Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death (Matando enanos a garrotazos) by Alberto Laiseca

The debut short-story collection by the recently departed Argentine maverick Alberto Laiseca contains the seeds of all the major themes that will be brought later to exuberant fruition in his mega-novel The Sorias. The thirteen stories first published together in 1982 cover a lot of grotesque, cruel, and absurd topics save the titular extermination of the dwarfs. As a matter of fact, there are no dwarf characters at all in this collection. Laiseca’s book begins and ends tongue-in-cheek, dragging the reader through the diseased Disneyland of his perverse imagination, in which each attraction is an affront to the good taste and an ingenious exercise in gallows humour that will make you  guffaw at the ridiculous atrocities unfolding before your eyes and immediately feel embarrassed at such a reaction. Not since Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal have we been in the hands of such an incandescent satirist holding a distorting mirror to our reality twisted beyond repair in the first place.

The world of The Sorias is already present in the collection, albeit in a rudimentary state. Most of the stories are set in the dictatorial state of Technocracy ruled by the cruel Monitor. There are also references to the rival state of Soria and to some geographical features of  Laiseca’s fictional universe such as the desert Satan’s Bronze. Here we meet for the first time the duo of hobos Crk Iseka and Moyaresmio Iseka relaxing at a vagabond resort which nobody would risk to take away from the homeless folks as the Monitor has a soft spot for hobos, believing them to be “magical animals”. Crk and Moyaresmio provide some degree of cohesion to the collection: they are featured in two stories  (the second and the last one) and one more story is presented as a tale narrated by Moyaresmio to Crk.  Moreover, in the final story there is a metafictional trick of suggesting that the whole collection might have been written by Moyaresmio and is to be submitted for a literary competition.

Despite the overall playfulness, the stories mostly deal with grim and disturbing topics. The most shocking, and at the same time, strangely enough, the funniest, is the first story titled The Great Fall of the Indecorous Old Woman (Gran caída de la indecorosa vieja). It is a tale about the sadistic torture of an old lady in an ostentatiously exoticised Arab land that one could only hope to encounter in One Thousand and One Nights re-written by the Marquis de Sade. It can be read as a morbid  allegory of the legal injustice of a totalitarian system. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I think that the satirical effect is achieved by the inversion of the ludicrous situation described by Anton Chekhov in his short story The Death of a Government Clerk. In Chekhov’s story a petty clerk accidentally sneezes on the head of a high-ranking official sitting in front of him in the theatre and cannot forgive himself such an impudence. After several increasingly annoying apologies to the official, the miserable man arouses in his high-status “victim” an angry outburst and goes home to die, unable to reconcile himself with the offence he has committed. In Laiseca’s story  the tables are turned as a similarly minor insult provokes a disproportionate response from the affected party. An old woman inadvertently pokes a qadi in the eye with a corner of her bag while riding on an archaic bus propelled by a team of slaves. This hardly grave incident leads to her suffering unimaginably painful tortures at the hands of the qadi’s assistants, while the sadistic magistrate keeps wondering at the discourteous behaviour of the woman who refuses to answer his questions after red-hot nails have been driven into her gums as a new set of false teeth. Even the sweet music played on the flutes fashioned from the shinbones of her amputated legs is unable to obtain from her an intelligible response!

Laiseca’s two well-known interests, classical music and ancient Egypt, converge in The Mummy of the Clavichord (La momia del clavicordio), a tale recounted by Moyaresmio Iseka to his companion. The story tells about two egyptologists and their aides visiting the Valley of the Kings of Music with the purpose of extracting Mozart’s clavichord from the tomb of pharaoh Tutantchaikovsky (sic!). The clavichord is cursed, for, as it later becomes known, there is the mummy of Mozart hiding inside. The removal of the musical instrument triggers a chain of mysterious deaths among the members of the team led by the egyptologists. Quite soon everyone is dead except one of the heads of the expedition, a fellow called Pedro Pecarí de los Galíndez Faisán. His fate is the most dreadful of all: he is chased in a nightmare by the mummy of the great composer, bowed ponytail and all, wielding a huge fork.

