My Asymptote, your Asymptote

April 29, 2013

For the past couple of months I’ve been helping put together the Spring issue of Asymptote, a free online journal that showcases literatures from around the world—and now here it is.

Please take a look. Included are an enlightening interview with Margaret Jull Costa, in which she mentions that All the Names is her favorite José Saramago novel (it’s mine too) and a gorgeous short story by Lo Kwai Cheung.

And there’s an Indiegogo campaign to help keep the journal going. The last day to donate is tomorrow, April 30.

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And so I am reading Asymptote.

Reading this journal is a balm, and an addiction. When I’d first encountered it in 2011, I was content (and had only enough time) to read the first few lines of each piece. This is how I read a collection of stories: dipping only into each first paragraph to savor what is to come later, both in the story and in the eventual act of reading it. To delve into translation, especially, is to delve into an uncanny voice, specifically into the precursors and descendants of Kafka; and I knew from the start that Asymptote offered plenty such precursors and descendants. At the close of each piece—whether Adonis’s “Ambiguity”; Lin Yaode’s “Hotel”; Josh Honn’s review of César Aira’s The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira; Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito; Quim Monzó’s “Life Is So Short”; Alejandro Zambra’s “The Cyclops”; or, finally, Vasily Grossman’s “An Armenian Sketchbook”—I felt a familiar shift in my mental horizon. Something new, yet recognizable, was experienced, something worth repeating.

Five stand-outs for me are Gérard Macé’s “The Museum of Shadows”; Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers poems; Mariët Meester’s “The Protagonist”; Reif Larsen’s “The Generosity of a Matchstick”; and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s “The Class, Death Seminar.”

1. “The Museum of Shadows”: At first I’d read this as fiction. The very best prose reads with no such distinctions made. The work of such brilliances as Sebald, Pierre Michon, David Albhari, Andzrej Stasiuk, and Clarice Lispector emphasize voice, story, a narrator troubled by the puzzle(s) laid out before him or her. Macé’s work belongs here.

2. From Smugglers: When I came across the poem called “Anchor,” its first watery lines—“To wake up, but not quite yet, I would just hang on the edge, / holding on to the sail and taking the captain at his word, / I would faithfully roll and stretch the ropes, as I had been taught, / a shadow which refuses to separate the man, a world in balance.”—brought to mind the first few chapters of a novel called Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, narrated by a melancholic woman stranded on an ecotonic boat with her grand party of a garden swaying before her. On the first page she watches her husband, her captain, whom she’d been taking at his word for the past forty years, jump overboard along with maps, civilization, and sanity.

Then I read the rest of “Anchor” and discovered it to exist on its own, to be its own thing, its own drifting body—of water, of land ho, of endless sky. And behold: twice, the gift of a decisive “What a mistake,” the echo occurring in the final stanza:

What a mistake. To wake up, but not quite yet, you must gather
all your courage, shiver with anxiety and be almost mad, the fall
will be deep, if your hands fail you, especially if you have no guardian.
I would not wake up, not at all: I would rather float like a judgment
                 postponed.

3. “The Protagonist”: A generous piece about relationships, how our protagonist is humanized and humbled in the face of honoring art.

4. “The Generosity of a Matchstick”: It’s no coincidence that two of my favorites on this list are about museums. As I read through this, I began to understand how a press or a salon operates. That is, attention to a special sort of detail, curiosity, and, indeed, generosity must be given to these words that emblematize the time, or rather a particular time. Asymptote publishes pieces that comment directly on such curating.

5. “The Class, Death Seminar”: This is not merely a comment about our fascination with death; it is an exercise in empathy. To empathize with the dead up close is to live among them. Aren’t the dead supposed to be the ones to school us in life? Instead, Rasdjarmrearnsook teaches us to teach them how to savor it. What an astonishing bit of bravado.

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A young friend’s first novel has just been published in Spanish. He is in New York on a fellowship, and in 2012 was awarded the Alejo Carpentier Prize. He wants to show me his work, but I keep asking him for a translation. Okay, he says, maybe later.

I feel such urgency for translation, for having others recognize the gift of it. But the process is characterized and influenced by time. Time must pass in order for a translation to occur and to be understood. Maybe later in fact means It is happening right now.

Asymptote is compelling to me for a simple reason: the works it curates translate—so to speak—into a single modern sensibility. That is, each piece is part of a disparate whole. Not one seems to be unrelated to the other. The thread, the flow, is clear, each piece connected by strength of voice, characterization, direction, absurdity. This is why I am drawn to translation. Not only does it give access to a world foreign to my own, or at least to what I’m familiar with, but it also strengthens this web of Kafka’s literary heritage, or the heritage of ghosts.

And today, Sebald’s heritage is deep.

Other Asymptote favorites: Aditi Machado’s review of Amina Saïd’s The Present Tense of the World: Poems 2000–2009; and Simon Lewty’s “Two Adventures in Translation”; and Chang Hui-Ching’s “War Among the Insects”; and Gen’yū Sōkyū’s “Is It Possible to Fear Properly?”; and Aamer Hussein’s “Knotted Tongue”; and— Well, I’ll stop here.

But of course I must add Shen Congwen’s “Family Letters,” José Saramago’s Small Memories excerpt, and Liao Yiwu’s “God Is Red.”

And this, especially, in the current issue: an English translation of an open letter penned by the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri to Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask following her recent public comments on a controversial immigrant policy known as Project REVA. He challenges Ask to switch skins with him and experience his experiences from age six through adulthood. The original Swedish letter ran in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter on March 13. By the end of that day it had broken the record for most-shared DN.searticle on social media. According to a DN article about the story, it was shared on Twitter enough times to theoretically have reached every Swede with a Twitter account.

This account is now available to English readers for the first time via a translation Asymptote especially commissioned.

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May I ask you to share any of this, and the rest of the journal, with your friends, followers, lovers, families, students, FB, Tumblr, &c.? Please do.

Again: the Indiegogo campaign. Any donation is welcome. The journal is funded by labors of love, and every little bit helps.

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