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.