Finally, after weeks of putting this off, here is the long anticipated podcast about Roberto Bolaño’s Little Lumpen Novelita.
The reason it took so long to get to this was because of Tom’s new job as the Deputy Director at Albertine, the most beautiful Franco-centric bookstore in New York (and/or the whole U.S.). We talked shortly after the official launch of the store, which generated a ton of fanfare.
So, in addition to talking Bolaño, and talking about this man
we talked about Albertine, it’s upcoming festival, and other aspects of Tom’s new job. (Just a note of clarification—Tom is still working for New Directions as well.)
Oh, and we also talk a bit about the Royals-A’s game that was going on while we were recording. And now I’m safe in saying that I’m really glad all the West Coast AL teams are out of the playoffs and am really looking forward to the ALCS with Baltimore and Kansas City. (We’re planning on having Mexican author Alvaro Enrique on the podcast very soon to talk about his work, about his wife Valerie Luiselli’s work, about Spanish-language literature in general, and about the Baltimore Orioles, his favorite team. Finally, we get a baseball episode!)
This week’s music is “Divinity” by Porter Robinson. A little upbeat dance music as a counterpoint to our more languorous conversation.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link. And you can email us with complaints and comments at email@example.com
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
With so much reading left to do (as submissions continue to fill our mailboxes daily), a handful of books already stand out as some of the year’s finest original translations. Although it remains to be seen whether any of the below titles will make the longlist cut – let alone one of the ten coveted spots on the shortlist – each is an exceptional book in its own way, deserving of an audience larger than is likely and offering considerable recompense to anyone who affords it their readerly faculties.
Gonçalo Tavares ~ A Man: Klaus Klump
The first volume of Gonçalo Tavares’s remarkable Kingdom series, A Man: Klaus Klump (translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil) is the last of the four to be translated into English (after Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine). Like the others, however, this one explores themes of alienation, brutality, impotency, and power. The slimmest of the four works, Klaus Klump shares an essence with the others while being perhaps the most staccato in story and prose.
Spanning several decades in the lives of a handful of characters, Klaus Klump is set in an unnamed city – beginning amidst an ongoing war and later in the years following the cessation of (armed) conflict. With juxtaposing imagery, stark metaphors, and tight, yet evocative language, Tavares entwines the disorienting horrors of senseless ultra-violence with the psychological detachment of conflict-survival. The intensity of Klaus Klump seems all the more pronounced given how much is omitted from the story – allowing a menace or foreboding to loom throughout.
Neither Klaus Klump nor the rest of the books in the series seek to seemingly do more than show the inconsequentiality, indifference, disposability, and vapidity that so characterize 21st century culture. Klaus Klump (like Ernst Spengler, Lenz Buchmann, and Joseph Walser in the earlier books before him) populates a world where war and commerce function in codependency. Obedience is nearly superfluous, as long as appetites remain insatiable. To serve within such a system, one needn’t resort to nihilism – simply passive resignation will do.
Gonçalo Tavares is an exceptional talent and his writing seems almost limitless in scope (garnering the attention and acclaim of luminaries like the great José Saramago and Enrique Vila-Matas). The Kingdom series (cycle? quartet? tetralogy?) offers a world that could not be more dissimilar to the one found in Tavares’s The Neighborhood. One not familiar with the provenance of these respective books would swear they were written by authors possessed of disparate literary tastes and temperaments. That Tavares can move so freely between works exuding terror and dread to those offering humor and charm is quite breathtaking to behold. With poems, short stories, plays, and other fiction as-yet untranslated, hopefully more (much more!) of Tavares’s work will soon be forthcoming in English.
Andrés Neuman ~ Talking to Ourselves
Talking to Ourselves (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), the second of Andrés Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation – be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging German towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.
Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. Staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can – longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution. Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort.
Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito) – but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.
