Heat wave: Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky

It’s summertime, somewhere in the vast Hungarian plain, and this one’s a scorcher. The heat presses down on the residents of an unnamed village and threatens to reduce the river—the refuge and solace toward which the winter weary turn to enjoy what little holidays they can scavenge—into a fetid stream. But at the nearby üdülő, the local holiday site with its beach and bar and holiday homes on stilts, seasonal activities will not be curtailed:

On weekdays it was still quiet in the üdülő, but the bar already smelt of what had been left behind from the weekend: spilt beer, sweat, the girls’ summer perfumes, the exhaust clouds of the motorcyclists and helpless chlorine bleach with urine. Around midday clouds appeared over the bend in the river. The sky turned white, the river dark, the heat did not abate, became dense, bright, the poplar leaves rustled, sounded like whirring metal scarecrow strips. The small boats lay pale grey by the bank, motionless, congealed into a river panorama, from which only a powerful gust of wind or the hand of a wrangler or rower could awake them.

On the beach and back in town this will be a summer filled with drama, heartache, and melancholy—business as usual, but with a twist. This year there is a stranger in their midst, the New Woman, who has arrived from afar and settled in with Antal, the mason, who has in turn abandoned his wife and son. Such is the basic outline of Esther Kinsky’s first prose work, the novella, Summer Resort, a short, playfully poetic fable filled with a seemingly endless cast of tragicomic characters and bursting at the seams with striking and delightful wordplay.

With the attention that has come with the publication of River (my own review of that novel will appear on September 4, the date of its North American release), Kinsky’s only other translated work to date is likely to attract renewed interest. Compared to River, this earlier novel lacks the emotional resonance and meditative depth that one looking backward might hope for, but what it does offer deserves to be appreciated in its own terms, as an exuberant display of highly-charged linguistic energy, and a clear indication of the animated imagination, attentiveness to nature and the astute eye for detail that will characterize the prose in her longer, more serious work.

Summer Resort is an exercise in tight, contained story telling peopled with eccentric characters. Many exist almost as caricatures, like the Kozac boys who maintain a certain status in town and at the beach—admired, tolerated and resented in turn—the Onion Men, and the generic Marikas and Zsuzsas in their bikinis and glitter sandals. Others fall into closer focus. Lacibácsi the scrap yard dealer who runs the bar at the üdülő each summer aspiring to be a “manbytheriver, a poplarshadowman, a confidant of drunks,” his wife Éva (christened Ruthwoman by the New Woman) and Krisztí, the leather-clad woman who settles herself at the bar, a welcome if uninvited assistant. But at the heart of the story are Antal, his ex-wife Ildi, and son Miklós who each take a brief turn directly narrating pieces of their lives, now forever changed by the insertion of the mysterious New Woman into their midst.

More than anything though, this village and its inhabitants serves as a broad tapestry for Kinsky to weave her poetic magic. Her characters are the ordinary folk, the policeman, the railwayman, the small-time hustlers, the day labourers and the farm workers. Victims of shifting economies, closing industries and faded hopes. The üdülő is a place to lose themselves, to play and dream, but this year of heat and drought, is marked by fires, a shrinking river, and restless bodies tossing between sweat soaked sheets. There is an affectionate sadness that rolls across the surface of the narrative, and a quiet resignation that seeps into the dialogue. But the language is fierce, the imagery vivid: “Katica’s mouth was rose red with lipstick, there was so much red on it that it stood out in the üdülő like a wound.”

