If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
Listed below are the 35 titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlists for fiction and poetry — the 10th time that these lists have been released. And the sixth year in which, thanks to an Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000 cash prizes.
Founded in 2008 by Three Percent at the University or Rochester, the award has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. The focus on finding the best books in translation from the past year has been constant, but the pool of eligible titles has expanded from 360 in 2008 to more than 600 for this year’s award. For these longlists, the 14 judges — nine for fiction, five for poetry — considered works written by authors from 87 countries in 54 different languages, and published in English by 179 distinct presses.
This increase in the number of books coming out is incredibly impressive, but so is the fact that so many more translators are getting their works published in comparison to a few years back. Reflecting that, of the 40 translators included on these longlists, 29 (73 percent) are receiving this honor for the first time ever.
In short, it’s an exciting time for international literature, and the breadth and diversity of these longlists reflect that. From established authors like Javier Marías to new voices like Basma Abdel Aziz, from works of speculative fiction like Wicked Weeds to family sagas from Senegal like Doomi Golo, there’s something on here for every type of reader.
To help you find the books that you most want to read, Three Percent will be running short “Why This Book Should Win the BTBA” posts for all 35 titles over the next few weeks as we build up to the announcement of the finalists on Tuesday, April 18. (Also right here at The Millions.)
For more information on the award, it’s history, the judges, etc., please visit the official Best Translated Book Award site and the official BTBA Facebook page, and follow the award on Twitter.
Best Translated Book Award 2017: Fiction Longlist
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Egypt, Melville House) (read Abdel Aziz’s Year in Reading)
The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (Dominican Republic, Mandel Vilar Press)
Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)
Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Mauritius, Deep Vellum)
Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska, translated from the Macedonian by Christina Kramer (Macedonia, Two Lines Press)
Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Senegal, Michigan State University Press)
Night Prayers by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions)
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)
Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)
Last Wolf and Herman by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and John Batki (Hungary, New Directions)
Oblivion by Sergi Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Knopf)
In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Chris Clarke (France, New York Review Books)
Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)
Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
Moonstone by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Japan, New Directions)
Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)
My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, New York Review Books)
Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda (Japan, Counterpoint Press)
Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (Cuba, Restless Books)
Best Translated Book Award 2017: Poetry Longlist
Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary, New York Review Books)
Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)
Instructions Within by Ashraf Fayadh, translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki, and Jonathan Wright (Palestine, The Operating System)
Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Yideum Kim, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson (South Korea, Action Books)
In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)
Thief of Talant by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Ian Seed (France, Wakefield Press)
tasks by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated from the Spanish by Katherine M. Hedeen (Cuba, co-im-press)
Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, translated from the Polish by Piotr Florczyk (Poland, Tavern Books)
Antígona González by Sara Uribe, translated from the Spanish by John Pluecker (Mexico, Les Figues Press)