Language: Japanese

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Beasts Head for Home” by Abe Kōbō

Kyūzō stood motionless, vacillating, when again he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. They stopped directly in front of him.

Best known for The Woman in The Dunes, Abe Kōbō is widely recognized as one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Today, we’re thrilled to partner with Columbia University Press to present an extract from a new and forthcoming Abe novel in English translation. Beasts Head for Home takes place shortly after World War II, when Japan was forced to give up its extensive colonial holdings throughout Asia, and Japanese civilians residing overseas began to return en masse to Japan. In the following excerpt, Kuki Kyūzō, a Japanese youth abandoned in what was previously the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (in Northeast China) stows away in a train in order to return to a homeland he has never seen.

As the wind died, the fog began to rise. On the railroad tracks, the blurred shadows of the patrolling soldiers turned back in the opposite direction. As soon as they disappeared, Kyūzō crawled out from the hollow space of the warehouse, cut across the tracks, and slid down the far side of the embankment. Here there were fields as far as the eye could see. On his right one kilometer away there appeared an iron bridge, directly in front of which the railway siding split o from the main line.

He rushed down the slope of the bank, jumping in short steps so as to avoid slipping. The milky white mass of fog gradually came into view.

Kyūzō soon detected the heavy echo of iron striking together. He then heard the jumbled sounds of footsteps and people speaking.

In the fog, it was best to stay low. He ventured to get as close as possible. A train! Just as he had thought.

One of the men standing there was a soldier, while the other seemed to be some type of maintenance worker. Suddenly a red light appeared in the cab of the train. It’s about to depart, Kyūzō thought, and he hurriedly slid down the embankment and ran toward the back of the vehicle. The train was surprisingly compact. There were two open freight cars, three large boxcars, two small boxcars, an additional three open freight cars, and finally two linked passenger cars in the rear. The passenger cars were of course out of the question, and the open freight cars would also prove difficult. He would thus need to choose from among the five boxcars in the middle. The small ones, with their many gaps and open glassless windows, seemed to be used for livestock transport. Yet they contained burlap sacks rather than livestock. The windowed cars would be more convenient in various ways, but the larger boxcars appeared best on account of the blowing wind.

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In Review: The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers

“Our Greater I”: Teachings of Zen unity for divisive times

For many around the world, 2016 was a turbulent year of political and social unrest that brought into the limelight issues of rampant nationalism and ethnocentrism: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the “alt-right” white supremacist and nationalist movement in the US, and the election of Donald Trump are just a handful of examples. The hierarchies of difference and the rhetoric of divisiveness that give power to these issues reflect the danger of an I-versus-the-world dialectic that insists the lives of the citizens of one nation[1] are more important the lives of another. Against the divisiveness of these times, the re-issue of Yoel Hoffman’s The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers provides a breath of fresh air with poetic teachings from Zen masters on the universal one-ness of all existence.

While it may sound like a paradox, the sound of the one hand in fact illustrates the Zen notion of a universal one-ness that stands against divisions of any sort, be they nationalist, linguistic, ethnic, gendered, racial, or other. Resistance to the idea that the self is separate from the other, that the individual is separate from the world, rests at the core of Zen Buddhist philosophies. As Dror Burstein explains in his introduction, the individual in Zen is nestled in a network of interconnected actions, reactions, and processes. The individual in such an existential view resembles what the twentieth-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called a “revolving door,” where inner and outer, the internal world and the external, are at all times connected. An understanding of the self in such a way, Burstein suggests, “can define our more expansive self, our ‘greater I,’ as opposed to the “I” circumscribed by our national, social, professional, and ethnic identities”.

