Reviews

In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.

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What’s New in Translation: November 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Martinique, France, and Hungary. 

The Dancing Other

The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius, Translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellog, Seagull Books

Reviewed by Madeline Jones, Editor at Large, United States

The Dancing Other opens as our anti-heroine Rehvana stumbles out of a dingy apartment in Paris, just barely escaping literal branding by the other members of the Ébonis, or the “Sons of Agar”—an African god. Rehvana wants nothing more than to be included in and loyal to this insular community of Antillean immigrants that tries to emulate traditional Martinique culture—though how authentically they manage this aspiration is debated among some of Dracius’s other characters.

Rehvana’s boyfriend Abdoulaye is the group’s leader, whose temper has more than once manifested itself in blooming bruises across Rehvana’s face and arms. But the kind, protective Jeremy holds no allure for her. Jeremy and Rehvana’s formidable older sister, Matildana, tell her blatantly that a young woman such as her has no business slumming it with this cultish group of wannabes, but Rehvana both resents and resists her smarter, more pretentious, whiter sister’s warnings. She takes her newly enforced identity to its final phase by running away without a word back to the homeland, to Martinique, with another man she just met and who immediately consumes her thoughts and energies.

In Martinique, Rehvana relishes every piece of her new neighborhood and lifestyle, throwing herself into fixing up Enryck’s decaying family home and learning to cook traditional dishes with ingredients from their garden; and yet, the hot days blur her consciousness, the wild plants cut her hands and arms, and Enryck often doesn’t make it home for dinner anyway. Where he goes, she doesn’t know or ask. She waits for him, eating nothing, forgetting herself. She wants to fit in, above all, in this place that was once her home and suddenly now is again.

“Rehvana now hides her hair, too straight for her taste; she’s abandoned her regular sunbathing sessions—too shocking to those around her—because a well-bred Martiniquan woman wants to look Creole, not Negro, and takes great pains to avoid exposure to the sun. Anyway, the sunbathing had only managed to turn her peach-like skin more golden—not darker—making her look like a tanned tourist. She hates the sight of her pasty arms, and only wears long sleeves. She’s tucked away her flowing mane—too ‘White’ for her taste—under a crude, white cotton square, the way Haitian women used to do… She does all this for Enryck, and because it’s Antillean.”

She barely communicates with her family back in Paris, but Matildana finds her when she learns that Rehvana is pregnant. She flies to Martinique and discovers the squalor in which her younger sister is living, the wounds she’s incurred from the gardening and from Enryck’s jealous imagination. She meets the grumbling, brutish man who has taken possession of Rehvana’s love against all logic, who gambles and has suspicious friends. But Matildana has also done some math, and comes armed with the knowledge that Rehvana’s child is really Jeremy’s. But Matildana is powerless to bring her sister back. She rails against her sister’s indoctrination for the last time:

“I’ve gone astray, I’m guilty of shamelessly crossing the line in every sense, because what you call ‘return’ seems to me no more than a carnivalesque regression, and because I don’t practice systematic regression and I don’t espouse the extremism of a fanatic fundamentalist. Woe is me, a pox on me, shame on me! I am denegrified. You can’t stoop any lower than that . . . Yes, I forgot the catechism of that dear Abdoulaye—what a saint! Article one, identity: since I’m not wholly White at the start, if I don’t negrify myself, then I’m nothing. I’ve got no color or race, no identity or culture, I’m nothing… Because it’s so important, so primordial, to be an authentic something! Even if you’ve got to force yourself to do it, and use tricks to cultivate the authentic. There are Whites, Indo-Aryans, Blacks, real Negros, ‘people of color,’ Chinese people, Asians, Native Americans, Arabs, Jews, and so forth. You absolutely must classify people, or otherwise it creates havoc, and folks will no longer get their bearings…You can’t just be a man, you have choose a race—no mixing, no breaking ranks! . . . My goodness, you’ve got to know what you are and be proud of it! You’re so kind, Rehvana, for leading your poor, lost sister back to original purity!”

