30 December 2011

Reading journal: December 2011

What a year. The pages flew by, opening new vistas, perspectives, ideas. Great stories told with passion and force. Some books made their marks, a few duds scarred the mind. But even so, some epic reads accompanied the reading life. The year is almost over and we're still reading until the end. The pages accumulate and many proved, in my book, equal to their bound existence. The great books are bound to be awesome, as they are. The challenge and the chore of reading are its own rewards. The habit of reading is its happiness.

Etc., etc.

Anyway, I'm grateful to all friends and readers of in lieu of a field guide for keeping up with my posts. I hope everyone will have a prolific reading this coming year.

The following are what I read this final month of 2011. I have spoken too early with my year's list of favorites. Most of the books here deserve to be considered in the yearend best list. I guess I'll consider them for next year.

57. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

One of my favorite books of the year, it is a manifesto for immediate action to stem the tide of global environmental degradation. The environmental disaster is already upon us. It is of our own making and, Wilson reminds us, it will be the instrument of our undoing. That is, unless we undo this horrible mess. The book itself provides strategies and examples of how to do so. It is a call to arms: a call to constructive environmentalism.

58. Patriotism by Mishima Yukio, tr. Geoffrey W. Sargent (reread)

A lurid, blood-curdling dissection of suicide. It celebrates supreme vanity and it negates everything. The display of patriotism through suicide must be Mishima's master statement about the pursuit of art to its own end. Don't buy this book. Buy Death in Midsummer where this short story is only one of several masterful stories.

59. The Dead by James Joyce (reread)

In Ireland, a New Year's party was in full swing. The three lady hosts were busy catering to their guests. All were reminiscing about the past, thinking of operatic singers and musical icons who entertained them through the years. Dances and songs were constantly playing. Gabriel Conroy, the hosts' nephew, braced himself for carving the goose and delivering the dinner speech. Everyone had some kind of issue in this annual party. The caretaker's daughter was feeling bitter about some kind of heartbreak. A man, possibly drunk, was being closely watched lest he upset the party. Gabriel was worrying too much about the contents of his speech. His wife, distracted by a lonely song sung in a hoarse voice, remembered something from the past. As the party drew to a close, the snow was softly falling. What else can I say. Joyce was in too deep.

60. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, tr. Louise and Aylmer Maude

About a magistrate who was dying of a mysterious disease. This wondrous novella was about the denial of mortality, a moment-by-moment self-auditing of a life, and the acceptance of an existence rendered meaningless by suffering and death. It must be Tolstoy's synthesis of a lifetime of writing.

Stories by three noteworthy Japanese writers of early modernism – Tōson Shimazaki (review), Mori Ōgai, and Nagai Kafū. The stories are undeniably beautiful. The translation, however, is so bad in many places that there's nothing to recommend it.

62. The Castle by Franz Kafka, tr. Mark Harman

Like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, this should be a strong contender in the favorites list. Kafka fashioned a brilliantly constructed joke about K., a land surveyor trying to gain entry into a castle on a hill. The ridiculous tangle K. found himself in was worthy of many laughs and cries.

63. Insomnia by Kristine Ong Muslim

In this collection of poems, Muslim's whimsical voice is profoundly wedded to her arresting images. She is a poet who sees miracles in the mundane and whose way with language is unobstructed. Her lines stun and mystify. They often deliver the punch that is felt hard in the gut. “You wonder whether you are the landscape or the one taking in the scenery. You wonder why the shadows of curved things remain straight.”, she wrote at one point. The reader was implicated in the poem. I will post a review of this book later in January, hoping to give justice to its terse beauty.

Updated reading statistics: 
63 books read: 43 fiction, 12 nonfiction, 7 poetry, 1 play
50 books by male writers, 11 by female writers
19 in original language: 17 English, 2 Filipino
44 translations: 15 Japanese, 9 Spanish, 8 German, 3 Russian, 3 French, 6 others

29 December 2011

Reading list: Fiction and poetry books with photographs

Terry Pitts, the author of the Vertigo blog on Max Sebald, collects fiction and poetry books embedded with photographs. He records a bibliography of these books in LibraryThing site (this link).

