In the Distance With You by Carla Guelfenbein, tr. John Cullen

I know some bloggers/critics don’t want to waste their time reviewing books they don’t like when there are so many good books to talk about. Which makes perfect sense. But for me — and if you follow Reader@Large you already know this — I enjoy talking about books that aren’t exactly masterpieces. I think it comes out of my art school background. When visiting museums the works that excite me the most are the ones where the pencil lines are still visible under the paint. Or, even better, an incomplete study in an old sketchbook where the artist is working out ideas for his or her final piece.

I’m also fascinated by the whole wabi-sabi home thing.

Below is an excerpt from my review of Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance With You, which was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books site (August 31, 2018). The title of the piece, which I didn’t choose but still love, is Messy Human Beings: On “In the Distance With You”. The novel, itself, is a bit of a mess… but a delightfully well-crafted mess. Despite that (or maybe even because?) this is one of my favorites of all the reviews I’ve written over the years.


THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives.

Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head.

Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. A pool of blood encircled your head. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown.

This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge.

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

IFFP & BTBA 2013 Short Lists – They’re Here!

The two translation prize shortlists are out – and it’s exciting to see how many different languages (and countries) are represented.  I’ve still only read three of the books on the BTBA list – and of those I’ll keep my money on Dowlatabadi for the win.  There is something so visceral about The Colonel.  It’s a book that encompasses all the senses – particularly in the opening chapters when the colonel is summoned to bury his daughter.  The darkness, the rain, the smell of cigarettes – the density of the prose – they’re all still with me though it’s been months since I put it down.  Not every book does that.  Certainly not The Hunger Angel or The Planets – both good books by great authors. But they don’t even come close to The Colonel in scope, technique or plot.

The 2013 Best Translated Book Award Fiction

  • The Planets by Sergio Chejfec/Heather Cleary, translator (Spanish)
  • Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard/Alyson Waters, translator (French)
  • The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi/Tom Patterdale, translator (Persian)
  • Satantango by László Krasznahorkai/George Szirtes, translator (Hungarian)
  • Autoportrait by Edouard Levé/Lorin Stein, translator (French)
  • A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector/Johnny Lorenz, translator (Portuguese)
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller/Philip Boehm, translator (German)
  • Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin/Marian Schwartz, translator (Russian)
  • Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi/David Ball & Nicole Ball, translators (French)
  • My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer/Donal McLaughlin, translator (German)

As for the IFFP:  neither of the two books I read on the long list – HHhH and Black Bazaar – made it to the short list.  I’m not surprised, though I think the judges are undervaluing how hard it is to write like Alain Mabanckou writes and make it look easy.  Even in translation.  Regardless, as a result I don’t have anything to contribute to this particular short list other than that Ismail Kadare is one of my favorite authors.

The 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

  • Bundu by Chris Barnard/Michiel Heyns, translator (Afrikaans)
  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker/David Colmer, translator (Dutch)
  • Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas/Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean, translators (Spanish)
  • The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare/John Hodgson, translators (Albanian)
  • Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman/Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia, translators (Spanish)
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić/Ellen Elias-Bursać, translator (Croatian)

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Translation Prizes – The 2013 Best Translated Book Award

The 2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist contains 25 titles.  In the coming weeks the Three Percent Blog will feature a review for every title that made the longlist, everyone interested in the prize should check it out.  Currently I’ve read and reviewed three of the books nominated and am familiar with and/or plan to read five others.

Twenty-five books is a really long list.  And an ambitious one for those planning to read all the titles – you know who you are – before the shortlist is announce on April 10th.  Initial reaction?  Too long.*  But the more I look it over the more I realize that it’s also a REALLY good list.  As per the Three Percent Blog – this year’s longlist showcases 15 different presses, books from 19 countries in 13 different languages.

