Sunday, December 29, 2013

Minding the Animals in Ólafsson’s The Pets

I’m writing about Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets—which I read in Janice Balfour’s translation of the original Icelandic Gæludýrin—out of turn because I’m pretty sure I want to include it on my list of favorite books I read in 2012. What’s not to love (for a reader like me, anyway) about a book narrated by a guy who spends most of the novel lying under his own bed listening to people gather in his own apartment, wonder where he is, and drink his premium liquor?

The basic story of The Pets is this: Emil, a youngish guy from Reykjavik won the lottery, went to London for some shopping (he likes music and books), and met “a hulk of a linguist” and a lovely youngish woman on the flight home. Even as Emil is winging his way home, Emil’s ex-friend and former petsitting colleague Havard (thought to be institutionalized in Sweden) is drinking his way through Reykjavik and trying to find Emil. Havard comes to Emil’s after Emil arrives home but Emil sees him and dives under the bed before Havard crawls through the window to shut off a tea kettle… a little later Havard starts inviting people over. Including the linguist and the lovely youngish woman.

Again: What’s not to love (again: for a reader like me, anyway) about a wonderfully absurd situation like that? Particularly given Emil’s sense of humor and Havard’s recklessness? Beyond the humor, what struck me most is the hermeticness of it all: first Emil is trapped on a plane, then he’s trapped under his own bed, stuck with other people in enclosed spaces, even if they don’t know he’s there. Hell really can be other people. Particularly when, like Emil, you have a view of the bathroom and can see what people are doing in there. Here’s Emil, near the end of the book, lying under the bed, hearing Elvis Presley (first “Suspicious Minds” then “Don’t Cry Daddy”) play on his own stereo:
For a moment I long to take part, to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in, but the next moment I am really glad that I am alone, all by myself.
There was also this, about flying, toward the beginning of the book:
For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.
All of which is to say I loved The Pets. It’s wonderfully serious and sad fun. A bonus: the fact that I laughed out loud many times speaks well of Janice Balfour’s translation.

Disclosures: I always enjoy meeting up with Open Letter Books; I purchased a copy of The Pets.

Up Next: Favorites of 2012 2013.  Then the books I bumped for this one: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, which I also liked quite a bit, and Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant, another one that gets a thumbs up. Then Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, which is off to a good great start.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Life Elsewhere: Mr. Lynch’s Holiday

Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is a quiet, enjoyable novel that dissects contemporary migrations and alienation, offering up the story of Eamonn, a lonely, lost, barely employed expat man who lives in Spain, whose father, Dermot, a retired bus driver, comes to visit from England. It wasn’t so much the plot or backstories that mattered to me in Mr. Lynch’s Holiday—Eamonn’s wife, for example, left him to return to England and Dermot came to England from Ireland as a young man—as O’Flynn’s small touches, things like Skype as replacement human contact (some people fall asleep by the screen!) and the ghostly feel, predatory neighbors, and stray cats of Eamonn’s underpopulated coastal Spanish town.

O’Flynn works in, to good effect, lots of quiet and sad humor: Dermot, for example, never got over nouvelle cuisine all those years ago, and Eamonn ponders “El Cóndor Pasa,” specifically “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” and the use of panpipes, while drunk at a party. Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is gentle, spare, and occasionally sharp—a very decent combination—but also a bit predictable, particularly in the outcome of Dermot’s visit and a “one year later” epilogue that usurps a perfectly good (and, I thought, thoroughly appropriate) open-ended finish.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Mr. Lynch’s Holiday from publisher Henry Holt, thank you very much!

Up Next: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pitigrilli’s Addictive Cocaine

The cover of a 1945 Turkish edition.
Pitigrilli’s 1921 Cocaine, which I read in Eric Mosbacher’s translation from the original Italian Cocaina falls into a category of novels I seem to love, books about decadence between the World Wars that combine humor, soul searching, friends who become monks, and sad endings. Like Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight, Cocaine also focuses on a young European man’s (mis)adventures at home and abroad: in Cocaine, Tito Arnaudi, who’s Italian, goes to Paris, where he gets a job as a journalist, gets involved with multiple women, and gets a cocaine habit.

The trajectory here is tragic—based on my reading, cocaine habits in novels generally do result in trouble—but most of the journey is ridiculously fun and carnivalistic, even with (or perhaps because of?) looming death. There’s even a revolver on page 36. And an orgy in a penguin room, a lover with a coffin, strawberries soaked in Champagne and ether, and a scandal because Tito invents a newspaper article about an execution and the article is published even though the execution is commuted. And there are lines like “Gambling is not the pleasure of winning, but a feeling that you are living intensely.” Which Tito does, with his Italian girlfriend Maud (née Maddalena) and his Armenian girlfriend Kalantan (she of the coffin), and what must amass to kilos of cocaine. I enjoyed Eric Mosbacher’s translation very much for its feel of another time and--perhaps even more important for the translator in me--a sense that he made lots of excellent decisions about how to handle Cocaine’s form, vocabulary (tepidarium, anyone?), and wonderful peculiarities.

For more on Cocaine:

M.A. Orthofer’s review on The Complete Review, which concludes, “Cynical, yes, and arguably offensively amoral, Cocaine is still grand entertainment, exceptionally well done.”

Peter Keough on, with this summary at the top: “Cocaine’s bleak and brilliant satire, lush and intoxicating prose, and sadistic playfulness remain as fresh and caustic as they were nine decades ago.”

A version of Alexander Stille’s afterword to Cocaine, from the NYRblog.

Up Next: Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday, an interesting counterbalance to Cocaine

Disclosures: I received a galley copy of Cocaine from my local and very independent bookstore, Longfellow Books, which sells books from New Vessel Press, publisher of Cocaine. A smart move on their part for absolutely all concerned because a) I’d looked at Cocaine but it didn’t strike me at all in the store but b) it definitely struck me when I got home (!?) and c) I loved the book and d) I’m already planning to buy a couple copies for holiday gifts. (BTW: My purchase of a stack of books, many of which were translations, including a copy of Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, also published by New Vessel, is what spurred the gift… This, dear people, is only one of many reasons I love my independent book store so much. They know me as a person and a reader not as a user name, password, and credit card history. Plus they host great events!)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Two Quick Words: Police and Theft

It’s rare that I write about a book the week it hits the New York Times bestseller list but here goes… Jo Nesbø’s Police, which I read in Don Bartlett’s translation of the original Norwegian Politi, is described on the title page as “A Harry Hole Novel.” Meaning Police continues a series of novels about Harry Hole, a gruff, hard-boiled Oslo police detective. I’d be hard-boiled, too, if so many of my co-workers were murdered: they get killed off at such a rate in Police it’s a wonder anyone’s left by the end of the book.

Police is my first Nesbø book and it left me pretty indifferent. I enjoy a good detective novel but Police felt a little too twitchy and manic, shifting from plotline to plotline, character to character. I realize the furtiveness felt magnified because I haven’t read any of Nesbø’s previous novels about Harry Hole and his colleagues—always a danger with series novels—but, sorry, I think books ought to stand alone a little better than this if they’re sold alone. When Police finally settled down and began exploring character as the characters continued to explore a series of killings, I enjoyed it more, though the series of plot twists is such that mentioning relevant specifics would pretty much spoil the book for anyone intending to read it… not that those spoilers would really come as much of a surprise. Even at its best, Police still didn’t feel like much more than a typical hard-edged detective novel that could take place just about anywhere in the world. There was even a reference to Breaking Bad. Shrug.

If I were using food metaphors—and why not?—then Police is the Starbucks coffee and institutional-tasting chocolate cupcake I ate a couple weeks ago while traveling, you know, that standard junky snack you can buy anywhere to satisfy a certain craving even if you know you won’t love it. By contrast, Peter Carey’s Theft is a tasty soufflé with a glass of wine and a fun friend: light, laugh-inducing, and atmospherically memorable. Theft is narrated by two Australian brothers, both troubled in their own ways: Michael Boone is an artist who’s done time and Hugh Boone is younger, larger (at 220 pounds), and living in Michael’s care because he’s not, as they say, all there.

The (new) troubles start when Michael (a.k.a. Butcher) meets Marlene Leibovitz, who turns up at his (borrowed) house… it turns out Marlene’s the daughter-in-law of one of Michael’s favorite painters. And then we start in on forgery, thefts (art and even one of Hugh’s folding chairs he uses to sit on the street), other forms of deception, trips to Tokyo and New York, murder, and so on. What makes Theft so much fun is Carey’s combination of undependable narrative voices: Michael, mostly serious and mostly in love with the sneaky Marlene, and Hugh, quirky, perceptive about his brother’s relationship, and often using ALL CAPS to emphasize his points. All this fits together in a way that addresses questions of truth(iness) and its versions, the nature of art, and, of course, all sorts of relationships, many of them triangular. And who gets the last laugh.

Disclaimers and disclosures: I received a copy of Police from publisher Alfred A. Knopf, thank you!

Up next: Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond and MacDonald Harris’s The Carp Castle. And Pitigrilli’s Cocaine.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Devil & World War 2: Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop

There are lots of reasons I ordered up a copy of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop as soon as I heard about it: the book addresses historical memory and World War 2, I seem to have an affinity for Czech absurdism and humor, I’ve visited all the novel’s main settings (Terezín, Prague, Minsk, and Khatyn), and I was eager to read more of Alex Zucker’s work after enjoying his translation of Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed. Alex translated The Devil’s Workshop from the Czech book known as Chladnou zemí.

The Devil’s Workshop is a sneakily powerful novel narrated by an unnamed man who came into the world because his father rescued his mother at the liberation of the concentration camp in Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt. As an adult, the narrator works with Lebo, a man who’s everyone’s uncle: Lebo was born in the camp during the war and makes it his mission to preserve everything related to the camp, save the town, and make it a bigger attraction. Lebo and the narrator eventually gather plenty of money and plenty of people in Terezín… but then things fall apart when they become victims of their own success and are accused (among other things) of having a commune. With orgies.

Before too long, the narrator (carrying a thumb drive loaded with contact information for donors) is escaping the Czech Republic, lured to Belarus by Alex and Maruška, who are building their own war-related museum:

The museum we’re building in Khatyn, Alex says. It’s going to be the most famous memorial site in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That’s why you’re here!

About twenty pages later, Alex bemoans the existing “boring, old-style memorial” at Khatyn:

That won’t get the attention of the new Europeans. Look at the Poles and that Katyn of theirs! A step ahead, again! They’re shooting a movie about it! And what about our Khatyn? Nobody’s even heard of it.
Khatyn, Belarus
Alex’s plans for Khatyn include oral history and authenticity in a combination I can only describe as ghoulish. I shuddered (physically!) when I realized the plan for the museum… it’s a logical conclusion for the novel but it’s also a logical extension of real-life issues that generate lots of debate these days, things like the transformation of museums into interactive experiences, monetization of human suffering, and spectacles like Bodies… The Exhibition.

I seem to read a fair bit about historical memory and World War 2—the far more optimistic Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is another World War 2-related book that comes to mind after a recent reading—but the combination of dark humor, tragedy, imagination, and twists on the realities of Belarus give The Devil’s Workshop a particular relevance that makes me more than willing to forgive the novel’s slightly uneven pacing and characterization. Finally, I’m happy to report that Alex Zucker feels fully in control of his material with this book, too: I barely noticed that the book lacks quotation marks (this is a feat), and he does a beautiful job making choppy and colloquial language wonderfully readable. That’s very difficult, particularly in a book like this, with its humor, remnants of war-time suffering, and strong voices, but he sure makes it look easy.

Disclaimers: I know Alex Zucker through the American Literary Translators Association. I bought the book.

Up Next: Rose Macaulay’s quirky The Towers of Trebizond, MacDonald Harris’s comically metaphysical The Carp Castle, and Niccolo Ammaniti’s gritty As God Commands.

Image: Part of the memorial at Khatyn, photo by Veenix, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Inga Ābele’s High Tide

Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which I read in Kaija Straumanis’s translation from the original Latvian Paisums, is one of those complex-feeling books with a complex-looking structure that turns out to be fairly simple at its core. High Tide is “about” (it feels particularly odd to say that about a book like this) all the big stuff: love, death, family relationships, and societal change… and ways to recover from—or at least deal with—all of the above.

Which isn’t to say I’m exactly sure what I read: the back cover blurb of High Tide tells me it’s written in “more or less reverse chronological order,” which feels about right, but the novel is so poetic and abstract in some ways (especially in the beginning) and so up-closely brutal (at times) in telling stories from the life of its main character, Ieva, that High Tide left me, to borrow more metaphors from the ocean, feeling like I was sitting on a narrow beach with waves encroaching. I do like the beach at high tide even if low tide feels more comfortable. There’s more space. But it’s less interesting.

