May 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
What kind of writer eviscerates his own novel? What drives a person to that extreme? And – just so we’re clear – we’re not talking about paring down the prose or making a few surgical edits to tighten up the plot. Carlos Labbé rips out entire chapters of his book and leaves huge, gaping holes behind. That takes guts. When it works it’s exciting and innovative. And, yes, disturbing. When it doesn’t it’s frustrating and… well it’s frustrating.
There are two parallel narratives in Navidad & Matanza. The first, which opens and closes the book, is narrated by a journalist investigating the 1999 disappearance of the teenage son & daughter of a video game executive – Alicia & Bruno Vivar. The Vivar family is fabulously wealthy. And, if Domingo the journalist is to be believed, fabulously debauched. The youngest, fourteen year old Alicia, is the most jaded of the clan. Wise, as the saying goes, beyond her years. Her education has been taken in hand by a much older “friend” of the family. A Congolese theremin musician who goes by the name of Boris Real. Domingo’s pet theory is that Real is linked to the siblings disappearance. But it is only one of his many theories. He is constantly revisiting and re-imagining moments and scenarios; gathering first hand accounts from men and women who were witnesses to crucial events.
Domingo’s obsession with Alicia & Bruno’s disappearance is, perhaps, too personal. His speculations on what could have happened – and on the daily lives of the brother & sister before they vanished – are exercises in voyeuristic fantasy. Domingo displays all the tell-tale signs of an unreliable narrator. There’s obviously more going on here than the reader is privy to; Labbé manipulates us until we’re desperate to see those missing chapters. And yet the narrative remains solid despite their omission.
The man from the service station accompanied Alicia to the beach, walking two steps behind her for several kilometers through the night. She asked many questions and he answered them, aware all the time of the cash he’d make housing this strange group of people for a few days. Afterward everything would be calm and normal again. That’s what he believed, he said. But it wasn’t so. Every once in a while the girl would yell: Right? Left? And now, which way? It was like she was walking with her eyes closed, like she wanted to be guided in the darkness. Then all of a sudden the sound of the sea was very near. When the sand and docas came into view, Alicia started to run. Rising up from down below he heard a shrill, sharp sound. At first it seemed to him that a woman was screaming. The he though someone was doing something bad to the young girl. He quickened his pace across the beach. The night was moonless, and there were no streetlamps in the town, and so he was barely able to make out two distant silhouettes approaching the water. Little by little the shrill sound turned into a birdsong, into the gurgle of an immense stomach, and finally into a strange music. “A female robot, singing with her mouth shut in the shower,” that’s how Patrice Dounn’s theremin sounded to the man from the service station. The foreigner was standing on a dune, an open case beside him – a different case, not the one he’d opened in the kitchen – his left hand suspended above a strange gleaming, blue instrument. The other hand, the right hand, moved slowly toward and away from the object. The music was very beautiful.
The insertion of a second narrative complicates the story. Domingo, we learn, is a test subject in an experiment. He and six others are housed in an underground laboratory and administered a drug called hadon, making them fearful and prone to violence. They play the “novel-game” to pass the time; writing and exchanging chapters, they all contribute to the plot of a single story. They are writing the Vivar family history. Domingo is one of them. Not only a character in the story; he is a writer. Not just imagining scenarios as we suspected in the first narrative; but authoring them in the second.
Will Vanderhyden translation provides two separate styles for the two separate narratives in Navidad & Mantanza. The portion set in the “real world’ is written in lush, sultry prose. In the emails that comprise the novel-game the prose is emptier, cleaner and more clinical. The missing chapters are even more keenly felt (is that possible?) because there is so little to go on – no landscapes, no physical descriptions or a sense of time. Just excerpts from a correspondence, given without a context to place them in.
And yet the mind naturally reaches out to fill in the blanks left by those missing chapters, like water will fill crevices in rock. Not at first, but in the weeks afterwards I began to take ownership of Domingo’s and Labbé’s story, making my own assumptions on what was going on. Adding to and shaping the plot all on my own. Until suddenly I realized I’d joined the game. That I’d become another player. A neat trick.
Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 92 4
April 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
Dubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011. Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book. Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected. A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.
To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice. Direct, ironic and slightly irritated. As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider. And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation. There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country. Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next. In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.
When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time, I articulated it with conviction and clarity.
“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.
I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred. That was twenty years ago.
“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”
To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.
“I always say Tito!” he fired.
“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”
I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending. In the end I chose a regular name. At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.
There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence. (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.
Great writing. Wickedly entertaining. Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.
You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books. Don’t bother fighting it. It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.
Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious). This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to get everyone thinking about the things that matter.
Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4
*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen.
February 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Title: Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive, and peaceable succeed?
Cairo erupted during eighteen days between January 25th and February 11th, 2011. It was one of the first in what became the string of global protests that were held in 2011 & early 2012. That chain included the Tunisian “Jasmine” Revolution; America’s Occupy Wall Street (the OCCUPY banner of which was taken up by groups in England, Germany and Ireland, among others); the 15-M Movement in Spain and the protests in Italy and Greece. Most of these movements continue barely acknowledged by the media. The common cause of the protesters: income inequality. In the West this was and is represented by the banking system and finance industry – the ubiquitous 1%. Government corruption are also being targeted. And while most of these protests began peacefully, few have ended so.
Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps best known for her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love; and her marriage to the late author Ian Hamilton. She is also a journalist, translator, and political activist who calls both London and Cairo home. Her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, is a filmmaker and a founding member of the activist media collective Mosireen. Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed expands on her earlier account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury UK. This new edition includes a final chapter entitled “Eighteen Days Were Never Enough”.
What happened during those original eighteen days? The Egyptian people, led by the Egyptian youth (Shabaab) , descended on Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down and Democratic elections be held. The political factions – and they were many – formed a temporary truce in support of the greater good. The Egyptian Army stood with the protesters. At least for a time. Mubarak’s people sent wave after wave of attacks, sometimes covertly through saboteurs who infiltrated the Square. Many young people were injured or killed. Their leaders were imprisoned. Throughout this time, Tahrir Square was transformed. Much like Zuccotti Park in NYC, it became a campground, a festival and a political stage.
Both books seem to be based on the journals and notes Soueif kept as events were happening; she frequently refers to her determination to act as a witness But her writing is more polished, more novelistic, than a simple journal entry. Her words lack the immediacy of a true, first hand report. Ms. Soueif narrates in over-ripe prose; managing to capture all of the romance, exuberance and child-like euphoria of those early days of revolution. Every moment is saturated with portent and emotion. Her family members stride, godlike across the pages – often appearing and acting as a collective. The scenes where she describes them coming together take on the characteristics of the magical realism genre. As in the scene where they celebrate her nephew’s release from prison and the birth of his son (the newest member of this tightly knit family).
We swept and cleaned the house I’d refurbished in my mother’s orchard. We laid out tables and chairs and strung up colored lights and strings of Egyptian flags. We set up a barbecue, and all our family and friends and friends of friends came and brought lots of food. We played music and danced and carried Khaled in a satin-lined sieve into every room and into all the dark corners so he would know his wa;y and know there was nothing,ever, to be afraid of, and we sprinkled the seven seeds in his path so he would always have plenty, and we sang to him the old instructions to obey his mother and father and added that he must never ever obey SCAF or a government. My mother’s orchard was teaming and buzzing and radiating love and light. And just before midnight, we all drove to Tahrir – the biggest family home in the world. And despite the dark days, Tahrir was full of hope and joy, and there was music and song and a church choir and people all the time gathering around Alaa and talking talking talking about the future and what we need to do.*
This isn’t meant as a negative criticism – quite the opposite. Cairo is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the political book. The novelistic quality – the over exuberance – of Soueif’s narrative voice is precisely what makes it so accessible and addictive. It balances the obvious care taken revising and re-editing the text. There is even a post-modern element – Soueif is very aware that the present in which these words are being read is different from her present. That her readers exist in an uncertain future.