The koan, or riddle, from which the book takes its title is a lesson in universal harmony. It begins with an exchange between master and pupil when the master demands, “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of the one hand?” According to the Inzan school, the correct answer is, “The pupil faces his master, takes a correct posture, and without a word, thrusts one hand forward”. Various Zen schools follow this same discourse, but for the Takujū school, the pupil’s answer may be “The sky is the one hand, the earth is the one hand; man, woman, you, me are the one hand; grass, trees, cows, horses are the one hand; everything, all things are the one hand”. Both the insistence of the non-verbal one hand thrust forward and the eloquence of the voiced response embrace the same notion of universal connectivity and one-ness. The one hand thrust forward represents the essence of all hands, one being no better and no less than any other hand, so that the sound of the one hand is also the sound of every hand. The hand’s representativeness of a universal hand-ness is akin to the cosmopolitan spirit of humanist universalism while also upholding diversity through the uniqueness of the one hand.

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Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote Team (Part III)

More reading resolutions for 2017

Anna Aresi, Educational Arm Assistant

At the cost of sounding corny, I will say that my reading resolution for 2017 is more than partly informed by the prospect of becoming a mother this forthcoming June. As our baby will grow up in a trilingual environment, with Italian and Cantonese spoken at home and English everywhere else, doing research on trilingualism has intensified my awareness of the absolute need of being global citizens and global readers of the world, not only for one’s own benefit, but also as a major responsibility towards future generations.

To begin with, then, I wish to fill my own embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese literature —my husband’s from Hong Kong—perhaps beginning with Tong Xian Zhu’s play The Peony Pavillion, my father-in-law’s all time favorite, and moving on to Tong Xian Zhu’s Not Written Words, which figures in World Literature Today’s list of notable translations of 2016. Xi Xi’s work has been characterized as a portrayal of the “constantly shifting urban space of Hong Kong—between tradition and modernity—as well as the multilingual zones created by its Mandarin and Cantonese speakers;” I can’t wait for literature to do its magic and transport me to a land that I haven’t, so far, visited in person but to which I already feel deeply connected.

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Moving from my family’s terrain to the world at large, but staying in Asia, Korean literature will also be a protagonist of my 2017: if reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a defining existential experience of my 2016 and Jung Young Su’s Aficionados, featured in the Autumn 2016 issue of Asymptote, made me laugh my belly off, I can only expect good things from Korea, perhaps beginning with poetry. The anthology Brother Enemy, curated by Ji-moon Suh, is a collection of poems written by twenty-one authors during and following the Korean War, attractive and promising by virtue of its very humane title: what could change if we recognized the enemy as our brother? I hope to find some illuminating words in this volume.

Finally, I wish to follow Daniel Hahn’s appeal and read more children’s book in translation (again, also in preparation for future evenings of bedtime adventures). A simple peek at Pushkin Press’s Children Books page, to name but one, opens up a whole new world; in this case I let my inner child pick the book by its cover and my attention was caught by Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass (another Asian book! I promise I didn’t do it on purpose!). The scene opens in a dusty library in a Tokyo suburb…what beginning could be more auspicious?

*****

Read More Recommendations from Asymptote Staff:

New Year Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote team! (Part I)

From reading more small presses to children's literature in translation, here are our reading resolutions for 2017!

Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Rather than focusing on a single region in the coming year or trying to rectify one of my many reading deficiencies (such as an embarrassing lack of familiarity with Chinese or Arabic literature, to name just two), I will dedicate 2017 to exploring the work of those folks who are so dedicated to bringing us the best of world literature in book form: publishers. Not just any publishers, of course, but the small presses who tirelessly seek out the new voices that make the global literary conversation an exciting and ever-expanding one.

These small presses spread the wealth of work from across the globe, and my small contribution for the coming year will be to spread my meager wealth by monthly rewarding one of these risk-takers with the purchase of a recent release. This supplement to my regular habits will not only contribute a greater degree of diversity to my readings but also allow me to become better acquainted with the frequently impressive catalogs of these forward and outward looking publishers.

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To guide my exploration, I’ll be adding a further constraint by starting with those presses located close to home and working outward. Because I’m based in Ithaca, NY, I’ll turn to nearby Rochester’s Open Letter Books for my January pick, which will be Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House. A friend and inspiration to Clarice Lispector, Cardoso’s novel incorporates letters, diaries, and a variety of other documents from the characters in this sprawling tale of a family’s downfall.

