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.
In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.
In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.
Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?
The Moravian Night by Peter Handke, tr. Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review: Laura Garmeson, Assistant Copyeditor
Not long after midnight, with wintry constellations etched across the Serbian sky, a group of six or seven men make their way through the darkness from various nearby villages to approach the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube. They have been summoned by the owner of a houseboat moored by the riverbank, guided by its neon sign blazing the boat’s name: “Moravian Night”. Once on board, they are greeted by a man who was formerly a well-known writer. He extinguishes the glowing sign, calls for silence, and begins to tell the listeners his story.
So begins The Moravian Night, the latest shimmering, introspective novel to appear in English from the renowned Austrian author Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Handke is no stranger to controversy, with his support for Serbia’s Milošević in the 1990s provoking widespread outrage, and the alchemy of this work seems to draw from the political life and writing life of its author. Employing cameo appearances of characters from previous Handke novels and plot points about the fallout of Central European projects and failed Balkan states, Handke toys with reality, as he sees it, through the cracked lens of fiction.
The resulting book, which on the surface is the story of the nameless writer’s journey across Europe from east to west, is really a travelogue of the mind. This obscured narrator travels through the Balkans, Spain, and Germany, retraces his own steps from previous decades, and reencounters figures who were once figments of memory: “the longer he walked the more he fell into his previous footsteps, footsteps of air”. The parallels to One Thousand and One Nights are established in the book’s first scene, and continue with the same undercurrent of danger and threat of death that forced Scheherazade’s stories into being. The narrator seems impelled by the same threat in the dark on board the Moravian Night. Storytelling here is the antithesis of death – the recreation of a life – and a disrupter of time.
Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit.
Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:
PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.
Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.
Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness, tr. Philip Roughton. Archipelago Books.
Review: Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-large, Australia
The process of reading literature in translation is to dip into the perennial pool: possible meanings are compounded by language, we splash and struggle and only when we begin to get on our feet do we realise how much deeper and longer the cave goes. Often great writers see only a tiny fraction of their oeuvre translated for a wider audience—as a reader, we must play a game of guessing the size and shape and clarity of the submerged iceberg from only its superficial crown. Not to mention the person we all know who constantly admonishes us that if we had only read the original…
Iceland’s Halldór Laxness falls into this lamentable category, with the majority of his collection of stories, essays, novels (including a four-volume memoir), plays and poetry frozen in time to all bar those with a blue tongue. Published in Iceland in 1952 as Gerpla, The Happy Warriors was the title of the original, sparsely recognised English translation, though it contributed to his body of work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.
Limbo Beirut, by Hilal Chouman, tr. Anna Ziajka Stanton. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. Review: Claire Pershan, Assistant Director, Educational Arm
Beirut is a city of collisions. Bad drivers, sudden friendships, graffiti in a mess of languages. And yet, when enough chaos collides, it produces its own order—the way a sprawling city looks from far away.
This is the effect of Hilal Chouman’s latest novel, Limbo Beirut, recently translated from Arabic into English by Anna Ziajka Stanton, and published by University of Texas Press. Chouman’s novel fills the space between history and memory. Six narrative chapters document the fighting that broke out in the city in May of 2008, as it was experienced by the city’s residents. These clashes, between Hezbollah and pro-Syrian militias on one side, and members of the Sunni-supported Future Movement on the other, didn’t gain much attention from western media, but for the Lebanese people, they were a frightening echo of the Civil War that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990.
