2018 Best Translated Book Award Longlists

BTBA2018

The longlists for the 2018 Best Translated Book Awards (Fiction and Poetry) have just been announced. The standard websites talk up the diversity on the lists (“the longlists reflect the diversity of international books published last year by featuring authors from twenty-five different countries, writing in eighteen languages, and published by twenty-six different presses.”), the role of translated literature and the usual debates about Dalkey Archive not getting a nominated title. Last year I was incensed about the omission of Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” (translated by John E. Woods) from the fiction longlist, this year I have a firm belief that there are a few titles that far exceed some of the books that did make the list, however this year I won’t be calling the award the “Second Best Translated Book Award”, I’ll flow with the offerings the judges have served up.

Interestingly not a lot of commentary since the announcement about the fact that only nine of the twenty-five fiction titles are by female writers (36%).

Of the fiction list, I’ve only read five of the listed titles and own a further five, it will be an impossible ask to get to all twenty-five before the shortlist announcement on 15 May and the winners on 31 May (considering I’m “off the grid” with no time to read between 15 May and 26 May!!!)

Of the poetry list I own four of the twelve titles, and hanging my head in shame, I’m yet to read any of them!!!

Over the coming weeks I’ll get to a few more titles and will post my thoughts wherever possible.

Here ae the lists, with links to reviews I have previously written.

Fiction Longlist

Incest by Christine Angot, translated from the French by Tess Lewis (France, Archipelago)

Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins (Canada, Coach House)

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Open Letter Books)

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (France, New Directions)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter Books)

Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions)

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Bolivia, Simon and Schuster)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (Germany, Pantheon)

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm (Poland, Feminist Press)

Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Madagascar, Restless Books)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac, translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey (Argentina, Soho Press)

August by Romina Paula, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft (Argentina, Feminist Press)

The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Mexico, Deep Vellum)

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Argentina, Riverhead)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Italy, Archipelago)

Ebola 76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by Charis Bredin (Sudan, Darf Publishers)

The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, translated from the German by David Burnett (Germany, Pushkin Press)

Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by Jeffery Zuckerman (France, Open Letter)

Remains of Life by Wu He, translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry (Taiwan, Columbia University Press)

 

Poetry Longlist

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio, translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas (Uruguay, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Astroecology by Johannes Heldén, translated from the Swedish by Kirkwood Adams, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, and Johannes Heldén (Sweden, Argos Books)

Magnetic Point by Ryszard Krynicki, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (Poland, New Directions)

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Broken Dimanche Press)

Spiral Staircase by Hirato Renkichi, translated from the Japanese by Sho Sugita (Japan, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Directions for Use by Ana Ristović, translated from the Serbian by Steven Teref and Maja Teref (Serbia, Zephyr Press)

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling Presse)

Iron Moon by Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry edited by Qin Xiaoyu, translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman (China, White Pine Press)

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False Claims of Colonial Thieves – Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella PLUS bonus interviews with both poets

Colonial

It has been quite a few months since I last published a poet interview here, however I have been working away in the background at getting a few new ones for you. Today I have two poets, the recent release being a collaborative effort.

The first thing that strikes you about “False Claims of Colonial Thieves”, a new release from Magabala books, is the striking cover. It is a collaborative artwork by Charmaine Papertalk Green (one of the two poets) and Mark Smith. As advised in the book itself;

This print tells the story of Geraldton’s foundation around colonialism and its impact on the First Peoples – the Wilunyu of the Yamaji Nation. Colonial structures built on traditional campsites, forced the traditional occupiers out of their long held space to become onlookers of where they once lived – sang, slept, ate, danced and yarned. Colonial and contemporary structures only hide the surface but not the memory or connection of Yamajii to their land, 2016.

A powerful statement and one that ideally sets up this important confronting book.

Poets Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella are in conversation throughout this work, coming from two completely different perspectives, Charmaine Papertalk Green the traditional owner voice, John Kinsella the voice of the whitefella. The prologue contains two short poems, one by each poet, with John Kinsella talking of mining companies “filling the holes they make in country with propaganda” and Charmaine Papertalk Green telling us “If environmental scientists say so/water comes from a plastic bottle”. If the cover, and explanation, alone is not enough to set up the depth and subject matter of this book, then the opening two poems surely let you know. Here is poets response to mining companies funding environmental scientists and their reports, funding education to fill the minds of future generations with mining messages all the time forgetting “country”, the very land they are exploiting.

Yes this is also a dedication to country, a book that comes at man’s relationship with nature from two very different perspectives, the Traditional Owner, First Nation perspective where the “country” is part of their make up their very fibre, as opposed to the invader perspective of it being “land” a place to use. Although John Kinsella has always been a poet deeply rooted in the natural world, so his “whitefella” view is not exploitative, more appreciative and in awe of his surroundings, you still get a view from two angles.

