Reviews

What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Bradshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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“The Will to Oblivion”: Ma Jian’s China Dream in Review

China Dream is psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it.

China Dream by Ma Jian, translated from the Mandarin by Flora Drew, Penguin Books.

The controversy over the cancellation and restoration of two public talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian by the venue provider, Tai Kwun, in last November’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, has added to the topicality of Ma Jian’s newly published translated work, China Dream. Bearing a politically sensitive title that blatantly alludes to President Xi Jinping’s project of rejuvenating the Chinese nation, his “Chinese Dream” as portrayed in the novel is quite an oddity as a translated work. The translated English version was published before the original Chinese version, which is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher; however, this is within expectations considering the sensitiveness of the subject matter. Ma Jian’s scathing critique of autocracy not only targets the national project of the present Chinese government but all forms of rigid, state-controlled policies that annihilate individual subjectivity.

China Dream is in line with the tradition of dystopian fiction in its imagination of negative government. Different from its Chinese predecessors, such as Lao She’s Cat Country, which is more akin to a Swiftian satire, or Chan Koon-chung’s The Fat Years, whose dystopian vision is embodied in the form of science fiction, China Dream is more psychological, interweaving an increasingly uncanny present with a spectral past that eventually encroaches upon it. China Dream is about the will to oblivion and subsequent self-destruction of a Chinese officer who rises to power after his betrayal of his Rightist parents in the Cultural Revolution. The narrative centers on how Ma Daode, the director of the fictional China Dream Bureau, who is simultaneously a representative of state corruption and moral guilt, falls from his prime, and kills himself in a paradoxical moment of delirium and recognition.

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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!

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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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How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?

Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018

To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.

But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”

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What’s New in Translation: January 2019

You won't be lacking reading material in the new year with these latest translations, reviewed by Asymptote team members.

Looking for new books to read this year? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Kurdish, Dutch, and Spanish. Read on to find out more about Abdulla Pashew’s poems written in exile, Tommy Wieringa’s novel about cross-cultural identities, as well as Agustín Martínez cinematic thriller.

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Dictionary of Midnight by Abdulla Pashew, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Phoneme Media (2018)

Review by Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong

Dictionary of Midnight is a collection of several decades of Abdulla Pashew’s poetry as he recounts the history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence. Translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, the work includes a map of contemporary Iraq and a timeline of Kurdish history for those unfamiliar with the plight of the Kurds, something Pashew, one of the most influential Kurdish poets alive today, has taken upon himself to convey and to honor.

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Percentimentality: Kim Sagwa’s Mina in Review

She is but a product of P City’s education system in which “percent-ality,” a person’s grades, is the sole measure of success and personal worth.

Mina by Kim Sagwa, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Two Lines Press

Mina is a novel by the award-winning writer Kim Sagwa, translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton ten years after its original publication—one can tell, because the text mentions MP3 players that are by now quite obsolete. It is the very first of Kim’s novels to be made available in English. Mina is set in “P City,” which sounds like “Blood City” in Korean, and is a harrowing portrait of the horrors of metropolitan life and the Korean education system. The failures of these social orders inflict despair and desolation on adolescents, exemplified by the trio of main characters: Mina, Minho, and Crystal, all high schoolers, ultimately pushing them over to the deep end of irredeemable apathy, grief, and mental illness.

Like the vicious suggestion of its name, P City is built on an unforgiving system of discrepancy and exploitation. The city is split into two parts: a middle-class suburb propagating a “lifestyle that is selfish, ignorant, and irresponsible,” where apartment blocks are “perfectly square box-shaped cement buildings” on gridded streets, and an old part of town hosting “the lives of the losers,” overcrowded and clogged with traffic. Districts are highly gentrified, their streets flanked by franchised restaurants and chain coffee shops. This sterile status quo bleeds over to P City’s educational system, in which the virtues of submission and conformity prevail over a genuine appetite for knowledge—the marking criteria deem it more important that a student can write an essay on Rousseau using correct nouns and tenses, than to contemplate his philosophy. A commentary on South Korea’s hagwon culture, where students spend excruciatingly long hours at cram school to get better scores in examinations, P City puts students under high pressure and competition, causing the suicide of Pak Chiye, a fellow schoolmate and Mina’s childhood friend, jumping from the roof of a school building.

