Place: Belgium

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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What’s New in Translation? February 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Kannada, and Danish.

 

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Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophie Yanow, New York Review Books

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Dominique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, translated by fellow cartoonist Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author, immediately recalls the best work of those figures like Alison Bechdel, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware, who have done so much to insist on both the relevance and elegance of the graphic narrative form in the Anglophone world. Fortunately, New York Review Books is dedicated to showcasing the many voices contributing to an ongoing, worldwide comic conversation, and its latest contribution is this Belgian memoir. Originally titled Faire semblant c’est mentir, it centers on the experiences of Dominique—a fictionalized version of the author herself—as she navigates fraught relationships with her parents, including with her looming lush of a father. Also sketched out is a romantic relationship where Dominique attempts to grapple with that most fundamental question of heartbreak: why did he leave me?

A certified electrician and plumber, Goblet clearly understands a thing or two about the necessary connections running through structures to make them work, and her illustrations carry this skill into Pretending is Lying, her first work to appear in English. Image and text perform an intricate choreography, reveling in an aesthetic that frequently slips between the easily imitated and the utterly remarkable. If the easy analogy for reading comics is the process of examining a series of film stills—and even if we might be tempted to label parts of the construction of this work cinematic—I would instead suggest that Goblet offers something that more closely resembles a well curated series of photographs, each of which could easily stand on its own, given each frame’s clarity of vision and attention to detail.

In illustrations that move from Rothko-like explorations of pure color to nuanced collections of penmanship that gradually reveal a series of ethereal forms, the melancholia that we often find in other works emerges here as well—maybe there’s something about the form that lends itself well to expressions of such emotions in its ability to match words with alternatively visceral and measured strokes. The muted color palette of Pretending is Lying is also remarkably expressive. READ MORE…

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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In the Meantime Nothing Happens

A review of the Belgian documentary film Ne Me Quitte Pas—a tragicomic ode to pain, boredom, and the spaces in-between

There’s a moment in the documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas that should be utterly unremarkable but got to me beyond all logical proportion. We’re about an hour into the film, and the protagonist, Marcel—middle-aged, morose, pyjama-clad—is sitting alone in the hospital room where he’s being treated for alcoholism. Before him is a large plastic bottle, filled to the peak with a litre of water, and when he goes to pick it up he spills a little. He curses, stands up, and with almost balletic attention to detail embarks on an intricate process of cleaning it up, manoeuvring paper towels as if polishing a masterwork of carpentry. Finally satisfied, he walks across the room, bins the towels, trudges back, sits down with a sigh, slides the bottle over, and delicately extends his hand around it once more to take a sip—only to spill it again. “Merde!” he yells, “C’est pas vrai!” READ MORE…

English without Pain

An interview with Thomas Smetryns on his untraditional, comic opera made with English language-learning records

Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns wrote one third of Triptych, a new opera commissioned and created by Opera Erratica. His piece A Party uses the English language-learning records L’anglais sans peine from 1950s France as the basis for an absurdist comedy.

How did you come across the L’anglais sans peine records?

I DJ with 78rpm records with a friend, and I was always looking for new material, because we didn’t want to only play the regular Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters songs. I found the German-language records first and then I started to look for them, especially, and collect them. They’re all from the 1950s because they stopped producing 78rpm at the end of the 1950s.

How did you choose which records to use in A Party, your section of Triptych?

I was quite fascinated by L’anglais sans peine because there is a lot of material, it had the book with it, and because it was just quite funny. The accents of the records… the way they pronounce the words, as a Belgian I find them very refined, but for Patrick and other native speakers they are funny just because it’s a very old-fashioned way of talking.

I had already transcribed the whole record, so when Patrick [Eakin-Young, director and co-librettist] and I were trying things out for Triptych, I said he should take a look at it. He was completely enthusiastic, so from then on it went really fast, I think two weeks later I got the first draft of the libretto from him.

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