This may seem like last week’s news, and it is, but it has just been brought home to us how important radio of coverage can be for translated literary fiction. In the days since Michael Morpurgo and Sarah Maitland reviewed Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s slim but resonant masterpiece, The Sickness, on Radio Four 435 copies have left the warehouse. To put that in perspective, 13 left the warehouse last month.
Listen to the programme
It was a similar story when three stories from Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come At Night were read on Radio Four during the summer. There was an instant boost in sales for a book that, for all the many splendid reviews it went on to receive, had not been ordered by many shops before publication.
To return to The Sickness, it is no surprise that Radio Four’s listeners rushed out or online to buy a copy as soon as the programme had finished. Morpurgo, who thought it was “a great book”, “I wanted to turn the page unbelievably fast”. “This is a page turner,” he concluded. Sarah Maitland said: “I just love it, I think its utterly gripping from beginning to end.”
The BBC’s showcasing of these books is a triumph of good taste. Both have received wonderful notices across the board, from newspapers and from online bloggers; The Sickness was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Nooteboom has only just been submitted).
For us it’s valuable reminder of how important the BBC is in promoting literature, both in translation and otherwise, and how well it succeeds in spreading the word about unusual cultural artifacts and events. Long live Auntie, and all who sail in her!
The shortlist for the 2011 Independent has just been announced, and The Sickness, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is one of the six novels selected. We have prepared an interview with Tyszka in which he discusses the novel, his work as a writer both of literature and for television, and his views on the political situation in Venezuela.
Paul Engles: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Could tell us a little about The Sickness?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: I have always been interested in fragility, in pain. From this starting point, I connect myself with writing, with readers. Illness, in all its dimensions and possibilities, is an experience that exemplifies human misery very well. It is when we are at our most vulnerable, searching for answers we cannot find. Even more so in these times when there is such an authoritarian pressure to keep oneself healthy and so much blame attached to illness. The obsession with health seems to replace the obsession with death. The novel tells several stories to do with this phenomenon of illness, mostly within the context of a family, who try to maintain affection in these trying circumstances and to find hope.
Paul Engles: One reviewer of The Sickness, a doctor by profession, wrote that he was so impressed that he thought you must be “one of us”, a doctor also. Have you ever worked in a hospital?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: A long time ago, when I was young, I was an intern for two months working as a nurse in an ontological hospital in Caracas. Without a doubt, this short period made a great impression on me. I was fascinated by the mystery of human body, by the impotence of medicine and of faith when faced by the senselessness and randomness of life. Then there were the experiences that we all have with relatives or friends who are ill. As you age, you come to understand that life kills, and we cannot do anything about it.
Paul Engles: Is The Sickness your first novel? And have you published any fiction since?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Before The Sickness I published a novel called “También el corazón es un descuido”, a book of parodies, which was not too good. I also published a book of short stories and three books of poems. After The Sickness, I published a book of short stories entitled “Crimenes” (Crimes). Now I’m just finishing making the corrections to a new novel.
Paul Engles: The Sickness won the Herralde Prize, which is open to writers from the entire Spanish-speaking world. How did this affect your writing career?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Prizes often help a lot with the promotion of the book and allow the work to find a wider readership, helping the writer in his career. The Herralde is a very prestigious prize, and it also allowed me to be published by Anagrama, one of the most important Spanish houses. All this has been great for me. But writing is something else. It remains a discipline, a lonely business. No award makes us write better.
Paul Engles: You co-wrote a biography of Hugo Chavez. Was you intention to bury him or to praise him, or something in between?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Both within and without Venezuela, people often see our reality in a very limited and simple way. We are subjected to a terrible polarization which produces only mediocrity. I wrote this biography with journalist Cristina Marcano and our precise aim was to find a line that transcends polarization. It is not an impartial book, because nobody can be impartial, but it aims to be a balanced book. We tried to bring together a chorus of voices, but only those of people who actually knew Chavez, who lived or worked with him at some point in their lives, regardless of whether they are now for or against his political project.
