Place: Mexico

Translator Sean Sell on Contemporary Indigenous Literature in Mexico

Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.

During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.

Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?

Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time.  Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.

It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.

Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics.  I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world.  I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.

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What’s New in Translation? April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

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

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

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

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your Friday update from Argentina, Mexico, and Taiwan

TGIF because we have so much to tell you about the literary goings-on around the world! From book fairs in Argentina to new electronic media in indigenous languages from Mexico, to touring documentary screenings in Taiwan, this week has been packed with exciting news.

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, reports on upcoming events:

On March 22, The Museo del Libro y de la Lengua launched “Déjalo Beat. Insurgencia poética de los años 60,” an exhibit that seeks to bring attention to the beatniks porteños, a group of Buenos Aires authors and poets who embodied 1960s counterculture through works that were genre-bending and anti-academic. Open until July, the exhibit showcases magazines, photographs, early editions of novels, and other audiovisual material from writers including Reynaldo Mariani, Poni Micharvegas, Sergio Mulet, Ruy Rodríguez, and Néstor Sánchez. “Celebración Beat. La belleza de lo roto,” a multidisciplinary work of theatre based on texts from fifteen of the authors included in “Déjalo Beat” will be performed at the museum on April 7.

Bar Piglia, located in Buenos Aires’s Library of Congress, was inaugurated on March 31. The café commemorates Ricardo Piglia, who passed away on January 6; its walls are decorated with a mural and photos of the writer, and its shelves contain copies of his books. Piglia knew of the homage and, hours before his death, completed a piece tracing a history of the library and the role it had played in his life. The text was read by actress Cristina Banegas on the first night of “Palabras Vivas,” a reading series that will take place at the café.

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Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Hot off the press: the latest literary news from Latin America, Germany, and Austria!

This week, we set off from Buenos Aires, where Editor-at-Large Sarah Moses reports on the hottest literary events around the country. Then Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn take us from Argentina to Guatemala, Mexico, and more, updating us on the latest cultural happenings around Latin America. That’s all before we jet to Europe with contributor Flora Brandl for a rundown on the contemporary German and Austrian lit scene. Buckle up!

Sarah Moses, Editor-at-Large for Argentina, has the scoops on the latest literary events:    

The Ciclo Carne Argentina reading series held its first event of the year on February 17 at Nivangio Club Cultural in the Boedo neighbourhood. The series, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, has become a Buenos Aires institution. Poets and authors, both acclaimed and just starting out, are invited to read at each event. Since the series began in 2006, over 150 authors have shared their work at different venues across the city. The February reading featured six writers including Vera Giaconi and Valeria Tentoni.

On March 3, the Seminario Permanente de Estudios de Traducción [Ongoing Seminar of Translation Studies] at the Instituto de Enseñanza Superior en Lenguas Vivas  “Juan Ramón Fernández” [Institute for Higher Education in Living Languages] started off the year with a special session. The series provides a space to discuss theoretical and critical texts in the field of translation studies, as well as one in which writers, translators, researchers, and teachers can interact. Canadian poet, translator, and professor Madeleine Stratford presented her research on creativity in translation through an examination of the process of bringing Marianne Apostolides’s novel Swim (BookThug, 2009) into French. Stratford’s translation, Elle nage (La Peuplade, 2016), was a finalist in the English-to-French translation category for the Governor General’s Award, a prestigious Canadian prize.

The British Council and the Filba Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the dissemination of literature, are hosting an upcoming conference and series of talks and workshops on the future of the public library. Gillian Daly, head of policy and projects at the Scottish Library & Information Council, will travel to Buenos Aires to share her experience, and the events are intended to serve as a dialogue between Scotland and Argentina. The conference will take place at the Museo del libro y de la lengua on March 10.

From April 6-9, Filba Nacional, the organization’s national literary festival, will bring together close to 30 Argentinian authors for talks, readings, and other activities. Each year, the event is organized in a different location in Argentina, and in 2017 the Patagonian city of Bariloche will host the festival.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week's literary news from Singapore, Latin America, and the US

The week is drawing to a close, and it’s time for a quick wrap-up. This time we’re visiting South and North America where Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, and Executive Assistant Nozomi Saito bring us the latest news. Our final pit stop is in Singapore, where Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek has been following a new literature campaign, among many other developments. Enjoy!

