Posts filed under 'immigration'

Translating Zahia Rahmani: An Interview with Matt Reeck

I would say translating allows the translator to find new parts of him/herself, instead of leaving parts behind.

“I’m always surprised by how docile American intellectuals are when they enter the public space,” says Matt Reeck, the translator of Zahia Rahmani’s strikingly bold “Muslim”: A Novel. In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Asymptote Assistant Editor Erik Noonan, Reeck aims to challenge that dominant paradigm of always being “on our best behaviour.”

In our most in-depth Book Club interview to date, Reeck sifts through the “layers of imperial cultural history in Algeria”, makes an eloquent plea for the widening of the capital/cultural space currently allotted to translation, and suggests that “the translation of texts that are already domesticated work[s] against translation in a broader sense.”

Erik Noonan (EN): Discussing the role of the translator in your statement for the National Endowment for the Arts, you say that “In a globalized world, while we know more about many parts of the world that we didn’t have access to previously, often what we know seems to get cemented quickly into easy stereotypes. Then, in a way, we don’t know much more at all; we just know what we think we know.” Dealing with the potential of certain texts to expand our knowledge of the world, you also say, in a piece in The Los Angeles Review: “While university presses help by publishing some of these [truly exotic] works, they don’t take on others: the manuscript must match a list, and this list consolidates established emphases of teaching and research.” Your work includes research and teaching in the Comparative Literature Department at UCLA, I believe, as well as translation. How is your teaching related to your research and your translating, and has that relationship changed in any way over time?

Matt Reeck (MR): I’m interested in many things, and they don’t all necessarily fit anyone’s idea of a single pursuit, a single trajectory, a single work. But they do for me. They are unified by being the things I’m interested in! It would be nice to be able to teach things that match my translating interests and my research interests, but to date I’ve been able to do that only here and there. Fingers crossed this will change soon.

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Announcing our February Book Club Selection: “Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel (translated into English by Matt Reeck and published by Deep Vellum) is a combination of fiction and essay, written with a “stark and uncompromising beauty.” When the novel was first excerpted in Asymptote back in 2015, Matt Reeck highlighted the way in which “The novel’s experimental form stages the gaps between places, and between accepted norms, where a person cast adrift must live.”

Now, Asymptote Book Club subscribers will have a chance to discover this “contemporary classic” in full. You can join our discussion on the Asymptote Book Club Facebook group, or sign up to receive next month’s title via our website.

 Muslim_A_Novel_cover_image

“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, translated from the French by Matt Reeck, Deep Vellum, 2019

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

The protagonist of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel has lived a life contained within the constraints of a pair of quotation marks. The exercise of her voice in the printed word—French in the original, English in a new translation by Matt Reeck—represents an effort to outtalk the multitude that would mischaracterize her and confine her to a type. She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.

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The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation

“Only by picking up a magnifying glass and taking a close look at things can you see the truth about yourself and others.”

Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.

Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?

Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.

JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?

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Translation Tuesdays: “Fragments from a story of my life I’ll never write” by Ruska Jorjoliani

"I go on. Until my nights end, as they did with Grandfather, with nothing left to tell, and he sings me a wordless song."

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, join Georgian writer Ruska Jorjoliani as she tells the stories of her grandfather and their people. Becoming a refugee as a result of war, Jorjoliani’s first-person narrator gradually finds new words, before finding the need to use those words—telling the story of family, dear yet far away.

Horses

Among us, epic tales were like wedges to keep the workbench of daily life from wobbling, benches with cheap tools on top, all of us dragging ours behind us the way we did our long, grueling winters. When I was a girl, the first creatures that roused my imagination were horses—starving, weary beasts, but still horses. Every morning I used to watch our neighbor Ciko saddle his bay, settle a rough woolly hat on his head, let out a shout, and gallop off, disappearing into the mountains. Ciko’s horse and Ciko, bent low over the halter, were the only beings who could travel beyond, exceed those limits set down by the laws of nature first and then by men, the only ones who could taste another air, other worlds hidden to the common gaze. After about twenty km, the rider had to dismount and walk up so that the horse didn’t fall into a gorge, then you’d arrive at a lake, green in spring and blue in summer—what it looked like in fall or winter you didn’t know, since no one had ever dared try the climb in those seasons—and then finally the mountain would begin to shrink like the tail of a hibernating dragon and you could make out the first houses of the others in the distance, those strangers, children of another god, the Kabards.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2019

You won't be lacking reading material in the new year with these latest translations, reviewed by Asymptote team members.

Looking for new books to read this year? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Kurdish, Dutch, and Spanish. Read on to find out more about Abdulla Pashew’s poems written in exile, Tommy Wieringa’s novel about cross-cultural identities, as well as Agustín Martínez cinematic thriller.

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Dictionary of Midnight by Abdulla Pashew, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Phoneme Media (2018)

Review by Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong

Dictionary of Midnight is a collection of several decades of Abdulla Pashew’s poetry as he recounts the history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence. Translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, the work includes a map of contemporary Iraq and a timeline of Kurdish history for those unfamiliar with the plight of the Kurds, something Pashew, one of the most influential Kurdish poets alive today, has taken upon himself to convey and to honor.

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In Conversation: Canan Marasligil

What I find important is to talk from a personal place: sharing what you know, writing from what you know, expressing yourself with sincerity.

Canan Maraşlıgil’s world has always been a multilingual one. Currently based in Amsterdam, she was born in Turkey, spent her childhood in Belgium, and, as a student, lived for a short time in Canada. Today, as a freelance writer and literary translator, she often travels internationally to deliver workshops and presentations, and works in no less than five languages: English, French, Turkish, Dutch, and Spanish. Always involved in several inspiring projects at once, Canan explores literature through writing and translation, but also photography, video, podcast, and digital media. You can therefore easily imagine our joy when, in addition to all of her brilliant projects, she kindly agreed to schedule an interview with Asymptote’s team member Lou Sarabadzic.

Lou Sarabadzic (LS): You work mostly in French, English, and Turkish, and are regularly involved in projects dealing with multilingualism. What does multilingualism mean for you, and why is it so central to your work?

Canan Maraşlıgil (CM): Multilingualism is my reality. I grew up in a family who came from Turkey to Belgium. We spoke Turkish at home, I went to school in French, then I learned Dutch at school (Belgium is a trilingual country if you count German, but the second language we learned at school was Dutch). I was also hearing a lot of German in our living-room through TV and our cousins living in Zurich and Hamburg—I also have family who migrated to Germany. I started to learn English through friends of my dad who was working in a hotel as a night receptionist, and through popular culture—films and music. However, English only became part of my formal education much later. Now, I start my sentences in one language and end them in another. In my mind, everything is multilingual. Certain feelings come to me in one language, and others in another language. I also work in Dutch a lot, but I don’t really feel in Dutch, nor in Spanish, which is also a language I know, but use much less.

Multilingualism means seeing the world through many different lenses. You can try and understand issues and current affairs through different media in different languages. I think that’s a huge advantage in today’s world.

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Translation Tuesday: “English Lessons” by Mónica Lavín

"Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought."

This Tuesday brings us a story that straddles the US-Mexico border. In Mónica Lavín’s “English Lessons,” a Mexican woman travels to San Diego for an all-too-brief reunion with her brother. Her notions of America, a “better world” glimpsed in the Dick and Jane stories from her childhood, are upended in an unexpected, heartrending manner. 

For more great short works like this, check out the fiction section and special Korean literature feature in the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.

English Lessons

Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought. A sense of well-being settled in her chest when she crossed the border. It was like entering a story, a fiction, proof that a better world existed. Like the world her first grade English books had shown: the house with a garden, the family with a dog named Spot and a cat called Puff. Sally, Dick and Jane played with a “red wagon.”  “Red” was rojo, “wagon” carretilla? She’d never seen one except in the color illustrations of those books. The mother called them in to dinner, with her styled hair, her big smile and an apron over her full-skirted dress. Not that Patricia wasn’t critical of many things about the gringo lifestyle—their detachment from family life and excessive practicality, their sense of being the center of the world. But in her experience, U.S. highways had no potholes, there were fewer rattletrap cars, and San Diego’s landscaped roundabouts were a pleasure to see. She suspected her idea was childish, so it was a conception she didn’t dare confess. Certainly, after standing in the tedious line, and feeling like a convict when the guard took her papers and examined her, knowing she was safely “on the other side” made her breathe more calmly. She anticipated enjoying this trip especially because she’d visit her friend Laura in California, and her brother Daniel was also coming to San Diego for two days. They hadn’t planned it, but it was a happy coincidence. He lived in Guadalajara, further from the border, loved and knew San Diego. He’d promised to take her for a drink at the Hyatt at sundown to see the bay. And she would accompany him on his mission to buy household goods: sheets, towels, kitchen things, placemats for his bachelor breakfast table. She liked his attitude, how he was determined to make a pleasant abode for himself, treating it as a new project to be enthusiastic about, instead of being depressed by his divorce.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Train” by Martín Tonalmeyotl

Each step is a return: towards death, towards life

From the humorous to the profane and the sacred, Náhuatl poet Martín Tonalmeyotl’s poetic work is firmly rooted in the mountains of his native Guerrero (Mexico) and reflects his commitment to his culture and his language. Far from idealizing his home state, however, Tonalmeyotl’s work frequently takes an unflinching look at a sociopolitical situation where, in addition to the 2014 kidnapping and murder of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa amidst increasing violence from drug trafficking, Guerrero’s citizens have gone so far as to organize independent civil defense groups for protection. In “The Train,” the poet takes up another aspect of life in contemporary Mexico, human migration, in the series of freight trains otherwise known as La bestia (the Beast) or El tren de la muerte (the Death Train) that transport migrants from Central America to the US border.

—Paul Worley

The Train 

Each step is a return: towards death, towards life
Each train is a nightmare: of blood, of hunger, of cobwebs
Each child is a piece of fruit: rotten, sweet, bitter, what does it matter
At any rate life is sold to the scavengers
To the rancid wolves who’d like to eat us whole
Because if they don’t devour our stick-thin bones
Their potbellies will become hollow
And they won’t have any shit to feed their own parasites
We should get drunk, I tell you,
So we forget that on this earth
Day by day we are hunted down like rabid dogs

Translated from the Náhuatl into Spanish by Martín Tonalmeyotl
Translated from the Spanish into English  by Paul Worley

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Translation Tuesday: The Strawberry Pickers by Felix Nicolau

freedom is expensive, paid up front!

This Tuesday, we’re excited to share a new poem by the Romanian poet, Felix Nicolau, whose work is a cutting and humorous comment on life for those crossing borders and coming into contact with other cultures, yet who are still at the very bottom of the social ladder. 


The Strawberry Pickers

is President Iliescu around—the sun will come out!
on Christmas we took our measure of freedom
seriously, didn’t the Star Poet of Pit Coal and his miner comrades from Jiu Valley invade
the capital?
didn’t they march through the springtime quarter or through the slums?
Hooray President Goatee!  Did he eat salami with soy like all of us?  Boo, Goatee!
we won’t sell our country out!
back then we had the means but no beans
now there’s lots of beans but no financial means
we’ve been hit by a nuclear bomb of whiskey and cigarettes
is President Iliescu around—the sun will come out!
the retirees applaud the miners the students heckle their grandparents
the scenery’s cleared of railroad locomotive plants
the sea is cleared of our fleet
freedom is expensive, paid up front!  Give us money to stay up front!
finally we can buy and sell the best football players
more powerful than the Chinese—we take all the strawberry picking jobs in Europe
we pick the strawberries on the bottom of the Atlantic
we emerge on the east coast and keep picking
watch out Alaska—WE’RE COMING!