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My 2016 by Lori Feathers

By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption.

I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Mountain of Light” by Gen’yū Sōkyū 

Eventually we stopped speaking, and came to see each other as “contaminated.”

Akutagawa Prize winner Gen’yū Sōkyū has an unusual vocation among litterateurs: he is the chief priest of a temple in Fukushima, where nuclear disaster struck following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Both a leader and a major voice in reconstruction efforts, Gen’yū uses fiction to grapple with the catastrophe, and in this story, “Mountain of Light”, he imagines (perhaps even hopes for) a future of provincial ascendance and “Irradiation Tours”. In this excerpt, the narrator relates his coming to terms with his father’s devotion in collecting the community’s “irradiated”—their radiation-contaminated waste, in other words.

The next time I saw Dad was at Mom’s funeral. He himself would die three years later at ninety-five—twenty-five years after our last conversation—of old age, not cancer. After my mother’s cremation, he spoke to me.

“Your ma had a hard time of it, but it was all worthwhile. Thanks to the irradiated, we managed to live meaningfully, right up to the end, and that’s no joke. When my time comes . . . you’ll burn me on top of that mountain, right?”

His hearing wasn’t so good by that time, so while I said “Don’t be stupid,” apparently what he heard was “Okay, I’ll do it,” although I didn’t realise this until much later. He held my hands in front of Mom’s altar and said “Thank you” over and over again . . . It might’ve been a misunderstanding, but that was the first time he had ever shown me gratitude.

My brother and sister-in-law had only offered incense at the crematorium, and were no longer there. He was a consultant to an electronics manufacturer, and even though he said he had a meeting to attend, I was sure they had left out of fear. I too had debates with the missus about the effects of low-level exposure, almost every night. Eventually we stopped speaking, and came to see each other as “contaminated.” We’d separated by then. And that’s when I finally realised that we were both being completely ridiculous. READ MORE…

Asymptote’s Pushcart Prize Nominations

It's that time of year, and we're proud to recognize six wonderful pieces of literature!

We are thrilled to nominate the following six articles published during the past year for the Pushcart Prize. Please join us in giving a round of applause to both the authors and translators behind these incredible pieces.

At 997 words, Pedro Novoa’s devastating short story, “The Dive”, won Peru’s “Story of 1,000 Words” contest. Translating this nautical thriller cum family saga into English, George Henson made it an Oulipian exercise by keeping the English text under 1,000 words as well. Shimmering with poignancy, the multi-layered story delivers a powerful allegory about the blood ties that bind even when broken—the concatenation of islands we will nevertheless always be.

“To translate means, therefore, not only to exercise extreme vigilance over the movements of the original text, but above all to scrutinize the limits of one’s own language, as it creeps up to the original.” Via co-translators Rebecca Falkoff and Stiliana Milkova, Anita Raja’s magnificent essay frames “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance ” and argues that the translator’s greatest resource must be her own inventiveness.

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What’s New With the Asymptote Team

We've been keeping busy!

Contributing Editor Anthony Shugaar has been shortlisted for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)’s Italian Prose in Translation Award 2016. The winner will be announced at ALTA’s annual conference in Oakland from October 6 to October 9.

Contributing Editor Ellen Elias-Bursac’s new co-translation of Noemi Jaffe’s novel from the Portuguese, What Are The Blind Men Dreaming?, was published on September 20 by Deep Vellum and featured in Words Without Borders’ watch list for the month.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones spoke at the British Library’s annual International Translation Day event. She and fellow panellists Simon Coffey, Elin Jones, and Fiona Sampson responded to the question, ‘What does multilingual creativity mean for translators?’ and Ellen discussed her experiences editing Asymptote’s Special Features on Multilingual Writing in 2015 and 2016, as well as her own research.

Commissioning Editor J.S. Tennant was interviewed for The Guardian’s recent feature on Fiction in Translation, on the state of world literature and translated book sales in the UK.

