“The New Era of Engaged Literature” By Okla Elliott

heartre

 

The New Era of Engaged Literature

by  Okla Elliott

 

When I was fourteen years old, I naively and ignorantly and perhaps over-seriously declared myself a Marxist. It was around this time that I also began considering myself a writer, though most of what I wrote sounded like quasi-plagiarized Bad Religion and Pixies lyrics. When I think back on that younger me whose main goals in life were to become a professional skateboarder and to save the world with his bad poetry, I feel a kind of wistful nostalgia; I also want to ruffle his hair and tell him to chill out a bit. That said, I can’t deny that in many ways those formative years are still with me and shape much of how I view literature today. Sure, I am no longer a Marxist (if in fact in my youthful ignorance I ever was), but rather a democratic socialist of the Bernie Sanders variety, but I sport a Black Flag tattoo that the fourteen-year-old me would be proud of, and I likewise have Simone de Beauvoir and Slavoj Žižek tattoos that the fourteen-year-old me would appreciate if he knew their work.

To be honest, my ignorance has likely been the guiding star for my literary development. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so when I made it to college, I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer. I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and German, double-minoring in French and religious studies, because I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was the way to become a writer. I also studied abroad to Germany and Poland in undergrad, another weird idea I had gotten into my ahead about how one becomes a writer. I remained highly political, preferring writers such as Gore Vidal over the aesthetes of the literary world. It wasn’t until I began my MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University that I learned politics and literature are frequently seen as opposing activities.

I have often half-joked that just as the rich don’t talk about money, American authors have tended not to talk about politics, since we’re members of the most powerful nation on Earth. The rich don’t talk about money, and the powerful don’t talk about politics. Authors in virtually every other nation are expected to incorporate politics into their work, however openly or obliquely. But I have seen this state of affairs in American literature change dramatically in the past handful of years (and of course there were notable exceptions beforehand). American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “engaged literature,” and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.

Putting aside my half-joke (which I don’t think is entirely empty), why else might American authors have had this tendency to avoid politics? There is one other key reason I see: rampant anti-intellectualism among Americans that reaches even into the corridors of universities, where our programs in creative writing are housed. One of my favorite professors during my own MFA referring to the scholars in the English department as “those pointy heads on the fourth floor” (the fourth floor being where their offices were). He said this several times in the years I was there, yet I never sensed an ounce of animosity in his words; it was merely a casual dismissal, and one that always got a chuckle of agreement from most of the students in the workshop. I have heard dozens of similar reports from other programs, with some even describing real dislike/distrust between the creative and scholarly factions within English departments. But I and many writers I’ve talked to feel this distaste for political thought and intellectual engagement in cultural issues is changing, at least among a sizable subset of us. The causes for this change are numerous, but having 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 collapse, and the unprecedented wealth inequality all hit us over the course of a decade or so are foremost among them.

Director of Ohio State University’s MFA program Michelle Herman said the following when I asked her about this trend:

In 28 years of teaching at Ohio State—and teaching through some pretty contentious election cycles, too—I cannot recall my graduate students (or the alumni of our graduate program, for that matter) injecting themselves quite so intensely into the whirl of political discourse.

Herman also has a theory as to why this might be happening at this point in history. She points out that “the ease of disseminating ideas, of moving from thought to ‘print’ (electronica) quickly enough for those thoughts to matter—or anyway to be heard” might have as much or more to do with this increase in political activity than some sweeping cultural change. I certainly agree that social media has played a huge and incalculably important role in such movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I think Herman has accurately hit on that importance. This moment in history is saturated with the effects of online activity in ways we likely won’t understand for many years, if ever.

There are three main causes, to my mind, for the shift to more political engagement in American literature in the past decade or so. 1) Institutional changes at the level of grant-giving entities and universities. 2) A general awakening to political and international problems across the culture. 3) An increase in literary inclusion of marginalized people.
I’ll begin with and focus largely on the institutional changes, because they are so pervasive and more easily quantified.

