April Words Without Borders: Writing from South Korea Out Now

The April Words Without Borders: Writing from South Korea is out now:

This month we’re spotlighting South Korea. Although the country is among the ten largest book markets in the world, relatively few of its writers have been translated into English, and many emerging writers were largely unknown outside South Korea. Kyung-sook Shin’s Man Asian Prize sparked new interest and contributed to the increased visibility of the country’s thriving literary culture. The writers here, ranging from the perennial Nobel nominee Ko Un to the precocious Ae-ran Kim, demonstrate the depth and variety of contemporary South Korean literature. Kyung-sook Shin follows a lovesick young soldier. Ae-ran Kim’s disaffected teen tries to escape her battling parents, as Kim Young-ha goes in search of an absent father. Han Kang’s enigmatic wife gives up meat and sex. Han Yujoo mourns a death and battles writer’s block. Park Min-gyu and Yi Mun-yol find their workplaces transformed. In a poem from his multivolume epic Ten Thousand Lives, Ko Un depicts the human side of history. In other poetry, Shim Bo-seon yearns for magic, Kim Sa-in reminisces, Kim Soo-Bok reflects on fertility and the sea, and Jeong Ho-seung books a trip to hell. We thank the Literature Translation Institute of Korea for its generous support, and our advisors Martin Alexander and Sora Kim-Russell.

Elsewhere, we present poetry by two exiled writers, Iraqi Manal Al-Sheikh and Palestinian Mazen Maarouf, as well as the sixth and final installment of Sakumi Tayama’s tale of an accidental medium.

Going to the Emerald City Comic Con

I read comics as a kid, mostly war. As an adult I read graphic novels from authors like Joe Sacco. Sure, I know who most of the big name super heroes are and I’ve seen more than my share of Star Trek, but superheros, sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming are not really my thing. Superheroes have always bored me: they always seem to be defeating an arch villain while spouting angst ridden thought bubbles wondering if they are strong enough, good enough, and not too much of a freak. I don’t mind a few who do this, Spider Man I’m looking at you, but every time I turn the page of a super hero comic I’m bored. So that I would go to the Emerald City Comic Con might seem a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always been curious and supposedly as someone who makes a living from programming I’m bombarded by my supposed interest in all things geek.

The first thing that struck me was at 10 AM the crowd of people to get in was enormous. I’ve been to big events before but I’d never seen that many people stuffed into a convention center. I was always bumping against people or close to, especially in the exhibition hall. The hall, as in most conferences, was the hub of everything and for someone who doesn’t buy much of what is on display at a comic con it was like going to a mall and not wanting to buy anything. The reality is I spent half of my time window shopping. Fortunately comics are books and I do like to flip through them, especially the different graphic novels, many of which were more geared towards fantasy and heroic, but interesting nonetheless. Of course, I paid a visit to Fantagraphic Books the local Seattle publisher of graphic novels and whose editions I own, and added to there. Perhaps the most interesting of it all were all the comic shop stores with their wares. Yet as much as I leafed through the books looking at issues of Sgt. Rock or GI Combat I’d read (yes, I still could recognize some) and those I had not, I didn’t know what I’d do with any of them if I were to buy them. It was a pleasant entertainment to  browse through them, nostalgic, almost.

What fascinated me the most, though, and what makes the fandom that goes to a comic con so interesting is the loyalty mixed with commerce. For $40 dollars average you could get an autograph of a star, the same for a photo with said star, and for around $20 a sketch or a drawing from one of your favorite artists. That same loyalty is found in the celebrity panels when the audience would come up and ask questions. You could see that many of them didn’t want just an inside story from behind the scenes they wanted to continue their immersive experience where what they love can expand the limits of its genre, whether it be the page or a 45 minute episode, and become larger than just a product, but a living thing that they too have interacted with physically. If you can buy that drawing, which to my mind was the best of the celebrity deals, you, the artist, the work, and you are just that much closer. As a prose writer I’m actually a little envious this. Sure I have signed books but there seems to be a more intense devotion here, or better said, a more wide spread devotion.

They did have enough panels I went to fit my. One on publishing contracts, on on Fantagraphic Books, and the requisite Star Trek actor appearance from John de Lance, Q. His was funny and had the perfect mix of insider information for the fan and enough distance to make fun of the fandom in a way that the fans enjoyed.

In all I found the experience fun and surprisingly entertaining enough to keep me going for the day. Three days? Perhaps not, but it was definitely worth the experience.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – A Review

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War is the history of World War I told from the perspective of 20 average participants. Combing the diaries, letters, and published memoirs of soldiers and civilians alike, he eschews a military history that focuses on generals, or even those in command  and lets these usually unheard voices speak. For good and for bad, this is not exactly an oral history, but history focused on the participants. I was actually a little disappointed by the lack of quotes. Englund will take short quotes from the participants, but he prefers to summarize the participant’s experience and place it within the larger context of the battle or event they were participating in. It makes for a very readable history, but looses some of the character that might have come if he’d given us larger quotes. This is especially true with the lives of the soldiers on the eastern front who are seldom heard from. In his defense, I once read the journal of Dr. Harvey Cushing (From A Surgeon’s Journal) one of the participants he follows and it was a little dull in parts. That said, The Beauty and the Sorrow offers a different, and much need, way to look at the experience of World War I. Englund is adept at blending the big picture with the personal narratives of the participants. What is paramount in any history in this style is if the writer can capture some of the motivations of the participants. In this he has succeed quite well. The motivations are often quite conflicted. The young Dane Andersen who is conscripted by the Germans is not really interested in the war and would like to miss the whole thing. Whereas the young sailor in the German navy is completely frustrated by the lack of action and the great class divide between the officers and the men. What might strike one is that only there of these participants die, but more to the point, few fight in the famous battles of any of the fronts. Perhaps it’s because not as many survived or they did not present enough of a rounded account. Englund’s focus is the breadth of the war, from France to Italy to Russia to Africa to the Ottoman Empire he wants to show that it is more than a war of the trenches. Ultimately, a reader will come away not with the full horror of the war, but an understanding of the personal costs, in both life, property, and most importantly, optimism, that they paid. No one leaves the war untouched, even the Venezuelan adventure seeker who witnesses the anti-christian killing in Turkey nor the British Victory Cross winner who Englund paints as someone who actually likes the war. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first look at the war, but it is certainly a solid addendum to other histories, especially if they only focus on strategy and the trenches.

The Future of the Novel: Spanish Language Writers Interviewed

El Pais has an article that asks Spanish Writers what the future of the Novel is:

Uno de los escritores que hace seis años señaló al horizonte fue el mexicano Jorge Volpi. Él empieza a despejar ese territorio al decir que “hoy los escritores de América Latina ya no parecen obligados a tocar ciertos temas (o a usar ciertos recursos formales). No hay una deontología crítica que indique sobre qué escribir o sobre qué no escribir. De allí una variedad inusitada de temas y estilos”. Pero antes de cualquier otra cosa, el agente literario Guillermo Schavelzon recomienda que “en algún momento habrá que dejar de hablar de los autores latinoamericanos como si fueran un conjunto o tuvieran una identidad común. Comparten —con variantes— la lengua, pero su voz y su mundo es muy diferente”.

Javier Cercas no se considera un escritor español sino en español. Para él la narrativa latinoamericana también es su narrativa, y su tradición, cuenta, “se ha enriquecido extraordinariamente en el último medio siglo, porque lo que ha ocurrido en ese lapso en Latinoamérica es lo mejor que le ha ocurrido a la narrativa en español desde Cervantes”.

Luego vino ese florecer de la literatura española de los ochenta que permite a José-Carlos Mainer, crítico, escritor y catedrático español, asegurar que “después del gran giro narrativo internacional de los años ochenta, los escenarios son urbanos y los protagonistas, perplejos, complicados y un poco culpables. Y, muy a menudo, tratan de indagar en el pasado cercano que creó un presente tan incómodo. O buscan implícitamente el diálogo y la confrontación con las generaciones precedentes por la vía del reproche, de la aceptación o del redescubrimiento de la verdad”.

