The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain. Eds. Rohan Kamicheril and Sal Robinson. Open Letter, University of Rochester. November 2009. $12.75.
Review by Okla Elliott
The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain, (whose editors have done two other Words without Borders anthologies: Literature from the “Axis of Evil” and Words without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers), is a unique, and in its own modest way, a necessary book. In it, you will find work by the likes of Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Vladimir Sorokin, and many others of considerably less fame. You will also find a facsimile of a letter written by US Senator Bob Dole to a Yugoslavian dissident; reprints of dozens of photos, posters, book covers; as well as poetry, song lyrics, speeches; and official reports by secret agents on citizens in former Soviet nations. Somehow in the mere 231 pages of this book, the editors have successfully given an overview of the reactions to the fall of the Wall inside these countries and abroad, and from nearly every sector of society from politicians to pop culture icons to literary figures.
And so, when I say that this book is likely destined for little or no popular audience, I am more condemning the public readership than the book itself. That said, however, I do predict that instructors in disciplines as wide-ranging as comparative literature, international studies, post-Soviet history, and pop culture analysis will find this book a wonderful text for classrooms at all levels of instruction. The book is also a perfect purchase for academic libraries.
One highlight in the book is the short story “Paris Lost” by Wladimir Kaminer, which is both wonderfully satirical and well-translated by Liesl Schillinger. The story recounts a faux Paris that was built in Russia where Russian citizens were sent under the pretense that it was the real Paris—a lie the narrator’s uncle did not believe when he was sent. The humorous possibilities and the potential for social commentary are obvious, I think. Kaminer also coins the term “ideological condom,” a turn of phrase I found both funny and accurate.
Another highlight is the poem “Report from a Besieged City” by Zbigniew Herbert, one of my favorite poets of all time and generally considered one of Poland’s (and the world’s) finest. Alissa Valles is the translator here. Valles, you might remember, was the center of a major controversy a few years ago when she was chosen over John and Bogdana Carpenter to translate Herbert’s definitive post-mortem Collected Poems, much to the public dismay of legendary translator and poet, Michael Hofmann, who reviewed it scathingly for Poetry, thus setting off a bitter debate. I guess we know which side of that little debate the editors of the current volume have fallen on. I am not as passionate as Hofmann is about his preference for the Carpenters’ translations, but I do agree with him that they are superior. That said, however, Valles’s translation here does the job and conveys much of the joy of the original.
Sadly, many of the original languages of the pieces in this anthology are utterly unknown to me. I did my best to find the originals of those works originally written in German or Polish and can attest to the overall good quality of those translations. As for the half-dozen other languages represented here, I have no clue whatsoever as to the quality of the translations. I can say that the translators chosen are in most cases well-regarded, though there are a handful of new faces here, which adds, if not veteran skill, then at least fresh blood.
All in all, I recommend this book without reservation and foresee a reasonably solid future for it.
Okla Elliott's non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in A Public Space, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, and New Letters, among others. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks and is co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov.