Language: Dutch

What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

milk of dreams

The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from “His Name is David” by Jan Vantoortelboom

All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was?

Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”

‘But sir, why do we have to cram all these things into our heads?’

Roger interrupted my lesson about the capital cities of Europe. His way of constantly questioning everything drove me up the wall sometimes.

‘Neither my father nor mother have ever been further than Ypres or Poperinge, and on Sundays, my mother goes straight home to milk the cows after Mass and my father only ever gets as far as the pub for a pint.’

‘Quite a distance, if he has to crawl home,’ Jef said.

We ignored the remark.

‘Well, Roger. Maybe you will travel further than your parents one day, and see the whole wide world,’ I said.

‘Who, me? Why? Whaffor?’

‘To look at churches and castles in other countries, perhaps. To see how people live there. Or to observe the wildlife.’

I thought of my childhood. Of the books Father brought us. Of the cupboard full of skulls and bones in my room. Of my brother.

‘But I won’t have the cash for that. And anyway, I don’t give a damn about those things.’

Judging by the way his eyebrows twitched, he knew he should be watching his words.

‘Honest, sir. All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was? And on Sundays, I want to go drinking, like Dad!’

I needed all my creativity to come up with an answer that would have a motivational effect on the obstinate lout.

‘Well, Roger. Imagine that one day, you take over your father’s farm …’

He interrupted me enthusiastically.

‘Oh, I will, sir! Cos luckily, I’m the oldest!’ He laughed, sneering at Jef and Walter, who both had elder brothers.

‘All right,’ I continued. ‘And now imagine you do, as you say, also take over that genial habit of your father’s, namely drinking on Sundays.’

‘Yes, naturally. Sometimes, I’m already allowed…’

‘That’s enough, Roger,’ I cut him short. ‘As you know, however, no one on this planet is immortal. I’m sorry I have to say so, but one day, your parents will die.’

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Everything There Was” by Hanna Bervoets

We started craving other things. Things that were there. Though they were becoming scarcer by the day.

Today we present a haunting extract from a newly translated novel by critically acclaimed Dutch writer, columnist, and journalist Hanna Bervoets. Stranded in a school building after a catastrophic event leaves the outside world uninhabitable, a TV crew and the subjects of their documentary struggle to survive in Bervoets’s post-apocalyptic universe. From the scattered diary pages of the crew’s researcher, we learn the troubling story of everything there was, and the little there was left.

We haven’t turned on the computers in a long time. The last time we turned them off again, there still wasn’t any internet. Until then we still opened the browsers every day. Though perhaps that was just habit, like in the old situation, tearing a page off my calendar every morning, even though I already knew full well what day of the week it was, or what date. But the more often you do something, the stranger it is not to do it. So I can’t say whether we still believed the internet would come back. Just that we kept hoping it would.

It is perhaps hard for you to imagine how important the internet once was. I also find it hard to imagine. Perhaps it really wasn’t all that important.

But I think it was.

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What’s New in Translation? March 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oaklandreview by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor

Empty_Streets_AI_cover

Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.

In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”

But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Joost de Vries’s “A Room of My Own”

My brother put on his big, fake, photo grin, while one of Kissinger’s assistants smiled professionally and said, firmly, 'Please, just one picture'

Henry Kissinger had a flabby mouth he was fond of using to make droll comments, like calling power the ultimate aphrodisiac, an aphorism he repeated so many times people started to believe it, encouraged by his own tendency to pose for the paparazzi at dinners and cocktail parties with a platinum-blond socialite or an aspiring starlet on his arm. Looking at those photos now, you see a square tuxedo with a man stuffed into it. A bulging face, no neck to speak of, tiny eyes behind enormous glasses, classic wavy hair. And a Barbarella babe next to him in a delirious dress, her teeth bared by a smile so strained it looks like she’s putting her face through an aerobics workout.

‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’ He was referring to those women, but didn’t think his theory through enough to realise it applied to him too. In the run-up to the presidential election of 1968 he’d called Richard Nixon ‘unfit to be president’, but when President Nixon called him three weeks after winning to make him National Security Advisor, he didn’t hesitate for a moment. He too felt his knees quiver and his heart pound when faced with the true power of the White House.

‘Will you be my National Security Advisor?’

‘Oh, I will, Richard. Yes, I will.’

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What’s New in Translation? February 2016

So many new translations this month!—Here's what you've got to know, from Asymptote's own.

Mario Bellatin, The Large Glass (Eyewear Publishing, February 2016, United Kingdom and Phoneme Media, January 2016, United States). Translated by David Shook—review by Alice Inggs, Editor-at-large, South Africa

Cover_Bellatin_april20

Can a life be expressed in a single narrative, or a single form; can it be confined to a single genre? Mario Bellatin’s experimental autobiography (or is it autobiographies?), The Large Glass, employs three different ways of writing a life, challenging the accepted idea of what constitutes biography, and therefore self-expression.

This is not the first time Bellatin has engaged with the genre. His 2013 novel, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, is a satirical biography of a fictional Japanese author, which includes excerpts, photographs and a bibliography. As critic Diana Palaversich explains, “With Bellatin you are never on solid ground”.

The Large Glass is non-linear, and at times almost nonsensical, rendering memory as character. Bellatin’s style has been described as hewing closer to that of avant-garde filmmakers—Lynch, Cronenberg —than anything literary. This brand of inscrutability or opacity—inherent in all three sections of The Large Glass—means that to distil meaning from Bellatin’s work it is necessary to rely on aspects of the author’s “objective” biography. This has something of a Lazarus Effect on Barthes’s dead author. But to what end?

The Large Glass magnifies those fundamental philosophical questions: Are we the same person throughout our lives? How do experiences and the manner in which we experience them and remember experiencing them shape our understanding of ourselves? How do these memories fit into the narrative of a life? Does a life have a single narrative? Bellatin seems determined to “reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’” READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: Paint It Black

A racist tradition is cherished in the Netherlands

When you think of the Dutch contributions to pop music, you might find yourself drawing a blank, albeit perhaps one decorated with some tulips, marijuana leaves, and gay marriage. There’s no reason to, really, you only have to listen to the Van Halen boys (who share my hometown, as I recently found out), the fantastic “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, or Morrissey favorites Shocking Blue, a 1960s combo whose songs were made famous by bands as diverse as Bananarama (“Venus”) and Nirvana (“Love Buzz”). READ MORE…

On Harry Mulisch: Rediscovering Heaven

Three years ago today, the great Harry Mulisch died.

On 30th October 2010, the great Dutch author Harry Mulisch passed away—after Reve and Hermans, the last of the ‘great three’ of Dutch postwar literature to leave us. The first time I read Mulisch—it was his great novel The Discovery of Heaven—must have been in late 2010; I remember reading the biographical note in the front of the book, in which he was alive and well, only to have this new-found friend suddenly snatched away from me by the remorseless up-to-dateness of Wikipedia. Wishful memory records that I had in fact started reading The Discovery of Heaven the very day Mulisch died. READ MORE…

REVIEW: The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse

Madeleine LaRue reviews Ina Rilke's translation of The Black Lake by Hella S. Haasse.

Set sometime between the two World Wars, Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake is narrated by a boy growing up on a plantation in the Dutch Indies. With parents too distracted by work and their own unhappy relationship to pay much attention to their son, the boy spends his childhood among the native servants, speaking better Soendanese than Dutch and exploring the jungle with Oeroeg, his best friend and constant companion. READ MORE…