It's a surprising catalog for me since I see some of the books in stores but didn't realize they have photographs in them.

23 December 2011

Reading list: "Translators" in fiction

Encouraged by friends' comments on a previous blog post, I decided to look for works of fiction with translators as protagonists. I posted the question in Goodreads and LibraryThing and was rewarded with a lot of suggestions and links.

The reading list below collects works of fiction featuring translators--for this list, I'm including interpreters--as major or minor characters. They are limited to books written in English or available in English translation. It's not a definitive list for sure but it may already contain a good chunk of what's out there. Some interesting books here already populated my wish list.


Leila Aboulela – The Translator
César Aira – The Literary Conference; La Princesa Primavera (untranslated)
Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq - Leg Over Leg
Rabih Alameddine – An Unnecessary Woman
Brian Aldiss – The Interpreter, aka Bow Down to Nul (science fiction)
Vassilis Alexakis – Foreign Words
Saud Alsanousi – The Bamboo Stalk
Gina Apostol – The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata; Insurrecto
Paul Auster – The Book of Illusions
Amadou Hampâté Bâ – The Fortunes of Wangrin
Ingeborg Bachmann – Three Paths to the Lake (see the story “Word for Word”)
Gerbrand Bakker – The Detour, aka Ten White Geese
L. Frank Baum – The Marvelous Land of Oz (see the 7th chapter, “His Majesty the Scarecrow”)
Katharine Beaman – The Translator
Mario Bellatin – Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction
Salvador Benesdra – El traductor (untranslated)
Luciano Bianciardi – La Vita Agra (It’s a Hard Life)
Matt Bondurant – The Third Translation
Carmen Boullosa – Heavens on Earth (trans. Shelby Vincent)
Christine Brooke-Rose – Between
Kathleen Brooks – Forever Betrayed
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
Michel Butor – Passing Time (trans. Jean Stewart)
William F. Buckley Jr. – Nuremberg: The Reckoning
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Rachel Cantor – Good on Paper
Cervantes – Don Quixote
Susan Choi – The Foreign Student
Copi – La Cité des rats (untranslated)
Julio Cortázar – 62: A Model Kit, trans. Gregory Rabassa
Mia Couto – The Last Flight of The Flamingo
John Crowley – The Translator
Susan Daitch – L.C.
Lydia Davis – The End of the Story
Maylis de Kerangal – Mend the Living (aka The Heart) (trans. Jessica Moore)
Dicey Deere – The Irish Manor House Murder
Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (science fiction)
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
Sarah Dunant – Transgressions
Francesca Duranti – House on Moon Lake
Jennie Erdal – The Missing Shade of Blue
Laura Esquivel – Malinche    
Sheila Finch – Guild of Xenolinguists (science fiction)
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated
Anatole France – The Queen Pedauque, aka At the Sign of the Reine Pedauque, aka At the Sign of the Queen Pedauque
Michael Frayn – The Russian Interpreter
Brian Friel – Translations (play)
Anna Gavalda – Someone I Loved
Suzanne Glass – The Interpreter
Terry Goodkind – Sword of Truth (series)
James Grady – Six Days of the Condor (spy thriller)
Graham Greene – Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party
Olga Grjasnowa – All Russians Love Birch Trees
Saleem Haddad – Guapa
Suzette Haden Elgin – Native Tongue; The Judas Rose (science fiction)
Peter Handke – The Left-Handed Woman
Daoud Hari – The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur
Todd Hasak-Lowy – The Task of This Translator
Donald A. Herron – The Misadventures of Interpreter Sam
JT Hine – Lockhart series
Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker
Sheri Holman – A Stolen Tongue (historical fiction)
Nancy Horan – Loving Frank
Uwe Johnson – Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
Susanna Jones – The Earthquake Bird (thriller)
Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes
Ward Just – The Translator
James Kelman - Translated Accounts
Suki Kim – The Interpreter
India Knight – Don’t You Want Me
Dezső Kosztolányi – Kornél Esti
Ahmadou Kourouma – Monnew
Nicole Krauss – The History of Love
Julia Kristeva – Possessions
Jaan Kross – Treading Air (see Chapter 33)
Jean Kwok – Girl in Translation
Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies (see titular story)
Wally Lamb – I Know This Much Is True
John le Carré – The Mission Song; A Perfect Spy; The Russia House
Hervé Le Tellier – Eléctrico W
Ben Lerner – Leaving the Atocha Station
Doris Lessing – The Summer Before the Dark
Gwyneth Lewis – Keeping Mum (poetry)
Cathie Linz – Private Account (Candlelight Ecstasy Romance, #242)
David Lodge – Small World
Valeria Luiselli – Faces in the Crowd (trans. Christina MacSweeney); Lost Children Archive
Thomas Mann – Doctor Faustus (minor character as translator)
Peter Manseau – Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
Diego Marani – New Finnish Grammar; The Last of the Vostyachs; The Interpreter; The Celestial City
Javier Marías – All Souls; Dark Back of Time; Bad Nature; A Heart So White; Your Face Tomorrow (3 vols.)
Vanina Marsot – Foreign Tongue
Harry Mathews – The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium; The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (see “The Dialect of the Tribe” and “Remarks of the Scholar Graduate”)
Brice Matthieussent – Revenge of the Translator (trans. Emma Ramadan)
Colum McCann – Dancer
Aaron Megged – The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump
Pascal Mercier – Night Train to Lisbon; Perlmann's Silence
Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces
Andrew Miller – Oxygen
Ursule Molinaro – Fat Skeletons
Nicole Mones – Lost in Translation
Robert Moss – The Interpreter (historical fiction)
Antonio Muñoz Molina – El jinete polaco (untranslated)
Haruki Murakami – Pinball, 1973
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net
Andrés Neuman – Traveller of the Century
Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (trans. Misha Hoekstra)
Idra Novey – Ways to Disappear
Joyce Carol Oates – The Tattooed Girl
Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
Pola Oloixarac – Mona (trans. Adam Morris)
Park Hyoung-su – Arpan
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
Alan Pauls – The Past
Matthew Pearl – The Dante Club
Sergio Pitol – The Art of Flight (volume 1 of Trilogy of Memory)
Jacques Poulin – Translation Is a Love Affair
E. S. Purnell – The Mistress
David Quantick – The Mule
Piers Paul Read – A Season in the West
João Reis – The Translator's Bride, translated by João Reis
Gerard Reve – Parents Worry, translated by Richard Huijing
Cristina Rivera Garza – The Taiga Syndrome (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana)
Michael Robertson – The Baker Street Translation
Gord Rollo – The Translators
Juan José Saer – Scars
Arno Schmidt – Bottom’s Dream
Nina Schuyler – The Translator
Carol Shields – Unless
Mikhail Shishkin – Maidenhair
Marivi Soliven – The Mango Bride
José Carlos Somoza – The Athenian Murders
Antal Szerb – Oliver VII
Adam Thirlwell – The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, and Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, and Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes, aka Miss Herbert
James Thurber – The Thurber Carnival (see “The Black Magic of Barney Haller” and “What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?”)
Rose Tremain – The Way I Found Her
Ludmila Ulitskaya – Daniel Stein, Interpreter
Lara Vapnyar – Still Here
Mario Vargas Llosa – The Bad Girl
Luís Fernando Veríssimo – Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)
Boris Vian/Vernon Sullivan – I Spit on Your Graves; The Dead All Have the Same Skin
Paolo Volponi – Last Act in Urbino
Peter Waterhouse – Language Death Night Outside: Poem. Novel
Barbara Wilson – Cassandra Reilly Mystery series
Jeannete Winterson – Written on the Body
A. B. Yehoshua – The Liberated Bride
Banana Yoshimoto – NP

ProZ.com WikiProZ.com; Brave New Words; Biblit; Conference on Fictional Translators in Literature and Film - Vienna, 2011

Happy Christmas to all readers of in lieu of a field guide!

