Monday, Apr 19, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Learning to Lose

Other Press: Learning to Lose by David Trueba

Other Press: Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton

Other Press: The Wrong Blood by Manuel De Lope

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Learning to Lose

In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present Learning to Lose by David Trueba, translated by Mara Faye Lethem. The review and interview are by Marilyn Dahl. The Other Press has helped support the issue.


Other Press: Learning to Lose by David Trueba

Books & Authors

Interview: David Trueba

David Trueba was born in Madrid in 1969 and has been successful both as a novelist and as a screenwriter. La buena vida was his widely acclaimed debut as a film director, followed by Obra maestra, Soldados de Salamina, Bienvenido a casa and La silla de Fernando. He is the author of two previous novels, Cuatro amigos and Abierto toda la noche. Learning to Lose won the Critics Award in 2009 and marks Trueba's English-language debut.

Much of the pleasure in reading your novel comes from the details of everyday life and thought, the way you create such a full picture. You carefully and skillfully describe what would probably be a short scene in a movie or the background to action. It's so visual. What does your experience as a screenwriter and director bring to your writing?

My experience in the movies offers me a perspective in telling stories, having respect for the reader. I want to earn their attention, to make them live and enjoy the adventure of reading. The techniques are very different, but at the end of the day, the skill to tell the story, to create characters, and to make fiction sound like the real world are the great challenges of a narrator.

Madrid is another "character" in your book, a fascinating one with many aspects. Does your filmmaking experience give you a particular eye for describing Madrid?

I love my town. It has changed so much and in so many ways since I was a child. But I like to stop and look, to go to the streets of my childhood, to revisit, to appreciate how a city transforms. I enjoy the people. I am in love with humankind, even if sometimes it is deceiving. When I was born in Madrid, Spain was living under a dictatorship and a very strong tyranny composed of Catholic authorities and military repressors. Now it is one of the most free and multicultural places in the world. That change is the story of my life. It was a great time to live.

The characters are looking for connection, and the two who seem to do it best are Sylvia and Ariel, the youngest. Why is it so hard to connect at a later age? You'd think people would get better at it, not worse.

It is something that fascinates me, how difficult life becomes when you are an adult, especially if you have to start again as a professional or to put a family together through all the accidents of life. In the novel I wanted to show that life forces you to always be ambitious, to put all your energy in the adventure of living--that you can never abandon the fight.

Everyone lies; it seems to be not only a universal trait, but one that starts early in life. But their lies, for the most part, get discovered. In telling lies to others, are they eventually lying to themselves? Do you agree that "fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth"?

For me one of the most demanding themes in the novel was writing about a second life, a double life. People don't know a great deal about others. Even the people close to you ignore a lot of your inner problems, your complexities, your inner fight. It makes me laugh every time I see the news about a crime, and the neighbors of the criminal always say to the TV reporter that the guy was a regular person, completely normal. They're surprised that the guy had, let's say, three corpses buried in the garden. People are always surprised. I love them. That's why I love to meet people, that they tell their stories. It is always rich and fascinating.

The way you write about soccer is an education. Do you/did you play, or are you just an enthusiastic fan?

I used to play handball, so I was not a big fan of soccer. Soccer is a religion in Europe, it is the language that unifies our continent. You go to Africa or Latin America and the kids shout at Real Madrid or Barcelona, the two big teams of Spanish soccer. But I got to know very well some players and later coaches of professional soccer, so at the end it was a world that I knew and was familiar to me. It was something that I wanted to use sometime in my fiction. But never to treat the playing field as a poetic motive. Totally the opposite, the real world of the entourage--money, lies, vices, toughness. All the things you cannot imagine from the other side of the TV during the broadcast of the game.

Americans don't know much about soccer; for example, Argentinians play differently than Spaniards, who play differently than the British. I was struck by the harshness of the fans and the press toward the players and the teams. It's brutal. What does soccer offer you that, say, politics doesn't?

Let me say that professional sports, in my opinion, do not have very much to do with sports as we know them. They move so much money and they need to create big business that a lot of times they forget the origins of the sport. At the same time they are a great metaphor of the actual world. Politics are not very well understood by the people. They think politicians are a social class, far removed. Sports are simple, full of drama, examples, etc.

What elements in the book do you think a non-Spaniard would have difficulty understanding? One thing that's notable is the seemingly ubiquitous adultery--are no men monogamous? Are the actions of the men in the book extreme, or commonplace?

