Imagine a story in which two lovers exist outside gendered norms, their identities not defined by sex or gender but rather given shape by the affection and desire they share.
That story is realized in Sphinx, a fascinating book written under Oulipian* constraint, in which French author Anne Garréta walks a linguistic tightrope, building an experimental love story narrative around two central, genderless characters.
As impressed as I was by Garréta’s ability to construct this narrative, I was equally impressed by Emma Ramadan’s translation of the text from French. Ramadan’s translator’s note at the end of Sphinx addresses the task of having to rewrite parts of Garréta’s text to stay true to the constraint in English and the nature of writing with a gendered language. From Ramadan’s note: “Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other, and so created a language and a world in which amorous relationships are not determined by a binary of distinction.”
*”[t]he adjective Oulipian is retrofitted from the name OuLiPo which stands for ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature: a collective established in Paris in 1960 with the purpose of exploring and exploiting the generative literary potential of linguistic, mathematical, and scientific structures — which lots of the time, is a fancy way of saying the use of constraints as a writing aid.” from the Introduction to Sphinx by Daniel Levin Becker
Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.
Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition. In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.
Pub month: June 2017
Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quick, idiosyncratic book. While reading it, I wondered, as I often do with books that have been translated from one language to another, what was lost or untranslatable, what cultural quirks couldn’t be conveyed adequately or precisely.
The narrative takes place within the Nakano Thrift Shop and centers on Hitomi, the naive young woman who works the counter, and around her coworker Takeo, the owner Mr. Nakano, and Nakono’s sister Masayo, plus a host of other odd characters who enter their store. A romance, if you could call it that, develops between Hitomi and Takeo but is fraught with bizarre miscommunication and is built upon unsubstantiated feelings.
There is a blatant sexual underscore to the book. Nude photos are examined matter-of-factly, an erotic text is discussed openly and plainly, a romantic tryst takes place without much heat, yet the lack of sexual or emotional connection between the two characters you are meant to feel for makes for a somewhat boring and rather lackluster read.
This book was passed along to me by my husband. It won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for fiction, and the fact that Francisco Goldman calls Herrera “Mexico’s greatest novelist” would suggest that the book is something quite special, a memorable read. I finished it with a “meh” and a shrug. With all the praise this book received, I was left wondering “did I miss something?!”
If you read it and loved it, I’d love to hear your thoughts…