Moods – Yoel Hoffmann (translated by Peter Cole) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

A few years ago I bought a very colourful, heavy book called “Buddhist Offerings 365 Days” a 750 page book with a short Buddhist quote and a colour photograph (generally from Tibet) for each day of the year. The intention was to read and reflect on the quote each day, one of those grandiose ideas that lasts a week or two, however I do revisit the book from time to time for a timely quote or two, the first quote happens to be today’s (10 June), the others are just random choices:

Every event, every situation in which you may find yourself has a positive value,
even the dramas, even the tragedies, even the thunderbolt from a calm sky.
Arnaud Desjardins
It is our mind, and that alone, that chains us or sets us free.
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Usually we think that brave people have no fear.
The truth is that they are intimate with fear.
Pema Chödrön
Like all reflective quotes the act of pondering what is deemed as ancient wisdom permeates and can leave you with a feeling of becoming wise simply by contemplating somebody else’s musings. Unlike a novel, or even a short story, the very short form can leave itself open to many interpretations and the relationship between the writer and the reader is more along the lines of a passing “punch in the face” (immediate and extreme but quickly forgotten) or, at the other extreme, a shadowy brush that somehow lingers for longer than the relationship itself and comes back to haunt you when least expected.
Yoel Hoffmann’s “Moods” (translated by Peter Cole) is made up of 191 short musings on human emotions…moods. And each and every section impacts the reader in different ways, reflecting moods, emotions, temperaments.
In the room, the French woman held out a hand (one of the two she had) and took the thousand-franc bill, as one takes the wine and wafer from a priest. (from [5])
A forty-watt bulb (elsewhere I’ve called it an electric pear) lit up the bed but the picture of the Virgin (and Child) stood outside the cone of light like an omen. (from [6])
A book that would have been extremely difficult to translate with references to sounds, specific words, iambic, for example, taken from [28]
In Japanese the back is senaka. Senaka, we think, is the perfect word for it. More accurate than for instance, back, or Rücken.
However you really need to look at the Kanji characters for the word “senaka” to understand the perfection of the word…I’ve replicated it here… 背中
A stunning work, each of the 191 sections being shards of a broken mirror, they capture the everyday moments, the obscure, the memories, the reflections of a small fragment of a life, you do not have the full picture a full picture is not able to be formed. Don’t try to decipher the collection, just like you cannot decipher human existence;
This book is a book of moods. We could call it The Book of Moods.
Now we’re filled with love, and now it’s hatred. Sometimes we hate things we’ve loved or love things we’ve hated, and there is no end to it. (from [54])
An emotional rollercoaster moving through a raft of “moods” within a single page, this is not a book you can read in a single setting, a book that you need to contemplate, allow it to inhabit your core, chew over, re-read, meditate upon the concepts. A Zen master who speaks Hebrew? Hoffmann is a professor of Japanese poetry, Buddhism and philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, with his translation of “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” being released later this year as well as compiling, editing and commentating on the collection “Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death”. With six other books published by New Directions since 1998 I feel inadequate that I haven’t discovered his work before now!

It is not only the everyday that is contemplated or explored here, we also have musings on the art of writing itself;
We’re asking ourselves what the point of this book is or of books in general.
We’ve never seen books classified by genre. That is, we’ve seen them classified, but not correctly. What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, for instance, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?
Or take, for instance, science books. These aren’t stories? Accurate ones. But stories nonetheless. Or the distinction between biographies and novels. Is there a biography that isn’t a novel? Or a novel that isn’t the story of a life?
If book are going to be classified by genre, it should be done in an entirely different manner. First, once has to distinguish between happy books and sad books. Not books that make one happy or make one sad. Happy books, plain and simple. A book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes. (from [114])
As an aside this book is classified as 1. Psychological fiction. 2. Experimental fiction, Jewish.
One of the standouts of the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, a book that I thought would be in serious contention for the main prize (don’t get me wrong Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a fine work indeed and a worthy winner, in my eyes this work would have caused a few debates amongst the judges), one that any readers of “on edge” or “new” fiction should go out of their way to read. I’ll stop with the classifications now, “what’s the point”?

The shards of the broken mirror are scattered, don’t expect a non-corrugated journey, these shards scattered like heavenly bodies, like “uncut diamonds scattered about on a large table at the polishing workshop”, but “however you put it, the shards of things too are whole in their way.”

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