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front – A Review

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
Winston Groom

I never imagined I would read a book by the author of Forest Gump, let alone liking it, but Winston Groom’s history of the Ypres Salient in World War I is a good readable account of the battles in Flanders. I’m not going to spend much time detailing the history, but briefly, the Ypres Salient was a battle field in Flanders, Belgium near the Flemish city of Ypres, now called Iper. There were three battles there of the course of the war, the third and most famous also known as Passchendaele. The second battle gave us the first use of poison gas in battle, a lamentable first. It is also where Adolph Hitler served. As a reader of military history I’m not particularly interested in tactics and evaluations of strategy. Yes, that is part of military history and I’m aware of the importance, but it is the experience of the soldiers and what it was really like that interests me most. In this regard, Groom does an excellent job in describing what it was like there. I think his novelist’s eye helps him as he describes in great detail the mud, the battle conditions, especially how the dead and parts of the dead, were left everywhere. How the constant shelling made for several hundred casualties per day. This is during the calm times. His descriptions of the warfare that happened amongst the tunneling squads that were digging under the German lines to lay mines is particularly horrific. There were whole companies below ground digging huge tunnels all the while the Germans were listening for them, hoping to find them, breakthrough the tunnel and start fighting. The mines that were laid at Ypres were perhaps the most emblematic of the war and had the greatest success in immobilizing the German lines. Putting a million pounds of explosives under the German lines is an impressive and terrifying feat. When it comes to describing the generalship, he is definitely impressed with Plummer and not Haig. Since I find Haig wanting, I don’t have much to quibble with here, and as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t an area I’m particularly interested in. While the book is very good at describing the overall shape of the battles and the experience of the soldiers, he does leave the battle to occasionally give context. While these aren’t bad digressions, I’m not sure he really needed to to that. My only other real issue is the lack of end notes. However, since this isn’t aiming to be a scholarly work, I’m not going to hold it against him.

Técnicas de iluminación (Illumination Techniques) by Eloy Tizón

Técnicas de iluminación
(Illumination Techniques)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma, 2013, pg 163

Spanish author Eloy Tizón’s Técnicas de iluminación (Illumination Techniques) is the most aptly name collection of short stories I have read for some time, one that not only describes what he is trying to do as a writer, but also what the stories themselves are trying to do. In each case he is, quite simply, attempting to illuminate modern existence, sometimes with his narratives, but always with his language. I have not read anyone for some time who is as adept at aphorisms and the ability to capture in quick images, often in just a short sentence, not only what it means to live, but what it looks like. While Parpadeos had this element, Técnicas seems to have moved him even farther towards a poetics of experience. The stories, as I think all good writers should strive to do, are varied in style, ranging from the the dense atmospheric first story, Fotosíntesis with its nod to Robert Walser, to the desperate monolog of a lost assistant in El cielo en casa.

Fotosíntesis (Photosynthesis) shows Tizón as his most perceptive in a story that is part dialog part exploration of existence. An overwrought description? Not when describing this story, which from the opening dazzles with its fresh ways of describing what is common place. It leaves one with the first glimpse into what Tizón has suggested he is doing in the title. At the same time, the story does not fall into easy philosophizing, instead challenges the reader as the narrator takes his figurative journey into the questions of life, but always keeping too much seriousness at bay:

La ley de la gravedad no tiene por qué llevar siempre razón.
The law of gravity does not always have to make sense.

In this story, the first of the collection you can see a line from Parpadeos, but one that is even more curt, eschewing all but the barest descriptions. Yet that serves the story well as its brevity conceals an enormity of ideas, or worlds that extend out from it. It is the mark of Tizón’s immense skill that his writing keeps you excited to see how he can reveal what could so easily become pedantic in lesser hands:

Todos somos viudos de nuestra propia sombra. Sin embargo, en el instante de morir, con nuestro último aliento, todos comprenderemos que sin sospecharlo nuestros pies han bordado un tapiz.

We are all widowers of our own shadow. Nevertheless, at the moment of death, with our last breath, we all understand that without suspecting it our feet have embroidered a tapestry.

From the meditative journey into existence of Fotosíntesis  Tizón moves, as if in progression, towards the more common place, both in theme and structure, but always keeping to the exploration of techniques that illuminate our lives. In Merecía ser domingo (It Deserved to be Sunday), we have one of his narrators who is lost and finds in every day incidents something behind them that suggests a larger world.

En el silencio de la casa, en el silencio del mundo. Me han dejado a propósito aquí solo, se han ido todos. De excursión, creo. A a montaña, tal vez. O no, a la playa. Es domingo o merece ser domingo. La luz es de domingo y el azul del cielo es de domingo y el periódico está abierto en la página dominical, así que tanta insistencia empieza a ser sospechosa.