The citizens of  Technocracy appearing in the collection, from the highest state officials  down to the grass roots, are usually obsessed with solving some intractable problem. For example, Professor L.B.J. Iseka aspires to build a flying machine capable of taking its pilot inside a tornado. Luckily for him, it is up for his assistant Laponio Iseka to find out whether the newly invented apparatus can sustain the destructive force of the rotating wind. Dionisios Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the secret police of Technocracy called the I Double E, wraps his head around the challenge of disposing of the millions of the dead bodies of the enemies of the state murdered in the numerous concentration camps. His solution, based on the mathematical calculations faithfully reproduced in the story, is to throw the corpses from aircraft into an enormous crevice with a recently discovered cavern adjoining its bottom. The cavern, which was exposed  by the Technocratic engineers, will provide the necessary additional space to accommodate all the victims of the regime. Political commissar José Kaltenbrunner Garbanzo (no relation to Dionisios), after declaring the independence of a small province in Technocracy and staving off the inept attempts of  the secrete police chief to oust him, now faces the major invasion led by the great Monitor himself, an operation which might grow into a civil war. During a staff meeting in the Situation Room of his HQ guarded by the SS troops (he has adopted the Nazi style of dictatorship) Garbanzo is also trying to solve a problem: he wants to put his finger on the exact moment during the historic Battle of Stalingrad when the equilibrium between the Soviet and the German forces was broken, which precipitated the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich. A typical Laiseca touch is the presence of the Nazi-sympathising dictator’s importunate mother who turns out to be a cartoonish stereotypical Jewish mum. She is constantly interrupting the meeting in the headquarters, asking in Yiddish if her son is alright and even brings to the participants a platter with traditional Jewish hot cross buns. The three problems that have been puzzling humankind for centuries are “solved” in the short story with the telling title The Quadrature of the Circle, Perpetual Motion, Philosopher’s Stone (La cuadratura del círculo, el movimiento perpetuo, la piedra filosofal). The leader of an esoteric sect talks about the outlandish ways in which he has succeeded in squaring the circle, inventing a perpetual motion machine and transmuting lead into gold. It is obvious that his elaborate solutions are just groundless fantasies worthy of a madman suffering from the delusion of grandeur. However, woe to those will dare to dispute his grandiose achievements: terrible retribution is in store for them. Perhaps, it is the sad fact the leader of the sect spent sixty years dividing the circle into ever-diminishing triangles that has made him so cruel and intolerant?

The last problem to be solved in this short-story collection is finding the right name for it. In the concluding piece, appropriately called Inventing Titles in the Winter Cave (Inventando títulos en la caverna de invierno), Moyaresmio Iseka discusses with Crk various possible names for the collection of short stories he has almost finished. There are dozens of variants: some are funny, some absurd, and some are pilfered from well-known literary classics. Finally, the cultured and respectable hobos decide to opt for the same title which, as we know,  Laiseca gave to the story collection in which they are prominently featured. Indeed, Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death is a cool title, especially considering the absence of the little pesky creatures in the book. But what does it mean? Of some help is the epigraph to the collection taken from a quote in Argentine writer Horacio Romeu’s novel A bailar esta ranchera:

 A la vera de un camino

dos enanos castigaban una flor

mientras le decían:

—Aunque tengas buen olor

¡no nos gustan las florcitas!

 

On the edge of a road

two dwarfs were tormenting a flower

all the while telling it:

“Although you smell good,

we don’t like little flowers!”

Far from demanding to exact revenge on the flower-hating little men from a verse, Laiseca calls upon us to bludgeon to death the metaphysical dwarfs of political and cultural intolerance, state-sponsored violence and bigotry. At least, that’s my interpretation of the title. We shouldn’t forget that all these stories were written during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a period of mass persecution and murder of thousands of political dissidents by the military government of the country. So, the dwarfs must be a symbol of all things heinous in human nature that Laiseca exposes and castigates in this work the way he does it best: by diluting the mundane horrors of repressive regimes with the grotesque, the absurd and the fantastic.

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The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.

The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated  wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of  encapsulating  the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel,  the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant  Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of  Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:

The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

 

Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon. Image Source.

