Earlier this summer, reading Jeff Deutsch’s In Praise of Good Bookstores, I came across what one might call the book-browser’s credo: “The book with which one was familiar was not, in most cases, the book one needed. It was the unknown neighbor on the same shelf.” It was an experience of just that kind, stumbling upon an unknown neighbor on the shelves, that led me to what has become one of my favorite bibliophilic discoveries.
It was the fall of 2019, and I was in D.C. for an event at the American Enterprise Institute. Having a bit of time on my hands the evening before, I wandered into Kramers Bookstore to look around. And a volume caught my eye, pleading—successfully—to be rescued from its captivity. To prove that this is a true story and not a concocted one, I will confess right away that I don’t actually remember the title, despite poring over the relevant shelves in my office in frustration at my inability to dredge it from my memory. I thought briefly that it might have been Serge Pey’s collection of stories The Treasures of the Spanish Civil War, but since that was published only in 2020, it can’t be the one.
No matter. Even without knowing the title, I can describe the book in general terms. Its size and shape caught my eye first. It was small, squat, almost square, about five and a half inches wide and perhaps an inch more in height. It had a textured matte cover of stiff cardboard, with cover flaps. Centered on the front cover was an image, either a painting or a photograph, surrounded by a single-color border, most likely in an earth tone. Printed on high quality paper, it was a pleasure to both the eyes and the hands.
Shortly after returning home, I spotted another book of similar appearance, this time in an email from the Italian Cultural Institute of New York. I have no idea how I ended up on their email list, but they sometimes alert me to interesting things, like their online “Stanze Italiane” devoted to Italian culture, or the mystery author Gianrico Carofiglio. On this occasion they were promoting the appearance of a new collection of short stories by Antonio Tabucchi, Message from the Shadows. I ordered a copy. Tabucchi is a master at conveying mood, emotion, and human relationships in understated tales that reveal much more than they say. But I did not know that at the time, never having read anything by him previously, or indeed even heard of him. I bought the book simply because its cover was so strikingly beautiful. (Follow the link and see for yourself.)
I now own a shelf full of similar volumes, all of them published by a small, not-for-profit press located in Brooklyn, Archipelago Books. Spurred by the combined discovery of Tabucchi and my D.C. find, I looked up Archipelago online and discovered—I hesitate to mention this, lest I lead into temptation others as vulnerable as I—that I could become a “member” of the press. The chief privilege of membership: Every month Archipelago charges my credit card $15, and in return, a dozen or so times a year, they send me a copy of each new book they publish. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Archipelago Books was founded in 2003 by publisher and editor Jill Schoolman. To quote from its own website, it is “devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature,” as a means of promoting “artistic exchange between cultures” and revealing “a common humanity between people of different nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds.” In a 2017 interview with Literary Hub, Schoolman described the press’s roots in her own love of travel, with time spent in Tanzania, Italy, and England, and also of language (along with English, she is fluent in French and Spanish).
This love of foreign cultures is palpable in the attractive, high-quality books that Archipelago publishes and the diversity of their list, which now includes over 200 books from about 35 different languages. In addition to Romance, Slavic, and other European languages, these include Arabic, Bengali, Japanese, Tamil, Turkish, and Urdu. Their list includes well-known authors such as Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Gershom Scholem, and Halldór Laxness, but also a host of writers whose names will likely be unfamiliar to the average American reader (as they typically are to me).
I have used a range of Archipelago texts in a reading group at the small college where I teach, and I have yet to be disappointed. We read Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu, for example, a slender collection of stories set against the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda during the 1990s, in which Mukasonga, staggeringly, lost more than 30 members of her own family. The genocide figures prominently only in the last story, but we sense its presence in the hunger, poverty, and fear experienced by the characters. Similarly, Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel Dance on the Volcano was an absolute revelation. Set against the Haitian revolution, it uses the story of a historical Black singer named Minette to expose how slavery infects all aspects of society—from politics to the arts to sex—with the struggle for power.
Another impressive novel is Yuri Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog, which tells of a Canadian sailor named John McClellan who, early in the 20th century, becomes stranded in the outskirts of Siberia when the expedition of which he is a part abandons him after an accident that costs him his hands. Crippled and utterly dependent for his survival on the indigenous Chukchi tribe—of whom Rytkheu, writing in Russian, is the acknowledged literary master—he learns to fend for himself in the most unforgiving of landscapes. As he learns the local language, adopts Chukchi customs, and marries a local woman, McClellan grows not only in self-understanding but also in love and appreciation for a people whom he initially regarded as barbarians.
I will resist the temptation to pile example upon example, but my students have pondered problems of modern angst with Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (Japanese), questions of patriarchy and feminism with Ambai (Indian), and the wrenching decision to euthanize a son with Tomás González (Colombian). As we move among cultures, literary traditions, and languages, we feel, appropriately, like sailors in a cultural archipelago. As Schoolman explained her choice of name for the press to BOMB magazine: “I liked the idea of an archipelago, of distinct islands maintaining their own individual shapes and ways, yet belonging to something larger. Our books come from different parts of the world, are conceived and written in different tongues, but each make up an important part of our archipelago.” In an age of polarization, we need more people skilled in translation, which requires one to inhabit a different point of view without ever losing the firm attachment to one’s own.
For younger readers—or older readers who remain young at heart—Archipelago branched out into picture books with its 2017 launch of a separate imprint, Elsewhere Editions. Like its parent press, Elsewhere focuses on international titles. It aims at “translating imaginative works of children’s literature from all corners of the world.” At this point it has published 17 books from 10 languages, sharing Archipelago’s emphasis on good stories, attractively published. For our most recent wedding anniversary, I gave my wife—book-lovers have their own ideas of romance—a copy of Juan Hormiga by the Argentinian Gustavo Roldán. Charmingly illustrated, it tells of an idle ant with a gift for story-telling, who sets off in search of adventure and then manages to sleep through it.
It is difficult to imagine the reader who will not find something from Archipelago to whet his curiosity and tickle his fancy. Especially after a couple of years in which it has been hard to travel—or for that matter even now, since, thanks to the airlines, traveling is still a pain in the neck—it has been a relief to anticipate each month’s latest surprise, wondering into which seas I will set sail with Archipelago’s latest release. This very moment Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence is lying on the table in front of me, a “self-elegy” in which the important Arabic poet, feeling his life drawing to a close, looks back at exile, love, and authorship in an elusive mixture of prose and poetry, or perhaps simply poetic prose. Time for me to stop writing, then, and return to the archipelago.