up. The little shit kept slipping away from me on the counter, so I had to grip it by the tail and return it to the scene of the crime.
That’s not even the end of the second paragraph! (And no, this isn’t one of those books that’s just one long sentence or one long paragraph.) At this pace, it’s not long before Dolly kills someone and brings home a baby (not her own), a boy she calls Son. Dolly, a supremely unreliable narrator who claims to be a doctor, takes concerned motherhood to extremes, cutting Son open whenever she thinks he might be ailing. She also etches a map of Israel—“Biblical period… just as I remembered it from school”—into his back. Later she takes attachment parenting to extremes and glues him to her back. “Grotesque” can’t begin to describe Dolly and her life.

The doting, controlling mother line of Dolly City was most comprehensible for me, with Dolly becoming the ultimate clingy mother, admitting she uses her own (but not really her own) child as a guinea pig she says she opens and closes like a curtain. Toward the end of the book, she asks, “What kind of a thing is motherhood if you can’t take care of your child nonstop, one hundred percent?” Dolly defends her behavior to the final line of the book, where she says, “I knew that after everything I’d done to him—a bullet or a knife in the back were nothing he couldn’t handle.” Orly Castel-Bloom, by the way, dedicated Dolly City to her daughter.

Along the way, Dolly addresses topics like Holocaust survivors, practices medicine on the street (she offers her elementary school teacher an enema), and describes Dolly City as “the most demented city in the world,” a place with dense fog, impossibly tall-sounding buildings, and rattling trains. Dolly City is one of the more demented books I’ve read—and enjoyed—in a while, with hilariously twisted humor, a cubist feel (from all the tall buildings?), and, in a book where nothing but nothing feels normal, more defamiliarization than Shklovsky could shake a scalpel at. Bilu’s lively translation, with a voice that smoothly conveys the horror and humor of Dolly, gave me the impression she enjoyed working on Dolly City.

Up Next: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas

Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, which I read in Brian Zumhagen’s translation of the German novel known as Leinwand, is a book where I literally wasn’t always sure which side was up or down: the book is structured, physically, as two books in one, and each book-side is narrated by a main character. The reader is presented with the choice of either reading each story individually or flipping the book, chapter by chapter, and watching the two stories intersect.

I chose the second option and used a magnetic bookmark. I began—randomly, I think—on the side narrated by Jan Wechsler (Europublisher who receives a mysterious bag of stuff he thinks just can’t possibly be his), then switched over to Amnon Zichroni (an Israel-born psychic of sorts who moves around)… and back again, chapter by chapter, until their stories met in the middle. In Israel.

If I had to summarize the wonderfully complex The Canvas in one awkwardly simplistic phrase, I think I’d say something like “existential confusion, nicely rendered.” The Canvas looks at some of my favorite topics—identity, memory, (ir)reality, and how they all fit together—and makes them exponentially more complicated and relevant by placing them within present-day historical memory of the Holocaust and, in particular detail, Jewish identity. Historical memories float to the surface of The Canvas in the person of a shadowy violin restorer and memoirist named Minsky, a character modeled on Binjamin Wilkomirski, a real-life (our life!) writer who fabricated a Holocaust memoir in the 1990s. Meaning we have fact/fiction and fact/fiction in The Canvas. These lines, from Jan Wechsler, concisely sum up a lot about the book, “Cultivating fables is complicated. You need a good memory. Otherwise, you’re sunk.”

I found Amnon Zichroni’s half of the book more interesting than Wechsler’s, though, and not just because Zichroni lives in Portland, Maine, for a while, where he does a residency in psychiatry at Maine Medical Center, a hospital where I used to work as a medical interpreter. Zichroni’s skills include using touch to read into people’s pasts, and his single-day reading of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is a touchstone in his half of the book. Zichroni refers to chains of events and determinism in one long paragraph that references M&M. Here’s the second half of the paragraph: 
I knew that Annouchka had already spilled the sunflower oil. And it really almost drove me out of my mind that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to save Berlioz from losing his head when he so persistently refused to at least accept that something else was directing people’s lives—namely, the sometimes grim, poetic hand of Hashem.
That’s particularly lovely stuff—Annouchka and that damn sunflower oil all over again!—if you’ve read M&M, another novel, by the way, that blends distinct story lines and questions of faith.

Oddly, I think the physical layout of the book called The Canvas, with its demand that the reader flip back and forth, is one of the reasons the novel works. Though it would be easy to say the flipping felt like a cheap gimmick and annoyed me a reader, I think the flipping reinforces, through the actual physical action of turning the book, physical aspects of identity, location, and, well, which end is up, all of which are important themes in a novel that I read as an existential thriller. The Canvas read smoothly enough in Zumhagen’s translation that the novel could feel like a thriller with consistent voices. The book contains a glossary of Jewish and Yiddish terms, twice, once at the end of each man’s story. It’s very fitting to offer those words at the heart of the novel, back-to-back, facing two ways.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Canvas from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.

Up Next: Orly Castel Bloom’s horribly, hilariously demented Dolly City.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Where There’s Smoke: Thrown into Nature

I realized last week that I never posted this piece, though I wrote it nearly a year ago…

Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, a contemporary novel translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, tells the story of Nicolás Bautista Monardes, a sixteenth-century Spanish physician who advocates the use of tobacco for medicinal purposes. The novel is a picaresque—generally an entertaining one—narrated by Monardes’s assistant, the hapless, unreliable, and Portuguese Guimarães da Silva.

The reader witnesses all sorts of cures and odd episodes in chapters with titles like “For Long Life,” “Intestinal Worms, Enemas,” and “For Protection Against the Plague and All Manner of Contagions,” and Monardes holds forth on matters of religion, nature (the human is “a pipe, through which nature passes”), and politics.

I especially enjoyed a scene based in England, in which King James I holds a debate called “Whether the frequent use of tobacco is good for healthy men?” Says da Silva, “The question mark here is pure hypocrisy and is intended solely to satisfy the formal requirements of debate.” da Silva’s comments about his seatmates at the debate are, like many other passages in the book, funny in a slapstick way. As da Silva takes notes and draws a Star of David, one of his neighbors “stared bug-eyed at the star on my sheet. I quickly crossed it out and grabbed my quill such that I—ostensibly accidentally—showed him my middle finger.”

Of course part of the fun of all this for me, a twenty first-century reader who used to write quite a bit about drug discovery and development, was reading about political debate around a substance used as a medical treatment. And of course our modern-day vilification of tobacco puts loads of irony into watching Monardes and da Silva advocate its use to cure just about everything, puffing away on cigarillas as a preventive measure. da Silva, however, records this:
“I’ve been sustaining myself with tobacco for twenty years longer than you have,” replied the doctor. “There seems to be something in tobacco which causes such a cough. After many, many years. 
Today is a bad day for tobacco, I thought to myself.
Perhaps even more interesting: Monardes was a real person and, according to the Special Collections Department of the library at the University of Glasgow, “Monardes made tobacco a household remedy throughout Western Europe and his gospel was accepted by the majority of European physicians for more than two centuries.” I don’t know if Ruskov smokes but Bulgaria is apparently a big tobacco-using country: according to data on Wikipedia, Bulgaria ranks fourth in the world in number of cigarettes per adult per year, 2,437.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add that I thought Rodel’s translation read nicely, conveying humor and a stylized voice. 

