Seven Questions for Lisa Dillman on Yuri Herrera and Andrés Barba

Lisa Dillman is the translator of one of the more celebrated authors to come along in English translation in recent years. I speak of course of Yuri Herrera, the author of the best-selling Signs Preceding the End of the World, as well as the two other books in a loose “trilogy” with Signs, The Transmigration of Bodies and Kingdom Cons. All three are published by And Other Stories, with Kingdom Cons just appearing earlier this month.

Lisa has been very greatly (and rightly) acclaimed for her translations of these books, which require a great degree of inventiveness on the part of a translator—Herrera’s Spanish is highly idiosyncratic, often coining new words and finding very creative uses for old ones. In addition, Herrera’s sentence structure, imagery, and means of storytelling very distinctive and original, all things that make his books challenging to bring into English.

In addition to her work with Herrera, Lisa’s work with the Spanish novelist Andrés Barba has received much acclaim lately. Although Barba is a very different writer from Herrera, his prose is also very challenging to accurately render in English. Again, Lisa has proven herself a wonderful translator with her English-language renditions of short novels like August, October (Hispabooks), of which I myself wrote “one is tempted to call August, October flawless,” and the much-praised, recently released Such Small Hands (Transit Books). Lisa will also release her translation of Barba’s The Right Intention in 2018, again with Transit Books, and Death of a Horse in August of this year with Hispabooks.

Lisa teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University, and she received the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for for her translation of Signs Preceding the End of the World.

I recently corresponded with Lisa on her translations of these writers to find out more about her work with them, as well as what is upcoming for these and other writers she translates. Below is our conversation.

Scott Esposito: Can you tell us a bit about your first experiences with Herrera’s work and how you came to translate it?

Lisa Dillman: I discovered Herrera purely by chance, and thanks entirely to a good friend, translator Katie Silver. She translates Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Horacio had recommended Yuri while he was at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. Katie didn’t have time to do a sample and asked if I’d be interested. I will be forever grateful.

SE: You’ve previously written about the great amount of density present in Herrera’s novels, going so far as to say that he can even pack very much into individual words. Did you feel that Herrera was significantly more challenging to translate than other authors you’ve worked with? Did you approach change in any particular way to deal with his kind of writing?

LD: In a word: yes. Next question? (“lordy,” she’s hilarious, this woman!). However, I genuinely feel that every translation is (really freaking) hard it its own way, even if it’s non-fiction, an instruction manual. Lots of texts require huge amounts of background research. Lots require amassing knowledge in a certain field. Every text presents its own series of challenges, but Herrera’s are usually far more nuanced. I am trying to think about whether I feel my approach changed per se. Translators have a bag of tricks (i.e. a collection of strategies) to employ in projects, and the salient characteristics of each text determine which ones you rely on more. So with Herrera, for instance, I don’t do much background reading, which I do do for historical fiction. Nor do I try to read as much as I can that involves characters who speak with a particular accent or type of argot, because his speak in a range of registers. There is no single grounded “event” (e.g. the Spanish Civil War) or time period or even locale in which I try to imbue myself. More of my time is dedicated to trying to track down terms and etymologies and come up with ways to make small incursions into the English language that will communicate a tone. For example, Yuri tends to spell the word for “bones” (“huesos”) as “güesos.. This is a phonetic “misspelling” that I see as a sign of affection. It’s noticeable but doesn’t shout “look at me!” If I were to use “bonz” as its translation, it would ring false, corny, too attention-seeking. So much of the hard part is thinking about compensations. What can I do to produce a similar effect? In a nutshell, I suppose what I’m saying is that translating Herrera requires a lot more literary creativity.

SE: I wanted to ask if you could talk about a particular translation choice you made; namely in Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, you rendered “jarchar” into “to verse,” which has always struck me as a beautiful bit of literary translation. Could you explain how Herrera got to “jarchar” and how you got it to “verse” (and any reaction to your decision on Herrera’s part)?

LD: What Herrera does in his writing is apply a kind of linguistic inclusivity that embraces not only popular language but also archaism, neologism, and more. What makes it so wonderful is that there’s no hierarchy: slang, innovation, classical, all thrown together in a way that comes off as natural. And the verb jarchar is definitely a much-discussed neologism. Jarchar comes from jarchas (or kharjas), the word used to describe the ending of certain 13th-century poems, which were written in a woman’s voice, melancholic, and in Mozarabic, a language in transition that would eventually become Spanish. In a sense they were kind of a bridge from Arabic to Spanish, something in transition. “Jarchar” in the context of Signs means “to leave” but it simultaneously nods to all of these other things.

For me, getting to “verse” as the English translation of “jarchar” was a long process, a question of many many months of brainstorming. I just opened up a document from a talk I gave with Yuri after having completed the translation and at that point I was debating “twained,” “ported,” and “versed.” I’d been trying to decide between the first two when “versed” suddenly occurred to me. No matter what the word was, there were multiple critical things that had to be taken into account. One big one is that there wasn’t any logical way to signal Arabic, since it has nothing to do with the evolution of English. So even if I could have come up with a word with an Arabic root, it wouldn’t have served the same function; i.e., acting as a bridge between English and its prior articulations. That being the case, I felt that there definitely had to be an additional element of polysemy not necessarily included in the original, some way in which the English signaled multiple things. So “twain,” for instance, comes from middle English (i.e., the origins of our language), is hardly used anymore, means “two” (which could signal being between two things (or more than one thing at a time)), is a noun that I’d be morphing into a verb, and also calls to mind Mark Twain, an iconic storyteller. There was another connection, too, but I can’t recall what it was. (You end up doing endless research as part of the process of translation, and it’s impossible to remember it all). At any rate, when I finally thought of “verse” it seemed more fitting, more just. I like the fact that it is a noun referring directly to poetry, since jarchas were poetic refrains, that it’s used as a verb which forms part of things involving motion (traverse, something Makina does on her journey) as well as change (inverse) and unity (universe). I also like that it doesn’t call to mind the Anglo world, as do even oblique references to middle English and Mark Twain. As far as Herrera’s reaction goes, I’ve only ever heard him say positive things about it. He has, from day one, been remarkably generous, willing to discuss anything at all, open and supportive.