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The Great Untranslated: Days of Ziklag by S. Yizhar

daysofziklag Days of Ziklag is the longest novel in Hebrew literature. Its collective protagonist is a commando unit of Israeli soldiers fighting against the Egyptian troops for the possession of a strategic hilltop during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most of the novel is made up of the stream of consciousness of the Israeli servicemen and the extended descriptions of the Negev Desert region, where the battle takes place: its landscape features, its fauna and flora. Published in 1958,  a decade after the events upon which it is based, Days of Ziklag provoked heated discussions among the literary critics of Israel. The novel had its enthusiastic supporters and staunch detractors. The latter berated it for the experimental excesses which rendered the novel well-nigh unreadable. It was castigated for the lack of plot, monotonousness, repetitiveness, the indiscriminate use of historical facts recreated with obsessive  fastidiousness. But, as is the case with many outstanding novels, the “weaknesses” ascribed to it by the traditionalist critics have proved to be the hallmarks of its brilliance, making this novel so different from everything else written in Hebrew before. The novel is a monumental, meticulously detailed, and even, as some would say, photographically hyper-realistic depiction of the seven days of the brutal fight where, it seems, no tire of an armoured truck, no sight on the barrel of a rifle, no curve of a wadi, no tussock of sun-scorched vegetation has escaped the comprehensive, Funes-the-Memorious gaze of the writer. Here are just two sentences from the novel beautifully translated into English by Gideon Nevo for his article The Realism of S. Yizhar’s  ימי צקלג (Days of Ziklag) (Hebrew Studies, Volume 47, 2006):

Going downward, past unworked earth and humps bunioned with fallen scattered stones, rattling along flattened land on which the neglected path becomes blurred and runs downward with a frightening leap, but soon the flattened ground turns into a sloping ridge and you hardly have time to shake off the cascade of dust before you’re crossing a field full of dusty, shriveled thorns—and behold, stretched out at your feet is the course of the great wadi, the deep ravine whose roots are way back in the mountains, and whose end is in the sea, and you go down it very carefully, with grunts and the screeching of brakes, and terrific jerks and trumpetings of the engine, and are shaken by the rough uneven surface of pebbles and gravel at its bottom, and go splashing through a mildewed pool of green algae, between the pebbles and the reeds, green and fresh, not at all belonging here. Clutched in a strenuous leap, and coming out on the opposite bank with a further shock and a great noise in order to go down again at once to a cub of a ravine rubbing up against its mother’s side, and once again to ascend to a field of yellowish clods with dust covered mulleins, the shape of a Hanukkah lamp, and when the wind snatches for a moment the column of dust and forcibly thrusts it aside, the big mound is revealed in the back in all its grey height, steep and bulky, at its peak the puff-foliaged tamarisk that casts its shadow upon the drowsy hollow sodden with dreams, which have, apparently, got lost.

David Defeats the Amalekites. Image Source.

The verisimilitude of each tiny detail of the battle derives from the extensive research conducted by the author. S. Yizhar used as the prototypes for the novel the Yiftach Brigade soldiers who engaged the Egyptian forces in a fierce combat for the control over the hill Khirbet Mahaz. The ultimate goal of the fight was to lift the siege of the Israeli enclave in the Negev region. A notable fact is that one of the Egyptian officers taking part in the battle was the future president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. This novel, however, is not just a thinly veiled chronicle of the well-documented historical battle that occurred during Operation Avak. There is much more. Besides exploring the obvious military and political aspects of the depicted event, the novel probes the existential depths revealed by the uninhibited thoughts of its participants as well as the mythical dimension lurking in the contemporary armed engagement. The small patch of the desert with the hill that keeps changing hands, taken, lost and retaken several times by the adversaries, irrigated by their blood, becomes the biblical Ziklag. In 1 Samuel 30 it is related that this town, used by King David and his army as a camp, was assaulted and burned down by the Amalekites, a tribe hostile to Israel. The raiders also carried off as captives the families of David and his warriors.  The king and four hundred men pursued the raiders, defeated them and liberated the women and children. The hypothesis that the contested elevation might be the site of the legendary town, although it is never confirmed, leads the soldiers fighting in the Negev to keep calling the hill their Ziklag.

