Between the pages of beloved books some sunlight gathers, as writers and readers from the various corners of our world gather to greet, honour, and celebrate one another. Crowds gather in search for literature in Rio de Janeiro, a Guatemalan favourite is shortlisted for a prestigious Neustadt International Award, and genre fiction takes the spotlight in Hong Kong. Travel with us between cobblestone and concrete, as our editors bring you the close-up view on global literary news.
Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil
One can hardly say it’s been winter here in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with the sun shining over the 17th edition of FLIP, the International Literary Festival of Paraty, from July 10 to 14. The festival—one of the world’s largest, and certainly Brazil’s most anxiously awaited—brought thousands of readers and writers to the cobblestone streets of Paraty in celebration of world literature. The main programming welcomed internationally acclaimed writers Grada Kilomba (Portugal, author of Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism), Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Nigeria, author of Stay with Me), and Kalaf Epalanga (Angola, author of Também os brancos sabem dançar), among others, with events in various languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Libras (Brazilian Sign Language). But the magic of this year’s FLIP certainly wasn’t confined to the mainstage: the “houses” of Paraty’s historic center were transformed into venues for book readings, signings, and endless conversation; a parallel “Flipinha” brought the literary festival alive for children of all ages; and the first-ever FLIP international poetry slam packed the main plaza for an unforgettable night, featuring poets from Cabo Verde, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, the US, and the UK. Anyone looking for a recap of the main events can head to FLIP’s YouTube page to check out the action!
If you have yet to fully traverse the sensational depths of Asymptote‘s Summer 2019 issue: “Dreams and Reality,” you can step out on the roadmap written by our blog editors, who have refined their selections—with considerable difficulty—to a handful of their favourite pieces. Between an erudite Arabic mystery, non-fiction from Romania’s foremost feminist writer and theorist, and a tumultuous psychological short story which delves into our perception of sanity, this reading list is a doorway into the vast cartography of this issue, unfurling into the rich imagination and profundity of the heights in world literature.
Something about summertime makes me want to read detective fiction, so I was excited to learn that Asymptote’s Summer 2019 issue, released this past Thursday, features a murder mystery. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the story in question, “Culprit Unknown” by Naguib Mahfouz, was originally written in Arabic. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy Swedish mysteries just as much as you do—but I think we can all agree that the Scandinavians have had a monopoly on detective fiction in translation for far too long.
“Culprit Unknown,” translated by Emily Drumsta, follows Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari as he tries to solve a series of grisly murders. Muhsin does everything he can, but each killing is a perfect crime: the murderer leaves not a single trace behind, and as the deaths pile up, the tension in the neighborhood becomes unbearable. Besides pacing the story perfectly, Mahfouz infuses “Culprit Unknown” with light humor and unexpected (but welcome) philosophical musings, as in the exchange below:
Babylon by Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by Linda Asher, Seven Stories Press, 2018
The “soirée entre amis” (literally an evening among friends) is one the most quintessential of French clichés. Quintessential not only for its pervasiveness in art centred in Paris, but also because it is ridiculously pervasive in real life, too. A staple, even, of life in France. And, if like Yasmina Reza, you believe that “you can’t understand who people are outside [their] landscape,” what better setting for the exploration of the pressures and absurdities of daily existence than precisely a dinner party between friends, a space that demands constant performance due to its many spoken and unspoken social rules?
In a fictional suburb of Paris, Elisabeth and her husband, Pierre, are throwing a party for their friends and family. Invited, at the very last minute, are their neighbours the Manoscrivis, Jean Lino, and Lydie. The party goes well, but tragedy strikes shortly after: Elisabeth and Pierre are woken in the middle of the night by Jean Lino, who has killed his wife after a banal domestic dispute. Even more inexplicable is what follows as Elisabeth, a sensible and rather ordinary woman, decides to help Jean Lino get away with the crime, despite sharing nothing more than a tentative friendship.
Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.
The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.
As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”
For the most part, The Librarian is a novel about a young man in quarter-life crisis named Alexei, who is thrust into the role of the fearless leader of a secret society that revolves around a collection of “magical” books.
Borrowing from many science fiction or fantasy novels, Mikhail Elizarov’s story, translated by Andrew Bromfield, begins with some world-building. In the tone of a dry, literary historian, the narrator relates the life of a fictional Soviet writer named Gromov. To the uninitiated reader, Gromov’s books are merely badly-penned propagandist fiction, in which “Good triumphed with excruciating regularity.” Under the right conditions, however, they cause readers to become enraptured, band together, and carry out alarming acts of violence. READ MORE…