NEA Literature Fellowships

Philip Boehm

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(2016 - Translation)

from The Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow

[Translated from the German]

We had issued warnings, but in vain, things only worsened with every passing year. Only when it’s too late do people hear Cassandra’s voice: today even more sanguine souls have joined the chorus of doomsayers. Nevertheless I hadn’t foreseen this degree of destruction, not when the snout disappeared (I had just turned fifty), not when the tongue broke off and the calved ice melted away as quickly as it did (I had just turned sixty), and now this blow from the blind spot of our calculated optimism. If even the experts are surprised by the terrible speed of the demise, whose intervention can still save anything, whose point of view matters, since everyone else harkens to the rotten call of comfort and convenience? My work had consisted in documenting our delinquency—the father confessor masquerading as a scientist.

I pounded my fists on the stone table, in my pain I thought of the girls on the train, chewing with difficulty on the gum of life, these three girls who pass in the world as innocent. But what is that kind of innocence worth, when we all know they’re bound to wind up guilty? That is what lies ahead for them as well as for us, they will continue this devastation, they will go on destroying the very foundation of life. They don’t give a damn, just like most of us, they won’t rest until they’ve consumed polluted squandered destroyed everything. I left the following morning. In the next valley over, the surviving ice surfaces had been shrouded with white burlap, under which an emaciated glacier was emitting its death rattle. I felt like a doctor in a hospice.

Original in German

About lija Trojanow

With The Lamentations of Zeno, Ilija Trojanow charts new territory both in prose as well as geography. By alternating first-person narration with short verbal collages containing snippets of songs and ads and banners of “breaking news,” Trojanow effectively contrasts the clamor of human “civilization” to the majestic stillness of the Antarctic. This is neither sermon nor screed, but an engrossing inner travelogue across a troubled planet and into a troubled soul. Trojanow’s command of language is virtuosic, and he is equally a master of the unsaid, so that the words on the page are like the icebergs themselves—a sparkling intimation of what lies below.

Philip Boehm has translated more than thirty novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Christoph Hein, Bertolt Brecht, and Stefan Chwin. Nonfiction translations include A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous and Words to Outlive Us, a collection of eyewitness accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto. For these translations he has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the NEA and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He also works as a playwright and theater director, and is the founding Artistic Director of Upstream Theater in St. Louis.

Photo by Peter Wochniak

Translator's Statement

For 50 years the NEA has been amplifying artists’ voices; by supporting translation it is expanding our collective hearing.

With The Lamentations of Zeno, Ilija Trojanow takes his readers to new latitudes in language as well as geography, and translating this book is for me an adventure—an expedition, even, one for which I feel generously equipped thanks to the NEA.

I am humbled to be included as a Fellow.