Issue 23 Spring 2011


A few keys to understanding Spanish contemporary fiction, and five authors to—at least—enjoy it

Many essays and texts published by these (relatively) young authors created a necessary disruption in Spanish fiction’s most recent history. But problems came once these efforts changed from innovation to mere trendy gesture; that is, when their way of doing things became the rule and not the exception. In our literary market, this change in trend, combined with the recently published Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists list by Granta (which is devoid of names linked to the “Nocilla” literature) and, even more importantly, what we may call the power vacuum brought about by the lack of a leader of American fiction (in Spanish eyes) after the death of Infinite Jest’s author, brings about one question: Where do we look now? Where do we find new references?

“I run with the future ahead of me and the cops behind me”: A roundtable on Margarita Karapanou

There are writers who make you want to go back into writing. Karapanou makes you want to go back into living your life. She also belongs to this rare community of writers who work beyond influence; they are on their own. When I was in my twenties I tried to imitate my favorite writers, but with Karapanou it never worked. Her voice was so unique and what I wished for was just to listen to her voice. Her atmosphere influenced some of my stories but at that young age I always felt that I failed to create an atmosphere as extraordinary and magical as hers. As she doesn’t belong to a group of writers, her influence within Greek literature is difficult to be measured. I am afraid Greek literature looks always for ethnic characteristics, for more “Greekness” and Karapanou goes beyond Greekness. She is not at all interested in that stuff. Her Hydra is primarily a psychological landscape.

Notes Toward an Understanding of Thomas Bernhard

Bernhard’s novels move from the present to the past. There is an action, usually a suicide, that has happened before the novel begins. In The Loser it is the suicide of Wertheimer; in The Lime Works it is Konrad’s apparent brutal murder of his wife; in Woodcutters it is the suicide of the “movement-teacher” Joana; in Wittgenstein’s Nephew it is the death of Paul Wittgenstein; and in Concrete it is the continuing inability of Rudolf to write his treatise on Mendelssohn Bartholdy. By the time these novels have begun, all of these actions have already happened. What remains to Bernhard’s characters is to make some sort of sense of these actions, to provide a justification for the suicide, to explain their writers’ block, to seek out from all their relations with society, with history, with their own minds that have made this action somehow necessary or inevitable. They seek causes and try to discover in everything the logic that is dictating events.

Fictional History: The Irreverent Chronicles of Alfredo Iriarte

Alfredo Iriarte’s Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, a collection of biographies of nine Latin American dictators, is a text that refuses to be faithful to established institutions and ideologies. It resists and undermines mainstream historiography, and rebels against what Iriarte viewed as a whitewashing of barbarism and cruelty with glorious myths of national progress. Iriarte’s approach is both to emphasize horrific and grotesque moments in Latin American history, and to fictionalize history, abandoning strict historical accuracy and incorporating apocrypha and popular legends into the portraits, preferring literary qualities over stodgy factual precision.

In Translation

From Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles by Alfredo Iriarte

In Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, Colombian author Alfredo Iriarte wrote hilarious, grotesque biographies of nine Latin American dictators. The following chapter narrates the heartwarming tale of Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo and his equine sidekick Holofernes. A profile of Alfredo Iriarte can be found here in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


Language Death Night Outside: Poem.Novel by Peter Waterhouse

Originally published in German in 1989, Language Death Night Outside falls loosely into the tradition of Waterhouse’s fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s monologic novels full of disgust and fury at Austria and its wartime complicity, and also, in its melancholy, bears a resemblance to the novels of W. G. Sebald, who shared with Waterhouse an Anglo-German world. (Waterhouse was born of an Austrian mother and an English father, and grew up bilingual.)


Spurious cannot be reviewed like the books of so many dead authors, or even so many living ones. Lars Iyer is a blogger whose site is named Spurious, and now he has published a book named Spurious with a narrator named Lars. I am a blogger as well. We share some of the same tastes: Thomas Bernhard, Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Smog. Lars and I were both anonymous bloggers for a time. We did not want a public persona influencing our reader’s impressions of our work. Now we are not anonymous. I decided it was futile. Just ask Tao Lin. By signing up with Melville House, Tao Lin’s publisher, I gather Lars agrees.

Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

Writing with twenty-six years’ hindsight, Eisner reclassified his trilogy as a work of “literary comics,” and claimed among his forebears Lynd Ward, the illustrator, printing press impresario, and woodcutter whose own Depression-era work has been recently compiled in two volumes by the Library of America and deemed Six Novels in Woodcuts. The Library’s collection, described on its packaging as “The Collected Works of America’s First Graphic Novelist,” has been edited and introduced by Maus author Art Spiegelman, and accolades from other contemporary comics legends, including Eisner, adorn the books’ gorgeous Art-Deco dust jackets.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Visitation, Erpenbeck’s latest book, then provides an ideal protagonist: a house. Situated on a Brandenburg lake outside of Berlin, it serves less as a static object in Erpenbeck’s hands as it does a vessel onto which its generations of inhabitants write their own histories, inhabiting the house with a story of its own to be read. That story begins with a geological prologue of the glacier melt, which, millennia later, would result in the Brandenburg lakes. From there it picks up at a newly unified Germany of the 1890s and the wealthy farmer who presides over the land—and who ultimately parcels off tracts to be sold during the Weimar years to an architect and to a Jewish cloth manufacturer.

