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.
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…
Gazmend Kapllani is an Albanian-born author, journalist, and scholar. He lived in Athens for over twenty years. He received his PhD in political science and history from Panteion University in Athens, with a dissertation on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. In addition, he was a columnist for Greece’s leading daily newspapers. Kapllani has written his first three novels in Greek, which is not his native language. His work centers on themes of migration, borders, totalitarianism, and how Balkan history has shaped public and private narratives.
Kapllani’s first novel A Short Border Handbook (Livanis, 2006) has become a best-seller and has been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish and Italian. His second novel, My Name is Europe (Livanis, 2010), has been published into French. The Last Page (Livanis, 2012) his most recent novel, has been translated into French and was short-listed for The Cezam Prix Litteraire Inter CE 2016. Since 2012 he has been living in the US, where he was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Writer in Residence at Wellesley College. Kapllani currently lives in Boston and teaches Creative Writing and European History at Emerson College.
Gigi Papoulias has a chance to sit down and talk to Kapllani on his work, language, and borders.
Gigi Papoulias (GP): You seem to have a passion for languages. You are fluent in five languages. Were you born into a multilingual family?
Gazmend Kapllani (GK): Actually I was born in a shack. My father’s family was persecuted by the communist regime and was driven out of their house in the countryside and punished—sent to live in a shack on the outskirts of my hometown Lushnje. They were considered “enemies of the regime” because they were wealthy landowners. Stalin did the same with the so-called “kulaks” in the Soviet Union.
I grew up surrounded by a large group of monolingual relatives whose discussions always led to the glory days of their aristocratic past. I grew up surrounded by joyful uncles and aunts—all of them impressively good looking. I’m amazed today that in my memories that miserable place comes as a place of joy and love. I remember the flowers that were planted all around. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman—she had lost three brothers in the war against the Nazis in Albania—she did everything possible to make life in the shack seem normal. What has remained with me is the extraordinary love that I was given in that shack. I also learned what resilience and human dignity mean. But I refused the rest: living with the glory of the past. I understood though that when people are denied a present and a future they take refuge in the past.
The day after the EU referendum I woke up early to check the results. It was 5am and already clear that the Leave camp would win. I hadn’t expected that. Despite the growing popularity of right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, to the outsiders (and a large portion of liberal Britons too), this divisive brand of Euroscepticism seemed like the voices from the fringes. It is true that UKIP employed dramatic scaremongering as its major political strategy, using migrants as the folk devil on whom to blame Britain’s economic and social problems, both present and future. But to me their tactics stood in sharp contrast to what I have always admired about the British, that is to say kindness, tolerance and openness. Not surprisingly, the Leave win left the country in turmoil. Those on the Remain side are bewildered by the prospect of being torn away from an identity they have eagerly embraced as their own and, increasingly, many of the Leave voters express a similar sentiment. But the Brexit referendum also mobilized an indignant minority that had been previously silent, and galvanized blatant xenophobia, racism and bigotry. It is the latter that saddens me most.
I myself was an EU migrant who settled in the UK following the first eastern enlargement in 2004, although I had first arrived in Britain in the summer of 2003, eight months prior to Poland’s accession to the EU. I was an undergraduate student on a gap year in Liverpool, away from home for the first time. Despite its long tradition of multiculturalism, the city saw very few migrants from Eastern Europe and people knew very little about Poland. Often, on hearing my nationality, they would recite in one breath: Lech Wałęsa, John Paul II, vodka, and engage with me in long conversations about the Pontiff’s poor health. I felt welcomed, and I immediately fell in love with the city and its people. I loved how they talked and joked, how women wore strapless dresses on cold nights out and how families went on the ferry across the Mersey on Sunday afternoons. I myself spent countless hours in the FACT cinema on Wood Street and I can still remember films I saw that year: Young Adam, Sylvia, Calendar Girls and, my absolute favourite, Love Actually. I went to see art exhibitions in the Walker Art Gallery, learning about British painting, from Pre-Raphaelites, through the Stuckists to the Singh Twins. On the 1st of May 2004 I celebrated Poland’s accession to the EU with a group of English friends. The mood was jubilant and hopeful. We drank sparkling wine and, as naïve as it may sound, it felt like Europe was united again.