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!
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.
Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Martinique, France, and Hungary.
The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius, Translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellog, Seagull Books
Reviewed by Madeline Jones, Editor at Large, United States
The Dancing Other opens as our anti-heroine Rehvana stumbles out of a dingy apartment in Paris, just barely escaping literal branding by the other members of the Ébonis, or the “Sons of Agar”—an African god. Rehvana wants nothing more than to be included in and loyal to this insular community of Antillean immigrants that tries to emulate traditional Martinique culture—though how authentically they manage this aspiration is debated among some of Dracius’s other characters.
Rehvana’s boyfriend Abdoulaye is the group’s leader, whose temper has more than once manifested itself in blooming bruises across Rehvana’s face and arms. But the kind, protective Jeremy holds no allure for her. Jeremy and Rehvana’s formidable older sister, Matildana, tell her blatantly that a young woman such as her has no business slumming it with this cultish group of wannabes, but Rehvana both resents and resists her smarter, more pretentious, whiter sister’s warnings. She takes her newly enforced identity to its final phase by running away without a word back to the homeland, to Martinique, with another man she just met and who immediately consumes her thoughts and energies.
The poplars’ catkins, no “Crematory” sign,
then a tin roof, the stack’s angled design,
that’s it, in the yard a guy’s on his phone,
the gate’s open, hello, best leave it alone,
a man stops me: Yes? —The office? I ask,
the grandma’s yours, then, the one o’clock,
that’s good, he adds, the old lady’s just out,
you mean…I thought, but could hardly doubt,
I’ve still to confirm she’s of our nation
and so by law allowed a cremation.
I show the papers to a woman fiddling
at a screen, the passport flat, its stitching
lies open, in the room’s press like a window,
its stamps attesting: the bearer to
all the countries of the world can go. READ MORE…
Mačka/macska (cat); cukor/cukor (sugar) pálenka/pálinka (fruit brandy); kabát/kabát(coat); taška/táska (bag); palacinka/palacsinta (pancake); bosorka/boszorkány (witch). These are just a few of the words that sound the same in Slovak and Hungarian. The surprisingly long glossary formed a witty and poignant visual backdrop to the main stand at this year’s Budapest International Book Festival, held 22-24 April, which had a focus on Slovak literature.
What did this mean in practice? Quite a lot: an audience of potential new readers in a neighbouring country; forty books by Slovak writers translated into Hungarian specially for this occasion; debates, book presentations, readings, discussions with authors, translators, publishers, journalists, scholars, historians—plus concerts, media interviews and interactive events for children. All that followed by receptions, informal conversations, fun.
Never has Slovak literature been presented abroad on such a massive scale. Never before have so many Slovak books been translated into any other language. And it is unlikely that such an event will happen again anytime soon.
The Budapest Book Festival is a major European literary event, with over 60,000 visitors every year. In the past guests have included such stars of the literary firmament as Umberto Eco and Paolo Coelho. This year it must have seen the greatest concentration of Slovak writers per square metre. READ MORE…