18 December 2011

All-year favorite books

1. Don Quixote, tr. John Rutherford

2. Chronicle of My Mother by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Jean Oda Moy

3. The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry, tr. Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor

4. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, tr. Anthea Bell

5. Chess by Stefan Zweig, tr. Anthea Bell

6. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Kōno Taeko, tr. Lucy North and Lucy Lower

7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

8. On Translation by Paul Ricoeur, tr. Eileen Brennan

9. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías, tr. Margaret Jull Costa

10. Stasiland by Anna Funder

11. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

I've selected 11 books for my favorites list (6 fiction, 4 nonfiction, and a volume of plays) out of 57 books read, down from 80 last year. My total of fiction read outnumbered the nonfiction, 38 to 12. Male writers outnumbered female writers, 45 to 10. My most read authors were Murakami Haruki (6 books) and Javier Marías (4). Total of translations read was 40, mostly from the Japanese (13), Spanish (9), and German (7).

Books read in 2011

13 December 2011

The novelist as ghostwriter

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On MeTomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man and a woman are about to commit adultery. Suddenly the woman dies on him. The man cannot report her death and must immediately leave her and her sleeping child behind. From this opening scene, the novelist explores the idea of narrating and storytelling as acts fraught with emotional baggage, of the art of novel-writing as essentially ghostwriting. Later, the man considers revealing his identity to the woman's husband. He feels that unburdening himself can be the only way to save them both. He does not realize that both of them may already be past saving.

I reeled from the unexpected ending of this novel. The novelist's style is just as suspenseful and addictive as his other books. It is in some ways a companion book to his short story Bad Nature, whose narrator appears as a minor character in this novel.

The novelist can be said to act as a ghostwriter for his narrator, V., who was himself a ghostwriter in the novel. All the characters' thoughts and dialogues are filtered through V.'s consciousness, sometimes to the point of second-guessing them, as when he thought, inside quotations (emphases added):

"It's so easy to live in a state of delusion, or to be deceived," I thought, "indeed, it is our natural condition: no one is free of it and it certainly doesn't mean that one is stupid, we should not struggle so hard against it nor should we let it embitter us." That is what [he] had said, although he had added: "And yet, when we do learn the truth, we find it unbearable."

This is a key passage not only to this novel, but to the rest of Javier Marías's major fiction, all using the first person narration. It underscores his sublime ventriloquism and ghostwriting: the narrator thinking aloud his story and imputing words to the other characters. In a recent interview Marías said of his writing style: "I don't play tricks, that’s why I write in the first person." That is a tricky thing to say.

The narrator's profession is yet again a wonderful conceit on the part of the novelist, as it forces the two of them (narrator and novelist) to invent words for someone. As with A Heart So White, this novel luxuriates in the "dangerous" acts of observation and perception. This time, the narrator is actually twice removed from his subject (the politician he is writing a speech for) by having to fill the shoes of his ghostwriter-friend Ruibérriz who acts as his literary agent. He is, in fact, a "ghostwriter of a ghostwriter". Perhaps a fitting occupation for someone who is, all throughout the book, haunted by a ghost.

Marías's novels support the idea of 'faithful' translation and storytelling (novel-writing) as acts of careful and informed interpretations, as vehicles of interpretation themselves. The main characters - as translator, interpreter, ghostwriter - act as intermediaries between two parties trying to seek an understanding. In A Heart So White, between two world leaders; in this book, between a powerful political figure and his subjects. The translating language, the 'target' language, thus becomes a hospitable medium. Reading it in Margaret Jull Costa's expert translation adds a layer of déjà vu to the mix.

