Place: Hungary

Blog Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2019

Our editors have you covered with a lovingly picked selection from the Asymptote Summer 2019 issue!

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:

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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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What’s New in Translation: May 2019

Your guide to this month’s newest literature in translation.

This month brings us a set of novels in translation from some of the giants of international literature: László Krasznahorkai, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Ananda Devi. These reviews by Asymptote team members will give you a taste of an exiled baron’s return to his home town, a meditation on fascism and gender relations, and the decline of an older woman living in a London divided by race and class. 

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Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, New Directions, 2019

Review by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

“With this novel,” László Krasznahorkai told Adam Thirwell in their conversation for the Paris Review, “I can prove that I really wrote just one book in my life . . . When you read it, you’ll understand. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming must be the last.”

Ottilie Mulzet’s English translation of Báró Wenckheim hazatér has, understandably, been one of this year’s most keenly-anticipated books. It opens with a “Warning,” a labyrinthine eight-page sentence ending with a sigh of weariness that merits quoting at some length:

I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.

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Translation Tuesday: “Funeral” by Gabi Csutak

I tried to imagine what it would be like if I really was planted out on that bare hillside to gaze for years at the gravestones.

In today’s Translation Tuesday, Gabi Csutak captures the conflicting emotions that funerals often produce. Her young narrator, soaked in rain and mud at a relative’s burial, muses on the absurdity of death and the rituals surrounding it. 

The ground had been sodden for days when they took Grandad’s coffin out to the cemetery beyond the bridge. All the relatives marched behind it in single file between the graves where the ground had become a muddy stream. Uncle Árpi went in front, of course, and set the pace, like he did on every family hike. He had rolled up his trousers with care and pinned them in place with clothes pegs, like cyclists do, so that his yellow boots could lead the way. Dad set off eagerly after him, but the soles of his shoes were so smooth that he slipped all over the place. He kept trying different cross-country skiing manoeuvres to stop himself from falling or crashing into anything. But from time to time his own trouser legs tripped him up. The fabric reached the ground and had soaked up the mud in a manner of minutes, almost up to his knees. He clutched at Aunt Zsóka from time to time, then pushed himself off again. She was the most secure point, her stiletto heels drilling deep into the earth with every step, but every time she freed herself from the mud again it was touch and go whether she would need to proceed barefoot. You could see the sole of her foot straining, arching improbably under her laddered tights. She lifted her shoe out with her toes, then once again sank into the mud.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Start your spring off with literary dispatches from around the world!

With the arrival of spring comes a new slate of literary translations, festivals, and events all over the world. In Iran, we follow the sprouting of two new literary journals and several translations challenging the country’s censorship laws; in Hungary, we look forward to the 26th Budapest International Book Festival and the season of literary awards; and in Brazil, we discover a range of upcoming events celebrating such topics as independent publishing, the Portuguese language, and International Women’s Day.

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Iran

March 20 marked the spring equinox, Nowruz (the Persian New Year), and the celebrations around it. To see the previous year off and welcome the new one, in addition to providing their readers with reading material for the holiday season, Iranian journals have long published special issues, each covering a range of diverse topics including, but not limited to: economy, philosophy, sports, film, and literature.

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Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly guide to biggest news in world literature.

We’re starting this month with news of literary awards, festivals, and translation parties to distract you from the last few weeks of winter! From the Bergen International Literary Festival and a Mother Tongues translation party to the European Union Prize for Literature and the PEN America Literary Awards, we have you covered with all of this week’s most important literary news.

Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from the Bergen International Literary Festival, Norway

A literary event in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city and Europe’s wettest, doesn’t quite feel complete without a few minutes spent outside the venue—some people smoking, some talking with the writers, some watching the rain drip slowly into their beer. At Bergen’s first International Literary Festival, all participants were presented with free umbrellas, but the weekend (an extended weekend, beginning on Valentine’s Day and ending on February 17th) was miraculously close to remaining rain-free.

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Questions from Night School: An Interview with Jim Tucker

Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong.

Zsófia Bán’s Night School, “a textbook like no other,” is among the most playful of our fourteen Asymptote Book Club selections so far. In keeping with the book’s “defiant irreverence,” its English translator, Jim Tucker, agreed to ditch our regular interview format and temporarily become one of Night School’s pupils.

Each chapter of Zsófia Ban’s textbook ends in a series of questions or assignments, each with a winning mixture of pure zaniness and profound resonance. Here, Jim Tucker answers a set of questions from his own English translation of Night School. 

Complete the following sentence: Look before . . . 

Jim Tucker (JT): Look before . . . you enter the lion’s den. Which is the home address for translation, a job that can only be done wrong. It’s a miracle that you can make a living at it. Similar to prostitution (“Oh yes, mister, whatever you say”) except it pays a lot less, and you don’t get out as much.

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Announcing our January Book Club Selection: Night School by Zsófia Bán

Night School is a textbook like no other.

With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.

We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!

Zsofia Ban Night School

Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world, all in one convenient package.

Awards, new translations, and a poet working to help the homeless—all this and more awaits in today’s dispatches! From Hong Kong, Hungary, and Indonesia, our editors-at-large have the latest updates.

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

In the last few months of 2018, Hong Kong saw the deaths of several literary greats, but with January comes commemoration and activity. Martial arts novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung, or “Jin Yong,” passed away on October 30, 2018, just half a year after the publication of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, the English translation of one of his emblematic wuxia series set during the Song Dynasty. A Bond Undone, the second volume of the quartet, will be published at the end of this month in Gigi Chang’s translation. Its release is likely to gain even more traction in the aftermath of the writer’s passing.