Talking of biblical proportions, if ever translated into any European language, the resulting version of Days of Ziklag will considerably exceed the impressive girth  of the original (1,143 pages) since the vowels are not shown in Hebrew writing. The question is, who would be ambitious or reckless enough to tackle this Goliath of a novel. What kind of David?

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The Levant (Le Levant, Levantul) by Mircea Cărtărescu

I have chosen for this review the French translation of The Levant carried out by Nicolas Cavaillès. It’s essential to let you know from the outset that neither this version, nor the Spanish and the Swedish ones are the translations of the original epic poem Levantul. As stated by the Romanian author in several interviews, Levantul was composed as a seven-thousand-line rhymed poem that parodied the various styles of Romanian poetry and the language forms employed in it throughout different ages as a playful emulation of Joyce’s language experiment in The Oxen of the Sun. Cărtărescu was well aware that his finest stylistic achievement was virtually untranslatable, and it was unlikely that it would be as widely known abroad as his Orbitor (Blinding) trilogy. Realising that to present to the foreign audience this work, which was so deeply-rooted in the Romanian poetic tradition, would inevitably require sacrifice, he took upon himself to change and adapt the intractable piece to such an extent that it would be possible for the translator to come up with a faithful rendering. Cărtărescu changed most of the rhymed verse of the main narrative to prose, leaving untouched only the set-piece poems. The opera became an operetta, but, having lost half of its original appeal, it could now be translated. So, this is a review of the “simplified” version of Levantul  Cărtărescu gave to his translators. Despite the huge losses inflicted on it by its own creator, it is a remarkable and highly entertaining text, and Nicolas Cavaillès’s translation deserves the highest praise for recreating in French the lexical and stylistic richness of the modified original.

The poem consists of twelve cantos, and most of the events narrated in them take place in the historical region of the Levant encompassing the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the early 19th century, a period of unrest in Wallachia (now part of modern Romania) reduced to the status of a vassal state by the Ottoman Empire. The people of Wallachia suffer under the oppression of the Phanariote prince or voivode, a representative of a large class of wealthy Greeks whose origins go back to the Phanar quarter in Istanbul. Phanariotes took important administrative positions in the empire and had been appointed as the rulers of the Danubian Principalities since the beginning of the 18th century. The poem recounts the adventures of a bunch of daredevils who travel across the seas and skies of the Levant to the lands of the long-suffering Wallachia in order to overthrow the tyrant. The historical context for their revolutionary activity would be most probably the events leading to the 1821 Wallachian Uprising, which coincided with the Greek War of Independence. Another important setting for the poem is a small apartment in a tower block in Bucharest where, at the end of the 1980s, high-school teacher Mircea Cărtărescu is writing his epic poem The Levant. Thus, Cărtărescu acts both as the author and a character in his own text,  following and elaborating upon the grand metafictional stance of postmodern writing whose influence has percolated into the countries of the Eastern Bloc despite the restrictions of communist censorship.

Although what I’m going to write next might cause some to wince, for it does sound like unforgivable platitude, I am absolutely sincere in stating that the true hero of The Levant is the language.  With astonishing mastery, Cărtărescu succeeds in condensing the Romanian literary tradition into a 200-page scherzo of a poem demonstrating a dizzying variety of register, style and diction.  Of course, for those reading the book in translation, this alchemist procedure is shown indirectly, like the famous play of shadows on the illuminated wall of Plato’s cave, but even with this handicap, we cannot help but gawk in awe at this scintillating display of wordsmithery. As a stark contrast to the author’s tiny kitchen in which he is sitting with all the gas stove burners lit to keep himself warm, clicking away on an old Erika typewriter, is the world he is creating: an overkill of colours, sumptuous details, florid verbosity and psychedelic descriptions liable to alter minds more effectively than acid.  It’s as if the bitter and bleak reality surrounding the writer is overcompensated by the sweetness of this temple fashioned out of a rock of halva, to borrow one of the tropes the author of The Levant applies to his poem. The resulting text is rich in meaning and overstuffed with allusions to many Romanian literary works few readers outside Romania have ever heard of. But, like much of great literature, The Levant works at different levels: those who miss the literary parody can simply enjoy it as a weird swashbuckling tale with occasional forays into steampunk science fiction right out of a Myazaki animated movie. Consider this passage, for example:

The motley crew was climbing the paths overgrown with wild herbs when new bizarre forms appeared down in the valley: a jumble of cogwheels oiled with brake fluid, of arches, and of Maltese crosses was enmeshed with the broken teeth of a helical rack, with ball-bearings and bowls that were shaking as if they imprisoned the Demon. A machine the size of a bread bin was cutting apricots from the trees and putting the fruit into baskets using its three copper fingers. Another one, smaller, was plucking feathers from a chicken, sharpening the quills and dipping them into the inkwells that had sprung up on the rock to write some fable on a parchment. […] Another device, on spider’s legs, seized a pirate who had approached too close and shoved him into a compartment in its body and shut him behind the steel door. Then it regurgitated the captive who was freshly bathed, bald and pomaded, the cheeks and the head shaved like those of a Tartar. […] A shiver possessed them, nevertheless, when one more miracle was manifested: a tangle of tubes issued from a cauldron in which black foam was bubbling: it was cerebral, full of stars. The curls of the smoke rising from it in bundles coagulated into fragile, ephemerous spheres that floated gently in the air, and each of these globules was a planet in its own right, with its nations, its rivers, its fauna and flora, its incomprehensible laws, its bloody history, its intentions, its geniuses, its masters and slaves, its diseases, its crystals… All of them hoped to be immortal, but they all ended up bursting like soap bubbles, as lies, tyranny and stupidity always overrode the truth in the end, and destroyed it.

The Coltea Tower in the mid-19th century

The author of these technological marvels is the Greek inventor Leonidas the Anthropophage who lives with his Romanian wife Zoe on the fabulous island of Hosna. His visitors, coming from the real island of Zante, are a recently formed band of rebels taking part in zavera, an organised revolt against the Ottoman Turks and their servile henchmen. The group consists of sea pirates under the command of Iaurta the One-Eyed and the Greek and Albanian militiamen called palikares . The informal leader of of the rebels is young poet Manoil, the protagonist of The Levant. He is accompanied by his beautiful sister Zenaida and resourceful French Zouave Languedoc Brillant who is in love with her. The plan of the revolutionaries is to persuade Leonidas to join zavera, and to use his  airship to fly to Bucharest where on a certain day the voivode and his family are supposed to climb the Coltea Tower, the tallest building in the city, in order to observe a comet through a telescope. The intention of the plotters is to kidnap the tyrant and his family members. To everybody’s joy, The Greek inventor accepts the plan, and thus the journey to the liberation begins. Manoil, Zenaida, Langedoc, Zoe, Leonidas, and his monkey Hercules get on the zeppelin, whereas Iaurta with his men and the palikares return to the ships. They have agreed to reunite in two weeks in Giurgiu, a city to the south of Bucharest. As the two groups part their ways, we follow the progress of both. The great cause of their mission with time attracts more supporters, as Iaurta’s team incorporates a whole Gypsy camp or shatra when they travel through Bulgaria.

From the very beginning of the poem, when we first meet Manoil on the prow of a caique furrowing the waters of the Mediterranean on the way to Zante from Corfu, and until the end, when “Mircea Cărtărescu” is treating his own characters to a cup of coffee at his apartment in Bucharest, we come across a rich assortment of poems and songs interspersing the narrative. These set pieces are undoubtedly parodic in nature, but, as I’ve already said, the uninitiated reader can enjoy them for what they are: ingenious constructs of all possible genres, rhyme and meter patterns, and usually with whimsical subject matter. There is an animal fable in which the wolf king orders the other animals to walk on their hind paws;  a song ballad recounting the chilling story of a princess preyed on by a lecherous strix endowed with buffalo testicles; a melancholy poem composed by a lonely geisha pining in a rock garden;  a panegyric to Wallachia as the Cockagne of the Balkans where almost everything is made of delicious comestibles; a sonnet dedicated to the amazing appearance of a balloon in the sky of Giurgiu; a circular philosophical poem musing on the idea of multiple worlds and Arthur Koestler’s notion of holon in which the first and the last stanzas consist of the last lines of the other stanzas; a verse chronicle documenting the air battle between the zeppelin of the rebels and the voivode’s gilded caique pulled in the sky by a team of swans, which is used in the film adaptation of the same battle and is read to the accompaniment of a mehterhane (an Ottoman military band) chanting pa, vu, ga, di. Far from being an exhaustive list, these several examples make us aware of the extent of the ambition underpinning this epic work and the incredible challenge facing its translator. Nicolas Cavaillès did a stellar job in rendering all these poems in French. When I finished the book, I kept re-reading some of them for pure enjoyment as standalone texts.