The novel-writing then doubles as translation, a way to capture and match ideas and intentions in the original language (thought) and to convey them in another (text/speech). The free first-person narrative style, proceeding in a deliberately digressive and lengthy trajectory of conscious memories and dreams, betrays the writer's intent to sharpen the perception of a reader caught in a swirl of words and ideas. To open communications between the embattled reader and the text.

View all my reviews

07 December 2011

Stasiland (Anna Funder)

   On the night of Sunday 12 August 1961 the East German army rolled out barbed wire along the streets bordering the eastern sector, and stationed sentries at regular intervals. At daylight people woke to find themselves cut off from relatives, from work, from school. Some made a dash through the wire. Others who lived in apartments overlooking the borderline started to jump from the windows into blankets held out by westerners on the footpath below. Then the troops made the residents brick up their own windows. They started with the lower floors, forcing people to jump from higher and higher windows.

An investigative report about life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Australian writer Anna Funder was a work of genuine pathos. The true stories of common people recounted in it seemed to have come directly from George Orwell's dystopia. As Funder's narrative had shown, the heyday of East Germany did not just resemble the alternate reality of Nineteen Eighty-Four, its very ideology was immersed in the depths of Oceania. It was a system isolated and enclosed by an impregnable fence, with human beings as the subject of the experiment and the bureaucratic apparatus secure in place. In East Germany the application of totalitarian theory took its own course for all of four decades. After an audit of history, the human cost – the pain, the sacrifices, the lives squandered and lost – was staggering.

Early on, the reader was given an overview of what transpired in the land of the Stasi police:

   The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, 'the Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long.

In the GDR, people learned to inform on each other. They were used by the state to gather information on potential "enemies". People spied on people, and all records and reports were systematically collected and archived. As Funder described it to a colleague in the book, the Stasiland was "a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms." The breakdown of reality certainly had an air of wonder about it, but it was a breakdown orchestrated from a meeting room in hell.

Intimidation and surveillance, those classic strategies of depriving individuals their privacy and peace of mind, were used in good measure. As it turned out, the participants in it – some hardline Stasi and their victims – were still playing the same game even after 1989. Even after the fall of the wall, harassment was norm for people who were critical of the former regime or who could reveal the identities of the ex-Stasi.

A former border guard who appeared on a television talk show was threatened with an acid attack and had to be placed under police protection. Home-delivered harassment is popular: one man had a ticking package delivered to his doorstep; wives have had to sign for porn not ordered by their husbands. The strangest incident I heard of was when a man was delivered a truckload of puppies, yelping outside his door and the driver demanding a signature. . . . The child of an outspoken writer was picked up from school by a person or persons unknown and taken to drink hot chocolate, just for an hour or so.

The tricks were almost funny. The idea being: that the fall of the wall did not guarantee complete freedom from intimidation. Everything could remain as before. Totalitarianism was a kind of latent disease that would strike humanity's immune system given the right physiological conditions for it to prosper. Right now, as we speak, the apparatus of the Stasi was still in operation. In any country, in any given day, the malicious smile of a Stasi was plastered on the face of an operative.

The style of the book was far from a dry journalistic report. It read very much like a novel. Like fiction, except it wasn't. Funder wrote indelible images of a repressive regime in a restrained but effectual manner. The hybrid form of creative nonfiction, in which searing human stories took over the nightmare of reality, was used to maximum effect. The portraits of people in it were well drawn and their experiences were made immediate and harrowing. There were haunting scenes in it, moments of quiet and understated anguish, that would make one's hair stand on end.

It was evident that no one could be spared the iron rule because the "enemies" were in plain sight, wearing everyone's face.

'Who were the people you were doing the "Operational Control" on?'
'They were enemies.'
'Oh. How did you know they were enemies?'
'Well,' he says in his soft voice, 'once an investigation was started into someone, that meant there was suspicion of enemy activity. . . . We searched for enemies in all the areas I mentioned: in the factories, in the state apparatus, the church, the schools and so on. In fact,' he says, 'as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of "enemy" became wider and wider.'

How could any citizen escape the definition when the damning definition would encompass all conceivable pronouns?

(Compare this to a novella by Machado de Assis called "The Psychiatrist", described by the Wuthering Expectations blog, in which the definition of "madness" had become so broad as to cast a wider and wider net and catch an increasing proportion of "mad" in the population. Using the same haphazard way of handing down human definitions, GDR embodied "both theory and practice", to borrow Tom's quote from Machado. Emily's comment to the review, regarding the similarity of the plot of José Saramago's novel Blindness to Machado's story, was very perceptive. The conceit of Saramago's novel – wherein people suddenly became blind one after the other, an abnormal disruption that led to chaos and horrible acts of cruelty as the blind were herded in a closed facility – was that it used blindness to conceal the fact that a bunch of seeing people, in the same situation, would react in exactly the same inhuman ways. Even if the epidemic of white blindness did not descend on the city, the turn of events would be the same as long as an extreme situation like food scarcity took hold and power was concentrated in one place.).

The conceit of Stasiland, and it was a real conceit, was that the Berlin Wall was also an imaginary structure. What happened within the walls only intensified or heightened what was happening outside it. What happened inside were happening outside; the goings-on inside just happened to be more prominent and more blatant.

The rise and fall of the GDR, as documented by the personal histories in the book, was a reminder to the present that lessons are not only manufactured by history. History was the lesson itself. Human beings in power, given free rein in a closed society, are capable of inflicting everything imaginable and unimaginable. Not forgetting is always a worthwhile undertaking as it is a substantial step toward asserting one's inalienable freedom and dignity. Remembrance of the unjust past is a proactive form of resistance, a way to guide the course of present events in an ideal direction. 

Funder's report distilled the best and worst aspects of people in an isolationist society. Her use of language was liberating. It trained its unflinching light on the dark, disgusting shadows of the past. Her writing was a courageous feat of synthesis and imagining. It provided ample space to observe the disposition of the heroic peoples whose stories were thoughtfully conveyed, the people who stuck blindly to their principles in the face of demoralization and deprivation of rights.

In the book, a woman was described as a person of "such great humanity" by another whose life may have been fatefully saved when the woman refused to cooperate with the regime. In its own way, Anna Funder's book deserved the same unqualified judgement. Hers was a work of such great humanity.

I received an uncorrected proof of the book from the publisher. The quotations above should be checked against the final published copy. 

03 December 2011

Reading diary: October to November 2011

Eight books read in October (half of them graphic fiction) and five books in November, with reviews also appearing in my accounts in LibraryThing, Shelfari, and Goodreads. I read four books for the just concluded German Literature Month. Links to my previous reading lists this year – 1st quarter, 2nd quarter, 3rd quarter.


44. Pan by Knut Hamsun, trans. James W. McFarlane

Pan (1894) is a lyrical expression of man's inner nature. The forest teems with the beauty of the natural world and Knut Hamsun is too wise not to use it for his own ends. The novel fairly anticipates the sensuous and erotic works of D. H. Lawrence and the spiritual confessions of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ostensibly the journal entries of a soldier hunter who inhabited a hut in the woods of a rural community, the short novel otherwise relies on various storytelling registers—folktales, legends, testimonies, monologues, daydreams, prose poetry.

Hamsun depicts a fierce battle of the sexes, a battle to the end between the narrator, Lieutenant Glahn (a man with an irresistible "animal look"), and his object of love, the fickle beauty Edvarda. Despite their obvious passionate feelings for each other, they enact a savage choreography of power and dominance. Each one will not yield submission to the other.

The novel proceeds in swift chapters, each mostly running for two or three pages. Glahn's journal tells of his hermit-like existence in the woods and of his intimate relationship with Edvarda, in a voice that at first is romantic and then becomes more and more vindictive and vicious. Its language is incantatory, as if delivering poetry reading after poetry reading on the subject of mountain, sea, forest, moon, birds, and beasts. Hamsun's achievement is in portraying extreme and conflicting psychological states in one man and one woman—compassion-cruelty, love-rage, reason-madness, intelligence-delusion.

