Welcome to the first edition of “In Other Words.” Every two months, I’ll be writing about a few recently published books which were translated from other languages. These won’t be preview posts; the books will have already come out in the two months prior. That’s the basic idea, though this is the first installment and I imagine (and hope) that this will grow and change as a project as I write it. Thank you all for reading!
The Fox and Dr. Shimamura by Christine Wunnicke, translated by Philip Boehm (Published by New Directions, April 30)
Some background: This short novel is Wunnicke’s second to be translated from German to English. Her prior book, Missouri, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2010. Boehm, who has translated Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and many others, had not translated any of her work prior to this. The book was originally published in 2015.
Some thoughts: The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is a weird and elastic book that starts at the end of Shun’ichi Shimamura’s life before jumping to his youth and working its way back. In his old age, he is cared for by four women: “Sachiko his wife, Yukiko her mother, Hanako his own mother, and a maidservant he sometimes called Anna but more often Luise. He had brought her along when he retired from the Kyoto asylum, as a kind of memento, and because no one there knew for sure whether she was a patient or one of the nurses.” The mystery in that line was very enticing to me, as was the manner in which Wunnicke drops in the objectification of Anna/Luise in an aside. These two ideas–what is unknowable and how Shimamura and his colleagues perceive women–are the backbones of the novel.
Shimamura is a doctor, hence the title of the novel, and when Wunnicke returns to his youth he is treating an apparent epidemic of women becoming possessed by foxes. This is happening in the provinces, a place he is disdainful of, and this manifests in his performance. Wunnicke recounts his hearing about the process of removal like so:
“The so-called receptacles were the most pathetic exploiters of the fox-madness…Every summer the most desperate lowlifes made the pilgrimage to Shimane to offer themselves as fox-receptalces. As fox-shelters. As fox-asylums. There were many names and each one was disgusting…once the fox was inside, the receptacle succumbed to a puny, whimpering, drawn-out insanity and a very slow death characterized by a distinct odor.”
Wunnicke writes this from a third-person perspective so the curious-but-disgusted reaction is not owned by any of the characters in particular, but as something that is within the fabric of the world itself. The contrast between their portrayal and their action, which seems to be quite selfless, is massive and navigating that dissonance is a rewarding, challenging piece of the experience reading the book. No doubt Boehm’s attentive translation played a large role in producing that effect.
From the provinces of Japan, Shimamura heads to France, where he meets Jean-Martin Charcot. A new struggle emerges there: “Shimamura saw himself running up and down the Salpêtrière…chasing after information. ‘Look it up, it’s all in the books,’ said Dr. Babinski, who seemed unable to comprehend that someone might not understand French.” It’s a wonderful irony encountering this in a translated book, and the problem’s repeated appearance is always a nice mix of funny and sad.
All throughout the book, which takes him from France to Germany and eventually back to Japan, Wunnicke is navigating the oddities that they experience even-handedly, emphasizing disbelief before and often after, even while assuredly describing what is happening as it happens. This is also the posture Wunnicke takes toward Shimamura’s treatment of women, his misogyny preventing him from treating them fully as people while he nonetheless treats them medically (though certainly his care is diminished by his attitude). Wunnicke reconciles none of it because it is irreconcilable.
Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Drayluck, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson, edited by Boris Drayluck, preface by Svetlana Alexievich (Published by New York Review Books, April 9)
Some background: Quite a few people were involved in bringing this book into English, and I am grateful to all of them. This is Maxim Osipov’s English-language book debut but these translated stories have appeared in The White Review, Granta, and elsewhere. Osipov is, according to information from NYRB, a practicing doctor who lives ninety miles outside of Moscow and his work focuses on provincial life (sorry, Dr. Shimamura!).
Some thoughts: Alexievich’s preface is a little bizarre. Here’s a nugget:
“These stories tell of people who have haven’t come to understand the meaning of their existence–what is it all for? Very few of us have, it must be said. But who has the strength? The author relates to his characters as to patients; he asks them where it hurts and whether…in general, does it hurt in the soul? The Russian soul–yet another myth. In reality, there is but soul; the real question is: Is there a person?”
I’m not sure, to be honest, what this is supposed to be mean. It sounds evocative, but I’m not sure that it actually evokes anything. Alexievich, it should be said, has a Nobel Prize in Literature. I, it should be said, do not. But I feel that this makes something of a categorical error that misrepresents what Osipov work is. He’s not asking or answering these questions, which is good, because fiction that would attempt either would probably be very boring. (If you’re interested in those question, Alexievich’s work is a great place to start).
