For four years, I tracked my reading pretty carefully. It was a worthwhile project for four years, but the user interface there got unwieldy. Now I post readings here. I’m proud that these four most recent books are all literature in translation. Four years ago, that kind of flurry of translated lit would have been planned, would have been a choice. Now, it’s a habit.
Since I teach a lot of students of Indian heritage, I had my antennae up for Indian authors. Two short story anthologies really hit the spot.
Dallas’s own Deep Vellum Publishing published The Shehnai Virtuoso, a collection stories by Dhumketu, translated from Gujarati and compiled by Jenny Bhatt. Compiled from his twenty-four collections, this anthology offers a great variety — but for me a kind of single authorial ethos emerged. There is real affection for the characters, even those that make lousy choices, especially those that are in dire straits. There is an adeptness at setting and tone (realistic or fantastic, mythical then or megaurban now), and there is a satisfying wrap up to each. Generally, good things happen to good people, and Dhumketu lets us know why.
Archipelago Books published The Dog of Tithwal, a collection of stories by Manto, translated from Urdu. These are darker and starker than Dhumketu’s. I’m not saying that it’s a fair or necessary comparison–I just happened to read these collections back to back, so forgive the apples to oranges comparisons. Manto’s cities are a little more unforgiving than Dhumketu’s, the relations between characters a little more selfish and amoral. The prose, as rendered in translations by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is direct. It reminded me often of the kind of mindset & prose that Sherwood Anderson called grotesque, that is, a set of stories about people who stick to their own truth and live with it during all their lives, but their truth turns to be faulty or even downright false.
New Directions recently published Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth, a novel I purchased because the cover looked really cool. It’s translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, and in many ways it’s a novel about translation, about trying to connect, about moving beyond who we are to who we hope to become. There’s a fact of the world of the novel that was very compelling that isn’t explained much: Sea levels have risen so much that Japan no longer exists. It’s been so long that Japan hasn’t existed that Japanese speaking people, like one protagonist of the novel, cannot find their language fellows. The hook is for this character to speak her own language with someone who knows it. There are other translators and global wanderers, people looking for a language of love & family, gender & food, friendship & home. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, and it feels like it–the wrap up leaves you in true suspense.
Open Letters published Katixa Agirre’s Mothers Don’t this year, translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore. The title is the beginning of a sentence: Mothers don’t kill. This novel is about a mother that does, who kills her two infant children. The narrator of the novel is a recently-successful novelist (of a political thriller about ETA) and a new mother (of a fourteen-month-old son) who follows the trial of the mother, a woman she had a passing acquaintance with in college. Like another book I read recently, Agirre’s book draws upon religion, mythology, anatomy, forensics, personal experience, family upbringing, socioeconomic mores, cultural norms, and more to bring this tragedy (crime? temporary insanity?) to life. Agirre is unflinchingly honest about what makes for a bad mother, and how difficult it is to be good in what one does and in what one fights against doing, in what one thinks and in what one tries to banish from thought.