Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Quick Sips - Words Without Borders January 2015

And now for something a little different. With all the translations out this month and with the attention given to them, I must say I had never heard of Words Without Borders. But it seems a very valuable source for translated stories. A great many of them. A great, great many of them. I also looked at all of the excerpts from novels, part because I wanted to see how well they would stand on their own and part because there's no way I'll be reading the rest of the novels (unless they're fully translated). So here I go.

Image: Kacper Kowalski, China, Wuming, Guangxi Zhuang. Stone pits cut away into the mountainous area of Wuming near Nanning.

"Mine-Wife" by Karin Tidbeck, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (3966 words)

Delightfully creepy with a healthy dose of folklore, this one delves into the disappearance of a Swedish town and reveals the likely presence of a whole race of vengeful under-dwellers, creatures that might not be as gone as people think. It unfolds slowly using a series of correspondences as the framing device. It's not something I see much of nowadays, but it is effective, especially when working for credibility. There is a feeling that this might be real, that these might be true happenings, though the setting is different enough to be solidly fantasy. Still, it's great to read about the creatures that were thought of as myth, to see their mentality, to see that humanity betrayed them and that they have the capability to do serious damage. Great stuff.

"The Beast Has Died" by Bef, translated by Brian L. Price (5518 words)

A bit of alt-history set in a Mexico where Napoleon's France has conquered most of the world, this one was a lot of fun, if a little strange to follow at times. Because despite the story taking place in the 1800s, there is advanced science, the internet, television, and all number of other things, like robot soldiers and war-derigibles. So a very interesting setting, an elseworlds story about the struggle for Mexican Independence, which is brought about by digitizing a person's essence. Really this is like five different stories all crammed into one, and the result is fun, fast, and fresh. I might not have really gotten every historical nod, but those I did get were fun and wickedly funny. A good show.

"Distinguishing Marks: None" by Jorge Eduardo Benavides, translated by Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz (4568 words)

Another rather creepy one, this one dealing with the uncertainty of identity. A young man becomes obsessed with the idea that he is being replicated by one of his friends. Replicated in mannerism, in look, in everything. It's a dense, slow read, and the build is nicely done. It's a little dry for most of the story, and without an awful lot of speculative elements except that idea that he is being replaced. But that idea is a fun one, one that leads to an ending that is great, that really needles at that question of who is who, and how far the main character might have drifted into madness, or whether he's not mad at all.

"Contrera's Dream" by Jorge Baradit, translated by Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz (4034 words)

A re-imagining of events surrounding the 1973 Chilean coup, this story is more of a history than anything. Or perhaps, as the title suggests, a dream. There aren't exactly characters, just a string of events that might have happened, that might have led to different results than what really happened in Chile in 1973. In this dream version of events, things reached a much larger stage than the events of 1973, causing a great deal of global awareness and U.S. involvement than occurred. Instead of the U.S. being able to deny they were responsible for the coup, in this version it is the U.S. flag that flies after the violence is committed. An interesting story, and one that makes me a bit ashamed I don't know more about global history.

"Scandal" by Aldo Nove, translated by Elizabeth Harris (4067 words)

This one is technically an excerpt from a novel, which means I normally wouldn't look at it, but it rather works as its own story. Much more poetic, much more free than the other ones so far, this has a very strange feel to it. Vaguely biblical and yet also rather subversive. About family, about scandal, about what makes people free and how being holy doesn't insulate you from being discarded by your family. It's a little difficult to read at times but quite good, especially the last of the scenes where Saint Francis is splitting from his father. Powerful work, and definitely with some unconventional style and form.

"Cousins from Overseas" by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, translated by Sarah Ann Wells (5062 words)

Quite a fun little alt-history piece of the Portuguese King in exile after fleeing to Brazil during the early stages of WWII. Of course, in this world Brazil is still an empire ruled by descendants of the Portuguese throne, and so it is to his cousins that the King escapes. A day diversion hunting jaguar, though, turns into something even more dangerous when the King falls and breaks his leg, is set upon by an assassin, and contemplates his role in European intrigue. Really this is just a fun little adventure story, not exactly weighty but full of action and politics. It captures the idea of a monarchy, the dashing figureheads for an entire nation, and does a nice job tweaking a few things with regards to WWII. History fans should be entertained.

"Saint Lionel" by Hernán Vanoli, translated by Juan Caballero (2164 words)

Another except, and this one from something that I'd be very interested in reading, where a gang of women are stuck trying to make the best of a bad situation when they get tapped to transport the cyborg of soccer star Lionel Messi. It's another fun story, but there seems to be a lot going on here, more than this very short excerpt can really give justice to. But it's a neat setting in a futuristic Argentina and the characters are sound. Lionel himself, damaged as he is, is a fascinating idea, and the way the characters respond to him is great. The voice, wry and a bit cocky and sarcastic, is loads of fun and makes me want to read more.

"Cinépanorama" by Xavier Mauméjean, translated by Edward Gauvin (1636 words)

An interesting story but one that might require a bit more knowledge of French films than I possess. At the very least it is a fairly sad tale about a man who got caught up only slightly in the French conflict in Vietnam and who, after the French were pulling out, crashed a Jeep and ended up losing an eye. The story has a nice flow to it, broken up by quotes from various sources at the time, mostly concerning cinema, but I have to say that most of it was beyond me. A shame, because it seems like there is a lot there, a lot of sadness and anger and, perhaps in the end, some triumph. But unfortunately I don't get most of the references.

"The Agent" by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, translated by Jean Harris (2571 words)

A very strange story, this one focuses on a real-estate agent in Bucharest trying to sell an apartment to an old man who had been a refugee most of his life. The woman wants to sell, the man to remember, and together they embark on a sort of journey into the past. The old man recalls various stories of his life, of where he grew up, and the effect is that the agent feels drawn into them, to the point that by the end she is flying with him in his memories, into the vast sea of the past. Surreal and strange, it still manages to be engaging and interesting and full of things to discover.

"The Ditch" by Răzvan Petrescu, translated by Florin Bican (1683 words)

Another story that I'm not entirely sure what to make of. Three men working at digging a ditch eventually come across a human skull. It's a neat bit of slice of life, the three workers all alive, all as one would think of workers as, working and eating and talking to each other with an easy swagger. It's all captured very well, the way they act around each other, the tone and movement of it all, as if they are all actors going about this routine. But something shifts with the discovery of the skull. Something snaps in at least one of the men. But I wasn't quite sure what it meant, what it signified. And I wasn't sure why they were digging this ditch. I liked the story, but some part of it seemed just a bit out of reach for me.

"Onomasticon" by Mircea Horia Simionescu, translated by Sean Cotter (2454 words)

And finally there is this, yet another excerpt from a longer work, but one that doesn't really require the rest of the work because it's a list of names. Kind of like a baby name book, it gives names, but instead of meanings, the entries might be bits of anything. Most are interesting, or strange, and often they are complicated and hilarious. It's a great read, and makes me wonder after the whole thing, which apparently has been translated. Though there is no story, each entry is its own entirety, and I'd want to see if any themes develop. In any event, it's fun and entertaining and worth checking out.

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