With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.Tweet
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
It is quite an honor (to say nothing of a responsibility) to be invited to adjudicate the creative output of others. In merely thinking of the myriad ways one might go about arbitrating the many facets that comprise a finished work of art – especially literature in translation – it is admittedly difficult to know how best to weigh its constituent parts. With many hundreds of novels and short story collections published in original English translations each year, most, of course, will never receive the due attention or readership they so rightly deserve. Thus it is, then, that the goal of the (eighth!) annual Best Translated Book Award (should be to highlight the titles, authors, translators, and publishers most worthy of acclaim.
A cursory glance at the list of the year’s translations reveals a wealth of notable authors from every continent. This embarrassment of literary riches is enough to make any devotee of international fiction swoon (and feel, perhaps, not a little overwhelmed). But do the household names of literature in translation (your Bolaños, Saramagos, Hrabals, Murakamis, Knausgårds, et al.) have an unfair advantage against those foreign authors for whom English-speaking audiences have yet to discover? Or might an author newly translated into English (the language with the third most native speakers worldwide) garner some disproportionate attention in hopes of not overlooking a dazzling new talent?
Do we, as discerning readers, gravitate towards the works rendered from their mother language by translators we already admire (such as Natasha Wimmer, Margaret Jull Costa, Richard Pevear, Chris Andrews, Philip Gabriel, Anne McLean, Susan Bernofsky, et al.)? In an ideal word (where translators enjoy more recognition for their accomplished efforts), our criteria would be completely objective, letting a book present itself on its own merits alone, but, alas, a subjective reality is the one we must inhabit.
And publishers? For every New Directions, Other Press, Melville House, NYRB, Dalkey, Graywolf, and Open Letter there are countless others acquiring, editing, translating, publishing, and promoting in relative obscurity. Young publishing house upstarts focusing on translation (New Vessel and Deep Vellum amongst the most promising) often have the liberty of taking greater chances on more esoteric or little-known works. With the field of publishers releasing fiction in translation growing ever more diverse (per market forces, no doubt), there is likely no greater time for a worldly reader to be alive than at this very moment.
While at first glance the prospect of working through hundreds of works to anoint a single one as the best translated book of the year may appear daunting, it needn’t be as such. As any lifelong reader or peruser of bookstore stacks knows well; somehow, as inexplicable as it always seems until the next time, the right book will (must!) inevitably find its way into our hands. Nine of us (each with disparate backgrounds, expectations, interests, strategies, and tastes), charged as we are with bringing our relative expertise and acumen to the task at hand, will certainly make our way through the year’s offerings and end up with what is (perhaps unanimously) the best translated book of the year.Tweet
Lori helped us out in the World Cup of Literature round for the U.S. vs. Belgium, and is also a member of the Board of Dallas-based Deep Vellum Publishing.
Here’s the beginning of Lori’s review:
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that contemplates what it means to accept your past.
It is 2010. Kamal Jann, a successful, middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist, lives in New York City. He is tormented by the horrors that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Sayf, the powerful head of Syria’s intelligence services. Sayf began sexually molesting Kamal when the boy was twelve years old, and three years later, Sayf ordered the murders of Kamal’s mother and father (the latter of whom was Sayf’s only sibling). Kamal’s hatred for his uncle is compounded by the fact that he later allows Sayf to sponsor his college and law school education in the United States. Murad, Kamal’s brother, remains in Syria and becomes radicalized, eventually agreeing to become a martyr in a suicide bombing intended to kill the Syrian president. Kamal learns of Murad’s intentions and travels back to Syria in an attempt to save his brother and, at the same time, avenge the murders of his parents.
For the rest of the piece, go here.Tweet
Since I am the youngest, the least knowledgeable, and by far the most superficial judge in the BTBA, it’s only appropriate that I make my first blog post about something sexy. As a judge in the much-fun World Cup of Literature this summer, also hosted by Three Percent, my write up for Croatia vs. Mexico accidentally ended up referencing my sexual mischief in June. So yeah, I’m not going to bore anyone with that again. Instead, I believe it would be appropriately disgraceful of me to dedicate this post to: not the authors, not the translators, but the book designers.