SE: Having lived in Mexico for a little over a year and learned my Spanish there, I’m aware that Mexico has its own very elaborate, colorful version of Spanish, and some of these words cut very deep to the heart of Mexican identity. Could you tell us about some of the particularly Mexican Spanish that Herrera makes use of?

LD: As far as Mexican Spanish goes, there are words that are readily identifiable, things like “bato” (which Herrera spells with a “b” rather than a “v”), “gabacho,” “cuate,” and “chambear,” and then there is also more nuanced and subtly infused language, which I suppose is only natural. Things like “le,” the third-person indirect object pronoun, being used on the end of verbs. We stereotypically think of “ándele” as an example but it gets used a lot more than that. To me, to my ear, Herrera shows a lot of real affection for both language itself and its users in his Mexicanisms. Even in tough-guy dialogue, there’s an affection for the language present. For instance at the start of Kingdom Cons, Lobo meets the Jeweler, who tells him who’s who and then says: “—No diga que se lo dije, colega, no hay que hacer chismes. Aquí la cosa es llevarse bien con todos y le va bien. Como ahorita, usté y yo ya nos hicimos amigos, qué no.” (“But don’t say I said so, amigo,” the Jeweler went on, “no gossip allowed. Way it works here is, you make nice with the pack, you’ll do fine. Like you and me right now, we just made friends, right?”) With the exception of “qué no,” there’s not much here that screams “Mexican Spanish!” and yet the whole thing is suffused with this linguistic warmth that derives, as I see it, from an accumulation of little things: calling Lobo “colega,” using “chismes,” in the plural, “ahorita” in the diminutive, and most definitely the phonetic spelling of “usted.” I hope that makes sense. So what I’d say is that the use of explicit Mexicanisms coupled with less explicit things yields the genuine-ness of expression. I hope that makes sense.

SE: It absolutely makes sense—I can definitely see how these little things are coded as “Mexican,” and I can even picture them being used in conversation. I wanted to also ask you what’s coming up with Herrera. With the release of Kingdom Cons this month, Herrera’s loose “trilogy” of the border regions between Mexico and the U.S. is now complete in English. But given the amazing reception of these titles in both the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds, I can’t imagine that this is the end for Herrera. What is next for you and him?

LD: It’s been so wonderful, how well Herrera has been received. Gives me more hope for the world, quite honestly, since he’s such an empathic writer. No, this is certainly not the end for Herrera. I presume he’ll continue to write novels, although I don’t tend to ask anyone this, as it seems like the writer’s equivalent of my least favorite grad school question (“So, how’s the thesis going?”). I do know he’s written several stories and that he is interested in science fiction. I’ve translated a few of them thus far. One came out in World Literature Today and one in the Chattahoochee Review. I’ll work with him forever if I can, because it’s the most rewarding experience. As far as what’s next for me, this summer I’m co-translating another Eduardo Halfon book with Danny Hahn, and after that I’ve got nothing in the pipeline so if anyone wants to offer me an amazing project, I’m available!

SE: I also wanted to ask about another writer of much renown that you’ve translated, the Spaniard Andrés Barba. Barba is quite a masterful writer in his own right, although his prose is so different from Herrera’s: it’s much more naturalistic, akin to what sometimes goes by the name of “realism,” and without the pyrotechnics of Herrera, even if the writing is utterly exquisite, leading to an impact that can be just as profound as Herrera’s, or even more so. What are some of the challenges of translating Barba, and how do they differ from Herrera?

LD: With Barba the challenges tend to be very concrete. One is that he rarely uses subject pronouns, and has long, flowing, multi-clause sentences. So, for instance, in Death of a Horse, you have the main character (who is nameless), a kid and a horse. In one section, I remember, each of them does multiple things, but of course you can’t say, “He looked and him and then glanced over at him, although he was turned toward him, and he wondered why he didn’t say what he was thinking, or why he didn’t move.” I often have to write to him and say, “On page 74, when it says ‘he looked at him,’ is the main character looking at the horse, or is the horse looking at the main character?” Additionally, syntax and sentence structure are really intricate in Barba’s writing, and it’s hard to find the right balance. I don’t like to divide long sentences, so there is a lot of tinkering to find ways to keep them and yet still try to achieve what sounds like a natural flow from clause to clause.

SE: Your most recent translation of Barba is the short novel Such Small Hands, which I believe is the first book from the new translation press, Transit Books. I understand that you first read this book 10 years ago, and felt a very strong desire to translate it. Can you tell us a little about why this story so compelled you and how you ultimately came to publish it with Transit?

LD: Such Small Hands is the first book from Transit, and I’m so so grateful that Ashley [Nelson levy] and Adam [Levy] saw in it what I did because Barba is an amazing author. I discovered his work by chance. I was browsing in a bookstore in Madrid over a decade ago and saw a book by this incredibly young writer—I think he was 28 at the time—about three women: a girl with developmental problems, her sister, who is a stripper, and her mother, who is a prostitute. And I thought, “Right. As if this ‘dude’ is going to be able to write three convincing female voices.” But he did. I was blown away. Then I read Such Small Hands and realized he was no one-trick pony. And Such Small Hands was so compelling that I couldn’t not translate it. So despite having no contract and no interest, I just did it. And sent it to everyone I could think of. People kept saying it was too dark, but it’s not. As Andrés himself says, in many senses, it’s a love story. At any rate, the translation sat around unpublished until Transit came along. And now they’re bringing out another of his books in the fall! Happy ending.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 48


The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else. Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.

The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond. The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in The Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed.

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now, in 2017, is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today. I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”

The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed.

Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form. Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.


Compass by Mathias Énard

Compass by Mathias Énard

It’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize. Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie.

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.

Six Questions for Will Vanderhyden on Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part

In addition to being one of the great up-and-coming translators of Spanish literature, Will Vanderhyden is also a good friend of mine. Going back to 2015, he had been telling me about an enormous translation of his from a very well-regarded Argentine, an author whose work I’ve wanted to read for some time.

The author is Rodrigo Fresán, and the book is his massive opus The Invented Part. This book (which is actually only part 1 of an even more massive trilogy) has won comparisons to such major American postmodernists as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.

Although Fresán is a major writer in Spanish, this is only the second of his books to be translated. Fortunately Will will be changing all that, as he is working on even more of Fresán’s novels, to appear in upcoming years.

