Posts by P. T. Smith

What’s New in Translation: September 2018

Readers of English are introduced to four fresh titles, and to their takes on conflict, whimsy, and the human condition.

Even as we celebrate 30 issues, join us at Asymptote as we bring you new reviews of exciting fresh releases. Dive into four titles here with us, featuring work set in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and Argentina. Keep on following our blog in September to witness the journey our team has been through in the last seven years.

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Checkpoint by David Albahari, translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Restless Books, 2018

Reviewed by P.T. Smith, Assistant Editor

On the jacket copy for Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation of David Albahari’s Checkpoint, Restless Books cites Waiting for Godot and Catch-22 as comparisons. I’ll take them, especially the latter, but if I’m pitching this book to people, I’d offer up authors instead of books, and César Aira and Kurt Vonnegut. They better suggest the whimsy and quick-play changes that fill the brief pages of this novel, the sense that anything might happen, that the rules of the narrative can change in a sentence. Aira brings the freedom and the pace that Checkpoint has and Vonnegut the gentler, more passive characters than the strange and bold people who make up Catch-22.

Checkpoint is a quick book, coming in at under 200 pages in small format, and written entirely in one paragraph. It’s the latter that sets the pace. There are no pauses, sentences come and come and come, and so, though it seems as though at times nothing happens, events can rise and fall in an instant. This pace fits a war novel that’s about the absurdity of war, which Checkpoint determinedly and obviously sets out to be. A group of around 30 soldiers marches with their commander to guard a checkpoint, but they have no idea who they are guarding it against, who they are at war with, or even which side of the checkpoint they marched from. They have no known orders, and no way to communicate with their superiors. It’s a paralyzing life, one which soon includes mysterious deaths, refugees, attacks by soldiers of unknown allegiance, severe weather, and misfortunate forays into the surrounding forest.

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Spring 2011: Out of the Void

The curse of forgetting is our blessing and from whence our greatness springs. Out of the void, we create.

Not only is translation front and center of what we publish as a journal, it also takes place behind the scenes. In February 2011, after the excitement of putting out an issue (and hearing from readers like Eliot Weinberger) subsided, we got to work on the Spring edition. Among our first tasks: launch a search for our next guest artist. The Japanese illustrator Kazunari Negishi submitted a cover on 10 Mar 2011. One day later, tsunami struck Mr. Negishi’s homeland. We had to make the decision as to whether Mr. Negishi would be the one to provide 14 illustrations in three weeks. There was another front-runner, with a good cover submission, ready and willing, who had English to boot. Mr. Negishi didn’t read English; Sayuri, our contributing editor, would have to translate the texts. “Work is good though, in times like these,” she offered. I hesitated one day before saying yes. In the end, under what must have been very difficult conditions for both Ms. Okamoto and Mr. Negishi, 14 stunning illustrations were produced that would make any magazine proud. Many well wishes poured in when our Spring 2011 issue went live, and not a few of them mentioned how much they love the artwork. Here to introduce the Spring 2011 edition (as well as the dispatch from post-3.11 Japan that Sayuri especially undertook to write) is Assistant Editor P.T. Smith.

The editor’s notes for Asymptote issues always point the reader in a direction, and for the Spring 2011 issue it was one of current events and counterpoints. Without research, the current events of that period can be hard to place. The connection between Sayuri Okamoto’s letters and the 2011 tsunami is called out directly, so that’s easy. After that it gets harder, but that’s only appropriate because, as is often the case, other links and other ways to read the issue as a whole develop. With this one, it’s memory, both its recovery and its absences. In Anthony Luebbert’s essay on A. R. Luria, he writes, “The curse of forgetting is our blessing and from whence our greatness springs. Out of the void, we create.” That creative act lives throughout the pieces in this issue, which play off each other and allow me come to my own thoughts on memory.

Asymptote came to life in the early days of my own entry into the world of translated literature. My first job after college was in an office where there was a rather light workload or maybe just lenient supervision. I have fond memories of printing off pieces from Words Without Borders, folding them up, putting them in my pocket, and heading off to the bathroom to get in some reading. In my memory, I did the same with Asymptote. But that can’t be the case: I’d already left the job by the time the journal launched. I enjoy this vaguery, this impossible overlap. READ MORE…

My 2015 as a BTBA Judge, and Reading Resolutions for 2016

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh.

Asked to review my year in reading and from it form reading resolutions, my immediate response is something I need to call an excited sigh. For months now, as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, all I’ve read are eligible books, books published in the US translated for the first time this year. Yet, there were a few months before that reading took over. For years now, I’ve taken pleasure in not being partway through any books when the new year begins, so as to open each year fresh. This year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf (trans. Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich) made for a great New Year’s Day read. (To call it fitting, however, would be a lie.) The novel is hysterical, absurd, and clever, fueled by ambitious and clueless characters, fleeing and bumbling in pursuit of fortune.

Taking advantage of a bitter winter, I read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). It is rare for a project so vast to also be unflagging in both its entertainment and ability to find new shades and twists for its ideas: of cultural memories, of what it is to read another human being, of violence and intimacy. But this trilogy accomplishes it. From it alone, I could pluck a number of examples of one of my favorite narrative tricks: to make a scene continue endlessly through digression after digression. Unlike any other art form, the novel is thus able to manipulate the experience of time, both of the readers’ and the characters’.

But yes, this year has been a culmination of reading more and more books the year they’re published. The best way I can think about it is by describing the books that stand out in little, meaningful ways. Starting with where I live, in Vermont, so close to Montreal, Quebec literature has had much of my affection this year. Not just the translations, like the Raymond Bock and Samuel Archibald story collections Atavisms (trans. Pablo Strauss) and Arvida (trans. Donald Winkler)­—so similar in their arc as collections and interest in familial depths but with different approaches and destinations—but also classics like the narratively unsettled Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro). Anne Hébert’s novel is as much a story of a women trapped by culture and time, and her murder plot, as it is a stylistic achievement, melding aesthetic with the narrator’s psychology. READ MORE…

In Review: “Thought Flights” by Robert Musil

P. T. Smith reviews a newly translated collection of short pieces by Robert Musil

At first appearance, the newly translated collection of short pieces by Robert Musil, titled Thought Flights by translator Genese Grill (Contra Mundum Press), seems at odds with the writer’s reputation. After all, he is most famous for the massive, unfinished Man Without Qualities. Why would he take time away from that project he was so dedicated to so he could write pieces of fiction only a couple pages long, essays about whether the crawl stroke is an art or a science, and satirical fragments like “War Diary of a Flea”? And considering all that Musil articulated about society, gender, philosophy, art, etc. in Man Without Qualities, is there reason to read this instead of, or after, that? The quickest way to answer both questions is hinted at by Grill in her introduction. The first: for Musil to maintain his sanity by taking breaks. The second: if you admire both the intellect and aesthetics of Musil and the serious play that Walser brought to his feuilleton, this is a chance to see what comes about when those two styles are combined.

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