Preface to a Prologue of an Idea of a Thought (Part V)
tanning doing journalism at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, I thought it would be interesting to totally overload everyone on Macedonio Fernandez. Museum of Eterna’s Novel ranks right up there as one of the books that I’m most proud to be associated with. It’s unique, strange, “difficult,” endlessly playful, important, influential, conceptual, frustrating, enjoyable, and one of the most devoted love stories ever written. To build up to the March 11th event for Macedonio (“The Greatest Event Since It and the World Began”), which will take place at the Americas Society and feature Edith Grossman, Margaret Schwartz, and Todd Garth, all this week we’re going to be serializing Margaret’s translator’s introduction. And on Monday we’ll run a special interview one of our interns did with her about the translation. Here are links to Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of the intro. Enjoy!
Because Museum was transcribed, edited, and published posthumously, it’s important to realize that there’s a certain hypergraphic quality to Macedonio’s manuscripts. Compulsive lists and fragmentary observations appear without any organizational structure and without respect for the linear form of the notebook or even the page. He obsessively traced the patterns of his psyche onto the page.
In the Museum manuscripts there is almost no editing. That is to say, Macedonio seems rarely if ever to have returned to a passage once it was written. Multiple versions of the same prologue exist, or multiple treatments of the same idea, and Ana Camblong’s 1993 annotated edition of Museum traces these repetitions and their variations. But mostly one sees Macedonio adding, not subtracting: reading
a passage, perhaps (towards the end of his life) one that Adolfo had typed up for him, he makes a few underlinings or minimal corrections and then writes another two paragraphs on the bottom half of the page. Museum’s logic is one of supplementarity as well as deferral: there’s a kind of additive logic, wherein ideas, rather than being illustrated or explained, are repeated often enough that they start to take intuitive shape for the reader.
It is very much a book that teaches you how to read it. It’s not so much a question of showing versus telling, since neither form seems to apply. The reader is simply thrown into the book as Heidegger (someone for whom Macedonio would have had only scorn, given the importance of death for his ontology) says we are thrown into the world: there is no point of entrance or origin, merely a given world that unfolds in its own time.
How to translate someone who deliberately tangles his words, uses antiquated language, and who writes at the speed of thought, without regard for syntax and punctuation? Macedonio was a famed conversationalist. Borges often identifies Macedonio not so much by name as by voice, tobacco roughened, distant, yet very genteel. Macedonio’s voice becomes a metonym for his presence and his uniqueness—an ineffable quality, physically and temporally constrained by the body
of the man himself. As a translator, therefore, my choices have consistently been to preserve this voice.
Macedonio’s prose is best characterized as baroque, for several reasons. First, because it is complicated and ornate. Sentences may go on for pages, without any temperance with regard to punctuation, with open parentheses dangling and semicolons propping up impossibly convoluted clauses. An idea begins, only to be interrupted by a different thought, then the first idea returns without fanfare or apology. Secondly, the writing is baroque because the diction is antiquated, if not necessarily high-register. Wherever possible, I have tried to capture this quaint quality, almost as if there were lexical mothballs scattered liberally in the closet of his prose, giving it the air of your grandmother’s steamer trunk. Macedonio was very aware of his grand vieux image among the young vanguardists, and it’s possible he cultivated this in his writing. But Macedonio was also a man whose formative years were in the nineteenth century, and who was conscious that he was coming late, as he so often joked, to authorship. Like Chaplin’s tramp in the film Modern Times, he is alternately befuddled, entangled, and irritated by newfangled contraptions, by the speed that characterizes modern life.
These persona—the Chaplin’s tramp style of the Author, or the melancholy President, or the gallant Gentleman Who Does Not Exist— are one of The Museum of Eterna’s Novel’s main delights. And, as I described earlier, they form the core of the novel’s metaphysical project to promulgate artistic non-being. Wherever possible, then, I have made decisions that favor the development of these persona, inevitably at the expense of what I consider a misguided fidelity to each word on the page. For example, I have translated the character’s name Deunamor as The Lover. Literally, Deunamor means “Of A Love,” or “Ofalove,” to preserve the neologism, as Deunamor is actually a phrase: De un amor. Of course the combination of words is much more felicitous in Spanish than in English (where indeed it’s almost impossible to pronounce it as a single word), and their meaning would be obscured by the neologism in a way that it is not for Spanish speakers. By calling Deunamor The Lover, then, I have selected the most important part of his character—his love, the fact that he has only one love to which he dedicates himself—and emblematized it in the meaningful, but not necessarily perfectly “faithful,” rendition The Lover.
Translation is an encounter with a textual other that both demands and defies an ethical response. Here the text is posthumous, and so it carries with it the sort of delicate intimacy of a draft: it was not yet ready for publication, if indeed its author would ever have thought it so. It demands a certain tenderness; just as it will teach you how to read it, it taught me how to render it, as I listened for the traces of the remarkable man who built an ardent structure of his grief and, ultimately, his belief in the redemptive power of love.