Will received fellowships from the NEA and Lannan Foundation to work on The Invented Part. He has also translated fiction by Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, and Elvio Gandolfo. Will and I conducted this exchange over email.

Scott Esposito: Rodrigo Fresán may not be exactly what people imagine when they think of “Argentine fiction.” The Invented Part is a sort of cerebral sci-fi novel, with reference points along the lines of authors David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis. The story itself includes elements like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, James Franco, the Beatles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Burroughs—that’s a whole lot of Anglo-American stuff. Can you tell us a little about Fresán and some of the influences that brought him to this territory?

Will Vanderhyden: The Invented Part is a funhouse of Fresán’s influences. That’s sort of his calling card. Writing all of his literary and pop culture obsessions into his fiction. An “ecstasy of influence” run wild. What he calls “referential mania.” Diagnosis of a style.

And that’s what The Invented Part is all about: possible ways a polymathic writer—who is but isn’t Rodrigo Fresán, an alternate Fresán in a parallel universe, maybe—might read and rewrite his own life through and with and against an expansive constellation of favorite writers, books, bands, songs, films, etc. that have shaped it.

So, there are many influences to talk about and many ways to talk about them. Like, for instance, how Fresán takes some of his most-revered writers like Fitzgerald, Burroughs, and Nabokov and turns them into characters. How he does the same thing with Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, and the members of Pink Floyd. About the perpetual emanations of Cheever, Vonnegut, and Proust. Or about how the unconventional structures of Fresán’s books stem from formative childhood exposure to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.” About the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as prefiguring his referential mania. Or about all the ways his fiction references and draws influence from the aesthetics and ideas of postmodern writers like the ones you mention above.

But since you bring up Argentine fiction and point out the heavily Anglo-American nature of Fresán’s references, I think it makes sense to talk about the indelible influence of Borges.

When I interviewed Fresán recently, I asked him where he thought he fit in Argentine literary tradition. He responded by saying that there’s nothing more Argentine than to consider oneself not Argentine; in that sense, he considered himself very Argentine. He traced this idea back to Borges, pulling a quote from his famous essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” the main thrust of which is that Argentine tradition is “the whole of Western culture” and Argentine writers have as much right as anybody to read, write themselves into, and rewrite that tradition, indeed that—being on the geographical and cultural periphery, both a part of and apart from that tradition—they are in a unique position to do so. The quote ends with a kind of winking edict:

Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

Fresán positioning himself vis-à-vis Borges is telling. He grew up in the literary milieu of Buenos Aires in the 1960s (his father was a graphic designer for a publishing house) where Borges was a constant and celebrated figure. He says that he likes to think that he read Borges “as if he were a children’s book writer, in the noblest sense of the term, as a formative and foundational writer, as a spinner of perfect yarns, as one of those storytellers who open the door for us to go play in other books . . .” To my mind, Fresán is a Borgesian through and through and so—though such labels may be “mere affectation, a mask”—very much part of Argentine tradition. An Argentine tradition—both Argentine and not—of readers who write. A tradition of writers who, following the above Borgesian edict “try out every subject.” A tradition of literature as metaphysics and as a game.

SE: I feel like “Borgesian” is such a loaded term these days, seemingly being used by everybody to refer to anybody. And I know that when you use it, this is definitely not the case, as you have a very particular meaning in mind and wouldn’t apply it to just any author. So could you elaborate a little more on in what sense you see Fresán as “Borgesian”?

WV: But when I say Fresán is a Borgesian, I don’t mean that his fiction is similar in form to Borges’ (Borges is known for short, concise stories, Fresán for gargantuan, maximalist novels). What I mean is that he embraces the Borgesian zeitgeist. Like Borges, Fresán is interested in the porousness of the reality-fiction border, in the infinite possibilities of story, language, and perspective. Like Borges, Fresán likes to play formal games, mixing metafictional hijinks, literary criticism, elements of genre fiction, and a flare for the fantastic and the philosophical. Like Borges, Fresán writes fiction that springs from his library, from an impulse to turn reading into writing, to emulate, impersonate, satirize, sample, and rewrite other writers.

In an essay titled “Borges and Me, and Me” (published in Granta in 2010 and translated by Natasha Wimmer), Fresán describes Borges’s formative influence:

Borges, for me, always is and will be the Great Writer who understands writers as great characters and as great readers. Borges as the Reader-Writer, who, in my view, with his manner of being, defines a hypothetical and elusive Argentinian literary tradition. This is a tradition that passes for the idea of the betrayal of tradition—roots that don’t burrow into soil but into the wall against which the books are shelved. The wall that throbs with the cosmic virus of the silent and slow but constant invasion from Tlön. The wall that houses the genius of a librarian, blind and polymorphic and perverse, who recommends so many things all at once and who’s convinced that salvation and paradise will always live inside a book. Inside a book that contains the whole universe.

SE: The book’s main thread involves a character who wants to break in to the Large Hadron Collider so that he can merge with the so-called “god particle.” Although, when talking about a book like The Invented Part, such summaries are of only so much value, as this book is so maximalist, so varied and enormous that it beggars any kind of short summary. So could you tell us a little more about what’s in here, and how this overarching narrative relates?

WV: This overarching storyline functions as a framing device, a way to position the narrative voice. The sci-fi premise—that the narrator (known variously as The Boy, The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X) has managed to transcend space and time by breaking into the Large Hadron Collider and merging with the “God Particle”—occasions a kind of über-narrator, “transformed into particles . . . floating here and there and everywhere . . . incorporeal yet omnipresent.” A voice that narrates in “the most first of third persons,” as if The Writer “were reading his own mind” in the process of coming up with the book.

The book is structured in three acts, with the long middle act itself divided into five parts. All seven sections sit in different temporal relation to the overarching premise, narrating different parts of The Writer’s story both before and after his disappearance at the particle accelerator. The disjointed, non-linear structure, and the free-floating narrative perspective give Fresán leeway to unleash his coruscating, referentially maniacal style. To move around outside of time, to comment on and deconstruct his own process of narrative building. To turn that into the story, or multiple possible stories, variations on the theme of literary creation.

