Reviews

What’s New in Translation: April 2019

The latest in translated fiction, reviewed by members of the Asymptote team.

Looking for new books to read this April? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Thai, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. Read on to find out more about Clarice Lispector’s literature of exile, tales of a collection of eccentric villagers, and a comic book adaptation of Bertolt Brecht.

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Tales of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht and Ulf K., translated from the German by James Reidel, Seagull Books, 2019

Review by Josefina Massot, Assistant Managing Editor

If Brecht’s bite-sized, biting tales of Mr. Keuner can be thought of as a corpus, it isn’t by virtue of their “what,” “when,” “where,” or “how”: they deal with everything from existentialism to Marxist politics, have often hazy settings, and run the gamut from parable to poem; it’s the titular “who” that pulls these sundry musings together.

Until recently, their fellowship was purely formal: Mr. Keuner (also known as Mr. K) was practically nondescript, a mere “thinking man” whom Walter Benjamin traced back to the Greek keunos and the German keiner—a universal no one. This seemingly baffling figure would have made sense given the original tales’ fifth W, their “why”: since they were meant to edify general audiences, they would have gained from as null a champion as possible. After all, a man stripped of his traits is stripped of individuality, untainted by bias; he is the ultimate thinker, the voice of global truth. READ MORE…

Reinventing the Novel: Gregor von Rezzori’s Abel and Cain in Review

This book is as much a novel as it is a repudiation and critique of novel-writing.

Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019

Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).

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Narrative Repatriation: Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar in Review

Frandy’s edition openly rebels against the moment when these stories were first recorded.

Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar by August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen, revised by Lea Laitinen, and edited and translated by Tim Frandy, University of Wisconsin Press, 2019

Whatever the cosmopolitan politics of many people living in cities like London, New York, or Paris, the majority of museums in such places continue to struggle with the colonizing narratives forwarded not only by the layout of the physical space of the museum—a prime example being the room dedicated solely to Egypt, separate from the rest of the African continent—but also by the fact that many objects within these collections were stolen, looted, or otherwise removed from the communities that produced them.

Should these objects be returned or, in an argument that many see as dripping with colonial paternalism, are they indeed “safer” under the protection of Western institutions? One only need think of the ongoing controversy surrounding the so-called “Elgin” Marbles and their possible repatriation, or any number of recent developments concerning Native American peoples in the United States requesting the return of sacred objects, to understand how such objects touch on themes like intellectual and cultural sovereignty in the twenty-first century. The “Elgin” Marbles may have inspired Keats’s meditation on truth and beauty, but how would these same marbles appear, at a distance, to a poet writing from Greece during the Romantic period or in the age of Brexit? How would the nature of the marbles’ famed “truth” and “beauty” appear to someone who understood them as a piece of cultural heritage that had been looted for the express benefit of a cosmopolitan other? What would the return, or so-called repatriation, of such objects mean not only for those who have been robbed of such items, but for the descendants of those who stole them in the first place?

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Announcing our March Book Club Selection: One Another by Monique Schwitter

These chapters are not stories of failed relationships; they are stories of a woman trusting herself and giving herself to others without regret.

Monique Schwitter’s multi-award-winning One Another, a contemporary set of love stories with classical echoes, was described in Switzerland as having “the gentlest gaze and the hardest kick.” The original (Eins im Andern) was shortlisted for the German Book Prize before winning both the Swiss Book Prize and the Swiss Prize for Literature.

Tess Lewis’ English translation, published by Persea Books, is our Asymptote Book Club selection for March, and is currently heading to our subscribers across North America and the EU. To join us in time for next month’s title, you can subscribe via our website.

One Another by Monique Schwitter, translated from the German by Tess Lewis, Persea Books, 2019

One Another is an honest novel about love. The narrator, who also claims to be the author, and in later chapters references writing and titling the earlier ones, finds out about the unexpected death of a former boyfriend, Petrus. This provokes her to describe every romance she’s ever experienced. She devotes a chapter to each. The best part of this book is an honest account of contemporary womanhood that is not pious, ashamed, or guilty. An undramatic consensus ends almost every one of these vignettes. She never begs anyone to stay. She has cheated but she isn’t consumed with guilt. Certain complications in these affairs lead the reader to expect the familiar sentimentalism of broken hearts, but the narrator is much too rational for that. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: March 2019

Reviews of the newest and most exciting fiction from Korea, Denmark, and France, by Asymptote team members.

