“In Other Words” is Bradley Babendir’s bi-monthly column exploring new works in translation.
Something I think about frequently is the large amount of factors that lead to a book being covered or not. Most exclusion comes down to how much money there is, in one way or another. If a publisher can afford to get more advanced copies into the hands of more critics, it’s more likely that the book will receive coverage. On the other side, publications that have enough money and space to pay more reviewers will cover more books. Time, as they say, is money also, and I think time is an underrated factor. For example, I did not have time to finish Abel and Cain, the really marvelous (so far!) collection of two books written by Gregor von Rezzori and translated by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarborough. The beautiful edition from New York Review Books Classics is 880 pages and I didn’t have time to scale the whole thing. It was meant to be on this list and what I’ve read of it was quite good, so consider this an ignorant but enthusiastic recommendation.
On to the books I did finish:
Human Matter by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated by Eduardo Aparicio (Published by University of Texas Press)
Some Background: Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer who has won the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, which I’ve seen called Guatemala’s most prestigious literary prize (I lack the context to evaluate that assertion but I say, sure, why not). He’s written at least 18 books and they are sporadically making their way into English. New Directions published The Good Cripple in 2004, translated by Esther Allen, and Amazon Crossing published Chaos, A Fable earlier this year, translated by Jeffrey Gray. Eduardo Aparicio is the owner of Aparicio Publishing and the translator of Miami Century Fox by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias from Akashic Books.
Some Thoughts: Human Matter is a novel about the world’s most electrifying subject, archival research. The main character is Rodrigo Rey Rosa himself, and he is working through the archive of the Identification Bureau, which contained nearly 80 years of records about individuals and the population, along with notebooks and other ephemera. What makes Human Matter so wonderful is the way that it is constantly in dialogue with itself about what can be understood from the information Rey Rosa is giving. After a list of “Political Crimes” and “Common Crimes,” which include dates, names, and the crime committed (such as “recidivist loitering” and “complicity in bicycle theft”), Rey Rosa calls into question the usefulness of the enterprise itself: “It would not be wise to conclude anything on the basis of the chaotic and capricious information contained in a series of police files that resisted time and weathering by chance.”
This is hard to argue with, but the structure of the novel itself –– the fact that readers are presented with the information –– does argue with it. Later, Rey Rosa comments that he is leafing through Yearly Reports while waiting for access to other documents. But of course, I read the Yearly Report with interest anyway. The tension between the fundamental pleasure of the novel –– which comes from trying to piece together meaning out of the disparate information available to us and the narrator’s insistence that it’s futile –– creates a weirdly gratifying reading experience. Reader and narrator then are engaged in similar journeys of discovery: ours is a fight with him and the narrator’s a fight with himself.
Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor (Published by New Directions)
Some Background: Ginzburg lead a remarkable life and it’s better addressed in this Belle Boggs piece in The New Yorker than I could hope to. An important part of writing is knowing when to defer to smarter people and this is one of those instances. A great deal of her work is available in English, including The Dry Heart, translated by Frances Frenaye, which also released in June by New Directions, and Family Lexicon, translated by Jenny McPhee, published by New York Review Books Classics in 2017. Minna Zalma Proctor is the author of Landslides (Catapult, 2017) and the translator of a number of books, including Federigo Tozzi’s Love in Vain, for which she won the PEN/Renato Poggioli Award.
Some Thoughts: Happiness, as Such, originally published in, 1973, is a brilliant epistolary novel about a collection of family and friends trying to stay connected as political, physical, and emotional distance grows. At the center is a mother and her evasive son, Michele, who moves frequently and without warning. The plot, in so far as there is one, revolves around the son’s absence. A woman claims he is the father of her child and his own father begins the novel sick and then deteriorates and dies. Michele does little about either of these things, except express remorse about his doing little about either of these things in his letters. There is a great deal of tension wrung out of this by Ginzburg and I don’t want to downplay the novel’s effectiveness on this level. But where it shines is at the line level, where Ginzburg and Proctor together often strike perfect notes. At the end of a solemn letter, Michele’s mothers writes: “I’m sending you hugs and wish you happiness, if there is such a thing as happiness. A possibility that we can’t entirely exclude, despite so rarely seeing evidence of it in this world that’s been given to us.” What a pair of sentences.
Accommodations by Wioletta Greg, translated by Jennifer Croft (Published by Transit Books)
Some Background: Wioletta Greg is an award-winning Polish poet and fiction writer whose book, Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak), was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Croft was the translator of the Man Booker International novel Flight by Olga Tokarczuk, August by Romina Paul, and several other books. She is the founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review and the author of the memoir Homesick, which will be published by Unnamed Press in September of this year.
Some Thoughts: The novel, set in 1994, follows Wiola, a woman from a small town in Poland who heads to the moderately-sized city of Czestochowa to begin her adult life. As the title, Accommodations, suggests, the book examines the myriad ways our environment determines our reality. Early on, trying to negotiate her rural upbringing with the expectations of her more cosmopolitan acquaintances, she thinks on her deficit in cultural knowledge.
“[T]he film showings the mayor organized in the firehouse were finished the same day they started since someone stole all the videocassettes, for some reason leaving only Total Recall, which after a few weeks everyone in the village knew by heart, but it really stuck with my good friend Older Lajiboś, meaning he sniffed some neoprene adhesive and turned into an agent from Mars and ran all over the post-State Agricultural Farm fields disarming the straw coverages over the bushes.”
This passage charmed me quite a bit. The way that its beginning in embarrassment about a gap between her and her peers slowly moves toward affection for from where she came and for whom she grew up with is wonderfully endearing. The essentially unsettled nature of her experience in Czestochowa balances atop this and Greg orients her difficulties in the city against the knowledge of what she’s left.
Greg captures the essences of her two residences –– a hostel and a convent –– in equally efficient and memorable ways. “I could swear that from Sunday night into Monday morning as I lay shivering under the blankets in my unheated room at the Vega I heard Russian voices, songs, shrieks, which had persisted until dawn preventing me from sleeping,” she says of the hostel, encompassing many of its indignities while also illustrating its character.
The convent is set up in contrast: “After so many interrupted nights at the Vega, the Congregation of Sisters of Christ’s Heart seems like an oasis of peace. I quickly grow accustomed to the heavy clogs I have to wear on convent property, to the early-morning wakeups, the canonical hours from matins to vespers, the vegetarian dishes consisting of buckwheat porridge, fermented milk, peas, beans, zurek, and cabbage.”
None of the accommodations are ever quite right, but Accommodations certainly is.
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.