SE: This book is quite long—almost 600 pages—and it includes a lot of detailed information of the sort mentioned in the first question. What are the challenges of translating a book this long and with this much real-world detail?

WV: Well, luckily, I’m pretty familiar with a lot of Fresán’s references. The writers who come up most in The Invented Part—Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Burroughs, Cheever, the Brontë sisters, etc.—are writers I’ve read quite a bit. I grew up listening to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan. So I didn’t have to translate an entire culture of references like some translators have to. That made navigating the overload simpler.

I’m also familiar with writers writing in English who Fresán is stylistically and formally in conversation with (writers like Wallace, Gaddis, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Dennis Johnson). And I think that can be really helpful for a translator in terms of finding the right register in a translation.

That’s not to say it was easy. I still had to do a lot of research and I developed a knack for tracking down quotes that were originally written in English but that Fresán had translated into Spanish. A search engine well utilized is an incredible tool for a translator.

It also helps that Fresán provides an extensive acknowledgments section at the end of the book, listing many of the references that enter the book and/or informed his own research.

Still, some quotes and details were tricky to pin down. For example, there was one Nabokov quote I was never able to find. Something that he had supposedly translated from a Paris Review interview. In the end, I couldn’t track it down, and Fresán told me to just make it Nabokovian, remarking that Nabokov might appreciate such a forgery, and reminding me that, when it comes down to it, it’s all fiction.

SE: I want to go back for a second to the prior question, where I mentioned the “main thread” of The Invented Part, and how with a book this wide-ranging the idea of the main plotline is almost beside the point. Throughout this novel, Fresán is relentlessly playful and digressive, playing games with typography, form, structure, and seemingly finding a way to talk about whatever he wants regardless of where the book should be going. What were some of your favorite moments or interludes in the book?

WV: One of Fresán’s formal tics that I find really fun and memorable is his list-making. Lists feature big in all of the book’s seven novella-length parts. They’re an essential part of the book’s architecture and they evoke a notion at its heart: the idea of fiction as a diffusion of “marvelous moments,” as variations on a theme, as infinite possibilities.

In the opening part we get a list of the preoccupations of The Boy (the first iteration of The Writer). Curiosities that foreshadow the hyperactive imagination of a referential maniac in the making. Things like: “Why does Superman appear to exert himself equally—the same muscle tension, the same knit brow—when he picks up a car or alters the orbit of an entire planet?” Or: “Why do the digits on the hand have specific names and those on the foot do not.” Or, when he’s a little older: “Why is the Miss Universe contest always won by a woman from planet Earth?”

Later, we get a playful list of character sketches—from the mind of The Young Man, an aspiring writer, obsessed with The Writer—with hilarious, over-the-top, Pynchonian (one of them, no coincidence, is a DJ named Tomás Pincho) names like: Apollo Dionisio, Constancio Tiempos, MacTypo, Cash Krugerrand, and Bienvenido “Come Together” Tequiero.

One of the most poignant uses of this list device comes in the part titled “A Few Things You Happen To Think About When All You Want Is To Think About Nothing,” which is a portrait of The Lonely Man—another iteration of The Writer—in the emergency room, in serious pain, waiting for a diagnosis. With his future uncertain, The Lonely Man, who has been suffering writer’s block, experiences a sudden torrent of story ideas. Ironic little set pieces bound up in ideas of mortality, loss, regret, and how parents inevitably mess up their kids. A taste:

In “What Will Be,” and regarding the impossibility of giving children a good education and making all the right decisions for their future, a father at a party, holding and held up by a glass full to the brim with whiskey, says: “My little Leo never walked in on me and his mother making love . . . I wonder if that will be a good or a bad thing for the development of his personality. What do you think, gorgeous?”

In “Will Be,” a man, in the exact instant of the orgasm that kicks off the story of his paternity (there goes that spermatozoid to dance inside that ovum), experiences the petit mort of being able to, in a matter of seconds, contemplate his entire future as a parent. The joy and sadness and confusion that await him along the way and the death of his condition as the last of his bloodline. Then, right away, he forgets all of it. Better that way. Otherwise it might be like one of those stories that, before long, night after night, he’ll tell to his future son (a story his son will memorize, down to the last word and inflection, delighted by knowing everything that’s coming, down to the last detail) who’s already there, on this side, forever.

In the final part, a farewell gesture, The Writer makes a list of metaphors for the book he’s trying to write—the same book we’ve been reading. Some samples:

A book like antimatter, like the antimaterial that—it’s energy so dark—will turn into another book, in another dimension.

A book that would sound like an album of greatest hits composed of rarities or like disrespectful or distorted but sincere covers of itself.

A book not of nonfiction but of yes-fiction.

A book that’s like a book of ghosts but where the ghost is the book itself, the dead life of the work.

A book whose seven sections would be written simultaneously, quickly changing the place of things, like cards in a game of solitaire or a Tarot reading in which The Writer card always comes out face down and too close too the Madman, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hangman, and Death.

A book like one of Edward Hopper’s clean and well-lit rooms, but with a Jackson Pollock waiting to come out of the closet.

SE: The Invented Part is the first part of a projected trilogy, with The Dreamed Part, the second book, finished in Spanish. What can you tell us about the trilogy? Will all of the books be this long?

WV: I can tell you that Fresán didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but he had a hard time letting go of the voice and perspective he’d created in The Invented Part. He says he got addicted to that “alter ego/Mr. Hyde” version of himself. And once he decided to keep going, the writing came easy.

I can tell you that The Dreamed Part is slightly longer than The Invented Part. That it’s even crazier. That Fresán’s referential mania is in full force, his imagination even more unleashed. That it explores similar thematic territory but through the lens of dreams. That there are more sci-fi plotlines. That there is a lot of Nabokov, a lot of the Brontë sisters, and a lot of Bob Dylan in it.

As far as part three, The Remembered Part, I can’t offer any specifics, because it’s still being written. Here’s what Fresán had to say about the trilogy, which sums it all up far better than I could:

The idea is that the trilogy ends up creating a portrait, between figurative and abstract, of how a writer thinks . . . A memoir not of a life but of a method. When you remember something, at the same time, you decide to forget something, because you never remember the totality of events. That, in itself, is already a form of editing and narrative building. The same thing happens when you dream and when you invent. That is, if you will, the formal center of the trilogy. To invent and to dream and to remember. Those are the three motors of the narration of a life that together make a work of art.

