In September, we were honored to present Theodor Kallifatides’s The Siege of Troy as our monthly Book Club feature. This poignant, multilayered novel intertwines a modern coming-of-age wartime story with a psychologically profound retelling of the classic Iliad. In the following interview, Assistant Managing Editor Josefina Massot speaks with the author on overcoming writer’s block, writing about Greece in a foreign land and tongue, and humanizing ancient heroes.
Josefina Massot (JM): You had an unexpected bout of writer’s block at age seventy-seven, back in 2015, after almost fifty years of uninterrupted literary output. The Siege of Troy was, I believe, the first novel you wrote once you overcame it. Did your writing process change at all as a result? What was it like, rediscovering your narrative voice in novel form?
Theodor Kallifatides (TK): Yes, it affected me and my writing greatly. I felt free from all expectations, from all demands from the publisher, the public, and myself, and my writing got wings it never had before. I did not care about anything except doing justice to my deepest feelings and ideas. I got back both my eyes. Before it, I always had—as most writers do, I dare say—an eye on what people would think about my work. Suddenly, I simply did not care. I was free. READ MORE…
Contemporary writers have continually found original ways to tell enduring stories, as demonstrated masterfully in our September Book Club selection, The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides. By weaving the retelling of a classic myth with a World War II-era bildungsroman, this stirring novel simultaneously enlivens The Iliad while delivering a potent and poetic demonstration of war’s senselessness. Psychologically probing and structurally unique, The Siege of Troy is a thoroughly modern work that proves why we return again and again to timeless themes—there is always something new to be found there.
The Asymptote Book Club aspires to bring the best in translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. You can sign up to receive next month’s selection on our website for as little as USD15 per book; once you’re a member, you can join the online discussion on our Facebook page.
The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallifatides, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019
No matter how many stories we’ve heard about love, war, and growing up, they never fail to reach our hearts in the specificity of our own place and moment. This is the simple, poignant premise of Theodor Kallifatides’s The Siege of Troy, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, which sets an adolescent boy’s coming-of-age story against a selective retelling of The Iliad.
A Greek immigrant to Sweden, Kallifatides grew up during the German occupation of Greece, and his nameless protagonist emerges sweetly and painfully into his early manhood under the same conditions. The war is nearing its end; though both the occupiers and the occupied are exhausted, tensions continue to surge and survival is far from guaranteed. During regular air raids, the protagonist’s teacher recites The Iliad from memory to her class while they all take shelter in a cave. READ MORE…
It is another month bringing us various gifts in the form of translated literatures, and our editors have selected the finest. Read below to find reviews of a short story collection detailing the various and complex natures of India, a haunting and poignant Swedish novel, unsettling tales from Israel, and a poignantly feminist work from Palestine.
A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi), translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Archipelago Books, 2019
Review by Ben Dreith, Assistant Editor
C.S. Lakshmi, who writes in English and Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai, is a scion of post-revolutionary Indian feminism and women’s studies researcher who was raised and educated in Mumbai, Bangalore, and New Delhi. Of her work, the most recent to appear in English is A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, a mellifluous and courageous work translated by Lakshmi Holström, a dedicated scholar who passed away in 2016. She will be missed, and her efforts, evident in the enduring legacy and themes of A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, may inform the concerns of Indian feminism in the English-speaking world for generations.
The book is a collection of stories, told from multiple voices and perspectives, which centers on the travails and aspirations of women across a broad socio-economic and linguistic spectrum. The voices in A Kitchen in the Corner of the House reflect the varied cultural expectations and norms that simultaneously thrive and jostle for distinction within the Indian nation, which can be too easily regarded as a seamless whole by outside observers. What unites the characters in the stories, though, is a keen sense of subjective solidarity amongst women who are draped in desperation—and hope.
For the last two weeks, we presented the nonfiction and fiction winners of our annual Close Approximations translation contest, picked by Margaret Jull Costa and Ottilie Mulzet respectively. This week, we present the poetry winners: Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg and her co-translator Kelsi Vanada for their rendition of Silkeberg’s rapid-fire prose poetry, presented in squares, after the black squares of Malevich. Judge Michael Hofmann, one of the six most esteemed literary translators working today according to The Wall Street Journal, whittled his selection down to five entries. “Thereafter, things might have gone differently, all my choices were so incomparably dissimilar. In the end, I asked myself what poems would I most like to see published, to read a book of, to live with and deepen my understanding of, and that gave me my winner.”
—The editors at Asymptote
said his name. to whom. why. a crossing point. a home. army hotel. attachment building zone. adoptions. Hanoi. soldiers. infants. storm’s coming. we were at the red river. saw a wholly naked bleeding man wrapped in blue plastic. two policemen followed him. humidity rises. after the rain. storm now over Ha Long Bay. literature’s temple. the black space he falls into. rain falls over the streets. people wander in large plastic sheets. hurry. a Chinese man. or Vietnamese. wide round eyes. when I turn around we look each other in the eye. a glance. a glancing moment. double stage. the actors laugh. at our naiveté. examine how it feels. to be able to feel such confidence. to tell a sad story about a family in peacetime. in the morning. in half-sleep. in precisely his eyes. it is raining. I had no luck finding any cigarettes. dial 209 he says. to order. is not the heart the organ of repetition writes M. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. do you lose. or find. so many people everywhere. at each task. in clusters. taxi drivers waiters flower vendors. high humidity. the seven eight month-old children. the expectant parents. how does it sound. she asks the Vietnamese actors. the village you come from. big clusters. flocks of mopeds move among each other. rush between the cars. rapid movements of sadness tenderness run over her face. one pillar pagoda. disgust and pleasure. desire and anger. delta. the black square. darkness. at six o’clock already. begins to fall READ MORE…