Disclosures: I received a copy of Thrown into Nature from Open Letter Books, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.

Up Next: The Canvas, by Benjamin Stein, an Open Letter Book that I’m enjoying very much… fitting since I’ll be going to Rochester, NY, home of Open Letter, for the American Literary Translators Association conference next week. I loved last year’s conference in Kansas City so can’t wait!

Image: Portrait of Monardes, from user Valérie75, via Wikipedia

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Seven Quick Points about Deon Meyer’s Seven Days

I read Seven Days in K.L. Seegers’s translation of the Afrikaans original 7 Dae, written by Deon Meyer

Seven Days is part of a series featuring detective captain Benny Griessel but Seven Days reads just fine on its own; I haven’t read the precursors.

Meyers mixes episodes from Griessel’s personal life—counting his days of sobriety and showing his struggle to start a relationship with a lovely singer—with his investigation of the murder of an ambitious and artificially shapely female attorney.

The case is urgent because a sniper is shooting at policemen, promising to shoot one a day until the attorney’s killer is found.

The novel is well-structured and nicely paced, and I thought Meyer did particularly well populating Seven Days with a varied bunch of investigators and the tensions between them.

Bonus for me: I couldn’t help but enjoy the small Russian subplot!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Seven Days at the Grove/Atlantic booth at BookExpo America, thank you! -- I always enjoy discussing literature in translation with Grove/Atlantic.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Fiction with Finnish: A Fool’s Paradise and We Sinners

Anita Konkka’s A Fool’s Paradise, which I read in A.D. Haun and Owen Witesman’s translation of the Finnish original Hullun taivaassa, and Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners share more than Finnish ancestry: structurally, both books link vignettes or stories into novels, and both books offer straightforward writing and rather bleak, atmospheric pictures of loneliness. 

I read A Fool’s Paradise first, enjoying Konkka’s first-person narrator’s dark humor: her storyteller is an unemployed young woman who’s involved with a married man and enjoys referring to Russian literature and writers. In the first chapter, she has a stone from Pasternak’s grave in her pocket. The woman’s accounts of her life, much of which isn’t particularly interesting in term of activity, read, to me, like a stream of vignettes, often incorporating observations about strangers and descriptions of dreams. “Our life passes in sleeping and waiting,” she says. She also says her only duty in society is to report to the unemployment office.

It’s Konkka’s use of detail—a bird flying into a room, a gypsy on a ferry, childhood memories of learning about Yuri Gagarin—and tone, as conveyed by Haun and Witesman, that made A Fool’s Paradise so strangely engaging for me. Here’s an example:
A young man is distributing leaflets in front of the K-Market and asks whether I believe in Jesus. No woman has ever asked me that. Perhaps they’ve agreed that men will save women and women save men, since people are more responsive to the allure of the opposite sex.
Repentance and sin are, as promised by the title, a crucial element of We Sinners, a novel-in-stories that chronicles the lives of the Rovaniemis, a family of Finnish descent living in the U.S. that has nine children. The Rovaniemis are Laestadian Lutherans who aren’t allowed to watch movies or TV, go to school dances, use makeup, or drink alcohol. Among other things. Of course they break the rules a lot, and several of the Rovaniemi children leave the church during the course of the book. One of the younger Rovaniemis sums up the church this way, “It’s a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans. End of story.”

All those rules and alleged deprivations (I love life without a TV!), along with the expected transgressions from all manner of sinners, were less interesting for me than Pylväinen’s grace in structuring the book, her debut novel. She tells the family’s story chronologically, economically covering a couple decades in under 200 pages by carrying threads from one story to another. In the first story, children get chicken pox and their father, Warren, may be offered the job of pastor at their church… Pylväinen starts the second story by letting the reader know what happened for Warren.

Pylväinen also creates an interesting illusion with her story-chapters, many of which focus on a key episode in one character’s life with references to other family members. The characters—from father Warren, who grits his teeth from anger until a crown breaks, to Brita, a daughter whose first press of the keys on her new piano is silent—are members of a crowded family living in a crowded house but they often feel tragically alone in their anger, disappointment, and relative poverty. Much of the siblings’ interaction comes through solidarity in leaving or staying with the church.

Two scenes involving the mother, Pirjo, especially stuck with me. In the first, her discovery (at the movies!) that one of her sons is gay seemed especially alienating for everyone involved, “She felt slapped, she felt rejected, she felt like he had looked at the life she had made for him and he had spit on it.” So much for forgiveness. Toward the end of the book, Pirjo tells one of her daughters over the phone, “We’re here to remind you of what is right. We know you know in your hearts what the right thing is, of course we know you know that—” But then her daughter cuts her off, yelling, “Assholes!”

Up Next: Seven Days by Deon Meyer.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of We Sinners from publisher Henry Holt, thank you!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Not-So-Jolly Jester: Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man

Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man, which I read in Geoffrey Strachan’s translation of the original French La vie d’un homme inconnu, is the kind of book that makes me grumpy. The novel details—and I do mean “details”—the emotional and geographical wanderings of a little-known Russian émigré writer living in France who decides to visit the motherland after his much-younger girlfriend dumps him. Shutov, the writer, is a sentimental guy and he wants to visit an old flame.

Peterhof/Petrodvorets at Saint Petersburg's 300th
Shutov’s surname may be rooted in “shut” (sounds like “shoot”), the Russian word for a clown, fool, or jester, but he doesn’t fit in with St. Petersburg’s carnivalesque atmosphere at the city’s anniversary celebration. He says, “Nothing has changed in thirty years. And everything has changed.” Right. A paragraph later, when Shutov tells himself, “I was wrong to come…,” I wrote “Yes, you were!” in the margin. Reason A: As we all know, you can’t step in the same river twice. Reason B: The trip is a colossally awkward plot device designed to give Shutov a chance to observe changes and fail to have a soulful reunion with Yana, the old flame, who is now a busy businesswoman… but miraculously redeem the journey by meeting Volsky, an old man who inhabits a room in a former communal apartment Yana now owns.

It’s Volsky’s last night in his room before moving to a nursing home, and Shutov watches over him, listening to his life story, which includes the blockade of Leningrad, reaching Berlin for the Soviet Army during World War 2, Stalin-era imprisonment, and a love story involving numerous coincidences. Volsky’s life hits on numerous elements of the mythos of Soviet Russia and Leningrad, combining the miracle of survival and the ability to find a certain happiness amidst chaos, arrests, and death. The problem here isn’t the material, which is important, it’s Makine’s treatment, which makes Volsky feel like a clichéd composite of the Soviet period right down to a tear-jerking final trip to an old site before he moves to the nursing home.

