Time for another round of translations hitting bookstores this month. June sees the publication of new translations from Morocco and Portugal. As always, check out the Asymptote Book Club for a specially curated new title each month.
The Hospital (translated by Lara Vergnaud) and The Shutters (translated by Emma Ramadan), from the French by Ahmed Bouanani, New Directions, 2018
Reviewed by Poupeh Missaghi, Iran Editor-at-Large
Two books by Ahmed Bouanani, Moroccan writer, poet, illustrator, and filmmaker hit the English literary scene this June.
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions, 2018
Reviewed by Ben Saff, Responsive Layout Designer
If you have ever walked into a house of mirrors, you may remember the uncomfortable feeling of seeing your reflection staring back at you. Your forehead is ten times its normal size, your nose is reduced to a pin point, and your limbs appear like wavy ribbons upon the curving surface of the mirrors. What’s disturbing about the reflection is that it still kind of looks like you—it’s a believable image. In The Emissary (originally published as Kentōshi (献灯使)), Yoko Tawada conjures this exact effect, presenting an image of her native country of Japan that is nightmarish, surreal, and just a little too possible for comfort.
Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.
Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.
Cadavers, by Néstor Perlongher, translated from the Spanish by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, Cardboard House Press
“In the nets of fishermen
In the tumbling of crayfish
In she whose hair is nipped
by a small loose hairclip
There Are cadavers.”
0. Cadavers is the best-known poem by Argentinian Néstor Perlongher and it is one of the representative works of a Latin American postmodern poetry movement dubbed neobarroco, Neo-Baroque. José Kozer, a Cuban poet, describes neobarroco as: “The second line [of Latin American poetry; the first one is a thin, familiar line], meaning the thick line, I associate with international poetry, a stronger convergance and diversity, indeed more opaque, but, in spite of its thickness, more encompassing. This international poetry includes aspects of twentieth Century [North] American poetry, as well as a basic source rooted in the Spanish Golden Age Baroque, Góngora, and Quevedo above all.” Poetry that is written with a thick line demands texts about it to be thick-lined as well. The following text is my attempt at complicating the all-too-familiar form of the book review. There Are Cadavers.
The newest issue of Asymptote has just dropped and it is beautiful. In the physical world, the literary world is abuzz with festivals and publications around the world. We are back with another round of the newest and most exciting translation gems coming to bookshelves this month. This month, we bring you reviews of recent publications from Norway and Canada. And if you are looking for even more, carefully selected translations, check out the Asymptote Book Club!
Little Beast by Julie Demers, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins, Coach House Books, 2018
Reviewed by Emma Page, Communications Manager
Julie Demer’s Little Beast (translated by Rhonda Mullins) is a dark fairy tale, more Grimm than Disney, set in the forbidding landscape of wintery rural Quebec. The shape of the story is familiar. A child, an absent parent, a “curse,” fumbling adults to be outwitted, a quest, a return home. Demers never flinches away from her young narrator’s perspective and yet Little Beast slowly emerges as a tale about the end of childhood and the intersection between experience, self-perception, and cultural narrative.
Our narrator is a young girl who has been ostracized from her village since sprouting a full, bushy beard. The bearded child has been living in an abandoned cabin for a month, foraging for food in and obsessively recording her tale in writing. Running out of fuel in freezing weather, she burns her makeshift home to the ground and sets off in search of a new dwelling. She eventually comes across two hunters with a captive bear, stealing food from them until they spot and capture her. Although at first they are determined to bring her back to the village, they eventually have a change of heart and release her. The child must then make a choice of her own, whether to return to society or disappear into the wilderness for good.