I, personally, am very critical of Chavez. I think he is a new incarnation of the dictatorial warlords of our continent’s past. But I also think it is a symptom of our history, a country whose greatest tragedy has always been and still remains the levels of inequality and poverty.
Paul Engles: I understand that you have written for television. Is it an enjoyable medium to work with?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: From a very young age, I always dreamed about making a living from writing. It is often impossible, and much more so in Latin America. I worked for a while for a newspaper, then in an advertising agency, and I ended up writing for television. For twenty years I have lived from writing soap operas. I earn a living from “cheesiness”. Soap operas are the most important non-traditional export in Latin America. The differences between these programmes and literature are immense. You wouldn’t think it to watch them, but the soap opera genre is very strict. In television I write a particular product, governed by the specific laws of the market. As Scott Fitzgerald said about Hollywood: it’s not art, it’s an industry. That’s how it is. Literature relies on something that television does not tolerate: ambiguity.
Paul Engles: Another review of The Sickness compared your writing to that of Ian McEwan, the English novelist. Have you read his work? Are there any English novelists whose work you particularly admire?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Whoever made that comparison is, without a doubt, extremely generous towards the novel. I appreciate it, but it is too much. I have read some of McEwan’s books. He’s a great writer, extraordinary. With respect to current British authors, it’s not easy for us access their work and keep up to date with it. But I have read and am interested in authors like McEwan, of course, and Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby.
Paul Engles: Are there any novelists – writing in any language – that you particularly admire? Which writers would you identify as your main influences?
Alberto Barrera Tyszka: The topic of influences is always complicated. There are so many things in writing that one does not decide. But I can tell you which authors I read frequently, and which authors I’d love to be influenced by: Chekhov, Stevenson, Joseph Roth, César Vallejo, Hemingway, Juan Rulfo, Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee . . . among many others.
With Mario Vargas Llosa now ennobled with the laurel leaf, it seems like a good moment to remind you all about a new South American import, hailing this time from Venezuela.
The Sickness, the first novel in English by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (pictured right), has quietly gone about its business gathering starred reviews since we published in July, giving its author, according to Booktrust’s Translated Fiction website, ‘a claim to be[ing] the Venezuelan Ian McEwan’.
The plot hinges on a sharp comparison between the rational fear of death and the hypochondriac’s refusal to believe that death has not singled him out. Dr Andrés Miranda struggles to face telling his father that tests have confirmed terminal cancer, while all the while being bombarded with emails from a patient who insists he has a debilitating but undiagnosed disease. Tyszka skillfully softens his potentially daunting subject matter by drawing from it a subtle and philosophical appraisal of life’s little absurdities and unlikely alliances.
The Sickness won the Premio Herralde in its original form, a prize open to the entire Spanish-speaking world, and to make sure we did it justice in English, we enlisted Margaret Jull Costa to take care of the translation.
Jull Costa is probably the most distinguished translator from Spanish and Portuguese we have, with a CV as long as the arm of the law, that includes works by Javier Marias, Jose Saramago and Eça de Queirós, as well as two Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prizes.
Praise for The Sickness:
‘The Sickness is refreshingly clean in its storytelling yet very complex in character’
Anthony Furey, Times Literary Supplement
‘Tyszka is a perceptive, original writer. He has brought an unusually sophisticated understanding to a wonderfully intense, little novel. No sentimentality, no polemic, just emotion at its most resonant’
Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
‘Powerful writing [which does] not let you off or let you down’
Susan Hill, The Lady
‘Well-pitched, gentle and suggestive … philosophy in the story’
Renée Rowland, Skinny
All in all, The Sickness is a wonderful, wonderful novel, and we’re all waiting expectantly for Tyszka’s next outing. Since it was published in Spanish, he has co-authored an acclaimed biography of Hugo Chavez, and c0-written a film, Zamuros Way, with director Javier Mujica.