Reviews

In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month

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Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?

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Highlights from the Asymptote Winter Issue

Our editors recommend their favorite pieces from the latest issue.

First off, we want to thank the five readers who heeded our appeal from our editor-in-chief and signed up to be sustaining members this past week. Welcome to the family, Justin Briggs, Gina Caputo, Monika Cassel, Michaela Jones, and Phillip Kim! For those who are still hesitating, take it from Lloyd Schwartz, who says, “Asymptote is one of the rare cultural enterprises that’s really worth supporting. It’s both a literary and a moral treasure.” If you’ve enjoyed our Winter 2017 issue, why not stand behind our mission by becoming a sustaining member today?

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One week after the launch of our massive Winter 2017 edition, we invited some section editors to talk up their favorite pieces:

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones on her favorite article:

My highlight from the Criticism section this January is Ottilie Mulzet’s review of Evelyn Dueck’s L’étranger intime, the work that gave us the title of this issue: ‘Intimate Strangers’. Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, but (being prolifically multilingual) is also able to offer us a detailed, thoughtful, and well-informed review of a hefty work of French translation scholarship. Dueck’s book is a study of French translations of Paul Celan’s poetry from the 1970s to the present day (focussing on André du Bouchet, Michel Deguy, Marthine Broda, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre) and is, in Mulzet’s estimation, ‘an indispensable map for the practice of the translator’s art’. One of this review’s many strengths is the way it positions Dueck’s book in relationship to its counterparts in Anglophone translation scholarship; another is its close reading of passages from individual poems in order to illustrate differences in approach among the translators; a third is the way Mulzet uses Dueck’s work as a springboard to do her own thinking about translational paratexts, and to offer potential areas for further research. The reviewer describes L’étranger intime as ‘stellar in every way’—the same might be said of the review, too.

Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who stepped in to edit our Writers on Writers section for the current issue, had this to say: 

When asked to pick a highlight from this issue’s Writers on Writers feature, I was torn between Victoria Livingstone’s intimate exploration of Xánath Caraza’s fascinating oeuvre and Philip Holden’s searching essay on Singapore’s multilingual—even multivocal—literary history, but the latter finally won out for its sheer depth and detail. Moving from day-to-day encounters with language to literary landmarks of the page and stage, Holden surveys the city’s shifting tonalities with cinematic ease, achieving what he himself claims is impossible: representing a ‘polylingual lived reality’ to the unfamiliar reader. And as a Singaporean abroad myself, Holden’s conclusion sums it up perfectly: the piece is ‘a return to that language of the body, of the heart’.

Visual Editor Eva Heisler’s recommendation:

Indian artist Shilpa Gupta addresses issues of nationhood, cultural identity, diaspora, and globalization in complex inquiry-based and site-specific installations.  The experience of Gupta’s work is explored by Poorna Swami in her essay ‘Possessing Skies’, the title of which alludes to a work in which large LED light structures, installed across Bombay beaches, announce, in both English and Hindi, ‘I live under your sky too.’  Gupta’s work, Swami writes, ‘positions her spectator in an irresolvable conversation between the abstracted artwork and a tangible sense of the so-called real world, with all its ideologies, idiosyncrasies, and fragilities’.

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What’s New in Translation? January 2017

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books from Spanish, German, and Occitan.

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Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, tr. by Paul Blackburn, edited and introduced by George Economou. New York Review Books.

Review: Nozomi Saito, Executive Assistant

Translated from the Occitan by Paul Blackburn, Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry is a remarkable collection of troubadour poetry, which had vast influence on major literary figures, including Dante and Ezra Pound. As poems of the twelfth century, the historic weight of troubadour poetry might intimidate some, but the lively language in Paul Blackburn’s translations is sure to shock and delight twenty-first century readers in the same way that these poems did for their contemporary audiences.

The context surrounding the original publication of Proensa in 1978 is nearly as interesting as the troubadour poems themselves. Although Proensa was in fact ready for publication in the late 1950s, lacking only an introduction, the collection was not published until seven years after Paul Blackburn’s death. The manuscript was then given to George Economou, who edited the collection and saw to its posthumous publication.

The circumstances of the publication of Proensa, of the pseudo-collaboration between a deceased translator and a living editor, are reminiscent of another publication that came out in 1916, Certain Noble Plays of Japan. This manuscript was a collection of Noh plays translated by Ernest Fenollosa, which Ezra Pound received after Fenollosa’s death.

Interestingly, it was Ezra Pound’s influence and the great importance he placed on the troubadours that ignited the fire of translation within Blackburn.  Pound, as Economou explains, “did more than any other twentieth-century poet to introduce the troubadours and their legacy to the English-speaking world”. Pound viewed the translation of the troubadours as an all-important task, and Paul Blackburn answered the call-to-action.

Six degrees of Ezra Pound. The coincidence (if it is one) begs the question of why Proensa is being reprinted now, thirty-nine years after its original publication, and one hundred years after the publication of Certain Noble Plays.

In the case of Certain Noble Plays, the significance of its publication was that Pound (as well as William Butler Yeats) felt that the Noh plays could revitalize Anglo-American poetry and drama in ways that suited modernist aesthetics. One might wonder if the same intention lies behind the reprinting of Proensa—if these troubadour poems are appearing again to twenty-first century readers to revitalize poetry and performance using literary forms from the past. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation? December 2016

Asymptote reviews the latest translated books from Spanish, German, and Konkani

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The Moravian Night by Peter Handke, tr. Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review: Laura Garmeson, Assistant Copyeditor

Not long after midnight, with wintry constellations etched across the Serbian sky, a group of six or seven men make their way through the darkness from various nearby villages to approach the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube. They have been summoned by the owner of a houseboat moored by the riverbank, guided by its neon sign blazing the boat’s name: “Moravian Night”. Once on board, they are greeted by a man who was formerly a well-known writer. He extinguishes the glowing sign, calls for silence, and begins to tell the listeners his story.

