“The Story of My Teeth” by Valeria Luiselli [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Amanda Bullock, BTBA judge and director of public programs at Literary Arts, Portland. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is the most inventive and invigorating book I have read this year and it the most deserving of the Best Translated Book Award. The Story of My Teeth is about stories and storytelling, about art and how we value objects, about influence, and about teeth. It manages to be intelligent and experimental without an ounce of pretension (something I could not say for some of the other books on the longlist). In her afterword, Luiselli describes the book as a “collective ‘novel-essay’ about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”
Our narrator is the self-proclaimed “best auctioneer in the world,” Gustav Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway.” Highway is “a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object.” One of the most delightful sections is “The Hyperbolics,” in which Highway auctions off his own teeth, which he had removed in order to make room for Marilyn Monroe’s (well, allegedly Marilyn Monroe’s), spinning yarns about his teeth’s origins in the jaws of Plutarch, Virginia Woolf, G. K. Chesterton, and more of his philosophical heroes. He is demonstrating, he explains, that objects themselves have no value, but that we give them value and meaning through stories.
The book is about storytelling, yes, and another way to describe “storytelling” could be “making things up,” or “lying.” Highway is an unreliable narrator, sure, and in fact we meet a second narrator, Jacobo Voraigne, a little more than midway through the story, but Highway’s unshakeable confidence in himself and his style are irresistible. As we learn later from Voraigne, Highway is a self-made and self-mythologized man, a man who has written his own story.
The book is just the right amount of odd, making it playful where a lesser writer would be in danger of falling into pretentiousness or tweeness. Highway learns auctioneering from a Japanese man, “Master Oklahoma,” in Mexico City and furthers his studies in Missouri. He builds a huge house and a warehouse for all of his objects bought at auction on Calle Disneylandia. He buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth and has them put into his own mouth. There is a truly disturbing scene that will haunt me forever involving clowns. Luiselli provides lanterns to the larger project at play. There is a lot of name-checking: Highway mentioned uncles including Juan Sánchez Baudrillard, Miguel Sánchez Foucault, Marcelo Sánchez Proust, Roberto Sánchez Walser, and Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky. Most of the seemingly strangest parts of the book are the parts that are real places (the Missouri Auction School, Calle Disneylandia, an art gallery attached to and funded by a juice factory) or people (El Perro) or events (the clowns are a real art installation, at the Jumex Gallery). Luiselli’s is an intelligent humor, but is actually smart and actually funny.
Although I would argue that the novel alone, outside of the origin story, is worthy of the prize, in fact, the collaboration throughout this book is, if anything, the clincher. The award is not the “Best Novel Originally Written in a Foreign Language,” or even “Best Novel.” It is specifically “Best Translated Book Award,” and both the author and the translator are recognized. I think that the final of the book’s seven sections, “The Chronologic,” (and the Afterword, in fact) is one of the strongest arguments for why it should win this award and not, as some would posit, a strike against the novel. The Chronologic was written by the translator, Christina MacSweeney, and is a narrative timeline of Highway’s (fictional) life alongside events directly relating to the people and places in the novel: the death of Foucault, the beginning of work on Mexico’s first Volkswagen plant, the birth of Doug Aitken. It’s an amazing footnote to this strange story and highlights the close work between Luiselli and MacSweeney. In the Afterword, Luiselli says that she prefers to think of the translations of her books as “versions,” as she is so involved in their journey into English and often much changes in the the process. This book in particular, written as a commission by the Jumex gallery and then in direct collaboration with the workers at the factory that funds the gallery, is so highly and intentionally participatory and open that it strikes at the very heart of translation.
The Story of My Teeth is a book about truth and fiction, a question I think is central to reading translated work. How does the reader know this is “true”? Can a translation ever be “true”? How do we know what was meant by the author? Who is telling the story? The novel is in many ways directly tied to the dilemma of translation itself, making it the perfect winner of the Best Translated Book Award.
End of argument.