Urban Protest in Brazil: the City and the Politics of Luiz Ruffato

What annoys me sometimes in literature is when you try to show me a world which is only a violent, terrible world. I know this already.

‘Our political history is a succession of dictatorships.’

                                                                                            —Luiz Ruffato                                                        

The fiction of Luiz Ruffato tackles the grave injustices found in Brazilian society: the deep chasm between rich and poor, the endemic corruption, the cheapness of life in the sprawling poverty-stricken peripheries of the major cities. He is the kind of outspoken writer that tumultuous Brazil needs right now. The country is in crisis following recession, a massive corruption scandal and the impeachment process of its President Dilma Rousseff.

It is the poor who will suffer most from this debacle. After just a week in power the administration of acting President Michel Temer began scaling back social policies that the left-wing Workers’ Party had put in place over many years. The Guardian reports that ‘moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house-building programs’[1].’

Ruffato gave presage to all this in his 2013 speech to Frankfurt Book Fair, presenting Brazil not as an up-and-coming economic success story, but a country in which the shackles of slavery had not been shaken off, describing the abject state of the majority of the population as ‘invisible…deprived of the basic rights of citizenship: housing, transportation, leisure, education, and healthcare…a disposable piece of the machinery driving the economy.’

Ruffato is in a position to talk of these matters. The son of an illiterate washerwoman and a popcorn seller, he slept rough for a month in a bus station when he first moved to Sao Paulo, making his subsequent literary success all the more remarkable. His most famous novel, There Were Many Horses, published in English in 2013, has been hailed as a defining novel in the history of Brazilian literature, winning both the Brazilian APCA Award for best novel and the Brazilian National Library’s Machado de Assis Award. In 2016 Ruffato won the International Herman Hesse Prize for Literature in Translation.

Set in São Paulo, a metropolis of over 20 million people, There Were Many Horses roams across the cityscape and its underbelly, investigating the lives of the homeless, the broken, the lonely, the corrupt and the evil. It is an important book for its political and social statements but also a rare example of a novel which engages completely with the concept of the developing world megacity: in characters, imagery, and structure. A series of 69 vignettes which happen over the course of a night in São Paulo, it began as an experiment, an attempt to capture the sprawling city in a way which Ruffato felt traditional novels had not done. Ruffato argues that the book’s experimental form mirrors the splintered infrastructure of São Paulo and the fragmented lives of Paulistas more effectively.

This interview was conducted in two parts. The first meeting happened in Sao Paulo, at the home of Ruffato. The author lives in an old-fashioned apartment block on the quiet crest of one of the city’s steep hills, in the upper middle-class neighbourhood of Perdizes. The narrow marble corridor that leads to his apartment, filled with potted plants and hanging ferns. Inside, the apartment is neat, with few ornaments. Opposite to a shelf of novels and books on art, a sofa sits by a window looking out across the city. The streaming lines of cars, the expanse of blue sky, the poor peripheral sprawl that goes on and on, blurring into the horizon: all of this made a fitting setting to talk about São Paulo itself, the genesis of There Were Many Horses, the challenges of writing about Brazil and developing world cities. 

The second part of the interview happened over the internet, after the recent suspension of the President Dilma Rousseff. This time, the author focused on politics and on uncertain future of Brazil. The bold red typeface in which he answered questions was perhaps an indication of the fear he feels for the dangerous position Brazil finds itself in today.

Kathleen McCaul (KM): Tell me how you came to write There Were Many Horses?

Luiz Ruffato (LR): There Were Many Horses, started first of all, like a stylistic exercise. I was thinking the following; for me, to write about São Paulo, or any other megacity, is almost impossible. The idea of a novel is closed, it’s a closed structure, and with a closed structure, you need to make choices, you need to make edits. I thought that these edits were precarious. I was wondering in what way I could get the city in the way that we (Paulistas) get it. I stayed thinking about these questions. The two basic units/concepts of a novel is time and space and I was thinking how does time and space work in a megacity? It’s not the same in a small city—space and time are different there. And space and time in São Paulo and London are different, for example. These two questions were the first things I was thinking and then I started to think how to put these things into São Paulo, how to create a novel, thinking about time and space, set in São Paulo. READ MORE…

Translator Profile: Lydia Davis

I began to see that I enjoyed [translation] and also that it was a form of writing I could do without the problem of having to be "inspired."

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which is Can’t and Won’t (2014). Her Collected Stories was published in 2009. She is also the translator, from the French, of Swann’s Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010) and has been appointed, this year, the French-American Foundation’s inaugural Laureate in Translation. A bi-lingual edition of her translations from the Dutch, of the very short stories of A.L. Snijders, first presented in our Fall 2011 issue, will be published in Amsterdam by AFdH in September.

Who are you and what do you translate?

I’m Lydia Davis, both fiction writer and translator. I’ve been both for as long as I can remember, and they complement each other nicely. I spent decades translating from French and then, about ten years ago, started widening my scope of languages—first with Spanish, then with Dutch and German. I’ve also—just for the challenge—translated one story from the Portuguese and a few from the two principal Norwegian languages.

I should add, since you asked what I translate, not from which languages, that my most recent major translations from French were Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. After those two projects, which occupied several years each, I vowed to translate only very short stories. I have mainly stuck to that vow. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Love in the Footnotes” by Mahsa Mohebali

My lover and I are sitting in our apartment, smoking gloomily. Depression, like ivy, ties us together.

Published in 2004 in Tehran, Iran, Love in the Footnotes is Mahsa Mohebali’s second short story collection. Within a year of its publication, the book was in its third print and reaping national prizes before it was banned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The titular short story, presented here, is concerned with love and its ensuing ennui. The theme of this story is by no means novel. What sets Love in the Footnotes apart from all other “love” stories is its unique development, with most of the story being told in the elaborate intertextual footnotes which weave together an intricate web of films, songs, paintings, and novels from different cultures, at the crossroads of which the protagonist locates herself. 

Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam, translator

In this story, Love happens. Like ivy, love wraps around my lover and me in the lines of this story. My lover and I and several films and stories get so tightly tangled that we become indistinguishable from one another.

I have short auburn hair that falls across my forehead and temples. I weigh 99 lbs. and with heels on, I’m 5’ 5”. I got a BA in literature from The Islamic Azad University. I had been a homebody for a few years before I met my lover at a relative’s Sizde Bedar garden party. My lover has drunk eyes and is a clerk at the Central Bank. He’s tall and very amiable. He has no other remarkable features except that he tends to constantly stroke his mustache. In a corner of the garden, my lover looks at me with his languishing, entreating, and piercing eyes. I avert my eyes from him, look down coyly, and move away. My lover follows me and extends a glass to me. Our eyes meet for a moment. My lover draws me close very gently and fills my glass with a wine-like drink.1

1 See the miniature painting by Mohammad Tajvidi in Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, Hafiz Diwan, Ed. Ghasem Ghani and Allameh Ghazvini, twenty-third edition, Tehran: Asatir Publication, 1995, p. 23, where the man in the miniature painting, with his beseeching eyes, clings to the girl’s robe, offers her a glass of wine while she turns the upper part of her body away from him and avoids his gaze as much as possible. In spite of her apparent apathy, she burns with a latent desire, evident as she watches the man stealthily out of the corner of her eyes. It seems as though the girl in the miniature painting has been looking forward to this moment for years and now that she finally has the opportunity to seduce, despite all the blood running to her cheeks, she tries to appear composed and indifferent. However, the man in the miniature painting doesn’t seem to be concerned at all. As in Hafez’s poem, “Curls disheveled, sweating, laughing, and drunk / shirt torn, singing ghazals, flask in hand,” he just gawks at the girl. He only thinks of getting together with his beloved and isn’t afraid of going down in history as a fool.

