Translation

TSUNAMI FROM SOLARIS

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TSUNAMI FROM SOLARIS: ESSAYS ON POETRY BY AASE BERG, TRANSLATED BY JOHANNES GÖRANSSON AND JOYELLE MCSWEENEY

Swedish poet and critic Aase Berg’s new collection, Tsunami from Solaris: Essays on Poetry, beckons readers into a mountainous range of essays covering poetry and the human experience. Edited and translated by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, each essay swells with an introspective metamorphosis. The collection features an expansive scope of enlightening ruminations, including musings of wounds and scars; pregnancy and motherhood (“that cute, paradisiacal madness”); subversion of the patriarchy and capitalism; playfulness; joy and suffering; adulthood; the awe-inspiring madness of children; and the nature of language and a poem’s landscape, all which offer readers new lenses and modes of thinking—to employ for the creation of poetry—to experience the world as a human being. 

Berg advocates for wonder and protests patriarchal seriousness. Provocative questions undulate throughout the collection: “is language a game?”; “should one in certain moments avoid writing about or depicting angst about mortality?”; and “why is the poem such an insult to the cruelty of life itself?” She leans toward a trickster poetics: “the poem is formless, a protoplasm, a jellyfish, an amoeba that glides around and ignores the human race’s grave chronologies.” As poetry is a playground and “language is a living being,” each essay is full of breath and enrapturing choreographies of meaning. Berg writes that “the playground is the garbage heap of the patriarchy,” and Tsunami for Solaris is a call to action for all writers to “steal back the yellow, happy, pathetic joy,” to play and play madly without boundaries or fear. 

Action Books.

—Review by Samuel Binns

THE POLYGLOT LOVERS

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THE POLYGLOT LOVERS BY LINA WOLFF, TRANSLATED BY SASKI VOGEL

The Polyglot Lovers is a manuscript written by Max Lamas, a lauded middle-aged author, whose ego Lina Wolff deconstructs in her sharp and satirical second novel of the same name.

Wolff’s meta-tale begins with Ellinor, who is traveling to Stockholm for a literary critic she met online, a man named Ruben. Ellinor finds Ruben repulsive; nevertheless, she carries on with their date: a night that ends in violence. In an act of revenge, Ellinor calmly waits until Ruben falls asleep before destroying his most prized possession—Max Lamas’s sole manuscript. Cut to part two: Max’s perspective. He dreams of a particular woman, he tells us, “A very young polyglot lover with enormous, white, milk-scented breasts.” His sentiments are familiar, cliché even, but Wolff pushes his language ever so slightly toward the absurd, incorporating numerous descriptions of female bodies and moments of existential dread (“the tristesse, oh the tristesse!”). In the third and final section, Wolff gives voice to Lucrezia, whose grandmother, an Italian marchesa, is the main subject of Max’s manuscript. Wolff’s tonal shifts between sections are handled deftly by Saskia Vogel, the translator responsible for bringing this novel into English.

The French author Michel Houellebecq also appears in many forms in Wolff’s novel: in references, on Ruben’s secret bookshelf, as an epigraph to Max’s section. But Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers is not about Houellebecq, per se—it is about the recurring figure of Houellebecq in the literary world. Readers will inevitably conjure their own equivalent to him, and to Max Lamas, and Wolff encourages us to do so, for her novel raises the following questions: how do we define literary genius, and who do we allow to define it for us?

And Other Stories.

—Review by Anna Vilner

FLOWERS OF MOLD

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FLOWERS OF MOLD BY HA SEONG-NAN, TRANSLATED BY JANET HONG

In Ha Seong-nan’s gripping and courageous Flowers of Mold, the author triple-underlines those distasteful aspects of our lives that we’d rather ignore: the putridity of leaky trash; the greasy, lingering smell of fried chicken; children’s crackers crushed underfoot; the solid clunk of an alarm clock to the jaw. Her characters are working-class people: pear farmers, car salesmen, electricians, sushi chefs, pre-pubescent gymnasts—whose everyday lives flout mundanity by revealing just how commonplace accidents, violence, and pain truly are. And yet, these stories conserve a thread of improbability in their sheer unpredictability, in the unsettling treachery of having another question your reality for you. In “The Woman Next Door,” a housewife is slowly displaced by a sinister newcomer; in “Nightmare,” a young girl’s waking horror is written off as nothing but a dream; and in “Onion,” a woman commits the unthinkable, yet, as she runs, can find no evidence of her crime.