And so we follow the author as she moves between Tahrir Square, the various homes and offices of her family and the news studios from which she sends out dispatches to contradict the “official” reports being released by the government. There is an emotional investment in what is happening – remember, these are her children and this is her city. Souef’s son, nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors all play a part. Her worry and pride is palpable, stirring the same in her readers. While her generation is involved, the 2011 Revolution is primarily led by the Shabaab. They are the front line. And there are times when the streets surrounding the Square were a war zone.
For those who only know Soueif as a novelist, Cairo is a vivid reminder of her roots in journalism. She possesses the ability to step back and recognize the larger implications of what is happening in her home country. And so she interrupts herself (in a chapter called, appropriately, “An Interruption”. Interjecting from 18 months in the future to report on the current state of the Revolution. The format is the same one she uses throughout the entire book. The narrative loosely organized into days and hours. But the exuberance is momentarily gone. The movement’s leaders, many of the same nieces as nephews who we stood in the Square with a few pages ago, are now being accused and arrested. Fissures are forming between the different political parties. The population of the city is growing weary of the interruptions to their lives. A lot has changed. Soueif acknowledges that even more time has passed for the reader. That even more changes of which she is unaware will occur. “You… are in a future unknown to me”. And of course she is right.
In the present we know that Mubarak was forced out, that general elections were held and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. In June of 2013 public protests were held calling for his resignation and in July he was forcibly removed by a military coup. Adly Mahmoud Mansour was appointed interim president. The military has in recent months begun a crackdown on leaders of the 2011 revolution and Morsi is facing charges of incitement of murder, violence and of espionage. A police station in Mansoura was bombed on December 24th and the government is declaring the Muslim Brotherhood responsible (despite the group’s denials). They’ve been labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt. The network that ran Mubarak’s security state, by many accounts, is back. Violence swells, breaks and recedes for a time, only to swell again. And readers outside of Egypt are left trying to sift the news for truth.
“This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living. And there are two problems in the writing of it. One is that while the eighteen days are locked into the past, the revolution and the fight to hold on to it continue, and every day the landscape shifts. THe other is that you – my reader – are in a future unknown to me, and yet I want to tell a story that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”
For those interested in learning more, the New York Times publishes up to date news on events in Egypt here. You can follow Ahdaf Soueif on Twitter @asoueif and her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, @ORHamilton.
* To clarify: Khaled is the infant
Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90810 0
February 19, 2014 § 8 Comments
A True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.* Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition. Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.
The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting – getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge. But the differences are significant. Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone. And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.
The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character. Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track. And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced). All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.
There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity. A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality. Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism. For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes –
“My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy
“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote. It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth… “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.
Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel. And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original. The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line. Their connections to the past is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.
Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.
“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.
In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology. The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground. Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.
I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”
One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs. Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”. All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant. The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author. His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example. Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.
A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist. Should it win… well… it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works. It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for March 11th to see how it plays out.
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 159051203 6
*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains. They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.
December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction. Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories. Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.
A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books. Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.” The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists. The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible. Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages. And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves. This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.
The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history. Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline. The changes in writing styles are much more drastic. Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013). The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time. It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.
Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator. He was a member of the German artist community. His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name). Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp. He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.
But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII. His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining. In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time. The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.
… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask. “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina. Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc. I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette. “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado? That’s where the real bedlam’s at. You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you? Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.” But in the end we decide on something completely different.
In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it. He is a modern-day expatriate. Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books. His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized. Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A. “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind. “Angst” is another. Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.
The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order. I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them. After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place. They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.
Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites. That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting. Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.
The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.
Publisher: Readux Books, Berlin
In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN: 978 3 944801 01 8
City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN: 978 3 944801 03 2