  • Sergio Chejfec:  The Planets (Heather Cleary, Spanish/Argentina) Open Letter Books
  • Eric Chevillard:  Prehistoric Times (Alyson Waters, French/France) Archipelago Books
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi:  The Colonel (Tom Patterdale, Persian/Iran) Melville House
  • Dung Kai-Cheung: Atlas (Anders Hansson & Bonnie S. McDougall, Chinese/China) Columbia University Press
  • Dominique Eddé:  Kite (Ros Schwartz, French/Lebanon) Seagull Books
  • Tomoyuki Hoshino:  We, The Children of Cats (Brian Bergstrom & Lucy Fraser, Japanese/Japan) PM Press
  • Michel Houellebecq:  The Map and the Territory (Gavin Bowd, French/France) Knopf
  • Intizar Husain:  Basti (Frances W. Pritchett, Urdu/Pakistan) New York Review Books
  • Miljenko Jergović:  Mama Leone (David Williams, Croation/Croatia) Archipelago Books
  • Gert Jonke:  Awakening to the Great Sleep War (Jean M. Snook, German/Austria) Dalkey Archive Press
  • Karl Knausgaard:  My Struggle: Book One (Don Bartlett, Norwegian/Norway) Archipelago Books
  • László Krasznahorkai:  Satantango (George Szirtes, Hungarian/Huganry) New Directions
  • Edouard Levé:  Autoportrait (Lorin Stein, French/France)  Dalkey Archive Press
  • Clarice Lispector:  A Breath of Life: Pulsations (Johnny Lorenz, Portuguese/Brazil) New Directions
  • Norman Manea:  The Lair (Oana Sanziana Marian, Romanian/Romania) Yale University Press
  • Herta Müller:  The Hunger Angel (Philip Boehm, German/Romania) Metropolitan Books
  • Andrés Neuman:  Traveler of the Century (Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia, Spanish/Argentina)Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Andrey Platonov:  Happy Moscow (Robert Chandler & Elizabeth Chandler, Russian/Russia) New York Review Books
  • Noëlle Revaz:  With the Animals (Donald W. Wilson, French/Switzerland) Dalkey Archive Press
  • Mikhail Shishkin:  Maidenhair (Marian Schwartz, Russian/Russia) Open Letter Books
  • Gonçalo M. Tavares:  Joseph Walser’s Machine (Rhett McNeil, Portuguese/Portugal) Dalkey Archive Press
  • Albert Vigoleis Thelen:  Island of Second Sight (Donald O. White, German/Germany) Overlook
  • Enrique Vila-Matas:  Dublinesque (Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean, Spanish/Spain) New Directions
  • Abdourahman A. Waberi:  Transit (David Ball & Nicole Ball, French/Djibouti) Indiana University Press
  • Urs Widmer:  My Father’s Book (Donal McLaughlin, German/Switzerland) Seagull Books

Of the three books I’ve read:   I loved My Two Worlds (published in 2011 by Open Letter) and am looking forward to Chejfec’s next book, The Dark, due out later this year.  But the things I loved about My Two Worlds – the meandering nature of the prose reflected in the landscape of the park through which the narrator walks, being trapped in another person’s head, the hints at a story that never fully resolves itself – didn’t work as well in The Planets.  Perhaps my expectations were set too high… I just didn’t enjoy it as much.  I don’t expect it to make the shortlist.  The same for Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel.  While the writing is beautiful, I’ve heard it’s not her best book and when put head-to-head with the other longlist titles I’m not sure it will move forward.

If I were to vote for one book to win at this point it would be The Colonel.  Fantastic, challenging, amazing.  There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a significant book.

As for the rest of the list:
I attended a reading with Noëlle Revaz for With the Animals at last years’ PEN World Voices Festival in New York City.  It was torturous.  There was a translator who was there to translate the author’s answers to questions and to read from the book, but she wasn’t given her own microphone.  The result was that most of the event was in French, the attempts at translating were labored and slow, and the whole thing was just painful for the audience members who only spoke English.  The highlight came when a woman in the audience screamed parts of her questions/observations in French.  I kind of vaguely remember her dropping the F-bomb a few times.  Obviously, this has nothing to do with With the Animals being long- or short-listed – yet even that tenuous connection has me buying a copy to see what it’s about.

I’ve ordered copies of Atlas and The Map and the Territory (the UK edition which I’ve heard is covered in bubble wrap!) and am looking forward to reading them both asap.  I’ve also heard good things about both Satantango and Maidenhair and expect both to be shortlisted – which means there’s a little more time to get to them.

That’s all I’ll be able to get to before the shortlist comes out.

If you’re looking for more news and conversation regarding the Best Translated Book Award, there’s a  discussion happening at The Mookse and the Gripes free forum.  Also, the most recent episode of the Three Percent Podcast discusses all the longlisted titles.  Do you have a favorite for the prize?

*Well, actually – my initial reactions was “For F$#@ sake, they could only get it down to 25 books???!”

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An Interview with Margaret Carson

Margaret Carson is a fixture in the NYC translation community.  Most readers probably know her from her gorgeous translation of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds but (to quote her Words Without Borders biography) she’s also translated fiction by  “José Manuel Prieto, and Matilde Daviu, plays by Virgilio Piñera and Griselda Gambaro, and poetry by Mercedes Roffé and Nancy Morejón”.  She’s a member of the PEN Translation Committee and a fierce advocate for translators and translated literature .

BSR:  Margaret, thank you so much for offering to answer some questions.  We keep bumping into each other at NYC literary events – always to do with translations.  It seems to me that there is a very active community of translators in Manhattan.  I wonder if you might talk about that?

MC:  Yes, there’s a lot going on in New York! And lots of the action in international literature is happening at small independent bookstores, which are run and staffed by book lovers whose enthusiasms happily extend to works in translation.

There’s at least one reading series in New York that specializes in translations (the Bridge Series, run by Bill Martin and Sal Robinson at McNally Jackson Bookstore), frequent readings and presentations by foreign authors all over town, events sponsored by universities, book festivals featuring international literature, and plenty more. Hardly a week goes by when there’s not some event that touches on literature in translation.

BSR:  Do you think translators should be involved in the promotion of translated/international literature?

MC:  Literary translators have a lot to add to the mix. Some of us are already active on the literary scene, helping to promote books in translation, and we’re wondering what else we can do. How do we get more recognition for our work and build a reputation? It’s still sadly true that many times the names of translators don’t appear on book covers, and book reviewers often fail to mention the translator or to comment on his or her work in the body of the review. Translation is basically taking apart and rewriting a book in another language, and many of us wish that reviewers would engage more with that.

