PEN World Voices Festival Recap #3: The Literary Safari, 2.0

My last PEN event this year was the second Literary Safari at Westbeth, which was another remarkable event that I was able to write about for The L Magazine. The full post is available on their website, cleverly titled by someone-not-myself as “Stalking the Exotic Author at the Westbeth Literary Safari,” here. The full text is below.

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An opportunity to “[e]njoy intimate readings by Festival participants inside the homes of famous Westbeth residents” the second Literary Safari held during this year’s PEN World Voices Festival was, in response to the whimsical chaos of last year’s event, ever so slightly more streamlined. In addition to the simplified map of Westbeth’s winding hallways and the reading schedule that was handed to each guest, this year, attendees had the advantage of signage throughout the hallways and balloons taped to each hosting apartment’s doorway. It lent a cheerful suburban party vibe to what is otherwise the single most hip literary event to have ever been conceived.

Last year’s attendees came to this year’s safari with plenty of tips on how to maximize the experience and see, depending on your predilections, either the most readings or the most apartments. (Lurk near the back of each apartment for an easy exit during the inevitably late-running Q&A; don’t revisit an apartment you went to last year.) Scheduled in optimistic twenty-five minute increments with five minute ‘passing periods’ in between, the maximum number of possible readings/apartments that one could see during the course of the night would have been four; my group was proud to have successfully seen three.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s marquis participant, but part of what makes the Literary Safari such a unique and pleasantly awkward event is the opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to sit knee-to-knee with luminaries who while unfamiliar to you, are important participants in their home country’s literary milieu. (There are undoubtedly downsides to this arrangement from the writer’s perspective, as attendees just love forcing international authors to shill their country’s cultural output wholesale, asking hugely generalizing questions about “the state of fiction” or sometimes, even non-literary traditions in another country or geographic region. Example: “Is fiction less popular than film in [insert country name here]?”)

In her first reading of the evening, Romanian author and journalist Gabriela Adamesteanu, was asked a battery of such questions, which she kindly qualified with nuanced responses. When asked to talk about how literary reception in Romania might be different from that in the U.S., she explained that following the country’s revolution, the public’s main reading interest was in non-fiction, particularly the memoirs and essays that had been censored during communism. In the intervening ten years, however, a new wave of young authors is reinspiring an interest in novels and poetry.

Adamesteanu herself has been a leading member of the Romanian intelligentsia and was an outspoken advocate for a civil society during the communist years; she was an editor of the socio-political magazine 22, and also the president of an activist the Romanian chapter of PEN for several years. She was at the festival to read from her novel Wasted Morning (first published in 1984; translated into English last year), which was identified by the attending Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute as “one of [Romania’s] major modern novels,” and an incisive portrait of the country during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Though Adamesteanu was very quiet and self-effacing, listening first to a reading of her novel in English and then selecting a small passage to read in Romanian herself, the passage chosen was an assertive one–an emotional scene in which a man believes that his partner has recently had “an adventure” with another man, resulting in a clandestine abortion.

An event monitor in the back of the room ensured that all attendees got to their next reading on time, so we were able to dash to our next, that of prolific Lebanese author, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury, whose novels Archipelago Books has been in the process of releasing in English since 2006. Khoury was perched in one corner of a comfortably cluttered living room in one of Westbeth’s coveted duplex apartments, with attendees crowded around on couches and curled up on the oriental carpet, sipping the wine that was laid out on an end table. Both hosts being painters, the walls were covered in large canvases and multi-media pieces, to which Khoury gestured: “I hope my words can match the beauty around us…This is not an official reading, so I cannot behave like writers behave. We can speak like friends.”

Khoury read a passage (in English, and briefly, in Arabic as well) from As Though She Were Sleeping, which was just released in April. But before doing so, he gave extensive background about the book and its context–a meandering discussion which sweepingly encompassed Palestinian history, comparative Biblical and Quranic traditions, dream analysis, and Khoury’s belief that language should be “feminized” in order to better represent marginalized experiences. “Literature and religion are in the same register–they both speak about love, about death. Religion is totally masculine [because] with monotheism, god became masculine. Literature [and therefore language] can play the other role, can represent the oppressed.”

Khoury spoke of the novel’s character, Milia, so intimately that one attendee thought she was a real person in his life; the author clearly has a rich and full relationship with his creations. “This is the story of a woman I met in my imagination,” he explained. “We became very special friends–she allowed me to enter her inner life…I loved this woman.”