My lover and I are sitting in front of the TV, watching Medicopter 117, in our four-hundred-and-thirty-square-foot rental apartment on Hafez Street. At the most critical moment of the episode, I get up, go to my bedroom, put on my red nightgown and stand in front of the TV set, brushing my hair. In response to my lover’s protests, I look at him seductively. He smiles but still follows what’s happening on TV. I unplug it.2

2 See Graham Greene, Quiet American, Trans. Ezatollah Fooladvand, first edition, Tehran: Kharazmi Publications, 1984, p. 143, where Paul asks Fowler, the professional British journalist, what his most profound sexual encounter had been.

Fowler answers the quiet, young American, “Lying in bed early one morning and watching a woman in a red dressing-gown brush her hair.”

The middle-aged Briton had impregnated the scene with all the eroticism he could muster; a scene which he had most likely never experienced with any of his mistresses. But then, this was the only image that came to his exhausted and agitated mind while spending the night in the fortress, with the Vietnamese soldiers and the quiet American, anticipating the Viet Cong skirmishes. Probably, Fowler was not thinking about any of his mistresses in particular, not about Phuong, his Vietnamese phoenix, and not about his English mistress. That image was the culmination of his whole love life.

My lover and I are sitting in a beach café, sipping our cappuccinos. My lover’s wearing a white t-shirt, stuck to his damp body. I’m in a light-green manteau and have put a big white magnolia in one of its buttonholes. The fragrance of the magnolia and that of the cappuccino wafting out from my cup blend with the sea breeze and make me dizzy. I put my fingers on my temples and take a deep breath. My lover looks at me with worried eyes. I ask my lover to tell me the story of the drowning of the young couple again. He says that he has told me the story five times since yesterday and doesn’t feel like telling it any more.3

3 See Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile, Trans. Reza Seyed-Hosseini, first edition, Tehran: Zaman Publications, 1973, p. 89, where Anne Desbaresdes is wearing a décolleté dress and has pinned a big magnolia to her chest. She gets up from the dinner party table quickly and is anxious to go to the beach bar and drink another glass of wine with Chauvin and ask him, for the last time, to tell the story of the young couple. It’s then that, for the first time, she discovers the magical power of magnolia and wine and the incredible and undeniable similarity of wine, magnolia, love, and exasperation. Anne Desbaresdes realizes that, just like when you drink a little wine, the fragrance of magnolia seems to be very innocent at the beginning, but, after some time, it overwhelms your mind and leaves no room for any other feelings or thoughts. This is how she feels at that moment: Intoxicated with wine and the strong scent of magnolia, she can think of nothing but love. Just like the scent of magnolia, love has inundated her mind, which is soon to be overcome by exasperation.

My lover and I are in our four-hundred-and-thirty-square-foot apartment. My lover is lying on the couch, a glass of ice on his chest and a cigarette to his lips. He’s staring at the ceiling and gives curt, nonsensical answers to all my questions. I’m sitting on the sofa and hanging my legs from its arm and thumbing through Art and Decoration magazine irately. I tell my lover not to ash his cigarette on the floor. He ignores me. He looks at the ceiling and flicks his cigarette ash on the floor again. I go stand at the head of the couch, my arms crossed, and look at him resentfully. He smirks while still looking at the ceiling. I yell at him and say that I’m sick and tired of him and the glass he’s always carrying in his hand. My lover puts on his pants, while cursing me under his breath, and buckles his belt. I’m standing in front of the door to block him, telling him that enough is enough; that he’d better stop pretending to be the hero of an American movie who is fed up with his mistress. He shoves me aside abruptly and slams the door.4

4 Don’t refer to happy-ending American movies. Because, unlike Jane Fonda or Julia Roberts, I’m not going to chase down my lover, find him in a park or a bar and bring him back home. As soon as he leaves, I put the opera Salome by Richard Strauss in my player and lie down on the couch and page through Oscar Wilde’s Salome and when Herodias asks Salome to dance for the propitious night, I join her with The Dance of Seven Veils. In the end, when Salome embraces John’s severed head, kissing the lips she couldn’t touch in his life, I take my lover’s photo off the TV set and kiss him on the lips. My sadism and vengefulness at that moment are no less than Salome’s toward John.

