Viewing entries tagged
Open Letter Books

Dubravka Ugrešić’s <i>Fox</i>

Dubravka Ugrešić’s Fox

Reviewed by Andrea Scrima

Fox is subtle, virtuosic, and jarring; it’s also mordantly funny. In light-footed, deceptively playful detours and digressions, the book skips from Stalinist Russia to an American road trip with the Nabokovs, academic conferences and literary festivals to the largely untold story of the Far-East diaspora of persecuted Russian intellectuals on the eve of World War II. Fox is a novel, but its formal structure poses a challenge; some chapters read as essays, some as autonomous short stories, and while many recurrent threads reveal themselves upon closer inspection and reflection, unraveling the author’s narrative strategy takes time and attention.

Guðbergur Bergsson’s <br><i>Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller</i>

Guðbergur Bergsson’s
Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller

Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer

Despite never having been translated into Icelandic, Tristram Shandy’s radical recalibration of storytelling’s fundamentals—in particular, style, structure, and the criteria for relevant content—laid the groundwork for many other texts that would come to influence Guðbergur Bergsson’s modernist work Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Now, half a century after its original publication in Iceland, this magisterial work been translated into English by Lytton Smith. In this “memoir,” a popular genre in Iceland at the time it was written, Tómas, a resentful, senile, self-absorbed retired bank clerk, elaborates on the minutiae of his life spanning World War II through the year of the novel’s publication in 1967. Through Tómas’s numbered composition books, we are privy to his anal-retentive habits, and idiosyncratic thought processes whose landing points include the intricacies of chamber-pot usage, the inherent amorality of money, and the invention of the ballpoint pen. Non-linear and largely absent of temporal markers, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is a unruly, borderless flow of life episodes and digressions, the latter in the form of folkloric tales, theater acts, dreams and a mini-essay. Yet as much as Tómas feigns to be in complete control of this text supposed to be his autobiography, it is the co-habitants of his world who come to define him. He suggests as much at one point, through a statement in line with the Hegelian view of human relations: “Does man, as an individual, only exist to the extent that he is a context for other people?” Bergsson, who would also garner recognition as a children’s book author and translator from Spanish (most notably of García Márquez and Cervantes), cemented his legacy with this genre-defying novel. Although a controversial figure over the years for his outspoken opinions on Icelandic culture, he is now widely revered by many of his compatriots, such as the writer Sjón, who referred to him as the “grand old man of Icelandic literature”; among his cohort, only Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, outranks him in literary stature...

Bae Suah’s <i>A Greater Music</i> & <i>Recitation</i>

Bae Suah’s A Greater Music & Recitation

Reviewed by Rosie Clarke

“I am afraid that the moment I cast off the garb of a poor, powerless, unidentified ‘city-dweller,’ I will become a refugee, stripped of my citizenship, with no idea of the direction I should take.” This perhaps best captures what drives the intense anxiety at the heart of A Greater Music and Recitation, Bae Suah’s two most recent works in Deborah Smith’s exceptional translation. It is an anxiety specific to a particular demographic: urban residents with an excess of options, and a deficit of purpose. Those who rely on their city to provide validation, when in fact the city is utterly ambivalent to human life; standing as a product of humanity’s creation, but providing no reason for humanity’s existence...

Can Xue’s <i>Frontier</i>

Can Xue’s Frontier

Reviewed by Canaan Morse

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle demanded that time, place, and action be unified in drama, but that compact had been around long before he, and continues to hold sway in the mainstream today. Even as innumerable creative writers have bent or broken that pact in innumerable ways, most of us begin a book with the fundamental assumption that it will be upheld on a sentence-to-sentence level. Can Xue has no interest in keeping such a promise, and never has. Her narratives have no memory – perhaps because in her worlds, memory is a form of nightmare. Better readers than I have pointed out that terms like “linear plot” and “comprehensibility” become fraught in Can Xue’s work; she invests little or nothing at all in the unity of time and place, and an anxious irrationality charges the space between her sentences...

Antoine Volodine's <br><i>Bardo or Not Bardo</i>

Antoine Volodine's
Bardo or Not Bardo

Review by Jon Bartlett

For the reader willing to take Antoine Volodine on his own terms, to follow the desires of his characters, whether real or dreamt, whether in life or in death, to their fatalistic ends, the pleasures are great and the humor is plenty. The sense of crossed wires, of failures to communicate, permeate Bardo or Not Bardo. The majority of its stories describe farcical situations where those in the Bardo, in this spiritual state between death and rebirth, either misunderstand their condition, strive to subvert its laws, or are misguided by the inept or malicious officiants charged with reading to them passages from the Bardo Thödol in order to guide the deceased away from the cycle of rebirth and toward enlightenment, or the Clear Light . . .