This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris

March 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt  from  a poem by Claudio Damiani –

This is the garden; when you look it’s far

too bright and burns your eyes

and so you turn away, although you know

that everything is real, everything you see

is real, and through time life unwinds

and is complete . . .

This is the GardenThose words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi.  Some are very good, some less so.  All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful):  a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted.   Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to.  But this collection had me feeling look-warm.  Not excited. Not disappointed.  I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.

Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.

The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join.  From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t.  And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into  a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special.  He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves.  But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.

F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection.  His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on.  Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.

Another favorite is Glass.  The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection.  In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life.  He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.

I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right.  It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green  and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters.  In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling.  The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…

… and so on.  The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.

A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories.  If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.

These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators.  But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective.  All first person narrators are unreliable by definition.  They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be.  A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind.  And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples.  Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom.  The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’

Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7

Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

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.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

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

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All My Friends by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

July 5, 2013 § 5 Comments

All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye.  The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump.  I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing.  The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality.  All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis.  Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting.  NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion.  What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.

The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student.  The student is now his housekeeper.  His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships.  She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain.  At least that’s what he believes.  The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles.  The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.

“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging.  The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow.  These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date?  They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories.  These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.

I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid.  I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.

And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant.  We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective.  And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.

Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick.  For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them.  The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.

The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding.  They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) .  In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers.  On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son.  Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies.  Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.

René, as a character, is fascinating.  As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy.  René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner.  His brothers and sisters admire him.  But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’.  René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation.  His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers.  And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem.  Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.

In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother.  A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination.  This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions.  At first she tells us of how she hates her son.  How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home.  “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought.  And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told –

She was angry with herself for that.  This son was not cruel.  His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew.  She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.

The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed.  She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him.  She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head.  This son becomes the only son who understood her.  She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.*  She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.

All My Friends is a slim little book.  After finishing and absorbing (and you definitely need time to absorb) what I’d just read, I couldn’t help but wonder what a longer story by this author – with all its edges softened and gaps filled in –  might look like?  That’s the tease of All My Friends.  A bit like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Marie NDiaye’s stories are just strange enough and interesting enough to spark readers curiosity.  And then leave them impatiently waiting for more.

Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 23 8

*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.

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The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman

May 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

The Honey Thief

One of my favorite covers ever. The effect of a watercolor or ink brush painting on the textured, matte dust jacket is gorgeous.

The best travel advice I’ve ever received is:  befriend the locals.  Or rather, convince the locals to befriend you. Whether it’s a small town in Maine or a village in Afghanistan (preferably when there’s not a war going on), no one knows a place like the people who live there.

I won’t be visiting Afghanistan any time soon – and sadly, I’m left to wonder if the Afghanistan it describes still exists – but be that as it may The Honey Thief is a great way to learn more about the nation and the Hazara people who make up roughly 22% of its population.  The book is  a collaboration between Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman.  Mazari is a native Afghani who left his home country in 2001 and now lives in Australia with his family. He is the author of the memoir The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif  Robert Hillman is the prize-winning Australian author of the autobiographyThe Boy in the Green Suit.  So both these men have some authorial experience behind them.  I call them collaborators rather than co-authors based on their  own description of the process by which this book was written  –

Najaf talks; Robert fashions what he says into the sentences that become the stories.  When Robert has completed a chapter or a story, Najaf reads it and offers suggestions.  The question Najaf asks himself as he’s reading is this:  “If these words were now translated into Dari, would my family in Afghanistan nod their heads and say, ‘This is our country.  This is true’?”

The result is an engaging little book of short stories and recipes told to us by a friendly and charismatic narrator It’s the narrative voice, Najaf Mazari’s voice I expect, that sells The Honey Thief.   His storytelling contains the perfect blend of honesty, exaggeration & nostalgia – capturing the charming informality of the oral tradition.

And the idea of including traditional recipes is pure genius.  These are written in the same style as the rest of the book and contain instructions like: “Fresh yoghurt.  This must be proper yoghurt, not that foolish yoghurt that is sometimes sold with bananas in it and strawberries and sugar”.  It’s as if you’re standing in the kitchen next to Mazari while he prepares dinner.  It’s a wonderful change from the ubiquitous discussion points meant to target the members of book clubs.

The recipes are a bonus feature that comes at the end though.  The Honey Thief starts by telling us about the Hazara people.

A tribe is a world.  I have described myself to people who are not of my tribe in this way and that, and usually I satisfy the person I’m talking to, and also satisfy myself, up to a point.    I say ‘ I am a pacifist,’ and so place myself in a very large tribe of people who share at least one belief with me.  Or I say, ‘I am a businessman,’ and the banker I am addressing knows that I can be relied on to keep an accurate account of what I buy and sell; that I make sensible decisions with my money.  I say, ‘I am a Muslim,’ and the Muslim listening to me will make a dozen assumptions about the life I lead, most of them correct.  When I meet a Hazara,  I don’t say, ‘Nice to meet you, I am Hazara.’ There is no need.  We will greet each other in a different way to the way we greet people who are not of our tribe.  We will be both excited and shy at one time.  Excited because we are brothers, shy because without even knowing my name, the man I am talking to can see deep into my heart…

From there you’ll go n to read an eclectic mix of histories, folktales, family stories and (of course) the recipes.  The Honey Thief really has a little bit of everything.  I particularly liked the stories set in the recent past (1970’s & 80’s). In many ways these are the most brutal, but that’s because they seem the most connected to current events.  Many of them follow the life of Abbas Behishti  who is a young boy dealing with the loss of his beloved grandfather when we meet him in the titular story.  As a grown man he makes a journey on motorcycle across a landscape stripped bare by  war with the Soviets.  The stark juxtaposition of a man whose way of life seems to have changed very little since his apprenticeship as a child to a beekeeper and the mujaheddin soldiers with machine guns he encounters as he travels across the country is startling… as much to him as to us.  The inclusion of these slices of a “modern” Afghanistan rounds out the book and turns it into something of a mini compendium on the Hazara people. 

Even with the introduction of modern warfare, this is still one of the more light-hearted  accounts of Afghani life I’ve read to date.  Alternating between  fables and stories makes them resonate and creates context.  Add the traditional recipes and it becomes an immersive experience.  Underlying it all is the deep love of an expatriate for the home he’s left behind. The Honey Thief is a chance to learn about a place and it’s people from someone who knows it best.

Publisher:  Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 670 02648 7

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The Rise of the Short Story – Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog

March 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

The tagline for Winstonsdad’s Blog is “best in translated lit from all four corners”.  That’s no idle boast:  Stu has reviewed 325 books from approximately 86 countries.  He’s the creator of the popular #TranslationThurs hashtag – and is one of the most passionate bloggers on the topic of translated and international literature on the web.  To be honest, I’m not sure where he finds the time!  When he’s not blogging or tweeting ( @stujallen ), then he’s participating in a lit month dedicated to one country or another, or engaged in a reading challenge or a juror on a shadow jury.
Simply put – If you’re interested in translations then you NEED to be reading Stu’s blog and following him on twitter.  Period.

I like the occasional short story I sit in the fence I regards them never a huge fan or hater of short stories ,because of the nature of what I rad mostly translations as with them in English they tend to be second class so there isn’t as many translated .But in recent years it is slowly change press like Peirene ,archipelago ,granta and new directions have all been publishing wonderful collections in translation . As for the short story on whole I thing as media and ways we read have changed they have come more to the for they suit podcasts ,phones and e readers and average short story can be read in a days commute to work . I feel short story have found there new home in the digital world .

As for a suggestion I ll give one definitive one and a couple other writers my book suggestion is Circus  Bulgaria by Deyan Enev a collection In Translation of rather unusual and odd short stories my favorite being one about a little boy and a hedgehog at night . My other suggestion is to look at the short stories of some great writers Evelyn Waugh and  E M Forster both much better known for the novels but both wrote innovative short stories much different than there novels at times .

Stu’s recommendations:  Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev, Evelyn Waugh & E.M. Forster

Thank you Stu for sharing your thoughts and recommendations on the rise of the short story.  And (most sincerely) for creating #TranslationThurs

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