My lover and I are lying in the bathtub and are basking in the mild warmth of the water, slowly smoking our cigarettes. My lover rambles constantly and I respond with a dull smile and a duller voice. My eyes are closed and I’m still reminiscing about the previous hours, thinking to myself how my lover would feel if he knew what I was remembering. It gives me chills to even think about it. My lover says I’d better leave the bathtub because I might catch a cold.5

5 See Unfaithful, directed by Adrian Lyne—the scene in which the girl is lying in the tub and suddenly sees the words her naughty lover has written on her belly while she was sleeping. This is definitely the most critical moment in determining her relationship with her husband. Up to that point, it had all been just mischief or even a joke. However, when she gets the sponge and wipes off the heart and dagger sign and her own name, she realizes the magical power of concealment. She has now entered a new phase in her game. Before that, she could confess everything to her husband in a trance or frenzy. But then, she sees the joy and excitement of cheating. That her husband could’ve seen the sign but didn’t awakens the snake of risk-taking that had been lurking dormant in her heart and makes her repeat the dangerous game over and over again.

My lover and I are coming back from the party arm in arm. I’m wearing a dress with an open neckline and my lover is wearing jeans and a t-shirt as usual. We are both singing “Tonight Is the Moonlit Night” a little too loudly. We sometimes stagger and, to keep our balance, cling to each other’s arms, sometimes bursting out laughing. Whenever my lover gets to the word “my lover” in the song, he draws his eyebrows together and points his finger at me with a serious expression. I accompany him in a lower octave.6

6 See the first scene of the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In this scene, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton both try to conceal their innermost feelings towards each other. They engage in vigorous banter that might lead to insult and injury if they’re not careful. But oblivion comes to their aid. It helps them change their past memories and sometimes heal their emotional or mental wounds, arising from the death of a child, abortion, or an infidelity that was neither confirmed nor denied.

My lover and I are sitting in our apartment, smoking gloomily. I lie on the couch more wearily and smoke and he lies next to the fireplace more morosely and smokes. Depression, like ivy, ties us together. I say it would be best if one of us left the other because usually in these situations one of the lovers leaves. My lover turns on his side towards me and says he doesn’t feel like wandering the streets and that if I’m tired of the situation, I can leave. I remind my lover that usually men are the ones to leave. Despite my persistence, my lover doesn’t give in and just looks at me with his drunken eyes. I tell my lover that I can no longer smoke, sadly; that I can’t stand his smoking either. My lover takes another puff of his cigarette and says that nothing like smoking exhibits depression so neatly. I go to my bedroom, my upper lip twitching in anger, and play Chopin’s sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, and lie on the bed, thinking about a couple of trivial matters.7

7 Had Wim Wenders begun his Paris, Texas some scenes earlier, where the couple experiences exasperation, you could’ve seen that film. However, right now you’d better refer to Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Frédéric Chopin, where the notes of the harp remind us of the monotonous rain and Chopin’s ennui on Majorca. When he was at his piano in his sixteenth century villa on the cliff, writing the destructive and exasperating notes of this sonnet, he had one thing on his mind: exasperation, exasperation with love; the inevitable exasperation that follows a long period of lovemaking, cheating, indifference, forgetfulness, argument, intoxication, and languor. It left Chopin with no other choice but to—while listening to the repetitive sound of rain and the waves crashing against the rocks, without taking heed of George Sand’s grumpiness—write the dreary notes that carry a devastating tempest within them. Probably, in the next room, George Sand was writing a story about a lover killing the object of their desire out of exasperation. However, I think if George Sand and Chopin had instead gone to Arles, where Van Gogh painted his beautiful sunflowers, before reaching that intolerable boredom that destroyed their relationship, they would’ve gone so mad that one of them would’ve either killed the other or, as Van Gogh did, cut off a piece of their body.