For a reader who has spent time in remote Aboriginal communities, who has set up a charitable event to raise funds for the retention of Aboriginal women’s law and culture, I have an understanding of the elements at play here. As a result I found the this an emotionally tiring work, draining as I became more and more outraged;

Balu winja barna real winja
Real old ones them ones
Man is a greedy monster
Interfering to satisfy self
Pulling old ones to surface
Birthing a dangerous little boy
Naming after a god and
Worshiping like a god
For the warfare toys of
Other little boys worldwide
Energy, power, death, destruction and money
Uranium is safe in the earth
Like a sleeping Elder

(from “Undermining 2.” By Charmaine Papertalk Green p2)

This is confrontational poetry from both sides of the fence, we have First Nationas people selling their country, selling their kids dreaming, for a “car four wheel drive car” and then pretend “owners” who have stolen the land. We have bashings, protecting the names of people from the police as there is a knowledge that any blackfella naming will end violently for the people involved (ie. They will be bashed by the police), growing up rough…

We have John Kinsella taking a more celebratory approach of the riches of the land, the flora and fauna, at times a chemical, educational view (especially when it comes to the impact of salt on waterways), whereas Charmaine Papertalk Green has more of a connected view of her country,, more immediacy, “right here on this land right here”.

The controversial, and hidden subject matter, is confronted head-on here, the reality of slave labour on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) and how it should now be a memorial site not a holiday attraction is one of the subjects brought into play.

Two balanced voices addressing the same subject from two different points of view, as the work progresses you see a connection transpire, a mutual understanding, the commonality bringing an element of “reconciliation” to the book.

Although confrontational this is a powerful, important, and revealing book. Australia’s dark past is not sugar coated here, a work I hope gets overseas traction.

Over to the interviews, as always I am very grateful to the poets for their time and their honesty. I hope this brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

Charmaine Papertalk Green

Q. “Mass Rock is not my significant site”, is the refrain in “No other road”, can you tell us a little about your significant sites?

A. Mass Rock was named by religious sector of society and the name continues to be privileged today disregarding the  Yamaji space in  which it  sits.  The space in which it sits  is the historical campsite  of my people – a historical site of significance  where families lived and  ceremonies were held   .  This is the significance of the site not that a catholic priest came on horse back to preach  to a group of Yamaji who had to live on the outskirts of a township.

Q. “Don’t want me to talk” is about you having a voice but we don’t listen. Do you feel poetry gives you a stronger voice?

A. I have a strong voice and poetry adds to this strength . The problem is not my voice or the strength of it but rather that Australia either has selective hearing , is deaf or has a certain level of amnesia when it comes to the First Nations people of Australia.

Q. The retention of culture is a strong theme throughout your work. A culture that is 40,000+ year’s old but has taken a blow in the last 200 years. I see a resurgent awareness of the importance of Aboriginal culture happening, do you see a bright future for the retention of your cultural practices, or is it more “still invisible”?

A. First Nation peoples are very resilient people to have survived everything that has happened to the many nations across Australia since the time of Invasion . The process of colonisation has not been  and is not kind to the  First Nations people of this country – especially in devaluing our culture, continual denial of our cultural worth  and attempting to continually  erase our knowledge systems.  The Yamaji cultural practices have felt the brutal  force of colonisation and assimilation yet we have survived as a people even though the many contemporary colonial structures in my region continue a process

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. I am in a continual process of recall of my formative years which of course includes my youth. As a young female Aboriginal growing up in Mullewa my youth was quite difficult in some ways and then not so in others .  Recall is so important in telling our stories and sharing what we need to or want to share.  There are things I want to forgot but remain part of my story so there is always a form of tension in this storytelling.

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. I think this process emerged organically through conversation over a 10 year period . I learnt through this process John is genuine in his interest in the protection of country/land  and the position of  Australia First Nations people  and for a better Australian Society .  I would not have got involved in this project  if this was not the case – please dont call it an experiment as I think one reviewer did it was a genuine conversation process  between two poets .

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. Right now I am reading Ali Coby Eckermann Too Afraid to Cry 2012 and Lionel G. Fogarty Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo Mobo ( Future) 2014 simply because I love their words and storytelling .

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. I am currently working on a manuscript around mother-daughter letters – I am responding to letters my mother wrote to me when I was going to school in Perth in 1978=1979

John Kinsella

Q. When you return to Geraldton to what part of you is there, you “rest in a dry creek bed/and listen to their river gums” amongst several connections to the natural world, and your work is always grounded in the environment. Have you always had this “nature” connection?

A. Yes, it goes to the core of all my responses to the outside world, and likely my interior world as well. I can’t separate off from the natural world, and don’t want to. That doesn’t mean I necessarily comprehend the natural world, but I try to be respectful to it — to observe closely, to learn.

Q. A lot of your poems are about travelling throughout the west, with white man’s interference a constant. You appear as having a restless past, is that a fair assumption?

A. Yes, I struggled with many years of alcoholism and addiction. I have been sober now for twenty-three years and am grateful for it. However, my distress at ongoing colonisation, at a lack of adequate actual material response to the theft of Aboriginal lands, is more relevant to my restlessness. I acknowledge I am part of the problem, and wish to contribute towards fixing the problem.

Q. Through many relationships with the First Nation’s peoples over many years, do you think there is a recent change towards accepting traditional cultural practices, is the future looking brighter or is it “still invisible”?

A. I hope there is — and I hope there’s a realisation that Aboriginal people define their own practice in whatever form it might take. Non-Aboriginal people have no right (in any capacity) to tell or even suggest what is right to/for Aboriginal people. I listen and learn. There’s nothing else I can say outside my absolute commitment to learn (and to keep learning) how to respect. I should also add, Aboriginal knowledges are intense and massive — all the sciences all the arts all the skills are in their knowing. Listen, experience, learn, if you are offered the opportunity. Never take this learning for granted, but be grateful if it comes your way.

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. Interesting question! Yes, I think you get to one of the most vital threads of the writing process – to reveal those bits of ourselves we have left behind or even closed over. Maybe I didn’t recall things I’d forgotten, but I did reconsider and consequently — I hope — better understand what had happened in my past at salient points (to my mind).

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. It was a sharing process. A process of exchange. Of swapping stories and experiences and finding a way of talking out of those stories and experiences. ‘Larger’ pictures developed as we built the layers of our stories, finding overlaps and digressions, working towards a common purpose of speaking out about injustice (and justice) regarding country. I needed to hear, I needed to learn. When talking of family we found such different experiences — different experiences wrought (and imposed) by the wrongs of colonialism. How to we address these issues? I think we found some ways over many many years. We had purpose and we needed to speak together then out loud to others.

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. I am rereading the earlier novels of Ursula Le Guin, not because of her recent death, but because they were so formative for me in my teenage years and were part of my strong growing awareness of anarchism around the age of sixteen/seventeen. I am also (re)reading the poetry of Rita Dove with whom I am co-editing an activist issue of The Kenyon Review. And slowly remaking my way (again and again) through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – to undo the things I want to undo, it’s a useful text!

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. A long poem against the arms industry — I despise what the federal government is attempting to do regarding turning Australia into a ‘top ten’ arms exporter. I resist this as a pacifist, and I resist it as a human being. The arms industry should be shut down, not expanded! Life, not death!

The Impostor – Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne)

Imposter

One of the most obvious artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart.
-Wayne C. Booth “The Rhetoric of Fiction” (p3)

In Javier Cercas’ “The Impostor”, there are really only two characters at play, the author and Enric Marco, a true impostor. The challenge for Javier Cercas is to give the reader a reliable view of his own mind and heart as well as the mind and heart of a man whose claims that he was a prisoner in a Nazi German concentration camp during World War II were exposed in 2005.

I had chosen literature so that I could have a life that was free, happy and authentic whereas actually my life was false, servile and unhappy, that I was a guy who pretended to be a novelist, and succeeded by deceiving and cheating people; in reality I was nothing more than an impostor. (p15)

Of course, we have fringe players who move in and out of the action, for example, people Javier Cercas interviews, the historian, Benito Bermejo who uncovered Enric Marco, however this is essentially a non-fiction fiction about the writer’s struggle to identify the true Enric Marco and the personal struggle that the author goes through wrestling with his own demons, should he write the book we are reading?

Thought and art, I believed, attempt to explore what we are, revealing our endless, ambiguous and contradictory variety, and in doing so, mapping out our nature: Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I thought, illuminated every nook and cranny of the moral maze, demonstrate that love can lead to murder or suicide, and succeed in making us feel compassion for psychopaths and bastards; it is its duty, I thought, because the duty of art (or of thought) consists in showing us the complexity of existence in order to make us more complex, in examining the mechanics of evil, so that we may avoid it, and even the mechanics of good, perhaps so we may understand them. (p18)

Using this unique literary device, where we are told the story of Enric and then the investigations into the merits of such, Javier Cercas is presenting a story that works on numerous sub-levels. The nature of truth, the motivation to lie, the creation of false identities, the eternal search for who we really are.

For some time now, psychology has maintained that we can barely live without lying, that man is an animal that lies: life in society demands a measure of falsehood that we call politeness (and which only hypocrites mistake for hypocrisy); Marco horribly exaggerated and distorted this basic human need. In this sense, he is like Don Quixote, or like Emma Bovary, two other great liars who, like Marco, cannot reconcile themselves to the greyness of their real lives and so invent and live out fictitious, heroic lives; in this sense there is something in Marco’s fate that profoundly touches us all, as there is in those of Quixote and Bovary: all of us play a role; all of us are other than we are; in some way, we are Enric Marco. (p41)

The Wayne C. Booth text that I quoted above, goes on to explain the importance of “showing” the reader, not “telling” the reader, I purposely chose the reference to “The Rhetoric of Fiction” as Javier Cercas’s book tells throughout, it is self-described as “a novel without fiction”. Using repetition, with subtle changes, the question of memory is brought into play, what is the truth, what is the essential truth?

Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is referenced a number of times and you cannot help but wonder if through the exercise of writing this book, is Javier Cercas damning himself as Truman Capote did?

As well as a character study, following Enric Marco’s life, attempting to understand his motivations to become the great “impostor”, this is also a sociological study, a reflection on Spain pre and post Franco. Post Franco it becomes a nation where everybody has an invented past, surely now Franco has gone everybody was in opposition to him, which means the nation itself is a collective lie.

Personally, I learned a lot about Spanish history, the Civil War, post War dynamics, Spanish politics and the various factions at play, the “non-fiction fiction” really leading me to places I had previously not discovered. I am sure the information I have learned here will be extremely useful with other Spanish works, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” (translated by Edith Grossman) would have been a much richer read if I had read this book first, I’m wondering if this background will help me with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest “Like A Fading Shadow” (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez).