Another Archipelago author, the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard, read a few doors down the hall, in “the smallest duplex in Westbeth,” according to one of the hosts. Knausgaard was clearly less taken with the chatty intimacy of the event, and stationed himself in a corner from where he could more easily fend off idle remarks about Brooklyn and the frequently botched pronunciation of his name. When the hosts suggested that he might start his reading a little early, Knausgaard demurred–”two minutes: we will start on time”–and then, at the stroke of 8:30, stood up, button his linen suit jacket, and introduced his reading. “There is no action in this passage,” he warned. “No real characters or dialog. This is a meditation–a meditation on death.”

If this sounds intense, it was, but it was an appropriate tone for the passage, and Knausgaard is a very forceful, very engaging reader. The passage he read came from his autobiographical book My Struggle, in which he explores the death of his alcoholic father in the context of his own life. It is the first of six books that Knausgaard has written about his life, but is not strictly a memoir. “I’m a fiction writer,” he explained. “I wrote two novels before this. If I’d have known that I’d write six books [about my life], I wouldn’t have started.” The book did start as a piece of fiction, a project that Knausgaard worked on unsuccessfully for three years. When he started to write about himself, using real names and real situations, however, the project fell together. “I have a language for everyday life,” he said simply.

Following the reading, Knausgaard remained standing and looked to his audience. “If you have any questions, I’m supposed to answer them.” One question asked dealt with how Knausgaard handles writing about his life now, given that his books are no longer narrating past events, but rather his current daily life. “I have to write very fast to get distance from myself,” he said. The first 3,000+ pages of his work were written over the course of three years, although most was done in just one, with very little revision after the fact.

The next–important and inevitable–question was about the significance of Knausgaard’s title, which in Norwegian (Min kamp) carries perhaps a much more direct reference to Hitler’s manifesto of the same title. “[Its significance] besides being a provocation?” he asked, smiling ever so slightly. The title My Struggle, he explained, is meant to work on multiple levels. On one hand, it is a series of books about his life, and therefore, his tribulations and experiences. On the other, it is a gesture toward the intertwining of art and life, and a question about the nature of taboo. “You can’t just go to a cafe and sit down and start reading Mein Kampf–it’s totally forbidden.” But an awareness of the content of that book, Knausgaard asserted–with reference to the similar manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed over seventy people, many teenagers, last year–is vital. “I think everyone should read Mein Kampf, it’s an obligation we all have. It’s healthy to see what that is.”

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Mister Blue

My latest review is of Mister Blue by Québécois author Jacques Poulin. I discovered Poulin last year when I read his Translation is a Love Affair, a slender, whimsical, shaggy-dog sort of novel which, in its sweetly roundabout way, manages to convey quite a lot about human connections and the importance of reaching out to other people–strangers–to find those connections.

Although he is much lauded in Canada and France, Poulin is not (as far as I can tell) well known outside of either country (and honestly, the one Quebecer I asked about  Poulin’s work had never heard of him, either), so I’ll direct your attention to his bio in The Canadian Encyclopedia. According to the entry, he “is among the most widely read Québécois novelists of his generation and the most respected by critics”; additionally, his novel Spring Tides (also available in an English translation published by Archipelago Books), is said to be “one of the most profound Québécois novels.”

Poulin’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Mister Blue, didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Translation is a Love Affair, but it was still a very affecting, empathetic, and quirky story and emphasized many of the the themes that were raised in TiaLA. It also opens with one of the best poems I have read in a really long time, by Jean Tardieu (from The Hidden River):

CONVERSATION
(amiably, standing in the doorway)

How are things on earth?

-Fine, fine, very fine.

Are the little dogs flourishing?

-Oh my goodness, yes, indeed they are.

What about the clouds?

-Drifting.

And the volcanoes?

-Simmering.

And the rivers?

-Floating.

Time?

-Unwinding.

And your soul?

-Sick

the springtime was too green
my soul ate too much salad.

My full review is below, or you can read it on Three Percent here.

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The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.

“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

Best Translated Book Award: The Longlist

Just weeks ago, the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) was released. The award, which started in 2007 as a small online celebration of translated literature, has expanded greatly in the last few years, even garnering substantial monetary support from Amazon.com in the form of a $5,000 cash prize.

Of course, with the higher profile has come expanded attention and even a little inter-small-press drama. Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House, took great issue last year with the new Amazon sponsorship, given, he said, that “Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical.” It is interesting to note that Melville House is boycotting the BTBAs now that Amazon is involved, despite the fact that  their own title, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven, won the award last year.

Chad Post, the publisher at Open Letter Books, and one of the BTBA founders, has been very up front about receiving grant sponsorship from Amazon before. And while I understand that corporate sponsorship from an organization that challenges the viability of small independent bookstores might feel somewhat conflicting, I’m still inclined to agree with Chad and believe that Amazon’s sponsorship of this important prize can only benefit translators, non-English authors, and yes, small presses who are struggling to get their names and their books out there to larger audiences. I think it is a good thing that an online omni-selling giant takes some of their immense profit and uses it for good.

