Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ergali Ger’s Koma & the Long NOSE List

Two items this week: quick thoughts on Ergali Ger’s novella Koma (Coma) and then an abridged version of the NOSE award’s 2012 long list…

First, Koma/Coma: I think it’s safe to say that Koma falls into the category of чернуха (chernukha), that wrenchingly crushing naturalism I’ve mentioned so many times before: Ger tells the story of Komera (“Koma”) Protasova, a retired woman who loses everything when she joins a church. Like most of the other chernukha I’ve read, Koma feels painfully—for both better and worse—obvious because the reader senses impending doom. From Koma’s name, with its references to communism and mental incapacity, to the mysterious Teacher of Koma’s church who asks members to hand over their apartments so they can all eventually live in a church-built complex, it was clear Koma’s retirement years would be anything but utopian, communitarian, or golden.

Yes, Koma is obvious but it is quality chernukha—it was a finalist for the 2009 Belkin award and the title work of a collection shortlisted for the 2011 Yasnaya Polyana award—and Ger tells his story logically, building suspense as he shows how Koma’s life implodes. He also works in historical details like the default of summer 1998; no comfort there. Koma reminded me of Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs, another chernukha piece that builds methodically, almost ploddingly, as it chronicles a family’s downfall. Though Koma is well-composed and suspenseful in its hair-pulling chernukha way (“What other tragedy could possibly befall these people?”), I certainly see why some (okay, even many) readers wouldn’t want to relive the darker sides of ‘90s memories via fiction about religious and housing crises. I thought Koma was absorbing but it didn’t show me much I didn’t already know... plus the experience of reading the book felt a little too reminiscent of watching a predictable haunted house movie (not a favorite genre) where the viewer wants to shout, “Don’t open that door!”

The Mikhail Prokhorov Fund’s NOSE Award Long List is the fun part this week: This grab bag of a long list contains 27 books—fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—so I won’t name them all, though I’ll mention the several I’ve read plus the books that are on my shelves. Then I’ll list all (I hope!) the other fiction…

First, the ones I’ve read, at least in part: I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) (previous post) but couldn’t wend my way through Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier), a book that’s already been shortlisted for the NatsBest and Big Book and longlisted for the Booker; alas, Nosov just couldn’t make a guy chatting with his herniated disc work for me. Books already on the shelves are: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), which a couple friends have enjoyed; Dmitrii Danilov’s Описание города (Description of a City), which I’m looking forward to; and Alexander Terekhov’s Немцы ([The?] Germans), which already won this year’s NatsBest. Three other familiar titles: Eduard Limonov’s В Сырах (In Syry) and Georgii Davydov’s Крысолов (The Rat Catcher) were both longlisted for the 2012 Russian Booker, and Vladimir Lidskii’s Русский садизм (Russian Sadism) was on the 2012 NatsBest short list.

The NOSE list contains a fair bit of nonfiction—based on quick glances, it looks like one book’s about Pelevin, another is about Russian business, plus there are essays and poems from writers like Gleb Shulpyakov, Sasha Sokolov, German Sadulaev, and Lev Rubinshtein…—but there are a few more novels. We have: Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina’s Маленький человек (A Small Man), Alla Bossart’s Холера (Cholera), Veronika Kungurtseva’s Орина дома и в Потусторонье (Orina at Home and On the Other Side), Iurii Mamleev’s После конца (After the End), Dima Klein’s Двойник Президента (The President’s Double), and Aleksei Motorov’s Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel I noticed several times in Moscow. It seems to have quite a following. The NOSE list also includes Lora Beloivan’s story collection, Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia).

Up next: Booker Prize short list, Yasnaya Polyana winners, Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us) and all his women, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and Zaven Babloyan’s Ukrainian-to-Russian translation of Serhij Zhadan’s peculiar Voroshilovgrad, a book I don’t want to read too quickly… in Zaven’s translation, Voroshilovgrad contains peculiarly lovely imagery and a gauzy blend of sur- and reality.

Disclosures: The usual; I know several individuals mentioned in this post. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Moscow Trip Report: Translator Congress, Book Fair, Book Shopping

In early September I spent a short week in Moscow thanks to the Institute of Translation, which invited me to the second International Congress of Literary Translators, where I spoke and served as co-moderator, with Natasha Perova of Glas, during sections categorized as “Translation of Contemporary Literature.”  I went to Moscow a few days early so I could work down my jetlag before the Congress (mixed results), go to the Moscow International Book Fair (success), and visit friends, colleagues, and favorite sites (success). A few jumbled highlights:

The Congress. I called my conference paper “Оптимистический взгляд с другого берега: Что такое «хорошо» в современной русской литературе (“An Optimistic View from the Other Shore: Contemporary Russian Literature & The Meaning of “Good”) and spent my 10 minutes speaking first (very fast!) about the unique internal logic I think governs good works of fiction. Internal logic is my take on Jonathan Lethem’s thought that a writer should teach the reader to read his/her book. Then I mentioned three favorite books—Khemlin’s Klotsvog, Senchin’s Yeltyshevs, and Gigolashvili’s Devil’s Wheel—that I think work particularly well. A sequel on internal logic appears below…

As for Congress highlights, I particularly enjoyed a plenary session talk from Natalya Ivanova, first deputy head editor of the thick journal Znamia. Ivanova named names in a talk about contemporary fiction, quoting contemporary writers who find fault in today’s literature, then saying there’s plenty worthy of translation, then offering her own examples of good writers (e.g. Mikhail Shishkin, Fazil Iskander, Liudmila Petrushevsksya, Vladimir Makanin, and Alexander Kabakov) plus two nonfavorites she sees as nostalgic for the Soviet past: Mikhail Elizarov, whom she accused of writing poorly, and Zakhar Prilepin, whom she considers a better writer, prolific, and unusual. Ivanova also listed recent books about problems in contemporary life written by Olga Slavnikova, Alexander Ilichevsky, Iurii Buida, Dmitrii Danilov, Vladimir Gubailovskii, and Maria Galina, among others.

Other Congress highlights: Michele Berdy’s talk about language, including current uses of words like вообще (a.k.a. “вооще!”) and актуальный, and the fact that Russian plates “stand” on a table… hearing numerous talks (and even a slight related outburst) mentioning who gets translated into various languages: I made a list of popular names in the sessions I attended, noting the prolific Prilepin as well as Akunin, Marinina, Shishkin, Sorokin, Erofeev, and classics like Bulgakov… meeting people like Zaven Babloyan, who translates from Ukrainian to Russian and gave me a copy of his translation of Sergei Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad; and Kristina Rotkirch, who translates Russian into Swedish and interviewed writers for the useful Contemporary Russian Fiction, published by Glas… and, of course, getting caught up with literary agents and translators I’d met before. It’s always nice to see familiar people when you’re tired after travel! The only downside of such a big event is that I wasn’t able to hear nearly as many papers as I wanted. Here’s a PDF of the Congress program. Just ask if you have questions.

Vladislav Otroshenko and That Internal Logic. I visited with writer Vladislav Otroshenko on my first full day in Moscow; I translated his short story “Языки Нимродовой башни” (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”). We talked about all sorts of things, from Cossacks and Vikings to the story and my Congress paper, focusing a fair bit on my “internal logic” idea, something he feels, from a different angle, as a writer. I must have been a little more lucid that day than I thought because he ended up writing a piece for Russian Pioneer about what he calls the “Lisa Hayden Moment.” In short, this is a point within a story or novel when a reader realizes the piece does or doesn’t work. His essay extends, very logically, what I told him: I rely a lot on instinct and intuition, which are inherently difficult to describe, so it was wonderful to see his summary.

The Moscow International Book Fair. I spent an afternoon at the book fair—it’s held in a pavilion at what used to be VDNKh, the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, what a strange feeling to go there again!—where I heard Margarita Khemlin speak about her new book, Дознаватель (The Investigator), which I’m looking forward to reading. I was pleased to see other writers, editors, and book people I’ve met in my travels, too, particularly Irina Bogatyreva, who has a story in a new collection compiled by that prolific Zakhar Prilepin. The AST and Eksmo booths both bustled with novelist talks, panels, and book signings but I was even more struck with all the publishers focused on specialized books; railroad sticks in my mind for personal reasons.

What I brought back. I started with
Voroshilovgrad and will soon work through the
pile of 2012 Big Book finalists on the right.
Book Shopping. Of course I brought back lots of books: some were given to me by writers and translators, but I purchased most of my books at Falanster, Biblio-Globus, and Moskva. I even bought one—Prilepin’s Книгочёт, a book about books and even, in one essay, drinking—at Domodedovo airport because I thought (correctly!) the short pieces would make good plane reading. Each store was fun in its own way… Falanster’s relatively random selection is great: the Vita Sovietica sort-of-a-dictionary is useful fun, and I snapped up German Sadulaev’s difficult-to-find Raid on Shali; I wish I’d thought to go back for some thick journals though I’m not sure I could have hauled much more home. I especially enjoyed Biblio-Globus because I went there with Dmitrii Danilov, who recommended several books, including Mikhail Butov’s Freedom; he also gave me his new Description of a City. Even Moskva, which I’ve always found convenient but a bit too dark and crowded, was fun because the cashier mentioned liking Valerii Popov’s Big Book finalist To Dance to Death, prompting another customer to notice my large stack of books and ask for recommendations because she thought I looked young enough to suggest books for her 30-something daughter who lives in Germany. I was flattered she thought I was young enough for the task: perhaps I was feeling especially youthful because, earlier that afternoon, the ticket seller at the Tretyakov Gallery asked if I needed an adult ticket (!!!); I told the truth about my age but was happy she sold me a Russian citizen ticket without asking my provenance. Anyway, I was more than pleased to suggest books on the Moskva shelves. Of course the poor woman didn’t know what hit her, particularly since I’m not even Russian: she seemed a little overwhelmed with the choices and I’m not sure she was familiar with chernukha. I showed her the laminated list of 2012 Big Book finalists that was hanging on the wall… and hope she picked up a finalist or two—maybe Popov’s book, Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets, or Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women—after I left with my two heavy bags of books.

Disclaimers: The usual and more: many of the people I mention in this post are colleagues with whom I am on friendly terms, as are certain individuals (including editors and literary agents) who work with/at entities or people that I mention. A few organizations and individuals, particularly the Institute, fed me much-needed snacks, meals, caffeine, and/or a glass or two of wine, and helped me in various financial and nonfinancial ways, with my travel.

Up Next: Marina Stepnova’s Lazar(us)’s Women, Ergali Ger’s Koma, the Russian Booker shortlist…

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oodles of Award News: Yasnaya Polyana, Read Russia Translations, Book of the Year

Last week the Yasnaya Polyana Award named finalists for 2012 prizes. The finalists are:

For the “XXI Century” award, which RIA-Novosti called the “adult” award:
  • Iurii Buida’s Синяя Кровь (Blue Blood), which I read and enjoyed very much; it was third-prize winner among 2011’s Big Book “regular” reader voters.
  • Evgenii Kasimov’s Назовите меня Христофором (Call Me Christopher), which I’d never heard of. (This is what I like so much about award lists…)
  • Oleg Pavlov’s Дневник больничного охранника (Diary of a Hospital Guard), which has been on my reader since Pavlov sent me the text ages ago… it looks promising.
  • Iurii Petkevich’s С птицей на голове (With a Bird on the Head), another new (and intriguing) title for me.
  • Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazarus’s Women) a 2012 Big Book finalist I’m reading now.
  • Andrei Stoliarov’s Мы, народ (We, the People), another book I’d never heard of.

For the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award, a new category this year, the finalists are:
  • Marina Aromshtam’s Когда отдыхают ангелы (When (the?) Angels Rest), which I’d heard of through a friend who knows Aromshtam.
  • Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a 2012 Big Book finalist that I just brought back from Moscow.
  • Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenii Pasternak’s Время всегда хорошее (The Time Is Always Good), another mysterious title for me.

The Yasnaya Polyana jury will also choose a “contemporary classic” writer who will receive a prize of 900,000 rubles. The XXI Century and Childhood, Adolescence, Youth prizes carry monetary awards of, respectively, 750,000 and 300,000 rubles.

I was in Moscow earlier this month for a literary translator congress that concluded with a ceremony at which four translators were honored with Read Russia translation awards. The winners are:
  • Víctor Gallego Ballesteros for his Spanish translation of Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (19th century classical literature)
  • John Elsworth for his English translation of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (20th century works written before 1990). Elsworth also won the Rossica prize for Petersburg in May 2012.
  • Hélène Henri-Safier for her French translation of Dmitrii Bykov’s Pasternak (contemporary works written after 1990)
  • Alessandro Niero for his Italian translation of Dmitrii Prigov’s Thirty Three Texts  (poetry)

Russia Beyond the Headlines has more here. Event photos (including one with a tired-looking me!) available here. There’s even video here, where you can hear the fanfare.

In other award news, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)’s «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories) was named prose of the year at the annual Book of the Year ceremony; this book is also on the 2012 Big Book short list. Boris Ryzhii won the poetry of the year award for his В кварталах дальних и печальных…: Избранная лирика. Роттердамский дневник, which I’ll just call a collection of lyrical poetry that must be related to Rotterdam. A special award went to Daniil Granin for his contributions to literature; Granin’s Мой лейтенант (My Lieutenant) is a 2012 Big Book finalist. I brought this one back from Moscow as well: a fellow book shopper was eager to read it after a friend’s recommendation.

Up Next: Moscow trip report covering the translator conference, the Moscow International Book Fair, and other odds and ends. Then, finally, books! Ergali Ger’s Koma, the Stepnova book, Andrei Rubanov’s short stories, and who knows what else.

Disclaimers: I wrote this with my customary post-travel cold so fear for my ability to successfully fact check my own writing. And then the usual. I write for Read Russia. Also, I met last week with Vladislav Otroshenko, a Yasnaya Polyana Award jury member; I translated Otroshenko’s story Языки Нимродовой башни (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”) and can’t wait to read an excerpt of it at the American Literary Translators Association conference in few weeks. I’ll write more about my meeting with Otroshenko in my trip report.