The New York Times Book Review Archives

August 15, 2004

The Birth of the Mind

How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexity of Human Thought.
By Gary Marcus.
Basic Books, $26.

Gary Marcus, the psychologist who directs the Infant Language Center at New York University, wants to do something that would have been impossible a decade ago: reveal the genetic origins of the mind. Marcus posits that the brain is wired up by the genes to learn from its surroundings, a view considered extreme by many neuroscientists, who believe that experience determines the ultimate connections between neurons. In ''The Birth of the Mind,'' Marcus considers the common objection that the young brain's extreme flexibility means it requires sensory input to develop. Not so, he responds; the brain is prewired to be flexible, often, for example, sending test signals to confirm eyes and ears are working and to reapportion brain tissue if they are not, even while still in the womb. Marcus writes that the brain results from the same pathways that make lungs, noting that ''from a gene's-eye view, brains are just one more elaborate configuration of proteins.'' When it is not bogged down in the nature-nurture debate, ''The Birth of the Mind'' presents a clear and accessible review of recent work on the biology of brain growth.

April 15, 2007

Comparative Literature




Translation by the numbers, as featured on the back page of the New York Times Book Review. [full text][pdf].

(Sources: Andrew Grabois, Chad Post.)

May 13, 2007

Sugar and Spice



By César Aira.
Translated by Chris Andrews.
117 pp. New Directions.
Paper, $13.95.

César Aira is a 6-year-old Argentine girl whose first taste of strawberry ice cream is tainted with cyanide. “I was a devoted daughter,” she says as she lifts the spoon to her lips. “Dad could do no wrong in my eyes.” After she retches, though, her father flies into a rage and murders the ice cream vendor, and the child collapses into a monthlong toxic delirium. She wakes in a hospital bed to a doctor who asks, “And how are we today, young Master César?” Lucky to have been one of the survivors of an unexplained wave of food poisoning, César still has one big, though unstated, problem: she is a precocious little girl trapped in the body of a boy.

So begins this strange novella by the Argentine writer César Aira. He has written more than 30 books, including a study of Edward Lear and a novel about a group of writers who decide to clone Carlos Fuentes, and has translated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Raymond Chandler. Until now only two of his novels had been translated into English, both tales of Europeans drawn into strange quests in 19th-century Argentina. The most recent was “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter,” in which a German artist is struck by lightning and dragged face-down across the pampas by his horse. Aira’s sharp eye and supple imagination follow the artist after his accident, as he crosses the continent sketching gauchos and Indians, his mangled face hidden behind a black veil.

Despite the title, no veils or vows are taken in “How I Became a Nun.” Instead, Aira draws on a tradition of picaresque novels in Spanish that extends back to the 16th century. But he subverts the genre by allowing his narrator to escape from her daily life into a series of grandiose reveries. When she visits her father in prison, César crawls through a hole in the wall, imagining that “each successive incident, right from the start, from the moment I tasted the strawberry ice cream, had been leading me to this crowning moment, preparing me to be the angel, the guardian angel of all the criminals, the thieves and murderers.” When a word she deciphers on the wall of the boys’ bathroom gets her in trouble at school, she retreats to the attic to play teacher to a roomful of imaginary dyslexic children, then becomes her own pupil by giving herself minute instructions to accompany every waking act: “How to manipulate cutlery, how to put on one’s trousers, how to swallow saliva.”

These good works in the privacy of her own mind are the closest César comes to becoming a nun. In real life, however, she is a compulsive liar. She lies to the doctor who treats her for cyanide poisoning. She humiliates her mother on a public bus by asking, loudly and repeatedly, whether her father is dead when she knows he is not. Then she lets the reader in on the secret to lying well: “Pretend convincingly not to know certain things.” This habit of omission may be how she convinces herself that she is really a girl, although it’s not entirely clear that she’s deceiving herself at all.

Why can’t César face the truth? The closest she comes to an answer is when she says that after the poisoning “something had broken inside me, a valve, the little safety device that used to allow me to switch levels,” presumably between fantasy and reality. But she is also trying to escape from a body of the wrong sex and from a sense of guilt, however misplaced, over the ice cream vendor’s fate.

