It’s difficult to find adjectives that will bear the full oddity of Mario Bellatín’s books. But it’s at least possible to say they are remarkably elastic—usually slim in size but containing a stretched-waistband world of absurd characters, uncanny scenarios, and endless transformations. In Bellatín’s accounts of reality, nothing remains what it is for very long, nothing is cataloged properly or fixed in place. Soon enough it shifts shape, or inverts. Male to female, fanged to toothless, indecent to prim, alive to dead; Central Europe becomes California, a beauty salon an aquarium and a hospice, a roadhouse an underground railroad for Jewish refugees.
The pieces of writing in the couplet of new essay collections by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and The Ghosts of Birds, though varying in their tactical scopes, share an overall strategic concern: no cultural labor is truly free from its source. This applies to translation as much as it applies to the manufacture of history. All of the antecedent things that evolve across the ether surrounding their precedents are forever tethered, although often by an invisible tissue of strange virtual possibility. Weinberger, with great sensitivity, explores the notion of that tissue just as much as the cultural objects it engenders.
This past June, in an essay (“Socks”) in the New York Review of Books, the writer Janet Malcolm, best known for her writing about psychoanalysis and her legal battles with the former director of the Freud Archives, added wood to discussions—some long burning, some more recently ignited—about the ideal approach to translation. Ever combative, Malcolm writes that “a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.” Most specifically, Malcolm claims that this couple’s, and Marian Schwartz’s, recent translations of Tolstoy are vastly inferior in approach and readability to the classic translations done by Constance Garnett a century ago.
Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.
As Flann O’Brien, he wrote two masterpieces: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman; a novel written in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), a sort of requiem in a whisper for a language on the verge of extinction, and for the last inhabitants who still speak it, descendants of warrior kings and talented poets, degraded to a condition in which the difference between their life and that of pigs whose breeding sustained them was scarcely perceptible; as well as two minor novels written in his waning years, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, and the play Faustus Kelley. He was a personality with three faces: a public functionary, an avant-garde novelist known only by a tiny handful of enthusiasts, and the author a popular column in Dublin’s most important newspaper. Journalism ended up invading his creative faculties, by making him famous and unhappy, by turning him into a creation of his pseudonym.
We’re all familiar with unreliable narrators, those first-person storytellers whose words we are not sure we can trust. In The Invisibility Cloak, Ge Fei takes this to the next level: he gives us an unreliable narrator in an unreliable career struggling with unreliable characters in an unreliable country. What is reliable in The Invisibility Cloak is the translation. This is Canaan Morse’s first full-length novel, but he is one of a new generation of ambitious translators who are redefining standards of quality in writing English without sacrificing accuracy in treating the Chinese.
In Jung Young Moon’s novel Vaseline Buddha, the narrator lurks in every one of its paragraphs, constantly disrupting the flow of his own narrative whenever it shows a hint of becoming a full-fledged story. “Free-wheeling” might be too modest a phrase to capture the excess of freedom the narrator exhibits in his chaotic romp. Jung has taken the wheel of narrative from his book and hid it, or perhaps he has destroyed it. His carriage will never get the reader from point A to point B. Our trickster guide will teleport his visitor through broken images in an elliptical dance around what is beyond language. To borrow Wallace Stevens’ line, Jung frolics through the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The 2013 publication of Martutene earned Ramón Saizarbitoria his second Euskadi Literature Prize and helped to cement his status as one of the patriarchs of Basque literature. A grand and audacious novel, Martutene is just over 800 pages and presents a nuanced perspective of the contemporary Basque experience. History, politics, language, and culture ripple through the characters’ daily interactions. Saizarbitoria dramatizes the best and worst of the contemporary Basque experience—national pride and cultural intolerance, as well as gastronomy and terrorism.
