Featuring work from twenty-three languages and a record-breaking thirty-five countries, there’s plenty to choose from in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue! Today, our three blog editors share their favorite pieces, from Icelandic, Slovak and Latvian poetry to Brazilian Portuguese social commentary and Bengali short stories.
From the Fiction section, the ever-intensifying “The Meat Market,” translated from the Bengali, takes one unexpected turn after another in a thrilling prose adventure. Set a week before Eid, what should be a celebratory, communal affair quickly turns sour in East Rajabazar. This is a city where transactions are tainted by the potential for danger, just as the meat sold is tainted by false advertising. Aminul Islam faces the full consequences of these circumstances that he fails to fully understand, culminating in a shocking conclusion carefully set up by Mashiul Alam’s artful prose, switching deftly between first- and third-person at crucial moments in the narrative.
If you are looking for exciting poetry freshly translated into English, don’t miss out on Steinn Steinarr’s “Time and Water.” Hailed as Iceland’s greatest modernist poet, Steinarr’s ethereal poetry combines Icelandic poetics with modernist free verse and imagism to create gems like:
And the sorrow I hid
nearly found your own,
like a fjord-blue sea.
In this sequence on a failed and flawed relationship, the distance between the speaker and the other is quite nearly but not quite ever bridged. Equally impressive are the complex rhythms of Monta Kroma’s extract from Lips. You. Lips. Me., a larger collection of experimental modernist poems. The Latvian poet plays on the use of refrains and repetition to create a circular, almost obsessive monologue. These poems are ones that I’ve been returning to, and ones you might love too!
In this issue, meditations on neurodivergent experiences also feature, two of which make up my final recommendations. From the Non-Fiction section, Natalia Viana’s “São Gabriel and its Demons” provides sensitive, thought-provoking insight into the unnaturally high suicide rates in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Brazil, the city that also has the largest indigenous population in the country. On the other hand, Peter Macsovszky’s poetry, extracted from Sarcangelium, uses the format of biblical verses to depict (the aptly named) “lamentations” of persons confronting “the Beast, Her Majesty, Panic.” These anecdotes, rendered in such an unoriginal format, become both specific and universal, a variation on a theme, while being used in a potentially evangelising yet subversive way. These pieces, and more, await in the Winter 2019 issue.
The standout piece for me in this season’s Asymptote takes place in the icy fjords and mountains of Western Greenland, in a wonderful extract from Tore Kvæven’s novel When the Land Darkens. Kvæven’s narrative follows a great naval expedition in which two feuding groups—the mountain dwelling “descendants of the old gods,” and the the coastal villagers (“men of the White Christ”)—join forces to hunt the greatest bounty of the Arctic seas: a great herd of walruses, returned to the fjords after many years.
The opening lines of the extract describe the desperate struggle of a walrus trying to escape the Norse longboats from the perspective of the hunted creature, the great beast straining at the attempt to plunge ever deeper into the abyss, seeking only the safety of the deep as the long harpoons and svarðreip rope “only seem to bite harder, ever more unyielding, into his flesh and blubber, as if they have already passed judgement upon him.” The moment when the exhausted animal returns to the surface to breathe, his pale blue eyes glimpsing the outline of demonic figures on the prow, his nostrils “filled with with the predators’ Episstench,” is imbued with a deep and strange pathos. The walrus is terror-stricken, vulnerable, recognisably human—the men are wild beasts, thirsty not only for blood, but for the riches contained in the ivory and the oily blubber of their prey.
In Allison McCullough’s translation, Kvæven’s prose is quietly and unobtrusively lyrical. Every plank of rotted wood, or scar on a walrus tusk is rendered in a cold, crystalline, sculpture-like prose. Kvæven uses words as the inhabitants of the Western Settlement might use the hard-won resources of their barren land: sparingly, and with great skill, attentive always to the multiple uses of the materials, and the difficulty of fashioning something substantial from them.
This is the sort of writing that creates a world. The farms, battleaxes, fjords, and longships, the ice floats, stars, and internecine feuds of the Norse settlement are brought into being as part of an intricately interdependent whole, such that it seems impossible for any one of them to exist without the others, in any niche other than the one they occupy. The intriguing end of the extract brings its bracing narrative to a close all too soon, and I am eagerly awaiting the full translation.
One of this issue’s many standout pieces is María Sánchez’s “The Next Word,” a series of ten short letters that reflect on small moments in the author’s life, from memories of her grandmother to her Sunday morning routine. The letters are deeply intimate, and over the course of writing them, Sánchez meditates on their purpose; private though they are, she still plans to send them, although she wonders if they’ll have any impact, or if they’ll just get lost in the intended recipients’ spam folders.
Sánchez shouldn’t have worried; the letters that collectively form “The Next Word” are memorable and moving. Much of their power derives from the women who occupy them, whose words and images give shape to each letter. In a passage reminiscent of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Sánchez recalls the diary that she shared with several of her school friends, which allowed the girls “to read ourselves among ourselves, to place on the page what we often weren’t able to say to each other in the day.” In another letter, looking ahead to an upcoming visit, she wonders, “Will my mother turn little girl again, picking olives?”
“The Next Word” is filled with tender moments like these, as well as quiet reflections on the author’s rural lifestyle. And yet the most notable aspect of the letters is Sánchez’s ferocity (which, again, echoes Ferrante). She is angry about her own experience with sexual assault, about “all those women, who have crept through life and are left voiceless and in the shadows,” and on behalf of the many others who used #cuéntalo to tell their stories on social media. In the last letter, Sánchez finally answers her own question about the purpose of “The Next Word”: it is a call to action, to write and speak out, and, most importantly, “to support one another, to not stop fighting.”
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