Dracius’s writing often feels more like a texture to run your hands over or a liquid to imbibe than like words on a page. She never anchors the action in a specific time and her tenses intermingle and overlap so that the reader must simply trust that Dracius knows what she’s doing and follow her into the wardrobe. It’s an immersive, if often disorienting, experience to read, but once one relinquishes the expectation of exposition or framework and simply dives into the swirling memories, colors, and scenes, the picture and figures solidify. The translation feels at times overly concerned with communicating the sonic and poetic effects of the original—a valiant aim—at the expense of the practical communication needed to really set the scenes or bring the characters to life. For long stretches when the rhythm and fluidity in English cohere, however, the writing is truly worth savoring. The search for identity is neither tangible nor logical, after all, so Dracius’s transmission of these two sisters’ struggle to find themselves while remaining intelligible to one another becomes an intimate, immersive blend of form and story.

The World Goes On

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, New Directions Press

Review by Lindsay Semel, Director, Asymptote for Educators

László Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian short story collection, The World Goes On, rendered into English by esteemed Krasznahorkai translators John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes, doesn’t really contain periods. Or paragraphs. Sometimes there are section breaks. Having freed themselves from the ordinary obstacles of language conventions, the words and thoughts follow their own sense of gravity, their own trajectory, and stop where they hit into something. The effect is utterly three dimensional. The language has mass and direction of a sort usually reserved for physical objects. The content of the stories matches the form of the language, so that the text as a whole becomes a nearly tactile meditation on movement, form, resistance, and the potential that exists in the freedom beyond the rules that dictate them.

The reader experiences motion by inhabiting the body and gaze of the narrator, who in turn seems often to possess the bodies of his stories’ protagonists. In “Wandering-Standing,” the first story in the collection, he stands in a place where he cannot stay and from where he is too paralyzed by the mediocrity of his directional options to move. The narrator watches himself from a bird’s-eye-view, “he motionlessly starts off into the untamed world, in a direction—it doesn’t matter which, it could be any direction—and he doesn’t budge even an inch, already he has gone very far, and his wanderings in the untamed world have begun, because while in reality he is motionless, his hunched form, almost like a statue, engraves itself into an inability to be left behind here . . .” Later stories catalogue other flavors of motion. A drunk simultaneous interpreter comes-to inside a twelve-way Shanghai intersection, and against the backdrop of manic, unfettered speed, he has to drag himself back to his hotel. A post-office line inches forward as the narrator measures time by the number of people in front of him. Rockets launch into space, killing, overheating, or briefly incapacitating their passengers, whose molecules aren’t designed for such extraterrestrial speed and atmospheric change. A man sets out to run faster than the velocity of the earth. These juxtapositions of speed, direction, and viscosity heighten the impact of the descriptions, giving rise to the sensation that the reader is travelling with the character.

The counterpoint to movement is form, or structure. For example, in “A Drop of Water,” on the banks of the flowing Ganges River, an enormous man asks the narrator, “did you know that according to local tradition a single drop of the Ganges is in itself a temple?” He goes on to explore the notion through a detailed lesson on the structure of water. The form of a single water droplet becomes the cipher by which Varanasi, described as a tangled jumble of sacred and profane on the banks of the unidirectional river, becomes less impenetrable.

In “Obstacle Theory,” the reader learns (from a homeless drunk at a train station on Christmas Eve) that, at the conjunction of movement and form, there is obstacle. And these obstacles hold the world together in that, “everything that is in place, is there because it cannot fall any farther toward the earth, the force of gravity is pulling it down, but something doesn’t let it go . . .” A snowflake wants to fall, but wind resistance makes it do so gently, and the ground makes it stop entirely. The drunk wants to stand up and leave, but he bumps into his own drunkenness, which makes him fall down again. These examples inform the reader’s interpretations of coming stories and invite her to revise interpretations of previous ones.

