This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. 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.
I was lucky enough, during the last Brooklyn Book Festival, to catch celebrated Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translator Roland Glasser at the front end of a whirlwind tour marking the release of Tram 83. I remember being struck not only by the force and freshness of the passages they read, but also by the physicality of their recitals. Both kept time with measured flicks of finger and heel, driving home the importance of music to the novel—not only as a theme, but also as an organizing principle of the narrative. (Glasser, in fact, remarked that his process involved re-reading passages in French until he could mark their rhythm without looking at the page; only then would he set about noting down the English.)
At the same time the Kalashnikov swing of its prose challenges the conventional opposition of style and substance, Tram 83 also dips into tradition with a tale of misadventures that recalls picaresque narratives of yore, complete with chapter headings that lay out the events to come, and a friendship (of sorts) suffused with jealousy and betrayal.
Our first stop inside the world of the novel is Northern Station, the ruins of the rail system that is the legacy of colonialism and mineral extraction in the region. Beside us on the platform is Requiem, a former Marxist who has thrown himself headlong into the frenzied capitalism of the newly independent City-State where he lives. He’s involved in a number of illicit operations, and collects compromising photos of powerful local figures as a form of personal insurance. He is waiting for Lucien, with whom he shares a complicated past and little else: Lucien, a former history student and aspiring writer in a place that needs “doctors, mechanics, carpenters, and garbage collectors, but certainly not dreamers,” does his best to remain above the fray in the struggle for survival of the “students, the diggers, the baby-chicks, the for-profit tourists . . . the single-mamas, the human organ dealers, the child-soldiers” around him.
Tram 83 plays out, in many ways, as a call and response between these two incompatible ideologies: the cynical pragmatism of Requiem and the other denizens of the City-State, and Lucien’s naïve—and, ultimately, rather elitist—allegiance to the world of letters. A call and response, that is, with a healthy dose of “background noise,” most notably the refrain of the single-mamas and underage baby-chicks on the hunt for their next clients: “Do you have the time?”
Though he distances himself enough from the local population to warrant a beating that feels like two outside the bar from which the novel gets its name, Lucien eventually, predictably, gets dragged into the tumult. As he drafts and rewrites his magnum opus (“a stage tale that considers this country from a historical perspective. The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years . . . Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceaușescu, not forgetting the dissident General”) for a Swiss expat publisher named Malingeau, he stumbles into robbery and romance—with notebook in hand all the while. But first, he has to arrive:
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening.
“Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined . . . According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities—in short, all the usual clichés.
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine.
These opening lines introduce many of the motifs that give the narrative form. The dilapidated train station, a recurring backdrop in the novel, stands in for the broken promise of economic “progress” (as exploitative and destabilizing as that progress proved to be) and provides an ironic foil to the real motor of local society, Tram 83, where deals are made, treaties broken, and livelihoods eked out through seemingly infinite variations on the theme of extortion.
Time is also, always, of the essence: most notably, in the circular quality it takes on through the novel’s many riffs (“Do you have the time?”) and the permanent twilight of its central locale, populated as it is by sleepwalkers and night owls. It’s here, I would argue, between tempo and temporality that Tram 83 does its most interesting work, presenting the harshness of life in the City-State, complete with the claustrophobia generated by the novel’s ubiquitous refrains, with an unmistakable sense of play. Rejecting conservative formal and conceptual models—the African literature of “squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence” bemoaned by Malingeau—Tram 83 is at once a celebration and a lament, a Bildungsroman sans Bildung, a masterful exercise in style, and a valuable contribution to the conversation about what literature in translation is and can be.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. 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.
I’ve been planning for weeks to write about Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which got under my skin in a way few books do. It’s not just that it’s impossible to put down—in both Herrera’s Spanish and Lisa Dillman’s English, its language is a fever dream of mixed registers and literary allusions pulled perfectly taut across the story. This would probably be reason enough to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the novel, but it seems even more timely to talk about Signs now, less than a week after Donald Trump, the poster child for backward thinking about borders and the people who cross them, had another moment in the spotlight on Saturday Night Live. Less so because the novel tells the story of an fierce, unflappable young woman who makes the journey from what is recognizably (though not explicitly) Mexico into what is recognizably (though not explicitly) the USA in search of her missing brother—though it is indeed a compelling story—than because the novel offers a powerful, nuanced take on the negotiation of those contact zones in which not only nations, but also languages, traditions, and identities meet, complicate, and enrich one another.