Translated from the Persian by Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam

Explore the rest of Asymptote’s Summer 2016 issue here.

Mahsa Mohebali (b. 1972) is an accomplished Iranian fiction writer and literary critic. Although she is best known for her critically acclaimed novel Don’t Worry (2008), which won both the Golshiri Foundation’s and the Press Critics’ Best Novel award, she has also penned the novel The Grey Spell (2002) and two short story collections, The Voices (1998) and Love in the Footnotes (2004), the latter of which is now banned in Iran despite being the winner of the Golshiri Foundation’s award for best short story collection. Her works are translated into Swedish, Italian, Turkish, and English and are widely circulated in Iran as well as being adapted for the stage.

Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her MA in English Literature in 2012 from the University of Tehran where her research focused on black feminist dialogism in the works of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. She is particularly interested in women, gender, and sexuality studies and the intersection of religion and feminism. She is currently writing her dissertation on the representations of prostitution in Persian and Arab literature. She also aspires to introduce Iranian women writers to Western audiences through translation and criticism of their works.

*****

Read More from Translation Tuesday:

“Tu vuo fa’ l’americano”

If Italy were my child, I’d fear he was unable to properly love his own identity.

My partner travels a lot for work and whenever he goes somewhere that he can snag Italian pubs, he brings me back an armload. Usually two editions of an Italian newspaper (La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera), one or two of the news weeklies and a lifestyle or travel mag like Bell’Italia.

I array them all on the dining table and prepare to immerse myself in an Italian mag reading marathon. It’s a ritual we’ve been performing ever since leaving Italy years ago to come back to the States.

Yet in the past few years, there’s been a fly in my spaghetti, so to speak. My beloved Italian periodicals are littered with English words and phrases. That complaint can extend to many of the news articles I see online or in my inbox on a more-or-less daily basis.

Recently, a promotional email from the Italian women’s magazine “Io Donna” about an article on swimwear caught my eye (I love swimming). The email read, “4 accessori must have per la spiaggia.” (Four “must-have” accessories for the beach).

Something snapped—and I began writing this essay. Or really, this rant. It’s one I’ve been honing in my head, if one can hone a rant, for years. I’ve held off on sending this thought out into the wider world because it somehow felt churlish, as if I were a Luddite.

At first blush, the complaint has nothing to do with the literary world or the world of literature in translation that Asymptote celebrates and chronicles. An ad for swimwear: of all the silly things to write about!

But who learns a foreign language only to read, say, Dante? I want to read Dante and the Italian newspaper and the weeklies and advertisements on the Metro and the underground comic books and so on. I want to know the Italian equivalent of “must have.” READ MORE…

Weekly News Round Up, August 19th, 2016: Worlds and Worlds of Literature

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Thank you for joining the Asymptote blog again on this lovely Friday for another segment of the Weekly News Round Up in our digital world. Worlds change constantly with time and influence, just like the world of India. Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee works to depict the ever-changing sub-continent in all four of his books. A review of his work is available in The New Yorker this week.

Worlds we grow up in and come to know are not constant, however much we may think they are, and they change with time and memory. Just ask Vu Tran, a Vietnamese refugee, whose entire world changed at the age of four. His “uncertain memories” were featured in LitHub this week. It’s a haunting and beautiful story of transition.

Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, and most recently the memoir A House of My Own, spoke with NPR about the importance of creating her own world. This world is simpler, but just as important: moving out of her parents’ house and into her own first apartment. READ MORE…

To Pay or Not to Pay: The Linguistic Hurdle to Entering the Met

Every time I asked a visitor to name their own price, I was throwing the script of a typical commercial transaction out the window

If I sold you a ticket in the last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I was running an experiment on you. Thank you for your participation.