The unpunctuated blocks of words, with their tangents and repetitions, can try a reader’s patience. But that patience is well rewarded. Seemingly unrelated stories, linked by form and theme, build a remarkably coherent, vivid, and nuanced whole. That this virtuosity is apparent in the English text speaks to the talent of the translators, all of whom have had a hand in building Krasznahorkai’s stellar English-language reputation.

Through The World Goes On, the reader wander-stands to Shanghai, Budapest, Varanasi, Berlin, Turin, Venice, Kiev, a locked auditorium, and outer space. After such an exhaustive tour, the narrator concludes with “I Don’t Need Anything from Here.” Having catalogued some of the world’s simplest charms, he states, “I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.” The final weight of attachment dropped, the reader is left with a delicious, soaring lightness.

Incest

Incest by Christine Angot, Translated from the French by Tess Lewis, Archipelago Books.

Reviewed by Giorgos Kassiteridis, Marketing Manager, Asymptote 

“Your readers don’t understand a thing and they understand everything”

The torrential and chimeric prose of Christine Angot remarkably recreated in English by the 2017 PEN Prize awarded translator Tess Lewis cannot always be fully understood intellectually; her rhizomatic associations—incestuous, even—are visceral, vibrating, affective, accessible only if the reader surrenders to the spate of words that runs through Incest, finding a centre only to detach it and carry it away to a forbidden dance producing new variations, expansions, and offshoots: “a miracle of logical disorganization.”

A dim sludge of words—unattractive but fertile—that encapsulate insanity, incest, love, memories, and yearnings. Christine Angot begins her work with a chaotic flux triggered by her disassembled relationship; a three-month love affair with MC. The tangled first part generates a process of self-reflection: “I mix everything up, I go too far, I wreck everything … I want to stop making them.” She watches herself from the distance that the written word provides and attempts to trace the origins of this mental structure, to stop drawing all these entropic connections, mixing everything together. The text progresses in more abstractive strata from the chaos of the first part to a self-understanding that culminates in a juxtaposition of a dictionary definition of schizophrenia, sadomasochism, and homosexuality in an attempt to understand the origins of her paranoid logic. Nevertheless, these psychoanalytical classificatory categories will not reign in her analysis; they will be untied and become embedded in the same paranoid thinking she tries to explain. A lost love, a vehement struggle to understand the archaic substrate of her incestuous mind, her incestuous touch.

Her words are abrupt, disruptive, and confessional; a flickering language extracting traces and structures from “other voices, other texts, other things.” This is a polyphonic collage that forges a text with no centre, only nodes from where new roots emerge as frayed threads. With parallels to auto-fiction, a genre Angot refuses to associate with her work, this novel creates a space where imagination, potential futures, and pasts mingle with experiences, where the ‘I’ slips from the author to the narrator and gets lost in the vortex of language; it is language that speaks—the writer just writes.

Therefore, the translation of such viscous fluidity and polyphony into a different linguistic materiality would have been a challenging task. The translator might have had to immerse herself into these messy connections in order to draw new ones and to adopt an incestuous mental structure. The intertextuality and the slippery subjectivity of the narrator could have been demanding, as well as the peculiar structures and punctuation, which even the author acknowledges. The “bits of flesh” that Christine Angot left out on the pages to dry must have been fragile and resistant to translation. Nevertheless, Tess Lewis has attested her capacity to twist and turn in and through language(s) by winning the 2017 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of the novel Angel of Oblivion by the Austrian writer Maja Haderlap, published by Archipelago Books. The translator masterfully developed an intuitive relationship with the work of Christine Angot, endowing the English words with vibrating affectivity and ruptures, illustrating Hœpffner’s description of the practice as follows: “the abiding image of the translator is, then, of an unstable and even schizoid ouroboros, eating himself while expanding outwards, plagued by contrary urges.”