In Cărtărescu’s literary universe “reality” is frequently stranger than art inspired by it. This principle is evident in the main narrative of The Levant, which, let me remind you, is not rhymed in the translation. There is no lack of surreal episodes which  I might as well call “oneiric moments”, considering the cultural background of Cărtărescu. Oneirism is a medical term denoting a dream-like state experienced while being awake. This word was used by a group of Romanian avant-garde poets and writers in the 1960s, led by Dumitru Tsepeneag and Leonid Dimov, as a name for their literary school that drew its initial inspiration from surrealist paintings. Romanian oneiric poetry is virtually unknown to the English-language reader due to the lack of translations. I can refer you only to one study examining it in some detail, which is available in English: Dumitru Tsepeneag and the Canon of Alternative Literature by Laura Pavel (Tr. Alistair Ian Blyth). Cărtărescu  can be viewed as the postmodern inheritor of the Oneiricist aesthetics with its emphasis on the hallucinatory and the phantasmagoric and with its ambition to explore and comprehend dream logic. It is not only in the embedded parodies of his literary precursors that the writer employs the outlandish imagery of a wakeful dream — the framing story itself is chock-full of oneiric episodes, and there is a feeling that in his creative appropriation Cărtărescu has out-Heroded Herod.  The visions are unexpected and intense. When Iaurta and Manoil slit each other’s forearms in some kind of blood brother ritual, out of their blood emerge, respectively, a translucent baby homunculus and an ivory-fleshed seraph who recite patriotic verses before disappearing into thin air. In Cantos 6 and 7 we learn that the crew of the airship gets stranded on an island shaped like the letter H (it’s the first one in a group of islands forming the word HELLESPONT). Manoil and his friends enter a cave in the mountain where they meet a naked woman with a ball of quartz that gives access to all possible worlds. The protagonist wants to know if their revolution is going to liberate the common folk. The woman, Princess Hyacinth, suggests that he liberate himself (read: his consciousness) first, and gives him the ball. A gaze into the depths of this aleph-like object is enough to send the young poet on a wild hallucinatory journey of shape-shifting and revelations. Appropriately enough, at some point he reaches a land called Hallucinatria where clouds have skeletons, towers are wearing lace-embroidered attires and the moon sports blue shaggy eyelashes.  The main destination of Manoil is a city carved in the rocky mass of an island in the centre of the world. There, he is granted the revelation about the future of Romanian poetry dedicated to the exploration of dreams. Five quaintly fashioned statues representing the five classics of Romanian modernist poetry come alive and recite poems written in the style of Tudor Arghezi, Ion Barbu, George Bacovia, Lucian Blaga, and Nichita Stănescu. Manoil meets each of them in a network of passages and grottoes concealed within an ankle of another statue, that of the Virgin Mary, which forms part of a gigantic mechanism of Poetry:

It is equipped with pistons of shining metal, but it is also the Virgin with the child, and little Jesus’ bald head is divided into coloured squares. From his scalp extend electrodes along with a butterfly sucking with its trunk a pair of lovers coiled up between the sheets. Among the camshafts, levers, connecting rods and screws there is a man sleeping; he has female breasts and his body is covered with sores and boils, a dahlia growing out of each wound. A clay woman  dressed in gold and purple is working next to the steaming cauldron. A punch-card sticks out of her thigh and there is a coloured prism between her eyes, which reflects the chamber. She is pressing the pedal of her sewing machine to make the butterfly beat its wings, while Mary is caressing the solitary, gentle and tortured Messiah.