The book can play as an overly long lecture about a character and his motivations, and therefore the emotional connection is lost. Here is a character who you couldn’t care for, he is not an anti-hero, simply a manipulator who looked after himself, a Narcissist. Where is the interest in learning about this leading character, he is not the ideal candidate for a starring role.

Calling into question the fad that became “historical memory”, the fact that it actually was included in Spanish Law and then became a marketing tool, Javier Cercas expertly points out the absurdity of “historical memory”:

This is how things were, at least in the early stages of our relationship: Marco both wanted and did not want me to write about him and therefore he wanted and did not want to talk to me. Or to put it more clearly: Marco wanted me to write the book that he would have wanted to read, the book that he needed, the book that would finally rehabilitate him. (p323)

Here I need to point out one error in the book that really played on my mind. This error not only appears on page 129, I am also stunned that it appears in the official blurbs for the book (check Book Depository or Goodreads – this is a direct quote from the blurb);

By the time he is unmasked in Austria in 2005 on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp

In 2005 it was the SIXTEITH Anniversary of the liberation of the camp, and I can assure you, this is no minor error. When you are reading a book that is questioning historical truths, when it talks about stories containing mistakes and inaccuracies on purpose to put you off the scent, I thought for some time that this error was put there on purpose. This was playing on my mind so much I have had someone check the Spanish version to see if it said 60th or 70th, and the original text says “60th anniversary” so it is either a translation or editing error. The Spanish for “sixty” is “sesenta” for “seventy” it is “setenta”, one letter difference, but when talking about a significant historical date, ten years is a decent error. The date of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps are significant in world history. Put simply, this error is lazy.

Add to this a number of typo’s, or translation errors;

P267 “an magnificent actor”
P305 “as part of a homage” (everything else is English so why suddenly the Americanisation here?)

To name just two. I would also like to draw your attention to these few sentences;

I am looking at a photograph of one of the annual reunions of former prisoners of Flossenbűrg. The picture shows all the survivors who were still alive when the reunion took place, or all the survivors who were still alive and could or wished to attend. (pp265-6)

What garbled nonsense? We are looking at a photo, there are no dead people, no need to tell us they’re alive, and in attendance, overstated, simply not required.

I must admit I really struggled with this book, although presenting important historical reflections and using a unique style and manner to bring a story to life, the errors and the repetitiveness started to wear a little thin.

“Like I said, the duty of the novelist is to get people to believe that everything he says is true, even though it is a lie. For God’s sake, do I have to repeat what Gorgias said four hundred years before Christ? ‘Poetry [that is to say fiction, in this case the novel] is a deception, wherein he who deceives is more honest that he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not deceived.’ It’s all there. Do you understand now? I don’t have anything more to add.” (p354)

If the mandate of the Man Booker International Prize is to award the best translation of the year, then I have to say this book should be not make the shortlist. With the massive glaring error that I have pointed out (one the publisher is using to publicise the book!!!) it cannot be celebrated as the best book of the year, unless mediocre, average, sloppy work is to be rewarded.

Interesting and educational but overly long, this isn’t one for my “top six” translated books of 2017. I’m sure the official judges, and possibly the Shadow Jury, will disagree.

The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt (translated by Nick Caistor)

SevenMadmen

At Berkeley, circa 1980, renowned Argentine writer Julio Cortázar presented a series of eight talks. These classes were reproduced and translated by Katherine Silver and were published under the title “Literature Class” by New Directions in 2017. At some stage I may review that book itself, however I bring it up here as in his “First Class” Julio Cortázar said;

…the books published by someone like Jorge Luis Borges signified to me and my friends a kind of literary heaven, the greatest contemporary potential of our language, but at the same time I had become aware of other writers, only one of whom I will mention, a novelist named Roberto Arlt, who is much less well known than Borges because he died very young and his work is very difficult to translate and is circumscribed within the very closed world of Buenos Aires.

References to Roberto Arlt occur again and again throughout Julio Cortázar’s talks, and as my deeper literary reading is currently Leopoldo Marechal’s “Adam Buenosayres” (translated by Norman Cheadle), billed as the Argentine “Ulysses”, and a “primal Argentine novel” (“The Complete Review”) then I jumped at the chance to read Roberto Arlt.

“The Seven Madmen” is only one of two books by Roberto Arlt that have been translated into English, the other being “The Mad Toy” (translated by James Womack), this novel was translated by Nick Caistor, a translator I have come across many times, primarily through his work with Argentine Andrés Neuman and more recently his translation of Julián Ríos’ “The House of Ulysses”.

First published as “Los siete locos” in 1929, “The Seven Madmen” opens with Remo Erdosain, our anti-hero, protagonist, being called into his employer’s Director’s office and being accused of swindling six-hundred pesos and seven cents. He is given a few days to get the funds and pay them back, needless to say his job is lost. The work immediately launches into a tale of despair;

The name Erdosain gave to this mood of dreams and disquiet that led him to roam like a sleepwalker through the days was “the anguish zone”.
He imagined this zone floating above cities, about two metres in the air, and pictured it graphically like an area of salt flats or deserts that are shown on maps by tiny dots, as dense as herring roe.
This anguish zone was the product of mankind’s suffering. It slid from one place to the next like a cloud of poison gas, seeping through walls, passing straight through buildings, without ever losing its flat horizontal shape; a two-dimensional anguish that left an after-taste of tears in throats it sliced like a guillotine. (p6)