That’s right. I’m judging books by their covers.
In appreciation of the NY Art Book Fair, presented by the nonprofit Printed Matter (provider of artists’ book awesomeness since 1976), I would like to acknowledge some of my favorite covers in the BTBA so far. I feel particularly compelled to do so after witnessing an inspiring talk last week about cover design and the visual enactment of literature, as a part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. The talk was given by one of my favorite contemporary book designers, Peter Mendelsund, whose new Kafka covers you might have noticed (the series with the eyes). Mendelsund studied philosophy and literature, went on to become a classical pianist, and then suddenly decided to learn book design on his own. His appreciation for immediacy inspired me to go ahead and blog about something I have absolutely no knowledge of. Also, he claimed that developing a taste in design was super easy. Basically, you just ask yourself what looks good. So there.
First up is Quesadillas : a novel, cover illustration by Joel Holland (written by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I immediately noticed this light paperback when it came in the mail, despite the fact that it chose to arrive with books from five different publishers. The black-on-lime green cover claimed my attention, along with the cow-on-UFO illustration. What’s not to like? I started reading Quesadillas the following day, solely due to its cover.
Another well-designed delicacy I devoured because of its cover was The Guest Cat (written by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland, published by New Directions). Erik Rieselbach is behind this intriguing design (more honorable mention for him later), although the cover art is actually an oil painting by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita from 1927.
According to Christies.com, this piece of oil on canvas, entitled “Chat Couturier”, is worth $60,000-$80,000. I’m not sure if I would ever want that thing on my wall – a cat in any kind of artwork makes me uncomfortable – but as a book cover it definitely works. That stare would make anyone open anything, be it a book, a safe, or an anchovy sandwich.
Next up is Baboon (written by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press). Although broken flowers make me think of Bill Murray by default, Gabriele Wilson’s cover art mercifully exceeds my previous notions. There’s something haunting about the shadows on the petals, something stunning about this terrible flower on a pale background. I’m a fan.
Lastly, I have to dedicate a final paragraph to some books that have already been mentioned by my fellow judge, Madeleine LaRue. I will not waste your time with even more praise to these publications, but simply point out that their covers are among my favorites as well:
Our Lady of the Nile, cover art by Amedeo Modigliani (written by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, published by Archipelago Books).
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, cover design by N. J. Furl (an anthology of Spanish-language fiction curated by Valerie Miles, published by Open Letter Books).
The End of Days, cover design – yet again – by Erik Rieselbach (written by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by New Directions).
That will be all.Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.
A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.
Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.
But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.
The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.
The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.
A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.Tweet
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)Tweet
Up next in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Alfredo Bryce Echenique, whose entry in A Thousand Forests includes a bit from his novel A World for Julius and a previously untranslated story, “Manzanas.”
One of the most intriguing things about Echenique’s life is the plagiarism case that he was involved in. Here’s a bit from Valerie’s intro that makes me think there’s a lot more to this story:
In 2007, Alfredo Bryce was embroiled in a bizarre accusation of multiple plagarisms. The episode, itself with the coloring of a spy novel, carried with it a certain enmity, but also the unconditional support of those who, like Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Vargas Llosa, have been uncompromising in defending their faith in the writer, who continues to steer his literary course between suffering and laughter.
And remember, you can only get Echenique’s previously untranslated story by purchasing this collection. And if you buy it before the end of the month, use the code FORESTS and it’ll only be $15.
