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On Universality: Childhood Confusion and Displacement in Literature [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

We know there are many connections to be made in themes and characters across countries and decades. I’d like to provide a fresh example by sharing three passages I ran across while reading for this year’s fiction award. While the children in the following novels face different emotional struggles, each responds with a similar defense mechanism.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press), first published in Hebrew in 1978.

This scene takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951, in a hotel run by ten-year-old Robby’s family, and frequented by eleven-year-old Victor’s family. The relevant thing to know here is that Victor is much more worldly than Robby, and has already introduced him to “a very nice game.” You guessed it, “‘Each of us will lie down in turn, and the others will stick it to him,’ Victor set the rules of the game.”

But what struck me was a passage when the two boys are watching Victor’s father and brother walk away from the hotel, and Victor tells Robby that his father is taking his brother to a prostitute.

“Robby had never heard that word, but his heart told him that its meaning lay in those moldy, mysterious corners, in the appealing, frightening world of sex. Plug your ears, hear no more. But every cell in his body thirsted for more knowledge.” Once Victor tells Robby what a prostitute is, and how “there are houses like that, there are,” Robby falls into confusion.

A father taking his son to a prostitute. Would his father also come to him one day and say, “Robby, let’s go,” then take him by the hand to a big, dark house? What do those houses look like? Maybe they’re more like palaces? Rooms upon rooms, like cells in a beehive. In each cell, a naked woman. . . . He wouldn’t know what to do. His eyes would cling to his father for help . . . [His father would] say, “That’s it, from here on out, you’re on your own.” On his own in a small, seedy room with cobwebs and . . . a woman.

My brief analysis: Of course the first thing Robby latches onto is The House. How better to displace his deep emotional confusion than to spend his energy wondering about the room layout and moving through space. It’s the sort of displacement that a child can latch onto, and which we also often recognize in dreams. (Robby will clearly be dreaming of labyrinthine palaces and cobwebs in attics for a long time, right?)

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Graywolf Press), first published in Norwegian in 1987.

This tiny collection of stories centers on young Arvid. Right at the beginning, Arvid’s Dad has been unable to hold a job since “the shoe industry capsized and sank,” and he’s just returned from another six month stint that didn’t work out. The family gathers. “They were all so bewildered they never got round to asking about anything except what was in the suitcase.” [Spoiler: It was lots of duty-free treats.] They’ve settled and gathered in the kitchen. “And of course Uncle Rolf had to have his say. It was a mystery to Arvid why he came round so often, didn’t he have his own place to live?”

This is kind of a throw-away line but I love it. Obviously Arvid knows where his uncle lives. A mere two pages later: “Uncle Rolf . . . drank up and went home to his flat in Vålerenga. The flat was full of clutter and dust balls everywhere . . . and whenever Arvid came to visit him he had to help with the dishes.” But the backdrop is Uncle Rolf’s condescension to Arvid’s father. In this conversation following his father’s perceived failure, Uncle Rolf says “‘The thing is, Frank, you don’t have any social aspirations, and you know it!’ . . . Arvid could see the irritation crawling around his dad’s face, and it was contagious for he could feel himself getting upset.”

At least for a moment, he can grapple with the mystery of where Uncle Rolf lives, to postpone the mystery of who his father is, and whether his Uncle is correct.

One night, a few pages later: “He dreams that his dad’s blue T-shirt with all the muscles inside it is suddenly empty and flabby and hanging there on a nail in a large empty attic room.” Arvid’s dreams won’t let him avoid the confusion, displacing mysteries onto further representative objects.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson (New Directions), originally printed in Portugese in the collection The Foreign Legion, 1964.

In a short story called “Monkeys,” a woman buys a little monkey “whose name would be Lisette. She nearly fit in my hand. She was wearing the skirt, earrings, necklace and bracelet of a Bahian woman.” Very soon, after “admiring Lisette and the way she was ours,” the narrator and her two boys are off in taxis rushing the little monkey to emergency rooms, fearing that she is about to die.

“The next day they called, and I told the boys that Lisette had died. My youngest asked me: ‘Do you think she died wearing her earrings?’ I said yes.” Including the question about her earrings, I think that Lispector has made this moment of grief even more poignant than, say, a question about how she died or whether they can get a new monkey. Read the whole story and it might make you cry.

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Just to supplement literature with memory, I conclude with another small example of this displacement (also focusing on architecture, in fact). As a child, I didn’t watch many movies, but was curiously obsessed with the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was entirely creeped out by the Child Catcher, but still needed to watch it over and over. The only clear memory I have of the film is the scene where he searches the doll-maker’s house for children and tells his minions: “You have to know where to look . . . under the floors, in the cracks in the walls, in the woodwork.” Every time I watched the film, I waited anxiously for that scene, hoping to one day figure out how it would be possible for a child to hide in the cracks in the wall. It’s absurd, but was a huge part of my inability to process the coexistence of curiosity and fear, and might be the reason these small elements strike me so.

I don’t mean to say that all children think in the same way—perhaps not everyone reading this associates the deepest experience of childhood to be utter confusion and perpetual displacement—but mostly I hope to remind us of one benefit of reading a wide variety of literature in translation:

Maybe your experiences don’t apply to everyone, but there are few things more unifying than recognizing that your experiences pop up here and there in literature, throughout all of space and time. On one level, we hope to increase our cultural exposure and diversify our empathy; on another, we can take a moment to realize that we’re nothing new. It sometimes doubles as good therapy.



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