Some of the waves in High Tide are pretty big: Ieva comes of age in the late eighties, when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and she’s a teenage mother whose husband, Andrejs, doesn’t share her interest in books. He does, though, come to enjoy Greek mythology in prison, preferring it to Christianity because you get to keep your guilt. (I loved this...) That prison term, by the way, is for shooting Ieva’s boyfriend, Aksels, dead. That’s the basic story—well, that along with Ieva’s distant relationships with her daughter, her mother, and, to a lesser degree, her grandmother—so you may be relieved to know Ieva does okay for herself in the end. Which the beginning of the book.

Ābele’s structure for High Tide means the book reads almost like a mystery: thematically, the reader wants to find out what happened to make Ieva who she is, and the structure is mysterious, too, because Ābele works in so many different kinds of chapters, including letters and naked dialogue. Some chapters are closely told, others not so much, but everything falls together to fill in events over the years. To paraphrase what Kaija writes in a Goodreads description, the novel is divided into sections of varying length that are assembled in a “smoothly chaotic (not unlike the tide, hmm?) structure.” In any case, the book is thoroughly absorbing, whether showing Andrejs’s post-prison romance, Ieva traveling to a conference, or terminal illness. There are just enough Latvian details to keep the setting clear but not so many that they become overbearing.

I don’t often comment at length on translations themselves but, after endless (in a good way) conversations and articles this summer about translation, I want to say I think Kaija’s High Tide reads beautifully—it’s smooth in all the right ways—and doesn’t belabor local or post-Soviet details. Sometimes it’s individual words I remember about translations… and one word that stood out for me in High Tide was “pleather,” probably because there are several Russian words for fake leather materials that cover apartment doors, get made into boots, and spawn inordinate amounts of discussion about Russian-English translation. I don’t know what the Latvian is in High Tide but was happy to see Kaija just go for pleather, a fairly new word (1982, per the good people of Merriam-Webster) that would feel too contemporary for lots of books but fits perfectly here and doesn’t break the narrative voice.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of High Tide from Open Letter Books, thank you! High Tide is due out later this month. I always enjoy speaking with Open Letter, including Kaija, who is editorial director, about books and translations.

Up next: Jáchym Topol’s diabolically ghoulish The Devil’s Workshop, Rose Macaulay’s quirky The Towers of Trebizond, and MacDonald Harris’s comically metaphysical (so far anyway) The Carp Castle.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight

I can’t think of a better way to start writing about Antal Szerb’s wonderfully indescribable 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight, which I read in Len Rix’s translation of the original Hungarian Utas és Holdvilág, than to quote a bit of the book, a passage that sums up what’s ailing its main character, Mihály, who’s thirty-six years old:

As he spoke it all came to the surface—everything that since his escape had lived inside him like a repressed instinct: how deeply he felt a failure in his adult, or quasi-adult life, his marriage, his desperation to know where he might start again, what he could expect from the future, how he could get back to his true self. And above all, how he was tortured by nostalgia for his youth and the friends of his youth.

I’ll comment on a few key phrases from these lines, which appear about halfway through the novel…

As he spoke: These lines describe Mihály during a night-time talk, a confession of sorts, at a monastery near Gubbio, Italy, with an old friend from Mihály’s youth, a Jewish man who’s converted to Catholicism and become a monk.

His escape and his marriage: Mihály came to Italy on his honeymoon but “lost” his new wife, Erzsi, during a station stop on a train journey. Oops! Erzsi is a piece of work herself. She left her husband to marry Mihály and she goes to Paris after Mihály’s disappearance, where she runs into a watch-stealing (hmm) old friend of Mihály’s. Erzsi’s ex, who’s a businessman, is so concerned about her that he sends a hilarious and lengthy letter to the honeymooning Mihály, offering advice on Erzsi’s care and feeding. This was one of my favorite passages in the book: items include “Make sure she eats enough,” “Take special care over her manicurists,” “Don’t let her get up too early,” and advice on Erzsi and PMS. The letter is signed “with affectionate greetings and true respect. Zoltán.”