On Gabo Conquering the World

My latest column is up at Lit Hub this week, “Why is One Hundred Years of Solitude Eternally Beloved?

I found this an interesting question to ponder, as One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50 this year (apparently it happened right on May 30), and it has had astonishing success in terms of translation and sales, success which far outstrips the other Latin American authors García Márquez is typically classified with (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar).

I get things started off with a possibly apocryphal anecdote about García Márquez. The more and more I’ve thought about this bit since I published the article, the stranger and stranger this seems as a thing to do:

There is an oft-told anecdote that cuts to the heart of this writer’s greatness. As he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would regularly meet with his fellow great Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, updating Mutis on his progress by narrating the latest events from his novel. There was just one problem: none of what García Márquez told Mutis actually occurs in the book. He had effectively made up an entire shadow-novel while in the middle of writing one of the most imaginative and jam-packed books in the history of modern literature. This is a measure of how many competing realities existed in García Márquez’s voracious mind.

And, as always, the column ends with some reading recommendations. As much of the column deals with how One Hundred Years is a narrative that could only have come from Lain America, the reading list covers other narratives that I feel are particularly Latin American in nature and that have contributed much to our world’s collection of necessary stories.

Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Edith Grossman)
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (tr. Idra Novey)
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L. C. Simms)
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine)
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (tr. Carolina De Robertis)

Recommended Reading: Berger, Herrera, Poetry via Robert Hass, Abstract Expressionism

Some things I’ve read and liked recently.

A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass — For my full thoughts on this book you can just read my review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here I’ll say that this book is equally an education in poetic form and in Hass’s remarkably, idiosyncratic literary mind. This is a primer of sorts, but it’s also a book you can just read straight through, it’s that engaging, and interesting on every page.

The Fate Of A Gesture: Jackson Pollock And Postwar American Art by Carter Ratcliff — This is basically a bird’s-eye of the American art world in the wake of Pollock, as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, along with American art, took over the art world from Europe. It’s thorough, cover a lot of territory, and doesn’t sacrifice depth to do it.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera — I don’t want too say too much about this, as I’ve got a review on the way, but it’s good, as were Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World. More congrats to Lisa Dillman on the translation.

To the Wedding by John Berger — People recommend this book to me so much. It’s a strange, very tragic love story. A memorable read (only Berger could have written this), and reminded me very much of the things I like best about Michael Ondaatje—the imagination, the surprising turns, the fleetness, the energy, the tone.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún — this one won’t be out in the States till September; I received a copy of the UK edition from the author himself while in Houston earlier this year. It’s a short lyric, incredibly taut novel about a disgraced filmmaker who worked with Leni Riefenstahl, and then left his life behind by taking his family to Bolivia. Also it’s also not about that at all. It’s a strnge, compelling character study of this man’s two daughters, one of whom fought with Che’s army in Bolivia (Habsún is a Bolivian). But it is more about life, the choices we make, being a daughter, being a sister. A strange, very interesting novel—I liked it so much I’m in the middle of an interview with Hasbún. And an excellent translation by Sophie Hughes.

Some Thoughts on Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits (2015), is one of those movies wrapped around an impossible-not-to-speculate-about mystery that seems to destine it for cult status.

Sitting comfortably between realism and allegory, the movie is negative capability at its finest. It starts with Toni, a tomboyish 11-year-old girl who is seen training fiercely with her older (but still teenage) brother to be a boxer. They are inside a gym that seems either to be part of a school or a community center, and they are both Africa-American (as is virtually every character in this movie).

One day Toni becomes intrigued by girls training to be dancers in an adjacent gym room, and when she decides to try out for the dance team. She is not a very good dancer at first, and she is clearly intimidated by the slightly older girls, who in addition to being much better dancers are also much more accomplished in the ways of hair, makeup, fashion, and other forms of beauty that make up a big part of the adolescent female identity. Toni is clearly intrigued (and even begins making some attempts to emulate the older girls), but she also feels the pull of her brother as role model, and still very much feels more at home in the boxing ring than n the dance floor.

The Fits seems to be headed in a clear trajectory: it will map the push/pull of masculinity and femininity in a girl’s life as she discovers her adolescent identity. And indeed, just as this movie seems to be slipping into complacency, Holmer throws us for a loop: in the middle of practice, one of the dance team’s leading girls is suddenly thrown into a seizure. 911 is called and she is carried off on a stretcher.

As Toni and some other girls her age continue to battle the questions that come with incipient adolescence, the outbreak of what is termed “the fits” continues. One by one, each of the older girls experiences her own seizure. Toni and her young friends can only surmise that they are next, and, right on schedule, one by one they experience their own fits. The movie concludes with an eerie, musically choreographed, slow-motion, and quasi-first-person point of view scene as Toni—who is last of all—finally succumbs to the fits.

If I have abandoned my usual rule of avoiding spoilers and summarized the general plot of The Fits, it is only because I have little doubt that knowing what happens in this film cannot undermine the strangeness and mystery of seeing it and the pleasure of attempting to figure it out. One likely explanation for these seizures—mass hysteria—is the one that Holmer herself said intrigued her to originally create this film. Of course there are many other plausible explanations, and part of the fun of the film is mapping its allegorical surface onto whatever you are bold enough to argue for. Ultimately, what makes The Fits such a success is that this central mystery is in service to expanding the film’s interpretation of Toni’s life and the situation of herself and her friends. Holmer put it well in an interview with Vogue:

You were inspired by real examples of these fits of hysteria. Any in particular?

I was doing research, and one of the stories that came up was about a more recent case. I started to think back on historical cases, like the dancing disease. As I researched, a pattern emerged. It was not exclusively female or adolescent, but that was the trend. I started to think about why.

What was the dancing disease?

It was in the Middle Ages, I think in mainland Europe. Hundreds of people were struck by this mania. It was really fascinating to think about dancing, which is such a powerful intentional release, being something uncontrollable, from this other area of consciousness.

I think that the dancing disease may have actually been poisoning. But some people who weren’t poisoned also came down with symptoms, because of how we look to each other. It’s why we smile when we see someone else smiling. We want to belong. There’s something really powerful and simple in that.

