Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel (translated into English by Matt Reeck and published by Deep Vellum) is a combination of fiction and essay, written with a “stark and uncompromising beauty.” When the novel was first excerpted in Asymptote back in 2015, Matt Reeck highlighted the way in which “The novel’s experimental form stages the gaps between places, and between accepted norms, where a person cast adrift must live.”
Now, Asymptote Book Club subscribers will have a chance to discover this “contemporary classic” in full. You can join our discussion on the Asymptote Book Club Facebook group, or sign up to receive next month’s title via our website.
“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, translated from the French by Matt Reeck, Deep Vellum, 2019
Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor
The protagonist of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel has lived a life contained within the constraints of a pair of quotation marks. The exercise of her voice in the printed word—French in the original, English in a new translation by Matt Reeck—represents an effort to outtalk the multitude that would mischaracterize her and confine her to a type. She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.
Reported Speech by Pavel Arseniev, Cicada Press, 2018
Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large
I tell my students that literature does things, but I prefer to do so in even less polished terms. From a more abstract perspective, I see current attacks on the humanities (especially literature) in the United States and elsewhere as being so vicious precisely because of the fact that literature does do things. It changes how we, as humans, relate to and understand others, as well as ourselves.
That said, there are moments when I profoundly doubt this. For example, I was recently discussing the fabricated crisis at the US-Mexico border and Trump’s wall with someone I had just met. During our discussion, this person informed me that Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s nonfiction All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, a work that gives a nuanced, highly sensitive portrait of the US-Mexico border, actually serves to justify that border’s further militarization. It was like being told by someone with a very serious face that Shelley’s “Ozymandius” is a laudatory poem on the subject of indelible human achievement or that Swift’s A Modest Proposal provided a brilliant roadmap for the betterment of the Irish economy. And yet, even when my doubts about literature and its power dominate my thoughts, events like the murder of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub snap me back to reality. Literature matters, so much so that in other parts of the world literature can get you killed, even as I safely type this up in my home in the United States. Perhaps this will soon be the case here, too.
An impactful feature of “The Fox-Terrier” is the way in which the opening paragraph throws the boundary between fiction and nonfiction into doubt as the narrator mentions a personal detail which is also true of the author: that he has written a book called La revolución en bicicleta, which the real-life Mr. Giardinelli published in 1980. Although Mr. Giardinelli asserts that “The Fox-Terrier” is purely fictional, the use of this true detail as a framing device for the untrue narrative which follows lends the story’s climax a chilling believability. The reader is left wondering, Could it be that this terrible thing really happened? This question leads, in turn, to a larger consideration of human nature and its capacity for cruelty, and the way human evil returns again and again throughout history “like a neverending Piazzolla tango.”
—Translator Cameron Baumgartner
In This is Not the End of the Book, a conversation about books and reading by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, the authors mention a story by Restif de la Bretonne, a French novelist from the eighteenth century whom I haven’t read, that is similar to a story my father used to tell, and which in 1980 I almost included in my book La revolución en bicicleta.
Image credit: Andrés Toledo Margalef
It was hard to say goodbye to El Pacha. Tomorrow is the day, they would say, and then they’d say the same thing the next day, until half a month had passed. Finally, one day, they went into the patio and looked up at the unusual tree, its old roots amassed in concrete, and tore it to the ground. Anyone who wanted to could take a limb. Later, they returned to take chunks out from the wall in the library. On the final day—at least, what is remembered as the final day—they started throwing all of El Pacha’s innards out onto the street: decrepit couches, decorative broken TVs, pieces of wood, empty cases of beer, everything, out into the tiny alley that lies on the border between the neighborhoods of Villa Crespo and Almagro. They sat on the couches and, as in a cremation or medieval execution, lit the pile of debris on fire. They took out sausages and large cuts of meat from their bags and began to roast them over the licking flames. With the exception of that unusual feast, they spent the rest of the funereal night doing what they always had done: they drank, played guitar, and took turns reading their poetry aloud.
