Extract of The Palimpsests at PEN America

I fell hard for this erudite, madcap, astonishingly inventive book. A bookseller in Barcelona pressed it into my hands in February 2016, a few months after it was released by Editorial Minúscula. “If you want to read something that says this much”—he opened his arms wide—“then this is the book for you.” He couldn’t have put it better: Los palimpsestos’s slight dimensions belie how exceptional and ambitious it is.

Polish writer Aleksandra Lun wrote this novella, her debut, in Spanish after living 10 years in Spain. It tells the story of Przęśnicki, an Eastern-European immigrant writer who, having neglected to write his first novel in his mother tongue, is committed to a psychiatric hospital to undergo “Bartlebian linguistic reintegration therapy.” Within the walls of the asylum, he meets other patients likewise afflicted with foreign writer syndrome, including Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, and Joseph Conrad.

Los palimpsestos is first and foremost a book about literature: Via a daisy-chain of literary references, it offers backstage access to the phenomena of foreign writers and their decision to switch languages. It portrays Europe as a linguistic playground while offering sly commentary on the politics and privileges of artistic creation and reception, especially when shadowed by nativism.

And it more than lives up to its title: Przęśnicki and his roommate are Polish; they are in francophone Belgium; Przęśnicki wrote his first novel in Antarctic and is writing his second one on the pages of a Dutch-language newspaper; and the book itself is written in Spanish. Yet, while multiple languages are mentioned or presumed throughout, there is no trace of them on the page, with two exceptions: Wampir and Kaskader, the titles of Przęśnicki’s books. He says they are in Antarctic, though readers with a knowledge of Polish will have a head start comprehending this fantastical language. So Lun’s novella exists in a context of polyglossia while almost never providing linguistic evidence of it. In other words, in Los palimpsestos, everything is perfectly translated.

Read the rest at PEN America.

 

Extract from Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests in Asymptote

…is featured in the latest issue of Asymptote. It starts like this:

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

 

My name is Czesław Przęśnicki, I’m a miserable Eastern-European immigrant and a failed writer, I haven’t engaged in sexual relations for some time and I’ve been committed to an asylum in Belgium, a country that has had no government for the past year. The reasons I find myself hemmed in by the cold walls of a psychiatric hospital in the north of Europe are as mysterious to me as the failure of my sex life, which for years has had me languishing in apathy and frustration. No one could have predicted that one day I would end up in a Belgian asylum when I was born thirty-five years ago behind the Iron Curtain in the confusing geopolitical space marked by Adolf Hitler’s hyperactivity. To be precise, the state that issues my passport is Poland, country of globe-trotting popes, frigid temperatures, and muscular war heroes among whom, hypocrisy aside, I don’t count myself. I have a submissive nature, a flaccid body, and am thinning on top, and my faint-hearted self falls a long way short of exuding sex appeal for healthful fellow specimens of the male sex, whether under totalitarian regimes or democracy. Before I was committed to the psychiatric hospital of Liège, a city located in francophone Belgium, I lived in Vinson, the capital of Antarctica, where I shared the sad destiny of other miserable Eastern-European immigrants who set foot on that white continent clutching their newly acquired passports. That was how I learnt Antarctic, a language I now speak confidently though with a strong foreign accent, and in which I wrote my first novel, Wampir, a critical and commercial failure.

You can read the rest, the translator’s note, and listen to an audio clip of the author reading the original aloud, here.

You can find the rest of the pieces in the issue here.