No less oneiric are the methods by which Zouave Langedoc receives secret messages from his agents: the upper body of a spy will suddenly appear out of the horn of a phonograph or the unzipped belly of a donkey to transmit some crucial information, or, if the addressee happens to be travelling in the airship, the message will be given by a parrot concealed inside a waistcoat pocket of his own effigy designed as a kite. Oneirism is omnipresent in The Levant both as a tribute to the said literary school and as the modus operandi of the poem itself. What is more, dream-like sequences are not limited to the world of the poem, but also spill over into the higher diegetic level inhabited by the author of The Levant as the boundaries between fiction and reality grow thinner.

One of the most curious characters of this work is the fictional Mircea Cărtărescu who is composing the epic poem as we read it, commenting upon his creative process as well as telling us about the circumstances under which the text is being written, which gives us an insight into the life of the real-life writer working at the end of the Ceaușescu era. The author of The Levant cares little for the verisimilitude of his pastiche, scattering anachronistic details as well as name-dropping an impressive constellation of twentieth-century writers, scientists, and thinkers who have influenced him: Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, René Thom, Mikhail Bakhtin, George Steiner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Julio Cortázar. Early on, it becomes evident that the writer has no scruples in establishing a Pirandellesque relationship with his characters when he starts intruding in the fictional world of The Levant, making his creations mistakenly believe that they are visited by God. But of course, the writer is well aware, what with his interest in postmodern theories, that the author and God are not the same. The culmination of these games occurs when “Cărtărescu” decides to extract Manoil from the text into his “reality”, but, as a result of the ensuing scuffle, ends up being dragged into the world of The Levant. He joins the participants of zavera and takes part in some of their adventures, all the time wondering who is writing the text in his absence. He will have an opportunity to receive an allegorical answer to this question when he returns to the contemporary Bucharest along with the main characters, and the response will come as yet another oneiric vision: a tiny Erika typewriter is hatched from from an egg-like sphere and swiftly grows filling up all available space, sucking in “Cărtărescu” and his guests, eventually mushrooming to the size of the universe. A “gigantic Elohim” will type on this typewriter for eternity “with his fingers of comets and supernovas”. This hallucination may be seen as both as a grotesque illustration of the concept of the world as a text as well as a veiled hint to “Cărtărescu” about the existence of Cărtărescu who stands behind it all.

It would be wrong to regard The Levant with its metafictional excesses as just a work of a latecomer to the postmodern scene who is eager to make up for the lost time by over-egging the pudding. This is not only because Cărtărescu is as playful and ironic with regard to the postmodern tricks of the Western writers as to the avant-garde techniques of his Romanian predecessors. Written at the twilight of the Communist regime in Romania, and uncannily predicting the overthrow of Ceaușescu (for it can be read as a political allegory as well), The Levant is the quintessence of the total freedom of artistic imagination exercised within a society deprived of all other liberties. It was never meant to be published, and, consequently, the author had no restrictions in creating this landmark work the way he saw fit. Cărtărescu’s pessimism regarding the book’s fate was proved wrong as The Levant came out shortly after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Thus, it turned out to be a work written on the fault-line between the tectonic plates of history, and all the more significant for that. Besides, The Levant can be viewed as Cărtărescu’s intermediate summa, a work of maturity that condenses his aesthetic worldview, showing us what lies at the foundation of his extraordinary talent and giving us a glimpse into which direction it is going to develop. As we know now, this development has been nothing short of dazzling.

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The Magnificent Seven: Reviews of the Untranslated Novels You Should Know About

bookthatwrites

Artist: Jonathan Wolstenholme. Image source.