Christine Angot’s book trigger both lauding and severe criticism, creating a work worth talking about; shedding light on issues that are not easily comprehensible—taboos—not from the position of an expert but from her own particularity, her own manner of writing. Voices echoing from the fractures, this is Incest: a collective adventure for the one that writes and the ones that read. There is nothing to say, only to talk about, to become part of the sludge.

*****

Read more reviews:

On Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window

A strikingly crafted window into how our lives are a mosaic of the things that happened before us.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London, England: MacLehose Press, 2017. 240 pages. £12.99.

Toward the middle of The House with the Stained Glass Window, the Ukrainian-Polish writer Żanna Słoniowska’s debut novel, the unnamed narrator tells us that her great-grandmother occasionally falls into fits of hysterical sobbing, which her grandmother explains as having to do with “the past.” “I imagined ‘the past’ as an uncontrolled intermittent blubbering,” the narrator says. This definition is not a far cry from the idea of the past portrayed in The House with the Stained Glass Window: not blubbering, but certainly not controlled by human forces, intermittently entering the present day until it infiltrates it, saturates it, and finally becomes indistinguishable from it.

The novel centers around four generations of women who live under the same roof in Lviv, in a house noted for its enormous stained glass window. The window sets the present-day plot in motion: it is because of the window that the novel’s narrator, who we only know as Marianna’s daughter, meets Mykola, her mother’s former lover, and begins an affair with him herself. A relationship like that would provide enough internal and external conflict to fill a novel to its brim, but Słoniowska does not dedicate much page space to it. Instead, if anything, the affair serves as a springboard to the past, to exploring the irresistible pull of it.

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In Review: Ismat Chughtai’s Quit India

This varied and beautifully calibrated volume succeeds in sustaining the legacy of one of India’s most radical twentieth-century authors.

Twenty-six years after her death, Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is one of Urdu’s most famous short story writers; among her immediate contemporaries, only Saadat Hasan Manto’s reputation matches hers, and we can confidently say that she has no successor.

The Quilt, the first of her works to be presented to international audiences in the year of her death, was a collection of her short fiction. The title story, which had a lesbian theme, created a scandal and attracted the ire of colonial censors when it was first published in the early forties. Other stories in the volume proved the author to be a storyteller of the finest calibre. In 1995, more than half a century after its original debut, a translation of her magnificent feminist bildungsroman, The Crooked Line (1942), where the heroine’s life paralleled her own, pre-empted and fictionalised many of the ideas from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Although it is still in print in the US with the pioneering Feminist Press, the UK edition has been discontinued. Several more translations of her stories, essays, memoirs, and long and short fiction, accompanied by a slew of biographical and critical studies, have enhanced her reputation year by year and made her one of the most translated writers across the subcontinent. However, they have only been published in India and Pakistan and have not been picked up by Anglo-American publishers.

Chughtai’s fiction ranges from stories for children and reminiscences of her friends and family, to the harrowing low life in Bombay’s slums and drug-fuelled high life in the city’s gaudy film world, to a novel about Islam’s first martyrs—a choice that surprises admirers of this iconic socialist-feminist icon. But even today some critics claim that The Quilt overshadows her other fictions and use the early stories to measure her later work. Others, including myself, would say this is grossly untrue: Ismat, though she preferred to write about what she knew best, was versatile within her chosen range of subversive kitchen sink drama and outspoken social satire, as we can see from the several renditions into English of all her major works by Tahira Naqvi, her most frequent translator, which are published in Delhi by the pioneering Women Unlimited (Penguin India also publishes a handful of translations by Mohammad Asaduddin).

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What’s New In Translation: October 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Italy, Brazil and Norway. 

Dust-MC

Dust by Adrian Bravi, translated from the Italian by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewed by Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’”

This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Antonio Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.

To read Patience Higgin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.

What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.