“A” by Louis Zukofsky

Zukofsky had the ear and brains to be the author of small exquisite lyrics. He might have been the Herrick of his time. Instead, the pretensions of literary Modernism, exemplified by the career of James Joyce and the encrypted longueurs of Finnegans Wake, seduced him into a private language. He sought not readers but annotators and acolytes, and he has found legions of them. Joyce suggested a reader ought to devote as much time to reading the Wake as he had spent writing it (seventeen years). Does anyone have forty-six years to spare for “A”?

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The novel takes the structure of what might be termed a “false” autobiography of the dictator, as imagined by Fuentes. (It is notable that the real Castro has written and published both the first volume of an autobiography covering his childhood and development as a revolutionary, as well as a “spoken autobiography” transcribed and organized by journalist Ignacio Ramonet.) Fuentes’s often violent descriptions of Castro’s mindset are beautifully composed, with a highly strung treatment of a life led under a seemingly unsustainable and unstable amount of pressure.

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger

Mirroring the image of Borromean rings that serves as the primary image for this debut novel, Funeral for a Dog intertwines three storylines. But to retell the plot of this novel just gets confusing—it isn’t a linear novel, and the real beauty of this book is in its tone and telling.

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry

On the strength of the introduction alone, I would recommend this anthology to any beginning student of international poetry or translation. It answered many of my rattling questions and primed me to be receptive to the poetry that follows. It is the editor’s wish that the range of voices collected here, “will allow us, in this somewhat unsettling time in Anglo American political history, to find the voice within that is strong and compelling, an instrument of poetry that—to rephrase Auden—is our chief means of breaking bread with the world.”

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

Weighing in at slightly over 600 pages, author Karen Tei Yamashita’s National Book Award-nominated I Hotel is an encyclopedic compilation of facts, personages, and allusions both common and obscure that could very well represent a turning point in Asian-American literature. A novel that took its author 10 years to write, I Hotel actually consists of ten “hotels”: loosely-associated novellas that detail the variegated strands of activism within San Francisco’s Asian-American community, circa 1968-1977. Yet such a description only hints at the obvious, surface-level aspects of the novel, while just underneath much more is going on.

Touch by Adania Shibli

Adania Shibli’s American debut is a visually striking composition of interconnected prose poem-like vignettes that follow a young girl living on the West Bank of Palestine. The novella’s short numbered sections, which comprise the larger chapters of the book (“colors,” “silence,” “movement,” “language,” and “the wall”), house intimate scenes imprinted with the events that lay just outside the girl’s immediate perspective—from the death of her brother to the violent political context. These surrounding events are so delicately incorporated into the girl’s perceptual realm that scenes often feel as if they were ekphrastically derived from a photograph or painting.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski

Bill Johnston’s deft translation of Myśliwski’s magnificent 1984 novel finally gives English-speaking readers access to one of Poland’s most talented and highly respected chroniclers of the twentieth century. Myśliwski, who has twice received his country’s most prestigious literary prize, the NIKE, is nowhere better than he is here: this is a glorious book, a life-affirming, world-affirming book, in which history is story, and the stories of its hero and narrator, Szymek Pietruszka, follow one upon another like stone upon stone, as in the folk song from which the title is taken. Stone upon stone, or the slow, patient work of the peasant upon the land. This slowness, and this patience, is the novel’s core.

The Art of Losing by Rebecca Connell

Like Daphne du Maurier’s classic of gothic froth, The Art of Losing involves a dead lover, a revenge plot, and lots of people running around at night in the rain. Connell’s book even indulges some flourishes a novel from the 1930s couldn’t, such as the subplot of long-lost half siblings beginning a sexual relationship days before discovering that they’re kin. It’s not the experience that seems in the offing, given the cover’s restrained and elegant cover art. But while Losing is indeed as tawdry as this all sounds, like Rebecca, it contains enough genuinely haunting material to make it impossible to dismiss as a complete trifle.

Dear Sandy, Hello: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan

Reading Dear Sandy, Hello, a new collection of Berrigan’s letters to his Sandy, we can see what an appropriate terminus date that was, because the stresses and influences that are so prevalent in these letters seem so readily a part of that turbulent decade. Time again, Berrigan inveighs against the forces that are keeping the couple apart: not only is it due to her parents’ dissatisfaction with the prospect of an unemployed poet as a son-in-law; it is also due to the repressive forces that the young of the period fought to overcome, as well as to a blindness toward truth: “This country is rotten from top to bottom, the system of government, the economic structure, the whole thing is rotten.”