Editor-at-Large for Slovakia Julia Sherwood’s new co-translation of Uršuľa Kovalyk’s novel The Equestrienne will be launched on October 6 at Waterstones Piccadilly in London.

Editor-at-Large for the UK Megan Bradshaw, who organized Asymptote’s International Translation Day celebration in London last week, will be chairing a conversation with the prolific Japanese author and translator Mitsuyo Kakuta on October 26 at the Japan Foundation in London.

Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter’s new translation of the Spanish poet Benito del Pliego’s collection Fábula/Fable (bilingual edition, Díaz Grey Editores) launched at a McNally Jackson event in New York on September 16.

Finally, Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek’s essay on writing about history and difference in poetry was published by The Lonely Crowd on September 25. Some of his poems were published in the latest issues of The London Magazine and The North.

*****

Read More News:

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.

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In Review: Costume en Face: A Primer Of , choreographed by Tatsumi Hijikata

Why read choreography? Why read choreography—in translation?

This stunning translation of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Costume en Face Butoh choreography notations (transcribed by Moe Yamamoto) is the collaborative work of series editor (Yelena Gluzman, UDP), Hijikata scholars at Keio University (Takashi Morishita), the translator (Sawako Nakayasu), and the book designer (Steven Chodoriwsky). Although of course deeply relevant to scholarship on Butoh dance for English-speaking scholars, this book is a marvel of poetic elision and evocative design.

Nakayasu’s gifted compressions of Moe Yamamoto’s notes read as stage directions for a metaphysical revelation, textured by archetypal figures (from angels to Nazis), modernist paintings, and mythological figures. Her choice to include and briefly gloss specifically Japanese figures in brackets is clever and creates for a seamless experience that exposes the seams of audience. READ MORE…

Twenty Promenades: Mouth Eats Color in Review

"...translations can never be approached as though they were original texts—even though this is so often the case."

Translation is often asked to be a silent art, an art so subtle that the reader never even sees a ripple in the translator’s wake. The translator is asked to tread softly, to follow an arbitrary measure of “accuracy” or “faithfulness.” This is precisely why Sawako Nakayasu’s Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals is so brilliant. Within these pages, Nakayasu is at once invisible and intensely present, creating not a translation that masquerades as a stand-in for the original, but rather a translation that works to create new and exciting pieces that coexist alongside the original poetry. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? May 2016

Asymptote's own read this month's translated releases

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima by Hideo Furukawa, tr. Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka, Columbia University Press. Review: Justin Maki, Assistant Managing Editor.

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The nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi power plant—triggered by the magnitude-9 offshore earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011—created a rift in the country over its use of nuclear power and a major loss of faith in plant operators TEPCO as well as national and local government. Many protested the 2015 resumption of nuclear operations across the country, claiming safety regulations remained inadequate and that the government had rushed to cover up past failures rather than making honest efforts to learn from them. In light of this recent example of the world’s “tradition of nuclear forgetting,” as Robert Jacobs puts it, “we have to do more than remember Fukushima, we have to learn how to remember Fukushima.”

Hideo Furukawa’s newly-translated Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima offers some hope in this capacity. Written in the first months after the triple disaster struck, the Fukushima native’s literary response works to complicate and deepen what it means to “remember” an afflicted region. Rather than engage in only the personal side of remembering (his own childhood in the area and his relatives with contaminated farms are both kept to rather brief passages), Furukawa brings the reader into contact with the region in a variety of ways by using multiple genres—literary reportage, imagined scenes, alternate history—and perhaps most notably by invoking Gyuichiro Inuzuka, a character from one of his earlier novels, whose voice and “memories” of northeastern Japan appear at various moments throughout the book.