Night Sky Checkerboard by Oh Sae-young (Phoneme Media), translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé. Review: Theophilus Kwek, Executive Assistant
More than three decades after arriving in Korea, and two decades into a rewarding career in translation, Brother Anthony has crafted yet another elegant and necessary rendition of contemporary Korean verse: his first collaboration with Oh Sae-young, and only the second full-length volume of the latter’s poetry in English translation. This book provides timely insight to a prolific artist whose work, in the words of fellow poet Ko Un, is suffused with a “thirst for the universe beyond the generations.” READ MORE…
Michal Ajvaz, Empty Streets (Dalkey Archive). Translated by Andrew Oakland—review by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Contributing Editor
Empty Streets, originally published in Czech in 2004, sets its writer-protagonist out on a search for a missing woman. However, in typical Ajvaz fashion, the quest begins as a search for a mysterious symbol. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator stumbles, literally, on a double trident, a three-foot-long object that pierces his foot while he’s walking through a dump. This kicks off a sequence reminiscent of “This is the house that Jack built”: a double-trident logo appears a few days later when the narrator is using his friend’s computer; the friend tells the story of spotting the symbol in a mysterious painting; the owner of the painting, an elderly literary professor, tells him about the work of art and also adds a story about the disappearance of his daughter, whom he asks the narrator to find; the search takes him to the painter, who tells the narrator a story about . . . and so on, from one playful and inventive twist to the next, through 14 stories over the course of 470 pages.
In keeping with the novel’s sense of abundance, the prose brims with sensory experience in passages that translator Andrew Oakland renders with delicacy and precision. Notably, Oakland also leaves room for the narrator’s lack of precision, in instances like the “strange fragrance, one that is terribly difficult to describe” which he says has “several components including the scent of roses and the sharp smell of steel.” Similarly, when describing sound, the narrator says he “unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed that was scratching, something crumbling”—all noises that “might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.”
But most pervasive are images of light and shadow, such as the observation of a sunset descending on the city, leaving only the upper-floor balconies in sunlight: “I had the feeling I was looking up at a distant shore from the bottom of a deep lake whose waters were crystal-clear.” READ MORE…
Mario Bellatin, The Large Glass (Eyewear Publishing, February 2016, United Kingdom and Phoneme Media, January 2016, United States). Translated by David Shook—review by Alice Inggs, Editor-at-large, South Africa
Can a life be expressed in a single narrative, or a single form; can it be confined to a single genre? Mario Bellatin’s experimental autobiography (or is it autobiographies?), The Large Glass, employs three different ways of writing a life, challenging the accepted idea of what constitutes biography, and therefore self-expression.
This is not the first time Bellatin has engaged with the genre. His 2013 novel, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, is a satirical biography of a fictional Japanese author, which includes excerpts, photographs and a bibliography. As critic Diana Palaversich explains, “With Bellatin you are never on solid ground”.
The Large Glass is non-linear, and at times almost nonsensical, rendering memory as character. Bellatin’s style has been described as hewing closer to that of avant-garde filmmakers—Lynch, Cronenberg—than anything literary. This brand of inscrutability or opacity—inherent in all three sections of The Large Glass—means that to distil meaning from Bellatin’s work it is necessary to rely on aspects of the author’s “objective” biography. This has something of a Lazarus Effect on Barthes’s dead author. But to what end?
The Large Glass magnifies those fundamental philosophical questions: Are we the same person throughout our lives? How do experiences and the manner in which we experience them and remember experiencing them shape our understanding of ourselves? How do these memories fit into the narrative of a life? Does a life have a single narrative? Bellatin seems determined to “reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’” READ MORE…
Carlos Velázquez, The Cowboy Bible (Restless Books, January 2016). Translated by Achy Obejas—review by Selina Aragón, Spanish Social Media Manager
The Cowboy Bible (La Biblia Vaquera) is Carlos Velazquez’ second book, which contains two fictional and three nonfictional stories, plus two neither-fiction-nor-nonfiction texts and two epilogues. They are all set in the land of PopSTock!, for which there is a map at the beginning of the book.
The Cowboy Bible is also a character that metamorphoses into other characters (The Western Bible, The Cowgirl Bible, etc.) who live and act in different times and spaces but share the same talent for entering the dark alleyways of life. Despite their morally questionable actions, wrestlers, drunkards, DJs, street-food sellers, whose “legendary” deeds go from writing songs about drug dealers to crowning a Queen of Piracy in reality shows, become underground heroes equivalent to Mexican popular culture icons:
“I went dressed as a Cartesian seminarist. As soon as the guy in charge of composing the soundtrack to reflect the wrestling audience’s passions saw me take a step forward the ring, he put on a song by the great Sonora Dinamita.”