Translated from the Romanian by MARGENTO and Martin Woodside


Felix Nicolau
is Professor in the Faculty of Theology and Literature, Lund University, Sweden. He is the author of eight books of literary and communication theory,
 five volumes of poetry
(Kamceatka—Time IS honey, 2014) and two novels. He is member on the editorial boards of The Muse—an International Journal of Poetry and Metaliteratura magazines. His areas of interest are translation studies, the theory of communication, comparative literature, cultural studies, translation studies, British and American studies, and Romanian studies. He is also swims, rollerblades, and rides a scooter. Sometimes he even reads more than writes.

MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu) is a poet, performer, academic, and translator who has lectured, launched books, and performed in the US, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Europe. His pen name is also the name of his multimedia cross-artform band that won a number of major international awards. He is co-author of poetryartexchange, his co-translations with Martin Woodside from Gellu Naum’s poetry (Athanor and Other Pohems) were nominated by World Literature Today as Most Notable Translation in 2013, and he has written the libretto for a rock opera composed by Bogdan Bradu. He deploys networks-of-networks and natural-language-processing algorithms in his collaborative poetry, and continues his work on the graph poem project together with Diana Inkpen and their students at the University of Ottawa. MARGENTO is Romania & Moldova editor-at-large for Asymptote.

Martin Woodside is a writer, teacher, scholar, and founding member of Calypso Editions. He is an interdisciplinary scholar who earned his MFA and a certificate of specialization in Children’s Literature from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. in Childhood Studies from Rutgers-Camden in 2015. He ​has written five books for children, a chapbook of poetry (Stationary LandscapesPudding House), and a full-length collection of poetry (This River Goes Both Ways, Wordtech). His translations of Romanian poetry have appeared in several books and journals, including The Kenyon Review Online, Asymptote, and the Brookyn Rail’s inTranslationHe’s published two collections of Romanian poetry in translation: Of Gentle Wolves, an anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry, and—along with MARGENTO—Athanor & Other Pohems, collecting the work of the brilliant surrealist Gellu Naum.


*****

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What’s New In Translation: October 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

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 Italy, Brazil and Norway. 

Dust-MC

Dust by Adrian Bravi, translated from the Italian by Patience Haggin, Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewed by Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

“‘How long will I have to flail about, drowning in the world of the microscopic?’”

This is one of the many questions that the narrator, Anselmo, of Adrian Bravi’s novel Dust anxiously asks himself while coping with his total phobia of dust. The depth of his internal interrogation hinges on the word “microscopic”: Anselmo faces not the literal question of clean living, but instead the concept of infinite accumulation and infinite loss—of seconds and minutes, of words and ideas, of skin and hair and other shavings of the physical self.

To read Patience Haggin’s forthcoming English translation of Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, October 2017) is to slowly sink into an ocean of everyday minutiae. The book centers on Anselmo, a librarian living with his wife Elena in the fictional city of Catinari, Italy, and his daily routine of cataloguing books, obsessively dusting surfaces, and frequently writing letters that invariably never reach their destination.

What gives this novel its power is not the literal subject matter of the book, which often threatens to overtake the prose in its tedium, but instead the artful language that invites us to meditate conceptually on the simple life represented. Anselmo, at one point, compares his monotonous work cataloguing books to that of a “simple mortician sorting bodies for burial according to their profession”; at another moment, his wife Elena says that reading newly published books is akin to, “‘studying smoke your whole life when you’ve never seen fire.’” These metaphors broaden a seemingly narrow scope, bringing us closer to fully imagining humanity’s constant and immense decay.

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Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Never miss a world literature update again.

