When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)

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Mawil: Kinderland

Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3943-143904

The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.

Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.

Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.

The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.

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Tallinntraveling

For the first time in what feels like forever, I will be having a holiday-holiday, and not just a handful of days wrapped around a conference. I will be spending a few days in Tallinn next week – and afterwards a few days in Helsinki. Anything you can recommend me in the way of spending my time in Tallinn? Or things to read? I am currently reading Sofi Oksanan in preparation for the trip. Tipps? Suggestions? What is essential to eat?

On Selfies and Poems

I sent a couple of poems away to a competition two days ago and it makes you wonder as you look at the pile of poems that you’ve amassed since your last book: is this really you? Can’t you do this better? Didn’t you write something last week that you liked better that you think works better that is smarter more lyrical more worth pouring into poetry but then you look at that and it already congealed into strangeness and it feels like a selfie you took last week where you have too many chins and awkward hair and didn’t your face look better – I mean I take a load of selfies for various reasons and you know those jokes and sketches where a guy in the mirror mirrors all your movement, tricking you into believing they are real and meanwhile you look at the screen saying: oh, that guy looks nothing like the guy in the mirror, nothing! but you look at your selfie and you scream that guy looks nothing like me and for fuck’s sake this isn’t even Heraclitus, this is just embarrassing to be honest and you know what’s embarrassing? These poems, and you don’t know who to show them to for triage because you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of people you genuinely respect so you sit on the floor in a pile of poems and your weird face looks up at you from every angle, bald spot here, strange torso here and so on and on until you go blind and dissipate nec corpus remanet

Jorge Ibargüengoitia: The Dead Girls

Ibargüengoitia, Jorge (2018 [1977/1983]), The Dead Girls, Picador
ISBN 978-1509870172
Translated by Asa Zatz

For a novel called “The Dead Girls,” Mexican author Jorge Ibargüengoitia isn’t particularly interested in said dead girls. In the introduction to the new edition of the book, Colm Tóibín compares the novel to Roberto Bolaños 2666, in particularly section 4, “About the Crimes.” He fails to note that, in contrast to Ibargüengoitia, Bolaño does talk about “the crimes” at length, and he presents stories from the lives of many of the murdered women in Ciudad Juarez, which is Bolaño’s focus. He notes the investigation, and presents a possible murderer. Section 4 of 2666 is a real punch to the gut. There’s no sense of the situation being ameliorated or prettied up for the reader, and despite Bolaño’s complex use of postmodern techniques throughout his work and in this novel, as well, there’s no sense of postmodern playfulness clouding the seriousness of the crimes. That is not the case in Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 nonfiction novel which takes a case ripped straight from Mexican headlines in the 1960s, and which had produced a sensational, gut wrenching Mexican movie just the year before Dead Girls was published, and retells the story with the vast instruments available to the well trained postmodern novelist. There’s something distasteful about Ibargüengoitia’s literary project here, and it is not the smell of a dead body which is described at length towards the end of the book. This book has to be read with two lenses – as a literary project by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and as a literary text that has no outside and does not partake in public discourses. As the latter, The Dead Girls offers a lot of delights. Ibargüengoitia uses mirrors, inversions, symbols, and parodies various discourses of detective and police and general nonfiction writing. He uses witness accounts, he uses doubt, humor and an almost surreal Gothic construction with a lightness of touch that is truly impressive. If not for the dubiousness of Asa Zatz’s translation, the book, viewed under that second lens, can only be praised.

But there’s the language, of course. When Picador decided to reprint a couple of classics and commissioned new introductions for them, they did not, for the few books that had been translated, commission new translations or edit the old ones. Asa Zatz’s is the original translation, and it is one of those cases where you can see, without looking at the original text, that something is off. In various places you can see inversions that appear to mimic the Spanish original, rather than present an organic English orginal in its stead. There are a few other problems that are more like mistakes (some pronouns and deictic expressions appear to be off), and the overall impression is one that makes the reader lose faith in the translator. How does the original novel deal with dialect? With low class speech? Am I getting from The Dead Girls what a Mexican reader would get from Las Muertas? Raymond D. Souza says that “there is considerable variety” in the book between “literary discourse,” “popular language” and “legalistic and journalistic jargon.” There’s no such variety here, really, in the English version. A contrasting example would be Lisa M. Dillman’s work on the novels of Yuri Herrera, which, particularly in Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World, does some very interesting stuff with language and register and which I’ve long admired. The claim – without looking at the original – that a translation is “good” is always dubious. But in some cases, you can tell when a translation isn’t, let’s say, great, and that’s, at least to my mind, the case with Ibargüengoitia’s novel. That said, those of us who have read literature in translation for years and have still not cleaned up our act to learn more languages up to easy reading level, we are used to these small roadbumps in reading and read right over them. And as one’s reading of The Dead Girls takes up speed and you look at all the angles and curiosities in the fictional mansion that Ibargüengoitia has constructed, you – or at least me- start noticing these issues less and less. It doesn’t mean they are not there, but the book’s machinery covers them up quite well.

What’s more: the novel’s chosen style is dry journalese, similar in some sense to Garcia Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but in a less serious register. There’s also a framing temporal inversion in The Dead Girls, though the main plot is offered in drab chronological order, and since Ibargüengoitia was friends with Garcia Márquez, it’s not implausible that Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 novel had some influence on Garcia Márquez’s 1981 novella. That said there’s a key difference between Ibargüengoitia’s book and the common texts that would come to mind as comparisons, whether it’s Garcia Márquez or Bolaño. Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes liberties with the historical facts but his liberties, apart from the final reconciliation, do not ameliorate the situation or the facts, the novella merely artistically heightens the situation. That, Ibargüengoitia also does. But that is not where he stops. The Dead Girls is very loosely based on the Las Poquianchis case. Las Poquianchis were two to four sisters (there were four sisters in the family, all four were jailed, but the central case revolves around two of them) who ran a couple of brothels in Mexico and murdered 91 people, most of them women. The case, when they were eventually “caught” and charged, gained an enormous notoriety in Mexico. For example, a tabloid, colorfully called Alarma! more than tripled its circulation while the trial of las Poquianchis was ongoing. In 1976, a year before Ibargüengoitia’s novel appeared, a movie just called Las Poquianchis came out – and it detailed the case in a lurid and sensational manner. The sisters did not just run brothels, they also didn’t “just” murder prostitutes, they also, according to many reports, toured the countryside and trafficked young women – tricking and forcing them into prostitution. Of course, these reports are hard to parse for truth, particularly since this perceived thread of the roving immoral madams perfectly fits the typical narratives of moral panic. For Mexico City, Martha Santillán Esqueda has provided an excellent account of the way public moral panic was stirred up around this topic, particularly since the abolishment of prostitution in Mexico earlier – and the resultant web of illegal brothels and corrupt officials maintaining the web. Esqueda also points out that, when polled, many prostitutes suggest they were there of their own free will – and these questions are impossible to answer without taking into account the economic pressures on these inevitably very low class women.

And Ibargüengoitia reaches for these ambiguities with both hands. His book is constructed of pastiches of various kinds of journalistic media – from witness accounts to re-tellings, to official documents. At the end of the novel he presents a famous photo of Las Poquianchis and some of their prostitutes, but he mirrors the picture and erases all their faces (it’s easily googleable though). The novel begins with the caveat “some of the events described herein are real- all the characters are imaginary.” It gives Ibargüengoitia leeway in constucting a much smaller, much more contained, much more symbolically resonant text. Instead of a criminal enterprise and four brothels and 91 murders in the span of only about 10 years, his book’s situation focuses on just one “wandering” brothel, and five murders. While many of the original murders happened during the active running of the brothels (some murders were as prosaic as rich male customers being murdered for the money), all of the murders in The Dead Girls happen after the brothels are shut down and the prostitutes and the two sisters cohabitate in a sealed off house that was built as a brothel but never used. Ibargüengoitia uses various elements of the Gothic novel for his purposes. By making a sealed off, dark house the scene of so much of the book’s drama, he inverts the broad expansiveness of such a region based crime as human trafficking and prostitution into one narrow cramped space. He uses gender as a signifier – the domesticity of the arrangement is used in the crimes, and in some of the murders. Not to mention that the first body buried isn’t a murder per se, but dies violently at the end of a long and complicated healing process, an irony that is central to the way Ibargüengoitia built his book. A fine irony pervades much of the book anyway. While the 1976 movie screamed about corruption, Ibargüengoitia uses allusion and suggestion to decry the machinations of the state. The framing crime, the one that brings the sisters down in the novel, is an act of female jealousy and hot temperedness, while as far as I can tell the original sisters were brought down when a mistreated prostitute escaped and told her story to policement that were not paid off by the sisters.

91 murders, of those roughly 71 dead women – often underage girls. Ibargüengoitia takes the number and the names off this crime and writes a book about writing about crime. Some of the murders in the book happened by accident – maybe. A lot of it is due to a complicated situation. To a spurned, angry gay official who was embarrassed publicly and is taking it out on the sisters. Not one of the murders was committed in a callous way. Prostitutes are sold off, but we don’t learn their names because they were homely, and so what if this is human trafficking. Ibargüengoitia does not take a moral stand, and as a novelist, it’s stupid to demand one of him, but these nonfiction novels that stand in the liminal space between truth and invention – there are different rules that apply to them. There is much to be admired about the construction of the book: the city/farm dichotomy that was part of the public moral outcry, is tampered with in clever ways, space (up/down, inside/out) is manipulated in clever ways. How witnesses work, how narratives are structured, Ibargüengoitia’s novel is full of allusions to these topics and discourses. For a topic centered, in Mexican discourse at the time, around “white slavery,” Ibargüengoitia is at pains to point to the relative darkness of skin of several actors in the book. But the “dead girls” of the title – they get short shrift. And not just the 70+ dead girls that died at the hands of the real Las Poquianchis. But also, honestly, the five dead girls of the novel. Ibargüengoitia interrogates, towards the end, the labels of victim and perpetrator, and while, in isolation, that’s fine, in the liminal space of this kind of book, it’s incredibly dubious. His framing only works because he reduced the situation so much. It does not work with 70+ dead women and an uncounted number of trafficked, raped, mistreated women.

I think there’s a strange kind of tendency of writers, particular progressive writers, of, faced with the awfulness of moral panic, to sanitize the effects of prostitution. The whole recent debate around Dante “Tex” Gill’s potential onscreen portrayal in the movie Rub & Tug by Scarlett Johansson never really touched the fact that Gill was famous for taking over a number of “massage parlors” which were really brothels. During Gill’s ascendancy to a prominent place in Chicago’s underworld, “at least four women with ties to the rub parlors were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances” – but the debate around Johansson was entirely one about whether Gill should be portrayed by the actress and not about the role of forced prostitution and rape in public progressive discourse. There’s actually quite a solid amount of admiration for Gill in many of the think pieces written about the affair around the movie. I think there’s a certain blinkered blindness, a lack of empathy to women which I think is woven throughout books like The Dead Girls, even if they are as well made as this one. When I noted how powerful and excellent Lydia Millet’s fictional portrayal of this lack of empathy for women was in my review of My Happy Life, I could easily have referenced Ibargüengoitia’s novel. But it is quite good. It is hard not to recommend, if you can deal with the other aspect of it.

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Diversity: #tddl and the Tin House workshop

If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.

But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode (Jul 19) of the excellent Still Processing podcast. To summarize: apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection.

This is also an indicator of the different ways in which the two counties deal with this moment. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.

Again, I recommend you listen to the July 19 episode of the Still Processing podcast.