The Book of Tbilisi, edited by Becca Parkinson and Gvantsa Jobava, Comma Press
The Tbilisi funicular that leads all the way to the Mtatsminda Mountain, one that families might usually take on Sunday mornings or lovers for an afternoon date, gives an opportunity to get a glimpse of the city from above while still being close and immersed in the noises and lives it encapsulates. The Book of Tbilisi attempts to be an extension thereof, unravelling to the readers the literary landscape of Georgia after the recuperation of its independence and the consequent transformations it underwent. Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series brings to the surface works and literary traditions of underrepresented areas. This endeavour aspires to insert forsaken voices and cosmologies into the Eurocentric literary canon.
One should not overlook the genre chosen for this aspiration. An underrated form that has experienced a renaissance in recent years (as could be attested by Asymptote’s Winter 2018 Issue special feature on microfiction and the 2013 Nobel Prize awarded to Alice Munro), the short story is distanced from illusions of coherency and authority. Instead, its fragments embrace the gaps and absences, charged with an energy that surpasses the mere focus on the sequence of events, in order to capture a state or a quality. Thus it is not difficult to imagine why this impressionistic genre seemed the adequate vehicle—much like the funicular itself—to capture the fleeting force that runs through Georgia.
As the Baltic countries are this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, we continue our showcasing of Lithuanian literature this week with a review of a Lithuanian modernist classic. This showcase has been made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.
White Shroud by Antanas Škėma, translated from the Lithuanian by Karla Gruodis, Vagabond Voices, 2018.
Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor
White Shroud (1958), the best-known work and the only novel by Lithuanian artist Antanas Škėma (1910-1961), presents the life story of a poet named Antanas Garšva as he arrives at the threshold of adulthood. The novel is told through stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, journal entry, and omniscient third-person narration, arranged according to the association of ideas, rather than the conventions of rhetoric. This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity.
Garšva grows up in the town of Kaunas as the only child of two teachers, a mother “of noble birth” and a “charming liar” of a father. Neither of his parents is faithful to the other, and he witnesses the dissolution of their marriage, his mother’s descent into dementia and his father’s decision to place her in a sanitarium. Throughout an indigent existence the character adheres to a bohemian way of life, as variously as possible, doggedly. Škėma presents his story in a mode apt to the character, the mode Modernist, the language Lithuanian, the stance postglobal.
Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.
Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.
Whether this March the leaves are falling or only starting to grow, new books in translation continue to push through borders and languages. This month, our editors review new translations from Germany and Lebanon, whose stories span diverse regions and explore complex notions of belonging.
Pearls on a Branch by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, Archipelago Books
Reviewed by Anaka Allen, Social Media Manager
“It happened or maybe no.
If it did, it was long ago
If not, it could still be so.”
For twenty years, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, the traveling theater company Sandouk el Fergeh (the Box of Wonders) traversed the Levant searching for inspiration for their live shows. The actors and their marionettes would travel from shelters to refugee camps, villages to towns, performing the oral tales painstakingly collected by their founder Najla Jraissaty Khoury. It was no small feat trying to find and record stories during wartime when suspicion and fear were particularly acute, not to mention the difficulty in assembling complete narratives from a depleting cache of collective cultural memory.
Oral tales are one of the most fragile cultural legacies, and too often die with their storytellers. So, what happens to the oral history of a region suffering through war and displacement? That’s what Khoury hoped to find out, and the question is what inspired her to embark on a rescue mission in search of these unwritten remnants of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian culture. She collected dozens of folktales, writing them down exactly as they were told (repetitive phrases and all), culled one hundred from that catalog, and published them in Arabic. English speakers now have the opportunity to read a selection of thirty stories in Pearls on a Branch.
In January 2017, independent British publisher Comma Press announced that in 2018 they would only be publishing authors from ‘banned nations’. This was a response to President Trump’s directive to block entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for ninety days. Whilst continuing to generate hate and divide people, Trump’s announcement did give rise to some positive news. Organisations around the world stood up to fight for the rights of the citizens of these countries. In a show of solidarity, Asymptote’s Spring 2017 issue featured writing from authors in many of the countries affected. And now, a new title from Comma Press, Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, has just been published in this spirit.
The Blind Man: 100th Anniversary Facsimile Edition edited by Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Beatrice Wood (Ugly Duckling Press, 2017). Translated from the French by Elizabeth Zuba.
With all of the uncertainties of the current geopolitical climate, it is fitting that in the beginning of 2018 we turn our attention to the past for historical context and a better sense of the wider context of recent events. In Sophie Seita’s insightful essay that accompanies Ugly Duckling Presse’s one hundredth anniversary facsimile collection of Dadaist zines and ephemera associated with The Blind Man (referred to in Hyperallergic as “a trove of Dadaist fun”), the critic encourages readers to understand Ugly Duckling’s reissue of these magazines precisely within their broader context, with “a facsimile reprint like ours attempt[ing] to recreate the original print context and…forg[ing] new dialogues with contemporary literary and artistic communities today.” Of course, in 1917, Europe was in the throes of World War I, and the artistic movement which the The Blind Man is most closely associated, Dada, is frequently held up as “an artistic revolt and protest against traditional beliefs of a pro-war society.” Rather than simply the considerable achievement of reproducing a one hundred-year-old, self-consciously cheeky avant-garde magazine in a beautiful collector’s edition, I’m keenly interested in the dialogues Seita claims the re-edition seeks to cultivate, meditating as much on what The Blind Man tells us about the present as it tells us about the past. In my view, Ugly Duckling more than delivers.
For many of us, this month will be either the coldest or the hottest of the year; luckily, the books we’re focusing on this February are resilient and long-lasting—featuring new titles from Albania all the way to Latin and Central America.
Blood Barrios by Alberto Arce, translated from the Spanish by John Washington and Daniela Ugaz, Zed Books
Reviewed by Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large for Tunisia
Blood Barrios, Alberto Arce’s account of his diverse experiences as the only foreign journalist inside Honduras between 2012 and 2014, gives a platform to voices inside this small Central American country that are seldom heard. From deep within the Mosquitia jungle, where Arce investigated possible American involvement in massacring innocent civilians, to an overcrowded prison farm where over 350 people died in a fire, he makes “[t]he privileges of a foreigner” in Honduras “his obligations,” asking questions that others cannot.
The Restless by Gerty Dambury (The Feminist Press, 2018). Translated by Judith G. Miller
Gerty Dambury’s The Restless, translated from the French by Judith G. Miller, takes place in her native Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that has been an overseas department of France since just after the second World War. Guadeloupeans of different ages, genders, and social statuses narrate the events surrounding the violent confrontation between the construction workers’ union and the French prefecture that took place on May 26th, 1967. On this day, as workers gathered outside the building where the union negotiated wage raises with business owners, the French prefect ordered troops to fire on the crowd, and the situation degenerated from there. The lynchpin of the novel is a little girl, Émilienne, who’s waiting for her father to come home so he can explain to her why her teacher has disappeared. While she waits in the courtyard of her home, a chorus of her family members and neighbors (both living and dead) contextualize the two absences and how they relate to the broader experiences of the island.
Though Émilienne acts as the focalizer, the chief narrators are her eight brothers and sisters, who speak with a more-or-less undifferentiated voice. They proclaim themselves the “callers” of the story, which they structure after the Caribbean quadrille, a sort of creolized version of a French square-dance. The caller of the quadrille is conventionally singular and male, but Émilienne’s siblings are happy to innovate. They often hand over the reins to guest narrators, who act as temporary callers. Each section of the narrative has a primary caller, though others often chime in, and corresponds to one of the four quadrille figures in rhythm and mood. Émilienne’s siblings helpfully guide the unfamiliar reader’s expectations of the musical conventions at the beginning of each figure/chapter. The multivocality and musicality of the text, two of its most distinguishing features, could have posed a challenge to Miller’s translation. The differences between the figures and the characters’ voices are discussed more than demonstrated.