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Translation Tuesday: “Petri in Tunisia” by George Gömöri

this sweetened life will turn as bitter as / saliva mixed with blood in your mouth before you spit.

To ring in the new year, past contributor George Gömöri revisits the final year in the life of Hungarian poet György Petri (1943-2000). In the 1980s, Petri had been one of Communist Hungary’s most outspoken dissidents. He spent his last holiday abroad in Tunisia in early 2000 and died of throat cancer later that year. May this poem be a reminder to us all to make the most of our living moments.

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The European Literature Days Festival: Highlights and Reflections

As always, the highlights of the weekend were authors’ readings showcasing a variety of styles and talents.

 In today’s dispatch, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, Julia Sherwood, reports on the high points of the European Literature Days festival, which she attended in Spitz, Austria from November 22-25. This year’s festival, whose theme was “film and literature,” featured many of Europe’s best film directors and screenwriters alongside high-profile novelists and essayists. 

What is the relationship between film and literature? How does narrative work in these two art forms and what is lost or gained when a story is transposed from paper to the screen? These questions were pondered during the tenth European Literature Days festival, amidst the rolling hills on the banks of the Danube shrouded in autumn mists, on the last weekend of November. As in previous years, the weekend was full of discoveries, with the tiny wine-making town of Spitz and venues in the only slightly larger town of Krems attracting some of the most exciting European authors, this time alongside some outstanding filmmakers.

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Robert Menasse and Richard David Precht. Image credit: Sascha Osaka.

Bookended by two high-profile events, the gathering opened with a discussion between Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Menasse and German celebrity philosopher Richard David Precht, moving at breakneck speed from the theory of evolution to a critique of the current education system, sorely challenging the hard-working interpreters. The closing event saw Bulgarian-born writer Ilija Trojanow receive the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action and make a passionate plea for engaged literature: “As a writer I have to live up to the incredible gift of freedom by writing not about myself but away from myself, towards society.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest in world literature can be found here in Asymptote's weekly roundup!

This week, our weekly dispatches take you to Poland, France, Mexico and Guatemala for the latest in literary prizes, and literary projects, featuring social media, and indigenous poets in translation.

Julia Sherwood, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Poland:

Hot on the heels of a US book tour for her International Man Booker Prize-winning novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), the indefatigable Olga Tokarczuk appeared at a series of events to mark the UK publication of her newest book. The “existential thriller” Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is fast garnering rave reviews, and London audiences had an opportunity for a Q&A with the author combined with a screening of Spoor, the book’s film adaptation. There was also a lively conversation between Olga Tokarczuk and writer and chair of the International Man Booker judges, Lisa Appignanesi, at the Southbank Centre. Meanwhile, Flights has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for translation as well as for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the shortlist of which includes another book by a Polish author, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with a Stained Glass Window (also translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Anyone who may have been afraid to tackle the classics of Polish literature will no longer have any excuse now that Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz has appeared in a new and highly readable English version. “I undertook this translation out of the conviction that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an accessible poem for twenty-first-century non-Polish readers. It’s witty, lyrical, ironic, nostalgic, in ways that seem to me quite transparent and universal,” writes multi-award-winning translator Bill Johnston in his introduction. At a book launch at the Polish Hearth Club in London on October 8, Johnston compared notes with poet and translator George Szirtes, who introduced his translation of the Hungarian classic The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, the global literary world was busy with prizes, language politics, and festivals.

Join us on a journey around the world from Hungary to Morocco and Brazil to find out more about the latest festivals, prizes, and news in world literature. Come back to our blog next week for other news and pieces about world literature. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary

One of the highlights of the Hungarian literary scene, Margó Festival and Bookfair took place between 18-21 October. The festival happens twice each year, and while the summer edition focuses on contemporary writers in general, autumn is dedicated to emerging new voices and to literary translation.

The Margó Award is a relatively new initiative that helps to launch a young prose writers’ career each year, awarded to the best debut novel or short story collection of the year. Previous winners include Benedek Totth, whose debut novel Dead Heat (Holtverseny) will be published in English by Biblioasis in 2019 and Mátyás Szöllősi, whose new novel Péter Simon is out now. Short stories of this years’ winner, Anna Mécs peek into young women’s lives as they navigate the chores of adult life. Mécs writes in a voice that merges accuracy with much-needed lightness and acerbic humour.

The audience could meet authors in dozens of readings and roundtable discussions during these densely packed four days. Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Aprómunka egy palotáért follows librarian Hermann Melvill’s wanderings in New York into his labyrinth inner world, delivered in Krasznahorkai’s signature, meandering sentences, while György Dragomán’s Rendszerújra collects his politically themed short stories that grapple with oppressive systems, be they political or technological.

Many eagerly awaited new works were discussed from the emerging new generation as well: Boldizsár Fehér debuted with a satirical utopia of social experiment, and a new novel by Péter Gerőcs follows a portrait photographer’s quest against forgetting, Sándor Neszlár published a volume of experimental prose that pairs every kilometre he ran with a sentence, while Ilka Papp-Zakor‘s new collection sketches out a surreal Budapest with zoo-animals on the run. Two documentary films rounded the experience, portraits of Nádas and Krasznahorkai.

As the festival is over, celebrations give way to anxiety over the ongoing culture wars of the Orbán government, that switched to a higher gear in the past months, dismissing the director of Petőfi Literary Museum, and airing plans about a potential centralisation of literary publishing. Meanwhile, many writers protested against a new law that criminalises rough sleeping. Politics and literary production are increasingly different to disentangle, but events like the Margó Festival are strong testimonies of resilience.

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