Our Mexico Editors-at-Large Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn had this to tell:

In collaboration with the Mexican Secretary of Culture, on January 24 in Mexico City’s Fine Arts Palace Pluralia Ediciones presented its latest publication, Xtámbaa/Piel de tierra (Earthen Skin) by Hubert Malina (Guerrero State, 1986). Malina’s volume is the first work of poetry published in the Me’phaa language (known by outsiders as Tlapaneco), a language with roughly 100,000 speakers. According to the press release, Malina’s work stands out for its lovingly realistic portrayal of life and community in the mountains of Guerrero. Zapaotec poets Natalia Toledo, 2004 winner of the Nezahualcóyotl Prize in Indigenous Literatures, and Irma Pineda participated in the event, providing commentary on Malina’s work. In particular, Toledo stated that a voice like Malina’s has been lacking within the contemporary indigenous language scene, while Pineda added that Malina’s work balances themes of traditional stories with current realities, guiding the reader through both the beautiful and the difficult contemporary indigenous life. The unveiling of this new book also precedes this February’s Me’phaa Language Festival, to be held in Paraje Montero, Mexico, on Tuesday, February 21 from 9am until 4pm.

In Guatemala City, Guatemala, on February 1 Caravasar hosted an event to celebrate the release of Tania Hernández’s latest work, Desvestir santos y otros tiempos [Undressing Saints and Other Epochs]. This latest publication will no doubt be an excellent addition to the author’s existing work that deals with life in contemporary Guatemala from a feminist perspective. The event was hosted by Rodrigo Arenas-Carter and the groundbreaking Maya poet, book artist, and performance artist Manuel Tzoc Bucup, among others. The event was streamed in real time via Facebook Live.

Finally, poets from all over the world will descend on Medellín, Colombia from July 8-15, 2017, to participate in the 27th International Medellin Poetry Festival. Updated in mid-January, the list of invited poets is a truly remarkable, international lineup, including authors from Algeria, India, Vietnam, Syria, and the UK, in addition to those from throughout Latin America. This will certainly be an event you can’t miss!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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Book Design in Translation

Talented publishers around the world are pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation.

In 1915, Franz Kafka pleaded with his publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag not to show the beetle on the cover of Metamorphosis. It had to remain unseen. If the cover displayed one illustration of the beetle, Gregor might never be glimpsed or guessed at again through the sheer language of the story.

When a book travels and changes, publishers won’t always present it in quite the same way. And when the translations multiply sometimes you have a series of cover artworks no longer focused on exactly the same thing. Outside the English language there are a great many talented publishers pursuing new designs through collaboration and experimentation rather than borrowing set formulas. In all languages we may now have covers illustrating beetles, but there are hundreds of variations and the details keep changing.

simenon-2-page-001

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your arts and culture update from Mexico, Ecuador, and Romania

It’s been a big week in literature around the world, with major awards, book fairs, and new publications vying for media attention in a particularly crowded news cycle. But the book world keeps turning even when it seems like everything else has come to a standstill. Blog Editor Madeline Jones reports from south of the border in Mexico, Editor-at Large MARGENTO gives us the update on Romania, and Contributor George Kirkum checks in from Ecuador.

Madeline Jones, Blog Editor, brings the literary update from Mexico:

Hundreds of Mexican artists have been mocking the President Elect of the United States, Donald Trump, by way of political cartoons. Now that he’s clinched the elections, the value of the peso has plummeted and Mexicans on both sides of the border are speaking out about their disapproval of Trump’s platform as well as their own fears for the future. Poet, novelist, and activist Javier Sicilia told El Universal, “This man unified fragments of fascism that were scattered throughout North America. And he’s creating proposals for destruction…it doesn’t matter if Trump wins, the theme is systemic.”* Well-known Mexican author and historian Enrique Krauze’s op-ed in The New York Times also captures the sentiments of many, in Hank Heifetz’s translation from the Spanish.