Now, this experiment wasn’t very tightly controlled, and it definitely wasn’t sanctioned by the higher-ups, but when you’re doing the same thing 500 times a day you have to find a way to keep it interesting. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ticketing policy of the Met, it is somewhat well known in the field because you can pay anything you want for a ticket, as long as it’s above $0. For those of you familiar with this policy, it’s probably a source of anxiety.

For staff on the “frontline”, it’s a linguistic hurdle that we must cross with each and every transaction. It was impressed on me upon starting at the museum that I must make sure (probably for legal reasons) that each and every visitor understands this “pay-what-you-wish” policy which, believe-you-me, is not as simple as you might think. I began my experiment to try to find the magic words that people would understand, but confusion over the price of a ticket ensued pretty much instantaneously.

READ MORE…

In Review: Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

It is imbued with the passionate discontent of the punk movement, thought to be dead, but clearly still bubbling under our collective surface.

‘Volatile’ isn’t a strong enough adjective for Gloria, the protagonist of Virginie Despentes’ novel, Bye Bye Blondie. This post-punk love story shocks and devastates with its disquieting exploration of personhood, womanhood, and human connection through Gloria’s manic gaze.

We meet Gloria in her middle age, newly homeless after the latest in a string of exes becomes fed up with her bottomless capacity for anger and violent outbursts. She begins making her way to the local bar. She’d smashed her phone against a wall in her final fight with her ex, but even if she had some change to call a friend for help, she realizes there are very few left willing to put up with her. But even in these first pages of the novel, her despair doesn’t quite seem isolated. She wanders her dreary town, passing by posters for vapid films and the sterile bubblegum storefronts of international chains. Her ferocity takes on the flavor of rebellion in the context of the anaesthetized materialism of her surroundings.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Two Short Nonfiction Pieces by Roberto Merino

Waiting may be the most thoroughly human activity there is.

Described by Argentina’s Clarín newspaper as Chilean literature’s “best-kept secret,” Roberto Merino recently wrote evocatively about a childhood submerged in television for our Summer 2016 issue. Today we bring you two short nonfictions, about seasonal change, from the same pen.

Just Wait

I am waiting for something to change. While I wait, the days, weeks and seasons pass. Conversations from nearby buildings drift through my open window on summer evenings, snatches of song, appalled laughter. Hammers ring out in the afternoons. I get up very early each morning and before I know it I am taking taxis, making phone calls, setting my various affairs in motion.

The change I am waiting for will come from outside, and its causes will be revealed to me when whatever it is actually transpires. I am told that there can hardly be such a thing as chance, and that whatever happens to us is a consequence of our own doings: the law of karma, or of action and reaction. Gurdjieff says very much this: that what is happening to me now is the corollary of what I did yesterday, so today’s blunders will be sure to come back and weigh me down tomorrow or the day after.

READ MORE…

The Borders Project Reading: Atlanta’s Narrative Collective + Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop

The word “borders” could suggest both the presence and the absence of limits.

The Borders Project gave its first reading in Atlanta recently. A multi-genre literary collaboration between the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop and Atlanta’s Narrative Collective, the project aims to examine all sorts of boundary lines—physical, temporal, emotional, relational, among others—and their implications. Eighteen writers and one translator came together to create work in two languages. In this essay, Stacy Mattingly, founder and co-founder of the two constituent collectives, follows the process to the Atlanta reading.

1.

The Warhorse coffee shop at Atlanta’s Goat Farm Arts Center is a long room with a garage door on one end and a wall of bookshelves on the other. Hanging from the ceiling in front of the books is a large screen. On it is the face of a friend of mine in Sarajevo. The background is a field of stars. Selma Asotić is a head floating in outer space, reciting her English poem “The Nation.”