In the silence of home, in the silence of the world. They have left me here by myself on purpose, they’ve all left. On an excursion, I think. To the mountains, perhaps. Or no, to the beach. Its Sunday or deserves to be Sunday. The light is a Sunday one and the blue sky is a Sunday one and the newspaper is open on the Sunday section, so there is so much insistence that you become suspicious.

The disappearance, like everything in this story, is about absences, not the explanation of them. There are hints of why things are absent, but what really is at stake is what the narrator observes while everyone is absent. Later in the third section of this triptych as the narration moves from apartment, to street, to the forest searching for something that goes beyond Sunday in the city, but is more removed, more primal, where a concert is nothing more than the sound of a heart beat, we have this observation of futility:

Atrás quedó la ciudad con su nebulosa de oficinas en las que un funcionario se entrena durante viente años para encestar una bola de papel o una telefonista se acaricia la entrepierna.

Behind remained the city with its nebula of offices in which the employees train for twenty years to throw into a basket a ball of paper or a receptionist cresses the inner thigh.

This kind of futility is written in precise detail and finds the narrators always trying to escape them, but rarely do they have much luck. Not that these stories are particularly plot driven. What is more important is to see the layers of habit and custom that overlay all encounters.

The book, too, is playful. There is a reimagining of the story of the Wizard of Oz and moving it away from a dream to a reality contained within the farm. In El cielo en casa we have a desperate narrator who is the assistant for a star of the fashion world. Like so many of these stories the powerful and the weak employees it ends baddy, and though it is probably the weakest story in the collection (but only in comparison), it also seems Tizón’s greatest stretch in this collection, one where he moves more towards the relationships between people to illuminate what life is. The power in this story comes in the last sentence as the narrator describes in the second person, addressing to her employee, the wonder and the slow decline into hell of their relationship. Yet at the end of the story she switches to the less formal form of address. Is this a take down? A realization that the narrator isn’t someone to be mistreated and thrown away?

Llevar un lago en tu propio apellido, en tu propio pelo, qué envidia, si es que hay gente que nace ya presdentinada para ser algo grande en la vida, en esta vida, es ley de vida, por eso te lo cuento.

To carry a lake  in your own last name, en your own hair, what envy, if it is that there are people who are born and are already predestined to be something great in life, in this life, it is the law of life, and because of this I’m telling you this.

Finally, there is perhaps my favorite of this collection, or at least the one that sticks with me, which is perhaps the same thing, Cuidad Dormitorio. Again, we have a story that describes a mechanical world where one places them self at its service, ridding buses and subways long distances just to come to meaningless work. Tizón along with his excellent portrayal of a hardworking woman’s daily routine, injects a boss who asks her to get rid of a mysterious box which he says has caused him many problems. She is not to look in it and if she does she’ll have a great future with the company. The box moves from time to time, but other than that she has no idea what is in it. Does she take care of the box and enter a world of success? The dilemma is not as clear and this small touch of the fantastic amongst a world he has already described as mildly dystopian, creates yet another way of illuminating the world.

Eloy Tizón is certainly a master of the short story and Técnicas de iluminación certainly shows him at the top of his skill.

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente – A Review

The End of Love
Marcos Giralt Torrente
Tran: Kathline Silver
McSweeny’s, 2013, 163 pg

The End of Love is Marcos Giralt Torrente’s winning entry in the 2012 Ribera del Duero prize for the short story competition. Handily translated by Kathline Silver, it is simply one of the better collections I have read in sometime. I was a little surprised since I had dismissed it initially when it had one the prize. Something about the excerpt that was printed in El Pais did not catch my eye. That was a mistake. Torrente’s writing and narrative skill make this collection shine.