Due to this connection, Horses, Horses has been called a sequel of sorts to The Holy Family, Furukawa’s 2008 epic novel in which the Inuzuka brothers go on a crime spree in Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures. The earlier book has yet to appear in English translation, but from details mentioned in Horses, Horses, the Inuzuka brothers seem to have been stolen in infancy by a group of warrior-monks whose secret lineage goes back some 700 years into the region’s history. In an inspired turn, Furukawa allows the older brother to appear in the present volume, showing up in the midst of the author’s visit to disaster-hit areas in early April 2011. The character draws on his “deep memory” of the region to narrate an imaginative history of its horses, from war horses at the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333 to the traumatized tsunami-survivor horses the author meets at an abandoned shrine during his trip.

By pairing observation and imagination in this way, Furukawa acts against two major pitfalls in the wake of an internationally-known crisis. First, he circumvents that awful shorthand whereby a place name comes to represent only a war or disaster that took place there; instead, he acquaints us with local geographies and strands of culture within the prefecture known for its long tradition of horse-breeding. In addition, while he doesn’t skimp on describing the damage wrought by the disaster and the scope of its human tragedy—in tandem with his own feelings when watching from afar and visiting up close—Furukawa also positions it in a much larger timeframe so as to avoid yoking the region to a single historical moment. The author, who prefers not to be labeled a Fukushima writer, makes the locality unforgettable by complicating rather than simplifying, giving the reader more to experience in prose and “remember” about the region than its direst hour—an effort far more promising than the crisis-driven news cycle in building lasting empathy.

Translator Doug Slaymaker, with assistance from Akiko Takenaka, does an excellent job of keeping the various threads of the text in balance. Given the amount of extra information necessary for an English-language reader (religious terminology, place name meanings, historical references, etc.), it is admirable that the translation moves along at such a good clip and preserves the agility of Furukawa’s voice(s). Horses, Horses is an essential text from one of Japan’s most prolific and inventive novelists, likely to remain important long beyond our current five-year remove from the events of 3/11.

Slow Boat to China and Other Stories by Ng Kim Chew, tr. Carlos Rojas, Columbia University Press. Review Hannah Vose, Social Media Manager.

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As far as anyone knows, in 1945 the Chinese poet and author Yu Dafu was executed by the Japanese military police, for whom he had secretly been acting as an interpreter during the War of Japanese Resistance. As translator Carlos Rojas explains it, one evening “a visitor came to Yu’s home [in Sumatra] and asked him to step outside, and he was never seen again.”

Half a century later, Malaysian author and professor of Chinese literature Ng Kim Chew is obsessed with the possibilities. What if Yu survived? He was a polyglot, he had all the promise of an amazing writer—he could have been the Great Author that China was searching for. What if he escaped the Japanese and went on with life elsewhere? In Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, we see an array of vastly different realities.

Now, not all the stories in Ng’s collection concern the possible fates of Yu Dafu, although they represent a sizeable portion. Slow Boat to China leads off with “The Disappearance of M,” which chronicles the public frenzy—and personal obsession for our protagonist—of trying to determine the identity of the author behind the critically acclaimed novel Kristmas, which is written in what amounts to a completely new language; its base is English, but it includes Arabic, German, Javanese, and Chinese oracle bone script among many other languages.

In searching for the identity of the anonymous author, all the world has to go on is the letter “M,” a West Malaysian postmark and a charge to a Chinese deposit company. Native Malaysian writers and Malaysian writers of Chinese descent both claim the author for themselves, but no one is really sure. With the sophisticated linguistic background required to craft such a work, they must be a very special person indeed. Questions arise about the legitimacy of claiming the work for any one national heritage: can something written in English really be considered to be a great work of Chinese or Malaysian literature? A Chinese writer’s group decides that the real task is to find the original Chinese version of the work, which must exist, and work from there.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the furor in the literary community which gets stirred up every now and then when someone engages in amateur detective work and points the Finger of Ferrante at an unsuspecting colleague or mild-mannered professor of Italian literature. A scene at a “National Literature Discussion Panel” is especially amusing in this regard, with authors analyzing Kristmas and positing others present as possible “M”’s only to come across new evidence and whip the compliment out from under their fellows a second later. The protagonist of the piece, a reporter, has his own suspicions, and follows a trail back to the possibility that Yu Dafu lives on and is fulfilling his literary destiny from the anonymity of the Malaysian rubber forests. (Reporters, it’s worth noting, are particularly intrigued with the whereabouts of Yu Dafu in Ng’s writing.)