Even worse, Volsky is a tool to inspire Shutov to find perspective on his own dull life. If, that is, the reader can believe this self-centered guy is ready for perspective. This element of the novel felt especially literarily cheap and obvious because Makine summarizes the novel’s action and message at the end, lest the reader missed something. An example: “The violent feeling suddenly overcomes Shutov that he will never be a part of the Russian world that is now being reborn within his native land.” But we knew that many pages ago.

The Life of an Unknown Man reminds me of a Soviet-era package tour to Russia: a schedule stuffed with group meals in hotel dining rooms and ideological excursions, but no contact with Russians other than tour guides and food service personnel. Sure, you see the important sites and many of them are lovely. But you feel manipulated, told what to think. There are lots of Russian novels available in translation that address World War 2 in the Soviet Union and/or the Stalinist repression that I’d recommend over Makine’s The Life, everything from I(rina) Grekova’s Ship of Widows to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Two other Soviet-era books that have become classics: Anatolii Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate.

To be fair, I should note that lots of readers enjoyed The Life of an Unknown Man far more than I. Among them: Kirkus, which starred it; Amy Henry on The Black Sheep Dances; Mary Whipple on Seeing the World Through Books; Viv Groskop in The Observer, and M.A. Orthofer on The Complete Review, who links to numerous other reviews.

Notes on two other books: I had so much difficulty with G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, a clunky and contrived attempt to mix a Persian Gulf cyberthriller with djinns and The Thousand and One Nights that I stopped reading half-way through. Grumpy again! I also read the first hundred or so pages of WiesławMyśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, in Bill Johnston’s translation. Stone Upon Stone is very good, vignettes of rural Polish life that come close to qualifying as stream-of-consciousness, but it’s the kind of book I’m best reading over time, in chunks, so I don’t lose the nuance. I read wonderful passages about farming, the significance of a new road, and melees at dances. It’s easy to see why Bill Johnston won the Best Translated Book Award for Stone Upon Stone: he creates a memorable English-language voice for Myśliwski’s first-person narrator. It’s a book I’ll study and analyze, too, because its narrative voice feels like a Polish cousin to some of the Russian-language stories I’ve worked on.

Disclaimers: Thanks to Amy Henry who sent me a copy of The Life of an Unknown Man that she received from Graywolf Press, whom I also thank. Amy also facilitated my copy of Stone Upon Stone from Archipelago Books—thanks to both of them! Finally, I picked up a copy of Alif the Unseen from Grove/Atlantic’s booth at BookExpo America; I’ve always enjoyed speaking with Grove/Atlantic about literature in translation.  

Up next: Anita Konkka’s A Fool’s Paradise. Then Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners. I think it’s my summer for Finnish-related books… I may have to read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book next.

Image credit: Saint Petersburg’s 300th Anniversary, from

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Identity Theft: Frayn’s Skios

Michael Frayn’s Skios is both fun and funny, an entertaining farce about mistaken identity at a Fred Toppler Foundation conference—“Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics”—for a bunch of schmoozing jetsetters and would-be intellectuals who gather on a fictional Greek island. Skios tells the story of two Dr. Norman Wilfreds and the silly havoc they wreak on themselves and the people around them.

The passport-proven Norman Wilfred is scheduled to lecture at the conference about the management of science… but ends up at a distant house on Skios instead of the lavish conference site after being mistaken for one Oliver Fox. The ersatz Norman Wilfred, whose real name is, yes, Oliver Fox, is coming to Skios for a fling but decides to become Dr. Wilfred when he sees a woman holding a Norman Wilfred sign at the airport and decides “that would have been a good name to have.” Fox-Wilfred also sees that Nikki Hook, the woman greeting him, “plainly wanted him to be Dr. Wilfred.” Fox-Wilfred isn’t one to disappoint.

There are many layers of humor lurking in Skios, from the repetition of identity-based gags—like Spiros and Stavros, brothers and taxi drivers, who think real-Wilfred must be “Phoksoliva,” which real-Wilfred thinks must be a Greek expression—to a receptionist answering the phone by saying “How my dreck your call?” And then there’s satire involving empty-headed conference attendees, who are all too eager to believe that Fox-Wilfred is real-Wilfred. Even if they’ve met him in the past.

Identity in Skios is all about belief and labels, that people fit the labels they present; this plays nicely on contemporary thought that something will happen if you believe in it enough. Perhaps what’s most telling on Skios is that the person at the conference who most pesters Fox-Wilfred, asking him real scientific questions, is shunted aside over and over because he’s inconvenient: maintaining the illusion of Fox-Wilfred is more comfortable. Of course the illusion is also entertaining and suspenseful for the reader, as when Fox-Wilfred comes up with an absurd and messy magician-like act with coffee cups in an attempt to evade answering the questions.

There is plenty more illusion, fake, ersatz, and faux in Skios, from Nikki’s blond hair to a Russian woman’s apparent lack of English: Mrs. Toppler, the former Vegas dancer who heads the foundation, tells Fox-Wilfred to entertain one Mrs. Skorbatova at dinner by just talking, telling him, “A mouth opening and shutting. That’s all most people here want, when you come right down to it. Plus one of your nice smiles.”

Frayn ends the novel with far more of a semiotic bang than I’d expected. He sets it off with a careless action (involving sweets) that spurs an utterance—an English word that has multiple meanings—that prompts an inappropriate reaction. This misunderstanding has much, much worse consequences than the Fox-Wilfred matter but Frayn still manages to end the book on a humorous note, with Mrs. Toppler thanking her conference guests. Everything is only what you say it is.

Skios, by the way, was long-listed for the Booker Prize last week. Skios is listed on the Macmillan Web site here, with a brief excerpt.

Up Next: Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man. Then G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Skios from the publisher, Henry Holt. Thank you!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Riikka Pulkkinen’s True

Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, which I read in Lola M. Roger’s translation from the Finnish original Totta, is a novel about family, death, and dying that tells the story of three generations. Though it’s the grandmother, Elsa, who is dying in the present day, Pulkkinen tells much of the family’s collective story through an affair in the 1960s between Martti, Elsa’s husband, and Eeva, the nanny for their daughter Eleonoora.

The situations in True—a torrid affair with the nanny while Elsa is away on business—sound trite and soap opera-ish, but Pulkkinen offers a new angle by letting Martti and Elsa’s granddaughter, Anna, imagine the affair. This isn’t a stretch for Anna: she and Martti have a long-standing habit of looking at strangers and inventing life stories for them. Anna combines imagination with her own life, projecting her own pain, left over from her relationship with a past boyfriend’s young daughter, onto Martti and Eeva’s story, thinking Eeva would also suffer from being separated from Eleonoora.

Interpretations of reality and relationships float through True. Martti, a prominent painter, tells stories, too, through his art, including portraits of the women in his life, and Elsa is a well-known psychologist. Pulkkinen also weaves in the social changes of the 1960s, referencing protests about the Vietnam War and sending Eeva to Paris. Eeva is no activist, though, and Pulkkinen contrasts the personal and the social. Here’s a paragraph from one of Anna’s chapters imagining Eeva’s voice:
No one will admit it but all of us are actually more interested in the lake and the sauna and the half of a blueberry pie on the table than we are in the fact that reality is being created at this very moment in offices and meeting rooms and on speakers’ platforms and who knows maybe underground in the kinds of groups whose names have only just been thought up.
Pulkkinen refers to other Finnish sweets, including some of my favorites: breads with cardamom, which my mother used to bake using my Finnish grandmother’s recipe, get several mentions as do candies from Fazer, which I used to buy in airports on my way to and from Moscow. I suspect they draw on Finnish readers’ senses and—more importantly—memories even more than they draw on mine.