We meet Makina—the protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World and, in the words of Francisco Goldman, the “heroine who redeems us all“—as she stands on a different, but even more intractable border: the one separating life from death. In fact, the very first words of the novel are the beautifully impossible “I’m dead,” exclaimed as the ground at her feet, weakened by centuries of rapacious silver extraction, caves in—swallowing a man as he crosses the street “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around, and even the screams of passers-by.”
Makina, however, refuses to be among those “sent packing to the underworld” that day—she has a mission to carry out. Her mother has asked her to deliver a note to her brother, who went missing after getting conned into crossing the border in search of land supposedly left to their family. To accomplish this, she first needs to visit another underworld: the lairs of three local gangsters who will help her make it to the other side. From there she travels to the border, crosses the stygian river that separates the two lands with the aid of a taciturn gentleman named Chucho (hired by said gangsters to act as her guide), is shot by vigilantes but somehow manages to escape, and is nearly arrested as she homes in on her brother’s whereabouts.
If all this sounds fairly epic, that’s because it is: one of the things that make this work so much bigger than the breadth of its spine is the way Herrera weaves allusions to pre-Columbian and Western narrative traditions throughout. Given the nine chapters that lead to our heroine’s descent into “The Obsidian Place with no Windows or Holes for Smoke,” we can pick Dante out as one of Makina’s travel companions, and the ordeals she faces as she crosses the border—not to mention her almost inhuman physical and psychological resilience—clearly bear the mark of myth.
In addition to this contact and flow between cultures past and present, zones of linguistic contact are central to the novel. As the switchboard operator and de facto interpreter of the small town where she lives, Makina, is herself a model of these modes of exchange. Though she is able to speak “native tongue,” “latin tongue,” and the “new tongue” of those who have gone up North, she knows “how to keep quiet in all three, too.”
Among the few possessions she takes on her journey is a “latin-anglo dictionary,” despite the fact that “those things were by old men and for old men.” The world, however, is not revealed to her through the neat equivalences of the dictionary, but rather through moments of non-transference between languages, when one shines through the other like a beacon. Standing firmly astride another border, a frontier almost as carefully policed as the one separating Makina from the land that swallowed her brother, Herrera deftly takes on the social politics of a language that is recognizably (though not explicitly) Spanglish:
More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born . . . Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.
It is not just that this third tongue stands alongside the other two, its fluid definitions perpetually subject to change. What is so striking about Herrera’s description is that it is precisely from this unstable position at the border between two languages that this third one creates meaning more rich than either side alone could produce:
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It is not another way of saying things: these are new things.
Makina’s gaze makes things new in just this way, especially for the North American reader of Dillman’s vibrant, limber translation. Supermarkets are “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand,” in which the “anglogaggle at the self-checkouts” purchases their goods and then seeks to “make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.” (“Anglogaggle“—a felicitous play on Herrera’s “gabacherío“—may well be one of the best words I’ve ever seen in print.) Baseball is a game the anglos play every week “to celebrate who they are” on “an immense green diamond rippling in its own reflection” set among “tens of thousands of folded black chairs, an obsidian mound barbed with flint, sharp and glimmering.”
Seeing the elements of a familiar world through the lens of an unfamiliar one makes the attributes of both resound, and what is not to be learned from this?
Though the exceedingly timely and nonetheless timeless Signs Preceding the End of the World does not hold back in evoking the violence and exploitation that haunts the passage across the US-Mexico border, Herrera was both sage and skilled enough to write a book that occupies this space in a way that, in its dizzying array of registers and allusions, refuses to be confined by the socio-political reality it depicts. In this virtuosic feat, he seems to have accomplished the impossible: he has offered a new and vital way of looking at a subject too often passed through the pulverizing mill of political rhetoric.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by translator and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review, Heather Cleary. 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.
Earlier this week, I returned home from a month abroad to find my hall closet overflowing with submissions to this year’s BTBA. I’m glad there were no witnesses to my cartoonish glee as I tore into the bright yellow envelopes; not nearly as glad, though, as I am that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to explore so many new translations I might otherwise not have read. To borrow a phrase from a canonical work especially dear to my heart: bring it on.
