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PEN "World Voices" authors visit Buffalo Tuesday

Three leading international authors currently touring the U.S. as part of the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival visit Buffalo this week to read from recent translations their work in a BABEL Series "Extras" program Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at Hallwalls Cinema, 341 Delaware Ave. (at Tupper St.).  

The visiting authors are Carsten Jensen from Denmark, author of “We. the Drowned” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); Najat el Hachmi, of Moroccan heritage from Spain, author of  “The Last Patriarch” (Serpent's Tail, 2010); and Marcelo Figueras, from Argentina, author of “Kamchatka” (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 2010). 

Jensen, a prominent Danish literary journalist and political columnist, was born in 1952 in Marstal, a maritime island town in southern Denmark that figures prominently in "Vi, de druknede," his 700 page historical epic about the birth of modern Denmark that was first published in 2006 in his homeland, and in English language translation by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder as "We, the Drowned" last fall.

The novel, which won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris--the Danish equivalent of The Man Booker Prize--and contributed to Jensen's being awarded one of his nation's highest cultural honors, the Olof Palme Prize in 2009, follows the adventures--real and mythologized--of four generations of Danish sailors who set off from Marstal to make war against their Baltic rivals the Germans, and more opportunistically, explore the world.  No mere seafarer's adventure tale with a foreboding sense of the supernatural (think Melville's "Moby Dick"), it is also the complementary story of the women and families they left behind, and how each came to thrive in the other's absence.

London's "Financial Times" selected it as one of its Best Books of 2010.

Najat El Hachmi is a Calatan writer who was born in 1979 in Morocco and immigrated with her family to Catalonia, Spain in 1987.  She is the author of two books--"Jo també sóc catalana" ("I am also Catalan"), a 2004 memoir on her dual sense of cultural identity, and "L'últim patriarca," a novel that was winner of the most prestigious award in Catalan letters, the Ramon Llull Prize in 2008.  The novel was translated into English by Peter Bush as "The Last Patriarch" last year, and received wide acclaim in the U.K.

"The Last Patriarch" tells the story of the daughter of a rural Moroccan family (not unlike the author's own) that immigrates to Catalonia, and her struggles with her own father and family to both honor and redefine the role of Islamic women in the modern, Westernized culture they find themselves in.

Although her father makes the decision to seek his destiny outside of Morocco and his family's traditional culture, his inability to adapt to changes in his family brought about by that move leave him frustrated and reflexively dependent on traditional authoritarian models of asserting patriarchal control.

Not simply a father-daughter story, "The Last Patriarch" touches on many issues in contemporary Western culture, including the role of immigration and cultural identity in modern Europe, and the complicated politics of gender when moving between traditional and secular cultures.

Marcelo Figueras is a noted Argentinian journalist, screenwriter, and novelist.  Born in 1962 in Buenos Aires, he began his career as a singer, film journalist and interviewer, and briefly, a war correspondent, before focusing upon writing screenplays and novels.  He has written six screenplays, three of which--"Plata quemada" (also known as "Burnt Money" or "Burning Money," 2000) , "Kamchatka" (2002), and "Rosario Tijeras" (2005)--have won national or international awards.

His five novels have been Spanish language best-sellers, but the first of these to be translated into English is his 2003 novel "Kamchatka" (based on the same source material as the screenplay) which was translated last year by Frank Wynne for Grove Atlantic's Black Cat paperback imprint.  

Set against the backdrop of Argentina's "Dirty War" of the late 1970's, "Kamchatcka" (the reference is to a faraway peninsula in the Russian Far East), tells the story of a ten-year-old boy in Buenos Aires whose middle-class life of school lessons and comic book heroes comes to a abrupt end when a military junta takes control of Argentina in 1976, political opponents of the regime begin to "disappear" from the streets, and his leftist parents are forced into hiding first in a remote former villa outside of Buenos Aires, and later in a sequence of increasing ramshackle safe houses.

The boy, already much given to fantasy, readily joins his parents in assuming a new name and identity. Renaming himself Harry, after his hero Harry Houdini, he imagines himself an escape artist whose feats of daring are projections of his mother's worst fears.  

Told entirely from the point-of-view of ten-year-old Harry, the narrative presents the despotism and terrifying politics of the era off on some distant event horizon, while Harry--sheltered from the fearful consequences of that brutality as much as any boy can be--processes his own domestic threat level spun from the stuff of his own imagination.  Because the horrific narrative of what is happening in Argentina eventually obtrudes on the fantasy world Harry has constructed for himself, the role of memory becomes transcendent, leaving it for him to piece together his family's tragic story.

More literal in its approach than Guillermo del Toro's film "Pan's Labyrinth," a childhood fantasy film set against the backdrop of Fascist, post-Civil War Spain, "Kamchatka" is more specific about Harry's escapist fantasies as a kind of response to his parents peril and ultimate disappearance.  For Figuras, fantasy is an inchoate form of political activism.

--R.D. Pohl

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