Posts filed under 'Book Reviews'

In Review: Abdulai Sila’s novel confronts the future of Guinea-Bissau

She wants to create a school unlike those she attended, which were born out of the “civilizing” arm of the colonial regime.

“It was the first time the Sepoys had seen such a cowardly Chief of Post. It left them very disillusioned. They told everyone in the tabanca what had happened, adding a little salt of course.”

No “salt” appears to be lost in Jethro Soutar’s translation of The Ultimate Tragedy, which is the first Bissau-Guinean novel to be translated into English.

Reflecting the Bissau-Guinean oral traditions that influenced Abdulai Sila’s writing style, the novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine protagonist Ndani’s life (re)told in an oral narrative as she transforms from cursed outcast to abused servant, to the wife of a wealthy régulo in whose village she will meet her true love. With every change in Ndani’s environment, we are introduced to a different facet of colonial-era Bissau-Guinean society: rural, under-served poor; white, colonial elite; powerful, indigenous leaders; and finally, Church-educated citizens.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

From World Poetry Day to PEN competitions, we've had a busy month!

One quick piece of housekeeping news before our regular update! First, thanks to 98 wonderful backers, we’ve raised $13,547 so far toward our project to showcase new work created in response to Trump’s #MuslimBan. (Read the interviews given by our editor-in-chief at The Chicago Review of Books and at the Ploughshares Blog.) With only 7 days left to contribute to our fundraiser, we’ve unveiled a secret perk just for blog readers like you: for $100 apiece, you get first dibs on autographed books from writers like Junot Díaz and Yann Martel, who also stand with us against the travel ban! Fancy your own autographed copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao while also supporting frontline efforts to reverse Trump’s travel ban (20% of all proceeds of this fundraiser will go to the ACLU and Refugees Welcome)? Want to help keep Asymptote around beyond 2017? Wait no more: Throw in your support for our fundraiser today!

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Educational Arm Assistant Anna Aresi conducted and translated interviews with Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie and Italian translator Giorgia Sensi as part of Mosaici‘s feature for World Poetry Day, which can be read alongside Sensi’s translations of five poems by Jamie.
 
Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) has published an article entitled “Community as Commoning, (Dis)Placing, and (Trans)versing: from Participatory and ‘Strike Art’ to the Postdigital”  ​in the latest issue of Dacoromania Litteraria.  One of his performances from the CROWD Omnibus tour in 2016, featuring 100 writers from 37 European countries, has recently been released by Forum Stadtpark in Austria.

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Camila von Holdefer on the State of Literary Criticism in Brazil

The critic, as a general rule, is someone who must know how to take a beating and how to hit back.

Camila von Holdefer, 28, is a Brazilian literature critic and philosophy academic. She publishes her reviews on her own website, in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, and on the Moreira Salles Institute blog and the Carambaia Publishing House’s blog, among others. In this interview, building on her ten-piece series on literary criticism in Brazil, she elaborates on some of the issues surrounding the literary readership in Brazil, as well as Brazilian book publishing in general and the role of the critic.

Maíra Mendes Galvão (MMG): As an opener to this interview, I’d love it if you could give us a brief description of the present Brazilian literature scene, from your point of view and a panorama of literary criticism in Brazil: who are the critics, where do they publish, where does the readership go in search of references?

Camila von Holdefer (CvH): Brazilian literature, it seems to me, is in a much better position than its criticism. Not long ago, writer Sérgio Sant’Anna published a piece in the newspaper Estadão insinuating that there’d been an explosion in the number of authors. Many people scoffed at his statement, but that is more or less what’s happening, I mean, Sant’Anna is right. There is a large number of published authors now. This happened because of an increase in both the number of small, quality publishing houses and the availability of self-publishing platforms and services that have little to no concern at all about the quality of the work.

So, what transpires is that it isn’t very difficult to get published. Actually, it’s never been easier. Consequently, the critics are faced with an amount of new books that they will never get around to reading. If there are three or four truly exceptional writers among the newcomers, it is unlikely that we’ll manage to get to them. And this is because there is a huge demand that reviewers can no longer meet. I get around ten e-mails a week from authors asking me to review their books. There isn’t the least chance that I will manage one third of that. Even with a joint effort by the critics, there wouldn’t be enough outlets where we could publish those reviews. There are few supplements, independent or in newspapers, that are still printing (or posting) reviews. The Ilustrada supplement of Folha de S.Paulo is one of them, perhaps the one that’s most attuned to diversity. O Globo and Estadão also include some reviews from time to time. There is Suplemento Pernambuco, with good articles and reviews, and Jornal Rascunho, of mixed quality (some collaborators are excellent, some are terrible: it’s all or nothing).

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In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?

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What’s New in Translation? December 2016

Asymptote reviews the latest translated books from Spanish, German, and Konkani

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The Moravian Night by Peter Handke, tr. Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review: Laura Garmeson, Assistant Copyeditor

Not long after midnight, with wintry constellations etched across the Serbian sky, a group of six or seven men make their way through the darkness from various nearby villages to approach the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube. They have been summoned by the owner of a houseboat moored by the riverbank, guided by its neon sign blazing the boat’s name: “Moravian Night”. Once on board, they are greeted by a man who was formerly a well-known writer. He extinguishes the glowing sign, calls for silence, and begins to tell the listeners his story.