Mark Kongstad, Am I Cold (Serpent’s Tail, November 2015). Translated by Martin Aitken—review by Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-Large Australia
Am I Cold throws you into a world of hedonism and extravagance. It is Danish author Martin Kongstad’s first novel to appear in English, and his second body of fiction after 2009’s short story collection Han Danser På Sin Søns Grav (He Dances on his Son’s Grave). The story follows Mikkel Vallin, a recently-divorced, recently-unemployed writer who—toeing the line between unreliable narrator and protagonist—takes the reader through the moonlit halls of Copenhagen’s artistic elite as he attempts to find existential clarity through a lens of sex, alcohol and debauchery. Loosely held together through Mikkel’s polemic, endeavoring to destroy “coupledom” and the trappings of monogamy, the novel endures in a pre-2008 micro bubble of Denmark and seductively draws you into a chilling, often hilarious world that somehow exists in spite of itself.
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodreda, tr. Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent (Open Letter Books)—reviewed by Sam Carter, assistant managing editor
“The sleep of reason produces monsters,” reads one of the epigraphs to Mercè Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra, now available in English as War, So Much War from Open Letter Press. Drawn from the title of a famous Goya etching, it is a fitting prelude to a work that explores the ravages of war from a pseudo-picaresque perspective in which we find ourselves face-to-face with a narrator coming to terms with the unnerving and unending monstrosity of war, rather than encountering a delinquent carefully crafting a tale of struggle and self-justification. Even if this conflict initially resembles the Spanish Civil War, in his narration, protagonist Adrià Guinart insists on an ambiguity permeating all levels of the work and suggesting the plausibility of less localized interpretations.
In sparse prose, crisply translated by both Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent, Adrià recounts his interactions with the figures he meets throughout a journey that begins with an enthusiasm for the escapist possibilities of war and yet ends on entirely different note. His own narrative “I” proves elusive as it frequently disappears into a chorus of other voices that dominate the task of depicting a war-torn landscape. Describing the novel’s structure with another of its epigraphs—“A great ravel of flights from nothing to nothing,” from D. H. Lawrence—is ultimately too tempting to pass up, for it is precisely in its itinerant quality, in the way it moves from one episode to another without the need to establish definitive links, that the novel finds its strength. READ MORE…
Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus (Oneworld Publishers, October 2015). Translated by Lisa C. Hayden—review by Beau Lowenstern, Editor-at-Large Australia
Laurus, the second novel by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin (after Solovyov and Larionov, due to appear in English in 2016), is in one breath, a timeless epic, trekking the well-trodden fields of faith, love, and the infinite depth of loss and search for meaning. In another, it is pointed, touching, and at times humorous, unpredictably straying from the path and leading readers along a wild chase through time, language, and medieval Europe. Winner of both the National Big Book Prize (Russia) and the Yasnaya Polyana Award, Vodolazkin’s experimental style envelopes the reader, drawing them into a world far from their own, yet indescribably intimate.
Spanning late fifteenth-century Russia to early twentieth-century Italy, the novel recounts the multiple lives (or stages of life) of a saint and the story of his becoming. Born Arseny in 1440, he is raised by his grandfather after his parents die from the plague that torments much of Russia and Europe. Recognising the boy’s gift for healing, his grandfather instills in him knowledge of healing and herbalism. Arseny aids the pestilence-stricken villagers, yet his powers of healing are overshadowed by his helplessness in preventing his grandfather’s death, as well as the passing of his beloved Ustina. Abandoning his village, past and namesake, Arseny begins a voyage that will transcend country and identity. Kaleidoscopic in his language and reach, Vodolazkin takes us on a journey of discovery and absolution, threaded together through the various, often mystical lives of Arseny as a healer, husband, holy fool, pilgrim and hermit. READ MORE…