BSR:  We first met after the ‘Walker in the City’ panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, – which you and Sergio Chejfec were a part of.  It’s my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that not all translators have the type of access or personal relationship that you’ve had with Sergio Chejfec.   Do you think knowing the author as a person – in addition to knowing his work – influenced your translations (particularly since a auto-biographic component seems to inform Chejfec’s writing)?

MC:  The response to My Two Worlds has been terrific. Lots of credit goes to Open Letter for getting the book out there and for building up a readership base for Sergio Chejfec. The fact that Sergio lives in New York and is willing to get involved in the translation and promotion of his books has also helped. Of course, it’s a great novel and deserves the attention, but you never know what path a book will take after it’s published, especially a translation.

Most of the authors I’ve worked with have been extremely generous about answering questions. In the case of Sergio, I was new to his work and that added to the challenge. Sometimes my queries were not so much linguistic (“what does this word or phrase mean?”) as they were about how a sentence was developing, what the thought was behind it. It’s often reassuring when you’re translating to feel that something is clicking into place, that you “got it” in English. But on the other hand you realize that when something clicks it may be because it’s a predictable solution, something commonplace in English, and you ask yourself: would a writer whose subject matter includes the experience of language itself want this to be so neat? Answer: no, so you have to go back and make your English do more, even going beyond what seems “correct.”

About the autobiographical elements: I was careful to put a distance between the first-person narrator of My Two Worlds and Sergio Chejfec, the author. Maybe they’re similar in some ways, and it was helpful, for example, to see and handle the Art Deco cigarette lighter that’s described at one point in the novel, but I enjoy the fictional artifice. With his essays, though, it’s different. Recently I’ve been working on an essay in which Sergio tells the story of his last name and talks about his father. It’s clearly a non-fictional space with another kind of exploration, nothing like the fiction.

BSR:  Do you have an opinion as to why Argentina seems to be such a hotbed of authors?  It seems that everywhere you look a new Argentine author (or a new edition of an old book) is being published.   Of course there is Borges & Cortázar… but there’s also César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Saer… just to name a few.

MC:  There’s great literature all over Latin America, but yes, Argentina has an extraordinary literary tradition. I’m not sure what factors explain it, but at least when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago, there were plenty of bookstores, large and small, as well as cafés where people can read, write and talk about books, all signs of a healthy book culture, along with a remarkable number of individuals who seem to have read everything. That doesn’t explain why there’s been great literature in Argentina, but it seems like a necessary condition. And keep in mind that we’ve only seen a small part of that literature—the part that gets translated into English.

BSR:  How do you feel about the future of translation and translated literature in the U.S.?  To me it appears like translations and international books are showing up in more bookshops and getting more attention every year.  I have no hard evidence to back that up, though.

MC:  Neither do I, but your question made me take a look in four bookstores within walking distance of each other in the Village — St. Mark’s Bookstore, McNally Jackson, Three Lives, and NYU’s bookstores. I admit, not a very representative sample of bookstores across the U.S., but I was heartened to see that a good number of translations were on the front table or equivalent. We still need some hard evidence, but I think your impression is correct.

My question to you: do you think bookstores should group translations together, or should they be part of the general mix of books?

BSR:  Hey I thought I was supposed to ask the questions! 🙂  But, since you asked – I think translations need to be shelved with the general mix of books.  We both attended that panel at the PEN World Lit Festival this past April on Reviewing Translations – and I think we’re in agreement that the translators name should be right on the cover with the author’s.  After that, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate translated books out of the general population.  Most readers are just looking for a good book, maybe in a specific genre, but I believe there are very few readers who browse for books by specific languages.  Though that would be kinda’ awesome.  I’d love to walk into a bookshop and say “I’m in the mood for something… I don’t know…. Japanese.  What do you recommend?”  I might just try that next time I’m in McNally Jackson.

Now, back to my questions.  As a member of the PEN Translation Committee have you seen a greater appreciation, demand for translations and/or skilled translators?

MC:  I think there’s an increased demand for great translations, though there’s no consensus on what that means. And also an increased demand for re-translations. But those are general observations, not really related to my being on the PEN Translation Committee. Our central concerns there are to advocate for the translator, to increase his or her visibility, and to raise awareness of literary translation on the whole.

BSR:  How do you accomplish that?  Are there any events planned that readers can attend or participate in?

MC:  And here I’d like to mention two panels coming up this fall the PEN Translation Committee has organized to help carry out these aims:

The first will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 23, and will highlight recent translations into English of poetry and fiction from North Africa (exact time to be announced).

The second will be on Thursday, October 4 during the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference at the University of Rochester. We’re assembling a panel made up of people from the world of publishing, book reviewing and book selling, to discuss how translators can best navigate the literary landscape and collaborate in the marketing of their translations.

BSR:  Thank you again for answering my questions!  I guess we’ll be seeing each other at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

MC:  Thanks so much for this chance to talk to you!

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