In Rogers’s translation, the narrative voices of True feel neutral and, considering the emotional subject matter, almost flat, as they describe landscapes, family relationships, and even Elsa’s death, which the reader knows must come. But Rogers’s tone felt true to me: it prevented the novel from becoming maudlin, and it fit nicely with True’s Finnish settings, where characters endure, with stoicism, hot saunas, cold swimming, and all sorts of emotional pain and distance.

I think it’s the combination of stylistics, Finnish motifs, and, of course, stereotypical elements of stories about family—meaning everything from the book’s narrative tone to the birds, the sweets, the lake, the rotting boards in the sauna, the love of ice cream, and even the closet holding Eeva’s old dress—that hold True together, making an old story feel worthy of retelling, with, of course, variations.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of True at BookExpoAmerica from Other Press, thank you! I enjoyed speaking about Russian literature in translation with Other Press during BEA. More on disclosures: here.

Up Next: Michael Frayn’s Skios, which I enjoyed very much.

Image credit: Photo of Finnish breads from Mikalaari, via Wikipedia

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Are the Odds? Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman is a new type of mashup novel for writer Ben H. Winters, co-author of such titles as Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters: in The Last Policeman, Winters sets a murder mystery in pre-apocalyptic Concord, New Hampshire, creating a suspenseful and thoughtful combination of crime and natural disaster that asks refreshingly everyday existential questions of everyday people.

Winters’s narrator is Hank Palace, a police detective who insists on investigating an apparent suicide—the dead man is a “hanger” whose body is found in a McDonald’s men’s room—because his instincts tell him something isn’t right. “A man is dead,” he says. Of course people die all the time, hangers are common in Concord, and everybody in The Last Policeman is going to die in fairly short order. They’re counting down the months until an asteroid known as Maia will hit. For me, the acceleration of everyone’s demise—and the reactions it produces—is the source of the appeal of a full-on literary natural disaster like Maia. An asteroid is the ultimate unexpected guest who walks in on a static dinner party (or state capital) and changes everything.

It’s Palace’s practical, calm, and consistent voice that makes The Last Policeman work. Palace is a relatively softboiled guy in a pretty hardboiled world, though he began experiencing the trauma of unlikely events as a child, he lives alone, and he loves being a cop. Given the importance of the asteroid, unlikely events and long odds are a big theme in the book. Here’s Palace on the odds: 
But that’s how it works: no matter what the odds of a given event, that one-in-whatever-it-is has to come in at some point or it wouldn’t be a one-in-whatever chance. It would be zero.
The dead man, by the way, worked in insurance, an odds-based industry that’s not a great line of work when the world’s about to end. Of course much more than the insurance industry has collapsed in The Last Policeman: people go “bucket list” to fulfill their worldly dreams, ignite themselves, perpetuate conspiracy theories, take to drugs, stockpile weapons, and slack off at work. But not Palace:
Still, the conscientious detective is obliged to examine the question of motive in a new light, to place it within the matrix of our present unusual circumstance. The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.
A little later, Palace, an observer of the social contract, notes the continuing responsibilities of cops, saying the public relies on them. And he laments later that the asteroid becomes “an excuse for poor conduct.”

Winters shows us plenty of poor conduct but he also shows us people like Palace who keep on with their lives, solving crimes, serving up eggs, and making espresso. Winters has a light hand in The Last Policeman, balancing humor, darkness, and pathos, offering up lines that made me laugh then sigh. Here’s a female cop telling Palace about chasing someone: “…you know, Palace, this is it. This is the last chance I get to run after a perp yelling, “Stop, motherfucker.”

The Last Policeman, which will be released July 10, 2012, is the first novel in a planned trilogy.

Disclaimers & disclosures: I received a review copy of The Last Policeman from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I’ve enjoyed seeing at BookExpo America, and who’s a friend on Facebook. Thank you!

Up Next: Riikka Pulkkinen’s True... I’m glad to be back to my usual reading routine after a busy spring!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Herta Müller’s Hunger Angel

Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, which I read in Philip Boehm’s translation of the original German Atemschaukel, is a painful but frighteningly lovely account of a young man’s internment in a Soviet labor camp after World War 2. Leo Auberg, who calls himself a Transylvanian Saxon, tells the story of his travel to the camp, his years spent there with coal, and his return to his family in Romania, to, among people, the grandmother who’d said “I KNOW YOU’LL BE BACK” and the “ersatz-brother Robert,” born while Leo was away. I think the term “ersatz-brother” gives a nice feel for the sort of dark humor Müller brings to the book, with, of course, crucial help from Boehm.

As a veteran of Russian camp fiction, the book took me back to Varlam Shalamov (for Müller’s brief, stabbing vignettes) and Solzhenitsyn (for Leo’s ability to find moments of relative happiness and his fear of freedom “outside”). But what struck me most about the book—probably largely because of my own interests—was Müller’s conscious use of language, both as a creative tool for herself as a writer and as a theme for Leo. Though her hunger angels, who hover over each prisoner, are strong, her use of language is even stronger as she creates ways to write about horrible experiences. Here are a few examples, plus some commentary from Boehm:

The Sound of Russian!: Early in the book, Leo says that “The Russian commands sound like the name of the camp commandant, Shishtvanyonov: a gnashing and sputtering collection of ch, sh, tch, shch… After a while the commands just sounds like a constant clearing of the throat—coughing, sneezing, nose blowing, hacking up mucus.”

As a Russian teacher who often tells her students not to make the sound kh so gutturally that they sound as if they’re trying to cough something up, this passage, well, struck me as a wonderful combination of finding a way to describe a language’s sound while finding a way to express the newness and unusualness of the sounds for Leo’s group. I even brought the book in to read the paragraph to my first-year Russian students, who’d commented on Russian’s harsher qualities.

A Mix of Languages/Hunger Words: A single word can generate a lot of thought for Leo: in “the skinandbones time,” Leo says the prisoners are given “kapusta,” cabbage, though “cabbage soup in Russian means soup that often has no cabbage at all,” a subversion of language. Leo then goes on to explain that “cap” in Romanian is “head” and “pusta” is the Great Hungarian Plain. “The camp is as Russian as the cabbage soup, but we think these things up in German,” he tells us. Leo then goes on to say that “kapusta” isn’t a hunger word… so he lists hunger words, words like mincemeat, hasenpfeffer, and haunch of venison, that inspire tastes in the mouth and “feed the imagination… Each person thinks a different word tastes best.” There’s also an episode a couple pages later where Leo is caught, by the afore-mentioned Shishtvanyonov, carrying cabbage [sic?] soup in bottles. Leo says he wants to bring the soup home. Though he’s not sure why he saved the soup, Leo reinvents the soup as a medicine, saving himself from punishment. Conclusion: the word “kapusta” can signify many things.