Above all I like the pages I picked from Un mundo para Julius for their efficiency. Let’s not forget that they’re the first pages in the book and, in a condensed way, although not lacking in subtleties, they contain a lot of information about the novel’s central characters, with the exception of Juan Lucas—Julius’s stepfather and the novel’s antagonist—whose presence is implied in the nocturnal outings of Susan, Julius’s frivolous, widowed mother. But in addition to introducing the book’s main characters, these pages also introduce the book’s principal settings. The boy’s house is a microcosm of Peru, with borders that he crosses for the first time when he goes from the elegant part of the large mansion where he lives into the so-called “servants’ quarters,” an accurate reflection of a whole country that is profoundly and cruelly divided between the very rich and the very poor, and into distinct regions such as the coast, the world of the Andes, and the Amazon. From these immense and varied regions of Peru come the so-called servants of this wealthy family who, instead of taking interest in their own country, live with their eyes fixed principally on Europe and secondarily on the United States. And so Julius and his siblings attend British and American schools, where the few Peruvian teachers working there come off as deeply pretentious in the eyes of their students.
“Manzanas” is the long monologue of a young and beautiful nymphomaniac who competes with any good-looking girl who crosses her path, and who, at the same time, maintains a romantic relationship with an important musician who is much older, and is able to see her in a good light, even to overlook her infidelities. The tension comes from her admiration for the refined, cultured, and respectable man combined with her desire to surpass him in some way, petty as it may be. She doesn’t say any of this. She just suggests it. A murder, although only symbolic, might be the only way for the guilt-ridden girl to escape from her constant and spiteful obsessions and contradictions.
Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two-year-old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servants’ quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don’t touch! it’s covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants’ quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius, that fascination of “don’t touch, honey, don’t go around there, darling.” By then his father had already died.
Julius was a year and a half old at the time. For some months he just walked about the mansion, wandering off by himself whenever possible.
Secretly he would head for the servants’ quarters of the mansion that, as we’ve said, were like a blemish on a most beautiful face, a pity, really, but he still did not dare to go there. What is certain is that when his father was dying of cancer, everything in Versailles revolved around the dying man’s bedroom: only his children were not supposed to see him. Julius was an exception because he was too young to comprehend fear but young enough to appear just when least expected, wearing silk pajamas, turning his back to the drowsy nurse and watching his father die, that is, he watched how an elegant, rich, handsome man dies. And Julius has never forgotten that night—three o’clock in the morning, a lit candle in offering to Santa Rosa, the nurse knitting to ward off sleep—when his father opened an eye and said to him poor thing, and by the time the nurse ran out to call for his mother, who was lovely and cried every night in an adjoining bedroom—if anything, to get a bit of rest—it was all over.
Daddy died when the last of Julius’ siblings, who were always asking when he would return from his trip, stopped asking; when Mommy stopped crying and went out one night; when the visitors, who had entered quietly and walked straight to the darkest room of the mansion (the architect had thought of everything), stopped coming; when the servants recovered their normal tone of voice; and when someone turned on the radio one day, Daddy had died.
No one could keep Julius from practically living in the carriage that had belonged to his great-grandfather/president. He would spend the entire day in it, sitting on the worn blue velvet, once gold-trimmed seats, shooting at the butlers and maids who always tumbled down dead by the carriage, soiling their smocks that the Señora had ordered them to buy in pairs so that they would not appear worn when they fell dead each time Julius took to riddling them with bullets from the carriage. No one prevented him from spending all day long in the carriage, but when it would get dark at about six o’clock, a young maid would come looking for him, one that his mother, who was lovely, called the beautiful Chola, probably a descendant of some noble Indian, an Inca for all we know.
The Chola, who could well have been a descendant of an Inca, would lift Julius from the carriage, press him firmly against her probably marvelous breasts beneath her uniform, and not let go until they reached the bathroom in the mansion, the one that was reserved for the younger children and now belonged exclusively to Julius. Often the Chola stumbled over the butlers or the gardener who lay dead around the carriage so that Julius, Jesse James, or Gary Cooper, depending on the occasion, could depart happily for his bath.
