This week’s reviews of the newest and most compelling translated literature include the latest work by Poland’s preeminent writer, Olga Tokarczuk, a fascinating portrayal of manic self-interrogation and class by Stéphane Larue, and a darkly dionysian tale of the female gaze by the award-winning Nina Leger. Our editors burrow into the philosophy, language, and atmosphere of these three novels to give you some extra additions to your reading list.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Riverhead Books, 2019
Review by Andreea Scridon, Assistant Editor
Janina Duszejko is the kind of woman that many would call “eccentric”: she’s in her mid-sixties, often bordering on paranoia, and she’s firmly convinced by astrology, absolute vegetarianism, and William Blake. In rural Poland, Janina—as she hates to be called—lives peacefully and in relative solitude as a guardian for the summer cabins surrounding her home. However, she quickly comes into conflict with the insensitive and barbarous hunters who reign over the area. The death of a neighbor escalates such tension, creating a series of mysterious murders that Janina will be privy to, and which will culminate in an unexpected twist.
This week the eminent Lawrence Venuti brings us a curious story from Catalonia about a house consumed by ivy. The existence and appearance of this menacing plant dominates this rural community and the people who inhabit it.
The house came with a garden—like all the others in the promotion. It was large, three floors, and had a slate roof. Not till Cinta and Pere bought the thing did it change. Ivy began to envelop the ochre façade. They had planted it after falling out with the neighborhood. The houses were painted in a bright earth tone, an ochre that possessed a concrete reference. The only distinguishing feature was the uneven discoloration that the sun caused to the paint. At community meetings, Cinta and Pere would dig in their heels against their next door neighbors on either side and, finally, against everybody else. They (she, and he too, although not as much) wanted the ivy.
And so they planted it and installed an American mailbox, which wasn’t permitted either. That broke the perpetual peace that reigned over urbanization in the countryside. They contracted a gardening firm to fertilize the grounds and plant ivy all around the house. The ivy liked the place: it grew like a shot. From my house, just beyond the development, the ivy on the east wall seemed quite like a hand or paw clinging to it. Time passed quickly for the neighboring houses, and the hand continued to grow nonstop till its entwining tentacles reached the nearby façades.
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.
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.
One challenge of translation is finding a text that appeals to an audience separated geographically and culturally from the author. Finding a nonfiction text with that kind of currency is all the more difficult. The translator of nonfiction is faced with a text tied to local events and often steeped in a historical, social, and political context. Why should the average international reader care about nonfiction in translation? Today, Asymptote sits down with Daniella Gitlin, the translator of the famous 1957 Argentinian reported novel, Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre (Operation Massacre), previously excerpted in our Summer 2013 issue, to discuss her encounters with a masterpiece of nonfiction and outline the urgent relevance of a text six decades old.
Lara Norgaard (LN): Tell me a bit about how you came to translate Operation Massacre.
Daniella Gitlin (DG): I spent the year after college in Buenos Aires working for a nonprofit, Poder Ciudadano, with a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship. I was back in Argentina for a visit and told my friends there that I was applying for the nonfiction writing program at Columbia. Before I left, my friend Dante gave me a copy of Operación Masacre with a dedication in it. He wrote, “Dani my dear, a little ‘Argentinian nonfiction’ will do you good. I hope you like it.” I took the book back with me. I had heard of Walsh, but I didn’t really know anything about him.
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.” 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.
Singapore has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates, but much like its partner in (low) crime, Iceland, it’s fertile ground for noir stories. Launched this month, ten years after the release of Brooklyn Noir, is Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ newest title in its bestselling series of Noir anthologies, Singapore Noir, edited by the Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a former staff writer at the Wall Street Journal and author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.
Nicole Idar: Singapore is the fourth Asian city to boast an Akashic Books Noir anthology, after Delhi, Manila, and Mumbai (Seoul is forthcoming). Can you tell us how Singapore Noir came about?
Cheryl Tan: I’d long admired New York publisher Akashic Books’ award-winning Noir series—a series of anthologies, and there are dozens by now, each one set in a country or a city. Brooklyn Noir was a personal favorite but you also have everything from Baltimore Noir to Paris Noir. Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales—Joyce Carol Oates edited New Jersey Noir, for example, and Dennis Lehane edited Boston Noir.
In November 2011, I was at the Miami Book Fair, speaking about A Tiger in the Kitchen, my first book. At the authors’ party, mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan introduced me to Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. I told Johnny how much I loved his noir series but asked why there hadn’t been a Singapore Noir. He said it was because he didn’t know any Singaporean writers. And S.J. said, “Well now you do.”
Marek Hlasko’s novel, Killing the Second Dog, is set in Tel Aviv, but it isn’t any Tel Aviv that I know. Not only the years that separate my Israel (I was born there in 1982) from the novel’s newly independent Israel of the early 1950s account for this lack of familiarity. Nor is it the fact that Killing the Second Dog is, essentially, a crime novel. Hlasko’s Tel Aviv is an identity-less city, where a multitude of languages is spoken and a variety of currencies is exchanged. Still overcoming British rule and catering to the many post-war tourists financing its new path, this Israel offers itself up for grabs, trying, in spite of the suffocating heat and the shoddy infrastructure, to constitute as small an interruption as possible.