Homesickness & Parasites: For me, one of the saddest uses of language involved “homesickness” (mentioned as “heimweh”) as a euphemism for problems like lice, bedbugs, and hunger. A few pages later, Leo notes his personal uses of words and the separation of the words from what they signify, offering the example of the Russian “vosh’,” which he uses for bedbugs and lice, not remembering the meaning of “vosh’”to Russians. “Maybe the word can’t tell one from the other. But I can,” he says.

Also: The Cuckoo Clock: I have to mention that I thought Müller did nicely bringing clocks and the passage of time into the book, too. A chapter in the first half of the book is called “On the phantom pain of the cuckoo clock.” In it, Leo wonders, “Why did we need a cuckoo clock here. Not to measure the time.” Leo concludes that the barracks clock belongs to the hunger angel, saying a certain question [which invokes superstition] is most important, “Cuckoo, how much longer will I live.” When Leo returns home, alive, though many of his campmates have died, “The clock ticked away beside the wardrobe.”

To Summarize: The Hunger Angel felt especially successful to me because Müller balances the harshness of reality—camp deaths, camp privations, camp parasites—with a linguistic playfulness that simultaneously reflects and rejects that same reality. Episodes of absurdity mix with harshness, simultaneously giving the novel an air of reality and abstraction, as well as some wonderfully dark humor.

Finally, I want to say that I think Boehm’s translation finds a consistent voice, both fluid and linguistically marked, for Leo. Boehm quotes Leo in his Translator’s Note, “I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words.” Boehm then writes of Müller, “In one novel after the other, it has been Herta Müller’s special calling to find words for the displacement of the soul among victims of totalitarianism.”

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of The Hunger Angel from publisher HenryHolt. Thank you very much!

Up Next: I’ve had a hard time finding something to follow The Hunger Angel… so settled on something predictable, another Swedish murder mystery. My next post won’t appear until mid-June, after BookExpo America.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Journey of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout

Walkabout, a short novel by James Vance Marshall (pseudonym for Donald Payne), is a peculiar trip through the outback with two children from a “comfortable home in Charleston, South Carolina” who are stranded after a plane crash. They set off on foot for Adelaide, meeting a lone Aborigine boy as they walk. I saw Nicolas Roeg’s film version of Walkabout in a sociology course in college so knew the basics—the trio of kids and the outback—but was surprised (though why!?) at how much tones differed, with the film stranding the kids through an episode of violence rather than a plane crash.

What I remember best about the film, which I saw, oh, about thirty years ago, is the contrast between meat for sale in an Australian city—prekilled, pretrimmed, for sale in bulk—and do-it-yourself meat in the outback. I don’t know if my memories are correct but that’s what stuck with me: urban life that’s far removed from nature, food sources, and metaphorically, a knowledge of self. Little of the “civilized” side of the food aspect of the contrast is contained in the book beyond a stick of candy that the girl, Mary, carries in her dress pocket. Once it’s gone, she and her brother, Peter, starve until they meet the boy on walkabout.

Marshall emphasizes differences in culture and behavior codes—or “sacred orders,” as we called them in my sociology course—with passages like this one about Mary, who’s rather inhibited:
The things that she’d been told way back in Charleston were somehow not applicable any more. The values she’d been taught to cherish became suddenly meaningless. A little guilty, a little resentful, and more than a little bewildered, she waited passively for what might happen next.
Beyond being embarrassed by nudity, Mary’s internal crisis has a racial element:
It was wrong, cruelly wrong, that she and her brother should be forced to run for help to a Negro; and a naked Negro at that.
But here’s Peter, who is younger and more able to adapt than his sister:
Peter watched him. Inquisitive. Imitative. Soon he too started to brush away the leaves and pluck out the blades of grass.
Marshall uses such obvious language often in Walkabout, occasionally taking an anthropological tone to tell us, for example, “Physically, the Australian Aboriginal is tough,” and describing walkabout in terms of tribal traditions.

The Biblical overtones in the book felt obvious, too, with the Aborigine boy taking a Christ-like role—he even teaches Peter to fish—and sacrificing his life. There’s also this line about a billabong, “The river that ran out of Eden couldn’t have been more beautiful.” And that brings me to the book’s biggest strength: descriptions of the landscape and its birds, plants, and non-human mammals, and observing how the children learn to use and respect nature so they can survive. Walkabout felt most successful when Marshall stepped back and let his characters be characters. I didn’t need him to tell me about their differing value systems, particularly given all he’s able to show through their differences in language, (in)abilities to find food, and comfort wearing clothing.

Up next: Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, which has a strong Russian theme.

Disclosures: I read the New York Review Books edition of Walkabout, which I bought myself. I always enjoy speaking with NYRB about translated fiction.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

David Albahari’s Leeches

I’m back at last, albeit with a book—David Albahari’s Leeches, in Ellen Elias-Bursac’s translation from the Serbian Pijavice—that I find rather confounding, with a diabolical combination of minutiae and whatever you call the accumulation of all the minutiae. Leeches is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read but didn’t particularly like... One of my difficulties is that Leeches is written as one 300-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph. But I admit it’s not Albahari’s fault that I couldn’t give Leeches the attention and concentration it deserved because cold viruses were replicating in my respiratory system, much like the obsessive thoughts about a plot that plague the book’s narrator, a Belgrade newspaper columnist who witnesses a man slap a woman down by the Danube on March 8, 1998. (I can’t help but notice that March 8 is International Women’s Day...)

Our hero, who never seems to record his name in his manuscript, finds, all over, clues to the meaning of the slap that lead him to seek out clues for understanding the clues, which lead him to corners of mathematics and the Kabbalah a bit esoteric for my head, virus-infected or not. Meanwhile, of course, the conflict over Kosovo is heating up in Serbia, something our unnamed hero notes regularly; chaos is personal, political, and literary in Leeches. The narrator mentions the strangeness of the political aspect of life, writing, “The encounters with the unbridled nationalists were so surreal that I didn’t even feel them to be a part of that reality.” The absurd and surreal aspects of the book—and the accompanying humor—were highlights of Leeches, particularly after my experiences living in post-Soviet Russia.

That’s probably why one of my favorite passages in the book describes a visit to a room where a portrait of Tito used to hang: “It felt as if that portrait had had its day a century ago, though only fifteen years has passed since then, and now it seems, maybe because I no longer live there, that its day never happened.” Questioning reality and history—particularly given nameless hero’s frequent pot smoking in the first half of the book—may not be the freshest theme in Leeches but it certainly feels right in this novel… and in many other books I’ve read about places, like the Former Soviet Union, where the countries and people caught up in geopolitical breakups seem to sense something akin to phantom limbs.

