I had read Five Spice Street—one of the most original novels I’ve ever come across—by Can Xue, so I knew what to expect when I opened Vertical Motion.I had read Five Spice Street—one of the most original novels I’ve ever come across—by Can Xue, so I knew what to expect when I opened Vertical Motion. The latter is a rather eclectic collection, from the title story, written in a dry, impersonal tone, in the voice of a “little critter” that lives deep under the earth, to more emotionally-colored stories, such as “Cotton Candy,” in which a child, fascinated with a cotton-candy machine, daydreams about being a vendor.
This collection, although less captivating than Five Spice Street, confirmed my impression that Can Xue is one of the most interesting contemporary world writers. Several months later, the power of her novel is undiminished: I am still thinking about it, in spite of a less-than-average translation (which makes it all the more impressive). Surprisingly, Vertical Motion, which has been translated by the same team, is quite a good translation. I am not sure how to explain this: a better editor, more revisions, or simply the fact that the translators are now more experienced? ...more
The Moon over the Mountain by Atsushi Nakajima (Trans. from the Japanese by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner, Autumn Hill Books, 2011)
You may be as surThe Moon over the Mountain by Atsushi Nakajima (Trans. from the Japanese by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner, Autumn Hill Books, 2011)
You may be as surprised as I was to find out that stories on classical Chinese topics are a special literary genre in Japan, and their writers enjoy great respect. Atsushi Nakajima is one such writer. Although he died young and published almost nothing during his lifetime, he became very popular after his death in 1942.
The recurrent characters in many of the stories in this collection are representations of famous Chinese historical characters from eras going as far back as the eighth century. Readers somewhat familiar with Chinese classical tales may recognize some of the names and some of the events narrated.
Three stories, in particular, have stayed with me: “The Moon over the Mountain,” in which an unsuccessful poet who keeps complaining about his unhappy fate is turned into a tiger; “The Master,” in which an archer, after having studied this art with two great masters, achieves perfection only when he understands that “Perfect action lies in inaction, perfect speech abandons words, and perfect archery means never shooting;” and “The Disciple,” which tells the story of a disciple of Confucius. For those of us who don’t know much about the latter (whose Chinese name was, apparently, Kong Qiu), the story skillfully presents the life and philosophy of this world-famous man through a captivating narrative. I now understand why it is said that his philosophy is pragmatic: whether he served the rich and powerful (for a while he was a minister) or wandered aimlessly in relative poverty together with his disciples, he tried to do good, but never in an idealistic way. In extreme situations, he always advised his disciples to save their own skin rather than sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. In today’s parlance, he would be called a “realist.”
Last but not least, this is, as far as I can tell, a very good translation. My only objection is that, occasionally, it sounds too contemporary. ...more
Jonathan Tel lives in both Beijing and New York, and, if one is to believe his bio note, he has worked as a quantum physicist and an opera librettist.Jonathan Tel lives in both Beijing and New York, and, if one is to believe his bio note, he has worked as a quantum physicist and an opera librettist. I am a little skeptical simply because the tone and style of the book are those of someone who could make up his bio. On the other hand, Tel’s writing is so different than that of his American (MFA-ized) contemporaries that maybe he is telling the truth.
The Beijing of Possibilities is one of the wittiest books by an American writer I’ve read in a while. The writing often sounds journalistic (if this were a film, I would say “like a documentary”): few adjectives and apparently simple sentences, but which delve into the described reality in an immediate way (that is, a way that sounds un-mediated, raw and honest); but this narrative approach sometimes takes unexpected turns and veers toward the fairy tale mode or the allegoric-fantastic. I can tell that Jonathan Tel lives in two parallel worlds because the structure of his stories is often “bipolar”: he would start with a story about ancient China, and then move to a story about contemporary China. Little by little the reader realizes that the two are different versions of the same story.
Because of his unusual approach to storytelling, Jonathan Tel has been compared to Sebald and Calvino, but, frankly, I don’t see many parallels, except for the photographs inserted in some of the stories. Personally, I think he is a very original writer, and I am at a loss regarding a possible comparison (which is impressive: how many writers do you know who don’t write like anyone else?)
Whether you are looking for an intelligent book of fiction, or a book on cotemporary China, The Beijing of Possibilities is a great read: as in many places undergoing profound transformations, contemporary Chinese reality is sometimes more surreal than fiction (I’ll only mention the Gorilla man, i.e., a man dressed as a gorilla, whose job is to sing celebratory songs on special occasions to office employees all across the city). ...more
Having read Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear, I knew I was in for a treat when I bought An Ermine in Czernopol. Like his other books, this one too is largely autobiographical, though it is written as if it were a novel. No doubt, for the sophisticated Rezzori, the current distinctions between “memoir” and “fiction” would have been laughable. In fact, in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the narrator states that he doesn’t differentiate between reality and fiction, and often mixes things from other people’s lives with his own. The unspecified genre of An Ermine in Czernopol is part of its originality, and not simply because it mixes memoir and fiction, but because of the way it does so: written in an apparently shapeless way, the narrative seems to be nothing more than the writer’s random memories. For example, when he introduces a character and sketches the role (s)he will play in the story, he also tells us how that character will end. He is not concerned at all with what passes for one of the main rules of storytelling, suspense. At a closer look, however, it becomes clear that the each chapter is centered on a specific character. The shapelessness is only an illusion created by the author, who instead of unspooling a single thread has constructed his story in many layers.
Like Rezzori’s other books, An Ermine in Czernopol is set in his native province of Bucovina. Bucovina had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 (a few years after Rezzori’s birth) when it was added to Romania, and it now belongs to Ukraine. The portraits Rezzori draws of the particular species of individuals living in the province of Bucovina in the 1920s are the best representation of his genius. Having lived in Romania—albeit at a very different historical time—I can testify that this species, for which wit was at the top of hierarchical values and “lowliness was never a fault,” is not simply a fantastical creation of a writer with great imagination: it does exist. However, the amazing world of Czernopol—with its mixture of Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Russians, Gypsies, Romanians, and other ethnicities that are now extinguished, such as the Ruthens (most of them peasants who lived in a very traditional way)—has disappeared. Czernopol is a barely veiled version of Cernautzi (its Romanian name—Cernivtsi in Ukrainian, Chernovtsy in Russian and Czernowitz in German and Yiddish). In fact, in one instance the writer slips and calls the city by its real name. The city is brought to life with a descriptive power unequaled in anything else I’ve read.
The main character here being the city itself, the “plot” of the “story” is almost irrelevant. But there is a plot, which is narrated in the voice of a child (presumably, young Rezzori), though the voice doesn’t have the “innocence” one usually associates with childhood, but rather the wisdom and knowledge of adulthood. The child gains this knowledge in a series of narrations by other characters with whom he comes in contact. The pronoun used by Rezzori is “we”—a curious choice, which sometimes includes the narrator’s sister, Tanya, but at other times is hard to explain. Who is “we”? Its usage is reminiscent of the French impersonal pronoun on, which often appears in Proust (with whom Rezzori has much in common). Like Proust, Rezzori often starts a sentence by describing the feeling of his protagonist, and then turns it into a generalization about human beings. The grammatical shift (to “we” or on) allows the story to move from the particular to the universal, and thus to acquire the power of myth. What could be called the book’s plot is what the child hears and patches together from the adults around him. Tildy, a major of Hungarian (and possibly German) origin, who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army and is now enlisted in the nationalist Romanian army, is the main character. He is the symbol of the now defunct Empire, but also of a system of values that are absent in Czernopol: honor and a high sense of justice. He also happens to be the ideal physical representation of what today we would call a role model for the child-narrator. A handsome, mysterious hussar, Tildy always acts in accordance with an aristocratic code of values for which the city of Czernopol, which only values wit and laughter, has no use.
The underlying social and historical context may be difficult for an American reader to understand because of the complicated ethnic relations in the Bucovina of that era. To oversimplify, Tildy is to a large extent the victim of Romanian nationalism. But, like all heroes, he is also the victim of something that belongs only to him (call it “greatness”) and sets him apart from the society in which he lives. Married to Tamara, a woman just as enigmatic as he, and who suffers, apparently, from a combination of depression and drug abuse, he challenges to a duel a series of Romanians who have insulted both his wife and sister-in-law. The latter is another fascinating character, a beautiful woman who, in spite of being married, is extremely “generous” to all the males in town. For defending the honor of these women, to the people of Czernopol Major Tildy is a fool without a sense of humor. To the narrator Tildy is a character from a vanished world who, in a town like Czernopol, can only meet a tragic end.
The final chapter, “Love and Death of the Ermine,” is masterly in the way it shows Tildy’s demise not as heroic but as pure grotesque. In a city in which the conflict between the hero and the others is a conflict between two systems of a different nature (justice, an ethical value, and wit, an esthetic value), the result can only be grotesque. And the only way the tragic could manifest itself in an amoral city (that is, a city that opposes to the idea of justice the idea of wit) is through the grotesque.
The chapter takes place in a cheap dive with the pretentious and ridiculous name “Etablissement Mon Repos.” Here, Major Tildy and his brother-in-law (a former Professor of Latin who is an alcoholic) drown their sorrows in the company of a young prostitute, Mititika (“the Little One”). The description of this prostitute, the mixture of cheapness and vulgarity but also of beauty and innocence, and of her interaction with Tildy is extraordinary. They fall in love, but this love is as grotesque as its setting. In the morning, as they walk together with the drunken brother-in-law who keeps quoting Latin authors, Tildy saves him from an oncoming streetcar with broken brakes and Tildy is killed. The novel ends, symbolically, with the scene of his body covered by the prostitute’s ermine coat, whose whiteness is soon soaked in blood.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (trans. from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich, Melville House, 2011)
The Lake confirmed the impression I was left with aftThe Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (trans. from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich, Melville House, 2011)
The Lake confirmed the impression I was left with after having read Asleep and N. P.: Yoshimoto is one of those contemporary writers situated at the border between what one could call (for lack of a better word) “serious” literature and pop fiction. The fact that The Lake was better received than N.P. in this country is at least in part due to the fact that its translator, Michael Emmerich, is considerably more skilled than N. P.’s translator. Still, while reading The Lake, I felt, as I often do when I read translations from the Japanese or the Chinese, that the language register shifts in abrupt ways, from the very casual to the very poetic. I know that Yoshimoto has been praised for both her poetic language and her hipness (expressed in the very contemporary style of her dialogues), but I wonder if certain awkward transitions sound the same in the original.
I confess that my feelings about Yoshimoto in general and this book in particular are ambivalent. On the one hand, she does have a gift for creating atmosphere and identifiable characters with only a few simple strokes. She gives the impression that she has hurriedly jotted down some notes, which grab the reader in spite of herself. But then, one also finds passages that seem taken from some teenager’s blog—which may explain the huge following the writer has among young people.
The novel’s plot is simple: a young woman whose mother has recently died begins a relationship with a mysterious young man about whom she knows that he had suffered a big trauma in his childhood. Yoshimoto is very skilled at maintaining the suspense until the very end, when she reveals what had happened in the man’s childhood. More than anything, Yoshimoto’s enormous success among the Japanese comes, I think, from her strong sensibility whose dark side is popular not only for its “gothic” associations, but also because in traditional Japanese culture there is something noble about melancholy and sadness. The same fascination with melancholy characters and dreamlike atmosphere can be found in Yoko Ogawa’s books, but the latter is a much better writer than Yoshimoto. ...more
Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy (NYRB, trans. from the Hungarian by John Bátki, introduction by John Lukacs)
Krúdy has been hailed by his fellow Hungarians asSunflower by Gyula Krúdy (NYRB, trans. from the Hungarian by John Bátki, introduction by John Lukacs)
Krúdy has been hailed by his fellow Hungarians as not only one of the greatest Hungarian writers, but maybe the greatest. He has been compared to Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz, not because of any similarities, but because, like them, he is unclassifiable, and his greatness has been described by Sándor Márai as “almost past comprehension.” Given all the above, the reader may be slightly disappointed by his novel, Sunflower (written in 1918 and published for the first time in English in 1997). Lukacs’s introduction warns us about the difficulties to translate Krúdy’s poetic prose not only because of his style, but also because of the hidden allusions (cultural, historical) that only a Hungarian can understand. With an ambiguous formulation, he tells the reader that the translator “has tried” and “largely succeeded.”
As I read the book, I tried to find in my mind literary equivalents for it, and the only one I came up with was Craii de Curtea Veche by the Romanian writer Mateiu Caragiale, a novel written around the same time and hailed by Romanian writers as an unequaled masterpiece. What these books have in common, aside from a poetic, archaic style, is an atmosphere of fin-de-siècle, of a gone world that the narrators are trying to bring back through the power of words. The world they describe and which triggers their nostalgia is one in which men drink their fill and reminisce about past lovers—in other words, a world that is itself prone to nostalgic remembrance. In this world, the inn is the emblematic space of dramatic encounters, a microcosm from which stories about other worlds unspool, where an old woman spotted at a nearby table triggers a long story about a bygone beauty and the drama that had once surrounded her. This nostalgia about nostalgia creates a dreamlike universe, but this universe is far from being depicted as some kind of idyllic space; on the contrary, there is a crudeness and even an ugliness to the people in it. The apparent contradiction between this nostalgia and the world that is its object makes me think that these two authors may be impossible to translate for an American audience.