Written during a politically unstable period of Argentine history and released a year prior to the September 1930 pro-fascist military coup lead by general José Félix Uriburu, the instability and economic volatility is reflected throughout, with our protagonist moving between a hovel where he resides or walking along grand boulevards observing, or dreaming of the lives behind the walls. The threat of revolution is never far away;

 Who is going to make the social revolution if it’s not the swindlers, the wretched, the murderers, the cheats, all the scum that suffer here below without the slightest sign of hope? Or do you reckon it’s the penpushers and the shopkeepers who are going to make the revolution? (p18)

A work that contains all the lowlifes of Buenos Aires, the pimps, the criminals, the crackpots, it is also a wandering tale of despair. Not only does Erdosain lose his job, his wife leaves him and he becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot to set up a secret society, funded by prostitution and based on lies. Through meeting a range of characters with names such as ‘The Astrologer’, and ‘The Thug’ Ersosain moves deeper and deeper into the mire.

A work that initially reminded me of the anguish of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” published in 1890 and then moving towards the despair and philosophical angst, confusion and bleakness of Dostoyevsky.

“On the face of it, I am a coward, Ergueta is a madman, the Thug is a miser, you a man obsessed. On the face of it, that’s what we are, but deep down inside, somewhere beneath our own awareness and conscious thoughts, there’s another life that’s far more powerful and vaster…so that if we put up with everything it’s because we believe that by hanging on, by doing so we’ll finally get at the truth…I mean, the truth about ourselves.” (p94)

However, the physical hopelessness is never far away, our protagonist slipping further and further into the mire;

Erdosain could not have been more rigid if someone had split his spine with an axe. His throat became as parched as if he had swallowed a mouthful of fire. His heart had almost ceased to beat, and a fog poured from his brain and out of his eyes. He was falling through silence and darkness, floating slowly down into the void while the paralysed block of his flesh only continued to exist in order to register still more deeply imprint of pain. He did not say a word, though he would have liked to burst out in sobs, to have knelt in front of someone, to get up at that very instant, get dressed, leave the house and go and sleep in some doorway, or on the outskirts of some unknown city. (p115)

Not an easy read, with hopelessness all around, a dark brooding tale where men and there motivations are reduced to base animal instincts, this is a work ahead of the literature of the times, in 1929, for example, Scotland Yard seized 13 paintings of male and female nudes by D. H. Lawrence on the grounds of indecency.

The political agitation, although pertinent to the times, also shows that not a lot has changed in world politics in the last 90 years…

“…I’ve no idea if the same happens in more civilized countries, but that’s the way it is here. In our congress and senate there are members accused of usury and murder, rogues in the pay of foreign companies – people of such crass ignorance that the parliamentary system here is the most grotesque farce ever to have sullied the life of a nation. The presidential elections are funded by United States capital, on the basis of promises to grant concessions to firms which want to exploit our national riches. I am not exaggerating when I say that in this country of ours, the contest between the political parties is no more than a squabble between salesmen vying to sell the nation to the highest bidder.” (pp 173-4)

A dark tale of the seedier elements of Argentina, the narrative implies numerous potential endings, especially through the ‘Commentator’ notes, where the writer explains things such as how he can be writing in the third person when only Erdosain is in the room. If you like neat tidy endings then this is probably a book to be avoided as there is a second volume, further exploring the story of the characters, called “The Flamethrowers” (yet to be translated into English). Roberto Arlt deserves wider recognition in the English-speaking world and as I further explore the works of Argentinian literature I will certainly read “The Mad Toy”, thanks Serpent’s Tail  for publishing this fringe work and of course thanks to Julio Cortázar for pointing me in Roberto Arlt’s direction.

For readers of Latin American fiction the paperback edition of 2015 also includes an essay by Roberto Bolaño, ‘The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom’, translated by Natasha Wimmer, a short piece, however one that points to even more literary resources to hunt down.

The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil

BookChocSaints

You’re a critic. There’s no worse thing that can be said about a man.

As I was working my way through Jeet Thayil’s second novel, “The Book of Chocolate Saints”, I was wondering why the publicity and reviews have been a little thin on the ground. In fact, I have seen one short review in “The Guardian”. The quote above appears as the novel comes to a close, a slap in the face for critics.

When Jeet Thayil exploded onto the mainstream literary stage with his debut novel “Narcopolis” his reputation as a hard living former drug addict seemed to overshadow his achievements as a poet and novelist. “Narcopolis” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and subsequently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013 and most reflections, critiques of the book seemed to focus on the persona of the writer, the drug elements and less on the tale of Bombay. For example, does anybody mention the novel’s opening and closing word is “Bombay”?

“The Book of Chocolate Saints” is not going to change Jeet Thayil’s hard playing reputation, it is probably only going to enhance it, merely through the seedier elements. However this is a multi multi layered work, running at close to 500 large pages, it is a complex story of the fictional poet and painter Newton Francis Xavier, an alcoholic, womaniser, a character who is highly intelligent, famous but with no self-control. It is also the story of Dismas, the young admiring writer who is compiling a biography of Newton (or Xavier, or simply X), in fact two books “two hundred and fifty pages of heft”, are we reading those two books? Or maybe  it is the story of Goody Lol, Newton’s latest partner, or possibly the “The Hung Realists” a group of Bombay poets, Newton being the co-editor of an anthology called “The Hung Realists: A Subaltern Manifesto”. Or possibly this is a tale of the “Chocolate Saints”, dark skinned Saints who throughout the ages have been redefined as fair skinned with blue eyes, this includes Jesus. Surely it is also an homage to Roberto Bolaño, the similarities to “The Savage Detectives” are too obvious to ignore, fragmentary, an alter-ego (Dismas is Thayill?), the multiple character narrations and simply the celebration of a literary movement, here we have the “Hung Realists”, Bolaño with the “visceral realists”.