My very favorite passage in the book, though, is a favorite because of a personal connection. Our hero’s friend Marko, who disappears during the course of the novel, had a poet girlfriend who, during “a sudden and extremely unpleasant breakup… hit him on the head with a Benson English-Serbo-Croatian dictionary, until streams of blood were coursing down his forehead and neck…” This personal scene, I should note, takes place during a theatrical performance, in front of an audience, though it’s not scripted as part of the show: art, life, and imitation are all on display, with the audience “convinced it was part of the performance.”

Of course this mention of the Benson dictionary, written by the late Morton Benson, who attempted to teach me about the history of the Russian language when I was in grad school, gladdened me by reminding me of a professor who seemed to find it curious that his dictionary had made him a minor celebrity in what used to be known as Yugoslavia. Focusing on the Benson dictionary also gave me a framework for understanding one thin layer of Leeches: we have a breakup, bloodshed inflicted by a book of words from multiple languages, and even a language with two alphabets. Plus, of course, the meaning, significance, and impact (ouch!) of words, which our narrator tells us, later, “don’t count; they’re something else, as someone wrote recently, they never say what the speaker means for them to say, but what the listener wants to hear.”

That thought doesn’t feel particularly fresh, either, even within the context of the narrator writing his crazy account of crazy happenings, hoping to finish before his pen runs out of ink. He also tells us he won’t write “burn after my death” on the first page of his manuscript… there’s no guarantee, he says, that anyone would heed the command and he could burn the damn thing himself anyway. His exchange with himself reminds me, by the way, of Master and Margarita: both books take up the topic of (un)burning manuscripts and both feature heroines named Margarita/Margareta.

I could go on and on, just like Leeches itself, but let’s just say Albahari offers lots of chaos and humor in a long, long stream of words that talks about Jewish history, World War 2, manuscripts, math, violence, and trying to figure out how everything all fits together. Plus a few assorted mentions of leeches, which are cited as something to be gathered in swamps during the nineteenth century and compared with guns (both are “bloodletting”) a bit later. I’m not sure I have the patience to read Leeches again to get a better grasp of its mathematical and Kabbalistic corners, though I recommend it highly (no pun intended) to readers who enjoy novels where curious souls try to understand their broken-down societies on micro, macro, and mystical levels. Leeches was quite enjoyable. Even if I didn’t particularly like it.

I should also note that I thought Ellen Elias-Bursac, whom I enjoyed meeting at a literary translator conference last November, did a nice job translating what must have been a difficult text. Slavic tones came through the translation in good ways, and the text itself is very clear and readable.

For more: I’ve only touched on a few aspects of Leeches. For a deeper look at the story and its various histories:
Nina Herzog on Words Without Borders
Amy Henry on The Black Sheep Dances

Disclosures: Amy Henry gave me a review copy of Leeches that she received from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And I’ve met translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, as noted above. Thanks to all!

Up Next: Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Absent/Present: The Truth about Marie

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth about Marie, which I read in Matthew B. Smith’s translation of the French original La Vérité sur Marie, is a wonderfully elemental metaphysical romp. I’m not sure what that means, either, just as I’m not sure how to describe the book itself: it’s three connected chunks of text that verge on stream-of-consciousness, all narrated by a Nameless Guy who tells stories about his sort-of-ex-girlfriend, the Marie in the title, a fashion designer.

It was a dark and stormy night—a very hot summer night with thunder and lightning—in Chunk One, when I found Marie in her Paris apartment with a man who has a heart attack. Chunk Two, set in Tokyo before Chunk One, also involves a storm, plus the soon-to-be-dead-man’s racehorse, who doesn’t want to get in a carrier so he can fly. In Chunk Three, Marie is at a house on Elba, where Nameless Guy joins her; horses have a role in this piece, too, and there’s a big fire. All this makes for lots of furious air, water, and fire, plus some earth. The elements.

What’s most interesting about The Truth about Marie is that I didn’t feel like I learned much about Marie: Nameless Guy narrates all sorts of stories about what she does when he’s not around, inventing, but claiming,
“…I knew Marie’s every move, I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.”
He tells us what she does and wears when she gardens on Elba (apparently) he gets there: “rather kitschy flip-flops, with a plastic daisy in bloom in between her two big toes.” He tells us how Marie and the soon-to-be-dead-man riding in a cargo plane with the racehorse (Zahir, who is named for a Borges story) after the horse bolts and shuts down Narita airport. And we know that Marie loves chaos and leaves things open: luggage, drawers, and so on. But I didn’t feel like I learned many heavy, deep, or real truths about the ethereal Marie.

That’s not a complaint. It’s good because Nameless Guy offers plenty of scenes with situations that present universal truths that go far deeper than describing only Marie. These truths that relate to Marie are truths about all of us:  sudden death and changes of fate, the evocation of a summer storm that feels “tropical and pernicious,” and (ouch, ouch, ouch!) emptiness and absence. In reminiscing about Marie, the narrator mentions watching the bank across the street from Marie’s apartment, at night, saying,
“…all of this taking place in what seemed like a suspended moment in time, dynamic and intense, a moment of pure nothing, an emptiness charged with an invisible energy ready to explode at any instant, a gap continually animated by little events, unrelated, trivial, small in scale, occurring at regular intervals so that right when we’d be ready to go back to bed the tension would flare up again and put us back on guard…”
That piece of a sentence (it’s not even half) is a nice splinter of the book, which is composed of moments that Toussaint, too, makes feel unreal, suspended, empty yet concrete, immediate, and blaring with drama. That sort of paradox fits something Nameless Guy says about Marie, as well, “I loved her, yes. It may be very imprecise to say I loved her, but nothing could be more precise.”

My own truth is that I enjoyed The Truth about Marie very, very much, particularly its end, which is something resembling sunny, warm, and happy, where absence turns into presence—that’s what people need after all—at least for a time, and the narrator shifts to the second person [edit: oops, sorry, this sentence includes an example of direct address, which feels just as significant (if not more significant?) than using the second person] in the final sentence, after having already used the first and third persons. I thought Smith’s translation read very nicely, creating a voice that offers a welcoming balance of humor, melancholy, and sincerity. The writing had a nice rhythm, long sentences and all. I’m looking forward to reading more of Toussaint, including his previous books about Marie, one of which Smith translated.

Disclosure: I bought my copy of The Truth about Marie… but should note that I’ve enjoyed speaking with Dalkey about literature in translation.

Up Next: David Albahari’s Leeches, another book on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Awards. Others that I’ve read, in addition to The Truth about Marie, are, with links to past posts: My Two Worlds (Sergio Chejfec, tr. Margaret B. Carson), Zone (Mathias Énard, tr. Charlotte Mandell), and Funeral for a Dog (Thomas Pletzinger, tr. Ross Benjamin). I have two others on the shelf that I plan to read soon: Scars (Juan José Saer, tr. Steve Dolph) and Stone Upon Stone (Wiesław Myśliwski, tr. Bill Johnston).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cause & Effect: César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira’s Varamo is a wonderful Rube Goldbergesque novella, an elegant and humorous conglomeration of seemingly incongruous actions, consequences, and objects that combine to show the reader how a third-class clerk in Panama named Varamo receives his pay in counterfeit money and comes to write a “masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child” by the next dawn. I read Varamo in Chris Andrews’s translation.

