Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if it made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

The Red Notebook In a Rose-Colored World

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Red Notebook

Author:  Antoine Laurain

Translator:  Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2015)

ISBN:  978 19083 1 3867

TheRedNotebookAntoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again.  The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand.  None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly.  Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.

The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object.  A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character).  He sets out to find her.  In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance.  Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.

Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled.  His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche.  Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.

At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks.  Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore.  Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Therein lies the rub.

The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative.  It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows.  But I can’t imagine three months from now saying  – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.

 

2015 Translation Awards – By the Numbers

April 13, 2015 § 7 Comments

None of the 10 authors nominated for the Man Booker International Prize has a book on the 4 longlists.

There are 76 spots on the combined longlists, including the 6 write-in spots for the Typographical Translation Prize. (3 of the 6 write-in titles show up on 1 of the 3 other longlists).

There are 62 unique titles across the 4 lists.

34 of the books are from Europe, 14 Latin America, 9 from Asia, 3 from Africa, 1 from the Middle East, 1 from North America.

France has the most books on the combined lists – 7.

There are 19 female authors represented & 41 male authors.

Bohumil Hrabal has 2 separate titles on The Best Translated Book Award longlist (translated by 2 different translators).

The I Ching translated by John Minford has no attributable author.

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman, is the only title on 3 lists – The Best Translated Book Award, The PEN Translation Prize & The Typographical Translation Prize.  All 3 are American prizes, which has me wondering whether it is eligible for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize?

12 titles appear on 2 of the lists.

Texas. The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee won The Typographical Translation Prize and is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

There are 58 individual translators across the 4 longlists.

4 titles were translated by a pair/team of translators.

2 translators on The Typographical Translation Prize longlist are brother & sister. Neither won.

7 translators have 2 books on the lists – Andrew Bromfield, Daniel Hahn, Silvestor Mazarella, Polly Gannon, Margaret Jull Costa, Jordan Stump & Don Bartlett.

Margaret Jull Costa is competing against herself for the Best Translated Book Award.

NUMBERS

Translation Award Season – The 2015 Edition

April 8, 2015 § 6 Comments

‘Tis the season for Translation Awards.  The 2015 Best Translated Book Award, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, PEN Translation Prize, Man Booker International Prize and Typographical Translation Prize (which has already been selected) – I’ve included the long lists for all five below.  This year I thought it would be fun to put them all in one place and compare.  Later this week I’ll be taking a closer look…  But for now, enjoy!

2015 Best Translated Book Award

  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Denmark, Two Lines Press)
  • The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires by Julio Cortázar, translated by David Kurnick (Argentina, Semiotext(e))
  • Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov (Russia, Counterpoint Press)
  • 1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale (France, New Press)
  • Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandell (France, Open Letter Books)
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
  • Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Pushkin Press)
  • Monastery by Eduardo Halfon, translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn (Guatemala, Bellevue Literary Press)
  • Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated by John Keene (Brazil, Nightboat Books)
  • Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago Books)
  • Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by David Short (Czech Republic, Karolinum Press)
  • The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, New York Review Books)
  • Works by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
  • Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal, translated by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier (Argentina, McGill-Queen’s University Press)
  • Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich (Taiwan, New York Review Books)
  • Winter Mythologies and Abbots by Pierre Michon, translated by Ann Jefferson (France, Yale University Press)
  • Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner (Rwanda, Archipelago Books)
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)
  • La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph (Argentina, Open Letter Books)
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Hispabooks)
  • Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, translated by Nicky Harman (Hong Kong, East Slope Publishing)
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 

  • Bloodlines by Marcello Fois, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (Italy, MacLehose Press)
  • Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett (Norway, Harvill Secker)
  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar (Equatorial Guinea, And Other Stories)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Japanese, Harvill Secker)
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (Germany, Quercus)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, translated by Frank Wynne (Colombia, Pushkin Press)
  • Look Who’s Back by Vernes Timur, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Germany, MacLehose Press/Quercus)
  • The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Russian, Peirene Press)
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, Portobello Books)
  • The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Germany, Bloomsbury)
  • The Investigation by J.M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Korea, Mantle/Pan Macmillan)
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan (Chinese, Yale University Press)
  • The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed, translated by Sarah Death (Sweden, Clerkenwell Press)
  • Tiger Milk by Stefanie De Velasco, translated by Tim Mohr (Germany, Head of Zeus)
  • While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, translated by Paul Vincent (Belgium, Pushkin Press)

The 2015 PEN Translation Prize

  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt (Poland, Yale/Margellos)
  • The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush (Spain, New York Review Books)
  • The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon (Russia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier, translated by Alex Gilly (Franc, Ecco)
  • The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner (Cuba, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • I Ching, translated by John Minford (China, Viking Books)
  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Denmark, Two Lines Press)
  • Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee  (Mexico, Deep Vellum Publishing)
  • Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)
  • The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal & Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, New York Review Books)

