Sébastien Rongier’s enigmatic novel 78 brings us into a provincial French brasserie in 1978, where a disparate collection of characters grow tipsy, argue, break up, smoke cigarettes, read, watch each other, and listen to the rasp of Johnny Cash’s voice wafting from the jukebox. Their stories unfold through chains of Georges Perec-like vignettes, which are gradually braided together as the characters interact.
In 1978, France was still haunted by the bitter and bloody Algerian War, which had ended sixteen years previously. Millions of pieds-noirs (European Christians and Jews living in French Algeria) and harkis (Muslim Algerians who had fought in the French army) had fled Algeria for France after Algeria gained its independence. The nostalgia for a French Algeria played a significant role in the development of the National Front political party in 1972, a far-right, nationalist, anti-immigration party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The National Front is still alive and thriving today, and Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, has taken the helm; the last two years’ regional elections in France have seen historic successes for the party, and connections have been drawn between its right-wing populism and that of Donald Trump.
We see these tensions reflected in 78. Max, the owner of the brasserie, had fought in Algeria, where he met Mohamed, an Algerian who is now the brasserie’s chef. Although the two had been on opposing sides, they struck up an odd friendship. Max eventually saved Mohamed’s life: after Mohamed was nearly killed in the bloody Paris massacre of FLN (pro-liberation) Algerians in 1961, he came to Max for help. Max has been hiding and employing him illegally ever since. Meanwhile, four of the brasserie’s customers are National Front disciples, who discuss politics loudly. They are hoping to convert Max to their party, unaware of his pro-Algerian sympathies.
Rongier relies heavily on the French pronoun on, which can mean you, he, we, or they, depending on the context. While this works well in French, rendering the text all the more mysterious and giving it a lilting rhythm, it makes translation into a language without such a catch-all pronoun particularly difficult. I sacrificed some strict faithfulness to the text and to its spirit of mystery in the name of clarity, often replacing the pronoun with “the man” or “the boy.”
– Gretchen Schmid
InTranslation is pleased to be collaborating for the fifth time with the New Literature from Europe (NLE) Festival, which took place November 6-9 in New York. Our November issues in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were likewise dedicated to the festival and its participating authors.
Our current issue features translations of fiction and nonfiction prose by this year’s authors from Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Romania.
For more information about the festival, its events, and its partners, visit: http://newlitfromeurope.org.
The Crime of a Soldier outlines the complicated relationship between a war criminal and his daughter. He is a man who feels perpetually hounded, followed and spied on. He believes that he is innocent, that he was just obeying orders, and that his only crime is to be a defeated soldier. His daughter disagrees–her father’s guilt has been established, without appeal. Theirs is a thwarted bond, which seems to take a turn when the father discovers the Cabala, where letters may also stand for numbers and hint at the future. De Luca depicts his characters with a sustained intensity. In this captivating plot, the rhythm of the narration acutely reflects the daughter’s inner disquiet.
Women of the Wind is the tale of a desperate Moroccan who works as a domestic servant in Tripoli, Libya, before the Libyan Revolution. She raises money from her friends to buy a place on a human trafficker’s ship, but then experiences a rough crossing. Her story is intertwined with the stories of other women, including an Iraqi who negotiates with the smugglers for her, a Libyan novelist, and a child whose mother deserted her.
Primavera Con Una Esquina Rota is a testimonial hybrid novel centered on the experience and effects of exile. It chronicles the lives of five family members and the true experiences (for example, health problems) of the author himself interspersed at random along parallel and joining narrative lines. Benedetti uses many points of view (first-person, third-person, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, free indirect) and different styles (conversational, epistolary, poetic) along with delayed information and word games.
The novel begins about eight months before the release of Santiago, a militant serving a five-year prison term in the Libertad de Montevideo prison for attempting to overthrow the government, and who, upon his release and return home to resume his family life, discovers the impossibility of resuming any previous personal relationships. Santiago’s family members include Don Rafael, his father; Graciela, his wife; and Beatriz, their daughter. Rolando, a friend to all of them, and lovestruck, wanders through the novel, eventually becoming Graciela’s lover. They’re all Uruguayan, and except for the prisoner, Santiago, reside in what appears to be Mexico City.
Santiago is present in the novel through his letters, which like most prisoner’s letters express hope for the future. Don Rafael represents the historical memory of the city of his exile, while reflecting on the wisdom gained by those who are able to live in the present. Graciela, a militant in her own right, feels despair and exhaustion, a sickness of the soul that doesn’t have to do with loyalties or treachery, but with the need to be useful and feel alive. Rolando is known as “Uncle Rolando” to Beatriz and offers unselfish and focused support to Graciela, who, although she is increasingly independent, is nevertheless confused or perhaps disoriented by her life. And just like her imprisoned father Santiago, who intervenes in the novel through his letters, young Beatriz does so through texts that could be a form of interior monologue, entries from a diary, or compositions written in school.
