TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

BEFORE by Carmen Boullosa

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Before
By Carmen Boullosa
(Translated by Peter Bush)
Deep Vellum Press — June 2016
ISBN 9781941920282 — 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


Before is a perfect example of what makes Deep Vellum Press so invaluable in providing access to English translations of modern world writers. Boullosa’s published works spans from poetry through plays to novels, generally focusing on themes of gender and feminism. This novella provides a finely distilled entry into her themes for those who can’t fluently read Spanish and/or are hesitant to commit to any one of her seventeen novels published in Mexico (with some translated and at least once in print in the US).
Billed as “part bildungsroman, part ghost story, part revenge novel,” Before is told by a woman who may — or may not — be dead, in an uncanny narration that disjointedly recollects her past, the relationships that kept her in fear while young through that uncertain journey to adulthood. Like Modiano, Boullosa’s seems particularly focused here on the theme of memory. Whereas the French novelist has often explored this on the collective cultural/national level, Boullosa’s prose dredges through the personal and familial.
   “(I feel surrounded on all sides by loose ends of memories I’ve invoked when telling you my story. They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting ‘me first,’ and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique. I lecture them: ‘Memories, be patient, let me take you one at a time to consider you more favorably, please understand that if you come at the right moment you’ll shine better in my eyes, you’ll burst and liberate all the treasures hiding on the backs of your roan mares…’ If only I could write what I relate and devote eternity to reading it…)” — pp. 43 – 44.
Before captures and celebrates the contradictions inherent in these relationships and their associated memories:
“My grandmother looked at me disappointedly because I wasn’t the boy she would have liked. My dad…he didn’t look at me that day or any subsequent day, till I lost count. Then, when I stopped noticing he wasn’t looking at me, he did look and did play with me. He was fantastic to play games with.” — p. 11.
Alongside her family, fear lurks as embodiment of the factor that has most influenced the narrator’s memories and development.
“Afterwards I fell asleep and the [terrifying sounds] that woke up…the ones that woke me up! I was in holy fear of them, a nameless tasteless fear, a fear outside of me, that went beyond me…” — p. 27.
Boullosa paints this fear as as a force that parallels the narrator’s sense of isolation from the universe around her, strengthening the forces of patriarchy that stifle her budding individualism and any self-confidence she might discover.
The melancholy tone of Before and its soupçon of the supernatural make it into an eerie auto-bereavement of how a woman began and how the power of others molded her into something else, an entity distinct from what she could have been.
“Because I’m not what I was like as a child. I am who I was, that’s true, I am or think I have been the same from the day I was born to today, but my eyes are not the same.” — p. 65.
The disjointed, fragmented nature of Before, characteristics inherent in memory, should not dissuade readers. Within the novella length this type of construction is palatable and apt. Those who appreciate intelligent, atmospheric meditations on these themes of womanhood, family, memory, and mortality shouldn’t hesitate to allow Before to speak to them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

TRAM 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83
By Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Deep Vellum Press – September 2015
ISBN 9781941920046 – 224 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


“I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and…”
“I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African Literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be more fucking in African literature too!”
– pp. 45-46.
Congolese, first-time novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila may well be brilliant; his Man Booker Prize-nominated Tram 83 certainly is brilliance, African literature of honest and refreshing exuberance. Published two years ago in French, Tram 83 has garnered worldwide attention, and was published this last year in translation by Roland Glasser through the nonprofit literary arts press Deep Vellum. I’ve previously reviewed a collection of Shishkin stories from these fantastic publishers of contemporary translations into English, and I have a trove of other releases to soon read and review. They are a press that I have quickly became excited about, and Tram 83 only solidifies my appreciation of the benefit they provide readers in the United States.
This novel takes its name from the fictional, infamous nightclub of an unnamed African city-state where underworld elements of squalor, corruption, and opportunity gather in a haze of drugs, sexuality, philosophy, and politics. Trapped in a sociopolitical culture of perpetual succession, residents of the city and visitors alike compete in wild schemes of profiteering from the exploitation of the land’s natural mineral resources by the de facto ‘dissident General’ who sits in power.
Growing up – and remaining – in the city, Requiem is a realist, seeing a world past redemption: “The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and black-outs…” A scam artist dreaming of attaining more power in the broken existence personified by the drunken dances and excess of Tram 83, Requiem’s outlook is challenged by the arrival of his childhood friend Lucien, an aspiring writer and intellectual, looking to change the world through a literature of honest Truth.
The plot to Tram 83 is loose, ill-defined and nearly lost in the jazz-like improvisational, poetic style to the text:
 In the distance: first light, music, fatwas, angelus bells, the laughter of the post-adolescent baby-chicks, the single-mamas with spoiled breasts, the Tram busgirls and waitresses, the strike and its students, the desperados and their dogs, the dissident rebels and their desire for rape, the local mayor bringing out his fifteen sacks of heterogenite, the publisher with a single-mama-post-baby-chick, the screeching of the rails, the tragic lamentations of the Railroad Diva, the haze, the melancholy of a life premeditated.
The majority of the text is beautiful dialogue, and like the text that I’ve opened this review with, character individualities become blurred in their similarities of speaking, despite very different social status, beliefs, or behaviors. What Mujila does here is show just how fully the ‘vibe’ of this city – of Tram 83 – takes over the characters regardless of their background. They become defined by the overriding nature of their environment. This highlights that while frenetic and colorful style/language are major components to Tram 83, these are stressed to fully realize the novel’s themes and symbolism.
Full of contradiction like African literature and many aspects of the continent and its very diverse cultures, Mujila’s novel is darkly comic, seemingly written to both ‘reestablish a truth’ that transcends African literature, while also playing with its tropes in a surreal mix of philosophy, friendship, and criminal exploitation. Battling contradictions become allegorized in the characters of Lucien & Requiem. For instance, the novel has an edge of masculine rawness: women are mostly prostitutes, another resource – in the form of baby-chicks or single-mamas – for profiteering and power. On the one hand this conveys a brutal reality of a cultural condition. At the same time this fails to suggest a way forward past a history of collective misogynistic memory. Echoing the resigned despair of Requiem in opposition to the optimistic ambitions of Lucien, this is just one example of Tram 83‘s complexity.
I would have really liked the opportunity to read this in French in addition to Glasser’s translation. The peculiar magic and rhythm of the original language is surely lost through the simple act of translation. Indeed to my ears the simple title Tram 83 sounds far more evocative in French. Though I can’t directly compare the texts, I can say that Glasser at least achieves a poetry and pace in the English that is sublime in its own right, one that meshes perfectly with the other feverishly chaotic elements to the novel.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel has garnered far more than my admiration and enjoyment. In the time between my reading it and this review there have been numerous reviews/interpretations published in both well-respected professional venues and from everyday readers alike. Lovers of literature, new to African lit or not, should check this out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.