Structurally the book is presented in alternating parts, the first, after a short Prologue, consisting of interviews with numerous characters conducted by Dismas and the next a narrative of Newton Francis Xavier’s life, alternating back to interviews and so forth. A novel presented in a series of fragments, it is not linear, although you can follow the exposes quite simply. But it is not simply the narrative plotline that is the attraction here.

Poets Man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage, always looking out for their own interests. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment, humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chitchat, gossip. They’re good at it because that’s how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like the poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise. The point I am trying to make is that poets are born with certain unenviable traits. For example, paranoia. For example, they admire self-sabotage and the perverse. And for a last example, they are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by and infinite capacity for remorse. (pp23-24)

A work that every few pages throws a new revelation, or a quotable quote, right at you, for example Dismas, low class, low caste is in the USA, of course he is displaced, what does he do for acceptance? Consumerism?

Two weeks later, with his first paycheque in hand, Dismas went to the Macy’s flagship at Herald Square and bought a pair of premium wheat nubuck Tims for $189.99 and a Kangol Two-Tone 504 for $39.99. He wore the cap back to front so the logo would face the world. He packed his Converses in a Macy’s bad and wore the Tims out of the store. He picked up the new Alicia Keys and a portable CD player shaped like a frisbee. All the way home he noticed others like himself, recognisably set apart by the bags they caried from various retail giants. The young father in baggy jeans and white T-shirt who proudly carried purchases from The Gap, Urban Outfitters, and Calvin Klein; the elegant older lady with the distinctive Barney’s bag; the couple with matching sets of Bed, Bath & Beyond. He was one among them, an extended family on a weekend outing, people from all kinds of ethnic and economic backgrounds bound together by the same great yearning. With his first substantial act of shopping since arriving in New York he felt American at last. Nothing else mattered, not his past, not his caste, not the weight of his degraded history. In this great country the only caste marks were the brand names you accessorised. (pp82-83)

It is these moments of clarity that keep drawing you back into the work. The controversy of 9/11 also presents itself in a rumbling distorted presentation, the impact on Indians, Sikh’s mistaken for Muslims, is one of racist payback and revenge killings, the fear of those marginalised groups in the USA at that time being masterfully captured, and although this is fiction, you feel the opinions of Newton will rile quite a few readers.

You are an American with a job on Wall Street and an apartment in Park Slope. People give you their money and you knead it like dough: you supersize it. You run in the park in a warm-up jacket with headphones strapped to your arm. You don’t take sugar in your coffee. You don’t eat white bread or potatoes. You don’t drink beer. You have a body mass index calculator on your computer and it tells you your weight, real and ideal, in relation to your height. You take your coffee black. In your office there is a leather couch and two leather armchairs and a framed lithograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed and numbered by the artist. You are an American: a New Yorker: a Brooklynite. Then the towers come down and you find yourself on a plane headed west. It is 2003, wartime in American. You have to be wearing a turban and sitting on a place to Arizona via Texas to understand the meaning of this. (p127)

This is a confronting work, poverty, sodomy, rape, drug abuse, flow in and out of the storyline. In one beautifully constructed section Goody Lol tries heroin for the first time and the text becomes more garbled and slowly disintegrates in front of your eyes.

However it is not all horror, there are some wonderfully humorous lines, for example;

The year I’m talking about is 1996. I remember because of the music, angst-in-my-pants from North America. Bands named after food items, pumpkins and honey and jam, suicidal white boys trying on grime like a flannel shirt. (p224)

This book is an inadvertent lesson in how not to write.

Full of digressions, this homage is full of tortured souls, poets, painters, writers, the fictional blending with the factual, there is a large powerful section where Jeet Thayil lists writers who have committed suicide. Where was Eduardo Leve? However you could spend a lifetime just reading the works of the writers Jeet Thayil has referenced here, let alone all the other authors and poets chronicled throughout.

In certain ways the lives of the poets and the lives of the saints are similar: the solitary travails, the epiphanic awakening and early actualisation, the thwarting and the mercy, the small rewards, the false starts, the workaday miracles, the joyous visions and fearful hallucinations, the flagellation of the flesh and the lonely difficult deaths. (p355)

It is the “Chocolate Saints” always hovering in the background, the wrongly treated, originally dark skinned these “Saints” are now known as fair skinned, and it is Newton Francis Xavier who is going to bring their true heritage and tales to our attention, through his artwork and his poetry. Is his name Francis Xavier a co-incidence? Francis Xavier was “the patron saint of wanderers without destination”… “a small exhausted dark-skinned man”.

This novel charts the “unmapped world of Indian poetry, a world known only unto itself.” The listing of numerous real Indian poets is phenomenal, for example there is a passing reference to Lawrence Bantleman, a young poet who gave up his art and died young. If you Google him you will find no information about his life, but you will find his poems.

Covering displacement, artistic creation, political motivation, caste politics, race, skin colour, the fringes of society, perversion and so much more, Jeet Thayil has created a vibrant homage to Indian poetry and forgotten Eastern Saints. The similarities to Bolaño are obvious, however I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’d wager the author couldn’t care less either, that persona preceding him!!

If the Man Booker Prize judges show some fortitude and reward writing that challenges you, that tries new things, then we will be hearing a lot more about this book when the long and shortlists are announced later this year. If they go with their standard safe, non-disruptive fare then maybe this book will become one of those obscure works rarely referenced, rarely read, and that would be upsetting.

A revelation, with disruptive and thought provoking exposés throughout, you can’t go many pages without something gripping you and tossing you out of your daily slumber. Great to see poets, by trade, shaking up the literary world.

…he would make his subject a window from which to view a broken society and a vanquished literature.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 Shortlists

nsw-premiers-awards-2018This morning the 2018 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced. There are a raft of awards with varying amounts of Prizemoney on offer. Winners will be announced on 30 April, judges for each award are hard to work out as the whole lot of them are listed in alphabetical order, without the category they are judging.

Here are the shortlists, with the prizemoney listed for each award.

The Christina Stead Prize ($40,000) is offered for a book of fiction

“Common People” by Tony Birch
“Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark” by Catherine Cole
“Pulse Points: Stories” by Jennifer Down
“The Book of Dirt” by Bram Presser
“The Restorer” by Michael Sala
“Taboo” by Kim Scott

The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) is for a prose work other than a work of fiction

“Victoria: The Woman Who Made the Modern World” by Julia Baird
“’A passion for exploring new countries’ Matthew Finders & George Bass” by Josephine Bastian
“The Enigmatic Mr Deakin” by Judith Brett
“Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth” by Paul Ham
“The Green Bell: A Memoir of Love, Madness and Poetry” by Paul Keogh
“The Boy Behind the Curtain” by Tim Winton

The Kenneth Slessor Prize ($30,000) is offered to a poet for a book of collected poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form.

“Archipelago” by Adam Aitken
“Euclid’s Dog: 100 algorithmic poems” by Jordie Albiston
“Bone Ink” by Rico Craig (my review & interview with the poet at the link)
“Argosy” by Bella Li
“Captive and Temporal” by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng
“The Wild Houses” by Omar Sakr

The Ethel Turner Prize ($30,000) is offered for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry written for young people of secondary school level

“In The Dark Spaces” by Cally Black
“The Blue Cat” by Ursula Dubosarsky
“The One That Disappeared” by Zana Fraillon
“A Shadow’s Breath” by Nicole Hayes
“The Build-Up Season” by Megan Jacobson
“Ballad for a Mad Girl” by Vikki Wakefield

The Patricia Wrightson Prize ($30,000) is offered for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry written for children up to secondary school level

“The Patchwork Bike” by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd
“The Elephants” by Peter Carnavas
“Blossom” by Tasmin Janu
“Figgy Takes the City” by Tasmin Janu
“How to Bee” by Bren MacDibble
“The Sorry Tale of Fox and Bear” by Margrete Lamond and illustrated by Heather Vallance

The Nick Enright Prize ($30,000) is offered for a play or a work of music drama given its first production in Australia between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2016

“The Sound of Waiting” by Mary Anne Butler
“Rice” by Michele Lee
“Black is the New White” by Nakkiah Lui
“Mark Colvin’s Kidney” by Tommy Murphy
“Little Emperors” by Lachlan Philpott
“The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man” by Tom Wright

The Betty Roland Prize ($30,000) is offered for the screenplay of a feature-length fiction film, for the script of a documentary film, for the script of a play or documentary for radio, or for the script of a television program (whether fiction or non-fiction)

“Deep Water: The Real Story” by Amanda Blue and Jacob Hickey
“Top of the Lake: China Girl, Series 2 Episode 4 ‘Birthday’” by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee
“Sweet Country” by Steven McGregor and David Tranter
“Seven Types of Ambiguity, Episode 2 ‘Alex’” by Jacquelin Perske
“Please Like Me, Series 4 Episode 5 ‘Burrito Bowl’” by Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward and Liz Doran

The Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) – criteria is quite substantial, if you’re interested you can read about it here http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/about-library-awards-nsw-premiers-literary-awards/multicultural-nsw-award

“No More Boats” by Felicity Castagna
“The Permanent Resident” by Roanna Gonsalves
“Dark Convicts” by Judy Johnson
“The Family Law, Series 2 Episode 4” by Nejamin Law and Kirsty Fisher
“Down the Hume” by Peter Polites
“Quicksilver” by Nicholas Rothwell

The Indigenous Writers’ Prize ($30,000) – offered biennially.

“Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling” by Larissa Behrendt
“Common People by Tony Birch
“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss
“The Drover’s Wife” by Leah Purcell
“Taboo” by Kim Scott

The UTS Glenda Adams Award ($5,000) is for a published book of fiction written by an author who has not previously published a book-length work of narrative fiction or narrative non-fiction. There is no shortlist, the winner is announced on 30 April 2018

Both the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize and the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize are awarded biennially and will be awarded in 2019.

I will attempt to get to all of the poetry titles before the announcement of the winner, no promises though, my backlogs are horrendous!!!

 

The House of Ulysses – Julián Ríos (translated by Nick Caistor)

HouseOfUlysses

A fiction about a fiction!

Author Julián Ríos, in an interview published on the Dalkey Archive website, when asked about his influences, spoke about James Joyce and “Ulysses”, he said; “I published a fiction-essay or kind of meta-novel on this masterpiece, Casa Ulises”, that work was translated by Nick Caistor, and published in 2010, appearing as “The House of Ulysses”.

A novel that is a physical and mental tour through James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, we are guided through the “house” by;

Our Cicerone in rigorous black with a purple polka-dot bow tie, long-legged and pallid, white streaks in chestnut hair smoother back with brilliantine, a blind man’s glasses, a straggly moustache. Like an ice-skater or Fredasteric dance he glided across the Museum’s wide black-and-white checkerboard floor.

The touring party, through the House of Ulysses, includes our narrator, who simply observes and reports to us, three readers;

carrying (each one, one each) a volume of the monumental illustrated edition of Ulysses in three parts: a lanky gent with a white-flecked beard wearing prehistoric white overalls; to his left, the slender form of a dark-haired girl poured into a pair of white shorts, cropped hair and laughing black eyes (“Eyes full of night”) over the indigo “Ulysses Museum” T-shirt, fronted and back-sided by Joyce; to her left, a few paces away, wrapped in a grayish coat with bulging pockets, the tiny old man with white locks and crackling breath, sucking on an extinguished pipe.
The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.

And lurking in the background is a “beanpole unanimously baptized as the “man with the Macintosh” (a Macintosh computer, that is)”. These five characters, Cicerone, A, B, C and the man with the Macintosh are our prime debaters throughout this homage.

As readers of Ulysses would recognise, within the introduction of the main players, all within the first three pages of this book, Julián Ríos is playing with references and characters from Joyce’s work.

The book begins with the “Antechambers” of the Museum, where we step inside, and have a high level Homeric introduction. Once we enter the Museum itself we simply follow each of the eighteen chapters from Joyce’s work, named according to the Gilbert schema…’Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’, ‘Proteus’…etc.

Each chapter is broken into two sections, a tour through the physical room, where debate, discussions take place, and a section called “Passageways” where snippets of information about Joyce’s work are presented. Each chapter also includes an explanatory ‘card’ or screen print, containing the schema, For example;

Nestor

As you can probably gather, it is probably a prerequisite to have read James Joyce’s work, even though Julián Ríos also says in the interview quoted above, “I strongly recommend it to those unable to finish Ulysses.” The presentation of facts, alternate readings, views, deciphering theories are presented throughout this book, here an example from “The Laestrygonians”;

The whole chapter is a tragicomedy about food. “Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!” Bloom meditates. Everybody here eats and is eaten. A tramp chews his scarred knuckles in the doorway of the Long John, while in another pub, Byrne’s, a flea is busy devouring Nosey Flynn, who in turn swallows his own snot. Bloom established a list of the strangest things people have been known to eat: Who was it who ate his own dandruff? he wonders. And from there he leaps straight to the Caspian Sea and to caviar… (p112)

Form is also of interest, as readers of “Ulysses” would know, ‘Circe’ is presented as a script, here “Scylla and Charybdis” is presented as a script;

C (counting by tapping his pipe on his fingers): That makes six. I’m afraid there’s one missing for a dress rehearsal of Hamlet.
PROFESSOR JONES (
eyes rolled up): The number seven, beloved of the mystical mind and Pythagoreans. The number of creation, of the planets and alchemists…
C: “The shining seven,” according to a verse by Yeats quotes at the start of this chapter.
B: Yes, it’s Bloom who is missing. He appears almost on tiptoe in the middle of this literary piece, then appears and disappears rapidly at the end of the chapter.
A: I would say that Hamlet-Stephen’s real ghostly father is Bloom: he is such a ghostly presence we hardly even notice him. (pp123-124)

The ninth chapter in “Ulysses” being, “The comedy of a critical comedy in two acts and an intermission that takes place at two in the afternoon in the office of the director of the Irish National Library in Kildare Street.”

At times, using Joycean styles, but at times reading like explanatory notes, and at other times a humorous satire of a satire, as the back cover says “a slapstick parody of the Joyce industry”, this is really a book for people who have read “Ulysses”. At times I felt like I was back in a University classroom, some of the theories being bandied around quite extreme, maybe relevant and maybe planned by Joyce, or maybe just wild theories dreamt up.

Interestingly the development of A, B and C, as they each debate Ulysses, is one of the side features of the book, A the academic bantering with the similarly pedantic C, B bringing the voice of reason, or valid quotes from Joyce’s work to the table. Scant in name, rich in character and depth of knowledge of “Ulysses”, the anonymous characters portray the various ways you can approach Joyce’s book.

Julián Ríos has shown an amazing depth of knowledge of James Joyce’s work (there are references to other books by Joyce), as well as a raft of other literary works, and to think English is not his first language!!! As a recent reader of “Ulysses” I thoroughly enjoyed the banter, the settings, the style and the theories, for people who are yet to read James Joyce’s book I’d think it would fall rather flat.