This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. 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.
In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.
Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?
Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.
A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.
The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.
Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:
I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.
But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:
Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.
The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.
Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”
The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.
One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.
The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.
I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation.
The new issue of World Literature Today is now available, and the focus is on one of my favorite topics: “The Crosstalk between Science and Literature.” (Did I mention that I have a Thomas Pynchon related tattoo? And that I rushed out of MLA to see Jonah Lehrer speak about neuroscience and creativity? Anyway.)
Here’s an excerpt from the intro essay by Pireeni Sundaralingam:
The meeting ground between science and literature has never been so busy. Not only have the last few years seen a proliferation of anthologies such as Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory and Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine, but there has also been a blossoming of conferences, research centers, and foundations dedicated to examining the common space shared by the two disciplines. The U.S. Modern Language Association’s discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature currently has more than 1,200 members, while last year in Europe alone there were over a dozen conferences and symposia attempting to bridge both literature and science.
Nevertheless, as with any pioneering age, there is a certain level of braggadocio, a tendency to jump on the loudest and most lucrative bandwagon rolling by. An article in last year’s New York Times (March 31, 2010) announced “The Next Big Thing in English,” interviewing a series of literary scholars who seem to have found their own Philosopher’s Stone sitting on the benches of the neuroscience laboratory. Their claims were as diverse as creating a scientific method for quantifying the complexity of literature to unearthing the evolutionary basis for the preponderance of love triangles in fiction. It has fallen to scholars such as neurologist–poet Raymond Tallis to caution us against blindly adopting reductionist analyses of literature (“The Neuroscience Delusion,” TLS, April 9, 2008). All too often, the finer details of the rigor to be found in each discipline are glossed over in an attempt to precipitate swift partnerships, and, unfortunately, those reporting for the mainstream media are rarely qualified enough in the technicalities of both disciplines to point out these slips.
As we strive to demarcate the nature of these new territories, it becomes vital to consider the thoughts and work of those who have lived and worked in both worlds. In the following pages, award-winning writers share their personal experiences of the strengths and the weaknesses to be found in the cross-fertilization between the two disciplines: Welsh poet and memoirist Dannie Abse examines how his own creative writing has both benefited from and remained at odds with his medical training; playwright Kenneth Lin, trained as a psychologist at Cornell, delineates the ways in which the intersection of scientific theory and the physical framework of the theater may or may not co-create a system of moral beliefs; physicist Alan Lightman and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein discuss why they each turned to fiction to add a further dimension to their own scholarly research.
This issue also includes a number of other interesting sounding pieces, including an interview with Juan Villoro:
Juan Villoro: In El testigo, yes, I was very interested in asking, Who is the best literary witness of an event? From a judicial point of view, there are conditions determining what one can say in a courtroom. But from a moral, psychological, and literary point of view, the subjective process that makes someone a good witness is much more complex. So El testigo is about the formation of the figure of the witness and to what extent the witness influences what he sees. I do not believe that any witness is completely passive or apathetic. Inevitably, the witness participates in the experiment of looking. But the attitude of the protagonist in El testigo is very different from the one I have when I watch soccer, which is a much noisier, celebratory, and unrestrained attitude.
Ryan Long: So, it’s a question of distance, too.
Juan Villoro: Exactly. And when I write a novel in which the characters are unique and a little distanced from the reality in which they find themselves, when they’re actually uncomfortable in that reality, what I am looking for is a personal, individual voice. By contrast, in soccer I look for the voice of the tribe, the collective voice, the contemporary Greek chorus that expresses itself in a stadium.
Ryan Long: How does the relationship between the collective and the individual function in El testigo? I’m thinking, for example, of a particularly striking scene in that novel in which the protagonist looks over the “battalion of the fallen,” which is a place in the middle of nowhere populated by the shirts of dead Cristeros. Clearly this novel is about national identity, a nearly exhausted but important theme. In the novel, is there an image of the collective that still works?
Juan Villoro: Well, it’s a broken collective, whose ruptured nature is explained by its relationship to a very specific moment of Mexico’s history: the end of the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which was in power for seventy-one years. This moment also coincides with the end of my protagonist’s exile. The Mexican in my novel, for a very personal reason, has lived in Paris for twenty-four years before returning to Mexico. So the novel tells the story of the end of an era in personal terms—the character who returns to his country—and the end of an era in national terms—the first democratic alternation of power. But this alternation is more of a rupture than a continuity, because a conservative party comes to power with a spirit of vindication defined by Catholic conservative ideas that predate even the Revolution of 1910–20. My protagonist finds himself in a country that is at once his and not his. This is why he becomes a witness, because it’s so hard for him to participate in public life, to reintegrate himself with his people, his family, and his society. He realizes that the so-called step forward for Mexico is in reality the opportunity to settle old scores. All sorts of skeletons start coming out of the closet, and he finds himself in a country that he fails to understand.
And this issue’s WLT Book Club focuses on The Good Novel by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, and published by Europa Editions. If you’re interested in joining in (or simply reading the book), you should definitely check out this interview Alison Anderson did with Laurence Cosse.
A new issue of this martial-arts-meets-literature site has arrived. This edition includes a short war story, “Una buena semana,” or, “A Good Week,” by Juan Bonilla, a writer from Bogotá.
I also enjoyed the essay, “Sidekick,” by Miguel Habedero. He writes,
“Hubo una época en la que Juan Villoro era mi sidekick. Batman tenía a Robin, Superman a Kripto, el perro maravilla, y yo tenía a Juan,” or, “There was a time when Juan Villoro was my sidekick. Batman had Robin, Superman had Kripto, the wonder-dog, and I had Juan.” The essay’s humorous and admiring tone persists, and ends with a note that Habedero will continue the story of Villoro in another column.
This issue is full of blog posts, interviews, and short stories – not to mention the martial arts installments – to keep readers of Spanish busy for awhile.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .