14/12/09 The New Yorker

Translate This Book!

by Elizabeth Clark Wessel

Among the multitude of year- and decade-end lists of books, there is one you probably won’t be using as inspiration for stocking-stuffers—simply because most of the books on it don’t yet exist in the United States. Dismayed by the low percentage of translated literature published here each year (only three per cent of books published), the literary review Quarterly Conversation polled a wide variety of translators, writers, editors, and publishers to find out which books they thought were in most urgent need of translation. The list of their recommendations has now been published as “Translate This Book!”

senges.jpgThe list is meant to serve as a guide for translators, publishers, and readers in search of foreign literature. But it’s also a fascinating read in itself (even if it is sometimes frustrating to read about books that might never be attainable). The arguments for translation are high-minded and edifying, but it’s the tantalizing descriptions of the books themselves that make the most compelling case. Or, as Sergio Chejfec writes in his description of the Argentine author Antonio di Benedetto’s book “Zama,” “Good books are unique and need no justification.”

Some I hope to see soon:

Hiromi Itō’s novel “The Thorn-Pulling Jizō: New Tales of the Jizō at Sugamo”

“Weaving autobiography with elements drawn from folklore and classical Japanese literature, this surreal and wildly imaginative book represents Itō’s attempt to create a new mode of mythological storytelling that explores some of the most important concerns facing contemporary Japan.”—Jeffrey Angles

E.H. Gonatas’s short-story collection “The Cows”

“Grotesque, fantastic, ethereal … The title story, for example, deals with an unnamed protagonist who discovers a town’s well-kept secret: exploding cows.”—George Fragopoulos

Robert Juan-Cantavella’s novel “El Dorado”

“The best aim and sense of humor of all the literary “terrorists” in Spain…he is the great European disciple of Hunter S. Thompson … Think of the picaresque, the Quixote, Quevedo or Rabelais as well as Robert Coover or David Foster Wallace”—Juan Francisco Ferré

Pierre Senges’s novel “Fragments de Lichtenberg”

“What if the over 8,000 aphorisms written by German scientist and writer Georg Lichtenberg were actually the pieces of a lost novel? This idea puts in motion a fantastic piece of writing in which a group of scholars creates, with Alfred Nobel’s money, a society dedicated to finding out the novel that hides behind the fragments.”—François Monti

Kitab al-Hayawan’s “The Book of Animals”

“From the ninth century…an enormous collection of lore about animals—including insects—culled from the Koran, the Traditions, pre-Islamic poetry, proverbs, storytellers, sailors, personal observation, and Aristotle’s Generation of
Animals. But this is by no means all. In keeping with his theories of planned disorder, he introduces anecdotes of famous men, snippets of history, anthropology, etymology, and jokes.”—Jeffrey Yang

01/12/09 The Quarterly Conversation

Juan Francisco Ferré on El Dorado by Robert Juan-Cantavella

In the extensive dedication to his novel El Dorado, author Robert Juan-Cantavella acknowledges his debts, both real and symbolic, and thanks the “urban planners and the building industry mafia, who, aside from running the country, have given me a theme to write about” and “politicians in general, for demonstrating with their idiocy that the American dream is possible in any corner of the planet.” In this devastating journey through a Spain on the verge of mortgaging itself to the hilt, the author satirizes the pope’s visit to Valencia in 2006; furthermore, he contemplates the insanity of the promoters and backers of tourist megalopolis Marina D’or; a set of attacks that exterminate all the crowned heads on the planet and part of the Spanish aristocracy; and the bankruptcy of the middle class and the nuclear family. Robert Juan-Cantavella has the best aim and sense of humor of all the literary “terrorists” in Spain. It couldn’t be otherwise: he is the great European disciple of Hunter S. Thompson. This extraordinary novel partakes of a hybrid aesthetic. Journalism, impossibly perverted in its ends and means, is combined with the literary, which is itself split between attention to the immense profanity of the real and the preservation of intelligence and irony when confronted by events that put an end to any capacity for judgment and critical discernment. Both extremes of contemporary experience are portrayed by Cantavella. With El Dorado Cantavella is part of a literary tradition (think of the picaresque, the Quixote, Quevedo or Rabelais as well as Robert Coover or David Foster Wallace) of authors who have made parody (or rather, the comic disassembly of the dominant beliefs of a determined social order) the primary tool of their hilarious inventions. After participating in this hysterical catharsis, the reader will experience an immediate improvement in his mental faculties.
(Translated by Beth Wadell and Scott Esposito)