I never try to approach sociology in my books. I try to create strong and complex characters, but never representative characters. The ones that appear in the novel are particular; they don't represent the Spaniards in general. But let me say that for me the revelations about the private life of Tiger Woods or other notable husbands who look like the perfect guy are never a surprise. I don't understand the general surprise of the audience. Life has plenty of cases like that. Only hypocrisy makes us look in the other direction. Humans are not perfect. That is what I like about them. They have to fight with themselves all the time.

The book is universally appealing in many ways, but what aspects of your book would appeal especially to an American (or Canadian) reader?

The readers I am looking for are like me--people with curiosity who satisfy that need with fiction, with the books that are related to the real world. A lot of Americans are very good readers, and I will be glad to enter in their world of interests.

What writers have influenced your own writing?

I am a reader of classical Spanish literature, Cervantes, Baroja, Galdós. French geniuses like Flaubert, Stendhal and Guy de Maupassant. But also contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Dave Eggers, Saul Bellow, V.S. Naipaul, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.

photo by Ernesto Valverde

Other Press: Learning to Lose by David Trueba

Mara Faye Lethem on the Art of Translation

Mara Faye Lethem translates from Spanish and Catalan, including authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron and Pablo DeSantis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., she has lived in Barcelona since 2003. We spoke to her about the process of translation, an often unmentioned and unheralded art, but one that is vital to the reception of a book.

How are translators chosen?

By editors, sometimes at the suggestion of agents or authors.

Do you work closely with an author? Is it more like a collaboration than an isolated process?

No, not in my experience. If the author is living, I usually work up the nerve to ask a few questions at the tail end of the process, when I've exhausted every other possible venue. Even the most generous authors don't have the time to hold your hand through the process. In the end, a book, like a child, is its own entity and your relationship is with it, not with the author.

How does a translator keep up on current usage, idioms?

Well, I live in Spain so I mostly do it by osmosis but, of course, a lot of research goes into each translation. The worst is when you've come up with a great translation for a certain word and then check to find that the word didn't become popular until after the historical period the book takes place in, and you can't use it. I became a translator since the Internet became omnipresent, and I can't imagine not having it as a tool.

Why do you not translate certain words or phrases? We realize some things, or names, are simply untranslatable, and the reader either picks it up from inference or has to let it go. We're curious about the process of selection.

There is this idea that some language teachers impart that you should read a book in a foreign language with a dictionary by your side, but what that seems to lead to is you putting the book down the first chance you get and not picking it up again, because reading has a flow to it that transcends each individual word.

For example, I love Vladimir Nabokov's work, but my French is terrible, so in a book like Lolita I miss some things. In Learning to Lose there is friction between Latin American Spanish and peninsular Spanish that was tricky to convey in English, and I think that's mainly when I left things in the original.

I also will often leave things relating to food in the original because it gives a nice flavor (pardon the pun), and I do think it is important to remind the reader that they are in a foreign country once in a while, instead of trying to smooth over the unsmoothable. I'm sure a tiny fairy dies every time I translate "tortilla española" into "potato frittata" but that is an example of something that you can't leave in the source language because for American readers a "tortilla" strongly connotes a Mexican tortilla, which is a completely different thing.

But I'll take these examples, to give you an idea.

On page 282, Ariel and Sylvia are joking about the terrible life of a boy who grows up with the name Pololo. Why is that name is so terrible? What is the reason for not changing the name to something that Americans would "get?"

Pololo just sounds silly. I thought it sounded silly in English, too.

On page 466: "Meu anjo das pernas tortas."

This is in Portuguese in the original, so I left it that way. The author was showing the intimacy of a Brazilian couple, in their native language.

How do we know a translation is good or bad? How do we know, if a sentence is brilliant or boring, whether it's the author or the translator?

There is trust involved in reading translations, one that is not often acknowledged. When translating, I try to respect that trust by maintaining a good balance of humility and self-confidence, because I feel both are essential at different moments. The beginning of the book is always hardest, because after a certain point you kind of get into the writer's skin and you feel more comfortable "speaking with their voice," if you will. Like the clichéd image of a psychic channeling a dead person. But there are always compromises you have to make, because each language has things it expresses better than any other.

An editor once praised a translation of mine by saying that it was "a meeting of the minds," which I found very flattering. A brilliant sentence in a translation is most likely the result of good work on both the author's and the translator's parts. And, frankly, if it's boring, that's probably the author's fault. And if it's awkward, that is probably the fault of the translator.