A repressed instinct: One of Mihály’s biggest problems is that he works in the family business and doesn’t feel comfortable about it. Many descriptions and reviews of Journey by Moonlight refer to class, its expectations, and what it represses: the description on the back of my book begins with “Anxious to please his bourgeois father, Mihály…” Class is certainly at the root of Mihály’s angst, though the question of class as such felt far less interesting to me than my next point…

Tortured by nostalgia for his youth and the friends of his youth: Nostalgia is, in my reading, what eats at Mihály most. About twenty pages before the chunk I quoted above, Mihály told his doctor “I know what’s wrong with me… Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?” The doctor says he doesn’t know of one, then says, “Think of Faust. Don’t hanker after youth.” Later on that same page, the doctor gives Mihály garlic to tie around his neck; Mihály says he’s read Dracula. The doctor, by the way, is just one of several characters that functions almost like a member of Mihály’s personal Greek chorus, people he meets or remeets in his travels.

I found Mihály’s nostalgia most interesting because he yearns for the romanticism, decadence (not in our modern sense of too much cheese or chocolate sauce), and eroticism of his high school years, when he spent lots of time skipping school, drinking alcohol and coffee, talking about Dostoevsky, and otherwise hanging out with a group of friends led by a brother and sister named Tamás and Éva. Their exceptionally close sibling relationship and even Tamás’s death (romanticized), are a long-term source of jealousy for Mihály. It all reminds me (minus the brother-sister dynamics, suicide, and a couple other things) of a favorite Russian novella that I’m translating, Konstantin Vaginov’s Bambocciade, which is also from the 1930s. Though Vaginov’s angle is different—the nostalgia is for the dead and the years before the Russian revolution—both writers quietly use history, whether Italian fascism or Soviet communism, as a backdrop, and both focus largely on youngish people who wander and aren’t quite sure how to handle themselves in their societies.

I know that probably sounds horribly dull, sentimental, and pedantic. To which I can only add that I enjoyed Journey by Moonlight very, very much. Though it felt a tiny bit too long in a few spots, it’s so human, humorous, and filled with cultural memory that I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve enjoyed speaking with Pushkin Press about books in translation. I received a copy of Journey by Moonlight from publisher Pushkin Press. Thank you very much!

Up Next: Inga Ābele’s High Tide, another lovely book that’s difficult to describe. Then Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stories to Melt Memories: Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman

Minka Pradelski’s Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman, which I read in Philip Boehm’s colorful translation from the original German (Und da kam Frau Kugelmann), tells lots of tales: the initial, framing, story concerns one Tsippy Silberberg, who comes to Tel Aviv from Germany to pick up her inheritance (a fish service, of all things), but the real story in the novel is told by one Bella Kugelman, who barges into Tsippy’s hotel room, unannounced and uninvited, to talk about her childhood in Będzin, Poland.

File:Bed005o.jpgTsippy’s story is, initially anyway, pretty light—even “lite,” since her obsession with frozen foods sounds rather absurd—but Mrs. Kugelman barges into Tsippy’s imagination, too, by talking on and on, first about her school days, which include crushes, skipping class, friends, neighbors, and various adventures that feel pretty universal. Tsippy’s parents, whom she calls “fearful, postwar parents,” would never let her get away with so much; she has little sense of family history other than that her father is from Katowice, near Będzin. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kugelman sometimes looks decades younger or pulls at phantom braids when she tells her stories.

Of course we—and “we” includes Tsippy—know what will happen in Poland, and Tsippy begins pushing to hear more details because she thinks Mrs. Kugelman is making her hometown sound too perfect, too idyllic. I had the same feeling and was glad that Mrs. Kugelman obliged by telling more stories, including stories of miracles, stories of who survived and how… leading to discoveries for Tsippy, who grew up in a family that appeared nearly memory-less. Though the novel feels overly schematic to me, largely because Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman were a little too obvious as opposites or counterbalances, I still can’t help but appreciate Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman as a book about finding ways to talk about frozen memories of the everyday and the horrors, the Holocaust, that erased the everyday. Thanks to its structure and mix of characters and stories, I think Mrs. Kugelman would be particularly good for young adult readers or others who haven’t read a lot of fiction about the Holocaust.

P.S. A brief interview with Pradelski on her publisher’s Web site addresses how Mrs. Kugelman came about:

What inspired you to write your first book?

I interviewed a survivor for the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. The survivor asked me not to forget his hometown in Poland: Bendzin.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman from the publisher, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. Thank you!

Up Next: Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which I liked very much.

Image: Old postcard of Będzin, including the synagogue, via Wikipedia, public domain