The 2014 Typographical Translation Prize 

  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Greenland, Two Lines Press)
  • The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon (Russia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (Iraq/Finland, Penguin)
  • A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Chile, New Directions)
  • The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • 1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale (France, The New Press)
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
  • With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated by Adam Morris (Brazil, Melville House)
  • The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich (Japan, Pushkin Press)
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Janeway (Germany, Pantheon)
  • My Struggle Book Three: Boyhood by Karl Ove Knausgard, translated by Don Bartlett (Norway, Archipelago)
  • Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett (Netherlands, Hogarth)
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
  • Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Open Letter Books)
  • The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-yi, translated by Darryl Sterk (Taiwan, Pantheon)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Japan, Knopf)
  • Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, FSG)
  • The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Russia, Quercus)
  • The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland (Norway, Other Press)
  • Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee (Mexico, Deep Vellum) – Write In / WINNER
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Hispabooks) – Write In
  • Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabel, translated by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago) – Write In
  • Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated by Daniel Hahn (Brazil, And Other Stories) – Write In
  • Guyana by Elise Turcotte, translated by Rhonda Mullins (French Canada, Coach House Books) – Write In
  • The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman (China, Forty-Six) – Write In

The Man Booker International Prize 2015

  • César Aira (Argentina)
  • Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
  • Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
  • Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe/France)
  • Mia Couto (Mozambique)
  • Amitav Ghosh (Calcutta)
  • Fanny Howe (U.S.A.)
  • László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
  • Alain Mabanckou (Congo/France)
  • Marlene Van Niekerk (South Africa)

 

 

 

The Genius of Georges Simenon – continued

March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

2

TheHangedManThe Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Penguin Books, features Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.  A Parisian detective who starred in an impressive seventy-five novels & twenty-eight short stories. Of the three Simenon books I’m reviewing The Hanged Man… is the most conventional – being a fairly straight forward detective novel.  In it the off-duty Inspector Maigret spots a suspicious looking man at the train station and decides, seemingly on a whim, to follow him.  He goes so far as to switch suitcases  (“the kind sold in any cheap store, made of cardboard treated to look like leather”), board the same train and check into an adjoining room at the same seedy boarding house. Maigret watches through a keyhole as the man opens the suitcase, realizes it isn’t his and hurries off to find it.

He rushed back to the station, losing his way, asking for directions ten times, blurting out over and over in such a strong accent that he could barely be understood: ‘Bahnhof?’

He was so upset that, to make himself better understood, he imitated the sound of a train!

He reached the station. He wandered in the vast hall, spotted a pile of luggage somewhere and stole up to it like a thief to make sure that his suitcase wasn’t there.

And he gave a start whenever someone went by with the same kind of suitcase.

Unsuccessful, the man returns to his hotel room and the Inspector resumes his keyhole stakeout. Only to watch in horror as the man pulls out a revolver and shoots himself in the head. Everything that follows is Maigret’s attempt to unravel why the man committed suicide – for which he understandably feels a measure of guilt. Beginning his investigation with  almost no information (an old, blood-stained suit and a false id) he sets off on a madcap chase, following the rapidly fading trail of a decade old murder from city to city, person to person – in a race against someone determined on making all the evidence disappear.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien is fast-paced and engrossing; written in short, choppy paragraphs and containing lots of dialogue.  The kind of book you read in one sitting.  Perhaps more shocking than the denouement is the discovery that the crime on which the novel’s plot hinges was based on an event from Simeon’s own life.

ThePresidentThe President, translated by Daphne Woodward and published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, is (again) entirely different. An aging French Premier – said to be based on Clemenceau – has retired to the Normandy coast.   He is one of the “five great men” of his generation, but at 82 the only one left for him to engage in battle is Death.  Until his final days are livened up by an unexpected and unhoped for diversion.  Someone has been rifling through his personal effects. This is the story of a man whose mind has lost none of its acuity but whose body betrays him.  And as the plot progresses it becomes clear that the mystery is less about who is searching than what has been hidden and why.  The Premier is guarding a piece of paper that could topple the new French government.

“At forty years old, or at fifty, he had still believed himself to be a good judge of men, and would pronounce his verdicts without hesitation or remorse. At the age of sixty he had already been less sure of himself, and now he did no more than grope in the dark for momentary truths.”

Simenon maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the novel, confining his hero in an isolated house and making him completely dependent on caretakers. For a good portion of the story a storm rages outside and the power is out.  Radio broadcasts report the news from Paris, also serving to spark the Premier’s memories. It is his last remaining link to the world he once dominated.  Does he still? Should he still?

Three books, three different premises, conjuring three entirely different moods.  Thus is the genius of Georges Simenon.  He is the rare mystery writer who doesn’t merely assemble a puzzle for his readers, he also dictates the psychology by which it must be solved. These mysteries – the tones of the stories and the perspectives of the characters – are so different that it’s hard to believe that they were written by the same man.  Yet despite each book having a different translator the writing style remains consistent and consistently good from one to another. The dialogue rings true. There’s the right balance of description and action. Beautiful phrases like “Today the dawn was colorless, sketched with white gouache and charcoal, and only the whiter glow of the thickening fog showed that the light was strengthening” are more striking because they are scarce.

It’s amazing, really, when you think about it.  The author of almost two hundred books avoids the formulaic.

Gore Vidal once said in an interview that he used to be a famous novelist.  But the category, he claimed, no longer existed. Perhaps that’s as much the fault of the novelists as the readers.  Today publishers demand writers engage with readers on social media, but no one seems to demand that they be interesting.  Newspapers – once a finishing school for writers – are disappearing.  Journalists – adrenaline junkies trained on how to spin a story – are going the way of the dodo.  Over the weekend I got into a brief discussion on the value of MFA programs.  They are everywhere these days, blanketing the literary landscape like Kudzu vine. But does theory really trump experience in the making of better writers?

The old saying goes “write what you know”.  That seems to have worked out amazingly well for Georges Simenon and his contemporaries – men and women who made it their mission to have something worth writing about.

 

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