In James W. McFarlane's translation from Norwegian, it is a rousing mad poem of love sickness.

   I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.
   After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. "It is the moon," I say softly and passionately, "it is the moon!" And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble—God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.
(p. 107)

45. Bad Nature by Javier Marías, trans. Esther Allen

This is my second read of this short story which was published as part of the New Directions Pearls series. It first appeared in Granta 66.

Elvis Presley is shooting a movie in Mexico and needs a Spanish interpreter so he can deliver the lines with a convincing accent. This appeal to 'authenticity', to a perfect and accurate delivery of the lines, is the very theme that the Spanish novelist Javier Marías explores here, in condensed form, and elsewhere in his other works of fiction.

Ruibérriz (aka Roy Berry) is the man who fills the job of interpreter adequately. That is, until the Elvis contingent gets waylaid in a bar full of gangsters. The exchange of insults between two parties, mediated by the poor interpreter, is only one among many happening in the real world. These conflicts could be the result of cultural differences, prejudices, and intolerance of 'the other'. At any rate, the role of the translator cannot be discounted in a world of perpetual wars.

46. Trese: Last Seen After Midnight by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo (review)

Trese is a graphic series based on reworkings of stories from the Philippine "lower mythology". The heroine, Alexandra Trese, battles it out against some of the mystical and mythical villains and figures from Filipino pop culture. "Last Seen After Midnight" is the fourth installment in the series. Inked in noir-like black and white art, it's a restrained and well written quartet of stories in the genre supernatural crimes and mysteries.

47-49. Maoh: Juvenile Remix, Volumes 01, 02, and 03 by Kotaro Isaka and Megumi Osuga, trans. Stephen Paul

I'm hooked on this series, which by the third volume ends with a cliffhanger. But I learned there are already 10 volumes in the series (and possibly more coming!).

The "juvenile" in the title refers to the main character Ando, an orphan who discovered he had the power of ventriloquism -- he can make other people speak things he want to say. The potential enemy is the charismatic Inukai, head of a vigilante group called Grasshopper. Inukai, self-proclaimed savior, wants to take over the whole Nekota City and save it from rapid urbanization. He marks as enemies businessmen, urban developers, investors, and mall owners. He wants to prevent the city from being overtaken by impersonal capitalism and commercialization. A valid enough cause, but his methods of violence against paid criminal gangs and goons are questionable. Our good-natured teen Ando, who is just learning to use his power, sees something sinister in Inukai's grand plan. Will he be able to stop him?

50. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky (review

The novel is a tale of a house by the lake in a German woodland area. The main character is Time, who predictably moonlights as Death. Other characters include History and Memory. The page count is small, but the technique is dense with innovative manipulations of language. The story – there's no story – covers a century of racial abuses and prejudices. The plot is linear enough but the delivery is sophisticated. It drives home the point that all human beings are dispensable. The theme and style will remind one of the midsection of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the cruel chapter called "Time Passes". That is precisely what the main character does in the novel. He passes. The narrative proceeds in bursts of prose poetry. It holds a candle to the accumulation of private and public memories.

51. The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll, trans. Breon Mitchell (review)

According to W. G. Sebald, in On the Natural History of Destruction, this novel by Heinrich Böll was one of only a handful of postwar novels that depicted the intensive carpet bombing leveled against Germany in the second world war. Though written early in Böll's career, the novel however was not published in his lifetime due to the subject matter. The publishers thought it was not appropriate to dwell on such a topic. After a long war, is it not perhaps best to move on to cheery stories?

Böll described the ruins and rubble of wartime Germany right after the end of the bombings. Amid this wasted landscape the characters moved like zombies, traumatized by their experiences. They lived only to survive hunger, scrounging for the rare bread and provisions that came at high prices. The centerpiece of the story was a love story and a subplot of a family drama. Böll was able to illuminate a time that was barely recorded, even consciously avoided according to Sebald, erased from memory, sanitized and repressed by German writers. It was not a popular subject but it was necessary to keep a record of destruction of cities and its effects on men and women.


52. The Shooting Gallery by Tsushima Yūko, trans. Geraldine Harcourt (review)

Tsushima Yūko (b. 1947) is known as the daughter of the Japanese novelist Dazai Osamu who committed suicide when she was one year old. She's an accomplished writer herself, having won several prestigious literary awards in Japan. The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories about modern women, the difficulties they experience in the face of divorce or family pressures, and their search for freedom. Tsushima portrays single mothers and separated women with a generous sympathy.

53. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll, trans. Leila Vennewitz (review)

Originally published in German in 1974, this short novel explicitly dealt with the modern dilemmas of the individual that Franz Kafka stipulated in The Trial. The apparent illusion of liberty was manifest in the gradual ruin of Katharina Blum's reputation and the invasion of her privacy, by the press and by the state. The issues raised by Heinrich Böll, in a thinly disguised satirical voice, were today still "newsworthy".

One morning Katharina Blum was brought in for questioning by the police. She was involved with a man who stayed in her place the previous night. The man was accused of murder, most wanted by the authorities, and by all indications, it looked like she helped him escape the police stakeout around her place. At the outset this looked like a simple crime investigation, but Heinrich Böll framed a narrative about the willful distortions of the truth to sensationalize a piece of news. It's a lethal piece of writing that questioned the absolute freedom granted to press. Böll sought to question the extreme application of freedom of the press in his depiction of a woman held hostage by the media's manipulation of truth. I think only a few radical writers could get away with a controversial subject like this. Böll was one of these writers who grappled with human institutions and systems and developed a prognosis on the fallibility of that system to protect human rights. He was spot on in describing the helplessness of the individual amid an onslaught of lies and deceptions broadcast on the news.

54. Night Fish by Kristine Ong Muslim (review)

Night Fish is a 13-poem chapbook written in the language of a hypothetical (future) reality. It opens with the title poem, submerging the reader in a world without landmass. Everything that once stood on high ground is reduced to the level of the sea. Despite the uncertainties accompanying a watery life, humans learn to adapt (“Everyone will learn to paddle towards the nonexistent shores.”) and form an aquatic community, an emergent race of water people. Kristine Ong Muslim, the poet behind these lines, has imagined an alternate environmental habitat in which sea level rise is the state of nature and adaptation to an extreme environment is the way of life: "The sound of oars cutting the water clean will be the most familiar sound in the universe."

55. Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, illus. Josef Scharl (review)

Rock Crystal: A Christmas Tale by the Bohemian-born Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was a novella marked by purity of prose, naturalism, and portents. It was first published in the original German in 1843, and appeared in translation, by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore, a century later (1945). Despite the onset of holiday cheer that pervaded the start of the tale, the reader could detect that something would go wrong.

In the long opening of the book, a slow sequence of scenes gradually expanded to contain the traditional Christmas festivities, culture, natural cycles, social structure, and topography of the village of Gschaid and its neighboring village of Millsdorf. The way the passage culminated on the fact of the dead staying at home for the long winter signalled a dark tone to the fable-like simplicity of the tale. The landscape and mountain communities were exquisitely evoked in sinuous sentences. 

56. Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

An investigative report about life in the German Democratic Republic prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The true stories of common people seemed to come straight out of the Orwell's dystopia. It's a topic that still resonates today, given the totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that were toppled right and left. The style of the book was far from dry journalistic report. It read very much like a novel. The portraits of people in it were well drawn and their experiences very immediate and harrowing. A very human book. I will post a longer review of this book.

Reading plans for December:

I started The Savage Detectives for next month's group reading with Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and 13 (as of last count) readers. I'm almost done with Part I, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975)".

I finished reading a dozen superb stories by Machado de Assis for Amateur Reader's Wuthering Expectations Portuguese Literature Challenge.

I also started two works of nonfiction and may further read a poetry chapbook.