Anyway. Mixed in among the bounty of this first shipment was Yoel Hoffmann’s beautifully composed Moods, luminously translated by Peter Cole. The text is a series of numbered vignettes narrated in the first person plural by a voice that is by turns mischievous, nostalgic, cynical, reflective, and often quite funny. (At one point, for example, Hoffmann recommends using the book as a prop to pick up a lover, or as a pillow to soothe an aching back.) A few readers I know have wondered aloud whether the book should be considered a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, or something else entirely; Hoffmann, who seems to have anticipated these questions—or quite likely set out to provoke them—replies, “What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation, and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?”
My interest may have been piqued by this challenge to literary norms, but it was the spare yet surprisingly rich descriptions of Hoffmann’s narrative world that drew me in, as well as the urgency with which the book seeks to bear witness to something as vast as a life in one moment, and then unwrite itself in the next. (“If it were printed on thinner paper we’d suggest the reader use it for rolling cigarettes. The smoke would write the book in the air as it really is.”)
But let’s begin at the beginning. “Ever since finishing my last book,” Hoffmann remarks, “I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. // Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole.” Following this observation, Hoffmann presents the beginning of a traditional novelistic storyline (“I know it’s a love story”) which—rather than developing toward the requisite “middle” and “end”—is quickly absorbed by a series of divergent reflections that bind the personal to the philosophical with the twine of dry humor (“It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small”).
Though this narrative gambit might look like a false start, the book’s first chapter does indeed contain the seed of Moods, which is in many ways a work composed of beginnings. Not only because its vignettes could be read in any order, giving rise to new interpretations with every new opening, but also because each chapter seems to double as the opening to another, untold story that intersects with the one on the page at only a single point. And so, across its many moods, this book is—as much as any I’ve read—about what it does not say. Characters we never fully meet pass through the staunchly metonymic moments of a life that seems to remain unknown even to the voice recounting it. One of the great accomplishments of Moods is the way this negative space bears as much weight as the words on the page.
The specter of stories untold is especially pronounced in Hoffmann’s lists, each element of which seems to contain an entire universe, not unlike Hemingway’s famous six-word novel. “Here are some other things that break the heart,” Hoffmann declares: “An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted.” Each image, vivid and universal in its understatement, is heavy with the moments that precede it and invites us to imagine those that follow.
It has been said that one of the most difficult things to translate is the silence of a text—those gaps made intelligible by shared cultural or historical touchstones that rarely pass without a struggle into the target system. In this sense, Cole has done an admirable job of preserving as inklings the hollows that Moods offers its readers. I gather from the English that his task must have been doubly challenging: not only is this a book of many silences, in his reflections on the limits of writing, and of language itself, Hoffmann also traffics in linguistically specific reflections. Cole’s solutions to these challenges are deft, even artful, whether he is re-Englishing Hoffmann’s adaptation of Joyce or rendering a nursery rhyme in one chapter’s paean to unadorned language (“If only we could write like that”).
(Peter Cole at the University of Rochester)
It’s a good thing, too, since a skilled hand is needed to translate a work that operates with such intention, and such self-consciousness, on the level of the word. Just as the form of the book’s opening was the object of reflection, so too is the way it will draw to a close. “This might be the last book we’ll write,” Hoffmann muses,
I wonder what how it will end. What its final words will be. Joyce, for example, finished his final book with the word the.
We’ve always thought it extremely strange that movies (and books) end with the word End. Moreover, sometimes the definite article’s added.
Maybe we’ll end with a different word altogether . . . Imagine if the word turns out to be prow. Or Binyamina. Or epaulettes. Or hydraulic. Or gurgle (which is probably onomatopoetic). Or drowse. Or you.
Given the centrality of beginnings in this book, it is fitting that Hoffmann resolves this question by deciding to close with one—THE beginning, in fact, which he describes as a “beautiful tale”:
In the beginning, when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and waste, and darkness was over the face of the deep . . .
“Imagine the loneliness of countless years,” Hoffmann writes. “Like a giant, old, autistic man, He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Having evoked so many beginnings with his silence, Hoffmann locates silence within this beginning, and in so doing, finds his final word:
The only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names). But when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.
Abilio Estévez is next up in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. Arcade brought out a couple of his books a decade ago, but the piece he chose as his “aesthetic highpoint” (excerpted below) has never appeared in English translation.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I’ve chosen this excerpt for three compelling reasons: the first, that I had a hard time writing it, much more than any other section of El navegante dormido, a novel to which I feel a particular connection. The material resisted me for some time, and that struggle, far from discouraging me, always excites me and spurs me on. There is a combative part of me that is nourished when I write. The second reason: it is a section that someone I love, my companion, finds moving. The third reason might seem like a boutade (and, of course, it is), but it has to do with me, with my own inner Mamina fleeing a great fire, not knowing whether the flight will be worth it, not knowing whether salvation exists or what that even means.