This is not a horror movie, but you co-opted horror tropes (movies like Carrie came to mind).

Why lend that element of creepiness to what is ultimately, I thought, a very good-hearted movie?
We’re saying that there is power in collective identity. And it should not be conflated with conformity. There is that fear, though, and it’s real. What Toni is struggling with is fear of herself. Not knowing her own body, desires, insecurities, limits. That’s what adolescence is about. It’s pretty scary.

The entire film is really about putting the audience in Toni’s headspace and physical bodily space, and that’s fraught with anxiety and tension.

In other words, to only imagine this film as a sort of poetic allegory would be to shortchange it. The Fits has a very strange texture: for one thing, it almost exclusively takes place at the gym. Although a few parents are mentioned, we never see any of the children’s family or authority figures (there are one or two shots of administrators, but that is it), and any vestige of life outside of the gym is almost totally effaced. In addition to that, the dialogue here is very minimal, in particular Toni’s dialogue (she is a remarkably shy, quiet girl), and what replaces it are the beautifully kinetic movements of her and the other children’s bodies throughout the movie. This is all toward creating Toni as a fascinating and singular character, one that is intriguing enough to hang the movie on and that defies the stereotypes that film generally brings to child stars (particularly ones who are members of disadvantaged minorities). While the film does not ignore these aspects of Toni’s character, it also does not reduce Toni to them, letting the talented Royalty Hightower instead inhabit Toni as an individual person who communicates her character with her entire physical presence.

The film also has a very pleasing visual texture. For a movie that largely takes place in a handful of rooms and hallways, Holmer manages to keep the imagery fresh and surprising. She gives Toni rich spaces to maneuver through, and her camera manages to let her and the other characters define these spaces with their movements without over-embellishing what is happening on the screen or otherwise getting in the way.

The “talked about” central aspect of The Fits will, of course, be the titular fits, but there is very much else here to see this central mystery through. And it is these other layers of complexity that ultimately make this movie more than a typical, B one-trick-flick and that make these 72 quick minutes watchable again and again.

The Fits was made on a very tiny budget—reportedly just under $170,000—and one could very easily see this film alongside such other minimalist cinema, such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000 in 1991), that allowed original, quirky, and idiosyncratic directors to establish their name in film circles and gain access to greater and greater sums. I very much look forward to seeing Holmer work on a larger and larger canvas, and I will greatly anticipate what she does next.

Two Views of Richard Diebenkorn: From Figuration to Abstraction

In the spring of 2015 I was in London, where I had a few days to aimlessly stroll, browse the bookstores, and examine the world-class art that is all over the city (and still largely free, even in these austere times). One of the things I discovered entirely by accident was a retrospective of the American artist Richard Diebenkorn.

I don’t recall where I first heard of Diebenkorn, but the name and work had stuck, for as soon as I saw the name I could conjure up one or two of his figurative canvasses. I immediately went in to see the art, spending a couple of hours. At that point I thought of Diebenkorn as a figurative artist, the landscapes being the images that had most stuck in my mind.

I also knew that he had done some portraiture that I enjoyed very much.

What I did not know about Diebenkorn was the painting in the “Ocean Park” series, which were to make his biggest reputation internationally, and which were wholly abstract. These I came to at the end of the exhibit, and stare and stare as I might at them, they left me cold.

I didn’t know what to make of them, although recently—two years after I first viewed Diebenkorn’s late abstractions—I had the opportunity to try looking at them again.

Diebenkorn was known for having three major periods to his work: an early abstract phrase, a middle figurative one, and then the late work, which again became abstract. When he was a young artist, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form, so it was natural for him to start there. But he grew disenchanted with what he felt was a straightjacket on his work, so in the 1950s he abandoned it for figurative work, by no means an each decision at the time.

Diebenkorn was a California artist, living almost his entire life in various parts of the state, and he was deeply influenced by the work of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse, among others. It is said that Hopper’s influence can be seen in his figurative work—I see it most in the mood of the pieces, the deep contemplation that his subjects generally seem immersed in, the somewhat distanced feel that the viewer has from the scenes.

It was in 1966, after a move form the Bay Area to Santa Monica, that Diebenkorn abruptly became an abstract painter once again. In an interview quoted at the MOMA exhibit, he explained it, “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen, but I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. . . . I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.”

As he returned to abstraction, he became most famous for his Ocean Park series. These are said to be in part influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, which the painter pushed into an abstract direction when he blacked out the view through the windows, leaving four rectangles of color.

Looking at Diebenkorn’s entire body of work last weekend at the SFMOMA’s major retrospective (which brings in several paintings of Matisse’s to better show the influence), I had a chance to survey Diebenkorn’s entire body of work in an hour and a half. To my surprise, I found myself pulled in most powerfully to the late abstractions, although my appreciation of the middle-career figurative work very much remained. Clearly the desire to resolve the geometry and the palette of the figurative work remains (you can almost see a Diebenkorn landscape in the one below), but this is also clearly very different work form the figurative paintings.

I wonder what had changed in my mind in the two years between my first experience with this work and my second. What I was struck by when I viewed these works a second time are their clean lines: the outlines of the shapes have none of the Impressionistic fuzziness that characterized Diebenkorn’s figurative phase. Also it seemed that the angles of the lines—always on the sharp side—here grow most refined and dynamic of all. What can’t really be seen in these images is the texture of these paintings, which is very rich and again highly refined, especially when considered against the texture of the middle works. They seem to me to be communicating in a very cool, controlled, quietly elaborate, ascetic language, a feel not that different from the minimalist work pioneered in the 1970s. For instance, something like this:

As to myself, I can say that my life in the space between spring 2015 and spring 2017 corresponded to some significant (although gentle) identity shifts, as well as new directions in my work as a writer and in the sorts of books that I most admired and enjoyed reading. The shift from Diebenkorn’s middle to late work makes sense to me, even if I can’t give a very satisfactory explanation of it right here in this small space.

8 Questions for Jeffrey Angles on The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu and the Yomiuri Prize

I recently received a mysterious and very fascinating book: The Book of the Dead by the great Japanese modernist Orikuchi Shinobu, published by University of Minnesota Press. Though written in the 1930s, the book draws from the history of 8th-century Egypt, and it is a short, allegorical, surrealistic work, definitely one of the strangest and most striking titles that I have seen in a while.