This is a startlingly sensual work. Here we find the elements that will later become so essential to the absorbing intensity of River. Kinsky has an unwavering awareness of detail, colour, scents, and sounds. Nature contains both the beautiful and the bleak, the lighthearted and the devastating. As is the case with the river that here, on this flat, unforgiving landscape, is a primal force:

What belongs to the river, what to the land? The floods come swiftly and silently. The river swells up, in the course of a night it casts of the sham cloak of gentleness, bursts its banks, spills over tops of embankments, carries off objects, animals, people. The undertow and thrust of the water changes the landscape. Sky, water, destroyed treetops, helpless house roofs as far as the eye can see. Then the river creeps back into its gentle course, trickles sweetly between the devastated rampant undergrowth of the bank which sticks this way and that, reflects the sky and sun, has long ago secretly discarded in the bushes what it has snatched away, where it is transformed, missing persons first become foul impediments, the vermin of the riverbank and water meadows gathering around them in great clouds, then pale, hollow bodies, through which the wind blows the quiet music of melancholy, which always lurks here in the undergrowth.

Esther Kinsky is a German poet, writer and translator. She has translated literature from English, Russian and Polish, including works by Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli. Folkloric tones, reminiscent of some of their work come through here, perhaps, as does a pure poetic sensibility. A restless incantation for the loves and lives that collide in the course of one brittle, unrelenting summer, Summer Resort is a work well worth visiting for anyone interested in tracing the headwaters of River. And anyone else who simply enjoys a good tale.

Summer Resort is translated by Kinsky’s late husband, Martin Chalmers, and published by Seagull Books.

Suggestions for reading women in translation: #WITMonth 2018

One week into Women in Translation Month and I’ve yet to jump into the conversation. I’ve been reading German author Esther Kinsky, her novel River for review and Summer Resort for background. However, since the North American release of River is not until early September, I don’t know if my review will actually run this month. But then, if it isn’t possible to pack August with translations of female writers, it is a consideration that can be worked into one’s reading year round. To that end I thought I’d share some of the posts I’ve written about works by women in translation that I’ve enjoyed since last August:

A Working Woman — Elvira Navarro (Spain, tr. Christina MacSweeney)
The Iliac Crest — Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico, tr. Sarah Booker)
Malina — Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria/German, tr. Philip Boehm)
Hair Everywhere — Tea Tulić (Croatia, tr. Coral Petkovich)
Endless Summer —Madame Nielsen (Denmark, tr. Gaye Kynoch) – linked to external review
SS Proleterka — Fleur Jaeggy (Italy, tr. Alistair McEwen)

Poetry:
Before Lyricism — Eleni Vakalo (Greece, tr. Karen Emmerich)
Third-Millenium Heart — Ursula Andkjær Olsen (Denmark, tr. Katrine Øgaard Jensen) – linked to an external review

This year I’ve gathered a stack of possibilities—not that I expect to get through even half of them, but I like to have choice. And, because there is a lot going on in my life these days and a handful of other English language titles vying for my attention, I’ve selected relatively slender fare. Finally, because it is still Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months, this collection includes five Spanish, one Portuguese,one Bengali, two French, and three German language books.

And because poetry occupies more of my readerly attention these days, I’ve pulled out two poetic contenders:

Negative Space is translated from Albanian, Hospital Series from Italian. Both titles are from New Directions.

Translating Wolfgang Hilbig: A link to my latest conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

It was Wolfgang Hilbig’s story collection The Sleep of the Righteous, published in 2015 by Two Lines Press, that brought the late German author and his translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, to my attention. It might seem as if they arrived hand-in-hand, after all her translation of his novel I (Ich) appeared from Seagull Books around the same time, but of course, she has translated works by a variety of German language authors before and since those two titles emerged. But it would be fair to say that her efforts to champion Hilbig, her deep appreciation of his work, and her ability to be able to bring his  convoluted sentences and filmic imagery to life in English continue to win him more admirers with each subsequent release. Most recently, she was awarded the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation of Old Rendering Plant.

Photo credit: Emma Braslavsky

I have had the pleasure of interviewing this gifted translator twice now, and both times, when her generous responses to my questions arrived in my email, I read them with excitement and renewed appreciation. The latest interview was published at Splice this past week. You can read it here. In this piece, we talk about the most recent Hilbig release, The Tidings of the Trees, and the ways in which this work differs from last fall’s Old Rendering Plant. My questions were derived from my own reading of the book and were not sent until my review had been submitted for publication.