As a writer, how has your exile from Cuba affected you?
My exile from Cuba has been good for me as a writer, so far. As a person, I don’t know. The world I lived in was very small, very closed, very provincial, to put it one way. All of a sudden, I discovered that the world was a big, unfamiliar place. I discovered that no one is the center of the universe, that you’re just one passion among many, and that everyone has the same problems. This awareness is very important for a writer. There is an element of humility there that has been really useful for me. Beyond that, I’ve been able to read books that I couldn’t before; I didn’t have access to many cultures. From this perspective, my exile has suited me. From a personal perspective, it’s painful to know that you have to leave a place and won’t be able to go back. Or that if you do go back, your return implies a failure of some kind. It’s like going home not because you’ve decided to go home, but because you’ve decided to die before your time. It’s going back to the feeling of being on that island and wanting to travel and not being able to because they keep you from leaving, or make it too difficult; I have to get foreign money and visas, and then there’s the reality of coming back and having to ask permission to enter, which can be denied. The feeling that I’ve lost everything is always with me, the feeling that I couldn’t leave my home closed up and ask someone to take care of it while I’m gone, but instead that I abandoned it, and that’s a terrible feeling. It’s starting over, now, at fifty-five—I’ve been here for ten years—dealing with problems I should have faced when I was twenty, not now.
Full of danger were the roads Mamina had to travel to find refuge at the beach with no name.
It took her sixty-seven days, and the setbacks she faced were even greater in number. Two endless months and a week full of unthinkable violence. Fleeing from one end of the island to the other, from the distant soil of Oriente to arrive, without knowing why, at an unstable and Babylonian Havana.
“My own Stations of the Cross,” she would say on those rare occasions her spirits were high, or low, enough for her to talk about her journey. Accompanied by the pain of the dead left behind and under the sign of other massacres, deaths no less personal and terrible for their having been strangers, she reflected and suffered along the brutal roads of an island possessed.
Sixty-seven days amid the disasters and consequences of a race war and, to make things worse, bearing the worst possible letter of passage: her dark skin and her face—beautiful, yes, but that of a colored woman born to slaves, the pained, fugitive face of a daughter of the Mandinga and the Embuyla.
It was 1912. It had been only fourteen years since the Spanish Empire, already in terrible condition, lowered its flag, and ten since, the island having become a precarious state—a timid, intermittently democratic republic—a new flag (created by Teurbe Tolón for Narciso López) was raised from the battlements of El Morro and La Cabaña, alongside that of United States. In only fourteen years of independence, there had already been countless strikes, two wars, and two American interventions, as though the ten years of deaths, machete violence, epidemics, starvation, and internment camps between 1868 and 1878 hadn’t been enough, or as though they set the stage for the catastrophe that was, without a doubt, soon to befall the young and afflicted republic.
No one called her Mamina back then, they addressed her by her real, full name: María de Megara Calcedonia. She and her brother Juan Jacobo had been lucky enough to be born, respectively, in the relatively happy years of 1886 and 1887, when the Spanish Crown found itself obligated, after a bloody war which neither side had the distinction of winning completely, to abolish slavery on the “ever Loyal island of Cuba.”
The siblings were born in the mountains near Alto Songo, out between Dos Amantes and La Maya, in the quarters of the El Calamón coffee plantation, which at that time belonged to a formerly wealthy and still legendary family of the area, the Pageries, who, as their name suggests, were French or, rather, of French extraction. From Martinique, the Pagerie family arrived first at Saint Domingue, and from Saint Domingue, fleeing in terror from the armies of Toussaint Louverture, they ended up in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. As their surname also suggests, they were close relatives of the woman who had been Empress of the French, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born, as everyone knows, Tascher de la Pagerie. As such, the owners of El Calamón had that air typical of the Bonaparte nobility, something between stately and wild, a little coarse, that same affected haughtiness accented by a surprising touch of insecurity. Not only the stateliness, but also the wildness, the haughtiness, the affectation and the insecurity were amplified by the distance from that heart shared by every French person known as Paris, and by the everyday struggle of surviving in a land where even the most mundane undertaking becomes an event, vacillating between the tragic, the apocalyptic and, ultimately, the absurd. The Bonaparte nobility felt nobler there, but also more common, more parvenu, if that were possible.
