Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Get Out of your own Backyard

There's a whole world out there. You probably already knew that already, but in case you are like I was in high school, I thought I might make the point directly.

I grew up and went to high school in a small, highly homogenous town and while my teachers didn't exactly hide the fact that we were part of a larger, more diverse world, they certainly didn't emphasize the point, particularly not in my literature classes which featured, Shakespeare, Hardy and a slew of American writers mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not that these are bad people to read. I've grown to love Whitman and Dickinson and Hawthorne and someday I may even convince my brain to enjoy Melville. But the thought of reading something in translation or from a foreign country other than the one with the Hobbits seemed completely anathema to those creating curriculum.

In my free time I was reading science fiction and fantasy (pretty much all of it contemporary American or British) , so I didn't really become aware that people were writing great things in other languages all over the world and had been for many centuries. I know. Shocker.

Once I learned this, I began reading voraciously, eating up, most especially, novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri and Italo Calvino. These guys were writing weird, fascinating stuff. Stuff that jumped between fantasy and reality and didn't make big distinctions between the two. It was sometimes serious stuff, but not often stodgy and sometimes just freaking hilarious.

And here's the best part: there's plenty of it gathered in short story anthologies, good for browsing writers and cultures so you don't have to dive straight into a huge intimidating work like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Famished Road.

A great place to start is with Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat" (a.k.a. "The Mantle" -- eBook available for free at Project Gutenberg). "The Overcoat" is a short work about Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, an impoverished clerk in nineteenth century St. Petersburg (Russia) who finds himself in need of a new overcoat which he really can't afford. Sounds impossibly boring, I know, but the story follows Akaky as he attempts to replace his tattered coat, gets abused by everyone including his peers, his bosses, the coatmaker and the police, faces robbers who steal the coat from him, eventually dies and then, in the form of a ghost, revenges himself on all his enemies. It's a sad story that is somehow also very funny. Unlike a lot of world literature "The Overcoat" is easy to read and yet has a strangeness to it that transports a reader into a different time and place in a way that very little science fiction or fantasy can achieve. If you like The Overcoat, read Gogol's The Nose, which is really weird.

I'll follow up in the coming months with a few more posts on what's out there in the world of short fiction in translation. It's a rich trove.


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