Interestingly, just as the advent of MFA programs and therefore the age of craft in American literature aided in reducing the amount of politically oriented literature in this country, I argue that the advent of the PhD in creative writing is aiding in ushering in a new age of engaged literature—though without totally jettisoning what we learned from our decades in the craft trenches. How so? Well, as part of their course load, PhD candidates in creative writing also have to take scholarly courses that expose them to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, and many others. They likewise receive introductions to the larger fields of disability studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and postcolonial studies. All of this means PhD candidates in creative writing receive at least a cursory knowledge—and in some cases an in-depth understanding—of major political and philosophical thinkers from around the world. This new hybrid degree is, in effect, creating a new hybrid category of creative writer, one that is interested in craft and social engagement in equal measure.

The other major institutional change that has helped bring about this new era of engaged literature in the United States is at the level of grant-funding entities. Obviously the events on 9/11 themselves were horrendous, as were the majority of the Bush administration’s reactions, but one interesting accidental byproduct of those events is that Americans were woken up and were forced to recognize that an outside world beyond the United States exists. There was a time when scholars were heavily funded to learn Russian and German, since those were languages of Soviet Russia and East Germany. In the years after 9/11, the US government pumped millions of dollars into the learning of Arabic, Korean, and Farsi—while still funding the study of Russian and Chinese at high levels. And in a kind of cultural trickle-down, universities have begun offering more courses in these languages and cultures.

Likewise, programs in translation were created, often connected to varying degrees with the MFA in creative writing program at the home university. Here are just some examples of recent translation programs added to major universities: University of Illinois added an MA and various certificate programs in translation in 2008; University of Maryland started an MA in translation in 2013; and University of Iowa, which already had an MFA in translation before this recent boom in such programs, has added an undergraduate certificate in global engagement via translation. This last one is especially salient for my point, since it overtly names engagement as part of its goal. And the list of new programs and journals focused on translation from around the world goes on and on. In 2015, even Amazon announced an investment of $10 million over the next five years in AmazonCrossing, its translation program founded in 2010. Since politics is heavily global in nature now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of all these new programs and investments in terms of its effects on literature.

The gifts of translation for English-language literature are myriad: blank verse as a solution for translating unrhymed Latin verse, the sonnet and sestina forms from Italian, couplets from French, and, some have claimed, free verse from Chinese. I argue that the 21st-century gift translation can give is an understanding of how political and literary discourses may most profitably mix.

I also believe that the adjunct crisis has created increased awareness among writers. With nearly 70% of our courses now being taught by adjuncts, emerging writers are often working for criminally low wages and no benefits or job security. This newfound economic precariousness among many writers has forced the issue of economics and institutional policy into the lives of writers in a way that was not as pronounced in previous decades.
The change at the institutional level therefore originates from several sources, ranging from government funding to greater global awareness to the increasing need for more higher education in the form of PhDs in creative writing if one wants to pursue a career as a creative writer in academia. The causal lines here are sometimes direct and sometimes roundabout or even totally accidental.

As I mentioned earlier there have of course been numerous exceptions throughout American literary history: Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright, among others, and there were of course excellent organizations like Cave Canem before the time period I am discussing. I am therefore emphatically not claiming that this is an entirely new phenomenon, just that there is a notable increase in it. Interestingly, we find that the least powerful among us—minorities, women, and the impoverished—are often more likely to inject politics into their literary production. Here is where my third main reason for this change comes in. A more open acknowledgment of racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ practices in the literary industry, as well as the founding of groups such as VIDA to highlight and combat such practices, have brought more marginalized writers to the forefront of American literary culture, thus bringing a more politically engaged literature to the forefront as well.

Given the limited space I have here, I have focused largely on changes institutions and organizations and how those have caused a shift in the literary culture in the United States, but as mentioned earlier, there is a broader and more nebulous increase in interest caused by recent historical events, a topic worthy of an entire essay unto itself. But that, as they say, is a project for another time.

As so many great authors from here in the United States and around the world have proven, literature does not have to choose between being aesthetically pleasing or politically engaged, between being of the moment or achieving timelessness. Aristotle famously defined humanity in two ways: 1) Humans are political animals. 2) Humans are linguistic animals. I would argue that engaged literature which still keeps its eye on craft brings these two definitions into enjoyable and productive harmony.

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat

Lena Divani Seven Lives

A Review of Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat
Translated from the Greek by Konstantinos Matsoukas

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous internet cats. Put aside the grumpy one, the cross-eyed one, the dwarf one with extra toes, the one who slides through empty boxes. Let’s get the hard part out of the way: This is a novel from a cat’s perspective, offered up at a time when cats have gone strangely viral. But unlike so much hipster-cat culture, this work takes itself seriously.

Indeed, Lena Divani’s Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat (translated by Konstantinos Matsoukas)—smart, earnest, and not without a healthy dollop of  whimsy—comes closer to anthrozoology than anything to do with a cheezburger.

Welcome to a world in which humans are given names like Madam Sweetie or The Damsel, and our protagonist—a stark white stray on the last of his lives—is called Zach. Cultured and articulate enough to merit entry into the feline intelligentsia, Zach leads the reader through his consciousness with the cadence and tone of a Liam Neeson or Jude Law, something deep, whisky-stained, and British. Perceptive, literate, and not so subtly arrogant, our narrator understands from the moment he’s born into a feral cat colony that he’s destined for greatness, and in his first breath decries his mother and his siblings as lesser-than.

Zach sees himself as a muse in the making, seeking to position himself as the newest entry into the canon of cat/writer relations: “According to all credible sources, all writers, great and small, talented and mediocre, have been good friends to us. Edgar Allan Poe, Colette, Balzac, Patricia Highsmith, Emmanuel Roides, even the demented Philip K. Dick, they all drew inspiration from us.” His literary aspirations lead Zach to accompany two well-to-do writers in their Athens flat, where he attempts to edge his way into their hearts and writings.

But humans are a challenging breed: We overcomplicate, we go against nature, we don’t open ourselves to others. “Your delusion that you are masters of this universe has become plain ridiculous, already,” Zach tells us. “You have made your life unlivable. You’ve become suspicious. You are scared to touch humans in case they bite your arm off. You are friendless. And thus, you have need of us. Whereas we once approached you for food, you now beg us for some sustenance for your deprived soul.”

Yet Zach has mythologized these complexities in such a way that he wants nothing more than to earn human love. He indicts mankind in one breath, then romanticises his particular human in the next.

And therein lies the heart of Seven Lives: That to love is to observe, often without understanding. To let those observations not interfere with affection but to strengthen it, to challenge its simplicity, to acknowledge imperfections as a part of the adored. That perhaps those we love most are always a foreign species, in one way or another, subject to study and examination through the curious act of loving.

The cat’s love in Seven Lives is pure and fearless, but never uninformed. We readers could take from this a lesson or two: how the smallest of encounters can mark others in profound ways; how we may judge in abstractions and love in specifics. In its quirky, unapologetic way, Divani’s novel is a lesson in considering the needs, the wants, and the perspectives of those utterly unlike ourselves, and how that consideration makes us yet more capable of empathy, more capable of becoming increasingly attuned to our own experience. And ultimately—if we may say so without insult to our feline friends—more human.

Lena Divani, Seven Lives and One Great Love: Memoirs of a Cat. Europa Editions, 2014: $15.95.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiotNerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

FRIDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: PAUL CELAN


SPEECH-GRILLE
by PAUL CELAN

Eye-orb between the bars.

Ciliary lid
rows upwards,
releases a gaze.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dim:
the sky, heart-gray, must be near.

Skew, in the iron socket,
the smoldering splinter.
By the sense of light
you guess the soul.

(Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The tiles. Upon them,
close together, the two
heart-gray pools:
two
mouthfuls of silence.


Translated from the german by Joachim Neugroschel.

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.”-Paul Celan

Editor’s Note: This post is dedicated as a Happy Birthday wish to Matt Gonzalez, who introduced me to the importance of Celan.

Want to read more by and about Paul Celan?
As It Ought To Be
Amazon
Poets.org

Erlking

[The following translation was originally published in Per Contra.]

Erlking

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(translation by Okla Elliott)

Who rides so late through windy night?
A father holding his child tight.
He has the youngster well in his arm,
He keeps him safe. He keeps him warm.

“My son, what twists your face with bother?”
“Don’t you see the Erlking, father?
The Erlking with crown and shroud?”
“My son, it’s but a sliver of cloud.”

Lovely, lovely child, come with me.
Such wondrous games you will see.
What bright flowers there are by the shore,
What royal clothes my mother has in store.

“Father, my father, are you listening
To what the Erlking is promising?”
“Child, calm yourself, be calm, please.
It’s just the wind rustling dried leaves.”

Sweet boy, don’t make such a fuss;
My daughters are waiting on us.
My daughters sing the nightly tunes
to cradle you beneath the moon. READ MORE

An Uneasy Revelry: a review of Before Saying Any of the Great Words

An Uneasy Revelry

by Okla Elliott

“Unease in the ochre-filled skies, unease in the silky /labyrinth of the gut, unease / in the artist’s double, triple nibs”

—David Huerta, “Song of Unease”

Since many American readers may not be familiar with David Huerta, let me introduce you to the poet, before I go on to discuss this career-ranging selection of his poetry and Mark Schafer’s excellent translation of it. Huerta has written nineteen books of poetry and has received nearly every literary award a poet can win in his native Mexico. He is associated with the Neobaroque movement in Latin American literature and with postmodern language poetry. In 2005, he received the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for lifelong contribution to Mexican literature. Suffice to say, he is one Mexico’s (and the Spanish language’s) major poets. He is also well known as a political columnist, translator, and activist. But fame and recognition are not enough to convince a discerning reader, and one ought not to be impressed by awards but rather by the work itself.

The first poem I’d like to look at, “Machinery,” is a good example of both Huerta’s strength as a poet and the difficulties Schafer had to overcome in translating him. It is a longish poem (65 lines), so let’s only look at the opening movement:

What’s the use of all this I ask you your fever your sobbing
What’s the use of yelling or butting your head against the fog
Why crash in the branches scratch those nickels
What’s the point of jinxing yourself staining yourself

The odd syntax and the overflow of poetic energy are well represented in the English. My only complaint is that in the first line, the English allows for a double reading such that the speaker asks the “you” his question and perhaps asks “your fever” and “your sobbing,” while also allowing “your fever” and “your sobbing” to still be the “all this” of his question—all of which is a really pleasant possible double reading, but which is unfortunately not in the Spanish. The Spanish reads “Para qué sirve todo eso te digo tu fiebre tu sollozo.” The verb is decir (“to tell, to say”), thus allowing for the more literal “What’s the use of all this I tell you your fever your sobbing” but which does not eliminate the possibility of a double reading, since the issue isn’t really so much the verb as the indirect object “te” in Spanish that is placed before the verb instead of after it in English, thus eliminating the possible double-meaning in Spanish and creating it in English. Basically, what we have here is an example of why Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure.” Spanish grammar clarifies what the English cannot without major alteration to either the sense or syntax. And so my complaint is not with Schafer’s translation but rather with the onerous task of translation itself. Schafer meets with dozens of these sorts of impasses throughout the book and generally finds innovative ways around them, and when no way around exists, he limits the loss in joy from the original, as he has here. (My complaint, I trust most will agree, is rather nitpicky and perhaps entirely unimportant in some readers’ minds.)

Let’s now look at “Sick Man” in its entirety, which exemplifies the productive strangeness of many of Huerta’s poems. Here, illness disrupts reality and language, making technically nonsensical language carry an emotional resonance that a more direct psychological realism could not:

The nighttime dog eats
two rings of blood
but the twilight dog chases him away.
The diamonds in his chest
burn and scatter.
The daytime dog licks
the entrance to his chest
but the nighttime dog
knows the way out.
All the dogs
want a backbone of diamonds.
Two rings of fresh blood spin around.
His chest finds itself increasingly alone
with the scent of barking.

That threatening bark is perhaps the threat of debilitation at illness’s hand, the fear of death, the crushing loneliness of serious illness. And the synergistic confusion is (and isn’t) the impenetrable meaningless of death/illness. I don’t mean to shrink Huerta’s poetic language to prosaic interpretations, since he could just as easily have written a straightforward thought-piece on illness and animal imagery, had that been what he intended to communicate, but I think the above-mentioned notions are some of the things he is after. Also, notice the perfect use of the title to force our understanding of the poem. I likely would have thought the poem was only mediocre if it were, for example, titled “Dogs.” His title (“Hombre enfermo” in the original) adds an emotional valence to all the words of the poem that would otherwise be mere pretty language without emotional import. This technique of title-as-lens is one Huerta uses to great effect throughout the book.

Schafer tells us in his introduction that he has two goals in mind with this book. “On the one hand, I want to offer English-speaking readers an overview of Huerta’s poetry since he published his first book, El jardín de la luz, in 1972. On the other hand, given that Huerta is alive and well, writing and publishing prolifically, I want to give readers ample opportunity to revel in his more recent work.” And revel is exactly what the reader does.
The publication of Before Saying Any of the Great Words is another in a long line of great contributions Copper Canyon Press has made to American poetry. In a post-monolingual world, and especially in the USA, which is quickly becoming officially and unofficially bilingual, I hope Huerta’s work will be read widely. Works in translation have a long tradition of influencing English-language poetry—from the Earl of Surrey, who invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Ænead (which was metered but not rhymed)—thus allowing for Shakespeare’s plays to exist as we know them—to the importing of such forms as the sonnet from its Italian progenitors or the couplet from the French, and so on. What better time than now, in the age of globalization, for us to learn from our literary compatriots who live in other countries and write in other languages? I would therefore suggest Before Saying Any of the Great Words not only for classes on Latin American literature but also for poetry workshops, working poets everywhere, and anyone interested in the marvelously rich culture of Mexico.

***

[The above review was originally published in Florida State University’s The Southeast Review in a slightly different form.]

“The Inevitable Waits” by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Black Lawrence Press, 2010

THE INEVITABLE WAITS

(translated by Daniele Pantano)

The inevitable waits

It’s not coming. You are

You are the mouse. So

Don’t be a hero

When for the fearless

Even the avoidable

Is unavoidable

Fear. Stay human

What belongs to you, doesn’t

What belongs to all, does

The right thoughts

They are friendly

Even when they seem hostile

You cannot think them alone

You cannot check them alone

You don’t strike on them alone

Alone you appear in front of them alone

They are your judges and ours

We are wrong and you, not they

Love their verdict, use it

Perhaps then the dark animal

Lolling under a bed

Or purring, crouched by a street

Will perform humanely

Its inhuman day’s work

And not devour you

In a gas chamber

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) is commonly seen not only as the most prominent Swiss novelist, playwright, and essayist of the twentieth century but as one of the most influential authors of modern literature.

Daniele Pantano is a Swiss poet, translator, critic, and editor born of Sicilian and German parentage in Langenthal (Canton of Berne). His most recent works include The Possible Is Monstrous: Selected Poems by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and The Oldest Hands in the World (both from Black Lawrence Press, 2010). His next books, Oppressive Light: Selected Poems by Robert Walser and The Collected Works of Georg Trakl, are forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, New York. For more information, please visit http://www.danielepantano.ch.

[The above translation is reprinted here with permission of the translator.]

THE INEVITABLE WAITS

The inevitable waits

It’s not coming. You are

You are the mouse. So

Don’t be a hero

When for the fearless

Even the avoidable

Is unavoidable

Fear. Stay human

What belongs to you, doesn’t

What belongs to all, does

The right thoughts

They are friendly

Even when they seem hostile

You cannot think them alone

You cannot check them alone

You don’t strike on them alone

Alone you appear in front of them alone

They are your judges and ours

We are wrong and you, not they

Love their verdict, use it

Perhaps then the dark animal

Lolling under a bed

Or purring, crouched by a street

Will perform humanely

Its inhuman day’s work

And not devour you

In a gas chamber

Toward a Coherent Vision of the 20th Century—Or, Why Jorge Volpi Is My New Favorite Novelist


Season of Ash

by Jorge Volpi (translated by Alfred MacAdam)

Open Letter / University of Rochester Press

ISBN: 978-1-934824-10-8


Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is the kind of novel that reminds me why I read novels in the first place, but it’s also the kind that makes me wonder why I bother to write.  Before the end of this review, I am going to try to convince you that Volpi is a genius, that you have to buy this book, and that he’ll end up with the Nobel Prize in Literature if there is any justice in the world (which there might not be…)—but before I attempt all that, you should know who Jorge Volpi is, as he is not yet well-known to North American readers.

Jorge Volpi, born in the internationally tumultuous year of 1968 in Mexico City, has written nine novels, including one other, In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into English and which has won prizes in Spain and France, as well as Volpi’s native Mexico.  He is one of the founders (along with Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, et al) of the “Crack Movement” in Mexican literature, a movement attempting to free itself from what its members perceive as the chains of magical realism, hoping to return to the joys found in the work of, for example, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges.  Volpi studied law at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and holds his PhD in Spanish philology from Universidad de Salamanca in Spain.  He has worked as a lawyer, a political aide, and as a scholar.  The evidence of this political/legal praxis and this scholarly knowledge certainly show up in his work, though never pedantically or gratuitously.  In the world of Spanish-language literature, he is known for his wide-ranging intelligence, the ambition of his work, his intricate plots, and a subtly dark humor.

Okay…that is an inadequate and rushed introduction to the man and his career, now on to an equally inadequate discussion of his marvelous novel.

Season of Ash opens with the infamous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl.  (So, okay, here I have an admission: I rather disliked the first few paragraphs of the novel—so much so, in fact, I was disappointed I’d agreed to review the book, since I was worried the rest of it would be equally unpleasant.  I mention this for two reasons—to let you know I’m not such a fan of Volpi’s novel that I can’t admit its failings, and to make sure if you pick up a copy of the book, that you force past the first two pages, because after that, while there are occasional lapses of mastery, it borders on perfection.)  Here is Volpi, several pages in, at his lyric finest, personifying the radiation from the reactor’s meltdown as a monster the hopeless Soviet soldiers die trying to fight:

Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata.  The monster was in no hurry.  It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge.

That wide narrative view—which takes in so much geography, time, and human suffering—is one of the joys throughout the novel.  The various plotlines, however, occasionally focus very closely on certain characters, the POV embedding so deeply into the consciousness of a particular character in the ensemble cast that we forget the novel spans four continents, eight decades, and over a dozen important characters (not to mention such historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, and Boris Yeltsin).  Though, now looking over the above excerpt, I see just how intricately Volpi weaves his narrative lines, how flawlessly he modulates his narrative registers; I say this because while I enjoy the excerpt by itself, it loses much (most?) of its power out of context, where we see Soviet soldiers sent to their deaths, ordered to bury the site of the incident with sand, ordered to axe to death all the animals in the region and incinerate them, all the while dying slowly or quickly of radiation poisoning.  We also are worried about the political wellbeing of the scientists involved as we read all this.  And on, and on.

Volpi’s scholarship and knowledge of international law and politics complements his novelistic powers wonderfully.  With only a few well-placed and concisely explained historico-political facts, Volpi creates unimpeachable narrative authority on such wide-ranging topics as Hungarian student movements, the Zairian French dialect, the corruption surrounding IMF funds in Africa, computer technology, mathematics, genetics, war strategy, investment banking, hippie communes in the US during the 60s, abortion procedures, depression, and more.  There seems to be nothing he doesn’t know and nothing he can’t find human tragedy and human comedy in.

This wide of a scope and this many movable parts would likely become a mess in a lesser novelist’s hands.  Volpi has, however, chosen a structure that organizes his materials without constricting them.  The novel is divided into a prelude and three acts, each act containing seven chapters.  The Prelude covers the Chernobyl incident and is set entirely in 1986.  Act I, which covers the years 1929-1985, is not chronologically ordered but rather swims around in time and plotlines, which seems unorganized but is not on closer inspection.  We learn the DNA, so to speak, of the novel in Act I, and the non-linear narrative lends itself to such a huge vision very well.  But had Volpi kept that non-linearity for the entire novel, readers would simply get lost in the wash of time and information.  And so, Act II, which covers the years 1985-1991, is ordered exactly chronologically, with each of its seven chapters covering a single year.  Act III covers 1991-2000 and returns to the non-linear structure, but by this point, we are oriented enough in the world of the novel for this not to be a problem.  And, as you can see, the overall structure of the novel takes us, in its roundabout way, from 1929 to 2000, thus giving the novel an overall sense of progression.

The two novels I was most reminded of while reading Season of Ash were Europe Central, by William T Vollmann, and 2666, by Roberto Bolaño.  Most novels would be reduced to, forgive the pun, ash by such a comparison, but Volpi’s novel not only stands up to these two masterpieces, I daresay it surpasses them.  It shows all the erudition, all the aesthetic sophistication, all the vision of a Europe Central or a 2666, yet it is considerably more readable.  In effect, it accomplishes all they do intellectually and emotionally while also being entertaining.  During the time I carried the book around with me, I was always digging it out my bag on a bus or train, just to get a few pages in; it kept me up past when I should have been asleep; it caused me to ignore invitations to parties (even ones I actually wanted to go to).

Okay…I’ll stop now with the praise.  For those who want a summary, kind of like the ones you get on the back of a book, here is the publisher’s summary from the back of the book:

Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash puts a human face on earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century: the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet communism and the rise of the Russian oligarchs, the cascading collapsing of developing economies, and the near-miraculous scientific advances of the Human Genome Project. A scientific investigation, a journalistic exposé, a detective novel, and a dark love story, Season of Ash is a thrilling exploration of greed and disillusionment, and a clear-eyed examination of the passions that rule our lives and make history.

So, there you have it.

In the limited space I have, I can’t go into a complete analysis of the translation, but suffice to say that Alfred MacAdam, who has translated many of Latin America’s literary giants (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Cortázar), has made a virtuoso performance here (though I do wonder how the Spanish title, No será la Tierra, became Season of Ash—but oddities of title changes happen all the time in translation, so we’ll just have to overlook this).  Translating genius requires itself a certain genius.  He is already well-lauded for his work as a translator, but someone needs to give this man a medal for his current effort.  I hope Volpi’s international reputation coupled with MacAdam’s academic credentials make this book a real contender for the Nobel, which would end the Eurocentrism many (Americans) complain about the prize having had in recent years.  But more importantly, it would celebrate a massive and original talent.

-Okla Elliott

[The above review was originally published, in somewhat different form, in Inside Higher Education.]

THE UNDIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LITERARY AND POLITICAL

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THE UNDIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LITERARY AND POLITICAL

by Okla Elliott

It has been said that poetry feeds no one, and no doubt, I have felt occasionally that reading or writing literature is merely an indulgence, one many people cannot afford. But that’s a rather limited view of how literature, the presses that publish it, and its practitioners function in the world.

In many ways, literature offers an opportunity to be political completely outside the electoral arena, something the people of this country (which has a two-party duopoly currently in place) sorely need.

Who can read a novel like The Quiet American (Graham Greene) and not rethink the Vietnam Conflict in human terms? Who can read Fox Girl (Nora Okja Keller) and not be heartbroken over how US military bases in South Korea negatively impacted the lives of the people who inhabited the camptowns around them? And, here again, in human/emotional terms, not mere numbers which lose meaning in their abstraction. Gore Vidal’s historical novels help readers to review American history from a different perspective. War memoirs personalize tragedies via the concrete and hellish details, as opposed a government’s abstractions of patriotism, freedom, or liberation which try (quite effectively) to dehumanize what is going on and thereby make it more stomachable.

That is perhaps literature’s greatest strength. It removes the easy cleanness of abstraction and introduces the muck and blood of reality into political thought. I do not mean to suggest that more rigid statistical analysis doesn’t have a very important role in politics; of course it does, as nearly everyone agrees. But literature can bring life to those numbers in a way that can motivate people to act, which our emotions are more likely to do than our intellect in most cases.

Unfortunately, however, too often writers in the United States eschew the political as beneath the dignity of high art. Not only is this a view solely held by our nation (in Europe, Africa, South America, etc, politics and art/literature quite often go hand in hand), but it is also so obviously nonsensical, I don’t see how it gained such ideological traction. Am I to believe that the lives and deaths of my fellow man are beneath the purview of art? Or that war cannot or should not produce insightful novels and poems?

But literary work doesn’t have to be openly political to perform a political or ethical function. When a middle-aged man in upstate New York reads a novel about a young girl in an impoverished Kentucky town, his knowledge of humanity is broadened as are his powers of empathy. And empathy makes us less likely to support policies that harm others.

And it’s not just the work itself that is political. There is a political aspect to the publishing and purchasing of books.

Let’s look at small presses for a moment. The term “small press” is an elusive term, as it includes presses with an all-paid staff and tens of thousands of dollars in grant support, as well as presses run by an all-volunteer staff out of someone’s apartment. But what small presses definitely are not are the huge publishing houses owned by corporations like AT&T that largely crank out books with cute cats on the cover or books that otherwise play to our basest sensibilities. Take, as an example of an excellent small press, Ugly Duckling Presse, which specializes in experimental literature and literature in translation. Experimental literature might have no overt political message, but it seeks to shake things up or offer an alternative view on human experience and thought. And translation is highly political, even when the content of what is translated is not. Every translation is an entry into another culture, an invitation to understand how people live in other parts of the world. By better understanding other cultures, it strikes me that we are more likely to respect them and therefore less likely to want to bomb the shit out of them. And, aside from the occasional blockbuster hit, most translation comes out of university presses or small presses, as well as small literary journals.

To take a cue from this blog’s name, I’ll not be merely descriptive of what literature can and does do; I’ll be prescriptive about what editors, writers, and readers ought to do (or ought to do more of), bringing us to the classic progressive question—what is to be done? First, editors need to solicit more well-crafted political writing, more translations, and more travel literature (whether it be poetry or prose, fiction or non-). Second, more writers need to be producing such work (and here I don’t mean preachy, one-dimensional stuff, but rather complex, well-crafted, multiply indicting work). Third, lovers of literature and writers (or people who hope to be writers) need to support the small press industry with subscriptions to journals and by buying books.  We also need to purchase well-written and politically sophisticated books from the major publishers to teach them in the only terms they understand (i.e., profits) to produce more books like the aforementioned Fox Girl (out from Penguin) and fewer books with cats dressed in cowboy hats or superman capes or whathaveyou.

In closing, I offer a very abbreviated list of books, journals, and presses that might be of interest. If you have any to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Books

Rising Up and Rising Down (nonfiction), by William T Vollmann; After the Lost War (poetry), by Andrew Hudgins; Disgrace (fiction), by J.M. Coetzee; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (fiction), by Tadeusz Borowski; Salazar Blinks (fiction), by David Slavitt; Cancer Ward (fiction), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Our Lives Are Rivers (poetry) by Mark Smith-Soto; A Gesture Life (fiction), by Chang-Rae Lee; Selected Poems (poetry), by Marina Tsvetaeva; Death and the Maiden (drama), by Ariel Dorfman; Christopher Unborn (fiction), by Carlos Fuentes; and, again, Fox Girl (fiction), by Nora Okja Keller.

Journals

Blue Mesa Review, Circumference, Contrary, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Monthly Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, New York Quarterly, A Public Space, and The Sun.

Presses

Copper Canyon Press, Dzanc Books, Graywolf Press, Monthly Review Press, Press 53, Red Hen Press, Seven Stories Press, and Wave Books—as well as dozens of university presses (e.g., Ohio State, LSU, Northwestern, etc).