What books do you want to translate next?

Corona de flores by my husband, Javier Calvo, a postmodern gothic thriller set in 19th-century Barcelona; El comienzo de la primavera by Patricio Pron, a cat-and-mouse game through Germany's recent past by an Argentine translator in search of a philosopher; and Las teorías salvajes by Pola Oloixarac, a brainy campus satire of the Facebook generation.

Get into the Spirit

Get into the spirit of World Cup 2010 with these top 10 nonfiction books and movies.

Nonfiction Books:

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer
by David Goldblatt.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference
by Warren St. John.

Fever Pitch
by Nick Hornby.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss.

Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey--and Even Iraq--Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.


Bend It Like Beckham.

The Damned United.

A Shot at Glory.

Shaolin Soccer.

Kicking It (documentary).


Book Brahmin: David Trueba

On your nightstand now:

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler.
Favorite book when you were a child:

Stalky and Co.
by Rudyard Kipling.

Your top five authors:

Cervantes, Stendhal, Balzac, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bohumil Hrabal.

Book you've faked reading:

Finnegans Wake by Joyce.
Book you're an evangelist for:

This Side of Paradise
by Scott Fitzgerald.
Book you've bought for the cover:

The New Erotic Photography, edited by Dian Hanson and Eric Kroll.
Books that changed your life:

Side Effects by Woody Allen, Essays by Montaigne and The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis.
Favorite line from a book:

"Blessed the man... who will not visualize defeat, too intent to cower." --from the poem "Blessed Is the Man" by Marianne Moore .
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Lolita by Nabokov.

Photo by Carles Mercader


Book Review

Mandahla: Learning to Lose

Learning to Lose by David Trueba (Other Press, $16.95 Paperback, 9781590513224, June 2010)

The statue on the cover of Learning to Lose is the Monument of the Fallen Angel, so appropriate for the characters in David Trueba's masterful novel. Set in present-day Madrid against the backdrop of professional soccer, it's the story of the many ways people lose parts of their lives. Sometimes tender, sometimes shocking, it's a vivid and powerful rendering of loss, lies and desire.

Sylvia Roque is about to turn 16, and as she sits in class ("a chorus of yawns"), she evaluates the boys around her, but none of them are what she desires, although she does desire something. "Desire works like the wind. Without any apparent effort... it declares that we are ready for desire and that we just have to wait, our sails unfurled, for the wind to blow. That is the desire to desire." Sylvia is waiting, and feels a breeze with Dani, so she invites him to a birthday party at her house, though there is no party--it's a ruse to be alone with him, to see what could happen.

Lorenzo, Sylvia's father, desires the life he lost when his wife left him and Paco, his former best friend and business partner, defrauded him. Lorenzo lost everything when Paco tricked him, and worse, stole his luck. The previous night, he killed Paco, but considers it an accident, a mistake fueled by a grudge. "Men shouldn't listen to their resentment; it gives them bad advice." But this accident is a strange one--why would he have worn boots two sizes too big to disguise his steps?

Leandro is Sylvia's grandfather and has been married to Aurora for 47 years. When she falls in the bathtub and is taken to the hospital, his life changes in more ways than he could have imagined. It starts with a glimpse of a nurse's bare legs and the beginning of a new desire. "No one ever suspects anything from a seventy-three-year-old man. Everyone knows that his steps lead nowhere." But in Leandro's case, they lead to a brothel, where he soon becomes obsessed with Osembe, a Nigerian prostitute.

We meet Ariel in the Madrid airport, saying goodbye to his older brother, Charlie, who has blotted his copy book badly enough to be sent home. Ariel is trying not to cry--he's only a boy, a 20-year-old Argentinian soccer player newly signed by Madrid, who brought Charlie with him to help with problems and to make decisions. Charlie selected Ariel's Porsche Carrera--"On this team, you have to earn your spot even in the stadium parking lot." Ariel has been playing soccer professionally since he was 17, and was carefully nurtured by his soccer teacher, who kept him away from "[Argentina's] sick obsession with finding a new Maradona." In Argentina, the fans' expectations "kill you as fast as a dagger." He desires to prove himself in Madrid, but the fans are just as fickle. Even when he plays well, people whistle because he's too artistic.

Sunday night, after Sylvia's abortive birthday party, after Ariel sees his brother off, Sylvia and Ariel meet on a dark Madrid street--specifically, her body meets his Porsche. Her leg is broken in three places, and the stage is set for a complex dance of desires and longing for connection.

After Ariel visits Sylvia in the hospital, they begin a wary friendship. He's cautious because she's underage, Sylvia is cautious because she thinks he's just being friendly, while she is quickly falling in love. Though he's only four years older than Sylvia, "to Ariel the difference seemed insurmountable. He remembered a teammate telling him soccer players are like dogs, at thirty we're ancient." As their relationship deepens, Sylvia is worried, too, but "the car that four months ago had run her down was now the car she didn't want to get out of, whose appearance in the traffic circle around the Cibeles fountain she celebrated with a marked increase in her pulse." Their liaison is a time-bomb, like the potential explosion of Lorenzo's life, or Leandro's.

In the meantime, Lorenzo tries to find a job while talking to the police about Paco's murder, which is assumed to be the work of Colombian gangs. Leandro continues to see Osembe, and in two visits he's used up his entire retirement check. He tells himself this will end, it doesn't make any sense; he tries to abstain, but finally Leandro sees his situation as a chosen downfall, an obsessive descent that deserved no mercy. He was "old friends with remorse."

Lies fill the story, from Sylvia's small lies to her father about study dates when she's seeing Ariel, to Leandro's simple lies to the bank to explain his monetary needs, to Lorenzo's facile lies to the police. Even Ariel's position on the soccer team is based on a lie about being part Italian in order subvert the European quota system. Everyone is leading a double life, particularly when sex in involved. It's always available for the soccer players and their entourages. A reporter says people fantasize that soccer players live it up as if they had three balls, and that fantasy appears to be true, but not just for soccer players: "In Spain, it seemed to be a tradition to close business deals with an invitation to a whorehouse." Now for Leandro, everything is sex. A gesture, a movement, the roundness of a saucepan, the underside of a spoon. And then there's Lorenzo's relationship with a Barbie doll.

While these people are trying to get a purchase on the steep slope of their lives, they can see what they are losing. Sylvia is often overcome with sadness at the irreconcilability of her affair with Ariel. Ariel continues to play badly, making no excuses for himself, still trying to find his footing, literally and figuratively. "Returning from defeat, alone with his music, he was afraid he was experiencing a slow, but uninterrupted, fall from grace."

Director and screenwriter David Trueba's novel is written with a cinematic precision, and his prose is evocative and elegant. When Leandro places a record on the record player, there is an "initial frying sound." At a hospital, "nurses visit from the country of the sane and vital." Ariel and Sylvia talk one night, and the conversation "passed like a screen of rain between them." When things go well at a soccer match, "the condensed steam in the locker room, in the shower area, looks like heaven, the promised paradise." Moral degradation possesses "a hidden vertigo."

Trueba's love for Madrid and its people is clear; indeed, Madrid is almost a character in the book. But he also has acerbic things to say about Spain: "Spaniards don't go to shrinks, we get drunk in a bar, and all the barmen have psychiatric degrees from Gin and Tonic University." Leandro's friend says, "With the expulsion of the Jews, Spain makes its first formal declaration of mediocrity, officially becoming a despicable nation filled with complexes."
And about soccer: "The most profitable company in the world is the Catholic Church and then there's soccer. They both live off people with faith. Isn't it crazy?"

Soccer is the framework that Trueba uses to deal with fame, sex, politics, immigration, racism--the world, really. In soccer, there's no time for players to be sentimental or have inner lives; they save that for retirement. The team manager says the only contract is with the fans' enthusiasm, not really with the players. While watching a scoreless soccer game, the crowd becomes impatient, frustrated, indignant; they angrily watch Ariel--"Run, you shitty spic." They whistle and heckle him: "Go home, Indian, go home." When a Ghanaian player is in the game, the stadium fills with monkey shrieks. At home in Buenos Aires, the crowd cheered Ariel's name; in Madrid, the fans are cold and expectant, and the casual and accepted racism, provincialism and right-wing support are just part of the game.

The momentum in Learning to Lose grows slowly, but inexorably. What new humiliation awaits Leandro? What new heartbreak awaits Sylvia? The stories overlap, backtrack and expand--romantic, sad, tragic and often humorous, often in Sylvia's voice: "It's strange to be sitting inside this car. Although it's better than being plastered onto the windshield."

David Trueba explores "the gap between what one desires and what one can get, between what one is and what one wants to be," and does so brilliantly, with generosity and wisdom. Learning to Lose is irresistible.--Marilyn Dahl

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