El Pacha was an important space in the Argentinian underground poetry scene until it closed roughly one year ago, in March 2018. It had operated illegally out of the second floor of a spindly residential apartment building; participants would be informed of weekend events through an email listserv, Facebook pages, or word of mouth. Though the space passed away, El Pacha still serves as an example of how writing is a community process and provides a window into how politics and economics mold the unique structure of Buenos Aires’ literary scene.
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Podcast editor Dominick Boyle speaks with translator Olivia Hellewell, whose stellar translation of an excerpt from Katja Perat’s The Masochist earned her first place in the fiction category of our 2019 Close Approximations Contest and $1,000 in prizes. Set in an impeccably researched past, the novel gives Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—the (in)famously eccentric aristocrat after which masochism is named—a fictional daughter. The excerpt, featured in our Winter 2019 issue, depicts protagonist Nadezhda Moser as a woman of powerful wit and will to address issues that resonate with the present day. Dominick and Olivia sit down to discuss what drew Hellewell to translate from the Slovenian, what it’s like to translate from a language with a smaller stature on the world stage, and more.
Zsófia Bán’s Night School, “a textbook like no other,” is among the most playful of our fourteen Asymptote Book Club selections so far. In keeping with the book’s “defiant irreverence,” its English translator, Jim Tucker, agreed to ditch our regular interview format and temporarily become one of Night School’s pupils.
Each chapter of Zsófia Ban’s textbook ends in a series of questions or assignments, each with a winning mixture of pure zaniness and profound resonance. Here, Jim Tucker answers a set of questions from his own English translation of Night School.
Complete the following sentence: Look before . . .
Jim Tucker (JT): Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong. It’s a miracle that you can make a living at it. Similar to prostitution (“Oh yes, mister, whatever you say”) except it pays a lot less, and you don’t get out as much.
In this haunting short story by Ricardo Lísias, the narrator contends with multiple stubborn memories, around which his narrative revolves. From an injured taxi driver in Buenos Aires, to overwhelming loneliness in Krakow, these memories are strung together to create a potent, overwhelming mixture.
I have determined why I am so upset by writers of clear sentences: they don’t struggle with memory. Their transparency denounces a simplistic intelligence. If someone cries because they are not able to render trauma into words then that person is a deep person.
I identified the root of my issue with clear-writing writers when I was in Poland. It is a very stark memory. I felt, standing more or less five hundred metres away from a small bus terminal in Krakow, the most intense loneliness I have ever experienced.
A year later, when I decided to dig up the loneliest moment in my life, I realized that it is not a bad feeling. It doesn’t hurt me or make me suffer.
In today’s world, where the study of science and the humanities are considered as oppositional, the art of translation lies arguably somewhere in the middle. In this essay, Asymptote’s Andreea Scridon profiles Romanian writer and doctor C.D. Zeletin, who challenged this false dichotomy, and through his work in both medicine and literature, showed the possibilities of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.
I first heard of C.D. Zeletin in my Translation Studies course in Bucharest. I was spending a month in the city, just catching the brutal beginning of winter among the greys and blues of its urban landscape, and, sheltered in the seminar room from the iciness of the rough wind that is known to blow over the region’s plains, this was one of the lessons that I was enjoying most.
C.D. Zeletin, my professor told me, was a doctor. As he rode the trolleybus to the Pediatric Hospital every day, he would translate Michelangelo’s sonnets mentally, from Italian to Romanian, presumably wearing his white coat and gazing out the window. Eventually, the written product of this passion would see the light of day, published several years after its conception as Poezii [Poems]. These translations are considered, in fact, elegant and successful. The collection won the 1965 Edinburgh Book Award and Gold Medal. It would have a reverberative effect for generations of readers and poets to come; rather than adhering to Renaissance models strictly, the translation resembles a more personal search, thus producing an inventive and original approach that speaks to twentieth and twenty-first-century readers.
Stuck in a literary rut? Our editors-at-large are back with up-to-the-minute recommendations for new translations, current literary festivals and exhibitions, and even an award-winning film!
Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large for Chile, reporting from the United States
In this second month of 2019, I would like to highlight some recent and forthcoming translations of Chilean poetry, since there have been several superb late-2018 publications and some exciting works slated to appear in 2019.