Not very large, El Calamón was by then hardly a coffee plantation at all: it was more like a country house. It still produced a few hundred pounds of coffee, but that was not enough to maintain the familiar standard of luxury, which had not been all that luxurious for some time. The war drastically reduced production. Most of the family’s colored workers had run off to join the fight, which was as long and bloody as it was disorganized and futile.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
The second author featured today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Evelio Rosero, the youngest author to be included in the anthology. Rosero has a couple novels available in English translation from New Directions.
What he chose to include isn’t from either of those novels though. It’s from one of his children’s books, as he explains in the interview below.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
A little while ago I had the chance to speak before a group of schoolchildren in Cali. One of the youngest, probably to keep me from talking too much, or because I already had, came up to the stage and handed me one of my books. “Read us a story,” he said. Of course, I had no choice but to do just that. It was one of my first children’s books, published in ’92: El aprendiz de mago y otros cuentos de miedo. And the story that presented itself to me when I opened the book at random was, precisely, “Lucía, or, The Pigeons,” the piece I’ve decided to submit as a sample of my best work: a children’s story. The reasons behind this choice might seem non-literary, and they are, but not entirely. This is a story written just over twenty years ago, and the whole thing anticipates what I have tried to sketch out in my novels “for adults,” especially the two most recent ones, En el lejero and Los ejércitos. Anyone who knows either of these books will agree. What surprised me the most that afternoon was the realization that a children’s story managed to fully capture something that had surrounded and terrified me my whole life: the disappeared, the forced disappearances that have taken place in my country.
One morning we woke up to find that the pigeons had disappeared. The last to have seen them say they flew frantically, violently tracing out strange hieroglyphs in the sky, letters and words and then entire lines, like an infinite poem no one could understand because it was conceived in an unknown alphabet. It had been a chaos of feathers, an icy white drizzle.
And from that moment on we never saw another pigeon in the sky, not a single one.
Lucía and I wondered what could have happened to the pigeons, where they had gone, or who had taken them. The world is different without pigeons, without their little winged bodies crossing its towns like shards of light. We will never forget them.
Watching a pigeon fly was like flying, ourselves, like when you send a kite up in the air and it is carried far, far away and it feels as though you were the kite, up there in the clouds.
Lucía and I thought often about the pigeons, so we wouldn’t forget.
“What did pigeons sound like?”
I imagine a pigeon with Lucía’s face, her long hair like wings, flying like a smile through the sky. But I don’t tell Lucía. I only know that I have thought of Lucía as though she were a pigeon. The last one.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
The second author to be featured in our overview of the new collection A Thousand Forests in One Acorn is Jose María Merino, a Spanish master of microfictions. Merino is one of the authors in this volume whose work is appearing in English for the first time.
You can read other excerpts from Thousand Forests by clicking here. And this feature will continue all month—until all 28 authors have been highlighted.
All this month, if you order the book from the Open Letter site and use the code “FORESTS,” you’ll get it for only $15.
I chose the opening of my novel La orilla oscura because it is the work in which I think my literary obsessions really start to take shape: the tension between sleep and waking, the question of the double—in this case, with Spanish America mixed in—metamorphosis, the tricks that memory plays, my taste for metafiction and for texts that are nested like Russian dolls . . . Then I include three microfictions, a form I discovered after writing several novels and about a hundred short stories, because they represent not only the flexibility of the genre, but also show different aspects of my bewilderment at reality, which is the main inspiration for my writing. Finally, I chose the first story from my latest work, El libro de las horas contadas, in which I play with the idea of composing a novel as a short story writer would, and a collection of short stories and microfictions as a novelist.
The dead whose voices I hear with my eyes? My favorite books come to mind in schools, in flocks, and I find it hard to choose just a few. I will settle for a painfully incomplete historical overview of the books that have shaped me. After my first, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I read when I was seven, there were the ones I read in my childhood and adolescence, over which hung the shadow of Don Quixote—_Tom Sawyer, Kim, Around the World in 80 Days, William Brown_ . . . and a few dictionaries and encyclopedias, among which Salvat’s Universitas, where I discovered Hoffman and things like the solar system and mythology, stands out.
