We’re now in the dying days of October, which means you’ve probably already tricked/treated out your Twitter handle or gone apeshit with the decorative gourds, and are now frantically assembling your Ruth Bader Ginsburg costume for whatever trouble you plan to scare up on the 31st. So I’ll keep the intro brief.
In the spirit of the season, here are a few creepy treasures that—while they don’t necessarily feature ghouls or gore—are guaranteed to haunt you.
The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza
Translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana
Dorothy, a publishing project (October 2018)
Last Halloween I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cristina Rivera Garza to talk about The Iliac Crest (tr. Sarah Booker; Feminist Press 2017), an extraordinary gender- and genre-bending rumination on bodies and borders, disappearance and erasure. This October we get to savor another of Rivera Garza’s heady confections: The Taiga Syndrome, rendered in all its exquisite complexity by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana. In the novel, which combines noir fiction with fable, a washed-up detective is hired to track down a woman who absconded deep into the taiga with her lover, leaving cryptic missives behind her like breadcrumbs. (“Is she Hansel or Gretel?” the detective asks at one point.) On the outskirts of the snow forest, the detective enlists the services of a translator, with whom she communicates in a language “that was not strictly his nor mine” as they press on in search of that woman who had, in spite of the difficulties, “managed to transform the world, at least what was around her, into the world of her desires.” As for the world of this novel, it is populated by feral children, fantasmal animals, and tangled desires. Come for the satisfying sense of utter disorientation, stay for the gangly homunculus that bursts out of the woman’s mouth in the middle of the night. And the author’s mood-setting playlist at the end.
Double take: Ignacio Sánchez Prado on the rough terrain of the novel and the broader significance of Rivera Garza’s work, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. And here’s a few more for good measure.
Exemplary Departures by Gabrielle Wittkop
Translated from the French by Annette David
Wakefield Press (November 2015)
Gabrielle Wittkop, a 20th-century heir to the French Decadents, first appeared on my radar with her deliciously dark Murder Most Serene (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie), a wicked compendium of the mysterious and rather gruesome serial deaths of Count Alvise Lanzi’s wives toward the end of the Venetian Republic. Described by Matt Sampaio Hackney as a “merry dance macabre” and by Wakefield as “bursting with bejeweled putrescence,” the novel wears the Marquis de Sade’s influence proudly. Following in this vein, Exemplary Departures is a series of five novellas that bear not only the imprint of Sade, but also that of Edgar Allan Poe, who in fact haunts the entry Baltimore Nights. Each of these narratives blends fact with fiction in its exploration of death, that moment Wittkop has described as “life’s most important.” The panorama ranges from the mysterious demise of a gentleman spy known only as “T.” in the jungles of Malaysia, to the frantic ravings of a young woman slowly starving to death after getting trapped in the tower of an old castle, to the death of a salesman (not that one), and finally the murder of a pair of hermaphrodite twins who are born into nobility and expire in the gutter. Each of these lives is elegantly depicted in taut prose and then mercilessly withdrawn, in the narrative just as it was in history. Despite its stylistic refinement (credit is due to Annette David for so gracefully walking the tightrope of its prose), this book is also urgent. You can feel Wittkop piecing something together through these shattered vessels.
Double take: Mark Molloy gets decadent, over at Music & Literature.
The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press (June 2018)
In keeping with the theme of isolationism we saw last month in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary (because, let’s be honest… ), this month’s column features Wolfgang Hilbig’s quietly nightmarish vision of East Germany, “a country cut off, walled in,” where “time was outside, the future was outside.” Inside, an aspiring writer named Waller struggles to narrate the changes he has witnessed, the landscape turned to ash. “Write, I say to myself, or everything will whirl into forgetfulness … Write, or you’ll be without a past, without a future, nothing but a will-less plaything of bureaucracy.” (In a deeply identifiable depiction of writer’s block, at one point he drags a desk home, in the hope that it will spark his productivity. It does not.) In the midst of these seemingly futile—but inherently political—attempts to put words to page, Waller encounters a mysterious and, frankly, creepy pack of “garbagemen” who survive on the items cast off by others. As menacing and marginal as they are they are also the keepers of a nation’s vanishing historical memory. Isabel Fargo Cole, who recently won the prestigious Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize for her work with another of Hilbig’s books, Old Rendering Plant (Two Lines 2017), gives us this intense novella in an English as stark and brutal as the landscape it depicts.
Double take: Scott Beauchamp’s probing review for Full Stop, accented with lyrical turns of phrase like, “Wolfgang Hilbig is a cleric of luminous accumulation.”
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Transit Books (March 2017)
Here’s another book I teach and give and talk about every chance I get. Like Exemplary Departures, this macabre masterpiece it is based on a true story—in this instance, that of a young girl who was found dead in an orphanage in Brazil in the 1960s. But instead of getting caught up in the scandalous details of the case, Barba crafts a remarkably poetic rumination on love and power out of this tragedy, in a language at once crystalline and complex. The novel is told in two voices: a close third person narrator guiding us through the world of seven-year-old Marina, who arrives at the orphanage after surviving the car crash that killed both her parents, and the “we” of the other girls at the orphanage, who—identical in clothing and gesture—form something of a Greek chorus. Lisa Dillman does a stunning job of reproducing the mixture of innocence and menace in both these voices, and of making the strange logic of childhood feel immediate. There seems to be no end of underlineable moments, like: “All together, they looked like a team of sleepy little horses. Something in their faces slackened, became friendly. They slept with an unbearable patience. When they were asleep they were like an oil painting, they gave Marina the impression that different faces rose up from beneath their faces, faces that bore no resemblance to their daytime faces.” As she tries to find her place among these indistinguishable vehicles of desire and curiosity, Marina invents a game that quickly takes on a life of its own, growing a bit darker and a bit more dangerous each time it is played.