On another level, though, César’s ambitious delusions seem imposed by the author. Despite Chris Andrews’s clear translation, Aira’s prose seems hesitant, his imaginative flights clipped by the 6-year-old mind he is trying to inhabit. As a result, these perplexing episodes don’t quite add up to a credible story. But Aira does evoke a sense of childhood that is chilling and bittersweet — like a poisoned cone of strawberry ice cream.

Jascha Hoffman is on the staff of The New York Review of Books.

August 26, 2007

Louder Than Words


By Justin Cartwright. 276 pp. $24.95. Bloomsbury.

In July 1944, a member of the German resistance slipped a briefcase of explosives under Hitler's table as part of a conspiracy to take down the Third Reich. The bomb went off, but someone had unwittingly edged the briefcase aside and Hitler of course survived. The conspirators were arrested, their failure confirming Hitler's belief that he had been chosen to make history. Among those rounded up was the German lawyer and aristocrat Adam von Trott, who as a Rhodes Scholar in prewar Oxford had been a friend of the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Their troubled friendship is the basis for Justin Cartwright's ninth novel, a meditation on loyalty and fate that spans the 20th century. In his reimagining, the young German aristocrat, here named Axel von Gottberg, arrives in Oxford believing that history has chosen him to save his country from the Nazis. The Berlin character, named Elya Mendel, is wary of his friend's ambitions. We learn how a rift opened between them through the present-day perspective of Conrad Senior, a former student of Mendel's whose obsessive efforts to write a book about the friendship drive his wife from the house and bring him to the verge of an early midlife crisis.

The novel gets its momentum from a rapid alternation between the present and the past: as Conrad's marriage unravels, he learns how the Oxford friendship soured in the years leading up to World War II. Conrad travels to Jerusalem to see the hotel where Mendel first slept with a woman he later lost to his German friend, but soon learns that the real breach was over politics. In 1934, von Gottberg claimed in a letter to a British newspaper that Jews were receiving equal treatment in the Hamburg courts, and Mendel was furious. On the eve of war von Gottberg returned to Oxford arguing that Britain should negotiate with Hitler - "There is another Germany, Elya ... a decent, a noble Germany" - and Mendel concluded that his friend was dangerously deluded.

Conrad, who knows that these statements may have been a calculated part of von Gottberg's plan for a coup, can't help feeling that Mendel's judgment was too severe. He imagines their last meeting in Oxford: "I have had to make compromises ... but I am not confused," the young conspirator says. Later, over dinner, Mendel quotes Turgenev, saying that while he is fascinated by radicals he could never be one: "I have no capacity for action. All I can do is talk." But this is not strictly true. Mendel, like Isaiah Berlin, goes on to work closely with British and American intelligence during the war. In the end, Mendel's skepticism about his German friend may have contributed to the conspirators' failure to get Allied support.

Cartwright's title refers to a question posed by the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, Berlin's favorite thinker: "Where is the song before it is sung?" The answer, Berlin wrote, was nowhere: people are free to make their own choices and history unfolds without a plan. It speaks to Cartwright's skill that even though it is clear from the beginning that our German aristocrat will be hanged when the plot fails, we still hope he might by some miracle survive. After Conrad finally uncovers gruesome proof of the execution in the form of a reel of film shot by a Jewish cameraman, he is paralyzed with horror, the death "inhabiting not just his mind, but his skin and his clothes." As he slips back into his old routine at Oxford and writes his book, however, Conrad comes to accept, as readers also must, that there will be no answers from the dead.

Jascha Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

January 20, 2008

From the Depths

New York Times Book Review

[pdf] [full text]

Survivors of Buchenwald at the time the Allies arrived in April 1945. (Eric Schwab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

By Fred Wander.
Translated by Michael Hofmann.
160 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $23.95.


At the end of Fred Wander’s novel about life in the Nazi camps, the narrator lies in the children’s barracks of Buchenwald between a dead man and a pack of starving Jewish boys. It is April 1945; American tanks are at the gate. Delirious from typhus, he is overcome by hope as he watches the boys slice up a potato. “Some might say the camp and its bestial conditions had destroyed their human substance,” he writes, but “I knew right then: everything will start over, nothing has been lost.”

In light of all Fred Wander did lose to the Nazis — his mother, his sister, most of his 20s — this may seem a strangely optimistic statement. Born to Jewish Galician parents in Vienna in 1917, he was deported as a young man to a series of French work camps and survived the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. After the war he eventually settled in East Germany, where he made a new life as a reporter and photographer. It was only in the late 1960s, after his 10-year-old daughter died in an accident, that he began to revisit his past.

The result was “The Seventh Well,” a novel narrated by a young man who attempts to maintain his own sanity in the death camps by immersing himself in the lives of his fellow prisoners. Originally published in 1971, it is now available in a superb new translation by Michael Hofmann. Wander does not guide the reader on his own journey from boxcar to barbed wire, as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi have done. Rather, his anonymous narrator undergoes a sort of spiritual education as he studies the doomed men and boys around him. The result is an indirect portrait of a man trying to grasp an unthinkable trauma.

“A man lugs rocks, lugs wood, cracks lice, fights over a potato ... learns to blow his nose downwind with one finger, wraps his sore feet in rags,” Wander’s narrator writes. “What keeps a man alive?” For him the answer is affection for others, memories of home, language itself and some dim hope of survival. These signs of spirit can vanish without warning. To survive in the camps one must adapt, but there is a fine line between adapting and surrendering. After his lover is hauled off from a French camp to Auschwitz, for example, a formerly rebellious young man gives himself up without a fight.

Wander’s narrator observes his surroundings, from the eating habits of his fellow prisoners to the shifting colors of the sky, with an attention that verges on defiance. When an exhausted man steps out of the march to Buchenwald to defecate, he is shot in the head. This happens repeatedly, but the narrator takes in each murder with fresh shock, as if by the strength of his gaze alone he can rescue these strangers from the ditch.

The sense that anyone can be saved, however, begins to crumble when he loses his bunkmate Tadeusz Moll, a teenager rumored to have been saved from the gas chamber by a guardian angel. As punishment for an unauthorized nap, Tadeusz is put out in the forest overnight to freeze and is later publicly hanged. Lying in bed, the narrator imagines the boy’s last moments: “Perhaps life, compressed into that tiny remaining time, sharpened by barely imaginable sufferings, perhaps life has become distilled into some quintessence of itself.” But he reconsiders. “No. ... Let’s take it at face value: dying means dying.”

Veering between the sentimental and the brutal, Wander tries to make sense of his own random survival. Sometimes his memory of the camps seems too generous: Did Buchenwald really simmer with “curiosity, wonderment, thirst for knowledge”? Was there really “earnestness and dignity and purpose” in the faces of the dead? But most of the incidents Wander describes — for instance, that “one of us choked to death from a hemorrhage incurred from laughing” — have a pure horror that can’t be varnished.

Throughout the novel runs the voice of Wander’s own Virgil, Mendel Teichmann, the gaunt and charismatic 50-year-old who teaches him to tell stories in the barracks after dark. At first Teichmann devours his ration of bread, but as his strength ebbs he learns, like the others, to make a crust of bread into a seven-course meal. Teichmann, an agnostic, tries to make sense of the Holocaust by comparing it to the water of the seventh well described by the 16th-century Rabbi Loew of Prague, which leaves Jews naked and pure.

It may be hard to believe that a man could keep that much dignity while he is preoccupied, as the narrator puts it, with his own “piecemeal execution.” In the end Wander does not ask us to: when Teichmann dies there is no attempt to redeem his suffering. Wander writes, “He died a senseless and undignified death, let me pass over it in silence.”

Jascha Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

March 9, 2008



Beaufort Castle after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Ahmed Mantash/Associated Press

By Ron Leshem.
Translated by Evan Fallenberg.
360 pp. Delacorte Press. $24.

Beaufort Castle, built by crusaders on a mountaintop in what is now southern Lebanon, passed through many hands before being captured from the P.L.O. by invading Israeli troops in 1982. In this gritty first novel, the young Israeli journalist Ron Leshem imagines the tedium and terror of a small group of soldiers inside the fortress walls in the months leading up to the Israeli Army’s withdrawal in 2000.

The story is told by Liraz Liberti, an impulsive 21-year-old Sephardic officer who has been put in charge of the little band. He recalls “the feel of the wind up there, the taste of the schnitzel, and the smell of Lysol,” as well as the “five-foot-tall wet thistles that bury you.” It is through Liraz that we meet the 13 “human puppies” in his squad, young men without combat experience who spend their time inventing slang and making “killer cheese toasts with pesto.”