The concern with Yu Dafu and his possible relocation to Malaysia speaks to something beyond a personal obsession with a probably long-deceased author. The Malaysian identity—and specifically the identity of the Chinese Malaysian—is at the forefront in much of the work here. “A Chinese. . . But what is a Chinese?” the narrator of “Allah’s Will” asks. If Yu Dafu fled to Malaysia and settled down, would he be a Chinese author or a Malaysian author? In “Allah’s Will,” the narrator thinks:

“For thirty years I haven’t spoken Chinese, haven’t written Chinese, and haven’t read Chinese. Instead, I have spoken Malay, taught Malay, have abstained from pork… Yet that Chinese flame in my heart hasn’t been extinguished. I often wondered why couldn’t I become completely Malay, given that I was no longer able to be completely Chinese? Was it because of the unerasable past?”

“The unerasable past” wouldn’t be a half-bad alternate title for this collection. Everyone is haunted by their past, whether the past is the past where Yu Dafu disappeared, the past where they left their homes for a new country and new opportunity, or the past where they lost someone or part of themselves. Heritage and history, especially the melding of different cultures and ethnicities and all the creativity and conflict that this can cause—look no further than the debate over “M”’s identity for evidence—are at the forefront in every piece here.

It is less the themes and more the character of the writing in this collection that really drew me in, however. Ng’s experimental writing traipses on the borders of reality, as though everything that happens is distorted by the swampy, thick air of the forest where much of his action takes place. Dream is indistinguishable from fact until the last second, woven into the narrative seamlessly only to set both reader and character up for an abrupt drop into reality. Dream and Swine and Aurora implements this in a way which is genuinely, stiflingly terrifying: a seemingly infinite Russian dolls of a dream of waking, each layer slightly more surreal than the last. Memory and conscious thought get tangled up all the time, and keeping track of reality sometimes feels like trying to breathe under water. It’s hard to read, but it’s rewarding. This is definitely not a one-sitting kind of collection. You will need some time to recover.

As a whole, the collection is nicely curated and all the stories fit together in a sensible way. Carlos Rojas, Chinese translator extraordinaire, doesn’t disappoint in his masterful rendering of Ng’s tricky prose. The only piece I felt was slightly disjointed was the first story, the aforementioned “The Disappearance of M,” which seemed to me a little choppy and awkward. Given the linguistic complexity of Ng’s writing, however, this is the smallest of foibles. Rojas’s introduction is an invaluable part of this collection, both setting up the cultural context for Ng’s work, and explaining some of the linguistic trickery that needed to be accounted for in translation. As an English introduction to a great Malaysian author, I could hardly ask for better.

Bardo or not Bardo by Antoine Volodine, tr. J.T. Mahany, Open Letter. Review: Laura Garmeson, Executive Assistant.

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The opening of Antoine Volodine’s novel Bardo or not Bardo, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany, hurls the reader headlong into a murder scene amid agitated hens, errant gunshots, and vegetables. An assassination attempt near a Buddhist monastery is witnessed by a hapless nonagenarian monk, ‘touched more by Alzheimers than grace’, who hurries over to the victim. Elsewhere, the ceremony of the Five Precious Perfumed Oils is underway, leaving this monastic wing vacated but for our monk, who had been confined to the lavatory thanks to the ill-judged ingestion of fermented milk. His duty is to recite passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, known as the Bardo Thödol, to the dying man, providing him with much-needed guidance for his journey through the dreary posthumous smog, an infinite world of darkness that is the Bardo.