Colón, Panama, in 1910. Varamo takes
place in 1923.
Aira’s story examines creativity and representation, following Varamo, a civil servant lacking special job skills, as he goes home after receiving the fake money: at home he works on a taxidermy project involving a fish and, eventually, uses his notes about the fish as a basis for his poem. (Original title: How to Embalm Small Animals.) At the end of the book, we find truth as the “raw material” for fantasy plus some peculiar observations on permanence. Varamo’s city, Colón, for example, remains as long as he does, and Varamo discovers that a die-shaped piece of candy he had stuck to a branch hours before remains stuck, despite having been pecked, daintily, by birds.

The fish has a stranger fate, and it’s interesting to see the poor thing as the object of two creative projects. The first is an attempt to make the fish appear, in death, as something more than it had been in life: a piano-playing fish. Then, if I understand this correctly, the chronicle of Varamo’s work on the fish becomes, through transformations involving random papers and a Rosetta Stone-like document that Varamo obtains through a chance meeting, the famous poem.

I found Varamo particularly fun because Aira suffuses his story with mentions of chance, accidents, improvisation, anarchists, literary genre, and cause and effect. Two examples:
The poem’s capacity to integrate all the circumstantial details associated with its genesis is a feature that situates it historically.
Like all adults, he was afraid of accidents. What dismayed him most about them was the temporal constant between the instant, or fraction of an instant, in which an accident could occur, and the long months or years required to repair its effects, if indeed they were reparable and didn’t last a lifetime.
I enjoyed Varamo very, very much, perhaps most for the lovely absurdities of its portrayal of the (or maybe “a”?) so-called writing process, a term I fought when I attended workshops at writing conferences years ago. For me, writing—and now translating—has never felt like an explainable process, other than certain mechanical actions, like sitting in a chair and applying fingers to a keyboard. I don’t believe in ethereal muses, either, but I do believe in cause and effect in the form of a myriad of mental processes, most of which occur rather randomly and quickly, (only, alas, to be forgotten, making me wonder how I (I?!) came up with my final drafts) that lead me to choose words that come together to create seemingly reasonable English-language versions of Russian texts. I don’t know Chris Andrews’s stance on any of this but I thought his Varamo established a voice that meshed nicely with the novella’s content, a voice that I looked forward to reading.

Disclosures: I picked up a copy of Varamo from publisher New Directions at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! I always enjoy speaking with New Directions about literature in translation.

Up Next: Anna Funder’s All that I Am. (My time for English-language reading has been at a new low in recent months because I’m teaching a college course this semester… but spring break is on the way!)

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Joseph Roth’s Miraculous Job

Joseph Roth’s Job, translated from the original German Hiob, Roman eines einfachen Mannes by Ross Benjamin, is a dark but lovely short novel about one Jewish man’s tribulations, the power of questioning and patience, and the potential for miracles. (Yes, this post contains spoilers.)

Roth’s Mendel Singer, whose friends compare him to (the Biblical) Job in the second half of the book, is a poor Torah teacher in a small village in the borderlands of the waning Russian Empire. Mendel and his wife Deborah have four children: three sons, one of whom is disabled, one of whom leaves for the U.S., and a third who joins the Russian Army, plus a daughter whose dallying with Cossacks in the fields prompts the family to follow their son to America. Life in America isn’t always easy, either. Somehow New York’s bedbugs and other parasites, and Deborah’s undying habit of hiding money under floorboards, stuck with me most.

What struck me about the novel, though, wasn’t the plot, which contains elements I’ve seen before, but Roth’s storytelling, which, in Benjamin’s spare translation, offers a matter-of-fact account of intense emotional suffering. Most wrenching: the Singers leave their youngest child, Menuchim, in the village when they leave for America, sad that a rabbi’s promise of a miracle hasn’t transformed Menuchim. Further family tragedies, in America, are difficult for Mendel, too, causing him to question his faith and choice of residence. Though the Singers travel from what they believe to be necessity and Roth includes references to wandering Jews, Mendel wonders where he is in a taut piece of geographical and psychological ostranenie/defamiliarization that falls in the middle of the book, just after the Singers arrive in New York:
What do these people have to do with me? thought Mendel. What does all of America have to do with me? My son, my wife, my daughter, this Mac? Am I still Mendel Singer? Is this still my family? Am I still Mendel Singer? Where is my son Menuchim? He felt as if he had been cast out of himself, he would have to live separated from himself from now on. He felt as if he had left himself behind in Zuchnow, near Menuchim. And as his lips smiled and his head nodded, his heart began slowly to freeze, it pounded like a metal drumstick against cold glass. Already he was lonely, Mendel Singer: already he was in America…
Part of the appeal of Job is that Roth juxtaposes what I labeled “cosmic stuff” in a margin note—“…he believed he felt distinctly for the first time in his life the soundless and wily creeping of the days, the deceptive treachery of the eternal alteration of day and night and summer and winter, and the stream of life, steady, despite all anticipated and unexpected terrors.”—with earthy material like the peasant cart driver Sameshkin propositioning Deborah.

There is also a wonderful scene where Sameshkin and Mendel have a cart accident and must spend the night together beside the road. Mendel sobs and Sameshkin comforts him:
Then he put his arm around Mendel’s thin shoulders and said softly: 
“Sleep, dear Jew, sleep well.” 
He stayed awake for a long time. Mendel Singer slept and snored. The frogs croaked in the morning.
The end of Job brings Mendel an out-of-the-blue miracle that seems to reward his suffering and refusal to completely abandon God. Benjamin writes, in an afterword, that Roth “once confessed he could not have written [the ending] had he not been drunk.” Though the scene is one of book’s most emotional, Roth maintains his composure, even at the most crucial moment, writing: “All rise suddenly from their seats, the children, who were already asleep, awake and burst into tears. Mendel himself stands up so violently that behind him the chair falls down with a loud crash.”

I found Roth’s blend of miracle and matter-of-factness especially interesting because it seems to place the book in the middle of a continuum of novels about Jewish life in the borderlands and the United States that I’ve read over the last several years. On one end, Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi contains lush language, magical miracles, and the slapstick effect of a Polish rabbi thawing out after a freezer loses its power decades after the man froze. But in Margarita Khemlin’s stories and novels of the everyday life of Jewish people in Soviet Ukraine, the language, humor, and authorial emotions are tamped down—as they are in Job—and the primary miracle is surviving World War 2, which hovers over her characters’ lives for decades. I’ve translated a bit of Khemlin’s work, which I love for its loaded concision and suspect Roth’s German in Job has a similar feel. I look forward to reading more of Roth’s fiction. 

Disclosures: A big thank you to Archipelago Books for a review copy of Job and to my friend and fellow blogger Amy Henry, an Archipelago Ambassador, for introducing me to Archipelago.