The unit’s tour of duty feels a bit like Zionist summer camp until the soldiers are shelled during a predawn ambush. Liraz doesn’t cope well on the battlefield: when a roadside mine explodes in the face of his bomb expert, Liraz berates the attending medic, then collapses in shock while the corpse is loaded onto a stretcher.

As Israeli public opinion turns against the war and soldiers along the front lines are picked off by enemy fire, the mission begins to seem increasingly futile. Rather than preventing Hezbollah from raiding the Israeli border, the fort has become just another target. “We sit up here at Beaufort,” the medic explains, “disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we can continue sitting at Beaufort.”

What began as a game of capture the flag has become a sort of Masada. Even after Liraz learns that Israel never meant to take the mountain in the first place, he remains committed to defending it. But this isn’t because he buys the “embarrassing mix of Zionism and kitsch” that passes for patriotism at Beaufort; it’s because his men have risked their lives for him and he wants to do the same for them.

The novel requires some stamina on the part of the reader. The authentic details of gear and slang, drawn from Leshem’s extensive interviews, weigh down the plot. And it’s not easy to tolerate the soldiers’ hunger for easy Orthodox girls, their scorn for dovish Israeli reporters and their lack of interest in the Lebanese whose lives have been disrupted by the fighting. But Liraz has a certain vulnerable charm, and this is what pulls the reader through.

When “Beaufort” was first published in Hebrew, the Israeli soldiers who read it might have paid scant attention to its prediction that they would eventually return to Lebanon. The enemy, Leshem’s narrator argues, will “take a soldier hostage, commandeer a jeep at the border fence, bombard some northern settlement with mortar shells. ... We’ll march in there, ... pass from house to house.” This is essentially what happened when war broke out again in the summer of 2006.

Reading the novel now, in Evan Fallenberg’s expert translation, as Israel is under pressure to go back into Gaza, one is reminded how easily an army can find itself trapped in enemy territory, sunk, as one general puts it to Liraz, “deep in tactics, without strategies.”

Jascha Hoffman has written for The Boston Globe and Nature as well as The Times.

[full text at]

May 18, 2008

Dreams and Disaster

Doug Loizeaux at work. His family’s demolition business is the subject of one of David Samuels’s essays. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

By David Samuels.
372 pp. The New Press. $26.95.

On long bus rides, David Samuels used to fake a Southern accent and tell strangers he was raised on Army bases rather than in the Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn where he grew up. “There was something scary about the ease with which I became a new person, a fictional character,” he has written. “I felt cold inside, and detached from my own body.” Eventually he started listening more carefully to the stories of his fellow travelers, spending much of the last 10 years on the road for Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker, absorbing himself in the lives of a strange cross section of America: con men and fugitives, radicals and rap stars, addicts and politicians. Now we have his first collection of long-form journalism, a tribute to the twin American traditions of self-invention and self-deceit.

The book is full of scenes from our nation’s underbelly, including a washed-up Red Sox pitcher in Montreal, a family of demolition experts hired to bring down a Las Vegas casino and a California convention crawling with salesmen in the grip of a pyramid scheme. What these people have in common, as Samuels explains in the title essay on bettors at a Florida greyhound track, is some version of “the demonstrably mistaken and often quite dangerous idea that if you try hard and believe in yourself the laws of chance will be suspended.”

The source of both tragedy and humor here is the wide gap between the dreams that draw these men onward and the trail of disaster they leave behind. In upstate New York a concert promoter lays out his wispy vision for Woodstock 1999, where in fact young people will riot after camping out in their own sewage. In snow-covered Minnesota, Samuels finds addicts appealing to a higher power to prevent the next relapse, as a monkey in a nearby lab thumps his lever a thousand times for a single hit of crack cocaine.

The portraits that emerge are exhaustive and often severe, but there is something delicate in Samuels’s method. In his stories the random flow of events takes on real meaning, allowing us to see what’s hidden in plain view and to hear what isn’t being said. He has some of Joan Didion’s gift for stripping the layers away until a fraud is exposed. But even among the most unreliable of characters, he seems to be looking for someone to trust.

After the 9/11 attacks, Samuels began to search in vain for honest men in public office, first at the bombed-out Pentagon, where he found reporters demurring to a smug Donald Rumsfeld at the dawn of the “war on terror,” then at a mercenary fund-raising banquet on the 2004 Bush campaign trail in Texas. But the results are far richer when he turns his strict eye inward in a remarkable essay on his emergence from a boyish solitude into the sanctuary of a new marriage, cleverly folded into a tour of his block in Brooklyn in the months after the attacks. “It was as if the ashes from the tower had fertilized our neighborhood,” he writes.