Recycled in the stories in Flowers of Mold are the unbearable summer heat, the shocking discovering that fish have tongues, an old security guard, the life cycle of a billboard—lending Ha’s stories a feeling of simultaneity that makes them spill across each other, coexisting but never meeting. Ha is a master of the short story and hooks the reader without revealing or resolving too much too cleanly. Translator Janet Hong is built of the same stuff, handling Ha’s stories with a delicacy and attention to detail that should serve as a model for all in the profession.

Open Letter.

—Review by Samantha Kirby

AVIARIES

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AVIARIES BY ZUZANA BRABCOVÁ, TRANSLATED BY TEREZA NOVICKÁ

Zuzana Brabcová’s Aviaries, translated from the Czech by Tereza Novická, is a lesson in literary phantasmagoria—not for the faint of heart. Composed of oscillating diary entries, vignettes, dreams, observations, interior monologue, meditations, short anecdotes, newspaper headlines, and anecdotes from both poetry and prose, it presents a kaleidoscopic picture of present-day Prague, a world reeling with political strife that treats disadvantaged people badly and seldom makes sense.

The novella opens in 2011 with the death of Václav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia. Contemporary news reports and headlines provide a bleak background to this snapshot of the life of the protagonist, Alžběta, a woman living on the fringes of a relentlessly unforgiving Prague. She navigates a world of confusing characters that exist in and outside her imagination in Prague’s Smíchov district. She is unemployed and struggling with mental illness. Her troubled thoughts contribute to the fragmentary nature of the text, told in both third person and, what can only be described as, a distant first person. The result is profoundly confusing, yes, but also strangely satisfying, particularly as it contributes to Alžběta’s interactions with the women in her life, including her mother, her sister, and her dumpster-diving, Bob Dylan-dating daughter, Alice.

Completed just before Brabcová’s untimely death, Aviaries received the Josef Škvorecky, a Czech language award, in 2016 for best prose of the year and, in 2017, was shortlisted for the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award. Czech cultural-political monthly journal Literární nonviny called it, “A sophisticated testimony about social exclusion.” And now, Twisted Spoon Press and translator Tereza Novická have brought it to you.

Twisted Spoon Press.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

FUEL AND FIRE

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FUEL AND FIRE: SELECTED POEMS 1956-76 BY FRANCISCO URONDO, TRANSLATED BY JULIA LEVERONE

Fuel and Fire, the selected works of Francisco Urondo, finds a new voice in Julia Leverone’s well-rendered translations. Poet, journalist, academic, left-wing Peronist, and guerilla fighter, Urondo, was assassinated by the US-backed Argentinian government during the Dirty War. The twenty-years of poetry represented in this collection is built on Urondo’s revolutionary ideals, and serves as a portrait of political injustice faced by the Argentinian people, extending sympathy to those suffering under Argentina’s various regimes. Through their politics, the poems land at a deeply humanist center. They are “enamored of the things of this world,” with frequent dedications to figures important to Urondo: poets, musicians, intellectuals, comrades in the Montoneros, Urondo’s own children. In the tradition of Golden-Era Spanish epics, these poems complicate their stance by extending grace towards Urondo’s political enemies. They seek justice through revolution, but also reconciliation, and “hope bitterness won’t intercept / forgiveness.”

Ultimately, these poems are concerned with the tangible world—a romanticism of the here-and-now. Urondo writes that “Cruelty doesn’t frighten me and I always lived / floored by good alcohol, a well-written book, perfectly done meat.” Such sentiments often risk bravado, but in Fuel and Fire, these small material luxuries represent the spirit and culture of the Argentinian people. His concern for his country is demonstrated again and again. He has grown tired of witnessing this “sad story of a defeated / people, of degraded families.” In his poems, language becomes the people’s weapon in the struggle for justice. “I Want to Report,” a poem that recounts a police raid of Urondo’s residence, demonstrates this idea best: “I file / this report, / especially for the loss / of weapons and poems, since both are unrecoverable. They / have been stolen from the people of the republic, / to whom they naturally belonged.”     

Lavender Ink / Diálogos.

—Review by David Brunson

UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO

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UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO BY FRÉDÉRIC PAJAK, TRANSLATED BY DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH

The first volume of Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto (currently in its seventh volume in French) is composed of oblique relationships. The relationship between its large illustrations and short snippets of text is loosely associative, even mysterious. The chapters range from memoir to historical account to philosophical musing. At first, the book feels something like a stack of random pages ripped from Pajak’s sketchbook, notes haphazardly compiled rather than meticulously ordered. Though, as the book progresses, a greater arc emerges. Uncertain Manifesto is haunted by the memory of Europe hardly holding onto “the vestiges of peace, and with these crumbs improvising a society that erases other societies,” as Pajak hints in the introduction. The book exists in the shadows of other manifestos—centrally, Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto—but, by the end of this first volume, one gets a sense that Pajak has set about concocting some kind of balm, something to ward against the dangers of entrenched ideology.