So begins The Moravian Night, the latest shimmering, introspective novel to appear in English from the renowned Austrian author Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is no stranger to controversy, with his support for Serbia’s Milošević in the 1990s provoking widespread outrage, and the alchemy of this work seems to draw from the political life and writing life of its author. Employing cameo appearances of characters from previous Handke novels and plot points about the fallout of Central European projects and failed Balkan states, Handke toys with reality, as he sees it, through the cracked lens of fiction.

The resulting book, which on the surface is the story of the nameless writer’s journey across Europe from east to west, is really a travelogue of the mind. This obscured narrator travels through the Balkans, Spain, and Germany, retraces his own steps from previous decades, and reencounters figures who were once figments of memory: “the longer he walked the more he fell into his previous footsteps, footsteps of air”. The parallels to One Thousand and One Nights are established in the book’s first scene, and continue with the same undercurrent of danger and threat of death that forced Scheherazade’s stories into being. The narrator seems impelled by the same threat in the dark on board the Moravian Night. Storytelling here is the antithesis of death – the recreation of a life – and a disrupter of time.

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In Review: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy

Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I?

NYRB Classics’ reissue of this book comes at an opportune moment, as societies around the world face the dangers of religious extremism and its focus on ritual and regulation rather than humanity. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in A.K Ramanujan’s translation from the Kannada, tries to teach Indian society a lesson in this story about the trouble with prioritizing tradition over compassion.

Samskara begins with one of the central cleansing and purification rituals in the rites of Hindu worship. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs. The cleansing ritual that he performs on his wife at the beginning of the story is the last time that he will perform this expiating routine; this is the beginning of the end for Praneshacharya’s spiritual cleanliness and purity.

Samskara—the compulsory rite given to Brahmins at their passing—becomes the central controversy of the novel. Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors. He’s taken up excessive drinking, spent time with Muslims and ate meat with them, and caught fish from the sacred temple pond. The most impious of his actions, however, was casting off his lawful wife and his choosing to live with a lower class, outcast woman named Chandri.  Despite his hedonistic behavior, the Brahmins never excommunicated Naranappa from their small, conservative village.

It is Chandri, Narranappa’s low-born lover, who delivers the news of his death to the agrahara.  This announcement causes an immediate conflict over the performance of the death rites for this blasphemous man whom they continued to allow to live among them. The Brahmins’ failure to act in the face of Naranappa’s sacrilege can be viewed as the first of Ananthamurthy’s many criticisms of the Brahmins way of life; their laziness or fear or lack of conviction, or a combination of all three, prevent them from expelling Narranappa from the agrahara.  Now that he has died, none of them want to be responsible for performing the death rites for his body.

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In Review: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism

Secondhand Time is one of the four books shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, UK’s most prestigious prize for nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. 

Russian thinkers in the nineteenth century began referring to the Russian soul (Russkaya dusha) as a way to crystalize a national identity around the idea that Russia and its people possess a singular, exceptional destiny. Be it Dostoevsky’s high-strung and philosophical protagonists, Goncharov’s ambitionless, sensitive Oblomov, or Tolstoy’s nature-inspired, contemplative heroes, Russia’s iconic authors portrayed their countrymen as uninterested in replicating Europe’s then burgeoning industrial capitalism and its protestant work ethic; rather, these characters’ thoughts and actions sprang from a loftier, more spiritual sensibility.

Today, Russians’ views of their country’s tumultuous history and uncertain, post-Soviet future are shaped, in no small part, by whether or not they believe in Russian exceptionalism, and this question frames Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s latest book to be published in English, Secondhand Time. As she did earlier with Voices from Chernobyl (1997), the work that precipitated her winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Secondhand Time, originally published in 2013, Ms. Alexievich gives readers history “in miniature,” by presenting the reflections of ordinary Russians as told in their own voices. For this latest book Ms. Alexievich collected Russians’ thoughts about their post-World War II history that she recorded between 1991 and 2012. She writes that she specially sought to interview “sovaks,” a term that Russians use pejoratively to describe those who remain stuck in Soviet attitudes and behaviors.

Secondhand Time’s arrival in English (Random House, 2016) serves as a timely antidote to reports in the Western press about Russian nationalism. It is a necessary rejoinder not because the reports are false; rather, too little attention has been given to the complicated reasons behind the nationalistic sentiment.

Ironically, most Soviets felt a sense of security under the old system, despite the government’s repression and cruelty. Without the dual rudders of government control over everyday life and the ideology that justified it, those who came of age under the Soviet system now feel uncomfortably adrift. There remains nothing to replace the old ideals that grounded their lives except empty consumerism:

“No one can convince me that we were given life just to eat and sleep to our hearts’ content.  That a hero is someone who buys something one place and sells it down the road for three kopecks more.”

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