So begins The Moravian Night, the latest shimmering, introspective novel to appear in English from the renowned Austrian author Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is no stranger to controversy, with his support for Serbia’s Milošević in the 1990s provoking widespread outrage, and the alchemy of this work seems to draw from the political life and writing life of its author. Employing cameo appearances of characters from previous Handke novels and plot points about the fallout of Central European projects and failed Balkan states, Handke toys with reality, as he sees it, through the cracked lens of fiction.

The resulting book, which on the surface is the story of the nameless writer’s journey across Europe from east to west, is really a travelogue of the mind. This obscured narrator travels through the Balkans, Spain, and Germany, retraces his own steps from previous decades, and reencounters figures who were once figments of memory: “the longer he walked the more he fell into his previous footsteps, footsteps of air”. The parallels to One Thousand and One Nights are established in the book’s first scene, and continue with the same undercurrent of danger and threat of death that forced Scheherazade’s stories into being. The narrator seems impelled by the same threat in the dark on board the Moravian Night. Storytelling here is the antithesis of death – the recreation of a life – and a disrupter of time.

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In Review: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy

Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I?

NYRB Classics’ reissue of this book comes at an opportune moment, as societies around the world face the dangers of religious extremism and its focus on ritual and regulation rather than humanity. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in A.K Ramanujan’s translation from the Kannada, tries to teach Indian society a lesson in this story about the trouble with prioritizing tradition over compassion.

Samskara begins with one of the central cleansing and purification rituals in the rites of Hindu worship. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs. The cleansing ritual that he performs on his wife at the beginning of the story is the last time that he will perform this expiating routine; this is the beginning of the end for Praneshacharya’s spiritual cleanliness and purity.

Samskara—the compulsory rite given to Brahmins at their passing—becomes the central controversy of the novel. Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors. He’s taken up excessive drinking, spent time with Muslims and ate meat with them, and caught fish from the sacred temple pond. The most impious of his actions, however, was casting off his lawful wife and his choosing to live with a lower class, outcast woman named Chandri.  Despite his hedonistic behavior, the Brahmins never excommunicated Naranappa from their small, conservative village.

It is Chandri, Narranappa’s low-born lover, who delivers the news of his death to the agrahara.  This announcement causes an immediate conflict over the performance of the death rites for this blasphemous man whom they continued to allow to live among them. The Brahmins’ failure to act in the face of Naranappa’s sacrilege can be viewed as the first of Ananthamurthy’s many criticisms of the Brahmins way of life; their laziness or fear or lack of conviction, or a combination of all three, prevent them from expelling Narranappa from the agrahara.  Now that he has died, none of them want to be responsible for performing the death rites for his body.

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In Review: The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

All languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity.

In the afterword to the book, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer who writes in both French and Arabic, speaks about his obsession with “the fact of language”. And this obsession is exactly what we get a great introduction to in his intriguing new book of essays, The Tongue of Adam (New Directions, 2016, tr. Robyn Creswell).

The book is divided into several chapters: “Babblings,” “Babels,” “A Babelian Eden,” “The Oldest Poem in the World,” “Poet or Prophet?” “The Oblivion of Adam,” “Poetic Destiny,” and the afterword entitled “That’s . . . nice.” In these chapters, he takes us on an exploration into our origins of language, multilingualism, poetry, history, religion, myth, translation, and much more, consulting ancient Arabic sources throughout.

In “Babblings”, Kilito writes, “No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam anymore. It’s a naïve question, vaguely embarrassing and irksome, like questions posed by children, which can only be answered rather stupidly. But for the ancients this question was serious and consequential. To answer it meant to take a stand”.  So that is where he begins: he asks about the tongue (the language and the organ) and discusses what the ancients thought about the original human language, approaching these questions with an attitude that is serious and playful at the same time.

The inquiry into humanity’s original language, Kilito informs us, can arise only “when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning”—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages?” These are post-Babelian inquiries, implying a rupture between communities.

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In Review: Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness

Simple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done.

Navid Hamzavi and Asymptote’s long-standing Contributing Editor Aamer Hussein review Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Phoneme Media, 2016).

Nihilism in the Nietzschean sense is “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”

Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali seems to have a nihilistic outlook on life. Kamran Khosravi, the protagonist, wants to get rid of his real life in a fake accident in order to construct a new life in unknown territory. He chooses an Afghan migrant to replace him in a car crash down in the canyon. Spiking his tea, he makes his victim unconscious, puts his own clothes on him, sets his car on fire and pushes it down the canyon to make others believe that Kamran Khosravi is dead. We never know whether he is just imagining doing all this or, as the narrative suggests, actually goes through with it and later regrets it; whether he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, or whether he’s just on his way back to his wife who has left him. Much of the book is taken up with these three lines of interwoven plot, without shaping either a solid character, or identifying a cultural or philosophical issue.

Whether Rituals of Restlessness even comes close to addressing that crisis in Nietzsche’s quote, whether it recovers from its dull narrative to explore this question in greater depth, whether it comes anywhere near reflecting on philosophical or ontological aspects of life is open to debate.  The shallow characters, the superficial reading of folk culture in contrast to urban culture, and the lack of depth of social understanding, render the novel tedious and shut down a critical approach to it. The novel even fails to portray the roots of that restlessness so as to convey a better understanding of the antagonist’s logic for his (attempted) suicide, which in itself could have opened it up for broader interpretation. 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. 

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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.

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In Review: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism

Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. 

Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.

Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.

Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:

“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content.  That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”

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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.

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