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Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet and the destruction of the “I”

The original text must be boiled down to its constituent parts and lovingly re-moulded into new forms

The dissolution of authorship is intrinsic to the act of translation. Far from being mechanical vessels for the words of another, translators invariably leave a phantom imprint of themselves upon a piece of writing. They are the invisible co-authors of a text, the ghost writers who flit across linguistic frontiers, flirting with multiple literary identities. It seems unsurprising, then, that the most elusive of Portuguese modernist poets, the godfather of urban melancholia and man of many selves, Fernando Pessoa, should have worked as a translator for much of his life.

Pessoa’s writing spans countless styles and modes, but perhaps his most famous innovation lies in his use of ‘heteronyms,’ the multiple literary identities under which he wrote. Centred around the core triumvirate of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, Pessoa’s heteronyms continue to be discovered today, with over 130 currently known to us. Some of the heteronyms are even characterized by linguistic divisions, such as Alexander Search who wrote uniquely in English. As Pessoa scholar Darlene Sadlier points out, Pessoa’s splintering of authorship was in a sense symptomatic of the “general crisis of subjectivity in nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophy,” suggesting that the self is something to be created rather than preordained, and, therefore, that it can contain multitudes.

This summer has seen the publication of a new English edition of the work that brought Pessoa posthumous renown, the modernist masterpiece entitled The Book of Disquiet. The publication history of this work has become the stuff of legends. On his death in 1935 aged forty-seven, Pessoa left behind at least two large wooden trunks filled with thousands upon thousands of scribbled scraps of manuscript paper, a life’s work in fragmentary form. Out of these fragments, Pessoa’s project for a work called Livro do Desassossego (once translated as The Book of Disquietude, now as The Book of Disquiet) was discovered, but the “book” was found to have multiple authors, no discernible order, and was never completed. Here was the ultimate modernist text: a “deconstructed” book that could be infinitely reassembled out of thousands of scraps of paper lying in a trunk.

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In Review: Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Zero Visibility

"Poems that, like objects on a beach, one can pick up, briefly examine, and set back down again."

While preparing to write this review, I came across an interview with Grzegorz Wróblewski in the Polish literary website Literacka Polska that began:

Rafał Gawin: For Polish readers, especially literary critics, it’s as if you’re a writer from another planet.
Grzegorz Wróblewski: Yes, it can seem that way from a certain distance. [My translation]

I think it’s safe to say the case is also true for English-speaking readers—Wróblewski’s most recent collection, Zero Visibility, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, really does feel like encountering a voice from a different world, albeit one that deals with all too real human (and often animal) concerns. Even on a surface reading it is clear that Wróblewski’s poems exhibit a remarkable range of tone, veering between seriousness and satire, surrealism and objectivity, grandiloquence and quiet, interior reflections. The first two poems, “Testing on Monkeys,” and “Makumba,” with their manic repetition and loud exclamations, are perhaps the two most frenetic and high-powered poems in the collection; they are suddenly followed by poems that are short and obscure, often dream-like and hallucinatory such as “The Great Fly Plague,” where “We abandoned our fingernails on the warm stones” or “Club Melon” which has “clones drinking juice made of organic, perfectly pressed worms”—poems that are at first disorientating, but at the same time openly invite the reader to attempt further interpretation.

Some of the best poems in the collection are the ones that, to put it bluntly, are about something recognisable, but also take time to construct and develop their ideas, such as “‘Bronisław Malinowski’s Moments of Weakness,”:

If I had a revolver, I’d shoot a pig!
A scholar’s clothes shouldn’t attract suspicions. Malinowski ordered
two Norfolk jackets from a tailor on Chancery Lane. Also a helmet
made of cork, with a lacquered canvas cover.
In one letter he wrote: Today I’m white with fury at the Niggers…
If I had a revolver, I’d shoot a pig!
His stay on the Trobriand Islands was pissing him off.
In spite of that, he became a distinguished anthropologist (27).

