Reviews

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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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, 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 ageing 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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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).

READ MORE…

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 Adrian 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 Haggin’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.

READ MORE…

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.

READ MORE…

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. 

21199563_680217002182340_9028552026681599250_o

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…