Posts by Tim Ellison

New in Translation: November

Wolfgang Koeppen’s Youth, Vietnamese poetry by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, and Melania G. Mazzucco’s Limbo

The strength of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Youth (Jugend), an autobiographical account of the German author’s formation, lies in the small stuff: its sentence constructions, its often-startling words. These sentences can go on endlessly, such as the evocation of its setting that starts the book. After a first, short sentence—“My mother was afraid of snakes”—Koeppen goes on to describe the area of Rosental in one elaborate sentence that continues for the next three pages. This sentence twists and grows, covering furniture, landmarks, food, even the history of the young narrator’s family, until the speaker plunges into a fantastic rant against the place:

[…] while all around the streets smelled complacently of the anatomy of clinics, the sweat of patients, the horror of the dying, the fear of the examinee and the guilty innocents at the mercy of the prison-warders […] of the vanity of professors, the dead hearts of officials, the frowst of the laws, and then the poverty of the Lange Reihe and the indurated humiliation of the gray school, how I hated the city and wished it consigned to the snakes (5).

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What We’re Reading in October

Ghost noir, death in Mexico, and what artists do after they’ve found success (and a lot of it): reading recommendations from Asymptote!

Ellen Jones (criticism editor): For my birthday this year I was given Outlaws (Las Leyes de la Frontera) by Spanish author Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean. I immediately broke that fundamental rule and judged it by its cover—the Bloomsbury hardback has one of the most exquisite jacket designs I’ve seen in a long time. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed by what was inside. Inspired by the life of Juan José Moreno Cuenca, a notorious criminal known as “El Vaquilla,” the narrative follows a gang of teenagers led by a soon-to-be famous juvenile delinquent styling himself “Zarco.” At the novel’s core is the relationship between Zarco, the media persona, and Antonio Gamallo, the real person behind bars. In post-dictatorship Catalonia where the after-effects of Franco’s rule are still being felt, the gang members are divided by class and their fates apportioned accordingly. The novel is narrated entirely through reported speech, allowing Cercas to explore the unreliability of memory through a series of voices that are always measured and deliberate (The Telegraph’s description of it as a “rip-roaring crime romp” seriously misses the mark).

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