To learn more, I reached out to the book’s translator, Jeffrey Angles, who is very well-respected in the translation community for his translations of such authors as Itō Hiromi and Takahashi Mutsuo. In addition to containing the text of The Book of the Dead, this edition also contains a very lengthy introductory essay by Angles, as well as numerous other essays by Japense critics and scholars, making it a really nice edition.

I also spoke to Jeffrey about a recent honor of his: Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize, for his original Japanese poetry. This is a major, hugely prestigious award that any Japanese author would be happy to receive, and it is even more remarkable that Jeffrey, an American, has received it, a this is a very rare occurrence. In the interview we talk about what it’s like to write a such a high level in a foreign language.

Jeffrey kindly answered my questions over email.

Scott Esposito: In your introduction to this edition, you note that The Book of the Dead is “provocative and open-ended” and has been the subject of very much critical interpretation. You later describe it as a “writerly” text in Barthes’ use of the word. I would also add that this is not a terribly long work—just under 100 pages in this edition. What are some of the things that make this book so broad?

Jeffrey Angles: Orikuchi’s novel is a dreamy, mysterious, and exquisitely wrought novel. The main plot features an unusual romance between a woman and a dead prince who suddenly finds himself waking up, resurrected from the dead inside his own tomb. From the very first lines of the novel, we find ourselves in a seemingly magical world, in which myth and reality are constantly intermingling, characters are having mysterious visions, and language is transforming reality in mystical ways. Yet as the novel progresses, our understandings of what is happening to the characters changes as we gather more information.

One of the reasons that readers have found it so provocative is that the novel is extremely open-ended. The plot subtly suggests why things are happening but rarely explains anything directly. Moreover, the plot does not unfold along chronological lines. It moves backward and forward in time, juxtaposing scenes that do not occur at the same time. Also, important characters might appear for a few scenes, then vanish from the story, leaving the readers to figure out what happened to them through small hints dropped in other scenes. In a sense The Book of the Dead is like a big modernist, experimental mystery that only makes more and more sense through multiple readings.

SE: Although this book was written in modern times and first published in 1939, it takes place in the 8th century, and its title and other elements reference the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Why do you think the author, Orikuchi Shinobu, chose to set his book in such a far away time and invoke such ancient tropes? Is there any particular relevance to the dates he has chosen for this book?

JA: In addition to being a prominent poet and novelist, Orikuchi was also a scholar of Japanese literature and specialized in the ancient Japanese past. Orikuchi once wrote that novels provided him with a way to bring the ancient past to life in a vivid, emotionally complex way that would supplement his more scholarly work.

Orikuchi was especially interested in the eighth century because that was really the time that Japan was emerging as a coherent nation for the first time. During the eighth century, Japan established its first permanent capital in the city of Nara. Buddhism, which had been introduced from China in the preceding centuries, was finally taking root among the Japanese population, and the Japanese were busily developing their own writing system and recording the very first books in the Japanese language. In fact, one of the main characters of the novel is Ōtomo no Yakamochi (ca. 718-785), a statesman and poet who compiled the first-ever collection of poetry in Japanese: a massive compendium known as the Man’yōshū (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). In other words, this was a time that the Japanese state and Japanese sensibilities were being born for the first time, and Orikuchi wanted to explore what that era of so change was like for people who were living in it.

Orikuchi’s own studies of ancient Japan reveal that he was believed strongly that in ancient societies, language (and by extension, storytelling) had a mystical power that could shape the experience of real people. He seems to have been drawn to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, not only because it is the most important literary product of one of the world’s earliest civilizations, but because the Egyptians believed the text had a mystical power that could imbue the dead with new life and usher them into a new existence. This is an idea that he addresses in many forms over the course of the book.

This is a bit of a tangent, but one additional thing I should mention is that Orikuchi wrote the first edition of his novel in 1939, then revised it in 1943. This was the era that Japan was trying to refashion itself into a pan-Asian empire. There are subtle parallels between the eighth century when Japan was first emerging as a nation, and the mid-twentieth century when Japan was developing into a militaristic empire. Some scholars, including me, find in the novel a subtle commentary on the rising militarism of Orikuchi’s own era, but because it was set so far in the distant past and involves so many supernatural elements, the novel made its way past the scrutiny of imperial censors without any trouble.

SE: Although Orikuchi is a venerated figure in Japan, he will likely be new to most Westerners, even those seriously interested in translated literature. Can you tell us a little about him and what made him so special?

JA: As I mentioned a few moments ago, Orikuchi is a well-known poet, so famous in fact, that one of the most important prizes for tanka poetry (the short form of traditional poetry in which he excelled) is named after him: the Shaku Chōkū Prize. (Shaku Chōku is the pen name that he used when publishing his poetry.) He had a strong poetic sensibility that shows up in every chapter of the novel, both in the creative, open-ended, and evocative ways that he shaped the material and also in the richly textured language he used.

Another thing that makes Orikuchi special is that he wrote about his homosexual feelings in an era when most authors who preferred members of the same sex kept their preferences hidden. Unlike some of his other novels and poetry which currently remain untranslated, The Book of the Dead never overtly features love between members of the same sex. However, at the end of his own life, Orikuchi admitted that the main plot of The Book of the Dead was inspired by his own love for a deceased man whom Orikuchi had loved. In the book, I include my own introduction and a translation of a commentary by the Japanese scholar Andō Reiji. Both of us touch upon the ways that the novel seems to reflect Orikuchi’s own sexual history.

SE: What were some of the pleasures and challenges of translating this book?

JA: Because Orikuchi was a scholar of ancient Japan, he had a voluminous knowledge of the distant past, which infiltrates every paragraph—or perhaps every sentence—of the original. He writes in modernistic, fragmentary sentences, but sprinkles in countless words and expressions from classical Japanese. Moreover, he makes frequent reference to people, places, and things that are not necessarily even familiar to modern Japanese readers. Orikuchi often quotes poems and remarks upon historical events without referencing his sources or providing much explanation.

Tracking down some of those things was a real headache! As a scholar who specializes in modern Japanese literature, I had to spend a huge amount of time reading about ancient Japanese history and culture to try to represent the world of ancient Japan as accurately as possible. To help out Anglophone readers, I added an explanatory introduction, footnotes, and a glossary of people and places mentioned in the text.

SE: What are some works of world literature that you might place alongside The Book of the Dead, and what contemporary Japanese authors has Orikuchi influenced?

JA: One might compare The Book of the Dead to Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel Salammbô and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. This comparison might seem odd at first, since they were all written at different times and in different genres, but all three of these works are set in formative moments in the ancient past when new sensibilities were emerging. Plus, all three authors hoped to explore of the distant past to suggest new aesthetic directions for their own eras. Andō Reiji, the scholar who wrote the commentary also included in the same volume as my translation, believes that Orikuchi shares a common sensibility with André Breton, who also was writing about the same time as Orikuchi and who also drew upon the myth of Isis and Osiris for inspiration.

I have to say, however, that Orikuchi is a distinctly unique author. He died in 1953, before his most important novel The Book of the Dead had earned its rightful place as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. During his life, his work did not foster a new generation of Japanese novelists directly. (He was better known as a scholar and a poet while alive.) Those influences came posthumously.

The prominent, contemporary avant-garde poet Yoshimasu Gōzō counts Orikuchi, and the avant-garde experimentalism of The Book of the Dead as one of his greatest influences. Asabuki Mariko, a genius young author who has not yet been translated into English, also bears traces of Orikuchi’s influence. I’ve never heard Murakami Haruki reference Orikuchi, but I think that there are some parallels there. Both authors feature strange, illogical plot twists, but describe them in relatively realistic ways.

I should note that Orikuchi has also influenced people working in different media. Kawamoto Kihachirō did an absolutely gorgeous stop-motion animation version of The Book of the Dead that won critical attention around the world upon its release in 2005. And in 2015 and 2016, the graphic novelist Kondō Yōko did a wonderful manga adaptation of the novel that I’m hoping to translate into English.

SE: I also wanted to ask you about your own creative writing, as you recently received the extremely prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in the poetry category, the first American to ever be awarded this poetry prize. Your winning book, Watashi no hizukehenkōsen (My International Date Line), was written in Japanese. Can you tell us a little about how long it took you to develop your Japanese language skills to a level suitable to do this kind of literary writing, and how you came to begin writing poetry in Japanese?

JA: I have been studying and reading Japanese for thirty years, but even so, every time I sit down to write, I have to admit I feel the interference of my first language, English, acting upon my second language, Japanese. I think and write directly in Japanese, but nonetheless, there is still a quirkiness in my Japanese that comes from having learned it as a second language when I was a teenager, thirty years ago.

I have always loved to write—stories, diaries, poetry. In graduate school, however, I learned that there are many first-rate, world-class poets in Japan haven’t yet been translated, so I turned my literary aspirations toward translation. For more than a decade, I translated poets like Tada Chimako, Itō Hiromi, and Takahashi Mutsuo, but at the same time I was translating, I was also studying their stylistics and methods. However, it was after I earned tenure and was living in Japan doing research that I finally felt the freedom to take the time away from the demands of the scholarly life and try writing my own poems.

To my surprise, the poets whom I showed my earliest poems were stunned. They all seemed interested in the fact that although I was using Japanese, I didn’t necessarily use it quite the same ways as a native Japan-born author would. In one of my recent readings in Japan, Takahashi told me that my writing had an unusual, quirky logic to it that a Japanese author couldn’t imitate even in they tried. Of course, that’s perfectly okay with me. After all, I feel like I live between two nations and languages, and it only makes sense to use a language that reflects that!

SE: What sorts of poetic forms did you use for this book? Did you attempt to work within the forms of the Japanese tradition, or did you use more Anglo forms, or some combination thereof, or something entirely different?

JA: All the poems in the book are in free verse. I have experimented with writing in traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku and tanka, but both of those have such a long, weighty history with so many conventions, set phrases, and ritualized modes of expression that I feel much freer and happier when unconstrained by meter and form. There are lots of poets who write in free verse in contemporary Japan, and so I am more akin to them to figures like Orikuchi, who drew upon the classical traditions in their poetry.

SE: As someone who has long translated from Japanese to English, you must be sensitive to the differences between the languages and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Are there certain things that you feel you are better able to express when writing poetry in the Japanese language, in contrast to working in English, be it as a poet, essayist, or translator?

JA: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your question, but as a translator, I’ve always been intrigued by expressions that differ between the two languages, and those differences often form the point of inspiration for my poems. For instance, in one poem, I drew upon the fact that the simple English word “return” has many possible different translations depending on context. A return to the start, a return of an undeliverable letter, and the return key on a keyboard are all different words in Japanese, and so I weave some of those different words together to make a poem. Another poem was inspired by the fact that the words for bedroom and for ventricle (the chamber of the heart, that is) are homonyms in Japanese: shinshitsu. I don’t think that these are things that a monolingual Japanese person necessarily pay a lot of attention to, but those things make my imagination race.

I think it was because of this interlinguistic play that the prominent novelist Ikezawa Natsuki, one of the judges for the Yomiuri Prize, selected my book for the award. In his comments, he wrote, “This book of poetry taught me that there are special territories that only people who have two languages embedded deeply within themselves can reach.” When I read that comment, I couldn’t have been happier.

New Acquisitions: Two From Japan, John Berger, Argentina, Michael Wood

Here are some of the latest books that I’ve added to my stacks.

The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. Fresán first came to my attention when I published this piece in the Quarterly Conversation, approximately 10 years ago. He’s been a writer of interest ever since. This latest, just out, is a major release of some 750 pages. If you like Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño . . .

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. One of Berger’s stranger, more poetic books.

The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu. A short, allegorical, modernist classic from Japan. Along the lines of Kafka and Bioy, maybe even a little Borges. It’s amazing that this book has never been translated before.

The Face of Another by Kobo Abe. Kobo Abe’s book about a face transplant. What more is there to say?

The Road to Delphi by Michael Wood. As much as I love Michael Wood’s critical essays, I’ve never read a book by him. I’ve just started this one, and it’s pretty good. It’s all about the Oracle at Delphi and the role that oracles play in our civilizations, past and present.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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