Valeria Luiselli and the Transformative Power of Translated Storytelling [BTBA]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago. As a reminder, you can stay up to date with all BTBA goings on by liking our Facebook page and by following us on Twitter. And by checking in regularly here at Three Percent.
The Story Of My Teeth is an experimental novel, but not one that any coffee-house denizen twisting his mustache and wearing a beret will be able to keep and lord over you as a privileged work of literature written for the few. If anything, Valeria Luiselli brings literary know-how and attachment to the masses with the simultaneously entertaining and insightful story of Gustavo Highway Sanchez Sanchez.
Sanchez is a one man traveling circus and auctioneer who makes an art of selling his teeth in black-market auctions. The teeth in question each belong to a different historical figure, and behind each dental attachment, is a story that Gustavo spins in order to sweeten the cavity in what is otherwise a useless commodity. The stories he tells in order to make a sale seem far fetched and somewhat unbelievable, but there is always a customer. Perhaps it is Gustavo’s past as a simple security guard at a Juice Factory that keeps the auction-goers from questioning his sincerity. Even in his final auction lot, where he sells the very teeth he had implanted into his mouth—none other than the original teeth of Marilyn Monroe—the reader’s suspension of disbelief is held. Even beyond the realization that it is Gustavo’s own son who buys his teeth . . . with Gustavo attached.
While the structure of Luiselli’s second novel (her third book to be translated into English) is fragmented and as digressive as Gustavo’s auctioneering, what lies at the core is the power of stories and the interpretation of such to make individual meaning for the people consuming them. After a tragedy in Gustavo’s life that once again centers on his teeth and the theme-park wonderland where he lives in seclusion, we are brought into his biography through the re-interpretation of an auction catalog where a contemporary cast of literary characters, including Latin American novelists such as Yuri Herrera, Cesar Aira, and even Luiselli herself show up in simultaneously hilarious and insightful ways.
If the dizzying array of style and structure isn’t enough for readers, there is the integrated translation of sorts that took place during Luiselli’s first drafts of the novel. The Jumex Juice factory isn’t just a location that the central character of the novel once worked, but a real factory outside of Mexico City where a group of workers met regularly to discuss and help form the fragments of the novel. Furthermore, Christina MacSweeney, who translated the text into English is more present in the story as the author of the book’s Seventh section, “The Chronologic,” which is a timeline of the events surrounding and contained in Teeth’s story, which not only serves as a brief history of Latin American literature, but aids in creating an entirely new book when compared to the original Spanish publication of the novel.
In the end, The Story Of My Teeth is more than just a novel . . . as all novels that impact our lives are. It is a testament to not only the work that goes into translation, but also to the value of storytelling in a world that sometimes seems to commodify authenticity through our all-access lifestyle. A lifestyle that can seem bland once the curtain of mystery is pulled away only to reveal another character waiting behind it.