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello’s collection of ten short stories, featuring lowdown behavior, familial bonds, skewed friendships, excess, violence, self-pity, and extravagant lying, conjures up the world, in Thomas Pynchon’s phrase, of a whole sick crew. Here they are chiefly comprised of women and gay men whose lives, in their particulars, share several contact points, making them seem like members of a large family who would always ruin Thanksgiving. Frangello presents a wasted (as in drugged, and not used to its potential) society that the author herself isn’t part of, as witnessed by her literary success.

Driven to Abstraction by Rosmarie Waldrop

These two passages present sufficient material to make us realize that Waldrop’s paragraphs obey much different principles that do prose paragraphs. They are not ruled by the laws of logic. Things move through intuition and the resonance of what came before, becoming a collage of concepts. There is no doubt in Waldrop’s paragraphs that this is a new form, sitting somewhere between poetry and prose (which often is not the case with prose poetry).

La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri

The Vita Nuova was never intended for a general audience. Rather, it was polished, circulated, and discussed mainly among that group of like-minded poets and select readers among the nobility. It was a deeply traditional work in is precepts and preoccupations, in its manner, but it’s also a trailblazing thing, written in Italian rather than Latin and turning regularly to gaze upon itself in a way scarcely any love poetry had since Catullus. Dante presents the reader first with the narrative setting of each poem, then with the poem itself, and then, remarkably, with his own section-by-section breakdown of the poem the reader just read. In Dante’s own time and circle, those breakdowns were part of a new, fresh kind of poetry discussion, absolutely thrilling to those participating in it.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Bakewell tells Montaigne’s story in an admirably brisk and entertaining fashion, focusing on anecdotes and themes rather than on thoroughness and strict chronology. This is not a biography for the Montaigne expert but rather for the general reader who wants to know more about the man or who has read and loved the essays.

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami

Born in 1958 in Tokyo, Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. She burst onto the scene in 1994 with her first short story which won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers. Her novel, Manazuru, was published in Japan in 2007. It tells the story of Kei, a middle-aged Tokyo mother trapped in the confines of a rhythmic, if slightly off-kilter, life.

Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican Republic

First, let me praise the project. There is comparatively little Dominican literature available in English that wasn’t written originally in English. The likes of Junot Diaz have wholly obscured the literary traditions they claim to belong to. Though to be fair, many South American literary traditions are relatively under-translated compared to the over-saturated interest in Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. But the Dominican Republic is perhaps the most overlooked. In fact, when I recently began translating a Dominican poet I was told by a Mexican painter “Oh, I didn’t know Dominicans had culture.” As far as I can tell, this is the only significant publication of contemporary Dominican literature in quite a long time in the United States. So bravo, Boa Editions, for taking the risk, and brava, Judith Kerman, for making the effort.

The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami

Hamid Farsi, arguably Damascus’ greatest calligrapher, returns home one night to discover that his beautiful wife, Noura, has vanished. A number of priceless texts containing the secrets of calligraphy have disappeared along with her. Farsi suspects wrongdoing—and accuses the wrong man. In his rage he murders this man and winds up in jail, spending the dying days of Shukri al-Quwatli’s reign completing lavish commissions for the ruler’s coterie of friends, allies, and business associates in exchange for preferential treatment. The calligrapher, arrogant, exacting, and ambitious, seeks to reform Arabic script in order to modernise the language and, hopefully, the culture.

Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

At 6PM on February 23rd, 1981, Lieutenant Coronel Tejero, accompanied by armed soldiers, entered Spain’s legislative assembly to overthrow the young democratic government. He failed. Instead, King Juan Carlos and President Aldolfo Suárez became heroes by defeating the coup and opening the path for Spain to become the modern democracy it is today. Or so goes the legend. For the Spanish writer Javier Cercas, who lived through the events of that night, it is dismaying to see them pass into legend, turning a complicated night full of intrigue and ambiguity into a triumphalist moment of Spanish history whose only legacy seems to be the annual televising of Tejero’s entrance into the Congress of Deputies. The 30 seconds of televised memory isn’t enough, what is needed is a thorough investigation, and Cercas’s answer is the genre-bending novel, The Anatomy of a Moment, which examines every facet of the night in detail—sometimes excruciating detail. The novelistic approach lets him question one of modern Spain’s founding myths, but also invites controversy; Anatomy was a sensation is Spain when it was published in 2009. Now English-language readers have a chance to see why.

Cormac McCarthy Full Coverage

Cormac McCarthy Full Coverage

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The Lydia Davis Symposium

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Full Coverage: Roberto Bolano

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