Posts filed under 'Frisch & Co.'

In Review: “The Tower” by Uwe Tellkamp

An impressive and occasionally surreal collage of scenes and character studies from a country that is not mourned but most certainly vanished.

The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp, may appear to be a monolithic, singularly heroic literary act by a surgeon and survivor of the indignities of the German Democratic Republic. This man, who lived to tell the tale, so to speak, penned an epic about a bourgeois family which has retreated into a kind of inner emigration in the crumbling but stately villas of the posh Weißer Hirsch neighborhood in Dresden. But The Tower is much more complex than that, and intellectually rich. The story, with echoes of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, focuses on three men of various ages and various levels of complicity with the putrefying system of 1980s GDR, and it is now (finally!) available in print in English translation.

Who are these three men? Christian is a pimply and ambitious young student who dreams of following his father, Richard, into the field of medicine; he ultimately signs up for three years of military service in the hopes of securing a spot as a medical student. His efforts to mimic Party loyalty are largely successful until his collapse as a soldier. His father Richard’s 50th birthday party opens the novel and initially Richard appears equally eloquent and morally blameless. However, numerous affairs and a secret second family make him a pawn in the hands of the Stasi. Finally, Meno, Christian’s maternal uncle—something of a mentor to the teenage boy, and a former botanist—works as an editor at one of the GDR’s few high-quality imprints that frequently ran short on paper, rounding out the trio of protagonists.


The Tiff: How Often Should We Re-translate the Classics?

Two literary voices sound off in Asymptote blog’s newest regular column

Antony Shugaar, translator, writer, Asymptote contributing editor

I remember reading a science fiction short story many years ago in which a disgruntled author of historical novels gets his wish to witness the crucifixion of Christ. The plot’s twists and turns escape me now, but I know the final outcome is that he winds up crucified on a secondary cross, an all-too-eager witness to the truth behind the familiar version.

Historians are constantly pawing through the rubble of memory, language, and inference in search of an unproven and unprovable truth. Death—of course—intervenes, as does the slow grind of time, but memory and perception get in the way, too. So does institutionalized meaning: once you’ve heard “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water,” you can never unhear it. READ MORE…

In Review: “A Tabby-cat’s Tale” by Han Dong

“To return to ‘small talk’ from the social and political imperatives of Mao-era and post-Mao-era fiction is in itself a political act.”

In 1931, Ba Jin, anarchist and pioneer of modern Chinese fiction, wrote “Dog,” a short story in which a desperate street urchin—envious of the more comfortable lives of foreign-owned lapdogs—deludes himself into believing that he himself is a dog. Though artfully written and moving, Ba Jin’s “Dog” is unmistakably agitprop: the “dog” is really a man, and the man is really a symbol of a China cowed by imperial powers and rapacious warlords.

About seventy years later, Han Dong, a Chinese writer best known for his nonconformist poetry in the eighties, writes a novella entitled “花花传奇” (Hua Hua Chuanqi), translated by Nicky Harman in a recent Frisch and Co. web release as A Tabby-cat’s Tale. By way of contrast with Ba Jin’s “Dog,” Han Dong’s title tabby, Hua Hua, is simply a cat, albeit a very odd one. And if the reader comes to this novella seeking insight into the grand moral dramas of dissenters and dictatorships, she will be gravely disappointed. Instead, with the great care of someone who truly loves animals, Han Dong relates the daily drudgery of preparing catfish guts for Hua Hua’s nightly meal; the irritation of picking up after an animal who refuses to confine his excrement to a box; and the nightly chore of manually picking through the minion of fleas that infest the tabby and drowning them in a bowl of water until “the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.” And yet, this shaggy cat story is told satirically in a grand register that would more befit the historical dramas of Ba Jin’s “Dog.”