There are precious few European books that really upset the tedious binaries of the Western Christian afterlife (the doomed torpor of Sartre’s 1944 play Huis clos is a renowned exception) but Volodine’s universe certainly does. According to the Bardo Thödol, after forty-nine days spent wandering the Bardo’s sprawling sweat and soot-infused tunnels and black charcoal plains, souls shall submit to either salvation or a rebirth. This provides Volodine with a predictably cheery platform for fiction: characters dully await something unknown which may or may not happen, experiencing a slow ebbing of memory in a barely visible landscape described as an ‘arid parade of blacks’. This is a hell so monotonous that the dead often fail to recognise they have entered it, but it gives rise to a gleefully disorienting work of black comedy.

The seven sections comprising Bardo or not Bardo scuttle in and out of the ‘hermetic darkness’ of this spiritual limbo, which is also Volodine’s metaphysical arena of choice in which to play out the existential crisis vaunted in the title. The irony of such a title, of course, is that the deceased have no choice at all; they are irredeemably trapped in the Bardo, where chances of salvation seem doubtful. Volodine’s consistent use of the present tense throughout the book confirms this sense of suspension the Bardo confers, that of a ‘floating world’ in which past and future are not only non-existent, but crushingly irrelevant.

More monks and lamas populate this book, as well as suicidal clowns, ethereal feathered bird-women, and an increasingly absurd series of characters who share the name ‘Schlumm’. In the fourth vignette, ‘The Bardo of the Medusa’, a particularly poignant episode sees the writer and actor Bogdan Schlumm stage and single-handedly perform a series of ‘Bardic playlets’ to a sparse audience of slugs. His valiant efforts to publicize his theatrics prompt Volodine’s narrator to declare ruefully, ‘I have always regretted that only a handful of minor invertebrates […] in general devoid of literary savvy, were witness to this brilliant performance.’

The Volodinian narrator is, naturally, an ambiguous character in itself. This is due in part to the fact that Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym among many belonging to this French author, whose other works have appeared under the names Manuela Draeger, Lutz Bassmann and Elli Kronauer. Volodine has described the literary corpus of these heteronyms as works of ‘post-exoticism’, a self-coined phrase which constitutes a war cry to ‘official literature’. His extensive literary output is gradually being translated into English, and J. T. Mahany’s relaxed, playful rendering of Bardo or not Bardo is a welcome addition.

*****

Read more from New in Translation:

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…

My 2015 as a BTBA Judge, and Reading Resolutions for 2016

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh.

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh. For months now, as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, all I’ve read are eligible books, books published in the US translated for the first time this year. Yet, there were a few months before that reading took over. For years now, I’ve taken pleasure in not being partway through any books when the new year begins, so as to open each year fresh. This year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf (trans. Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich) made for a great New Year’s Day read. (To call it fitting, however, would be a lie.) The novel is hysterical, absurd, and clever, fueled by ambitious and clueless characters, fleeing and bumbling in pursuit of fortune.

Taking advantage of a bitter winter, I read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). It is rare for a project so vast to also be unflagging in both its entertainment and ability to find new shades and twists for its ideas: of cultural memories, of what it is to read another human being, of violence and intimacy. But this trilogy accomplishes it. From it alone, I could pluck a number of examples of one of my favorite narrative tricks: to make a scene continue endlessly through digression after digression. Unlike any other art form, the novel is thus able to manipulate the experience of time, both of the readers’ and the characters’.

But yes, this year has been a culmination of reading more and more books the year they’re published. The best way I can think about it is by describing the books that stand out in little, meaningful ways. Starting with where I live, in Vermont, so close to Montreal, Quebec literature has had much of my affection this year. Not just the translations, like the Raymond Bock and Samuel Archibald story collections Atavisms (trans. Pablo Strauss) and Arvida (trans. Donald Winkler)­—so similar in their arc as collections and interest in familial depths but with different approaches and destinations—but also classics like the narratively unsettled Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro). Anne Hébert’s novel is as much a story of a women trapped by culture and time, and her murder plot, as it is a stylistic achievement, melding aesthetic with the narrator’s psychology. READ MORE…