Up Next: Probably César Aira’s Varamo

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cold Blood: Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark

I’ve never hidden that I’m a moody reader, so I’m more than happy to explain my choice of Håkan Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark, which I read in Laurie Thompson’s translation from the original Swedish: On the morning of January 16, I posted to both my blogs then found that a technical problem prevented comments from appearing on Lizok’s Bookshelf. By the time I solved the problem, two hours later, I was cranky and hungry but ready for a stroll on the treadmill. And starting a new book. It was also very cold, which drew my eye to the Swedish detective novel corner of my bookcase. The first line of Woman with Birthmark—“She felt cold.”—felt right.

Of course I didn’t identify with that “she” for very long—we learn early on that “she” is up to something rotten—but I was happy to commiserate, mentally, about nasty wintry weather along with police inspector Van Veeteren, for a few hundred pages. Here’s what Van Veeteren thinks upon waking up at 7.55 on a Saturday morning:

If there was a month he hated, it was January—it went on forever with rain or snow all day long, and a grand total of half an hour’s sunshine. 
There was only one sane way of occupying oneself at this lugubrious time of year: sleeping. Period.

A serial killer brings Van Veeteren and his colleagues out of hibernation in Woman with Birthmark: someone is killing men who went to school together, shooting them in a distinctive way. The whodunit aspect of the book is clear from nearly the start because we know the cold woman has revenge on her mind but Nesser links her motive with a social message tied to her past. I figured that out before the end of the book, too, but was still more than happy to see how the police would solve the murders.

That’s my favorite kind of detective novel, particularly when northern temperaments and bleak weather patterns are involved. (I love bleak northern weather as long as I don’t have to leave the house.) I also enjoyed Nesser’s quiet humor, which gives us moments like these: the first victim’s wife is out of the house when her husband is shot because she is at the theater seeing A Doll’s House (their marriage doesn’t sound especially happy), a detective named Jung, and the bath-taking habits of police inspectors. An example: “It could be a coincidence, of course, Van Veeteren thought as he settled down in the bath with a burning candle on the lavatory seat and a beer within easy reach.”

Woman with Birthmark was a nice distraction during a mid-winter cold snap, particularly because I enjoyed reading Laurie Thompson’s clean and clear translation.

Up next: Joseph Roth’s Job. I think.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The -Morphoses, Meta- and Meow-

What is it with me and Czech absurdity? I loved the nasty humor in Ludvík Vaculík’s The Guinea Pigs (previous post) and Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed (previous post), and now here I am with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), which I first read, in Stanley Corngold’s translation, in high school. Warning: this post contains spoilers.

Rereading The Metamorphosis makes me wonder about my teenage fascination with the book. Namely: Did I fear waking up and thinking, like Gregor Samsa, the story’s protagonist, that I’m a giant beetle? And that I will dry up and drop dead, lonely, alienated, and shut away in my room? Or did I identify with Gregor’s younger sister, Grete, a not-so-skilled violin player who grows weary of the burden of having a coleopteran brother? Another option: I felt guilty about my enjoyment of collecting insects in sixth grade, feeling remorse after a June bug that revived itself in my hand when I attempted to take it out of the kill jar.

This time around, I did something responsible mental health professionals should discourage: I simultaneously read The Metamorphosis and two of Nikolai Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories, one of which is called “The Nose,” in honor of the breathing apparatus of a man who wakes up missing his nose, only to discover it walking the streets. In uniform. Though the stories made my delicate psyche a bit uncomfortable, the unintentional parallel reading was instructive: Gogol’s stories—like The Metamorphosis, in which poor Gregor awakes from “unsettling dreams”—involve fog and dreaminess, too. Alongside the clashes of reality and dream I also found clashes of ideas/artists/writers with plodding/philistines/bureaucrats. To quote Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature piece about The Metamorphosis, “The Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing else than mediocrity surrounding genius.”

I think this interpretation nicely complements a passage from Kafka’s diary, dated August 6, 1914, that Corngold quotes in the introduction to his translation:

“What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner self has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle.”

This state rather resembles Gregor’s and complements Nabokov’s discussion of The Metamorphosis as a fantasy, a version of the world unlike usual reality if reality is a composite picture of the world. Though Nabokov mentions that characters like Gregor try to escape dull everyday lives—and, for Gregor, his bedroom—he writes little of freedom, which rates a few mentions in The Metamorphosis. Gregor enjoys looking out his window, “evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window.” Later, the nasty Grete, reduced to “his sister,” discusses the identity of the bug in the other room—a bug that Nabokov has helpfully reminded us is “just over three feet long”—saying:

“But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will.”

But how could a three-foot beetle like Gregor just walk or even fly away, particularly after being injured by his own father? The human—or coleopteran—condition is absurd indeed. The only solution Gregor sees is to disappear. Which he does, shortly after three in the morning, after a “state of empty and peaceful reflection” that doesn’t resemble his unsettling dreams in the beginning of the book. Thus ends Gregor’s life and Gregor’s metamorphosis. I don’t remember finding the ending of The Metamorphosis so sad in past readings but Gregor seemed, to borrow again from Nabokov, especially “tragically absurd” this time. I suspect this was partly due to the effect of the contrast with a more comical brand of absurdity… including the afore-mentioned Case Closed and Guinea Pigs.

I followed The Metamorphosis with something more comically absurd: The Meowmorphosis, a Quirk Classic authored by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook. In this version of Kafka’s tale, Gregor awakens to find that he “had been changed into an adorable kitten.” This Gregor wants to knead the coverlet… and wonders how he “should reorganize his life from scratch.” Much of The Meowmorphosis replicates The Metamorphosis, albeit with changes that transform Gregor yet again—from insect to feline and from ugly to cute—but Cook inserts a long passage in the middle of the book, in which Gregor leaves his room for the streets and meets some other cats who have undergone metamorphoses of their own. I won’t reveal too much but will say that Gregor is put on trial by a cat known as Josef K., which brought me back to reading Kafka’s The Trial (Der Process) in college.

Cook also includes mentions of “writer issues” that segue into a humorous but very topical discussion of cats and dogs that begins with this: “Psychiatry is a dog’s profession, not a cat’s—a cat thinks what he thinks and that is all.” A bit later the cat says, “What we desire, we perform, and that is what is meant by freedom.” He goes on to admit that “cats know they are monsters and have no particular qualms about it…” Of course poor Gregor, whom the other cats have vilified for obeying his family, has to return home to close the story properly. “They are family and must endure me,” he tells himself, thinking they will take care of him. If only!

The Meowmorphosis was a fun way to cool down a bit after Gogol and Kafka; though Gregor faces the same sad end in both books, I certainly appreciated the comical absurdity and irony of Gregor turning into a cute and fuzzy (albeit rather large) animal instead of an ugly bug. Though you could read The Meowmorphosis without having read Kafka, I think Meow- probably has maximum enjoyment potential for those who’ve read Meta-.

Up next: Undecided.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Meowmorphosis from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I enjoyed meeting at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! Eric (who’s a friend on Facebook) also sent me a Meowmorphosis poster that I hung in the bathroom, much to the surprise of at least one dinner guest. Also: I met and chatted with the writer known as Coleridge Cook at a literary event.

Image credit: Coleopteran collage from Bugboy52.40, via Wikipedia.