The four stories, as the name implies, are about the end of love. Torrente approaches the end of relationships not through a history of the decline, but through the elements that show it in relief. It is a powerful technique and mark his stories with a subtly that reveals the collapse of the four different relationships in ways that avoid cliche’s. In the first story, We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees, he describes a couple who has gone to a small coastal village in an unnamed African country. They arrive with a German couple that they don’t known. From the beginning there is something strange with the village. The head of the village gives vague warnings about going out at night. It is unspecified what, but there is a threat of something, an area where the reader can inject their own fears. The German couple doesn’t follow the requests of the village head and the couple fight over if the husband should go out and look for them. Again what they fear is unsaid but the husband is reluctant to do the search the wife wants. It is in these arguments, none of them a blow out or relationship defining, that you see the problems with the couple. It’s what makes it so subtle and refreshing. What we are seeing is just the part of a larger story that is unsaid, much as the fear that permeates the foreigners. Even the story itself is caught midway between the relationship and the end, opening with an ellipsis:

…I remember when it started. There is one scene that comes back to me, frequently, though it seems arbitrary to focus on it.

As the story ends the reader can see why the relationship is going to fail, but the opening paragraph also makes it clear that on its own, without the context of memory, of a failed relationship, this might just be a bad weekend getaway. These subtle turns make the story haunting and leaves one asking what more was there with this couple.

In Captives we have a participant-observer as a narrator, a man who relates the strange love and marriage of his cousin. The reader, like the narrator is always kept at a distance from what is happening. Where as We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees focuses on a seemingly incidental incident to obfuscate, the narrator by his very distance is unable to know the full story. What ever it is happening between his cousin and her husband it is odd. Torrente also uses the narrator’s idolization of his cousin to miss questions that as an older, wiser adult he would like to know. If the couple are so happy together why is it she takes him out alone when he visits her in New York? Do they have private lives? It is these kind of questions that permeate the story as the narrator describes their long marriage that slowly drifts into living in separate homes on the same farm and the only thing between the couple seems to be the narrator. In his brilliant first paragraph (one of many in this erudite work) you can see the shades of mystery that Torrente weaves so well:

Guillermo Cunningham had more money, more status, and was definitely more sophisticated than any member of our family, the only strike against him being a foreign surname that conjured vague social origins, as vague as the origins of his wealth–an indeterminate amount of income from nobody knew where and that would most likely not be increasing due to his lack of interest in business, which was an even more serious concern. I don’t think, in any case, that it would have occurred to Alicia’s parents, nor to any other adult relation, to in any way hinder their engagement. The possibility of bringing into the family someone who possesses wealth is much more tempting for those who have had it and no longer do that for those who never have.

Despite the brilliance of Captives, I still think Joanna is my favorite of the four stories. The narrator is an adult looking back on when he lived in with his gradmother in El Escorial outside of Madrid. She is one of those those grandmothers who means well, but belong to a different time:

…a strong and affectionate woman who ave me everything she could, but who was shaped by a set of old-fashioned beliefs that view misfortune as a circumstance requiring even more rigorous discipline, not greater tolerance. The misfortune, of course, was mine, orphaned and abandoned as I was, and it was precisely for this reason that my grandmother kept me on such a short leash, lest I forget that life is hard, that there is no respite.

He begins a friendship with Joanna, a girl of his age and a summer resident in one of the big homes in the town. Because of his age he is permitted to be friends with her, even though his class would not normally permit it. From the beginning the Joanna’s mother is a disturbing woman preoccupied with her looks, especially in relation to Joanna. The mother tries to insert herself into to Joanna’s world and is the epitome of a woman who’s never grown up. Joanna does not like her and with the narrator there is a freedom that comes to a halt when they are with her family. When her brother shows up midway through the story there is a hint that something perverted is going on. The narrator doesn’t know what it is though. For him, Joanna disappeared when he was 18 and she returned to Madrid and a life among the well to do. What he suspects, though, is that one of his call in guests on his radio show has told him what really happened and it haunts him still. The ending which is so strong, like his other stories, plays with what the narrator truly knows as is a masterful ending that avoids the taint of epiphany.

My only criticism of the book is with the first story. It felt a little as if he were playing with exotic locals, using Africa, for his own devices and projecting on it. It certainly not egregious, but as I read it I couldn’t help but have that in mind. In part this is because the most powerful part, the mystery, also feels tinged with stereotypes.

That aside, this is a masterful collection. One in whose pages I can continually find phrase that distil the essence of a moment into something greater. I leave you with one of my favorites:

I was carrying the camera, but I did not take a single photo. I regret it. If I had, those photos would now be of what could have been.

%d bloggers like this: