People Reading Kin

I’ve been very happy to see several positive reviews of Kin in the past few days since its official release.

Sarah McEachern’s piece in the LA Review of Books, “Entangled in Family: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin and Semezdin Mehmedinović’s My Heart,” takes the title and the book’s biggest thematic thread as its main focus, with special emphasis on what it means to be from a place, especially one that no longer exists, and the limitations and possibilities of language. Her essay also takes a comparative approach by viewing Kin in relation to Celia Hawkesworth’s new translation of Mehmedinović’s 2017 novel.

The review just published at The Modern Novel relates a good deal of the book’s plot, including the relationships of the main characters and the core tragedy that links them together. It contains a couple of basic errors. A small one is a reference to the length in the final line, “The book is 800 pages long but I was not bored for a minute,” which makes its point twice over in a sense, since the book is actually 900 pages long (so they must be sailing by such that one doesn’t even notice the page count). A bigger one has to do with the book’s genre, which the reviewer refers to as “a family novel”; actually, the reviewer claims that the author calls the book “a family novel.” But this is the genre designation only for part two; the first part is called “a presentation,” part three “quartets,” part four “a report,” part five “inventories,” part six “fictions,” and the final part is “history, photographs.” These designations name the literary kind as a way of helping readers orient themselves. The book’s overall genre is always in question, which is why I was impressed by the focus in all three reviews on what sort of book this is and what sort of author Jergović is.

Duncan Stuart’s “Leskov Amongst the Tombstones: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin,” published at Exit Only, takes on this topic directly:

One of the perplexities of Kin is how to classify it.  It has been referred to as an “epic”, a “saga”, a “family novel”, a “chronicle” and an “historical fiction.” Many of the sections in the chapter ‘Inventories’, however, read like essays.”

Stuart’s claim that in fact Jergović should be thought of first and foremost as a storyteller is a notion announced in the piece’s subtitle, “The Storyteller and the Legacy of Annihilation” and then made explicit:

[Walter] Benjamin says that Herodotus was “the first storyteller of the Greeks.” Herodotus’ task was, according to Hannah Arendt, to “save human deeds from the futility of oblivion.” This task of the storyteller, to at least save something temporarily from oblivion, to stave off forgetting a while longer, is how Jergović understands storytelling too.

This commitment to storytelling as an act of salvation, Stuart suggests, has a major consequence for reading:

This commitment to storytelling, to understanding Jergović as not a novelist but a storyteller, helps explain the repetitions and reintroductions of family members that pepper the book. For these repetitions invoke a sense that this is, more than anything, a collection of stories, to be read in any order.

This strikes me as a fine insight into Jergović’s writing, and I would add only two thoughts. First, the approach implies aspects of realism in an almost Tolstoyan sense: there are things that are true of life that literary conventions often omit or twist into other forms: you don’t introduce characters unless you’re going to do something with them; you don’t have two characters with the same name; you build to the set piece and give readers the set piece, etc. In other words, literature is neat but life is sloppy, so any commitment to realism requires that one toy with the conventions of literature. And second, in a somewhat different vein, the book performs its subject by telling stories in the manner that large families tell stories–with repetitions, variations, and a constant inventive impulse.

Kin’s Arrival, blogging, and podcasting

My copy of Kin came in the mail a few days ago, all 911 pages of it. It made the mailbox sag a bit. I didn’t have time to think much about it at the time, but since then I have scrolled back through the blog that I kept while translating the book beginning in May of 2015 with a post called “Big New Book.”

Some of them really take me back, and one that I re-read today actually gave me a shiver as I remembered the sense of discovery I was feeling almost daily at the time. I had gone to Zagreb to meet Miljenko Jergović and then travel on to Sarajevo, where so much of the book takes place. Actually, just the other day it occurred to me that much of the book is a leave taking of sorts, both with the city of his youth and with his mother, and the two are intertwined to the very end.

The September 2017 post, which is called “Description of a Description of a Place,” is now also available as a podcast, just like this post, as it’s a technology that has been tempting me for a few months, and I finally took the plunge. The blog, in the meantime, has acquired categories, one of which is “Reflections on Kin” (where there are some 45 posts over the past five years of working on the book) while another is “On Translation,” which features all of the Kin posts but also a number of others related to other aspects of translation. At this point, there are about a dozen episodes of the podcast, all available on RadioPublic, Spotify, Pocketcasts, Google Podcasts, and Breaker.

The hosting platform, which is called Anchor, and is linked to WordPress, makes all the linkages pretty easy to manage, and the production process for the podcasts itself is intuitive and even rather fun.

Kin in The Harvard Review

This month was earlier slated to be when Archipelago Books released Miljenko Jergović’s Kin in my translation, but that got pushed to the middle of next month. Instead, a short piece, “In Springtime When we Air Out the Graves,” has appeared in this month’s Harvard Review (No. 57), alongside work by Rita Dove, Gregory O’Brien, Lauren Slaughter, and a translation by Forest Gander and Tomoyuki Endo of the poetry of Shuri Kido. It’s the sort of company Jergović deserves to be keeping, and it makes me feel good to see him there.

Prelim Praise for Kin

Here, from the Calvert Journal, is one of those pre-release teasers about “books to look forward to in X year” (which, in this case is the year 2021). Matt Janney calls it, appropriately, a “time-travelling, place-hopping epic, […] at once a history of family and an ode to Yugoslavia.” This is, well, a teaser.

Kin_PRH_Rev2.jpg (450×540)

Of a bit more substance is a starred Kirkus Review published on Feb. 10, which calls Jergović’s book a “vast, generous-spirited story of family across the face of the 20th century in the turbulent Balkans” and a “masterwork of modern European letters.” I can agree with this assessment too, and especially appreciate the notion of its “generosity of spirit.” It’s one of the reasons I have long been attracted to his work.

Both of these gesture towards the rather difficult question of the book’s genre, what it is and how to approach reading it. An epic of sorts, yes, certainly in terms of its vast size and historical scope. A history of a family, yes, especially through the domestic lenses it uses to look at what Mikhail Bakhtin, in another context, calls “great history.” An ode to Yugoslavia perhaps, but also, I would say, to the Habsburg Empire, to pre-1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Sarajevo of the author’s youth, and to the Dubrovnik of his family’s history there in the early 20th century. A masterwork of European letters, yes, this too, through its embeddedness in European literature and thought, its many references and allusions to historical and contemporary works of architecture, art, literature, music, and to the figures–some real, some imagined–who created all this.

We in the English-reading world often have trouble with this sort of expansiveness (which some might call amorphousness), feeling the need to pin it down as either “fiction” or “non-fiction.” This is a distinction that doesn’t apply consistently enough to be helpful in reading such a book, it seems to me.

There also appears to be a longish excerpt from the beginning of the book available at its Amazon page, and while the formatting is not especially attractive, it’s possible to read a bit there and get a sense of what the prose is like, at least in this part of the book.

Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.

Translating Place

My author does a lot with names. Here is an example:

Like Mehmed-paše, Nemanjina Street was built in the sixteenth century. It had been a road in the neighborhood of the Hadji Balina Mosque, which the people would remember as Čekaluša. But Čekaluša did not get its name from the word čekanje, or waiting, as is sometimes thought today. Originally it was Čegaluša, which probably came from Čegaleu, the name by which Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha was known, who built the Brusa Bezistan and that wondrously beautiful bridge across the Željeznica River.

I am still uncertain about how to spell some of the names here (as the variation between “Mehmed-paše” and Rustem Pasha demonstrates—I’ll figure this out later). The hidden footnote “or waiting” is of course my explanation for readers who will not immediately see the connection between čekanje and Čekaluša. This is not an especially difficult one.

I remember struggling with these sorts of naming difficulties when translating Predrag Matvejević’s The Other Venice, which featured local dialectal names for rare plants, among other things. Websites for homeopathic remedies were extremely helpful at the time, with explanations about where various kinds of plants grow in the world and botanical names. Once you have the botanical name, you can figure out what the plant is called in many different languages, though that may or may not include Venetian dialect. It was fun in a way but slow going.

Readers will need to be interested enough to be paying close attention to the words, such as in this example:

The hillside part was called “Banjski brijeg” because it passed above the Gazi Husrev Beg bath, or “banja.”

Will readers see the internal “banj(a)” in “Banjski brijeg”? There’s not much more I can do than point it out, as efficiently and unobtrusively as I can, and so my “or ‘banja'” at the end.

But this is not just a travel guide, and the names carry weight in ways that are literary and cultural and are tied to the descriptions as markers of memory and imagination rather than just location and history. This becomes clear when Jergović mentions a Jewish porter named Samuel, a character from a story by Isak Samokovlija, and notes that the Jewish poor “spent their lives on that pilgrimage with the sepet crates on their backs, and soon it would be as if they had never been there at all, their only remembrance, and that uncertain, being in the names of these streets.”

Sepet is a Turkish-derived word for crate, so it’s technically redundant. But the street Sepetarevac gets its name from the crates, so I need it in there, and for now a tiny redundancy seems like a reasonably small price to pay for the reminder.

One more shows the intricacy of the place names and their importance to the idea of imagination and memory:

In our time Sepetarevac was linked to Bjelave by a little street called Zlatikuša. It was called this because the meaning of its proper name—Zatikuša—had in the meantime been forgotten. This is how Alija Bejtić explains the name: “In old Sarajevo, which was provided with water by street fountains, individual water sources were not abundant, such that in any of the places where the water was inclined to flow freely, the pipes needed to be squeezed and hindered, the verb for which was zatiskivati, so that the water would accumulate in the supply basin. These places were called zatikuše, one of which was in the location in question.”

Now, the switch from the actual name, Zatikuša, to the one people later used, Zlatikuša, involved the insertion of an “l” after the initial letter, creating a new idea, as zlat is the root for the word “gold.” Jergović does not need to do much to point this out, but English readers will need a little help, which I’m trying like this:

They continued to call the street Zlatikuša for a long time, for it takes but a slight revision to adapt an empty word without any meaning to the excessive desires of human imagination. And thus did gold, or zlato, appear on Zatikuša, at the top of Sepetarevac.

Is it enough? Is it too much? If this were a poem, I might be able to linger on this question for a bit more, but I’ve just rounded page 400 and need to push on to “Veliki park,” which perhaps needs to be “Veliki Park” (with a capital “p”) to accord with English naming conventions. In other words, the translation of “Veliki park” could very well be “Veliki Park.” Unless I have to explain what “veliki” means….

On Translating Miljenko Jergović

PEN gave me 500 words or so to write on this topic, which I have now written many thousands of words on in this blog, so I took a slightly different tack, beginning this way:

I have been drawn since first becoming a reader to the sense of adventure that the opening pages of a long novel inevitably evoke. It is the closest equivalent I know to setting off on an actual journey. And in the last pages, if the book is good, you are tired but also elated and you want it to continue, because now you know this story, these characters, their lives, memories, and experiences. I was drawn to translation as a way of intensifying this experience, allowing greater access than a mere reader, but also, and this is crucial, giving responsibility for encouraging others to feel what I felt while reading. Miljenko Jergović’s Rod is a massive adventure with a wide scope, a novel that traces the intersections of lives, countries, and regions, from the early twentieth century to the present day. The theme of mixture is a central feature and one of the most attractive aspects of the book, an idea that is still contested in many parts of the world. Jergović’s embrace of this mixture as his heritage along with his fundamental doubt in political structures that attempt to offer ideologies of purity—ethnic, religious, or otherwise—make his an absolutely contemporary voice. At the same time, he is a writer’s writer, reflecting carefully on his work as he goes, with formal innovations and inventions.

The rest is at the PEN site.

Sieges and The Unwritten

This piece by Miljenko Jergovic in my English translation was in the New York Times this weekend. I was impressed by the quality of the editing by Max Strasser. I’ve done a lot of editing, though not in a journalism vein, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. His light but confident touch was reassuring, as were the explanations for why he thought certain things needed expansion, omission, or re-ordering. The work of editing is often thankless, so I wanted to thank him here.

The content of the essay contrasted sharply with an idea that emerged from a symposium that was organized at Indiana University, Bloomington over the weekend, by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spector, which was focused on Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky. “Planting the Flag” was a somewhat intimate affair, with some thirty or so people sitting at one table, presenting their work and talking in depth about this re-discovered “classic” author (a phenomenon worth discussing unto itself) now being translated and published both in Russian and in English for the first time. K (for short) was almost unknown in his lifetime, a philosopher poet of sorts, though he wrote prose for the most part. I could never do justice to his work or the discussions at the symposium, so I won’t try here, except to note one thought that has stuck with me and is percolating.

It emerged from a discussion of the phenomenon of imagined but unwritten works, which it turns out is much more widespread than I realized. K explored it extensively and suggestively, and during our discussions the idea came to take shape for me in a compelling and provocative manner. While there is an infinite number of books that have been imagined but not written, there is a much more concrete sense in which each time a book is created in the world, it opens an absence and a potential in every other language for its translation. These are works that have been authored — for the author is the author even when the book is translated — but not yet written in the language of the receiving culture. They are authored but unwritten.

Editing and Self-editing

I think about the importance of editing often as I’m working. Partly this is because I am also editing other people’s writing as I write and translate. It is easier to separate these activities when the writing is of very different kinds, but sometimes they cross paths, and then I have to be careful that the voice of one first-person narration does not slip into another first-person narration. That, I think, is happening with this post. It sounds to me a bit like the narrator in Vassilis Alexakis’s Mother Tongue (La langue maternelle), the English translation of which (by Harlon Patton) I am editing for Autumn Hill as I work on Kin. Alexakis has a lovely first-person narrator’s voice, but it is quite different from Jergovic’s. How they are different would take me too long to figure out–I need to get back to both!–but here is a very brief example of the kind of editing that seems to be absolutely essential in both the self-performed and the other-performed kinds.

Re-reading a recently translated passage, I came across this phrase, which ends a section in which the narrator has commented on the disappearance of an entire line of relatives from the past: “Mi smo u rodu s fantomima i duhovima.” I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my draft version had “We are the relatives of phantoms and spirits,” which is basically what the phrase means but misses an obvious connection to the very title of the book, which is explicit in the expression, “u rodu s…” (in relation to…). The slight change to “We are kin to phantoms and spirits” raises the register ever so slightly and strikes for the whole line a more effective, more moving tone.

I find myself looking at every sentence this way, which is of course no way to finish on time but gives me so much more pleasure than just rushing forward to get through the pages (and pages). It will be a better book, I hope, as a result of these little things.

Catalogues, lists, parataxis, and pig spleens

One of the things my author does is list. He lists and lists, stringing objects and observations in long catalogues that are sometimes paratactic (without connecting words), and sometimes filled with and’s and but’s and gradations of these (such as the word “a,” which can suggest and, but, though, and a variety of other linking notions) to create sentences like this:

By evening, the sausages will be made, the meat ground up and packed into the wide, flexible pork intestines, the cracklings will have been salted and left to cool in the summer kitchens on wide, black baking pans, the cats will be gorging themselves around the courtyards on the pig spleens and the little bits of their animal insides that a person can’t manage to swallow, and everyone will be dead drunk, singing Croatian songs about the Velebit Mountains and Ban Jelačić, and when the rakija has wiped away their minds completely, they’ll take courage and shout to the memory of the Ustaše Jure Frančetić and Rafael Boban, to the glory of the Poglavnik Pavelić, and neither the People’s Militia nor any village informants or spies will be there to report the songs or the singers, for they too will in that moment be feasting on their slaughtered pigs, singing different Croatian songs or maybe the same ones.

It’s not the longest sentence in the book, but there are quite a few like this. Some of the active verbs in the source I’ve changed into participles to make the thing hold together. Hidden footnotes are peppered throughout (the word mountains, for instance, and the word Ustaše and the names Frančetić and Rafael). He also uses a fairly specialized word for pig spleens, which is slezina, and which maybe ought to be “milt” in English, but who knows what that means? Pig spleens rings true and is appropriately disgusting.