And this brings me to the issue of translation, and to whether translating a book from a very different culture and historical time is possible. In this case, I think the answer is no, not because translating the author’s words might be impossible. What is impossible to translate is what the author hasn’t said, and which is, nevertheless, present in the book: a sensibility circumscribed to a certain culture and historical time. The idea of a bygone world and the accompanying nostalgia may be to some degree universal (in American literature, Gone with the Wind is a great example), but what differentiates an American and a Hungarian is that loss gives the latter a perverse pleasure. Compare the spirit of Scarlet O’Hara who, undeterred by all she’s lost, declares courageously, “Tomorrow is another day,” hopeful that she can start all over again, to Krúdy’s characters who will do tomorrow what they are doing today: reminisce about yesterday.
Add to the above the fact that, unlike most novels, Krudy’s novel has several centers from which radiate several stories. For the first half, a woman, Eveline, seems to be the main protagonist, but then, the focus shifts to her neighbor, Pistoli, who becomes the main character. Pistoli is the incarnation of the “old Hungary” whose loss the narrator (and the author) deplores, and with whom most American readers, especially women, would find it hard to identify: an ugly yet impressive man, presumably in his sixties, who venerates the bottle, takes himself for a philosopher (and doesn’t spare the reader his numerous “witticisms”), thinks with nostalgia about the dozens of mistresses from his past, and sometimes visits his former wives, now locked up (by him) in mental institutions. On the other hand, the mating dance of cruelty between Pistoli and Miss Maszkeradi, a wild woman and feminist avant la lettre, is fascinating, as is the relationship between her friend, the suave Eveline and her suitor, Andor Almos-Dreamer (who is, indeed, a dreamer). The novel doesn’t have a plot per se, but a series of events, which don’t really develop toward a climax; rather, they go up and down, and right and left until Pistoli’s death restores a lost equilibrium and brings some hope for the future of Eveline and Almos-Dreamer. ...more
The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, and its sequel, The Golden Calf, have enjoyed an immense popularity in Russia and Eastern Europe. I hThe Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, and its sequel, The Golden Calf, have enjoyed an immense popularity in Russia and Eastern Europe. I had read (and greatly enjoyed) The Golden Calf many years ago in Romanian, and as a consequence, I was very excited by the recent publication of a new English translation of The Twelve Chairs (Northwestern, 2011, translated from the Russian by Anne O. Fisher). I wondered, however, whether a satirical Russian novel set in 1927 and published a year later could be understood by a contemporary American reader. Now that I read all its 500 plus pages, I can say that, surprisingly, the answer is yes. The American reader won’t understand all the references, of course, but most of the humor is fairly universal.
The plot is set in motion by the confession of Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law on her deathbed: before the Soviet regime forced them out of their home she’d managed to hide her jewels, including her diamonds, in one of the twelve upholstered chairs that were part of a Gambs furniture set. All their possessions, including the chairs, were confiscated by the regime and allocated to various individuals and institutions. The problem is that the woman confessed to both her son-in-law and Father Fyodor, so both of them set out on a journey across the Soviet state, during which their paths sometimes cross, causing hilarious encounters. Vorobyninov is accompanied by Oscar Bender, “the smooth operator,” a self-appointed “technical director” who is one of the greatest crooks in the history of literature (a more vulgar version of Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull). The tragicomic demise of Father Fyodor is paralleled by the absolutely unexpected ending of the novel and of the diamond search. I won’t reveal it here, but suffice it to say that the Communist censors might have had something to do with it.
This journey across nations, cities, mountains and sea(s) allows the writers to depict all the social strata of Soviet society, and to give the reader a good understanding of its functioning in the 1920s. This novel proves, once again, that reading literature is the best way to understand history. Thanks should be given to Anne O. Fischer for her (mostly successful) effort to translate this huge and difficult novel, and for the research she’s done in the process. The book has a long, helpful and non-intrusive list of notes at the end. ...more
How can one distinguish between authenticity and fakeness when the latter is shrewd enough to giveJubilee by Roxane Beth Johnson (Anhinga Press, 2006)
How can one distinguish between authenticity and fakeness when the latter is shrewd enough to give the appearance of the former? There are no rules for this, and in the world of poetry, fakeness—that is, clever lines giving the semblance of depth, but which, in fact, are hollow; or, seemingly “poetic” structures, which are nothing but imitations of other poets—rules and fools. So, I can’t tell you how I know that Roxane Beth Johnson is an authentic poet, but I know it.
After reading Jubilee, a collection of (mostly) prose poems, the reader is brimming with Johnson’s world—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, holy men and bums—and a certain religious feeling that can only come from the union of personal/familial history and the sacredness of a book (an “old black Bible”). “Religion” comes from the Lat. “religare,” i.e., to unite, to tie together, and Johnson’s religiosity is the kind that unites all the above into a whole carried under her skin. Even when she focuses on the formal aspect of a poem, there is something that transcends the surface. Listen to this:
“That old house arrives pure as tea having rinsed off its orchard and crawling vines. Windows are asterisks.” Jubilee...more
I discovered Steven Millhauser several years ago, when I found his collection of short stories, The Knife Thrower, at a library sale. Milhauser’s techI discovered Steven Millhauser several years ago, when I found his collection of short stories, The Knife Thrower, at a library sale. Milhauser’s technique is very particular in that it uses a realist-psychological approach only to better thwart it by infusing it with elements of fantastic fiction. For example, in “A Visit,” the narrator is introduced to his friend’s wife, who happens to be a gigantic, ugly frog. A different writer would have described the scene in a surrealist style, but Millhauser’s character ponders with a straight face the implications of his friend’s marriage to a frog. This encounter between the means of psychological realism and fantastic literature creates a disruptive tension and provokes in the reader a feeling that transcends the literal description.
Millhauser has the very rare genius of giving us the pleasure of reading that captivating stories usually arouse in us, while reflecting and engaging the reader in a reflection not only on the story itself and on the act of storytelling, but also on some serious topics, such as the relationship between technology and morality, the American obsession with technological progress and the extremes to which this obsession is carried. Yet he does this in such an oblique way that the reader may not even notice that the stories “The Dream of the Consortium” and “Paradise Park” are essentially two critical essays on American lifestyle done in the guise of storytelling. I believe that he manages to weave his ideas so smoothly into the fabric of the story—indeed the ideas are the story—for two reasons: 1) the narrator doesn’t judge from the outside, but is himself one of the crowd and, like the crowd, goes through a series of conflicting feelings, from nostalgia for the charm of the old department stores to being seduced by the new world of mega-malls, in which the old stores and pretty much everything on the planet is copied and transformed into a replica that can be purchased and sold; 2) the child in Millhauser is fascinated by all the incarnations of amusement parks, which, in turn, are incarnations of old fairs and freak shows—a magic world reminiscent of an Oriental bazaar, which is best represented in the story “Flying Carpets.”
It is no accident that the dream store in “The Dream Consortium” and the dream amusement park in “Paradise Park” are extremely similar. Both utopias are built on the desire to replicate life, that is, to transform everything into a copy that ends up taking the place of the original. For the business people in the dream store there is no distinction between a wristwatch and a Roman villa. In the dream store one can order and buy an entire European city, which is, of course, more convenient than traveling all the way to Europe. Sounds familiar? A cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland, Millhauser’s dream store and Paradise Park remind us of Baudrillard’s reflections on technology and simulacra. In “The Dream of the Consortium,” the entire world, or rather its replica, can be bought, sold and possessed by consumers. In “Paradise Park,” the consumers of increasingly titillating forms of entertainment descend into labyrinthine structures that imitate the real world from which they are trying to escape. But the search for ever more titillating amusements eventually turns onto itself like a snake biting its tail, and Paradise Park becomes a sort of Devil’s Park in which the ultimate pleasure is pain.
If one wants to find out more about Millhauser’s understanding of art one should read the story “The New Automaton Theater,” an ars poetica that should be compulsive reading in all creative writing classes. The narrator distinguishes between a “Children’s Theater,” built on a naïve realism that wants to keep the illusion of fiction at any price, and a theater for adults—the “new automaton theater”—in which the artifice of fiction is exposed for what it is, and the realist characters become “automatons.” The new automatons lack the grace of the realist ones from the Children’s Theater, but they are “profoundly expressive in their own disturbing way.”
Millhauser walks the very tight rope between the Children’s Theater and the New Automatons Theater, and he walks it brilliantly.
Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo (Trans. from Spanish by Katherine Silver. Bitter Lemon Press, 2011).
I normally don’t read mysteries, so when I was offerSweet Money by Ernesto Mallo (Trans. from Spanish by Katherine Silver. Bitter Lemon Press, 2011).
I normally don’t read mysteries, so when I was offered this book I was sure I wouldn’t read more than a few pages. I ended up reading the whole book, and was surprised that not only was it suspenseful (which I had anticipated), but it was also fairly intelligent, well structured, and written in a minimalist style that goes well with the plot. The background is that of the 1980s Buenos Aires, and, as expected, the criminal and the political world are intertwined. Add to this Silver’s great skills as a translator, and you’ll have a very enjoyable read. ...more
Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan (Trans. from Chinese by John Balcom. Columbia UP, 2011)
Huang Fan is a Taiwanese author who is worth reading, butZero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan (Trans. from Chinese by John Balcom. Columbia UP, 2011)
Huang Fan is a Taiwanese author who is worth reading, but who had the misfortune of having been translated too late. Zero is a dystopian novella written in the speculative tradition and originally published in 1981. To predict a world in which the upper classes live in a sterile environment in which they often interact only through computer screens, books have been digitized and print no longer exists, and the planet is a global village led by an international elite with a dubious past, would be impressive in 1981—but not in 2012.
The book has other short stories, some with political references (“Lai Suo”) and others told with dry humor within a sophisticated, metafictional frame (“How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”). For all these reasons, this should be a captivating book, and yet, it’s not. As often with Chinese literature, it is hard to know whether the problem is the translation, the original, or both. The reader can tell that the writer is intelligent and (sort of) witty, but the humor is sometimes flat. And the stories are uneven, oscillating between the (desire for the) sublime and the ridiculous. ...more
Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Trans. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions, 2011).
I read this novel a few months after havTyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Trans. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions, 2011).
I read this novel a few months after having read Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror (New Directions, 2009), both translated by Katherine Silver. They are equally captivating, both written, at least in part, in the voice of a woman who, although apparently apolitical, ends up being, through her record (her diary in Tyrant Memory; her monologue in The-She Devil) an incredible witness to a crisis in a chaotic San Salvador. I should add that the author himself, born in Honduras but raised in El Salvador, has been living in exile as part of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh.
The events in Tyrant Memory take place in 1944, when the general leading the country with a dictatorial fist is forced to resign after weeks of political turmoil. The crime in The She-Devil is non-political, but the background is the chaos of post-civil war. Both novels have an immediacy that reminds me of Bolaño’s style in The Savage Detectives (though I confess I only managed to read half of that novel). Although Tyrant Memory doesn’t claim to adhere strictly to history, I couldn’t help notice the slight inadequacy of the word “Nazi” used by both the opposition and the general to insult each other. I doubt the word was used in this way in 1944.
Moya is a writer definitely worth reading, and his translator, Katherine Silver deserves, I think, as much praise as him for her outstanding translations. ...more
Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (Knopf, 2008).
Of all the writers I know, Steven Millhauser has probably the most uncanny imagination, the biggDangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (Knopf, 2008).
Of all the writers I know, Steven Millhauser has probably the most uncanny imagination, the biggest range in themes, and at the same time, the most recognizable (ie., unique) style.
The first story in Dangerous Laughter, “Cat’ n’ Mouse,” is written like a precise report of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. In fact, having watched dozens of episodes of the latter as a teenager (on Romanian TV!), I am convinced that Millhauser has written many of the passages while watching the cartoon.
“The Room in the Attic” reminds me of Dickens. As in many of Millhauser’s stories, the narrator is a teenager fascinated with another boy his age, or rather, with the mysterious, wondrous world his friend gives him access to. The recurrent theme of the initiation into another, mysterious world, which often happens to exist across from our own home, is paralleled by the locus of the dark room as a variation on the magic behind the velvet curtain at the movie theater.
Several of the stories in this collection—“The Dome,” “The Tower,” “The Other Town”—revolve around an architectural theme, which is one of Millhauser’s preoccupations. In this, he is truly a creator, as he imagines alternative architectural possibilities to the ones we are familiar with: an entire town, then the entire country, covered by a dome, like a huge mall; a town, which is an exact replica of its neighboring town; and an imperfect version of the Tower of Babel, inhabited by humans.
This would have been one of my favorite Millhauser collections had it not been for the last part. Though interesting conceptually (For instance, “A Precursor of the Cinema” is fascinating as a combination of historical fact and fiction, not to mention a hidden reference to Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu through the character’s “self-erasure.”) these stories were a bit tedious. Still, Millhauser is, as far as I am concerned, the best contemporary American writer. ...more
Dunhuang Dream by Xu Xiaobin. Atria International, 2011. Trans. from the Chinese by John Balcom.
This novel can’t decide whether to be a retelling of sDunhuang Dream by Xu Xiaobin. Atria International, 2011. Trans. from the Chinese by John Balcom.
This novel can’t decide whether to be a retelling of several Buddhist legends, or a love story, or a mystery. Its approach to Buddhism is reminiscent of the kitsch of The Da Vinci Code—an old religion and its rituals seen as an “exotic” mystery. It is very uneven stylistically, with some lyrical, semi-realized passages, while others are so bad they seem written by a child. This being a translation, it is hard to state decisively whether the author or the translator is more to blame, but based on all the evidence, I’d say the author. In general, the translation is “smooth” (as the cliché goes), though now and then there are some incongruities: for example, when one sentence is written in a poetic, arch style, and the next one contains the word “sexy,” something doesn’t sound right. (I still can’t believe I read 133 pages of the novel’s 196 pages.) ...more
A 19th century masterpiece about a Russian family of landowners. The psyshological drama and the descriptions of everyday life in the Russian countrysA 19th century masterpiece about a Russian family of landowners. The psyshological drama and the descriptions of everyday life in the Russian countryside are among the strongest I've ever come across. The characters are built in the tradition of great archetypes, in particular that of the Miser (see Molière and Dickens). It's one of those books that you can't put down, and which are entirely satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level. The ending is pure Dostoevsky: it has an unexpected catharsis, in which the "bad" (not to say "evil") characters attain a brief, saint-like illumination through a symbolic, rather than plausible, repentance. On top of this, the edition I have has gorgeous ink drawings by a certain Kukrynisky (one name). The Russian publisher is asking the book's readers to write them with their opinions on the novel, the book's design and the translation. I wish I could do this, but I doubt they still exist or have the same address 36 years later....more
Five Spice Street (Yale UP, 2009) by the contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue is one of the strangest, most original novels I’ve ever read. It also hapFive Spice Street (Yale UP, 2009) by the contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue is one of the strangest, most original novels I’ve ever read. It also happens to be one of the worst translations. There is a difference between deliberate strangeness—Can Xue is known for her unusual writings—and a strange feeling resulting from a bad translation. Five Spice Street is strange, I’m afraid, in both ways.
The novel’s deliberate absurdness resides in its way of “telling a story” (the novel is full of ironic quotes, by the way). The “story” revolves around a few questions: Who is Madame X? What is her relationship with Q? Do they even have a relationship? For 329 pages, a series of picturesque characters from Five Spice Street—a widow proud of being both very sexy and virtuous, a coal miner infatuated with Madame X, a female friend jealous of Madame X, several male characters with dubious intentions, Madame X’s sister, who ends up living in a shed surrounded by…shit, and others—give us their points of view on Madame X. These perspectives intersect, complement or contradict each other in a way that is voluntarily absurd. The story takes the shape of a maze or of a diagram that is unrolled and undone before the reader’s eyes. The novel could be described as a “meta-story,” but unlike other such narratives, this one is very funny, and the writer doesn’t escape Can Xue’s ironic eye either. Unlike most classic novels about writers in which the character-writer is almost a copy of the author-writer, here, the writer is not even the same gender as the author (i.e., Can Xue). In fact, writers in general are made fun of as “geniuses” who are “usually sitting on a deserted mountaintop or the roof of a thatched cottage,” having dialogues with the gods.
One could also look at this novel as a sort of upside-down “comedy of manners” in which the author (Can Xue), using the research done by the character-writer and all the other characters on Five Spice Street, gives us a study of the sexual behavior of “our people.” There are many hilarious passages, but the comic is not always obvious, sometimes because of the translation, other times because of the grotesque element in many of the scenes, or because the comic of the language is based on a parody of Communist slogans. Some of the scenes seem in the tradition of the slapstick (or that of traditional Chinese theater): “they reached the granary [where they usually had sex] and he was kicked in the butt and fell. This was a good kick, very educational. He was kicked back to reality, and began to fulfill a male’s responsibilities.”
Since the translation of a novel from the Chinese is not an easy feat, I am willing to give the two translators (Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) some credit for their hard work, but still, I cannot but deplore the result. Here are a few (very few!) examples: “how could that person shout so loud as to scare a person?”; “I’m so confused inside” [rather than “outside”?]; “Everyone knew he was a doll” [in the context it’s clear the author meant “a puppet”]. And yet, in spite of the translation, the novel is worth reading. If someone at Yale UP reads this, please try to edit this novel and reprint it! The author deserves it.
For an unfinished novel, José Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale is surprisingly polished and well structured. Credit should be given to the editor, Julio OrtFor an unfinished novel, José Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale is surprisingly polished and well structured. Credit should be given to the editor, Julio Ortega, and the translator, Suzanne Jill Levine. I haven’t read the Spanish, but a glimpse at the title in Spanish is enough to give one an idea of the translator’s ingenuity. The title means, literally, “lizard without a tail,” but the translator and the book designer have created a word play in English that doesn’t exist in the original. The book cover features a lizard whose cut tail is replaced by the words “The Lizard’s Tale.” This is an example of “unfaithfulness” in translation that not only doesn’t contradict the spirit of the novel, but it complements it. It also shows that a book’s meaning comes not merely from its “content,” but from everything, including the cover.
The novel’s protagonist, Antonio, is a Spanish painter who abandons art and Barcelona’s bohemian world, “as a lizard sheds its tail,” and retires to the isolated village of Dors, a place of untouched architectural beauty, whose many old houses go back hundreds of years. The flashbacks of Antonio’s previous life with their focus on the “informalists” are reminiscent of scenes from Cortazar’s Hopscotch, or Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and its “visceral realists.” The latter, however, was first published in 1998, while Donoso’s novel, written in 1973, was set aside and published for the first time in 2007.
Antonio—and through him, Donoso—laments the commercialization of tourism “which brings in foreign currency but destroys all identity,” and which is merely an extension of the prostitution that characterizes modern art in general, and the “informalist” movement in particular. Although most readers wouldn’t disagree, like me, they might find tiresome these repeated laments, which might have been more original in the early seventies when Donoso wrote them. I was afraid the novel might turn into some kind of homage to rustic, authentic life versus the corrupt life of the city—and I was wrong. Not only doesn’t Donoso idealize the former, but his description of the villagers is rather cynical (and, as such, is closer to reality than any kind of sugary idealization). As it happens, the villagers despise these old houses, and all they want is to sell them and move into modern, functional, interchangeable apartment buildings. While this desire might be justified by practical reasons, the villagers’ relationships among themselves and their status in the community are less justifiable: as in most communities, the big players in the village are the most ruthless and unscrupulous ones. As a consequence, as soon as he arrives in Dors, Antonio succeeds in making enemies, and it is by creating enemies that he becomes part of the community—an irony that is, certainly, not accidental.
When people from Antonio’s previous life begin to show up in the village—his latest lover, her daughter (who becomes his lover too), the lover’s doctor, Antonio’s former wife, their son, and the wife’s entourage, whose eccentricity brings to mind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—a new air infuses the village. Antonio—and with him, the reader—is confronted with a paradox: the intruders will, no doubt, destroy the peaceful, traditional life of the village, for which he’d come there in the first place; at the same time, the intruders, whose tastes are similar to his, are the only ones who can help him preserve the old houses by buying and renovating them. The salvation and the destruction of the past seem to come from the same source.
This conflict is very much a reframing of The City and the Mountains by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós, in which the conflict is between technological progress or civilization, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. Eça de Queirós’s novel is, however, slightly less ambivalent, as the narrator’s preference goes definitely toward nature. The city—which happens to be Paris, where the writer wrote this novel in 1895—is described as an infinite source of pointless agitation, a place where one can find all the pleasures imaginable, but which in the end have one result: tedium. When the novel’s rich protagonist is called by a business emergency to his rural property in Portugal, the narrator describes his new life in the mountains as that of a “benefactor” who proceeds to remedy some of the local poverty by implementing urban technologies that would make the peasants’ lives better. Thus, the city finds its way into the mountains in the same way the attempt of Donoso’s protagonist to protect the village ends up opening it to the outside world.
Little by little, a story focused on an artist who runs away from one kind of community (that of Barcelona’s artistic bohemia) to a rural community that ends up rejecting and ostracizing him, turns into a philosophical reflection on the impossibility of any kind of community. As in a Greek tragedy, Antonio becomes the scapegoat the villagers feel they have to excommunicate in order for the village to return to its previous harmony. And when a young man dies, Antonio is declared guilty of a crime he hadn’t committed, and has to run away again. At the end of the novel—in the form given to us by its publisher—Antonio is hiding in an apartment in Barcelona, but we don’t know what the “real ending” is since the writer never finished it. In an interesting parallel, de Queirós never finished revising his novel either, and the ending to his novel—a little too naively enthusiastic for the “eternal” beauty of “gentle” nature—was chosen by another writer. ...more