“You are /everything which does not love me. / You are / the curse I hide under my tongue …”

Those present are fixated on the image. Some make references in jest to Star Wars. We take photos to post online for Selma and others. Danny Davis, the Goat Farm’s technical director, stands at a ladder positioned below a projector and tells us not to worry—that starry background will definitely be gone before our event.

I am just relieved all the videos from overseas are working.

My colleagues and I are doing a run-through of our reading for The Borders Project, a literary collaboration involving two writing groups—Narrative Collective in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop (SWW) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I belong to both, having launched SWW in 2012 and co-founded Narrative Collective with poet L.S. McKee in 2014.

READ MORE…

Weekly News Round Up, 12 August 2016: Dreams

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Friday is here again Asymptote readers, creeping upon us like Saturday will tomorrow. Will there ever be time enough to read and keep abreast of all the literary news? Well, with another Friday comes another Weekly News Round Up to help you do just that.

The National Translation Awards announced its longlist this week, twelve of which are Asymptote contributors! We are proud to call these writers a part of our family of contributors. Good luck to them as the judging continues!

What a dream come true for those writers, and speaking of dreams, the Awl published a piece on the history of interpreting dreams. If you think it began with Freud, you are dead wrong, or you might just be dreaming! READ MORE…

Translator’s Profile: Jeffrey Green

Our editor-in-chief talks with Jeffrey Green, the translator of Nir Baram's Good People

First of all, congratulations on the very fine translation, which I can recommend to Asymptote‘s readers without the slightest reservation. I was quite impressed by the deftness of your rendering; I found the book ‘unputdownable,’ riveted as I was by your skillful reconstruction in English of Nir Baram’s adman, and the meteoric ascent of his career in 1930s Germany. In fact, other than the odd German word or two every page, the writing didn’t seem to bear any trace of translation, for me at least, as I found it working perfectly well in English, both in terms of the story’s sitcom-like pacing and the sharp, precise English. I’m curious to know how much was lost in translation?

I’m grateful for your compliments, and I’m also very grateful to the editors at Text Publishing in Australia, who went over the manuscript with meticulous care and fine literary judgment. I always had the feeling that they were working with me (and Nir), not against me, with the aim of producing the most readable book possible. I’m glad you think that we succeeded.

With regard to this translation, I benefited from Nir’s input. Translators into English are fortunate, in that the authors they translate usually known the language, so they can correct misunderstandings, notice sentences that one has skipped, etc. Of course, this has a downside as well, because some writers (even Nir on occasion) think they know English better than their translator. Also, the writer always has the feeling that something has been lost, his voice, in the transition into another language. It must be somewhat distressing to hear one’s voice differently from the way one imagined it. On the other hand, sometimes writers discover things about their work when they see it in translation. But they have to accept loss of control inherent in the process of translation.

READ MORE…

In Conversation with Gazmend Kapllani

The desire to speak other languages invaded my mind. I, too, wanted to look strange, mysterious and attractive...

Gazmend Kapllani is an Albanian-born author, journalist, and scholar. He lived in Athens for over twenty years. He received his PhD in political science and history from Panteion University in Athens, with a dissertation on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. In addition, he was a columnist for Greece’s leading daily newspapers. Kapllani has written his first three novels in Greek, which is not his native language. His work centers on themes of migration, borders, totalitarianism, and how Balkan history has shaped public and private narratives.

Kapllani’s first novel A Short Border Handbook (Livanis, 2006) has become a best-seller and has been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish and Italian. His second novel, My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), has been published into French. The Last Page (Livanis, 2012) his most recent novel, has been translated into French and was short-listed for The Cezam Prix Litteraire Inter CE 2016. Since 2012 he has been living in the US, where he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. Kapllani currently lives in Boston and teaches Creative Writing and European History at Emerson College.  

