Place: France

Highlights from Our Winter 2017 Issue

The blog editors share their favorite pieces from our latest issue!

Here at the blog, we’ve been mesmerized by the new Winter 2017 Issue since its launch on Monday. We hope you’ve had time to dive in, too, but if not, here are a few great places to start!

“Daland” by Lika Tcheishvili, translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener, is a curious little story, told in the first person by an unnamed dock worker in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Anyone who has seen or read about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will find themselves in familiar territory when the narrator becomes the unlikely participant in a duel. Any sense of familiarity stops there, however. The man who challenges him is a mysterious smoker with a perpetually fresh lily—flowers foreign to Bandar Abbas—in his lapel and an appointment with a schooner no one has heard of…

I also cannot get the words of Christiane Singer out of my head. In her essay, “The Feminine, Land of Welcome,” translated from the French by Hélène Cardona, she writes to women, “stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.” She highlights the danger of defining women only by their commonalities, as well as the horrors that could have come to pass—and could still—in a world without women. Their absence would be powerfully felt, even in comparison to situations in which they are already roundly ignored or discredited.

—Madeline Jones, Blog Editor

In “Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singaporean Literature”, Boston-born Philip Holden, who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years, writes lyrically about this multilingual city-state. Having worked with languages Holden mentions—Malay, Malayalam, Javanese, and many others—I loved his description of situations where “I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay.” Multilingual societies are sadly often depicted as wrought with conflict. While language in Singapore is, like everywhere in the world, a political issue, too, Holden focuses on the opportunities it provides for performing and literary arts. We don’t have to search for a common language, he argues—it’s more interesting to find “holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up”.

I have never read Albanian literature before, however. If you are like me, I can warmly recommend the three poems by Luljeta Lleshanaku, one of the country’s most important writers, as an introduction. Taken from the collection Negative Space and translated by Ani Gjika, the poems describe a simple life: apple trees, a butcher carving meat, “gardens hidden behind houses like sensual neck bites”. But behind each poem is a rotten apple, or cold floors, and getting one’s way without any real gain—poetic realism. Do also have a listen to the translator reading the original text in Albanian!

—Hanna Heiskanen, Blog Editor

Check out the gorgeous video preview of the new issue here:

*****

Read More from the Asymptote team:

Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”

*****

Read More Book Recommendations:

My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Argentina, France, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The end of the year is nearly upon us, and we can hardly believe it here at the Asymptote blog. 2016 has been difficult the world over, but that hasn’t stopped a flourishing of creative energy in literature and the arts—which may be of more importance now than ever. This week, we check in with Asymptote team members on the latest literary happenings in places they call (or have once called) home.

Our world tour begins in Argentina, where Assistant Editor Alexis Almeida brings us the latest:

As the year comes to an end, there has been a steady stream of literary festivals in Buenos Aires. Most recently, the sixth annual Fanzine Festi took place at the Convoi Gallery, which featured zines and underground presses like Tren en Movimiento, alcohol y fotocopias, Fábrica de Estampas, Ediciones de Cero, and many others. On the same weekend, Flipa (Fería del Libro Popular [Popular Book Fair]) took place at the Paco Urondo Cultural Center. This initiative, free and open to the public, came out of “Construyendo Cultura,” a collective of cultural spaces in Buenos Aires, and aims to create a editorial circuit that reaches “the largest possible number of authors, readers, and spaces for the diffusion…of collective, homegrown presses and graphic cooperatives.” This is just another example of the thriving DIY print culture in Buenos Aires. Also held recently was La Sensacíon, a monthly book fair held at the bookstore La Internacional in the Villa Crespo neighborhood. It boasts titles from independent presses such as Blatt & Ríos, Fadel & Fadel, Milena Caserola, and others.

Two recent conferences spotlighted 20th century poets: Alejandra Pizarnik and Susana Thenon. The former was held at the MALBA contemporary art museum, and brought together various contemporary writers and literary critics, such as María Negroni, Daniel Link, and Federica Rocco, to discuss different aspects of Pizarnik’s work. There was also a screening of Virna Molina and Ernesto Ardito’s documentary, Alejandra. The latter was part of a series on gender and poetry presented by Arturo Jauretche University.

Ni Una Menos, the feminist advocacy group, recently led a march on November 25, for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There was also a national assembly held the same day in public spaces in cities throughout the country, in which advocates and citizens made public demands for legalized abortion and stronger legislation for the prevention of gender violence, among other issues.

READ MORE…

In Conversation: Abnousse Shalmani on the Politics of the Female Body

To cover the female body with a veil, a burqa, a hijab, a burkini, is to accept that said body is a site of desire and only that.

The first time I heard Abnousse Shalmani speak was her TEDxParis talk, which opened with: Oh, putain de bordel de merde [oh, motherfucking shit]. The auditorium echoed with scattered titters of discomfort and appreciation. “It’s ugly, all these curse words in a woman’s mouth, at least that is what parents tell their daughters,” Shalmani continued, “but I think the opposite: that all these swear words—words of the mouths of men—in the mouths of women, are indispensable.” In the remainder of the talk Shalmani exhibited through personal anecdotes and precise historical and literary analysis how sexism and misogyny, through the constraints on women’s bodies, permeate the Republic celebrated for equality and liberty.

To Shalmani, freedom begins with the liberation of the body and the assurance of one’s ability to fulfill corporal desire without limits or restriction. In her first book, Khomeini, Sade, et Moi [Khomeini, Sade, and Me, tr. Charlotte Coombe, World Editions]—which toes the line between memoir, manifesto, and novel—Shalmani expands and elaborates upon these foundations. In September 2016, I had the opportunity to interview the author about her book, feminism, and the conundrums facing contemporary France

Nina Sparling (NS): In Khomeini, Sade and Me, you make the case for a renewed humanist project, a way past all forms of extremist thought. But you get there via an unusual intellectual trajectory: through the libertine literature of authors like the Marquis de Sade or Pierre de Louÿs, both of whom are often associated with the search for extreme—even cruel—sensations and thoughts. Is it possible to reconcile humanism and libertine literature?

Abnousse Shalmani (AS): Above all, I plead for the liberation of the female body. And that liberation is impossible without the erasure of prejudice. The intellectual paths I’ve taken might seem unusual, but under closer scrutiny, their trajectory fits perfectly within the tradition of Enlightenment thought.

I first ‘encountered’ Pierre Louÿs, the prolific erotic writer. What struck me most about this lover of Beauty (“Beauty is made from Greek perfection crowned with Oriental grace,” he wrote) in his erotic poems and pornographic novels was his playful vision of flesh, of sex. Born in Teheran under the Islamic Revolution, all I knew of the body was the drama it provoked, the gravity with which my world covered up the female body, the danger it represented. To read a poet—at fourteen—who laughed about the body, about sex, who took pleasure in both, this took the drama out of the body. I began to see my body as something besides a forbidden place. It began as a literary step; the politics followed.

READ MORE…

In Review: Two New Books Mark a French Author’s English Debut

A network of veins, ponds, ferns, a system of gray stills saturated with a reddish glow in which, like a rainbow...suddenly appeared the Angel.

Asymptote reviews two new publications—a collection of short stories and a novel—by Roger Lewinter, born in 1941 in Montauban, France. The author currently lives in Switzerland and has worked as a writer, editor, and translator. These are two of his three works of fiction to date, and their publication with New Directions is Lewinter’s first appearance in English, in translations by Rachel Careau. 

lewinter-headshot

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter, tr. Rachel Careau, New Directions

Review: Thea Hawlin, Social Media Manager

New Directions certainly lives up to their name with this exciting new foray into the work of a long neglected French author. Story of Love in Solitude marks the first translation of Roger Lewinter into English. Lorenzo Valentin has compared Lewinter’s writing to “a Kashmir shawl in its infinite interlacing, woven in one piece and from a single thread” and the description is apt. The continual lacing of Lewinter’s prose is a beguiling process; it may confuse and frustrate, but in its complexity it also points to beauty.

This short but sweet collection combines three of Lewinter’s tales, ‘Story of Love in Solitude’, of the title, ‘Passion’, and ‘Nameless’. Intriguingly, rather than a facing-page translation, the publishers have decided to starkly separate the translation and its original counterpart in the book. This makes cross-referencing a lot more of a challenge, but equally forces the reader to take time with the translations and appreciate them as independent from their origin.

The first, and most lyrically titled of the three, begins with an all-too familiar scenario—spotting a spider before heading to bed. Except this occurrence becomes a sinister loop. The next night, another appears and the pattern continues. The scenario is episodic, a simple commentary in which the brevity of the encounters is such that they hardly have room to develop before being suddenly cut off.

READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? November 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from French, Swedish, and German.

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Cabo de Gata, by Eugen Ruge, tr. Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press

Review: Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor, US

First published in German in 2013—when his In Times of Fading Light appeared in EnglishEugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, out this month from Graywolf Press, might strike a familiar note for readers who have witnessed a surge in autobiographically-inflected works that frequently take the production of fiction as a subject worthy of novelistic exploration. Hailing from both the Anglophone world and beyond, such novels record the process of their creation or the struggles to even begin them, and Ruge quickly aligns himself with this approach in his tale of a writer’s attempt to get away from it all in the hope of figuring something out. “I made up this story so that I could tell it the way it was,” declares the dedication to this slender volume, and a more precise formulation arrives soon after as the narrator recalls a period in which “I was testing everything that I did or that happened to me at the same moment, or the next moment, or the moment after that, for its suitability as a subject … as I was living my life, I was beginning to describe it for the sake of experiment.”

While in Cabo de Gata, a small town on the Andalusian coast, the narrator quickly settles into routines designed to simultaneously distract him from blank pages and provide him with some inspiration to fill them. The local fishermen, whom the narrator visits on his daily stroll, can empathize with such difficulties: ¡Mucho trabajo, poco pescado! A lot of work for only a little fish—it’s a piscatory philosophy that applies just as well to the writing life. Ruge, however, proves to be an exceptionally gifted angler as he reels in catch after catch in what would seem to be difficult waters, namely a single man’s short trip to this seaside village.

Serving as a metronome marking out the rhythm of memories that constitute the novel, a refrain of “I remember” begins many of the paragraphs that have been expertly rendered by translator Anthea Bell. Far from repetitive or reductive, such a strategy instead seems somehow expansive, particularly when we are reminded that, “fundamentally memory reinvents all memories.” Both the vagaries and the vagueness of memories—“I remember all that only vaguely, however, like a film without a soundtrack,” remarks the narrator in a line that will be hard to forget—serve as the subjects of reflection that find their counterpart in the rhythms of the sea and the surrounding Spanish countryside.

READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Philippe Beck

Space creates grammar. (And in itself creates is said in space.)

Complex, haunting, and profoundly literary, Didactic Poetries is French poet Philippe Beck’s response to Schiller’s statement: “We are still waiting for a didactic poem where thought itself would be and would remain poetic.” In recognition of his entire oeuvre, Beck was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix de Poésie [Grand Poetry Prize] in 2015. We present two poems from his debut publication in English, released by Univocal Publishing today.

 

Liminal Poem

If an I does not begin,
it is because of the sum
of strong concerns
that make and unmake
someone’s history
in the history of some ones
in the history of many
and not in everyone’s.
For a someone differs
in the sum of possible exchanges
with everyone
(the big I is also
theoretically absent, and
the ordinary you and I
strive to become a You
before the imagined arrival
of the big I
that does not exist);
discussions begin
because of discussions.
What must be said
is not already spoken
in the individual’s brain,
nor in the Collective,
but it is said
because of the conversation
which creates necessity
all around brains
and hearts.
And the world is not everyone’s
negative rough draft.

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…

Jamón, Jambon, Ham

"Each product comes from same part of a pig: the upper hind leg where thigh becomes rear. The consensus ends there."

In the 1992 melodrama Jamón Jamón a lovers’ quarrel turns violent. Class tensions drive the conflict. Jose Luis’ (Jorge Molla) parents own a factory. He falls in love with one of the workers, Silvia (Penelope Cruz), and gets her pregnant. His parents reject their plan for marriage and hire the fit, sexy Raul (Javier Bardem) to seduce the young woman. Raul sells jamón, with dreams of bullfighting and underwear modeling. In a spate of anger, Jose Luis arrives in Raul’s trailer with a club in hand. Legs of jamón hang from the ceiling. To defend himself, Raul grabs one of the hams and uses it as a weapon. Jose Luis meets a slick, salty end.

The film retains its Spanish-language title in its American release, with a parenthetical (Ham & Ham). Jamón Jamón evokes something aromatic, sensuous. The legs of ham that hang from the ceiling in Raul’s shop are lithe and firm. The translated title Ham & Ham highlights the campy humor of the movie, but misses on the sex appeal. The image conjured is not of golden and burgundy cured meat and fat, but of the pink, clove-studded, maple-glazed behemoths featured at holiday feasts or Easter brunch. It’s more Jaime Lee Curtis than Javier Bardem. The French Jambon Jambon hardly fairs better, rousing images of the boulangerie staple: le parisien, two slices of cooked ham sandwiched between a half a baguette, slathered with butter.  READ MORE…

“The Neighbor” by Marie Darrieussecq

"The guitar playing and the shrieks were bad enough. But then they had a piano delivered."

‚The original version of “The Neighbor” was published in the author’s collection, Zoo, copyright 2006 by Editions P.O.L.

***

At the Dakota, my life was peaceful.

I had inherited the apartment from my father’s sister, along with a modest sum of money.  Living at the Dakota carries with it certain obligations.  When the co-op decides, for example, to renovate the basement, you’d better be able to pay your share.

Until then, I had always lived with my mother in a little village in the west of France.  I was a furniture maker, I had my own workshop, and everything was going well.  I’d led an idyllic childhood with my widowed mother, and I would have been satisfied to continue just as I was.  My mother admired my work, above all the delicately inlaid little chests.  The prospect of my leaving made her very angry.  She used to hate her American sister-in-law.

But I couldn’t resist the lure of the Dakota.  My aunt’s death literally changed my life.  I gave up my work and crossed the Atlantic, and my main activity ever since has consisted of living at the Dakota. 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:

Asymptote Podcast: Literature in Transit

A new episode goes live!

What ever happened to savoring the moment, or better yet, the moment in between two others? Why don’t stories ever focus on the euphoria of transition? There’s a lot to be learned in between point A and point B that we might not recognize. Today on the Asymptote Podcast, Blog Editor, Allegra Rosenbaum brings us literature in transit; literature from the places in between places, where the rules and regulations that govern our lives disappear behind us, as new ones loom up ahead. Allegra has spent most of her life traveling and with the help of Ezra Pound, Blaise Cendrars, Agustín Fernández Mallo, and Teju Cole, she tries to figure out what is going on in those moments of transition. This is the Asymptote Podcast.

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of Sophie Pujas’s Street Rounds in Paris

"Something has stopped him in his tracks, but he doesn’t know what to call it. And then it comes back to him: Today the world is possible, almost."

Last Translation Tuesday, we brought you the nonfiction winner of our annual Close Approximations translation contest, picked by Margaret Jull Costa. This week, we present the fiction winner: Ruth Diver’s translation from the French of Sophie Pujas’s fiction, which marks the first time her work has been published in English. Judge Ottilie Mulzet, an award-winning translator herself who has translated László Krasznahorkai’s fiction, chose Diver’s entry because it “combines excitingly experimental writing in a wonderful translation. To me the English version reads perfectly, truly attaining that marvellous balance where, as readers, we are well aware of being privy to a textual world otherwise not available to the Anglophone reader: Diver steers well clear of over-domesticization, and yet at the same time, her translation never contains the infelicity of a clumsy rendering. The author’s voice—a combination of lucidity and ironic sympathy for her anonymous characters intersecting with the urban geography of Paris—is captured magnificently. I truly hope this work will find a home with a book publisher.“

The editors at Asymptote

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AUTUMN

Rue de l’Odéon (6th)

Life rushes around him, but he’s not involved. The city rumbles comfortably, but he doesn’t belong. Homeless? What a joke. He’s already been here eight years. On the same ventilation grille. Staring at the window of the same café. The passersby grow old and die. He is eternal, stuck under a trapdoor in time. The devotion of those who wanted to help him has worn out. Nobody can imagine any other life for him now. He doesn’t care. He knew it could never happen.

Sometimes he throws insults randomly about. It’s relaxing, this sudden emptiness around him.

He carefully avoids seeing himself. A beard and long hair, just to be on the safe side. Even if he had a face, there’s no chance he will ever see it again. READ MORE…