If you have yet to fully traverse the sensational depths of Asymptote‘s Summer 2019 issue: “Dreams and Reality,” you can step out on the roadmap written by our blog editors, who have refined their selections—with considerable difficulty—to a handful of their favourite pieces. Between an erudite Arabic mystery, non-fiction from Romania’s foremost feminist writer and theorist, and a tumultuous psychological short story which delves into our perception of sanity, this reading list is a doorway into the vast cartography of this issue, unfurling into the rich imagination and profundity of the heights in world literature.
Something about summertime makes me want to read detective fiction, so I was excited to learn that Asymptote’s Summer 2019 issue, released this past Thursday, features a murder mystery. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the story in question, “Culprit Unknown” by Naguib Mahfouz, was originally written in Arabic. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy Swedish mysteries just as much as you do—but I think we can all agree that the Scandinavians have had a monopoly on detective fiction in translation for far too long.
“Culprit Unknown,” translated by Emily Drumsta, follows Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari as he tries to solve a series of grisly murders. Muhsin does everything he can, but each killing is a perfect crime: the murderer leaves not a single trace behind, and as the deaths pile up, the tension in the neighborhood becomes unbearable. Besides pacing the story perfectly, Mahfouz infuses “Culprit Unknown” with light humor and unexpected (but welcome) philosophical musings, as in the exchange below:
“And what was the motive?”
“The motives for killing are as numerous as the motives for living!”
[. . .]
“And what’s the connection between the teacher and the general?”
“They were both mortal!”
Just as much fun (and thought-provoking) as “Culprit Unknown” is Sarah Timmer Harvey’s interview with Edith Grossman. I always enjoy finding out what attracted literary translators to the field in the first place, and Grossman shares a fittingly mythic moment of inspiration that I won’t spoil here. Even more than Grossman’s comments on translation, which range from the role of sexism in her career to her love for Luis de Góngora (who also appears in this issue in Hamish Ballantyne’s translation), I appreciated the rapport between the two women; Timmer Harvey studied with Grossman at Columbia, and she captures her former professor’s wit and personality with impressive skill.
Finally, on a more somber note, I’d like to recommend Paul Worley’s feature on influential Maya poet Humberto Ak’abal, who died earlier this year.
The controlled and composed voice Mihaela Miroiu takes on in her biography, Thinking Like a Woman, is reminiscent of certain female representations in the best of Doris Lessing’s passages; the language, firmly rooted in orality and memory, threads along to embroider a depiction of a world that, although cannot be perfectly recalled, is nevertheless filled here and there with the experienced flourishes of one who has lived, and lived immensely, and is now remembering.
In this excerpt published in the Summer 2019 issue, we are lent a meticulous examination of an increasing lucidity of what it is to be a free woman’s role in an unfree society, in which the landscape of Orthodox, Communist, revolutionary Romania instills the female body with a sense of guilt, of responsibility, of revolt. To have grown and become within such systems is to be convinced into an existence of certain failures by the choices of one’s particular culture, and yet the author here prevails on something else—the innate intent of a woman to self-govern. Reading her fine, vivid prose—translated beautifully by Josefina Komporaly—I was swept up too in the thrilling sense of having been, unlikely, freed.
Mihaela Mirouiu is considered responsible for the birth of feminism in post-communist Romania, and has written on the historical evolution of feminism, its core theories, and the cooperation of both communism and capitalism and patriarchy. Here, in the autobiography departing from her writings in critical theory, the bite of her conviction sinks deep with not only her legacy, but the legacy of women and fighters before her. The portrait of freedom is painted with the knowing hand of someone who knows about the costs of obtaining it. “When I finished crying, I had the sensation that I was born anew, knocking at the door of a new me, and sporting a large smile on my face.” This work is a defiant refutation to the forced disappearance and the continued absence of women. It is the culmination of an earned power.
—Xiao Yue Shan
It’s hard to pick just one piece to talk about from this issue of Asymptote—how to choose between surreal non-fiction from Slovakia, beautiful imagery in five poems from Hungary, and an interview with Edith Grossman—but the first piece I read is the one that keeps pulling me back: the short story “Flies,” written by Bernardo Esquinca and translated from the Spanish by Audrey Manchester.
The story is composed of transcribed tapes of Patient X’s ramblings to his psychiatrist about his obsession with flies. As X explains, he is waging war on flies because “flies have killed more human beings than the combined sum of all human warfare.” X recounts his attempts at getting others to help him, as well as his idea of “sport”: luring flies to his apartment and then killing them with a flyswatter. He even tells us about a new factory that is manufacturing sterile male flies to introduce into the wild, with the hope that the females fail to reproduce. The final entry details the psychiatrist’s own encounter with his in the end.
While the premise is strange, a deeper look at the story makes us question the relationship between madness, sanity, and how we view reality. It’s Patient X who sees the flies that fly into a neighbor’s bathroom as a natural occurrence, not as the result of a curse, and Patient X who seems to be killed by a swarm of flies—the same flies he says humans are at war with. After all, if even the psychiatrist doubts his own sanity in the end, who has a chance at remaining sane?
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