Showing posts with label Romanian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Romanian. Show all posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Liliana Ursu's poetry is all angles, all edges

My grandfather - whose second language happens to be Romanian - picked up my copy of Liliana Ursu's Goldsmith Market (translated by Sean Cotter) and examined the open, untranslated poem on the left-hand side of the page. He read it aloud, cautiously, skeptically, translating it back to me (into Hebrew, not English), then handed back the book with a decidedly unimpressed expression on his face.

That expression made sense, in all fairness. Not just because my grandfather is not quite the man for poetry recommendations, but also simply because the poem he had read aloud was weak. It was edgy and sharp, but lacking in any powerful message or particularly evocative imagery.

This isn't to say that all of Liliana Ursu's poetry is lacking. Indeed, I've found several poems in Ursu's first full-length English translation that warrant attention and care, poems with power in their angles and sharpness. Poems that breathe new life into frigid air by cutting through it. Take the second half of "A Day in Winter", for example:
A day in winter, a day in summer: same soulsame words, same list of things;only wild ducks fluttering over the frozen green riverkeeps them apart.
The sentences taste brittle, but there's this eerie strength to them as well. But most of the poems in this collection tend to fall into the first category, even with all these "angles". I've said this before and I'll say it again: poetry to me is about feelings as much as it is about language. I probably won't remember the specific words used in a certain poem, but I'll remember how I felt reading it. This means I'm a little less tolerant to bland poetry, particularly ever since I've discovered that there's so much good poetry (particularly in translation, particularly by women).

Ursu's poems aren't solidly bad, they aren't even solidly boring. They're definitely interesting, with that distinct style. There are poems that had me scrambling for air, poems that had me shivering, poems that had me smiling. But the balance tilts just a bit too strongly towards the poems that didn't really mean much on an emotionally stimulating level. Simply put, it's an okay stylistic collection: some gems, some duds. That's to be expected.

Interestingly, I find myself more impressed with the translation, perhaps because of my (very, very limited) knowledge of Romanian. The poems in Romanian had a certain beat to them, one that made some sense to me in terms of that language's style. This rhythm, interestingly, was not maintained in translation. Rather, it seems as though Cotter made a conscious choice to translate style into something English-language speakers would better understand, occasionally changing line structures and thus the poem's flow.

All in all, this collection is far from bad, but it's difficult to offer a rousing endorsement of it either. Its edges provide occasional grasping points, but I can't quite say that I connected with all of it. I can certainly see how other readers might appreciate the sharpness (occasionally harshness) of writing Ursu prefers, but only some of the poems really worked for me.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Little Fingers | Huge disappointment

This is one of those cases where if I'd read Little Fingers first of Filip Florian's books (both translated by Alistair Ian Blyth), I would not have bothered to read anything else. Then I would have missed The Days of the King, which is actually quite a wonderful little book. So it's a good thing I started with The Days of the King, because Little Fingers? Terrible.

I don't often dislike books as much as Little Fingers. That's because there's usually at least something worth appreciating in a novel (also because usually I'd give up on a book this bad, only that Little Fingers was so short I figured I might as well finish it off). I suppose that's also true of Little Fingers, but I just. Couldn't. Find it. Little Fingers is a great example of a debut that has the individual pieces that will later fit to make a competent novel, but here in the original they absolutely fail to mesh. The vague writing isn't alluding to anything, the non-existent characterization is baffling at best, the plot is so hidden behind layers of intrigue and subplots and minor references that it ultimately disappears, and the pacing is... slow.

I suppose the greatest disappointment in Little Fingers stems from its inability to deliver on its promise. The novel is trying so hard to be a complex sort of literary, it forgets what it actually is. With all sorts of strange and surrealistic stories padding the main plot, there ultimately remains no plot. The back blurb promises all sorts of intrigue, but then the setup for this intrigue is only really revealed at the end and there's no actual outcome to it.

Florian is the sort of author who goes for this looping, very roundabout style of writing. In The Days of the King, this worked nicely - the minimal dialogue may have been jarring for many other readers, but the historical setting and the way the story grew paid off for any stumbles this somewhat awkward (yet beautiful) approach may have caused. Not so with Little Fingers. Dialogue here is more prevalent, but it's stickier and clumsier as well. It seems trite, old-fashioned and out of place. It doesn't move the story along and it doesn't flow properly.

Add to all this a series of characters I neither cared about nor understood and the recipe is for an extraordinarily frustrating, disappointing book. Little Fingers is a very short book which I read it one sitting, but it was a forced read - gritted teeth and the hope for a pay-off that never arrived. A few clever turns of phrase here and there made the reading more interesting for momentary flashes, but the moment I finished the book, I tossed it aside and felt relieved. I'll likely give Filip Florian another chance should his later books be translated, but this will only be based on the merits of The Days of the King. Little Fingers is, in my mind, a wasted book and a waste of time.