But I digress. (If you want to read more about this debate, The Guardian has covered it rather consistently. See this article from October 2010, when everyone originally went haywire, and their follow up from when the 2011 longlist was announced in January.)

Anyway, the point is that the BTBA nominees have been announced, which gives us all time to go out and do some preparatory reading. I’ve posted the list below, but check out the press release (which includes the delightful trivia fact that the list includes “authors from 19 countries writing in 12 languages”). I also suggest keeping up with the “Why This Book Should Win” reviews that are being posted here on Three Percent for each of the nominated titles.

I’ve read a couple of the nominated titles this year (which I find deeply satisfying) so where appropriate, I’ve linked to reviews that I wrote about those books.

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The 2011 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)

A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)

Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions/Christine Burgin)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee

I had the pleasure of reading Plants Don’t Drink Coffee at the end of 2009, and it was a rather delightful way of ringing out the year. As Chad Post over at Three Percent noted in his preface to the review I published for their (phenomenal, one-of-a-kind) site, the author, Unai Elorriaga, is one of only one or two Basque writers to have been published in English. So all due credit to the curatorial prowess of Archipelago Books, who have brought out many really wonderful  translations over the years from underrepresented countries and regions.

The full text of my review is below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.

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Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

This is what Iñes told me and her eyes were full of mystery when she said it: “The person who catches the blue dragonfly . . .” she said and then she went quiet. And then she did this thing with her lips, and turned them upwards and downwards, and that always means she is about to reveal a mystery, a big one, and then she added: “. . . becomes the most intelligent person in the world.” . . . This is why I want to be the one to catch the blue dragonfly. Iñes doesn’t need it. Iñes is already intelligent. Not me. This is why I want to be the one to catch Orthetrum coerulescens. To be like a doctor. Because doctors are the most intelligent people in the world.

While Iñes and Tomas search for their dragonfly, several other quixotic occupations consume their family and friends. Uncle Simon is secretly creating a rugby field on a local golf course. Cousin Mateo is investigating stories about his prankish grandfather, Aitite Julian, who just may have been the greatest carpenter in all Europe. Then there is Piedad, an elderly woman who visits Aunt Martina’s dress shop each day to talk about her lost love, the famous English architect Samuel Mud.

Through these small, earnest dramas, the reader becomes immersed in the complexity of each character’s life—the moments and people which have indelibly defined them. Theirs are stories of reconciliation and loss, affirmation and understanding. But while each of their experiences may be familiar—the death of a parent, the loss of a lover, the realization of an unlikely ambition—Elorriaga renders each with a quirky individuality and a refreshing lack of irony. The sense of innocent discovery that accompanies Tomas’ daily pronouncements—”[S]ome people wear glasses. Fish don’t wear glasses, but people who wear glasses and fish are similar because they both can’t see well.”—is equally present in Uncle Simon’s persistent calls to Ireland, volunteering his services as a rugby linesman. In the mischievous carvings on an armoire built by Aitite Julian. In Piedad’s strawberry-patterned dresses and imaginary cat named Samuel Mud.

Replete with small joys and charming revelations, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee will delight readers with its simple wisdom, delightful prose, and capricious cast of steadfast dreamers.

The Twin

The Twin is currently one of the only Dutch novels I’ve read (although I plan to bone up before my trip to The Netherlands this summer). It was a lovely novel, and was nominated for 2009’s Best Translated Book Award. You can read my original review on Three Percent, here, or the full text is below.

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Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.

The Great Weaver of Kashmir

In 2008, Archipelago Books published the first English translation of Halldór Laxness’ first novel, The Great Weaver of Kashmir. I had started Halldór’s most famous novel, Independent People, shortly before, but hadn’t had a chance to finish it when I started reading Kashmir. So I actually had a rather unusual experience with Laxness (for an English speaker) in that his first novel was the first of his books that I read.

In the intervening years I’ve read Under the Glacier and have come to really love Halldór’s work. It’s rare to find an author who can convey such empathetic observations and theological discussions while still being laugh-out-loud funny. Kashmir is not nearly as polished as Halldór’s later work, but it is a really wonderful read, and highly recommended. (It was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book award in 2008, if that adds to the appeal.)

You can read the full text of my review below, or on Three Percent, here.

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If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:

We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .

But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (The Great Weaver from Kashmir) very exciting.

But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:

“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”

“Why do you want to become so perfect?”

But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”

“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.

Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.

When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.