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Announcing our December Book Club Selection: The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

In telling her mother’s story, Mukasonga returns agency to Stefania and the other women of her village.

The Asymptote Book Club enters its second year with a first African title: Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago, is a moving tribute to the author’s mother, one of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide.

After visits to Turkey and Croatia in the previous two months, we again find ourselves confronting “the dark and bloody face of history” through the mirror of prose. Mukasonga’s homage to her mother, though, “radiates . . . with warmth and affection,” in the words of our reviewer. “This slim memoir,” says Alyea Canada, “is a haunted and haunting love letter.”

Head to our online discussion page to add your voice to the discussion on The Barefoot Woman. All the information you need to subscribe for future Book Club selections is available on our Asymptote Book Club site, together with a full overview of our first twelve months.

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Rebel Poetry: Rodrigo Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances in Review

Lira’s neologisms, wordplay, intertextuality, and assonance-based rhythms would cost even the best translator a pint of blood.

Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press

Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.

Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.

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Le Rouge et le Noir: Marrakech Noir In Review

“Amerchich was the kind of insult you hurled at someone to accuse them of both foolishness and insanity . . . ”

 

Marrakech Noir, collection edited by Yassin Adnan, translated from the Arabic, French, and Dutch by various, Akashic Books

With the twisting, winding small alleys in el-Medina, the bustling Jemaa el-Fna, a main square and marketplace, with its storytellers and performers, and the endless souks frequented by tourists and locals alike, Marrakech is the perfect environment for myths, legends, and stories. Seeing a rather large population increase over the past two decades as villagers and immigrants move to the city for opportunities, as well as an influx of tourists come to explore the tanneries, cuisine, and find a bit of paradise, the Red City contains a diverse landscape unlike any other in the world. Storytellers, like al-Sharqawi in “The Mummy in the Pasha’s House,” control the city’s reputation, and they can even “incorporate [a story] into the city’s very soil, till it became a part of its reddish clay or the dark green of its palm trees.” This phenomenon is notable throughout Marrakech Noir as each story, despite being written in the noir style, doesn’t reflect a noir city, but the noir that can exist in its occupants.

Marrakech Noir joins Akashic Books’s Noir Series, a series of anthologies of dark short stories set in different neighborhoods and locations around the world. This exploration of Marrakech includes stories by Fouad Laroui, Fatiha Morchid, Halima Zine El Abidine, Mohamed Zouhair, and more translated from Arabic, French, and Dutch, showcasing not only the linguistic diversity of the city but also the cultural and societal differences found within Marrakech’s meandering back alleys and main thoroughfares. But, as editor Yassin Adnan notes in the introduction: “Despite their variety, these stories remain rooted on Moroccan soil . . . ” which provides readers with new insight into a city with ever-increasing global popularity. The noir genre, while an odd literary form to use to boast about a city, manages to emerge in most stories in the anthology. The authors, however, make a conscious effort to divert the noir from the city itself and place it within the mélange of people of the city. Adnan describes the Marrekechi’s desire to tell stories with a lot of pizazz and spice; however, noir is a genre that doesn’t work as “the Marrekechi impulse is to always remain joyful.” Fortunately, that impulse was placed aside, allowing the noir to seep into the work for some powerful moments in the diverse cityscape.

Jemaa el-Fna unites practically every story as its importance in the city draws performers, local guides, tourists, and locals. Whether there to make a spectacle or simply sit in a café and witness one, everyone passes through this square. It’s in this square that Abu Qatadah in “An E-mail from the Sky,” after receiving an email from the heavens, shouts in religious fanaticism and awaits his escort to Paradise. Although not present in the square with the other onlookers, Rahal and his entire cybercafé watch as Abu Qatadah terrorizes tourists and is taken away by the police. In the same square in a different story, “A Person Fit for Murder,” Guillaume, a Frenchman who comes to Morocco to escape the monotony of France, is picked up by a young Moroccan boy who’ll fulfill his fantasies and eventually murder him. It’s also where Yusuf in “Mama Aicha” goes to gift a precious purple silk to the eponymous character and visit his former comrade, Aziz, with whom he joined in revolutionary thought and action until Aziz’s arrest.

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What’s New in Translation: December 2018

Travel to Cuba, South Korea, and Russia with these newly translated works.

Just like that, the final weeks of 2018 are upon us. You might be looking for Christmas gifts, or perhaps some respite from the stress of the festive season, or maybe for something new to read! We have you covered here in this edition of What’s New in Translation, with reviews by Asymptote staff of three fresh titles from Wendy Guerra, Hwang Sok-Young, and Lez Ozerov.

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Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas, Melville House, 2018

Reviewed by Cara Zampino, Educational Arm Assistant

“What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had?” asks Cleo, the narrator of Wendy Guerra’s Revolution Sunday. Set in the “promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling” city of Havana during the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Guerra’s genre-defying book explores questions of language, memory, and censorship as it intertwines images of Cleo, a promising but controversial young writer, and Cuba, a country whose narratives have long been controlled by its government.

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Announcing our November Book Club selection: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić

“We talked,” the narrator tells us, “about what it would be like when we returned home,” but the awful truth is that a return becomes impossible.

This November, we’re celebrating the first full year of the Asymptote Book Club. Over the last twelve months, the Book Club has brought its subscribers newly-translated fiction from twelve different languages, taking readers on a journey from the Arctic Circle down to the forests of Bengal, from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century to Bangkok in the postmodern era.

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For our November Book Club selection, we’re excited to be showcasing one of the most powerful novels written since the independence of Croatia: a breathtakingly original coming-of-age story set in the aftermath of perhaps the most shocking massacre in recent European history.

For more information on Ivana Bodrožić’s The Hotel Tito, published in English by Seven Stories Press, read Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone’s review below or head to our online discussion group. If you’re not a Book Club member yet but would like to join us as we head into our second year, all the information you need is available on our Book Club page.

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Seven Stories Press, 2018

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone

Literature, according to Ahmet Altan, is our best method of confronting “the dark and bloody face of history.The Hotel Tito, which follows the first volume of Altan’s Ottoman Quartet as an Asymptote Book Club selection, spotlights a particularly dark and bloody episode of Europe’s recent past. Its chosen method of confronting history is no less courageous for being characterised by an impressively original subtlety and a surprising lightness of touch. While the earliest novels about the Yugoslav Wars (Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There perhaps foremost among them) seethe with raw energy and anger, Bodrožić’s equally harrowing stories are interspersed with moments of humour: the comedy serves to enhance the tragedy.

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Fascism and Fairy Tales: Ulrike Almut Sandig’s Grimm in Review

A significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Grimm by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated from the German by Karen Leeder, Hurst Street Press

“Is someone shaking the stories”, asks the narrator in the penultimate poem from Grimm, the new collection by the German poet and performance artist Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by the German scholar Karen Leeder and published by the Oxford-based Hurst Street Press. The collection’s slant retelling of the Grimm tales, considered integral to the German psyche, belies a significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.

Myth, legend, and folklore provide frameworks to writers and readers across all languages and cultures within which they can understand and contextualise crises, serving also as survival strategies for everyday existence and persistence. Grimm focuses on concerns that are central, yet which are by no means exclusive, to Germany, including, the rise of the far-right, misogyny and patriarchy, and the refugee crisis. The collection’s success is that by presenting itself as a poetic cycle, and by its use of language, it suggests that all these phenomena are related. Moreover, if the Grimm tales represent the collective German imagination (indeed, according to the critic Jack Zipes, the Brothers Grimm collected their tales in order to uncover the linguistic “truths” that formed the German people), Sandig reveals its violent, misogynistic, and patriarchal dark side, connecting the tales to the fascism, patriarchy, and racism of the German present and past. If, as Leeder notes, the collection directs a “rage” at this collective consciousness and the injustices it undergirds (‘Grimm’ also means ‘rage’), this rage is inscribed within the broken language of the women to whom Sandig’s retellings give voice.

We can see this at work in the poem “Fitcher’s Bird”, taken from the tale of the same name where a young girl is kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her against her will. During her confinement, the girl discovers the mutilated bodies of her sisters who had previously disappeared from the village. She brings them back to life, escapes disguised as a bird, and then musters the village to exact vengeance on her kidnapper. In the poem, the girl is multiply alienated from herself. Not only does her confinement alienate her from her body and the outside world, so does her disguise as her friends no longer recognise her: “I am an odd/ bird, nobody/ knows me, I/ scarcely know/ myself.” Crucially, this alienation is rendered linguistically. Her imprisonment and her kidnapper’s mutilation of her sisters confine her voice in short, staccato lines, of which the protagonist is well aware: “a globe is/ stuck in my throat/ that I can’t get down […] the beautiful bodies/ of my sisters are/ piled inside.” At the poem’s end, the girl resolves to “make/ all those anew, all those/ who were butchered overnight”, intimating how Grimm in its entirety interrogates the conservative, sexist didacticism inherent in the Grimm tales by exclusively representing female characters that resist patriarchy and sexism.

The collection’s opening poem, ‘Grimm’, connects the girl’s linguistic crisis with a political crisis. Two characters write messages on eggs which smash due to the urgency of their communication, their need to express their concerns. Then, most unnervingly, they “raised [their] sticky arms/ in salute and waved in greeting. then/ lowered [their] heads to a well-nigh limitless/ supply of fragments and rage most grim.” Their rage at the status quo, their political impotence, has broken their language, their selves, and their world-view. In the poem, the girls’ rage, their inability to express their needs or have their voices democratically represented has been misdirected to support the far-right, half-concealed here in the Nazi salute. All they are left within this tragedy are the broken eggshells of their words and a right-wing anger that, thanks to Leeder’s wordplay, is ‘grim’: both evil and implicated within the German cultural consciousness synecdochically represented by the Grimm tales.

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Desire and Rebirth: Armonía Somers’ The Naked Woman in Review

Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men.

The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude, Feminist Press, 2018.

What could freedom from the pressures and expectations of society mean for a woman in Uruguay in the 1950s, and what might the impact of this freedom be on others? These questions are explored by Uruguayan author, scholar, and feminist Armonía Somers in The Naked Woman. Written in 1950, this is the first of Somers’ books to be translated into English. The novel tells an energetic and enthralling story through which Somers articulates a pressing need in society for people to find ways to escape prescribed roles, express desire, and renew one’s sense of self. The narrative focuses on the experience of the female protagonist, Rebeca Linke, and sheds light on the repressive context of 1950s Uruguay when, according to scholar Maria Olivera-Williams, “middle-class social mores proved particularly suffocating to women.” Somers explores the effects of these constraints on women and creates a subversive protagonist who creatively and successfully challenges these expectations by allowing herself to release her natural instincts and understand new forms of intimacy. Whilst the female experience is the focus of the book, Somers’ carefully-crafted novel reveals the effects that living in a society in which women are repressed has on both women and men. She achieves this by depicting male violence against women and the harmful effects of a lack of freedom of choice.

The Naked Woman begins with Rebeca Linke’s revelation of the failed hopes that she had pinned on her thirtieth birthday. This sense of disillusionment is the driving force behind her decision to abandon her everyday existence and move to the countryside: she is desperate to break the daily monotony of her life, to embrace freedom and to live in the present. She takes a train to a small cottage in a remote part of the Uruguayan countryside where she casts off her one remaining item of clothing, her coat, having abandoned everything else. As a result, her break with the past and her commitment to the here and now becomes urgent: “[s]he was beholden to the present, like water held in the palm of a hand.” When she ventures out into the night, she is immersed in a natural environment that she has never before experienced so intimately. This then extends to her own body: she discovers its uniqueness by touching it and she remarks upon changes that she had not previously noted. It is Somers’ focus on the present, the protagonist’s physical experience of each moment, and the centrality of the female body that make the book so compelling, exciting and enticing for readers today.

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What’s New in Translation: November 2018

Need recommendations for what to read next? Let our staff help with their reviews of four new titles.

Join us on this edition of What’s New in Translation to find out more about four new novels, from Amsterdam, Colombia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

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Childhood by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2018

Reviewed by Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor

The narrators in Gerard Reve’s Childhood are at that credulous stage of youth where hazy moral lines are easily trespassed, where curiosity and cruelty often intersect. All of Reve’s usual themes are here: taboo sexualities, the illusion of moral categories, the delicate balancing acts that prevent erotic love from teetering into violence. But the two novellas in Childhood transgress in unexpected ways, insofar as children’s very inexperience puts them outside the sphere of sin.

The first novella, Werther Nieland, is told by a boy named Elmer, who bounces between friends’ houses and other neighborhood locales, and whose longing to form a secret club is less a wish than an absolute necessity. After feeling an affinity for local boy Werther Nieland, he decides: “There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.” Why exactly Elmer is attracted to Werther never really gets explained. More confusing is the fact that as early as their first meeting Elmer feels the urge to abuse him.

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