Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019
“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.
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…
This week, join three Asymptote staff members as they report the latest in literary news from around the world. From the legacy of Romanian poet Emil Brumaru, to new releases of poetry, literary competitions, and the Iowa City Book Festival, there’s plenty to catch up and reflect on.
MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, reporting from Romania and Moldova
The most resounding recent piece of literary news in Romania is the passing of poet Emil Brumaru (born eighty years ago in Bessarabia, present-day Republic of Moldova), one of the greatest Romanian poets of the past fifty years. Superlative eulogies have inundated literary magazines and wide circulation newspapers alike, foregrounding both the vastness and the subtlety of the oeuvre, while also deploring the disappearance of a widely popular presence prolifically active in literary publications and even social media. Brumaru’s obsessively erotic verse, ranging from the profane and the pornographic to the angelic and the (still physically) mystical, comports a richness of nuances and a chameleonic craftsmanship that perhaps explain why such a huge voice remains for now largely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for a handful of poems translated in a couple of anthologies, graduate theses, or casual blogs.
While women are arguably the only—inextinguishable, nonetheless—subject of Brumaru’s poetry, women writers themselves are taking centre stage in Romanian letters as well. The first edition of the Sofia Nădejde literary awards—curated by poet and radio show host Elena Vlădăreanu—was in that respect a remarkable milestone. While doing justice to novels or collections by established writers such as Gabriela Adameșteanu and widely known young poets and critics like Teodora Coman, the judges also picked for the debut collection award a release significantly titled Kommos. A Hysterectomy Procession by Iuliana Lungu, an up-and-coming poet who has already won support and even accolades from living legends such as Angela Marinescu and Nora Iuga.
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! READ MORE…
In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Chloe Lim shares the books that defined her year in reading. As she moved between two cities and two phases of her life, Chloe also explored literature from Albania, Taiwan, and the Caribbean diaspora—and made some reading resolutions for 2019 along the way!
2018 has been a strange transitional year. I spent half of it in Oxford, finishing a Masters degree, and the other half in Singapore. Making sense of the world, and the daily madness of news cycles, became just a bit more bewildering working from two different cities. Recently, my days have been filled by attempts to try new things, and being open to the unexpected experiences that moving can bring. My year in reading has followed that pattern: eclectic as a whole, but generous in providing new perspectives and often respite from the chaos of world politics.
A friend gave me a copy of Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun for my birthday last year, and it became one of the first books I read this year. A slim novel in and of itself, it’s breathtaking in its pacing, and filled with Murakami’s trademark haunting prose. Arguably a great read for the winter months, Shimamoto’s melancholy, grief, and terrible loneliness are coupled with an ennui she compares to the illness hysteria siberiana. Picturing herself as a Siberian farmer, she explains:
“Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You throw your plough aside and, your head completely empty of thought, you begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun.”
Today, we share our favorite pieces from the Fall 2018 issue, released just four days ago, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary styles represented. Chloe Lim, writing from Singapore, is joined today by two new blog editors as of last week: Jonathan Egid and Nina Perrotta, writing from the UK and Brazil respectively. Happy reading!
From the visceral, violent power of José Revueltas’ The Hole to the lyricism of Osama Alomar’s “Nuclear Bomb” and the schizoid voices of George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko, our Fall 2018 edition plays host to a typically broad variety of styles, forms, and languages. A piece that particularly caught my eye was “Epilogue,” a quiet, sombre short story by Irina Odoevtsova about two Russian émigrées in Nice, their separation and their separate fates.
The story follows the unhappy existence of Tatiana and Sergei, initially as poor migrants surrounded by the Anglo-American holidaying elite of the Riviera, through Sergei’s uncertain departure and Tatiana’s newfound wealth to a tragic conclusion, with much of the story being told through short, terse conversations between Tatiana and Sergei, Tatiana and her new lover and (more frequently) Tatiana and herself. The restrained, even sparse dialogue and plain prose nevertheless creates touching, vivid and tragic characters in strikingly limited space, conveying to us the tragic story of a woman struggling to understand her dreams and desires, and the tragic consequences that come from her acting upon those confused and conflicting desires.
In May, we welcome summer with long reading lists, ambitious writing projects, and travel plans. But as the temperatures rise, books get abandoned, and drafts get lost. Slowly we leave ourselves to mid-day slumbers, timeless symphonies of cicadas, and a yearning for the early evening breeze. Summer ennui establishes itself around this time, and makes us wonder, when is this heat and everything about it going to end? Our blog editors Sarah Booker, Chloe Lim, and Ilker Hepkaner are joined by our guest contributor William Booker as they introduce their favorite writing about summer’s idleness and slowness.
Manuel Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer best known for his novel Beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie) in which he showcases his ability to develop a complex narrative through conversation and his passion for film. Dwindling tropical evenings—sticky, never-ending, and buzzing with life and memories—are the setting in Puig’s final novel, Cae la noche tropica (Tropical Night Falling, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine), for the conversations held between two sisters in the twilight of their lives. Indeed, the novel begins with a recognition of the melancholic nature of this particular moment: “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?”
Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our multilingual special feature to the urgent work of Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, who wanted to “recollect. . . Syria through the stories of the people,” and to “live its diversity,” our Summer 2018 issue again proves that incredibly groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. Gathering new work from thirty-one countries, this bountiful issue, also our milestone thirtieth, unfolds under the sign of the traveler “looking for [himself] in places [he doesn’t] recognize” (Antonin Artaud). Highlights include pioneer of modern Chinese poetry Duo Duo, Anita Raja on Christa Wolf, and rising Argentinian star Pablo Ottonello in a new translation by the great Jennifer Croft. Today, the blog editors share our favorite pieces from the new issue, highlighting the diversity of cultures, languages, and literary style represented. Happy reading!
Perhaps because of my fascination with multilingual writing and the languages of mixed cultures, I was immediately drawn to the multilingual writing special feature in this issue of the journal. Shamma Al Bastaki’s “from House to House | بيت لبيت” in particular dazzles with its polyphonic quality.
Bastaki’s three poems (“House to House,” “Clay II,” and “Barjeel”) refuse singularity, whether in terms of form, language, or register. Different voices call out from the text of each poem and are brilliantly rendered alongside an audio clip of sounds from interviews conducted by Bastaki herself. (I would recommend listening to the clips before or during your reading of the piece!) The poems are inspired by and based on the oral narratives of the peoples of the Dubai Creek, but speak also to a modern global phenomenon of language mixing and syntax shifting that many around the world will relate to. I enjoyed what Bastaki terms “severe enjambments”—defamiliarizing what is otherwise standard English syntax, creating an instructive experience for native speakers.
Form and language aside, “from House to House” in particular reminded me of the communal nature of colloquial language—the speech that we are most familiar with in our daily lives, and that which we use with our families. To present them in poetry is an attempt to memorialize what is so near and dear to us. The context of Eid is especially well suited to this project, and to the issue’s timing as a whole, in celebration of Eid just past in June. “Barjeel” on the other hand, reminds me of poetry looking back on childhood (Thomas Hood’s “I Remember, I Remember” comes to mind) and on the things that seemed so big then. The Emirati influences and polyphony of “Barjeel” take that idea and renew it—demonstrating how reflection often is not a solipsistic affair, but very often one that takes place with family, parents telling children of their childhood pasts.