In his other new book, “The Runner,” an expanded version of his ingeniously suspenseful New Yorker article about a bicycle thief who conned his way into Princeton, Samuels writes that a decade after the impostor was unmasked, he surfaced again in Colorado, up to his usual combination of fraud and theft. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that the author pulls a similar disappearing-reappearing act in his introduction, announcing first that the collection will serve as “my final goodbye to the dying industry that has paid my bills,” then that “I will continue writing for magazines” because “I don’t know any other kind of life.”

It’s an appropriately elastic maneuver from a brilliant reporter who has made a career of observing “our national gift for self-delusion and for making ourselves up from scratch,” as he puts it, “which is much the same thing as believing in the future.”

Jascha Hoffman writes frequently for Nature and The Times.

February 15, 2009

Beyond Guernica


By Bernardo Atxaga. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
370 pp. Graywolf Press. $25

The Basque novelist Bernardo At­xaga has spent his career moving between fairy tales and terrorism. His early works were set in the mythical Spanish town of Obaba, where birds, squirrels and snakes could speak. Later he turned out gritty novels about men and women backed into corners by their entanglement with the Basque separatist movement. These two worlds converge in “The Accordionist’s Son,” a sprawling novel about the legacy of civil war in Spain that borrows characters from Atxaga’s previous works but does not have quite the same charm and power.

Stretching across most of the 20th century, the novel is framed as the memoir of David Imaz, a Basque exile. Dying on a ranch in Northern California in 1999, he steals away from his American family each night to document his early life in his native language. We learn he was raised in the peaceful town of Obaba, not far from Guernica, with only a dim awareness of the civil war that ended a decade before he was born. As a teenager he discovers a list of Republican sympathizers executed on behalf of the Franco regime in 1937. It is in his father’s hand.

Rather than confront his father, David turns his conscience against himself. He is sickened by the thought of colluding with a corrupt regime, so he refuses to play the family accordion at the unveiling of a monument to Franco’s soldiers, disappearing instead to a cellar that once hid Republicans during the civil war. But one cannot hide from history, especially when it is set to repeat itself. By the late 1960s the Basque separatist movement is brewing, and David comes under suspicion by the Spanish civil guard. He tries to remain neutral as his friends set off bombs and burn the Spanish flag. But in the end, whether in defiance of his father or in imitation of him, he joins the ­terrorists’ cause.

As we see David swept up in the partisan violence he tried so hard to avoid, it becomes apparent that he is not the sole author of this memoir. His close friend and collaborator Joseba, who visits him as he is dying in California, has taken the manuscript and rewritten it according to his own view of the past. This shadow editor may be a surrogate for Atxaga himself, whose real first name is also Joseba, and who translates his own work into Spanish.

Alluring as this literary twist may be, the story line tends to fade behind a screen of expository dialogue and a swarm of walk-on characters. As David’s wife tells Joseba, “events and facts have all been crammed in, like anchovies in a glass jar.” The abundance of detail adds credibility to the novel but weakens its emotional force, even in Margaret Jull Costa’s fine translation from the Spanish.

It is to Atxaga’s credit, however, that some crucial questions remain unresolved. One never learns exactly how committed David’s father was to the fascist cause, or the extent of David’s own participation in the Basque underground. The truth may die with him. In a world where sons are condemned to reinvent the sins of their fathers, this could amount to a sort of mercy.

Jascha Hoffman writes frequently for Nature and The Times.

December 22, 2010

New Fiction in Translation

GetImage.jpegA post-mortem romance from a noted Albanian novelist, a collection of early stories from a Spanish master of suspense, a flawed first novel by a Belgian literary phenomenon, and a brilliant novel of ideas set in volatile Argentina. [text]

August 13, 2012

Science Chronicle

0805Hoffman-popup.jpeg A roundup review of new books on the promises of human enhancement, new directions for scientific literacy, how to get a job by solving brainteasers, and rogue artists working at the edge of science. [text]

October 19, 2012

Me Translate Funny One Day

1021-Hoffman-popup.jpeg Can humor be translated? Among the polyglots who convened this month for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association, there is a sense of cautious optimism that at least some measure of levity can migrate between languages... [text]

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