The fly circles listlessly around the bathroom. I look at it with disgust. What’s a bug doing in my luxury hotel room—in February, no less? I hit it with a towel and it falls, lifeless, onto to the marble sink. It’s a strange, reddish fly, not very big. It occurs to me that it is the last of a species that will disappear with its death. It occurs to me that the bathroom is its refuge from the winter. That in the garden under my window there is a plant, also very rare, which can only be pollinated by this fly. And that, within a few millennia, the presence of enough oxygen to ensure the survival of our own species will depend on the pollination and proliferation of that plant. What have I done? By killing this fly I have sealed your fate, humans of the future. But a slight twitch moves its legs. Maybe it isn’t dead! Now it is moving them with more force, now it has managed to stand, now it’s rubbing them together, stretching out its wings, getting ready to take flight; now it’s circling around the bathroom. Live! Breathe, humans of the future! But its clumsy movements bring that first, repellant image back to mind. I am snapped out of my trance. What is this disgusting bug doing here? I grab the towel, follow it, hit it, kill it. I finish it off.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
With Tom on vacation, Chad recorded a special episode of the podcast with Heather Cleary and Jason Grunebaum, both of whom have a book on the National Translation Award longlist. They talk about Sergio Chejfec’s “The Dark,” Uday Prakash’s “The Girl with the Golden Parasol,” air shows, the future of the American Literary Translators Association, and other non-sports related topics. (Seriously, this is a sports-free podcast.)
As an added bonus, there’s a short conversation Chad had with Uday Prakash about his collection “The Walls of Delhi.”Read More...
Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:
Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.
This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.
In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.
This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.
Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)
I’ve been a bit checked out the past few weeks with event upon event, travels to London and L.A. and New York (twice), final papers to grade, illnesses to overcome, soccer to geek out about, etc., etc. But now that it’s summertime (I only have one grade left to enter), it’s about time to get back into talking up interesting books (HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE TRAVELER OF THE CENTURY), commenting on the book publishing industry (like the fact that I’m so glad the number of publishers’ branded readers communities is about to explode . . . and inevitably implode, since most publishers make dumb things), and ranting about stuff, like, I don’t know, particular agents who have recently pissed me off.
We’re going to have a ton of interns again this summer, which should free up a bit of time to let loose on this blog, which I plan to do in grand style . . . But before getting into those fun and games, I thought it would be best to ease back into the Three Percent world by highlighting some exciting new ventures, starting with The Buenos Aires Review, brought to you by one of Open Letter’s favorite translators, Heather Cleary.1
The BAR launched last week to great acclaim (including mentions by Bookforum, Granta, New Directions, and the like), and for good reason. This bilingual internet magazine “presents the best and latest work by emerging and established writers from the Americas, in both Spanish and English. We value translation and conversation. We publish poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, visual art, and interviews.”
And the inaugural issue is, to slang it up a bit, pretty baller.
Javier Calvo: The other day I saw a book by Alejandro Zambra on a list of the most anticipated books of 2013 in the United States, and I wanted to ask you this: what do you think of this phenomenon, which to me is one of the most important things that have happened in American publishing in a long time? I’m talking about the attention Spanish-language fiction has been getting since Bolaño. How have you experienced this change as a translator, reader, scout, etc?
Mara Faye Lethem: Do you see it as so distinct from the Boom? Because I don’t.
Javier Calvo: I do see significant differences from the Boom. To begin with, I think the boom was much more a strategy, and as such it had a center. And when I say strategy, I say it almost in the sense of the British Invasion: we’re going to take over North America. Here, I don’t see too much strategy, and as a matter of fact I don’t see how an editor could hope to get rich on the books of Aira or Zambra. Secondly, the Boom in America was a much more asymmetrical phenomenon, the rich neighbor’s consumption of a series of consumer elements related to exoticism and magic.
Look, for example, at the resounding failure as strategies of all the “commercial brands” of exportation of Latin American literature: McOndo, the Crack Movement . . .
In the current case it’s true that Bolaño has been sanctioned by the American world of culture as the “Chosen One” to replace GGM [Gabriel García Márquez] as the Great Novelist in Spanish, but I also see differences: it seems to me that the acceptance of the new literature in Spanish already lacks that aspect of consumption of the poor, the exotic, and the distinct. I believe that now, strangely, it already has a certain aspect of normalcy, acceptance of the two-directional cultural tides that exist between Spanish and English. Although this may perhaps be overly optimistic.
Mara Faye Lethem: Well, when they talk about Aira as the new Bolaño, yes, that implies a certain strategy of marketing. I think that the case of Bolaño has been an astounding example of the unpredictability of the editorial world, and the strategy of buying books in other people’s styles is ridiculous, but shows no signs of waning. I suppose people’s lack of vision, as well as their fear, just get bigger and bigger than their risk-taking . . .
There’s an interview with Junot Diaz featuring the intriguing pull-quote, “We exist in a constant state of translation. We just don’t like it.”
There’s fiction by Giovanna Rivero:
The pointless memories are the most beautiful ones. I must have been, what, eight years old when this guy with a bird’s name, Piri, came to my grandparents’ house. He’d come to help my grandmother with the little sausage and bakery business she’d set up in her third courtyard. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but the house really did have three courtyards and in the third, as I said, my grandmother had set up a real life steam-powered manufacturing line for chorizo and bread. If you showed up very early in the morning, you could imagine the smoke belched out by the grinders, ovens, crushers, fillers and pots being, logically, the smog that rose in a frenzy from the First World’s last generation of machines.
There’s a piece by Mariano López Seoane on Evita that opens by name-checking JLo and “Jenny from the Block.”
And there is more.
Overall, this is a solid opening issue, and one I’m sure we’ll be featuring time and again. (Oh, and while I’m plugging things that make me happy, Heather’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark is at the printer now. So all your Chejfec/Cleary fans have something fantastic to look forward to reading this fall.
1 Actually, we love all the editors of Buenos Aires Review. Jennifer Croft, Pola Oloixarac, and Maxine Swann all deserve special shout-outs as well.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.
Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.
The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:
The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.
For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.
Following on the earlier post about Quarterly Conversation, here are excerpts from two interviews with translators that appear in the new issue, starting with Heather Cleary, the translator of two Open Letter books—The Planets and The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. This interview was conducted by Stephen Sparks, one of the members of this year’s BTBA Fiction Panel.
SS: You’ve written elsewhere that Chejfec’s prose “both deflects and draws the reader in,” which I’ve found to be a very apt characterization of his work. That indeterminacy or wavering—as if Chejfec is inviting the reader in while keeping his foot against the door—is one of the more compelling (if occasionally frustrating) aspects of his writing. How, then, do you as a translator find your way into the text?
HC: Yes, and I think this is particularly true of The Planets. Sergio wrote a beautiful essay a few years ago called “Simple Language, Name,” in which he talks about his development as a writer and the way his father’s difficulty learning Spanish late in life affected his own use of the language, driving him toward a certain stylistic opacity that he was only able to move away from over time. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s going on in The Planets has to do with navigating the space between oneself and another, particularly when that other person exists in an entirely internalized form, that is, only as a memory. This is explored in the prose itself, which often gives the language an air of being borrowed, somehow unnatural. That said, The Planets is a beautiful book, as thorny as it can occasionally be, and an important one in that it approaches the themes of friendship, loss, and memory in an innovative, even startling way.
So, it was never really a question of whether I would try to make my way in . . . the how of it, I suppose, was through certain passages I found particularly moving, and which offered insight into the more abstract sections. For example, during one of the disjointed conversations M and the narrator have as boys, the narrator repeats something M has said as though it were his own thought, though he doesn’t even fully believe it. It’s such a simple moment, but that detail seemed so true and really crystallized the dynamic between the two boys for me; it also anticipates what comes later, as the narrator struggles to preserve M’s memory by keeping his voice alive, in some very surprising ways. There are many moments like this—the image of the narrator running around an entire city block so that he can have a second chance to acknowledge M’s mother when their paths unexpectedly cross; the guilt he feels at not having fully invoked M’s memory in conversation with a mutual friend. Those anchored the story for me, and lent depth and immediacy to the more abstract passages. [. . .]
SS: What is your translation process like? Do you have a particular passage that proved tricky, etc. that you’d like to discuss? I’m interested in some of the nitty-gritty of the act of translation here. How many dictionaries do you consult? How many drafts do you go through?
HC: It’s a little different with each project. I usually start with a period of pre-reading—going through the text to be translated once or twice, as well as other works by the writer, interviews when possible, sometimes criticism. Whatever might help me find my way into the narrative voice. Then there’s the actual translation part. I use the RAE (dictionary of the Real Academia Española) and the OED, and often ask search engines or kindly friends about how a word is used colloquially. This has been key with Sergio’s work, since he tends to slip in phrases that are just a shade off from typical constructions. I end up with a chaotic draft full of notes, and then revise. And revise, and revise. There’s generally a lot of snacking involved at this stage.
I can’t recall any one passage that proved particularly tricky (they all were, each in its own way), but I had to pay very close attention throughout to the tension between the narrator’s philosophical reflections and his reminiscences about his lost friend. It felt to me that there was something underneath that first kind of rumination; while obviously thematically relevant, they also felt like a means of withdrawing from the experience of remembering M and feeling that memory fade. The challenge was to get this across, balancing the concrete and the abstract within a single narrative voice in a way that suggested a deeper connection between the two, without letting them bleed together or pull the narrative apart at the seams (any more or less than they do in the Spanish, that is). It was a similar process with the other voices at work in the novel—in addition to the first-person narrative, M and his father intervene to tell a series of elliptical, grotesque stories about nomads and eyeballs and a wedding gone awry, and then there’s the meta-commentary that appears in italics, contesting the first-person narrative at times, corroborating it at others—though these were more clearly delineated.
Finally, there’s also an interview with Georges Szirtes conducted by Bethany Pope:
Bethany W. Pope: Which is more important to you, the literal word-for-word translation of the text or reconstructing the atmosphere of the piece?
George Szirtes: There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.
B.W.P: In your translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad I noticed that the atmosphere of the piece—that slightly humorous melancholy—had a lot in common with the tone and atmosphere of your own work, most recently found in your tweets about the ageless crustacean doctor and his lobsteresque paramour. How much influence does translation have on your own work?
G.S: Sindbad was a pleasure to translate because I felt I understood Krudy’s world as soon as I entered it. There may be a difference between the person who is primarily a translator and the one who is primarily a writer who translates. The two may overlap, and there are translators who become writers in the act of translating. For me it was a writerly recognition. Krudy’s Hungary was not my Hungary, not by a long chalk, but it was a real world, particularly in the minds of close friends. The humorous melancholy in Krudy is, as I discovered, an aspect of my own imagination, one that working on Sindbad brought to light. It is possible to hope that any engagement in translation will bring out some latent possibility in the writer-translator.
The Adventures of Sindbad was the second work of fiction I translated (the first was Anna Édes by Kosztolanyi) but by that time I had translated a good many poems and the verse-tragedy. Sindbad came along at the right time. I think my imagination was ready for it, ready, that is, to render it into English but also to feel it as a voice that might be adapted to my own. Most of my translations have been a kind of enrichment of voice. I have learned a great deal from them.
I should add that the longer poems I wrote as a result of my first 1984 visit, that constituted the backbone of the resulting book, The Photographer in Winter (1986) are not at all Sindbad like. They are darker, heavier, more cavernous things.
Remember, you can read the whole issue of Quarterly Conversation by clicking here.
Holding the reader at arm’s length from the medium of its telling (the early image of the narrator attempting to read a newspaper and seeing only splotches of ink comes to mind), The Planets is therefore marked by a certain—productive—dissonance. That is, it strikes a minor note. For this reason, among others, translating the novel was not so much a matter of pulling a text or pushing a reader, but rather one of situating the work at a remove from colloquial English that was comparable to its relation to colloquial Spanish. Because from this vantage point just beyond the familiar we can observe, through the narrator’s dance with the shadow of his lost friend, the fundamental unnaturalness of the natural.
It seems like almost everyone I talk to is a big fan of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated by Margaret Carson). It got a ton of press when it came out last fall, and was even longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards.
Well, this summer (June to be exact), we’re going to be bringing out The Planets (translated by Heather Cleary), one of his earlier books that focuses on the Dirty War period in Argentina’s history. Although, seeing that this is a Chejfec book, it’s kind of more about the telling of the telling of a story of a friend of the author who disappeared and may have died in an explosion. It’s as masterful as My Two Worlds, and maybe even a bit more expansive.
Here’s the official jacket copy:
When he reads about a mysterious explosion in the distant countryside, the narrator’s thoughts turn to his disappeared childhood friend, M, who was abducted from his home years ago, during a spasm of political violence in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s. He convinces himself that M must have died in this explosion, and he begins to tell the story of their friendship through a series interconnected vignettes, hoping in this way to reanimate his friend and relive the time they spent together wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.
Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets is an affecting and innovative exploration of mourning, remembrance, and friendship by one of Argentina’s modern masters.
Anyway, if you want an advanced copy, click below and you could win one through the GoodReads Giveaway program. This contest closes on Monday, so enter right away . . .
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