And there in the bathroom, two years after his father’s death, his mother had begun to say good-bye. She always found him with his back to her, standing naked in front of the tub, pee pee exposed, but she never saw it, as he contemplated the rising tide in that enormous, porcelainlike, baby-blue tub, which was full of swans, geese, and ducks. His mother would call him darling, but he never turned around, so she would kiss him on the nape of his neck and leave very lovely, while the beautiful Chola assumed the most uncomfortable postures in order to stick her elbow in the water and test the temperature without falling in what could have been a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
And about six-thirty every afternoon, the beautiful Chola took hold of Julius by his underarms, raised him up and eased him little by little into the water. Seeming to genuflect, the swans, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down happily in the warm, clean water. He took them by the neck and gently pushed them along and away from his body, while the beautiful Chola, armed with soapy washcloths and perfumed baby soap, began to scrub gently—ever so gently and lovingly—his chest, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. Julius looked up smiling at her, always asking the same questions, such as: “And where are you from?” and he listened attentively as she would tell him about Puquio, a village of mud houses near Nasca, on the way up to the mountains. She would tell him stories about the mayor or sometimes about medicine men, but she always laughed as if she no longer believed in those things; besides, it had been a long time since she had been up there. Julius looked at her attentively and waited for her to finish talking so he could ask another question, and another, and another. And it was like that every afternoon while his two brothers and one sister finished their homework downstairs and got ready for dinner.
(Translated by Dick Gerdes)Tweet
Alberto Ruy Sánchez, the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series, has a couple books available in English: Names of the Air and The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth.
He also studied with Roland Barthes, which is why I included that bit from his interview.
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.
You studied with Roland Barthes, and that time in Paris affected you deeply as you explain in the prologue of your book of essays Con la Literatura en el cuerpo. Can you tell us more about that experience?
More a master craftsman in his workshop than a professor behind his lectern. The primary and principal teaching of Roland Barthes was not in the content of his courses, not even in his books, but in his approach to teaching, writing, and understanding the world.
He was not just a professor who gave a lecture on a subject that we students could understand and master, rather he was a craftsman who did his work, and we apprentices in his vicinity saw how he worked and tried to do our own best work, always and only learning the trade of a master craftsman. Not inputting or even imitating the content of his teachings, not turning ourselves into his followers, but into craftsmen of the power of the word and modes of realization. Creating instruments: like goldsmiths do using their hands, one should create instruments of thought and writing using one’s own body. Concepts and styles that were our own. With one fundamental, three-part question: What is the one thing that only I can do in terms of literary form and thought? What do things mean to me in particular? What is the corporeal footprint that I and no one else can leave behind on the things of this world? Writing, I soon deduced, is a way of being in the world. A very modest and very ambitious trade at the same time.
Roland Barthes gave his seminars in two very distinct forums: the massive class, which was so popular that the attendees arrived hours beforehand to get and hold a seat: a lecture that was transmitted simultaneously in other contiguous rooms. And the petit seminaire, where a few of us, no more than ten, formed a space of mutual readership in the presence of Roland Barthes who was another reader in the circle. When he agreed to be my thesis advisor and admitted me as a member of the small seminar he said to me: “You run the risk of getting disillusioned, I’m not a particularly good advisor.” And I already knew it. He had written an essay about his small seminar as a small utopist space, a sort of phalanstery. And that text had just seduced me, it made me want to be there. It was not his glory as a fashionable semiologist. Rather the quality of creating spaces where learning followed a unique form. But he did advise me indirectly in the sense of pushing me to accept the enormous challenge all artists and thinkers face when they start out: to be radically yourself.
The power of that instruction in craft, of that necessarily very personal education, multiplied its effect on me because it radiated its exemplary influence into other courses that were key for me during that time period. The next important seminar I took, studying philosophy, was that of Gilles Deleuze. And no less impassioned and formative, that of Jacques Ranciére in the field of the history of ideas and social utopias and that of André Chastel in the field of art history. Each one had a very personal way of living their trade with extreme passion. And between these four masters, more than professors, I had the foundation to construct a personal point of view regarding political life and its masks, social thought, the place of art and the creation of forms, utopias and communitarian practices and hyperindividual creation, the life of ideas, writing, poetry, reading, symbols and their ghosts. Now these are some of my themes, my obsessions. A node of interests and intensities that, I think, is key to what I am as a writer.Tweet
Cristina Fernaández Cubas is today’s first entry in the ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. Below you’ll find a bit from one of her novels, her explanation for why she included it, and a bit about what Julio Cortázar called “stories against the clock.”