Instead, Osipov’s stories are energetic and funny and clear and violent. One standout is “Moscow-Petrozavodsk”, the first story in the book (or second, depending on how one chooses to read Osipov’s “The Cry of the Domestic Fowl: In Lieu of a Forward,” which is a Calvino-esque address on what the reader’s experience will be). The story takes place primarily on a train ride from (yes) Moscow to Petrozavodsk. Even before the train is in motion, Osipov drops a wry, scathing few sentences:
“After the lecture, you’re still answering questions, but behind your back, brawny little red-faced men are pointing at their watches–time’s up. These little men are the local professors–in the provinces these days any fool can be a professor, the same way that in the American South any fool, if he’s white, can be judge or an army officer.”
This comment, which has an air of deflection to it, deftly precedes a story that is actually about the violence that surrounds our narrator. After, in a conversation with a police officer, he learns that he spent the night on the train nearby murderers, the officer replies: “Don’t think about them…Killers–they’re your average people.” For the narrator, and readers, not such a comforting thought. But for Osipov, it’s an effective and wonderful planting of a flag.
Star by Yukio Mishima, translated by Sam Bett (Published by New Directions, April 30)
Some background: Mishima’s work is widely available in English and his literary reputation was one of Japan’s finest 20th-century writers is solidified. His story is only bolstered by the circumstances of his death: Mishima committed suicide by ritual seppuku in 1970 after the coup he attempted to lead failed. Bett is an award-winning translator, currently working with David Boyd on translating the novels of Mieko Kawakami. Star was originally published in 1961 and this is its first appearance in English.
Some thoughts: The novella tells the story of a young actor named Rikio. He’s starring in a film about a Yakuza member and Mishima wrote the book immediately after he starred in Afraid to Die, a film about roughly the same subject. Mishima uses the book to explore the alienation of fame and the toll it takes on people. One sentiment, expressed in narration by Rikio, sticks out in particular:
“It’s better for a star to be completely absent. No matter how serious the obligation, a star is more of a star if he never arrives. Absence is his forte. The question of whether he’ll show up gives the event a ceaseless undercurrent of suspense. But a true star never arrives.”
This appears about a third of the way through the book, and Star spends much of its remaining length proving this in various ways. Rikio is also misogynistic and often unlikable and this compounded with the compassion Mishima extracts on Rikio’s behalf because of his isolation results in a stirring, complicated book.
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Published by Catapult, April 9)
Some background: Gainza is an accomplished Argentinian writer who has worked as a correspondent for The New York Times and has written for Artforum and other art publications in Argentina. Optic Nerve is her first work of fiction and also her first book to be translated into English. Bunstead is the editor of the translation journal In Other Words, and has translated work by Yuri Herrera, Enrique VIla-Matas and others.
Some thoughts: This book has already received a lot of coverage (I recommend Dustin Illingsworth’s review in The Nation and Nathan Scott McNamara’s profile for LitHub) so I won’t add too much other than to say that I too was really charmed by this book. Gainza’s narrator is an Argentinian woman with a great interest in art and she weaves in and out of anecdotes from her own life, information about artists, and engagement with the art itself. It’s discursiveness is it’s greatest strength; the smooth movement from one subject to the other is engaging and satisfying. Gainza also has an ability to wrestle with the contradictions and small lies that operating in the Art world, so to speak, produces. Early in the book, Gainza’s narrator is shown a work by Alfred de Dreux. After claiming to know his work and admire the painting, in narration she shares: “Two lies for the price of one: I had never heard of Dreux, and the piece struck me as little more than decorative. The work of someone technically gifted, but nothing more.” I found this very striking and emblematic of what the book does well in reflecting the narrator’s humane desire to be polite alongside her commitment to taking art very seriously and Gainza’s facility with exploiting that tension when it arises.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published by The Washington Post, NPR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston.
Thank you very much for starting this column! It is great to have another resource of information about translated literature!
Special shout-out to Maxim Osipov’s translators — I spent two years in Moscow, and read a lot of his work in the original. He is quite the figure in the local medical and literary communities, and it is good to see his work become available to a wider audience.
Thanks for the rundown, muchly appreciated.
Thank you for the excellent column.