Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.
Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.
High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.
The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.
Michael Henry Heim, the translator who introduced to English readers Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—and my personal favorite, The Joke—dies on 29 September 2012. Not only do we mourn his passing, we regret not being able to publish the interview Heim agreed to months before. Michael Stein of Literalab, who has been researching interview questions for Asymptote when news breaks of Heim’s death, writes a tribute instead, which we publish on Tumblr (this being before the arrival of our blog). On the other hand, Yiyun Li—whom I have been courting since the beginning of Asymptote—finally agrees to grace the pages of our eighth issue (listen to a snippet of her conversation with Clare Wigfall here). Haven’t read Li? Start with “Love in the Marketplace” from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Sometimes, in my more indulgent moments as editor, I think of that story and channel the question that the narrator asks of her mother, who prides herself on the care she takes to make the very best hard boiled eggs that she has been selling for forty years: Who even notices?
The Fall 2012 issue was the first issue of Asymptote that I encountered when I decided to reconnect with literature after a long hiatus. And I’ll be perfectly candid: as a skeptic who has never been afraid of ghosts, I was somewhat bemused by the Halloween-tinged theme of fear and the supernatural. But when I delved a little deeper I found no Disneyfication of the old pagan ritual but rather an exploration of fear that encompassed both the everyday and the extraordinary. In a whirlwind blend of poetry, fiction, loud-mouthed drama, and even phantasmagorical art, readers encounter the ghosts of of memory, AIDS, old age, Alzheimer’s, lost cultural identity, and so much more.
The pieces from this issue play off of each other’s fears and discoveries so well that it is almost uncanny. Afzal Syed Ahmed’s poem, which begins “In your language every line begins from an opposite end,” responds to Aamer Hussein’s fear of returning to a ‘home’ that no longer feels like home—and not simply because both are translated from Urdu. As Hussein explains, “I’m losing my mother tongue. I’m a vagabond, I carry my home on my back. Now I shall turn this foreign tongue into a whip and lash them with their words.” When discussing in her interview why she doesn’t feel ready to be translated into Chinese, Yiyun Li demonstrates a similar fear of losing one’s language, of being misinterpreted, of being pushed out or forgotten. READ MORE…