In the years since our first contact, I have read and reviewed Isabel’s translations of Klaus Hoffer and Franz Fühmann, and have added the works of several other authors she has translated to my library as well. But Hilbig remains central. So I am thrilled and honoured to be  speaking with her in person in San Francisco on Tuesday night, July 24, as the Center for the Art of Translation celebrates her work, her recent award, and the release The Tidings of the Trees.

Details about that event can be found here. If you are in the Bay Area, please come out and join us!

Voices from the margins: Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

There seems to be considerable debate these days about where the line should be drawn between the literary license to imagine and the appropriation of  voices of those of different genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and racial identities. What was once considered acceptable is now questioned. And, although race is often considered a boundary to be respected or only be crossed with exceptional care, in a highly stratified cultures, class or caste or ethnic heritage may also come in to play. The concern is that the dominant voice will not only be given more attention, but that others risk being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures.

I recently abandoned a book that, despite some very witty and engaging writing, seemed to be freely exploiting mental illness, poverty and family dysfunction as justification for a smart-assed narrator with all the warmth of a sociopath. Anyone who has been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide will know it is no laughing matter. The charm quickly fizzled and turned to distaste for me. Apparently the poor and mentally ill are still fair game for slapstick humour and humiliation.

However, it is entirely different when the humour, social commentary or complex stories are owned from within a community, told by its members. That is, I would argue, the importance of supporting and encouraging contributions to literature, theatre, film and the arts from marginal voices.

Cue Mundo Cruel, a series of short, sharp stories that take you into the heart of a small community peopled with eccentric, mostly queer characters—a world that Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón knows well. It is his own:

Santurce, Puerto Rico, once known as Cangrejos, meaning Crabs, but no longer. Santurce. Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you can get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework.
.                       —from the “The Vampire of Moca”

A striking array of voices and personalities pass through the stories in this slender collection, and their lives are often disturbing, filled with misfortune, dark humour and an uncanny resilience. Most of the pieces are first person narratives, often presented as monologues or one-sided conversations, and, in one instance, as a series of increasingly desperate notes  without a reply. The opening piece “The Chosen One” will challenge a few readers with its precocious young narrator, gleefully recounting his very early initiation into sexual activity with boys and men, experiences bound, as he sees it, to his “special” role within the church. Crude, unnerving, and funny this is in its way a backhanded satire on the degree of sexual abuse that can and does occur. But our young narrator refuses to see himself as the victim. His story sets the stage for the hustlers and the heartache that re-emerges in later stories, but it is not typical. Truth be told there is no “typical” here at all.

What is remarkable about this collection is the variety—each story is different in style and tone. Negrón channels a wide range of characters with compassion and affection, even those who espouse homophobic and xenophobic views, allowing each to demonstrate his or her own narrowness or generosity. The one-side conversations and observed dialogues are particularly effective in this regard, allowing us to eavesdrop, without further comment. The infectious, campy energy of “La Edwin” offers a perfect example:

Ahá! . . . Listen, changing the subject, did La Edwin call you? . . . Yes, Edwin. The one who thinks she’s a man. Honey, the one from the support group . . . That’s weird because that little queen is calling everybody . . . Yeah, her, that’s the one . . . Oh I didn’t know they called her that. You’re bad, girl, bad, bad . . . Well she called me last night, drr-unk out of her mind . . . Saying that he felt all alone, that for him it was difficult to deal with all this shit, meaning gayness . . . I let her go on . . . So she could get it out of her system. Wait a second, I’m getting another call . . . Aló, aló. Aló, aló. How weird, they hung up . . . The thing is, a man left her . . . Yeah, girl, she got involved with one of those lefty fupistas who plant bombs and want the ROTC out of the university . . . Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re going to liberate themselves sexually.