March brings with it a host of noteworthy new books in translation. In today’s post, Asymptote team members cover two novels set in the early twentieth century—Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time and Marcus Malte’s The Boy—along with Kim Yideum’s Blood Sisters, an exploration of a young woman’s traumatic coming-of-age.

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A Change of Time by Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books (2019)

Review by Rachael Pennington, Assistant Managing Editor

Weaving together diary entries, poems, letters (both opened and unopened) and song, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a stirring reflection on death and mourning, loneliness, and female identity in a changing 20th century Denmark. Fru Bragge—almost always referred to by her married name—has just lost her husband. During a loveless marriage spanning more than two decades, she endured Vigand’s lack of affection and derisive comments in silence. Although she has finally gained her freedom in losing him, she has also lost all direction in life:

I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to go. There would be no difference: north, south, east, or west, it would be the same wherever I went.

It is in this vast landscape, the heathlands of Denmark, that she begins to sift through her memories, uncovering the girl she was before she became Fru Bragge. During the day, she welcomes courteous visitors who come to pay their respects and packs away her late husband’s belongings for donation; during the evening, after darkness has fallen and the oil lamp in the window of her empty home is lit, she feels most comfortable. Here, surrounded by a “silence greater than silence” she writes in her diary, giving voice to a part of herself she had almost forgotten: “Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young school-mistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.”

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Misshapen Shards: Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station in Review

Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019

Tokyo Ueno Station, originally published in Japanese in 2014, is Yū Miri’s latest novel to arrive in English via the efforts of translator Morgan Giles and publisher Tilted Axis Press. Yū Miri was born in Yokohama, Japan, as a Zainichi, or a Korean living permanently in Japan. In 1997, she was awarded Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her semi-autobiographical novel Kazoku Shinema (Family Cinema). Her past writing has explored damaging family relationships and outsider identity in a predominantly homogenous Japanese society.1

In Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s most famous public grounds, the blue tents of homeless communities, or “squatters,” have become an unfortunate icon. A simple Google search of “homeless Ueno Park” will return videos, articles, and even tourist reviews of the park, detailing the homeless camps found there. In Tokyo Ueno Station, Miri tells the story of a homeless man named Kazu who lives in one of these camps. Told from Kazu’s perspective, the novel reflects on the tragic events that landed him finally under the blue tents of Ueno Park. But no story can exist or be told in isolation: Yū Miri brings the periphery of tragedy into focus in dreamy, kaleidoscopic visions, intertwining Kazu’s past, the history of Ueno Park, and the state of modern Japanese society. Tokyo Ueno Station is a shattered mirror of prose, made of misshapen shards that don’t always connect but together reflect an image of a lost life and inevitable misfortune.

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Rawness and Taboo: Kono Taeko’s Toddler Hunting and Other Stories in Review

There’s a rawness in these stories that leaves the reader feeling bare, visible, and reflective.

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Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, collection written by Kono Taeko, translated from the Japanese by Lucy North and Lucy Lower, New Directions, 2018

Reviewed by Clayton McKee, Copy Editor

Interior and exterior, public and private, Kono Taeko explores constructed façades in social situations and crashes them down in intimate settings. Each of the narratives in Toddler Hunting and Other Stories delves into the feminine psyche and investigates themes of motherhood and family. Shifts from exterior persona to interior desire rupture Kono’s cold prose, shocking the reader out of socially normative interactions and thrusting them into the taboos lurking deep inside, followed by a quick return to her straight-faced writing. This keeps readers on their toes, not knowing when the next rupture will occur. Contrasting the interior with the exterior and social expectations with personal desires has the effect of enrapturing, sometimes shocking the reader, plunging them into the depths of her/his own imaginary and propelling each story forward.

Kono Taeko is considered amongst the most influential Japanese women writers that first made an appearance in the 1960s. Her impressive portfolio includes over a dozen works in Japanese, all centered on unexplored aspects of human character—female characters in particular, further pushing the envelope not only on these unexplored aspects but also on a gender that was underexplored in Japanese literature at the time. Kono comes to the English-speaking world in this translated collection published by New Directions, which includes a lot of her short fiction written during the sixties. Not only was she the first woman to be on the committee for the Akutagawa Literary Prize, but she also received that prize in 1963, followed by the Yomiuri Prize in 1969 and the Tanizaki Prize in 1980. Before dying in 2015, she was also awarded a Bunka Kunshō, or Order of Culture, which is presented by the Emperor.

