Place: Czech Republic

What’s New in Translation: November 2019

November’s best new translations, chosen by the Asymptote staff.

November brings plenty of exciting new translations and our writers have chosen four varied, yet equally enriching and timely works: Bohumil Hrabal’s memoir that is at once a detailed study of humans’ relationship with cats and an exploration of dealing with mounting pressures and stress; a debut collection of Chilean short stories which explores social and economic difficulties and sheds light on some of the causes behind Chile’s recent social unrest; Hiromi Kawakami’s follow-up novella to the international bestseller, Strange Weather in Tokyo; and a novel set on the Chagos Archipelago which recounts the expulsion of Chagossians from the island of Diego Garcia and examines cultural identity and exile. Read on to find out more!

hrabal_all_my_cats_jacket

All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, New Directions, 2019

Review by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Educational Arm Assistant

Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is not for the faint of heart. Though fans of the author will recognize and appreciate the quirky humor and lyrical melancholy, one must also be prepared to take on the harsher aspects of the story, and I suspect that the uninitiated may find the descriptions of cats being murdered a bit much to take. The short memoir documents the author’s relationship to the feral cats living in his country cottage in Kersko, and his anguished labors to brutally limit their number. It is a lovely homage, and a richly evocative account of the pleasures of feline companionship, with lush descriptions of their delicate paws and velvety noses. We become acquainted with each individual kitty and their distinctive markings, habits, and personalities, but these rhapsodic stories are punctuated by episodes of grim slaughter that are depressingly specific—a morose account of an awful deed. And so, gradually, horrifyingly, this becomes a book about guilt and how it shapes one’s worldview, producing a strange reckoning of crime and punishment that reads retribution in the random alignments of events.

Witnessing Hrabal shuttling back and forth between his life in Prague and Kersko, we begin to notice that his concerns about his cats are combined with a steadily accumulating sense of anxiety and torment about his work, neighbors, and life. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks, in an echoing refrain, as new litters of kittens, inexorably, arrive. The book is about the cats, but we start to realize that it is also not about the cats, not really, but rather, about how Hrabal struggles to manage the various stresses of his life more generally as he gains success and recognition as a writer. Haunted by his guilt over the murdered creatures, he surveys the world around him, reflecting on the relationship between art and suffering, and increasingly begins to feel that he is a plaything of fate, doomed to unhappiness, with no choice but surrender. READ MORE…

Olga Tokarczuk and Polish Literature’s Home Army

Poland has been using art to revitalize—or reform—its postwar image.

“I and motherland are one. My name is Million, because for millions do I love and suffer agonies.” Adam Mickiewicz’s words from his dramatic cycle Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) are indicative of Poland’s long tradition of voicing resistance and examining its national identity through literature. Last month, acclaimed Polish writer and past Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, and yet has also outraged many conservatives in her own country. In this essay, Cynthia Gralla takes us through the history of resistance in Polish literature in the twentieth century, before examining Tokarczuk’s own challenge, defiance, and her place in such a history.

The past hundred years in Polish literature have been, by one reading, a history of resistance through weaponized words.

Poland has made resistance an art. Born into a Polish-American family, I have heard tales of my relatives’ wartime resistance work since childhood. Between 2012 and 2014, I lived in Lublin, Poland, conducting research into their activities during Nazi occupation with the help of a Fulbright grant. My relatives served as ski couriers in what eventually became known, in 1942, as the Armia Krajowa—literally “the Home Army.” Before that, it was called Związek Walki Zbrojnej, or “the Union of Armed Struggle”, and the Służba Zwycięstwu Polski, or “Polish Victory Service”. The name mattered little; all were incarnations of the Polish Resistance, the heart of a national body so conditioned by the vicissitudes of history and occupation that it began beating again as soon as Germany invaded. It also beat steadily throughout the nineteenth-century partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in the classrooms of that century’s “flying university” (which educated luminaries like Marie Salomea Skłodowska, also known as Marie Curie, when teaching youth in Polish was forbidden,) and during the parched years of Communism. READ MORE…

Our Fall 2019 Issue Is Here!

Featuring Radka Denemarková, Sylvia Molloy, Monchoachi, and a Spotlight on International Microfiction

Welcome to our spectacular Fall 2019 edition gathering never-before-published work from a record-breaking 36 countries, including, for the first time, Azerbaijan via our spotlight on International Microfiction. Uncontained, this issue’s theme, may refer to escape either from literal prisons—the setting of some of these pieces—or from other acts of containment: A pair of texts by Czech author Radka Denemarková and Hong Kong essayist Stuart Lee tackle the timely subject of Chinese authoritarianism. In “The Container,” Thomas Boberg performs the literary equivalent of “unboxing” so popular on YouTube these days, itemizing a list of things in a container shipped from Denmark to the Gambia—all in a withering critique of global capitalism.

The container lends itself to several metaphors but none as poignant or as on point as—you guessed it, dear Asymptote reader—the container of language itself, as suggested by London-based photographer Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee’s brilliant cover highlighting the symbolism of the humble rice grain. This commodity has, like language, been exported, exchanged, enhanced, and expressed in various forms from its various origins across the planet. Even when a state attempts to erase language, resistance remains possible, as poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the country’s frontier with Brazil—demonstrates: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the / dictionary,” he sings, “dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” In one of Argentine writer Sylvia Molloy’s many profound riffs on the bilingual condition, Molloy claims that “one must always be bilingual from one language, the heimlich one, if only for a moment, since heim or home can change.” READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

On Terezín, censorship in Iran, thrilling new Uzbek titles, and the long-awaited Nobel Prize for Literature announcement.

This week is an exciting one in the world of literature, and our editors are bringing you dispatches from the ground. Xiao Yue Shan discusses the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Julia Sherwood reports on a march from Prague to Terezín, a concentration camp established by the Nazis during their occupation of the Czech Republic. Poupeh Missaghi gives an account of literary podcasts in Iran, as well as the government’s role in quality control and censorship. Filip Noubel brings us an introduction of several new titles from the established authors of Uzbekistan. 

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

The long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature announcement of 2019 was prefaced by the usual barrage of news and predictionssome cynical, some vaguely hopeful, and most of which hedged their bets on women writers and/or authors who did not write predominantly in English. After the controversy of last year’s award (or the lack thereof), it followed a natural trajectory that our current politics lead us to search for brilliant literary representation that breaches the limits of our accepted canon of well-celebrated white men, and the Swedish Academy had seemed eager to prove themselves to be advocates for social progress, as they once again took on the role of alighting the flames of literary luminaries that will forever be enshrined as embodiments of success in the world of letters.

In a case of half-fulfillment, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature went to Asymptote contributor Olga Tokarczuk, and the 2019 Prize was awarded to the prolific Austrian writer Peter Handke. The latter aroused quite the maelstrom of negative responses, even with most still acknowledging his significant contributions and his fearlessly bold oeuvre, while the former is being hailed as a well-deserving, original, feminist voice, standing in the exact spot of where the spotlight should be shone.

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Traversing the Forbidden: A Journey Through Prohibited Literatures

Banned literature offers us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial.

For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.

In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them. 

Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin 

Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population. 

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“Thirst for a Deeper Understanding”: An Interview with the Founders of Absynt

Perhaps the fact that we were amateurs was an advantage: we were willing to take on the risk.

In 2015, two friends, a Pole and a Slovak, took a gamble and ventured into the overcrowded book market in Slovakia. And as if starting a new publishing house wasn’t risky enough, they chose to focus on literary reportage, a genre that was not well-known in Slovakia at the time. Since then, Absynt has published eighty titles and in late 2017 launched a Czech branch. At this year’s London Book Fair, the founders of Absynt, Filip Ostrowski and Juraj Koudela, shared their remarkable success story with Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood.

Julia Sherwood (JS): Reportage is increasingly being recognized as a bona fide literary genre and gaining popularity around the world. What is it about reportage that attracts you and that distinguishes it from ordinary journalism? Why do you think it resonates with readers?

Filip Ostrowski (FO): There is this general thirst for a deeper understanding of events and their context. We get coverage of the whole world from the media and the internet, but what is missing is a detached view, a kind of more universal commentary. For such a text to emerge, some time has to elapse. We feel that online coverage doesn’t respond to this need, but literary reportage can.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Literary updates from our editors on the ground in Albania and Slovakia.

As central Europe heats up this month, so does the literary scene! In Albania, an unprecedented $10,000 prize was awarded, while in Slovakia, readings are taking place everywhere: in gardens, on trams, and at an old mill! Read on for details.

Barbara Halla, Assistant Editor, reporting from Albania

Although it is only in its fifth year, the Kadare Prize is one of the most important prizes in Albanian literature at the moment. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that I use this label because the prize bears Kadare’s name, but I think its importance relies more on a few other elements, the first of which is not strictly literary. First of all, the Kadare Prize proclaims to award its winners the sum of $10,000 (though there has been gossip floating around that the awarding body has not been forthcoming with the cash) that includes financial help to get the book published in the first place. A not insignificant amount of money to consider, especially as in the Albanian publishing world, literary agents don’t exist and new authors have to pay publishing houses to get published in the first place.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Get close up and personal with global literary happenings.

Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.

In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Xi Xi, Bianca Bellová, and Osamu Dazai. Have we got your attention? Read on.

The days are opening wide this season, like the pages of a new book: for most of us growing longer and fuller. It’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot to catch you up on. This week, we’re bringing a full dosage of global literature news with achievements from Hong Kong, rolling publications by Czech talent, and literary commemorations gliding through the literal end of an era in Japan.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

This spring has been a series of firsts for Hong Kong literature. Continuing from my previous dispatch in March on Xi Xi winning the Newman Prize for Chinese literature, historically awarded to writers from mainland China and Taiwan, World Literature Today is dedicating its first annual city issue to writing from Hong Kong. Sourcing contributions from writers, translators, and academics at the forefront of Hong Kong literature, the issue includes poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction with a focus on food and languages as well as a selection of recommended reading about the city. Xi Xi and Bei Dao are among the list of writers featured in the magazine, as is Wawa—recently showcased in Asymptote’s Winter 2019 issue in an interview with Poupeh Missaghi, our editor-at-large in Iran—and Chris Song, one of the winners of the Fifth Hai Zi Poetry Prize which announced its results a few weeks prior.

To celebrate the launch of the issue, Cha, Hong Kong’s resident online literary journal, is organizing an event on April 27 at Bleak House Books, where eight contributors will be reciting and discussing their works. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, founding co-editor of Cha and the guest editor of World Literature Today’s Hong Kong feature, will also speak about the conception of the special edition.

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Small Streams That Grow into the Main Flow of the Novel: An Interview with Radka Denemarková

I just want to speak the truth because I cannot stay silent about the pain affecting others.

Radka Denemarková is a unique phenomenon on the Czech literary scene. A true polymath, she has written plays, scenarios, short and long novels, a double novel that can be read from both ends, translations, and essays. On April 7, she was awarded the Book of the Year award at the Magnesia Litera ceremony, making her the only four-time winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic. Her most noticeable works include Money from Hitler (2006), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who returns to her home village in Czechoslovakia only to be denied existence; Sleeping Disorders, a humorous play featuring Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump; and A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014)—of which Asymptote published a partial translation—a reflection on violence disguised as part essay, part crime novel. Finally, her most recent novel is Lead Hours, a major work expanding over 700 pages, spanning China and Europe, and exploring the fate of a series of characters witnessing the crumbling of their value system as they face life crises. Denemarková was also featured in Asymptote as a translator, and is now translated into over fifteen languages, including Chinese. She is currently working on her next novel.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your latest novel, Hodiny z olova, which can be translated as Lead Hours, just came out in January. What does the title refer to, and why is China such a prominent theme in this 700 page-long major work? 

Radna Denemarková (RD): The reason for China being the center stage of my novel comes out of a series of trips I made to that country, the first in 2013. I was literally shocked by what I experienced there: the breaking down of a socio-political system combined with the consequences of globalization, and how all of this affects us in the most intimate way. Initially, I had a very idealized notion of China, shaped by the little knowledge I had about its poetry, calligraphy, and philosophy. What I hadn’t expected at all was the brutality of daily life.

The main issue in China we face concerns how economic pragmatism changes the human soul, and how we can bring back the notion of humanism in our daily language. While the world seems to embrace new forms of totalitarian ideologies, we need a new language. People are afraid to speak openly. People report on each other even within the family circle. In Beijing, in the case of a car accident, people accepted as normal the fact that the male driver of an expensive car hit a woman because she was poor and uneducated and had no business ‘getting in the way.’

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The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation

“Only by picking up a magnifying glass and taking a close look at things can you see the truth about yourself and others.”

Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.

Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?

Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.

JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?

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My 2018: Andrea Blatz

August was “Women in Translation” month, so, naturally, I took advantage of this as a reason to buy some more books.

Blog Copy Editor Andrea Blatz’s 2018 reading list was packed with nineteenth-century science fiction and women in translation. In today’s post, she discusses the common themes that unite many of these books, among them the experience of trauma and the role of space and place in our lives, before looking ahead to her reading list for the new year!

Like most book lovers, I buy more books than I have time to read, so my “To Read” list is usually longer than my “Already Read” list. Having so many books to choose from for my next read means I usually pick something completely different than the book I’ve just read. However, this year, it seems as though spaces have been a prominent theme in much of what I’ve read.

I started the year with The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner. After finding a book written in a mysterious script in a bookshop, the narrator begins noticing strange things around him in his home city, Prague. The result is a strange, new reality composed of spaces that are ignored in the daytime. Fish talk to you, tiny elk live on the Charles Bridge, and ghosts appear as the mysterious narrator crosses a boundary into this “other city.”

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Spring 2014: The Space Between Languages

Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible.

By April 2014, Asymptote has snowballed into a team of 60. Though I never signed up to lead so many team members, expansion is a matter of inevitability for a magazine that publishes new work from upwards of 25 countries every quarter (and that prides itself on editorial rigor). After all, if Asymptote section editors only relied on personal connections, it would only be a matter of time before available leads dried up. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge and, more importantly, local networking, since getting the author’s permission to run or translate his or her work is often the hardest part. (For the English Fiction Feature in the Spring 2014 issue alone, I sent solicitations, directly or indirectly, to Rohinton Mistry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Tash Aw, Akhil Sharma, and Tao Lin—all in vain alas.) An entire book could probably be written about how Asymptote wooed author X or translator Y or guest artist Z to come on board as contributor. One particularly memorable (and—I assure you—not representative of the way we operate) episode comes to mind: When her phone call to an author was intercepted and met with a flat rejection by his secretary, a particularly persistent team member signed up for a two-day workshop conducted by said author. At an intermission, she casually makes the ask. The author agrees to discuss the matter the next day, at a restaurant. During dinner, our team member is subjected to intensive grilling before permission is finally granted to run and translate his work. Here to recount how we managed to ask Nobel laureate Herta Müller to come on board as contributor (and to give us permission to translate her moving essay into 8 additional languages) is editor-at-large Julia Sherwood:

I was invited to join the Asymptote team as editor-at-large for Slovakia after volunteering to translate into Slovak Jonas Hassen Khemiri´s Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, which appeared in 20 languages in the Spring 2013 issue of Asymptote. The journal had only been around for two years, but it had already established a reputation for featuring translations from a staggering array of languages and authors who had never been published in English. Slovak, my native language, had yet to make an appearance, so I immediately set out to source suitable texts in high-quality translations. My first success came when “Where to in Bratislava”, a story by Jana Beňová and translated by Beatrice Smigasiewicz, was chosen for the Winter 2014 issue. Soon after that I managed something of a scoop: bringing to AsymptoteThe Space Between Languages,” an essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Print houses and jury panels are busy, autumn is coming.

Fall’s footsteps can already be heard in literary circles. As summer hosts its last open-air festivals, prize organizers and publishers are gearing up for a new season of surprises. In today’s dispatch, our Editors-At-Large from Europe tell us more about what is going on in the Czech Republic, Portugal, and France in this transitionary period. Come back next week for this summer’s last dispatch. 

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

Held from 1 July to 4 August at venues in five cities – Brno, Ostrava, Wrocław, Košice and Lviv – across four countries, Authors‘ Reading Month (ARM) may well be Europe’s biggest literary festival. It is certainly a major logistical feat: now in its 19th year, the festival featured 100 authors from six countries. Turkey alone, this year’s guest country, was represented by more than thirty authors, including Nedim Gürsel,  Murathan Mungan, Ayfer Tunç and Çiler İlhan. A strong Czech contingent featured prize-winning novelists Bianca Bellová and Josef Pánek, bestselling writers Michal Viewegh and Alena Mornštajnová, as well as a plethora of poets.

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