It’s a fun little romp, but the story it tells about queer identity and sexual insecurity is serious.

Most of the stories in Mundo Cruel are quite short, or rather, as long as they need to be. None feel like they are dragged out too far, preferring to offer snapshots of life in this marginalized community. As is typical, some are stronger than others. Likely each reader will have their own favourites. For me it is the sad, but beautiful, story, “The Garden”. Set in the late 1980s, it is the account of a love affair between a young man and his older lover who is dying of AIDS. Nestito’s boyfriend, Willie, shares a house with his sister Sharon who has a longstanding, secret love affair of her own. Together the three of them make an odd, but happy family. As Willie nears the end of his life they plan a party. Another indication of Negrón’s versatility, this is by far the tenderest, most heart-wrenching piece in the collection:

I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked into his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.

Only 91 pages long, Mundo Cruel offers a wonderful introduction to a skilled, sensitive storyteller and the strange, sometimes dark little corner of the world he knows and clearly loves.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and published by Seven Stories, I read this book as part of the Spanish/Portuguese Literature  Month (and, to be fair, the tail end of Pride as well).

The interconnectedness of being in the world: Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

One thing that struck me as I threaded my way through Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream—the first part of his three-part Nocilla Project—in this second year of the Trump presidency is that a new level of unreality has descended on this sorry globe rendering some elements of this inventive blend of fiction and nonfiction decidedly quaint, like a relic of another time. In this exercise, fragments drawn from literary, scientific and technical sources form the web or framework around which a clutch of stories featuring eccentric characters circulate. The centre point is rooted in a distinctly European-imagined American west. But this web was woven in the early/mid-2000s (the original Spanish language release was published in 2006) and now, in 2018, we’re not in in the same American, let alone global, landscape anymore. Ours is one more bizarre than any Fernández Mallo imagined.

In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, the Spanish writer—and trained physicist—explains the philosophy underlying his approach to his work, something he describes as “complex realism”:

…what I’m suggesting is that the writer must be realist, always realist, but not realist in the sense we have usually used the term in literature. If reality today is different from the reality of 30 years ago, we can’t keep describing reality in the same way as we did 30 years ago. Today we understand that reality corresponds to a model — or, even better, the sum of various models — which in science are termed “complex systems” — not complicated or difficult, that’s a different thing! This complexity is what creates that which we all know — the World — is connected in a system of networks — and I’m not referring only to the internet but also to thousands of analog networks in which we are all immersed at every instant. Until a short time ago, we knew the world in parts, whereas now we know that those parts are all connected through a system of networks with a very concrete topology.

The fundamentals that hold this project together are still every bit as valid, but the consequences of interconnectedness are just that more unnerving in light of the disturbing, current state of the United States.

Nocilla Dream unfolds over a series of 113 segments. One encounters fragments drawn from computer science, physics, literature, filmography, and more woven into a series of stories, character sketches and narratives that diverge and dovetail to form one multifaceted, strangely cohesive whole. Even the most random pieces fit somewhere into a larger zone of interconnection, in time, place, or theme. It is, in a sense, a conceptual novelistic experience. And, rather than being showy and intertexually obscure, it is a highly readable book that becomes even more engaging the further you move into it, as odd connections are made, strange eccentric characters emerge and pass through, and the assorted references and reflections begin to add up to some logic of their own.

While in many respects Nocilla Dream is groundless—that is, it exists beyond the framework of any particular story, location or collection of facts—there are some central motifs and ideas that provide a degree of orientation and link, however loosely, a disparate set of solitary or peculiar souls spread across the globe. The primary one is a desolate stretch of road with a curious attraction:

Indeed, technically its name is US Route 50. It’s in Nevada and it’s the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end. In conceptual terms, only one thing on this entire route vaguely calls to mind the existence of humanity: a poplar tree, the only one that found water, with hundreds of pairs of trainers hanging from its branches.

The highway with this singular feature becomes the perfect centralizing image. One that could easily fall into cliché, or worse, a nod to magic realism, but it is not. This book is at once too imaginative and too pragmatic for that. Crossing the landscape we have an assortment of characters including a  wandering ex-boxer, lovelorn prostitutes, an Argentinian architect and devotee of Borges who suffers a crisis of faith, the self-proclaimed citizens of several scattered micronations, competitive surfers, expats in China, an elderly American artist who moves to Madrid where she secludes herself in her apartment  and, because the primary locus is America after all, an illegal immigrant who hopes to disappear in a remote place. No character takes on a leading role, if you will, though some have a greater presence than others. All are essentially portraits, photographs fleshed in a little more detail than the images in the suitcase abandoned by a dedicated collector of the photographs of strangers—but not much more. Some narrative pieces are replayed, spread out in fragments and vignettes, while others pass quickly. But in the end they stack up nicely. Meaning filters through.

Reflections, observations and quotes from articles, textbooks and literary works are woven into the flow of micro-narratives, providing a conceptual backdrop against which the novel’s construction can be understood.

If there isn’t any space there isn’t any light. The world is unthinkable without light [Heraclitus said it, Einstein said it, the A-Team in Episode 237 said it, and many others besides]. And yet, inside everyone’s bodies all is darkness, zones in the Universe never touched by light – or, if touched by light, only because of illness or decomposition. It’s unsettling to think you exist because this death exists inside you, this zone of endless night. It’s unsettling to consider that the inside of a PC is more alive than you are, that in there everything’s completely lit up.

Linking and playing with images and ideas like this, Fernández Mallo suggests, arises quite naturally from his background as a poet. He is comfortable with thinking on a symbolic level and yet “these metaphors and connections or modal links must be rich in meaning, rich in symbolism, and they must say things which haven’t been said before, they must truly ‘construct reality’.” This construction is neither forced nor superfluous. There is no obligation to fill in all the missing pieces, draw all the lines. Just the opposite. Nocilla  Dream is a novel which is richer for all its abstracted, empty space.

Of course, against the backdrop of the last few weeks of erratic policy issuing forth from the Twitter account-driven agenda of the US President, this book has an extra surreal tone. Prescient or nostalgic? Only time will tell.

Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo is translated by Thomas Bunstead and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Searching for traces of the past with Wolfgang Hilbig: A few thoughts and a link to my review of The Tidings of the Trees

He may confound some readers, but for my money, the enigmatic East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig is fine company. His landscapes are evocative, filmic spaces, obscured by the mists of a troubled history of secrets and shame. His narratives are restless. His characters are misfits, unable and unwilling to conform.  Their tales explore the dynamics of loss from personal, social and political angles. And even within the scope of a novella, these stories expand far beyond the confines of the pages, haunting and reworking themselves within the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.

Or, at least, that has been my experience.

The most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, The Tidings of the Trees, traverses a terrain at once familiar and yet quite distinct from the watery byways of Old Rendering Plant. This is a complex, magical tale that examines the importance of stories to hold onto and preserve the memories that the State is intent on erasing. As ever, translator Isabel Fargo Cole deftly  captures the unique rhythms and energies of this text, and Hilbig fans will be pleased to know another work, The Women, is forthcoming in November.

I was honoured to have the opportunity to write about The Tidings of the Trees for Splice, a small UK-based press and exciting new online critical journal that is well worth checking out. My review of the latest Hilbig translation can be found here.

Waxing lyrical and irritable: QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard

French writer Éric Chevillard opens QWERTY Invectives, his contribution to the Cahier Series, with a short reflection on translation, its importance and its limitations. Although any text will invariably suffer certain mutations on its passage from one language to another, these changes need not be met with certain despair. The re-imagining required to facilitate the journey can offer, he suggests, a well-needed breath of fresh air. Case in point, the present text, derived from his book Le Désordre AZERTY, “a primer arranged according to the layout of the French keyboard.” Not only does this short, beautifully presented cahier, represent a “radical abridgement” of the original text, the sections selected necessarily reflect a new order—that determined by the Anglophone keyboard.