All the reviews at The Untranslated examine works of literature not available in English at the moment the respective posts are published.  There are some novels whose translation was imminent when I was writing about them, like Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero or Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, so those blog posts could also be regarded as the early previews of the forthcoming English editions relying on the original works instead of the ARCs of the translations. (As I have already mentioned elsewhere, knowing at least one foreign language frees you from the hassle of soliciting those from the publisher). Most of my reviews, however, are of the works that I do not expect to see translated into English within the next decade or thereabouts despite my unflagging optimism and belief in the power of spreading the word. From time to time, I also post announcements about the forthcoming translations that I find noteworthy, but those are not reviews — they are rather brief notes whose purpose is to draw my readers’ attention to some interesting titles that have recently become available thanks to the exploits of the invisible army of literary translators. I do not know any other blog in English specifically dedicated to reviewing literature which has not been translated into English, which makes The Untranslated not only unique, but also extremely unpopular: as my blog stats show, very few people are really interested in learning more about books they can’t read. This attitude is understandable, and I realise that I am viewed by some as an evil polyglot subjecting them to a literary variation of the tortures of Tantalus. However, when I think of the recurring readers of The Untranslated, I imagine that most of them are a little bit like myself: people fascinated by obscure, untranslated, forgotten, and simply unavailable literature, people intrigued by the potential of some legendary book they have heard about but cannot read. The product of this fascination is The Great Untranslated category, which includes the books highly valued within their literary traditions, but which I cannot read because I don’t know the languages in which they have been written. I am really happy that some of the visitors of my blog share this enthusiasm and even embark on learning new languages in order to read some of the works mentioned on my site. I am so delighted that my review of Miquel de Palol’s sprawling masterpiece The Troiacord sparked some people’s interest in Catalan, a language that despite being spoken by just 9 million people boasts incredibly rich and original literature whose treasures will be mined by several generations of translators. The circle of these enthusiastic visitors of my blog is very narrow, but exactly for this reason it is all the more valuable for me. Although I am presumptuous enough to claim that there is no analogue of The Untranslated on the English-language web, there are lots of litbloggers and online critics, way more productive and talented than I am, who can read foreign languages, and who also review books not yet translated into English along with those originally written in English or available in English translation. I have chosen 7 such reviews, and I would like to share them with you. None of these books have been translated yet, and this fact, to put an optimistic spin on it, should make us really excited about all the goodness that is in store for us in the coming years. The list is in the alphabetical order and does not represent any kind of hierarchy.

Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheelreviewed at Lizok’s Bookshelf

I think my feelings about the book are complex because Gigolashvili creates such complex, human characters: he develops believable people by gradually revealing, in concrete terms, their actions, hopes, ambiguities, individual demons, and intertwined fates. With dozens of characters flitting in and out,The Devil’s Wheel often reminded me of War and Peace.

Héctor Vásquez Azpiri’s Fauna reviewed at The OF Blog

Fauna is one of the better Premio Alfaguara winners that I have read over the past several years.  Its blend of introspective questioning and wild imagery make it a memorable read that promises to retain its exuberance upon future re-reads.  While it owes something to Joyce and other mid-20th century writers of stream of consciousness narrative, Fauna does not feel too derivative, as it contains enough originality of thought and theme to make it worthwhile readers’ time to read.

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s  Der Fuchs (The Fox) reviewed at Literary Ecology

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration.

Marcus Malte’s Le garçon (The Boy) reviewed at Book Around the Corner

The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondence. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent.

Hans Henny Jahnn’s Perrudja reviewed at Shigekuni

There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.

Germán Sierra’s Standards reviewed by Adrian Nathan West at Words without Borders

In the opening chapter of Standards, entitled “The Fad,” an Argentine hypnotist sends out, before his suicide, a series of hand-drawn maps that will lead to his dead body, which is perfectly preserved in snow; the accompanying letter encourages his invitees to devour it.

Alberto Chimal’s La torre y el jardín (The Tower and the Garden) reviewed at The Modern Novel

Most of the action takes place in the Brincadero, a building that is, from the outside, seven storeys high but, on the inside, is much bigger. Like the house in The House of Leaves or Dr Who’s Tardis (Chimal is a science fiction fan), the Brincadero is much larger inside. Indeed, the lemmings alone take up twelve floors. It also changes its appearance – rooms come and go, for example – and has the ability to repair itself when damaged. The Brincadero has one main function. It is a brothel but not a brothel in the conventional sense […]

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