“In Other Words” is Bradley Babendir’s bi-monthly column exploring new works in translation.
If I had read any of the books that were nominated for the National Book Award’s Translated Literature category, I would be happy to offer an opinion on them here. Unfortunately, I had read none of the ten longlisted and in the time between that initial announcement and the announcement of the finalists. I made no progress on that front. Still, congratulations to all nominated in the category.
On to the books I did read:
The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, translated by Chris Andrews (Published by Graywolf Press)
Some Background: Almada is an Argentine writer. She has published nine books that include a poetry collection, short story collections, novels, and a work of nonfiction. The Wind That Lays Waste is her first novel to be translated into English, though it was originally published in Argentina in 2012. The novel isn’t the winner of any big prizes, but we probably shouldn’t value awards so much (says the guy who started this column admitting he hadn’t read any of the National Book Award nominated books in his area of interest). Almada’s translator, Chris Andrews, is from Australia; he previously translated work by one of the greatest living Argentine writers, César Aira. He also translated work by the inimitable Roberto Bolaño.
Some Thoughts: The Wind That Lays Waste has questions about inevitability at its center. Many novels grapple with this question – there’s the old writer’s adage that the right ending should be both surprising and inevitable – and this comes across in Almada’s debut. Reverend Pearson’s car breaks down in the Argentine countryside as an imminent storm comes his way. The Reverend and his daughter, Leni, are spreading the good word. They find a mechanic, and it’s at the shop where the bulk of the book takes place.
One major question Almada explores is how one person’s perceived inevitability is another’s highly-worked over outcome. “They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.” Leni’s view is the one for which Almada seems to have the most sympathy. Yet the novel, propelled by ever intensifying interpersonal conflicts and that looming storm, feels like it has a structural affinity for the other side of the argument. This creates a compelling tension that runs through The Wind That Lays Waste.
Almada wraps up the mechanic, referred to mostly as The Gringo, and his young companion, Tapioca, in this question. Reverend Pearson, as with all things, believes that they were brought together for a reason, and zeroes in on convincing Tapioca to follow on his path.
“Tapioca…would not become his successor, but what the Reverend had failed to become. Because Reverend Pearson had a past too, as he knew better than anyone else, and in the past there were mistakes, and those mistakes came back now and then to haunt him like a vague but persistent cloud of buzzing flies. There had been no Reverend Pearson to guide him.”
All of this human planning, though, is somewhat undercut by Almada’s interstitial italicized sections which come down from on high to sermonize to readers about changing their lives and believing in God. The combination of this and Almada’s often ineffectual Reverend Pearson is wonderful.
The Translator’s Bride by João Reis, translated by the author (Published by Open Letter)
Some Background: An actor and a soccer player that share his name appear before him when you search Reis on the internet. This João Reis, however, is a Portuguese author and a literary translator of work in Scandinavian languages. Other than that, information about Reis is hard to find, making him all the more mysterious.
Some Thoughts: Reis’s book has a madcap, jaunty quality that goes and goes and goes right from the beginning. The titular translator has been left by his titular bride. He believes that if he just sorts some things in his life out, she will return and they will live happily ever after. Reis is always clear about the futility of this idea, but one invests in the translator’s success much the same. He bounces between different publishers offices, trying to get checks and jobs, all the while worrying about things big and small around him. There’s a particular focus on a hat he loses on the bus early in the book.
More so than the plot itself, The Translator’s Bride is propelled by Reis’s energetic prose and the structure underlying it. His paragraphs vary in length, but they are usually one sentence, even when the paragraph spans a full page. This is no Ducks, Newburyport, however. The Translator’s Bride is less than one-fifth the length. The novel is written in the first-person, and Reis nicely calibrates his narrator to balance an obsessive eye with a generally crude demeanor. From early on in the book, when he’s on a streetcar:
“But why am I thinking about [my wife leaving] when there’s nothing I can do about it now, cannot even help a woman pick up the heads of garlic, she still hasn’t managed to pick them all up, goddamn it, this is too much, is she shortsighted or just plain clumsy? Or, even worse, is she trying to perpetuate this unbearable situation, just to fumble about and touch the passengers’ feet? What a debauchery, this streetcar is, full of animals, it’s grotesque.”
Reis writes with an appealing gnarl; his narrator often says and thinks things about those around him that one might be loath to speak out loud. Aimed at the right people, it is immensely fulfilling. When a publisher who tried to duck paying him for his work greets with him an eerily emphatic pleasantness, it is exciting to read the translator dispel with professional courtesy and demand what he really wants. When he internally points this frustration towards a woman on public transportation who has lost track of her things, there is no feeling of comeuppance. It is strangely compelling to see petty annoyance laid bare.
Some Background: The Remainder is Zerán’s first book and her first translated into English. When it was originally published in Chile, her place of birth, it was chosen as one of the ten best debuts of 2015 by El País, a Chilean newspaper, and also received plaudits from the Chilean Council for the Arts. She has also written a nonfiction book about women who kill, aptly titled Las Homicidas, which has yet to be translated (hopefully that changes soon). Hughes has also translated work by Enrique Vila-Matas and others. Her translation of The Remainder was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
Some Thoughts: The Remainder is about the way the military junta and dictatorship lingers in Chile nearly thirty years after its fall. Felipe and Iquela are both grappling with the way history has influenced their lives. Iquela is trying to reconcile her mother’s role in a radical resistance, while Felipe, haunted by the number of the dead, hopes to find closure somewhere, somehow. It’s a reflective book, but Zerán stays close to the characters and their relationships to one another, always situating this higher-level grappling within their context. A lot has been written about this book already, so I don’t want to belabor the point. Here is a passage, which takes place on the night of the 1988 referendum that voted down eight more years of Augusto Pinochet’s rule:
“I hid the cigarette behind my back, and for a second, as my mother approached, I managed to hold in both the smoke and my coughing fit. My mother crouched down and looked me in the eyes. The smoke in my chest was despearately looking for an exit. She hugged me and held on tight, and I heard thousands of votes being counted, I felt the cigarette burning my fingers, I saw [my friend’s] giant father striding toward mine and felt the smoke pushing and pushing. My mother held me by the shoulders, and dug her nails into my skin and spoke to me between sniffles, her voice crackling like the branches of a dead tree.
‘Iquela, my girl, don’t ever forget this day.’ (Because I mustn’t forget anything, ever.) ‘Don’t ever forget,’ she repeated, and the dry cough finally burst out of me. It rose up and shook me till I was completely hollowed out.”
The Remainder is so excellent when Zerán is writing about this type of tension between generations: between parents and their children. The level of attention to physical sensation, how primal it often feels, is one of The Remainder‘s major strengths.
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.