A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Book Review Editor
Book: Cabo de Gata: A Novel
Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, November 1, 2016 ($14.00 paperback, 120 pages). ISBN 978-1555977573
Author: Eugen Ruge
Born in the Urals of Russia, Eugen Ruge is a writer, director, mathematician, and Russian translator who now lives in Berlin. His award-winning plays, performed on many German stages, are collected from 1986–2008 in a volume titled Theaterstücke. Ruge was the 2009 Alfred Döblin Prize Laureate. He won the 2011 German Book Prize for his debut novel, In Times of Fading Light, now in more than 20 languages. (Graywolf Press published the English version.) Wolfgang Ruge, Eugen Ruge’s father, was a historian who wrote Promised Land: My Years in Stalin’s Soviet Union about his 15 years as an exile in Soviet camps. Eugen Ruge grounded In Times of Fading Light on his father’s life and his own. He has also written Approaches: Impressions of 14 Countries, based on travel notes taken while researching his family history for In Times of Fading Light. His most recent book is Follower, a novel set in the future that came out in German last August from Rowohlt.
The award-winning Anthea Bell translated Cabo de Gata from the German. She also translated Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light into English.
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Graywolf Press in Minneapolis has been publishing books for 43 years, now averaging 30 annually distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Scott Walker founded Graywolf in 1974. Fiona McCrae now heads the press. The National Book Foundation appointed her to its board of directors last year. During the 2015 opening of an exhibit on the Graywolf archives housed at the University of Minnesota, McCrae said: “Sometimes people have asked me what defines…a Graywolf writer…. And one of our answers is that they don’t sound like anybody else.” Poetry, memoir, essays, novels, and short stories make up the bulk of Graywolf’s publications. The alliance of authors, editors, readers, and donors forged itself through a collective appreciation of great books as well as a belief that the world of letters needs diverse voices and opinions.
Graywolf seeks works “that combine a distinct voice with a distinct vision,” and collaborates to publish award winners from various organizations offering literary prizes: Walt Whitman Award, Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Emily Dickinson First Book Award, and the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contests. The press also publishes several books per year from A Public Space, an independent magazine of literature and culture based in Brooklyn. The Lannan Translations Series, which supports the English translation and publication of new works, has awarded a literary grant to Graywolf since 2002. Along with other grants, Lannan enables the nonprofit press to publish two translated books per year. One of those was Ruge’s debut novel in 2013.
Those who’ll play with cats
must expect to be scratched.”
— Miguel de Cervantes
The Mediterranean fishing village of Cabo de Gata (Cape of the Cat) sits in the southeastern corner of Spain. Human life has been scarce in this harsh, cold, parched terrain. What’s there has barely changed for centuries. Deserted villages, factories, farms, and old fishing boats dot the surreal landscape that is now a nature preserve—and the setting for Eugen Ruge’s novella of witty existential loneliness called Cabo de Gata. He peppers his tale, presented as a fictional memoir, with local geography—salt flats, volcanic rock formations, diverse marine life, driest climate in Europe, flamingos, and subtropical plants.
Fifteen years ago, a nameless writer unplugged from his joyless life in Berlin with no idea where he was going. Deciding all he needed were two trees to hang his hammock, he takes a train to Spain. Knowing not a word of Spanish, he clutches his little dictionary tightly as he disembarks in Barcelona, where he’s constantly cold. Desperately scanning a weather map for Spain’s hot pockets, his eye is drawn to the brightest orange spot: Cabo de Gata.
And so it begins. A rickety bus drops him off there, but where is the paradise he’d anticipated? All he sees are windblown plastic bags “caught on the spines of agave plants.” Dogs, not cats, greet him. And he’s colder than he was in Barcelona. Huddling under a blanket reading Henry Miller in his rented room, he plans to hop on the bus when it returns the very next day, heading for Gibraltar and then on to Africa.
Yet he doesn’t. Something compels the writer to stay for over four months. He explores the unusual environs, interacts with the few residents he can find, and encounters several visitors: an Englishman and an American. Into the protagonist’s evolving saga, Ruge embeds staccato observations about such topics as the “polymer chemicals industry,” architecture, philosophy, European versus American literature, and the nature of time. In fact, the protagonist is so compelled to imbue his time at Cabo de Gata with order that he tries to reduce it to a mathematical formula using prime numbers and a Fibonacci sequence. Ah, but then the cat appears, following the man back to his room and remaining a vital part of the story from then on.
Cabo de Gata can be read as an enjoyable saga of a man at odds with his life who sets out on a quest for a better situation in a different place. Ruge, however, has framed the basic structure of his plot with an underlying set of ideas in which he toys with animal consciousness. Hmmm. To whom does the cat belong? Michel de Montaigne? René Descartes? Jacques Derrida? Erwin Schrödinger? Is the cat possibly the protagonist’s mother reincarnated? Ruge has a ball using various feline analogies to consider fundamental philosophical questions: Can the world be perceived? Which is the real world and which is the illusion? Just what is the cat’s message? Might it be found in the sound of purring?
One lens for viewing Eugen Ruge’s ingenious novella is a sentence written by Søren Kierkegaard in 1843:
“People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains,
new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human;
they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence,
and they think they have seen something.”
For such a short book, Cabo de Gata will certainly keep the reader’s brain active long after the story ends.
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