Another example is “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” a multilingual poem which examines methods of torture used at CIA black sites (one of them located in Poland) mixed with news about celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie:

It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and
even out his teeth!
Later, the CIA used additional “enhanced interrogation techniques”
that included: długotrwała nagość (prolonged nudity), manipulacje żywieniowe
(dietary manipulation), uderzanie po brzuchu (abdominal slap).

Two small planes with Poles on board went down (31). READ MORE…

In Review: Across the China Sea by Gaute Heivoll

"Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined."

Across the China Sea explores an unconventional family in rural Norway coming together during the weakening German occupation of the country. A review by Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter. 

It begins with the discovery of a contract, but Gaute Heivoll’s Across the China Sea, translated by Nadia Christensen, is ultimately the story of a community that generously insists on inclusion over exclusion. First published in Norwegian in 2013 and recently released by Graywolf in Nadia Christensen’s consistently elegant translation, this novel is Heivoll’s second to appear in English after Before I Burn, a partly autobiographical work that explores an incident of arson. In Across the China Sea, however, loss assumes a rather different form—one less concerned with spectacle and more attuned to the small gestures that often make all the difference.

A young family moves from Oslo to a small town near the coast in order to start anew. They’ve come not to flee the city but to build a better version of something they already understand: an asylum. The parents—both of whom are trained nurses—decide their newly-built house can accommodate more than just biological children. Soon afterward, in addition to caring for three grown men, they take in five siblings the state had taken away from mentally unfit parents. At this new home, the children, who are also variously disabled, live in a fully furnished attic, yet they’re hardly out of sight or mind. They begin to interact with other members of this curious collective, including the narrator and his younger sister—the only two members of the household biologically linked to the nurses.

Bonds, in other words, are not limited by blood, and an early tragedy not only puts that belief to the test but also brings into sharper relief the contours of this unusual community nestled into the Norwegian countryside. Any separation between the groups of children is rendered meaningless at a time when comfort cannot be sought selectively. Indeed, the delicate balance proves resilient enough to deal with another loss that, while only temporary, still takes an emotional toll. Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined, exhibiting a link that their etymological affinity can only begin to capture. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: September 2017

Looking for reading recommendations? Here are three releases—a book-length essay about translation, a German novel, and an experimental anthology.

Summer is drawing to a close and our bookshelves are groaning with the weight of new releases. Asymptote team members review three very different books—a genre-bending meditation on the practice of translation, a German bestseller about African refugees in Berlin, and an anthology of monologues that were once performed on the streets of Quebec City. There is much to delve into. 

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This Little Art by Kate Briggs, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, Singapore.

It is in 1977, as he begins lecturing as Professor of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, that Roland Barthes realizes he is no longer young: an “old and untimely body,” on a “new public stage.” But to speak to the students gathered—with their “new concerns, new urgencies, new desires”—he will have to “fling [himself] into the illusion that [he is] contemporary with the young bodies present before [him]”; he must, in Kate Briggs’s memorable words, forget the distances of age and time, and be “carried forward by the force of forgetting, which is the forward-tilting force of all living life.”

Briggs’s new book-length essay on translation, published this month by Fitzcarraldo (who surely must produce some of the most elegant books around) joins the ranks of treatises that ponder how we, as practitioners, should “properly register what’s going on with this—with [our]—work.” It’s an important question, she argues, not only because translation is a little understood (and hence undervalued) enterprise, but also because the process of translation itself sheds light on what it takes to make meaning, and art. Her answer, pursued over seven interlocking chapters, runs parallel to Barthes’s realization. Just as the old professor must “be born again,” translation is the work of making new: of bridging time and language to “make [literature] contemporary with [our] own present moment.” READ MORE…

In Review: Once There Was a City Named Dilli by Intizar Hussain

Delhi is in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.

