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:
This week, we present a darkly funny short story in which an important dinner party is hijacked by a gang of malevolent chairs. Written by Jonathan Minila and translated from the Spanish by Will Stockton, “The Attack of the Living Chairs” is both an absurdist romp and a mocking portrait of Mexico’s ruling class.
The chairs revealed themselves as soon as we crossed into the dining room. They drew back to the wall and surrounded us as we approached the table.
The women screamed. We did, too. The guest of honor—the President’s wife—swooned and fainted. I served as the home’s proprietor, and something had to be done.
I tried to pick her up, feeling ridiculous, disgusted to touch a woman with so much fat on her arms and such a formidable mustache. Still, everyone hoped I would find a solution.
My wife seemed to have been rendered speechless. The others, too. No one moved. Only me, who struggled to lift this influential fat woman.
Join us on this edition of What’s New in Translation to find out more about four new novels, from Amsterdam, Colombia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.
Childhood by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2018
Reviewed by Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor
The narrators in Gerard Reve’s Childhood are at that credulous stage of youth where hazy moral lines are easily trespassed, where curiosity and cruelty often intersect. All of Reve’s usual themes are here: taboo sexualities, the illusion of moral categories, the delicate balancing acts that prevent erotic love from teetering into violence. But the two novellas in Childhood transgress in unexpected ways, insofar as children’s very inexperience puts them outside the sphere of sin.
The first novella, Werther Nieland, is told by a boy named Elmer, who bounces between friends’ houses and other neighborhood locales, and whose longing to form a secret club is less a wish than an absolute necessity. After feeling an affinity for local boy Werther Nieland, he decides: “There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.” Why exactly Elmer is attracted to Werther never really gets explained. More confusing is the fact that as early as their first meeting Elmer feels the urge to abuse him.
Across the China Sea explores an unconventional family in rural Norway coming together during the weakening German occupation of the country. A review by Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter.
It begins with the discovery of a contract, but Gaute Heivoll’s Across the China Sea, translated by Nadia Christensen, is ultimately the story of a community that generously insists on inclusion over exclusion. First published in Norwegian in 2013 and recently released by Graywolf in Nadia Christensen’s consistently elegant translation, this novel is Heivoll’s second to appear in English after Before I Burn, a partly autobiographical work that explores an incident of arson. In Across the China Sea, however, loss assumes a rather different form—one less concerned with spectacle and more attuned to the small gestures that often make all the difference.
A young family moves from Oslo to a small town near the coast in order to start anew. They’ve come not to flee the city but to build a better version of something they already understand: an asylum. The parents—both of whom are trained nurses—decide their newly-built house can accommodate more than just biological children. Soon afterward, in addition to caring for three grown men, they take in five siblings the state had taken away from mentally unfit parents. At this new home, the children, who are also variously disabled, live in a fully furnished attic, yet they’re hardly out of sight or mind. They begin to interact with other members of this curious collective, including the narrator and his younger sister—the only two members of the household biologically linked to the nurses.
Bonds, in other words, are not limited by blood, and an early tragedy not only puts that belief to the test but also brings into sharper relief the contours of this unusual community nestled into the Norwegian countryside. Any separation between the groups of children is rendered meaningless at a time when comfort cannot be sought selectively. Indeed, the delicate balance proves resilient enough to deal with another loss that, while only temporary, still takes an emotional toll. Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined, exhibiting a link that their etymological affinity can only begin to capture. READ MORE…