For those familiar with canonical texts of Haitian literature, the translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel La Danse sur le volcan into English is a long time coming. Vieux-Chauvet is a key figure of Caribbean literature, known for interlacing charged subjects such as slavery, colonialism, erotic desire, racial injustice, and the influence of Vodou in Haiti, and it is surprising that, until now, only her famous trilogy of novellas Amour, colère et folie—originally published by Gallimard in 1968 with the support of Simone de Beauvoir—has been translated. From a writer whose most frequent subject is the psyche of Haitian women during violent and politically charged moments of Haiti’s history—she herself fled the Duvalier régime after the publication of her trilogy—Dance on the Volcano is an intimate rendering of the Haitian Revolution and a nuanced portrayal of the brutality that resonated across all realms of society in the colony of Saint Domingue at the turn of the 19th century.
In the novel The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane, fidelity is not scarce but actually in abundance. The reader just has to broaden their definition of what being faithful is, especially when the author puts it to the test in a story where five women realize that they all have been married to the same husband. This renewed concept of fidelity will have little to do with blind obedience because by the end of the story the women begin to have more faith in their own abilities to acquire work, new relationships, and independence on their own terms.
Colonel Lágrimas is ambitious and something to remember. It tells the story of a hermit attempting to cipher the monstrosity that is 20th-century history into an intimate code. The novel is an exploration of obsession, genius, madness, and of the futility of historical meaning in the face of a past in ruins and the gargantuan archive that remains. Loosely basing his novel on the life of the great mathematician Alexander Grothendiek, Fonseca takes advantage of that biographical silence that was Grothendiek´s final decades. Colonel Lágrimas fills this biographical void with a bursting yet elegant flight of crazed and creative power.
There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.
Because he prizes concept over medium, I would argue that Yoshimasu is an artist before a poet. If a project needs to be visual, he is a photographer and filmmaker, as in gozoCiné, ethereal short films that mix sound, music, and spoken word with shaky, sometimes filtered images. If the concept requires an aural element, he’s a musician and chanter with what has been called “a unique ‘vocalization’ recitation style, which relies upon a highly rhythmic delivery and intense vocal modulations.” If the concept requires language, he is a poet, but even then he is not limited to one language, or even to language at all.
As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered. The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor.
It has taken a while for Szabó’s work to see the light of day. Her first novel in English translation, The Door, published by Columbia University Press in 1995 did not cause much of a stir. It wasn’t until the success of Len Rix’s retranslation of The Door ten years later with publisher NYRB Classics that she started to see some success. Whether this was due to the merits of the new translation, the marketing skills of the publishers, or just down to the whims of fortune, Szabó is finally having her moment in the English-Speaking world. Previously Szabó has been popular in German translation, and in her native Hungary she is considered one of the major writers (although even the Hungarians had to wait until after the Stalinist era, when the ban on publishing her books was finally lifted). Now with the U.S. arrival of Iza’s Ballad, in George Szirtes’s crisp, polished translation, American readers are starting to see that The Door was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage has been a cult classic in Brazil since its publication in the late 1970s, but was not published in English until last year. From the first page, which opens in media res, it is apparent why Nassar has achieved such renown in his homeland, despite only publishing two novels before retreating from public life: his prose moves with a violence, vitality, and sexual energy that burns like a splash of acid. At only 45 pages, it barely meets the expectations of “novel,” yet the experience and reward of reading it are equal to that of a much longer fiction. Constructed of seven one-sentence chapters and anchored by a vitriolic, brutal center-piece, A Cup of Rage is a book to be read in the span of a single sitting—even if its density conspires against that.
In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett writes a dual biography of monumental figures in the artworld, a book that feels comprehensive but that only requires under 300 pages (30 of which are notes). We get to know both the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the sculptor Auguste Rodin as persons and artists, as Corbett relates their marriages, major works, and personal crises. To add new dimension to these biographies, she illuminates how their relationship is at the heart of Rilke’s most famous book in the U.S., Letters to a Young Poet. So framing their story presents and questions the advice Rilke gives about the artistic life, its sacrifices and burdens, and its implications for love, marriage, and family life. Corbett also traces significant ideas about the new science of psychology, turn-of-the-century Europe, and artistic developments.
• Issue 43: Spring 2016
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• Issue 25: Fall 2011
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• Issue 17: Fall 2009
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