After our feature on studying language in South Asia on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence, we focus once again on the complex social and linguistic landscape of the subcontinent. Sneha Khaund reviews Man Booker Prize shortlisted author and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awardee Initizar’s Hussain’s loving, nostalgic account of Delhi that has been recently translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah and published by Yoda Press. The Pakistani author (1923-2016) is widely recognized as a great Urdu writer and was a regular literary columnist for Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was created by partitioning colonial era India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Hussain’s acclaimed novel Basti, published in 1979 and later translated into English, addressed the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent. As this review argues, the issues of secularism and language politics are as important in contemporary times as they were during the Partition. 

As I reflect on the themes of the book I wish to dwell on in this review, my attention is interrupted by bits of information pouring in through news channels and the internet. A self-styled godman has been convicted of raping two of his former disciples. His followers are spread across Haryana and Punjab, neighbouring states of Delhi where I am writing from. The judgement has come fifteen years after the charges were made, during which period he has cultivated a flamboyant personal image, complete with movies and music videos. On Friday, the time leading up to the verdict was fraught with tension as the media speculated whether his followers would riot if he was convicted. The police had emergency preparations on stand-by, including three stadiums to hold people after arrests. Violence erupted after the verdict, as feared, and at last count, thirty people have died. Curfew has been imposed on parts of northern India and there has been an internet block-out in certain parts so that rumours don’t spread and incite fresh violence.

The deafening silence in the wake of violence in the modern state—whether it is Darjeeling, Kashmir, Punjab, or Haryana—is with what Intizar Hussain begins Once There Was a City Named Dilli. Hussain starts the first chapter by saying that he had arrived in Delhi “two and a half or three years after Partition” (3) and had headed to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin where he was taken aback by the silence that greeted him instead of the usual hustle and bustle. His surprise will be relatable to modern day readers familiar with the shrine of the Sufi saint in the heart of Delhi that draws throngs of devotees and tourists alike and is located close to one of the busiest railway stations in India. We wonder if a hush has fallen over the city in the aftermath of the violence of Partition, but Hussain draws a larger arc of history.

As he searches in vain for the nineteenth century Urdu poet Ghalib’s grave while the melancholy scream of a lonely peacock tears through the “dusk of that sad evening” (6), he is struck with amazement at how many times the city has been plundered and resettled. Thus begins Hussain’s quest to write the history of Delhi as a series of plunders, conquests, settlements. “Who were the settlers, who were settled?”, he writes. As scholars such as Romila Thapar have shown, these are complex questions because they carry within them the issue of who is the legitimate citizen of India. Both colonialist and nationalist historiography have been guilty of perpetuating the perception that Islam came to India by way of the sword, through figures such as Nadir Shah and Timur. Hussain then proceeds to draw up a historical narrative of the city from the time of the mythical Pandavas of Mahabharat, the period of Islamic dynasties, the colonial era where India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, ending finally with the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century that eventually led to the creation of two nation states—India and Pakistan.

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In Review: Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu

A review of the first novel translated from Lingala, an African language spoken by between 7 and 10 million people.

Richard Ali A Mutu’s Mr. Fix-It begins curiously enough with a list of items that its protagonist, Ebamba, and his family must procure as a bride price to obtain the hand of his girlfriend, Eyenga. Over the opening pages, the goods range from the mundane (three bags of rice), to the supposedly traditional (baskets of kola nuts), and the extravagant (two three-piece Versace suits). As negotiations carry on and break down, with the would-be bride questioning the need for this process altogether, a rain-storm recalling the one that wipes Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo off the map in Cien años de soledad forces everyone inside to conduct business inside the house. Everyone decides to pause for a while as due to the leaky roof “people [run] out of dry places to sit” and “The rain is coming down as if someone had opened a giant faucet and the family is frantically putting out more and more buckets to protect the carpet” (12).