We are back with literary news you simply cannot miss! This week we will take you to Romania where MARGENTO will help you discover the intricate networks of performance art. Also reporting from Europe is Fiona Le Brun who discusses the eclectic list of recent French literary prize winners, while subtly underlining the theme of migration that cuts across the various literary events. Far away from Mexico, Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn will highlight the increasingly important role of translation in its contemporary cultural landscape. 

Editor-at-Large from Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO, provides us with an insider’s view of the exciting world of Romanian artistic experimentation:

The Bucharest International Poetry Festival featured last month an impressive line-up of international writers and performers, among whom were Christian Bök from Canada, LaTasha Nevada Diggs from the US, Steven Fowler of the worldwide prolific Enemies Project, Max Höfler (the tireless organizer of the yearly Text-World—World-Text Symposium in Graz, Austria), the multilingual performance vocalist Maja Jantar of Belgium, the Bucharest-based American poet and translator Tara Skurtu, and many more, alongside local poets such as Claudiu Komartin and Razvan Tupa.  Organized by London-based Romanian poet and curator Simona Nastac, this annual event has grown more and more visible and central in a country where the tradition of performance poetry going at least as far back as Tristan Tzara’s DADA seems to be thriving more than ever, with festivals thrown from Craiova in the south to Brasov and Sibiu in Transylvania to Cluj and Iasi up north (some of them performance-driven events, other more standard literary ones with a strong reading or performance section).

Petrila is a one-of-a-kind venue among all of the above, both in Romanian and international terms.  The derelict milltown riddled with condemned coal mines and shutdown falling-apart factories has been transformed over the last two decades by visual artist, political caricaturist, and curator Ion Barbu into a mecca of non-conformist festivals (initially thrown in his own backyard), eclectic or scandalous arts events, and improbable post-communist absurdist or faux-kitsch museums (including one that has resonantly revived the memory of once-censored outstanding dissident writer I.D. Sirbu).  A competitor—or rather concurrent event—has been the CUCA Festival organized over the past couple of years in Cartisoara, up in the mountains of Sibiu County, where cutting-edge and indie performances and installations converge with Romanian traditional architecture restoration work done by international volunteers.  A long-feature documentary titled Planet Petrila casting Ion Barbu in the lead role and portraying his eclectic personality and work against the background of the (post)communist history of his hometown has recently been widely praised and awarded at the international film festival TIFF.

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In Review: Jorge Argueta’s Bilingual Memoir About Fleeing El Salvador for the States

a brave country / a strong country / a country that shouts

“When I left El Salvador running, I didn’t know where I was heading, but I ran.” Despite the apparent simplicity of its prose, this passage encapsulates the author’s harried flight from his war-torn country in a moment where facing the complete unknown of exile was the best alternative to remaining in his homeland. In a particularly cruel twist, the country he is running from, El Salvador, translates into English as, “The Savior,” and the country the author eventually comes to, the United States, is responsible for fanning the flames of El Salvador’s Civil War (1980-1992) in an effort to win its own Cold War against the former Soviet Union.

With this story of fleeing in the face of conflict at its core, Jorge Argueta’s brilliant En carne propia: Memoria poética/Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017) emerges as a text that challenges straightforward narratives surrounding immigration to the United States from Latin America, and remains highly relevant despite taking place in the 80s. Those readers already familiar with Argueta’s work through his award winning children’s literature may be shocked to find the author’s personal history laid bare in a genre-bending poetry-prose narrative (in Spanish with an accompanying English translation) that does not shy away from his childhood environs “teeming with drunkards, prostitutes, servants, popsicle vendors, mechanics—the working class or the poorest of the poor” nor “an entire generation disappearing” during El Salvador’s Civil War. Those unfamiliar with Argueta’s previous publications or with contemporary Latinx literature in general will find themselves grappling with a text that at times appears both intimate and alienating as it guides the readers through the lasting consequences of a Central American Civil War that most Americans have long forgotten if they have heard of it at all.

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month

heretics

Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.

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