First, in September 2018, Cardboard House Press published Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría’s remarkable translation of poète maudit Rodrigo Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances. This extraordinary book has received ample coverage in Asymptote—an excerpt of the translation appeared in the Winter 2017 issue, and an insightful review by Garrett Phelps appeared on the Asymptote blog. Late 2018 also saw the publication of Urayoán Noel’s brilliant translation of Pablo de Rokha’s poetry, titled Architecture of Dispersed Life. These inspired translations show off the complexity of de Rokha’s dark and humorous textualities and are “absolutely modern” in the Rimbaudian sense of the word. Also of note is the New and Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña (edited by Rosa Alcalá), which is particularly fascinating not only for the profound poetic and visual art explorations undertaken by Vicuña, but also for the work it features by several of Vicuña’s sharpest translators. And finally, I encourage readers to seek out Mónica de la Torre’s translation of Omar Cáceres’ Defense of the Idol (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018). Cáceres was a cult poet highly praised by ranking members of the pantheon of Chilean literature, such as Vicente Huidobro and Pablo Neruda. READ MORE…
If Valentine’s Day doesn’t get your heart racing, Asymptote has something different to offer this February 14. Read on for sinister mansions, absent wives, and the ambivalent origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love!
This Valentine’s Day, consider instead the often terrible odds that romantic endeavours will succeed, the relationships that end mysteriously, and the partners that vanish without a trace. This is exactly what happens in Taiwanese author Wang Ting-Kuo’s English debut, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (Granta Books, April 2019), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun. First published in 2015, the novel has already won all major Taiwanese literary awards and is set to make a spectacular entrance into the English literary scene.
The novel is a first-person retrospective narrative by an unnamed protagonist who has set up a small cafe by the sea, waiting for his missing wife, Qiuzi, to return to this spot, her favourite along the coast. The initial premise is simple: Qiuzi, dissatisfied with the narrator’s absence, his financial lack, and his unintentional neglect of her, disappears one morning into the arms of Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and Qiuzi’s photography tutor. The unnamed protagonist’s narration is then triggered by Luo’s chancing upon the cafe, setting in motion an encounter that drives Luo mad. As the story unfolds, however, the truth of the matter becomes increasingly less certain, complicated also by the appearance of Miss Baixiu, Luo’s daughter, who haunts the cafe daily in an attempt to ‘heal’ the protagonist’s soul. READ MORE…
Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.
Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019
Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Bradshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.
The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.
This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Elizabeth Novickas render Ričardas Gavelis’ hallucinogenic modernism at its most intense and challenging. In this short extract, we follow the stray dogs, rubbish-tip flies, and neighbourhood drunks of Vilnius as the everydayness of their actions is transformed into something altogether stranger.
The most important musical happening in Vilnius—and therefore the Universe—is the brilliant concert of the flies over Karoliniškės’ garbage containers. It is considerably deeper and metaphysically purer than Tarasov’s famous fly-sound installation. It’s a true live concert brimming with improvisation; its sounds determine the movement of the stars, the smells of Vilnius’s streets, and Vilniutians’ sexual mores.
Those flies buzzing above the new gray containers are numberless, but only a complete idiot would say they’re identical, or more or less identical. If that was all they were, they certainly wouldn’t determine either the movement of the stars or Vilniutians’ sexual moods. Those flies are much more varied than humans: from the tiny Drosphila to the impressive horse shit fly. When Apples Petriukas went looking for the meaning of life in the garbage dumps, he counted one thousand seven hundred thirteen varieties of flies. I go up to Korals’ reeking garbage containers and simply wave to that surreal orchestra with my hand—I don’t even need a baton. The domain of the flies greets me with a majestic fortissimo, in which individual musical themes diverge only later: humming, whining, buzzing, as well as all the other fly sounds. But this is merely the beginning of the beginning—the buzzings will out-buzz one another; primary and secondary motifs will be born, as well as fly self-disclosures and leaps into infinity toward the Absolute of the flies. And on top of all of that, you need to add the smell! Only the concerto grosso of Vilnius’s flies synthesizes a flawless musical sound and an artistic smell. The reek of that concert is simply unmatched—almost as amazing as that of my attire.