Review: Elemental

Elemental is an unusual publication for several reasons. Firstly, I can’t remember ever having come  across an anthology that doesn’t have an introduction from the editor or editors. Secondly, it’s an anthology of translated fiction—rare enough in itself—not assembled according to country, region, generation, gender or genre but rather the fairly amorphous concept of the “elements”, a category that might just as easily encompass ancient mystical whimsy as hard-nosed scientific data. Thirdly, these reticent editors appear to have (very laudably) gone out of their way to track down texts that weren’t previously available—a little detective work from the copyright page suggests that only Ankomst, by the Norwegian writer Gøhril Gabrielsen has been previously published in English, by Peirene Press—and more disorienting still, only a couple seem to be a stand-alone texts, most are taken from a longer piece. They all begin and end rather abruptly.

Several aspects of the above paragraph might be enough to give prospective readers pause but that would be a shame: when was the last time, even in the company of the most surly bookseller or librarian that you could honestly say that you’ve picked up a book with no idea what to expect? Such is the experience of beginning Elemental; we’re entirely at the mercy of this assortment of writers and translators. The good news is that in spite, or because, of our fug of ignorance there’s plenty of treasure to be found.

If there’s a common theme to most of these very different texts it is, unsurprisingly in these crisis-stricken times, a heavy emphasis on humanity’s tinkering/altering/ravaging of the natural world. In Japan, we’re concerned with radiation, on a remote island in the north Atlantic we’re monitoring plunging seabird populations, Madagascar is being burned to a crisp to further urban expansion… you get the idea, but while the urgency of each of these texts is tangible one never feels the victim of environmental agitprop. It’s entirely natural for these writers’ characters to be concerned with these issues because they’re issues that worry a vast proportion of the global population, ones that really ought to worry its entirety.

This collection, however, isn’t actually about the bigger picture, it was instead conceived with a much narrower focus in mind: as a befits a publication from the imprint of the Center for the Art of
Translation, its mission is to show, by removing these texts from their natural habitats and plonking them on a stage devoid of context with no illumination but the harsh gaze of the quizzical reader, just how good translations can be. And I’m very pleased to report that the exercise is remarkably successful.

Stand out pieces for me include Erika Kobayashi’s extraordinary story Precious Stones, written in the tradition of uncanny realism by Japanese women writers that makes one wonder why people insist on raving about Haruki Murakami, Andreas Moster’s We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born, especially the climactic quarry scene, and Tamar Weiss-Gabbay’s The Weather Woman, which contains a surprisingly compelling argument for eating rocks, but others might prefer the comic whimsy of Bakhityar Ali’s flying dissident in Jamshid Khan, or the melancholy lyricism of Michèle Rakotoson’s Lalana. What’s not up for debate is the quality and consistency of each of the translations, which evoke their writers’ voices without ever trying to impersonate them, something that is greatly to the credit of the translators, of course, but also those gnomic editors.

Elemental is published by Two Lines Press and is part of the Calico Series.

Review written by Kit Maude
Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and writes reviews and criticism for several different outlets in Spanish and English.

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