Eduardo Lizalde, who is recognized as one of the most important living poets in the Spanish-speaking world, was awarded the Premio Internacional Carlos Fuentes a la Creación Literaria en el Idioma Español this week. The judges said that his collection El tigre en la casa [The Tiger in the House] is “one of the most influential and poignant books in several generations.”*

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the reopening of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain after the Franco regime ended. Last week, the organization la Cátedra México-España, which was founded with the purpose of studying and fomenting the historical, cultural, and linguistic links between the two nations, celebrated its tenth year. Attendants at the anniversary conference noted that the international relationship is still in its “honey moon” phase and the first ten years of the organization’s work have seen significant academic collaboration across the Atlantic.

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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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Dig Deeper into Our Fall 2016 Issue

Selected highlights in the new issue from Asymptote section editors!

Last week, we launched “Verisimilitude,” our star-studded Fall 2016 edition. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the critical reception: A Public Space called the issue “a gold mine of work from 31 countries” while The Chicago Review of Books proclaimed it “f**ing gorgeous.” Among the never-before-published work by both well known and emerging translators, writers, and visual artists we presented in this quarterly issue, Anita Raja’s essay on translation made The Literary Hub‘s Best of the Week roundup. Thank you so much and do please keep spreading the word so we can connect our authors with even more readers! This week, to guide your exploration of the new issue, some of our editors contribute highlights from their respective sections. Follow them from Ireland to Iraq to Mexico to Korea and back again.

yum

Tactile Translations, Stefana McClure. Review: Eva Heisler, Visual Editor.

Using sources as various as a Japanese translation of The Little Prince, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, or a U.S. government redacted report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” artist Stefana McClure slivers printed matter and re-employs it as material with which to construct her enigmatic objects: stones wrapped in paper; a ball wound of the paper shreds of a novel; a nearly black “drawing” knit from redacted texts. Carmen Hermo’s conversation with McClure delves into the thinking and process behind the artist’s “tactile translations.”

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What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.

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The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.

 

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A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.

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Carlos Fonseca on Masks, Perspective, and History

An identity is nothing but a coherent life narrative weaving together separate fragments of lived experience.

Carlos Fonseca is the author of Colonel Lágrimas, first published in Spanish in 2015 by Anagrama (Barcelona) and coming out in English on 4 October from Restless Books. A British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge, Fonseca’s research interests lie in Latin American literature, philosophy, and art history, and the formal links between novels and politics, among many others. He was born in Costa Rica and grew up in Puerto Rico, but he considers himself Latin American.

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen interviewed Carlos over email about his debut novel, the people who inspired his characters, and his thoughts on identity and the evolving nature of memory. Read an excerpt of Colonel Lágrimas here.

Hanna Heiskanen (HH): Could you begin by describing your book to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Carlos Fonseca (CF): Imagine a book that works like a virtual map: you can zoom in or you can zoom out. If you zoom in, you will see the daily life of an eccentric old man who is constructing an encyclopedia of human knowledge. If you zoom out, you will see the political history of the twentieth century. Colonel Lágrimas tries to link these two narrative layers.

HH: This is your first novel—how did you get into writing fiction, and why did you want to tell this particular story?

CF: The novel sprang from two different events. The first is the moment in which a friend of mine tells me the life story of the eccentric mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, a brilliant thinker who ended up locked in his cabin in the French Pyrenees, imagining a universal theory of knowledge. The second was the moment I sat down and, influenced by the works of the American photorealist portrait painter Chuck Close, attempted to imagine what a close-up portrait of my character would “sound” like, what his voice would sound like. The moment I figured out which type of narrator I wanted, the novel’s structure became clear to me.

HH: History, its blurriness and dependence on perspective is one of the leading themes in your narrative. I understand your academic research also has to do with representations of history. How did your research seep into Colonel Lágrimas?

CF: I felt that the life of Alexander Grothendieck—upon which the character of the colonel is based—represented in some ways the history of the twentieth century: a century that began with an addiction to political action and ended up hooked on data. A century that moved from the battlefield to Wikipedia, so to speak. I wanted to explore, through the novel, this idea of contemporary history as a giant museum where the possibility of political action itself is at stake.

HH: You also write about how we can’t escape the inevitability of inheritance“walking on a tightrope” means you can only walk in one directionand whether it’s possible to change the narrative and thus the course of history.