The titular story, “Toddler Hunting,” delves deep into the psyche of Akiko, a character with a strong distaste for little girls and a strange attraction to little boys. Her disgust for female children led her to not desire kids at all, and knowing that her “fear” is not logical, she hides behind a façade of disgust for all children. This disgust is contradicted, however, as she impulsively buys lavish clothing for young boys, only to gift them to her acquaintances’ boys in hopes to watch them “crossing [their] chubby arms over [their] chest, concentrating with all [their] might . . .”  just to take the shirt off by themselves. Akiko describes such things as an “intensely pleasurable.” READ MORE…

Announcing our February Book Club Selection: “Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel (translated into English by Matt Reeck and published by Deep Vellum) is a combination of fiction and essay, written with a “stark and uncompromising beauty.” When the novel was first excerpted in Asymptote back in 2015, Matt Reeck highlighted the way in which “The novel’s experimental form stages the gaps between places, and between accepted norms, where a person cast adrift must live.”

Now, Asymptote Book Club subscribers will have a chance to discover this “contemporary classic” in full. You can join our discussion on the Asymptote Book Club Facebook group, or sign up to receive next month’s title via our website.

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“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, translated from the French by Matt Reeck, Deep Vellum, 2019

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

The protagonist of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel has lived a life contained within the constraints of a pair of quotation marks. The exercise of her voice in the printed word—French in the original, English in a new translation by Matt Reeck—represents an effort to outtalk the multitude that would mischaracterize her and confine her to a type. She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

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Ambiguity and Bilingual Art: Pavel Arseniev’s Reported Speech in Review

Through art like Arseniev’s poetry, we gain a toehold, however momentary, from which we are better able to grasp the present and prepare a future.

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Reported Speech by Pavel Arseniev, Cicada Press, 2018

Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large

I tell my students that literature does things, but I prefer to do so in even less polished terms. From a more abstract perspective, I see current attacks on the humanities (especially literature) in the United States and elsewhere as being so vicious precisely because of the fact that literature does do things. It changes how we, as humans, relate to and understand others, as well as ourselves.

That said, there are moments when I profoundly doubt this. For example, I was recently discussing the fabricated crisis at the US-Mexico border and Trump’s wall with someone I had just met. During our discussion, this person informed me that Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s nonfiction All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, a work that gives a nuanced, highly sensitive portrait of the US-Mexico border, actually serves to justify that border’s further militarization. It was like being told by someone with a very serious face that Shelley’s “Ozymandius” is a laudatory poem on the subject of indelible human achievement or that Swift’s A Modest Proposal provided a brilliant roadmap for the betterment of the Irish economy. And yet, even when my doubts about literature and its power dominate my thoughts, events like the murder of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub snap me back to reality. Literature matters, so much so that in other parts of the world literature can get you killed, even as I safely type this up in my home in the United States. Perhaps this will soon be the case here, too.

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What’s New in Translation: February 2019

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

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

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

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Announcing our January Book Club Selection: Night School by Zsófia Bán

Night School is a textbook like no other.

With our February selection, the Asymptote Book Club is taking subscribers back to school. Fortunately, Zsófia Bán’s Night School is a school unlike any other—populated by a cast of literary and cultural figures ranging from Frida Kahlo (and her double) to Laika the space dog. Each chapter of Bán’s textbook primer is filled with ‘defiant irreverence’ and the perfect combination of wit and profundity.

We’re delighted to be sending our subscribers one of the year’s most coruscatingly original short story collections, in Jim Tucker’s superb English translation. If you’d like to join us in time for next month’s Book Club pick, you’ll find all the information you need on our web page. Once you’ve joined, head to our Facebook group to meet other Book Club members and contribute to the discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!

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Night School: A Reader for Grownups by Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker, Open Letter, 2019

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor

Let’s begin with a simple biographical detail: Zsófia Bán has spent much of her life in academia, and her first novel (originally published in Hungarian in 2007) is a textbook. It seems barely necessary to add that Night School is a textbook like no other.

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s New in Translation: January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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