Despite the optimism one may glean from this inauspicious opening’s relation to the work’s title (Mr. Fix-It being a stylized translation of Ebamba’s name, which literally means “mender” in Lingala), the rain stands in for the larger structural problems faced by the people of Kinshasa at home and within the world economy. For example, “the Chinese” paved the now flooded street and put in the stopped-up sewers, and the residents themselves are at a loss to explain the failed development project. Some blame poor Chinese workmanship, others the neighborhood’s witches. Whatever the explanation, the roads are flooded and the sewers broken. And what about that roof? The astute reader of African literature will thus find the novel taking up colonialism’s inescapable structuring of the present as found in novels such as Chinua Achebe’s often overlooked No Longer at Ease (1960). As with the main character of Achebe’s novel, the orphaned Ebamba obtains an education but enters a broader economy where power relations, colonial and otherwise, shape one’s destiny regardless of one’s talents or intents. The mayor, the president, and the director of a company where Ebamba applies for a job all lack names, suggesting the utter dehumanization connected to dealing with them. Yet the novel reminds us that, these difficulties aside, Ebamba, the mender, remains the master of his own fate, and the choices that lead to his destruction are his alone.

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In Review: “The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo

Emma Holland reviews a disturbing, brilliant, "oddly riveting" novel from South Korea.

Han Yujoo’s debut novel is chilling and surreal, raising questions about deep-seated human violence, and the nature of art-making. A review by Asymptote Executive Assistant Emma Holland.

The Impossible Fairytale pulls readers into its disorienting and brutal world, spinning a dark narrative of the nameless Child and her classmates. Later the perspective shifts into a meta-narrative—questioning and twisting ideas concerning language and the restraints of the novel as a literary form. Korean author Han Yujoo’s debut novel, translated by Janet Hong, The Impossible Fairytale is a wildly gripping page-turner, and ultimately a powerful yet unsettling read.

Through the narrative, Han explores the notion that violence is an ingrained part of society. Speaking at the Free Word Centre in London on July 10 at an author discussion hosted by the UK publisher, Titled Axis Press, Han talked of how “from a young age we are exposed to violence, it becomes normalized, a part of our everyday life…eating away at our minds.”

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What’s New in Translation? August 2017

Not sure what to read next? Here are three of the most thrilling new releases from around the world.

With Asymptote you can be sure to have the latest reading recommendations. True to form, we bring you a selection of the exciting new books this month. Which one is going to claim a place in your bookshelf?

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Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Ugly Duckling Presse.

Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Mexico

English language readers already enamored of poets such as the Roman Catullus or the more recent Charles Bukowski will find a similarly humorous, difficult, and enthralling companion in the pages of Russian Igor Kholin’s (1920-1999) recently translated Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse. An autodidact whose experiences in the military included a near-death experience in World War II, Kholin in many ways perhaps serves as a vital counterpoint to the American Bukowski insofar as both writers, despite the fact that they are writing throughout the Cold War between their respective countries, cast an unrelentingly critical gaze on the societies they inhabit, bearing witness to abuse, the dirty, and the neglected, and rendering these as poetry. The translators note that although Kholin’s “occasionally unrestrained misogyny” may rankle the sensibilities of many readers, they nonetheless felt compelled to leave his attitude in their translation as “it seems to constitute part and parcel of his self-positioning and character” (9). Along those lines and, in tandem with Bukowski, one also wonders about the extent to which the writer’s misogyny is not a gendered version of a broader misanthropy from which the poet does not even exclude himself. After all, the poetic Kholin muses on the possibility that thinking he is “a creep…It’s not such a leap” (80), as well as understanding he is one for whom wine is “made” and shit is “laid” (85). As he criticizes his social circle for their faults and flaws in his diary, a passage written in a friend’s handwriting takes on the subject of Kholin himself, claiming the poet is “intellectually limited” (46) and that his “advice on writing is naive” (48). Perhaps unsurprisingly, marginal notes in the poet’s own hand describe these as “the best thing Yodkovsky [the friend] has ever written” (49).

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In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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