Reviews

In Review: White Shroud by Antanas Škėma

"This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity."

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.

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What’s New in Translation: April 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

It’s spring, the days are (hopefully) sunny, and this month we’re back to shine a light on some of the most exciting books to come in April, including works in translation spanning Colombia, Lithuania, Martinique, and Spain (Catalonia). 

tundra

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, Peirene Press

Reviewed by Josefina Massot, Assistant Editor

In his Afterword to Shadows on the Tundra, Lithuanian writer Tomas Venclova draws a parallel by way of praise: Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s account of the Gulag ranks with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s and Varlam Shalamov’s. Those acquainted with Gulag survivor literature know that’s high praise indeed: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are paragons of the genre. And yet, I venture, Shadows on the Tundra transcends them both.

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In Review: Twist by Harkaitz Cano

Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.

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.

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What’s New in Translation: March 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

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-new-cover

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.

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In Review: Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave

Good stories help us to make sense of the world.

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.

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In Review: The Blind Man

That is, beyond the words themselves, the textuality of the work does justice to the playfully serious attitude of the original.

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.

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What’s New In Translation: February 2018

The books from Albania and Latin and Central America hitting shelves this month.

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. 

F-1510798924-Blood-Barrios

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.

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In Review: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Those who speak out against oppression, especially women, form the foundation of a better future.

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.

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Tracing Szilárd Borbély’s Poetry in The Dispossessed

To lay bare the inarticulate self as it is thrown into the violent mould of the world—and to uphold the captured encounter without commentary.

Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.

from “On the wings of freedom

The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of aging that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.

This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.”[1] For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2018

The new year kicks off with new releases from Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Every month, our staff members pick three notable new releases in world literature to review. The first month of 2018 brings us short fiction from Japan and novels from Germany and Italy.

bear and the paving stone

The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie, translated from the Japanese by Geraint Howells, Pushkin Press

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

Mention ‘contemporary Japanese fiction’ to the average reader and bestselling names like Haruki Murakami, Ruth Ozeki, and Keigo Higashino might come to mind; or indeed last year’s Nobel laureate, the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. From that perspective, at least, Toshiyuki Horie can be considered one of the modern Japanese canon’s best-kept secrets, happily resurfaced for an Anglophone audience by the ever-intrepid Pushkin Press. A critic, translator, and professor of literature, Horie has garnered numerous accolades for his fiction and essays, and is also—as the three novellas collected here reveal—a masterly prose stylist, a ruthlessly effective narrator, and a seasoned traveller between the real and imagined geographies of experience and history, dream and memoir, and past and present.

The first and longest section of the volume contains Horie’s novella “The Bear and the Paving Stone,” which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2001, and lends this volume its title. The tale opens in a strange, allegorical dream-sequence that ends just as abruptly when the narrator wakes, alone, in a rural farmhouse in Normandy. Drawing on Horie’s own time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne, the story unfolds with exquisite pacing into a long-awaited reunion between two unlikely college pals: the narrator (then a student from Japan, now a professional translator) and Yann, a free-spirited, petánque-playing photographer. As they embark on a breakneck drive to see the sun set over Mont St Michel from Yann’s favourite spot on the coast, we are plunged as if into another dream: this time, comprising the layered narratives of French intellectual history, the Holocaust and its aftershocks, and a post-modern, international friendship. Ghostly historical figures such as Émile Littré, Jorge Semprún, and Bruno Bettelheim haunt these pages with a sense of driving, almost teleological purpose, but the two friends’ conversation somehow remains light, and movingly human, throughout.

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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.

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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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