Much of the book chronicles Walter Benjamin’s travels during the 1930s, and his thoughts on the rise of fascism. A reflection on the nature of fascism, likely felt important when the first volume appeared in French in 2012—in 2019, Uncertain Manifesto’s arrival in English feels vital. In less capable hands, such a genre-defying, heady enterprise might have sagged under the weight of its own ambition; here, it’s full of wit and life. Powerful precisely on account of its subtlety.

New York Review Books.

—Review by Landon McGee

WHAT'S IN A NAME

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WHAT’S IN A NAME BY ANA LUÍSA AMARAL, TRANSLATED BY MARGARET JULL COSTA

“Despite all, I speak of names: / because I cannot find / a better way:” writes Ana Luísa Amaral in her brilliant new collection, What’s in a Name, forthcoming from New Directions. The poems here are translated from the Portuguese into understated, lyrical English by Margaret Jull Costa—poems that are concerned with the power and limitations of naming the world. They read as intimate conversations between the poet and reader, in either the early hours of morning or the late hours of night, where small, everyday moments quickly spiral into great cultural, historical, and even cosmic significance. In the poem “Definitions,” a friend of the speaker must choose between buying a blue or white jacket. Soon, the color white becomes the moon, a "moss-free wall," "the way a cats walks." Amaral connects these images, by the color white, to Emily Dickinson’s "the White Sustenance-- Despair." For Amaral, this white sustenance is "the innermost part, or the part imagining / the unimaginable." It is the blank page.  

Like Dickinson, these poems inhabit a lush inner life, one that “does not pass / quietly—”. In “Casualties of War,” the speaker shakes “a tiny speck / from this sheet of paper” which in a matter of stanzas becomes “a flamethrower of inflammable fluids / with a past waiting to attack.” After meditating on her own cosmic insignificance in “Differences (or minor glimmerings),” Amaral writes across “this sheet of paper. Which is what will remain. / As a book: interstellar ring, / like an onion awaiting a moonlight / other eyes cannot see.” In these pages, the inner life becomes external and the external world becomes internal. Words, which always “grow shorter / when said,” slip away from the things they name. And yet, the poems always land somewhere deeply human, with compassion for friends, for daughters, for refugees and the victims of war. These poems challenge us, asking: “Is it the light that’s late, or our / configuring gaze? / And the years translated / into our language, the millions of light years / made space-devouring / waves, do they cause space to collapse or to soar?”

New Directions.

—Review by David Brunson

THIS WOMAN'S WORK

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THIS WOMAN’S WORK BY JULIE DELPORTE, TRANSLATED BY ALESHIA JENSEN AND HELGE DASCHER

Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work, translated by Aleshia Jensen and Helge Dascher, is a beautiful and resonant autobiographical meditation on art, gender, and identity. The author sifts through her cultural consumption to find the root of her frustrations with gender inequality, sometimes so deeply ingrained that it is impossible to pinpoint their original source. She wonders, “What are the images that hold us captive?” Captive, that is, in repeated performances of gender that feel impossible to break. In pursuit of this question, Delporte presents the reader with her recollections of paintings, film stills, statues and texts, all evoked in bright and expressive colored pencil. Through vignettes, she wrestles with difficult breakups, pregnancy, and the fear of being alone. She expresses her anxiety and frustration with gender roles too. Recalling experiences of sexual assault as a child as well as potent micro-aggressions and barriers ingrained in the language of the adults she loved—and indeed, language itself, the masculine-centric French—the artist seeks to be liberated from womanhood, imagining herself as a wolf or a dolphin.

At the same time, much of her meditation centers on the life of Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and painter whose story and work inspires Delporte to explore her own trajectory as a working artist and the additional stumbling blocks that female artists face. Still, as she reads Jansson’s books and letters, it is through them that she eventually begins to feel that she is finally able to find that she is “falling in love with the idea of being a woman.” While This Woman’s Work captivates in its personal expression of womanhood in all its vicissitudes and complexities, Delporte, by placing her life within the contexts of larger cultural narratives and the lives of other artists, also earnestly opens the door to other women’s experiences, asking how much of her story is her own, and how much is “the story of all women”?

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Rome Morgan