CF: I think you are absolutely right: it is a novel about inheritance. A novel about what it means to inherit a history, a history both individual and communal. The protagonist, like Grothendieck, is the son of two left-wing anarchists and, as such, he must learn how to inherit this political tradition. In a way, I was interested in exploring the Colonel’s eccentric projects and actions as his way of appropriating the anarchist tradition from which he came. It is, indeed, a novel about the ways in which we narrate history and the consequences these narratives have upon us.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Colonel Lágrimas” by Carlos Fonseca

The colonel inhabits his century with the anonymity of a fish in water.

Today we present an extract from Carlos Fonseca’s dazzling debut about the demented final project of a brilliant mathematician. Recalling the best of Bolaño, Borges, and Calvino, Colonel Lágrimas is an allegory of our hyperinformed age and of the clash between European and Latin American history.

The colonel aspires to have a thousand faces. The file endeavors to give him only one. Now that he’s sleeping we can remove the folder from the cabinet where it is stored, remove the blue band that protects the file, and thumb through it at our leisure, study the case history hidden behind this tired man’s dreams. On the first page in this heavy, grayish folder, we find the fundamentals of an identity: a name, date of birth, and place of origin. Strange inflexibility for a man who dedicated his life to being many, to seeking happiness through a schizophrenic multiplicity of personalities. The colonel inhabits his century with the anonymity of a fish in water. And, nonetheless, a name and a date bring continuity to the archive. Clearly, the sleeping man is only one. We are left with the magic of perspective, looking at him from a thousand different angles, drawing a kind of cubist portrait of this tired man. At times, asleep though he is, it would seem that the colonel is posing for us: he turns to one side, he turns to the other, he changes positions as often as he changes dreams. We tell ourselves that we must look at the file with the flexible gaze of one who catalogues dreams, we must analyze the colonel’s masks from the elusive position of happiness.

***

In the midst of war, the weight of his heritage upon him, the little colonel learned to play with his masks. We find in the file, in almost indecipherable handwriting, a note that establishes the precise moment of what would be one of the great realizations of his life: to don a mask was to refuse a destiny. Dated in 1943 and signed by a certain Jacques Truffaut, psychoanalyst at a Parisian orphanage, the note is summarized in the following lines: “The boy refuses to answer in his mother tongue. He rejects Russian with an alarming rage. He seems to want to annul his origins. On the other hand, he caresses Spanish with an angelic fluency.” Truffaut knows little of those rainy Chalco afternoons. For him, Mexico calls up ideas of erotic barbarism, of adventure and expeditions with no return, and so, in an attempt to feel at home, he chooses to write, on the line for birthplace, the French name, Mexique. But the little colonel doesn’t like homes: he prefers a theory he discovers in a French copy of National Geographic, in an article about the tribal use of masks in northeastern Africa. He prefers to think that civilization originated with the simulacrum, feigned identity, anonymity with a face, endless flux. He thumbs anxiously, happily, through the article that tells of a certain Johann Kaspar Lavater, father of physiognomy, who thought he had discovered the moral outlines of personalities in people’s faces. The colonel sketches precise and fantastic drawings in which different faces are juxtaposed with animal physiognomies: a man with a pointed snout compared to a long-nosed dog, a man with a small nose beside a buffalo. He laughs in the midst of war, and his laughter is the first of many masks. Years later, the colonel will find in his love of butterflies a kind of final mask, a homeopathic remedy for this, his solitude of grand, dramatic laughter.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

I wrote whenever anything struck me. As I started to write, I began to revive little by little, from my fingernails to my hair.

Happy Friday, readers! The Asymptote team has some exciting news: starting this week, we will be replacing our Friday literary news round-up with a more diverse and decidedly international column, brought to you by our team members around the world. We’ll have the latest and most pertinent updates on the literary scenes from various regions each week, from national trends to local events. This is your one-stop, world tour!

Starting this week in India, Poorna Swami, Editor-at-Large for India, updates us by region:

Noted Assamese poet Nalinidhar Bhattacharya passed away on September 2 in Guwahati at the age of 95. The Sahitya Akademi Award winner’s books include five poetry collections, five essay collections, and even a translation of Dr. Zhivago into Assamese.

But while the country lost a literary great, it also regained one. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan ended his self-determined literary exile on August 22. His reentry in to the literary world comes a year and a half after he publicly declared to quit writing because his book, Madhorubhagan [One-Part Woman], faced attacks from Hindu fundamentalist and caste-based groups. He had said on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.”

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