Gigi Papoulias has a chance to sit down and talk to Kapllani on his work, language, and borders.

Gigi Papoulias (GP): You seem to have a passion for languages. You are fluent in five languages. Were you born into a multilingual family?

Gazmend Kapllani (GK): Actually I was born in a shack. My father’s family was persecuted by the communist regime and was driven out of their house in the countryside and punished—sent to live in a shack on the outskirts of my hometown Lushnje. They were considered “enemies of the regime” because they were wealthy landowners. Stalin did the same with the so-called “kulaks” in the Soviet Union.

I grew up surrounded by a large group of monolingual relatives whose discussions always led to the glory days of their aristocratic past. I grew up surrounded by joyful uncles and aunts—all of them impressively good looking. I’m amazed today that in my memories that miserable place comes as a place of joy and love. I remember the flowers that were planted all around. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman—she had lost three brothers in the war against the Nazis in Albania—she did everything possible to make life in the shack seem normal. What has remained with me is the extraordinary love that I was given in that shack. I also learned what resilience and human dignity mean. But I refused the rest: living with the glory of the past. I understood though that when people are denied a present and a future they take refuge in the past.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt of “Good People” by Nir Baram

Frau Stein had been stabbed in every part of her body. She lay face down, her head cradled in her folded arm.

Good People is a globe spanning, wide-canvass novel that probes the depths of one of history’s darkest hours; its heroes are those members of the educated middle classes who sit behind office desks. With riveting narrative force, based on thorough historical research, this extraordinary novel spans World-War II Europe across time and space, boldly sketching an unflinching portrait of men and women and their times. In the extract presented below, our protagonist, Thomas Heiselberg, a Berlin adman, discovers a Jewish woman violently murdered in his home.

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That night he returned home into a white cloud of feathers. He heard glass splinters grinding under his shoes. The windowpanes, china bowls, lamps, mirrors—almost nothing was intact after the visit by Hermann and his friends. Even the door hinges had been jimmied off. Wooden cabinets and dressers were smashed with hammers, the gas and electricity lines ripped out. At least a dozen jars of fruit preserves had been hurled against the bathroom wall, and flour mixed with soap powder and blood was strewn all over the sink and lavatory.

Frau Stein had been stabbed in every part of her body. She lay face down, her head cradled in her folded arm. He leaned down and turned her over. When he saw her face, coated with a layer of blood-soaked flour, he realised that after stabbing her they had smothered her in the sink with a mixture of flour and soap powder. She looked like a sad clown in the circus. They hadn’t even let her die with that stern expression of hers, well versed in suffering, that had always aroused people’s respect. He gathered some feathers and covered her face with them.

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“Literary Controversies” by Alberto Chimal

“Barroom squabbles,” some (writers) have called them. One must ask, however, the reason for such indifference.

In recent days there have been not one, not two, but three controversies among Mexican writers, in which some very serious issues have been raised, even beyond questions of aesthetics: the use of public resources, class discrimination, corruption, racism. However, the news of the day has been dominated by Mexico’s national soccer team’s defeat in a match against Chile (the score: 7-0). Or perhaps the Father’s Day holiday. Or, for those who follow such things, the death of Anton Yelchin, a young Hollywood actor.

Not even the brutal repression of dissident teachers at the hands of armed federal forces in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, seems to merit as much debate, despite the seriousness of the event (to the point that the official communiqués either distort or minimize it, and important aspects of it are appearing first online or outside Mexico). But amid these news items, and those to emerge in the coming days, the three literary debates that I mentioned will soon be forgotten: they are but more filler in the news cycles on social media and the few other media outlets that have reported them.

What is certain is that these conflicts matter to almost no one: they do not resonate with anyone more than with the colleagues of those implicated, who jump in to defend a polemicist, to attack another, to complain about the general state of national literature (or the discussions of national literature); however, they barely manage to make themselves noticed beyond their own circles of friends.

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