Primavera Con Una Esquina Rota is not only a magnificent exercise in literary style, lightly hampered by the incorporation of texts that are a bit foreign to the nucleus of the novel, but rather, principally, a remarkable display of patriotic literary courage on Benedetti’s behalf. Having been vaccinated against intimidation long before, he wasn’t afraid to present several unheroic, weak, and contradictory men and women while knowing that a good portion of expatriates would read the novel with a hypercritical military eye.
(A slightly different version of this translator’s note originally appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review (Issue #48, Spring/Summer 2011))
Dennis and Mark have been friends since high school. Mark vacillates between becoming a writer or a teacher, but Dennis discovered early on his calling as a sculptor of body parts in concrete and supports himself with work in a porno movie theater and other odd jobs. But catastrophic TV coverage of his first exhibit changes everything, both his career as an artist and his friendship with Mark.
A love affair between the main character/narrator and Milena/Mailena, a Slovak writer, comes into being in the virtual world, thanks to an assiduous exchange of emails that intersect with the narrator’s messages to his wife, Marianne, who is in New York to treat a mysterious illness. In parallel, the narrator invents Tsvetan, a macho Bulgarian truck driver who is making his way across Europe, and Beatrice, an inscrutable dancer and lover of hedgehogs. Dumitru Tsepeneag weaves together the lives of these two characters invented by his narrator in a way that is strange and wholly unique. But behind the sound of the book, there is a more solemn story, one of emotions and lost illusions. For, ultimately, The Bulgarian Truck is a story of old age, and of preparing oneself to meet death.
Critic Eugen Simion wrote: “From the outset, Dumitru Tspeneag opted for experimental prose, and almost all his narratives are narratives of a text, rather than texts of a narrative, if we accept the distinction made by the theorists of the Nouveau Roman. In The Bulgarian Truck he goes further: he places all his cards on the table, he depicts the conventions of the experimental novel, he reveals the tricks of narrative, he converses with his characters about the construction and deconstruction of the novel he is trying to write. Finally, he turns his hesitations into an epic and rather than offering a unitary and coherent work, he presents its building site. In this new textual adventure, the writer wagers on the reader’s curiosity to discover the secrets of an atypical novelist. It must be said that he succeeds.”
Lily’s Impatience is a family story. Lily, a 24-year-old student, leaps to her death from a bridge. Her father, architect Sebastian Zinnwald, stops working and ensconces himself in his farmhouse in Switzerland. He breaks off all contact with the outer world. In a psychotic crisis, he loses his ability to speak.
Zinnwald also breaks off his relationship to his older daughter Veronika, single mother of two sons and a successful pediatrician in Berlin. Veronika suffers under her father’s silence. She wants to be able to speak with him about Lily and the circumstances leading to her death, but he rejects her.
Zinnwald had once been quite successful as a painter, and in his solitude he begins to paint again. Again and again he paints Lily’s dead body as he saw her lying on a gurney in the department of forensic medicine. A gallery owner who had exhibited Zinnwald’s paintings in the past plans to include these new pictures in a major retrospective exhibition.
Twelve years after Lily’s death, Zinnwald, now 71 years old, asks his daughter Veronika to visit him. Veronika travels from Berlin to Switzerland. But their conversations end in mutual accusations: grief has made both of them lonely and callous. It turns out that, above all, Zinnwald needs Veronika to participate in his exhibition. Veronika is doubly disappointed.
During a visit by a journalist who is gathering material about Zinnwald’s paintings, a bitter argument about art arises. Zinnwald delivers a monologue about portrayals of sorrow in Christian iconography. He laments the fact that, in contrast to the numerous portraits of the grieving Mary, there exist no portraits of grieving fathers.
The story reaches its climax some months later in the Dinosaur Halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York.
The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, Josef Winkler’s sixth book, is an episodic record of the author’s travels through Italy. A blend of memoir, fiction, and reportage, it inaugurates an iconological approach to experience that would gain increasing importance in the works that followed it, according to which observations and anecdotes drawn from newspapers and literature serve as codices for the decipherment of the traumatic events of the past.
Kill me! is a captivating story about the perverse power of storytelling and the way fiction can become more “real” than reality. The novel tells of the relationship between two women whose friendship begins well–an older woman makes an offer to host a younger one in her apartment. Their shared life ends three years later with a crime. What seems to be the beginning of a love story–the encounter between Vali and Ramona–imperceptibly transforms into a terrifying policier: the main character proves to be Veronica Manea, the sixty-year-old woman who behaves like a vampire and relives the passion of her youth. The web that Veronica Manea weaves around the younger Ramona surrounds both of them. Old ghostly and disquieting love interests are projected against the background of exotic sites. Ramona enters Veronica Manea’s dangerous game, and the only way out is a crime; which is, of course, no way out.
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