What follows then, are six short treatises inspired by words beginning with the first six letters of the keyboard with a little linguistic gymnastics, no doubt, to line up an English word with a word compatible with the exercise at hand. And, given the words, or rather themes that feature, one must wonder what other liberties were taken to extract six pieces from what one assumes was a selection of at least twenty-six offerings, not allowing for diacritics and accents. In this slender volume we are treated to Chevillard, or his fictional alter-ego, waxing lyrical and irritable on reaching the age of fifty (“Quinquagenarian”); the “Water Closet” (or more explicitly the product one deposits in such facilities); the nature of one’s metaphorical “Enemy”; the “Return” to home or, more exactly, to routine and fresh promise in the fall; the photographer’s art (“Technician of the Darkroom”); and finally, gross human anatomy—especially the foot—in the final installment that opens “You, Eyes!” (or, I would suspect “yeux” in the original).

The narrator is never afraid to examine a subject from a most unlikely angle, employing language that is colourful and inclined to hyperbole. This is evident from the opening offering, a meditation on the misery of attaining the ripe age of fifty, dished out with a healthy dose of melancholic satire:

‘Half a century!’ people say, all smiles, thumping me on my osteoporosis-ridden shoulder-blades.

A little respect would be welcome; a little consideration wouldn’t hurt. Balzac writes somewhere of a ‘fifty-year-old codger’. That’s Balzac for you, who died of exhaustion one year after celebrating the same sinister birthday. I tell myself: Times have changed, today’s fifty is the nineteenth century’s thirty. Thirty year-olds back then were eighteen, and ten-year-old urchins weren’t even born yet.

And more often than not, his starting point, or apparent subject, is rarely more than a launching pad that can potentially take him anywhere. R’s entry which opens “Return Home?” begins with a description of the end of the summer holiday and the beginning of the school year, but his dissertation soon wanders into speculation about the flood of new books that arrive each year with the publishing houses’ autumn offerings. Here our narrator’s cynicism is barely held in check:

Where once there was the book, now there is the public figure of the author, duly dramatized, whose only real use turns out to be to provide a caption for the photo of the artiste who is the one really being featured. All the author can hope for is a meagre compensation in a currency that is already so outdated that it works only in public payphones and slot machines.

Each year sees a glut of new releases, so what of the game, the publishing lottery, into which eager authors enter?

The author of the present lines, given he contributes to full-bloodedly to the current literary over production, may not be ideally placed to complain. But nonetheless: six hundred novels published between September and October? It’s a figure that must be far in excess of the thirst for reading displayed by our contemporaries; it’s akin to pouring an ocean onto a piece of blotting paper, then peeing on it for good measure. Booksellers will soon have to surround themselves with ramparts and equip themselves with flame-throwers in order to repulse writers—those supernumerary writers. No matter! it will surely be educed that the phenomenon serves to demonstrate the surprising vitality of the literary landscape in France!

It would be fair to say that Chevillard’s humour might not whet everyone’s whistle. As a reader who found Author & Me, his book-length diatribe against cauliflower gratin which served as the pretext for a greater meta-fictional reflection, an endlessly hilarious exercise, I find his wit with even the most unlikely of subjects to be a treat. And this Cahier, lavishly illustrated by French artist Philippe Favier, is a perfect introduction to this energetic, imaginative writer. As ever, woven into his literary escapades are some very astute observations about life, the world, and our uneasy navigation of all the joys and obstacles we encounter every day.

QWERTY Invectives by Éric Chevillard is translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty. It is the 31st title in the Cahier Series, a joint project of the Center for Writers & Translators at The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.