Through the end of the month you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
With respect to the novel El año de Gracia, I’d like to recall its origin. The starting point was a story in the newspaper El País. It was about an environmental group, “Operation Dark Harvest,” and their failed expedition to the island of Gruinard, one of the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island had been contaminated with anthrax in 1941, as a precaution against a possible biological war with Germany, and the goal of the environmentalists was to make off with soil samples and denounce the dangers posed by its mere existence. But what I really found interesting was the geographical location, its characteristics, the setting. An island closed to public curiosity, less than two kilometers from civilization, with the only people granted access being a team of scientists who, with the necessary precautions, visited the island every two years. And above all, this fact: the former inhabitants of the island, mostly shepherds, had been forced to evacuate. On the island, then, there only remained a number of sheep, abandoned to chance . . . And from there my imagination took over. I wondered about the effects of the anthrax on those flocks of sheep; I wondered if it were possible the sheep had become feral and developed murderous tendencies; I thought that perhaps, one shepherd—just one—hiding among the fog and craggy rocks, had refused to follow the order and stayed on the island . . . And so El año de Gracia was born. The story of a young man, well versed in theology and dead languages—though completely unaware of the ways of the world—whose sister Grace gives him “the gift of a year” and fate ends up taking him to the island . . . I still remember the writing process with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Gruinard gave me the opportunity to go on an anachronistic adventure in the middle of the twentieth century. And I took it as far as it would go. [. . .]
In an interview with El País you mentioned the stories that don’t let you go until you’ve finished them, that leave you exhausted, and you cite Cortázar, who calls them “stories against the clock.”
You could also call them “hijacking stories.” You can’t break free from them until you finish them. And then yes, then you can breathe easy, as if you’d just taken off an enormous backpack, a burden . . . They’re usually not very long (it would be hard to stand so much tension) and very frequently they turn rather mysterious even for the author. For a time, at least. Afterward, you start tying up loose ends, understanding where they came from and why they grabbed you like that . . . But all of this belongs to the secret life of stories.
The first word the ancient shepherd mumbled over my sickbed—or the first one I seem to remember—was Grock. At the time, confused by what appeared to be a strange being that was half sheep and half man, it didn’t occur to me that my timely visitor was capable of naming himself, and I assumed it was bleating. But the long recovery, and that strange lucidity that sometimes comes with fever, led me to babble different phrases in various languages until I understood that Grock was speaking a rudimentary English peppered with an abundance of expressions in Gaelic—a language that, unfortunately, I knew nothing about other than its mere existence—and that if I dispensed with any sort of flourish and instead resorted to the purest simplification, my rescuer’s eyes lit up, he nodded or shook his head, and he tried, in turn, to reduce his language as much as possible and limit himself to naming things.
Learning Grock’s language wasn’t terribly burdensome. What helped wasn’t so much my knowledge of English as the evidence that the old man’s peculiar syntax was extremely similar to that of primitive languages, and even to that of many of our children when, provided with a certain vocabulary, they start to express their needs. Grock’s sentences frequently began directly with the material object of interest, then moved on to the accessory information, to the how and why, to the circumstances, and only later, much later, to the real answers to my questions. I asked him repeatedly about the name of the island we were on, and his answer was: “Grock.” I tried to be much more explicit, and adding gestures and faces, I said: “Island . . . This island . . . What is it called?” The answer was invariable: “Grock.” It was obvious that he didn’t distinguish between his name and what was an object of his property. Grock had spent too many years among sheep.
But I couldn’t curse my luck. Thanks to the shepherd’s care and the bits of information I managed to drag out of him with a great deal of patience, I was able to form an approximate idea of where we were located. In an earlier time the Island of Grock had been inhabited by several families of shepherds. Later, “many, many years ago . . . ,” for reasons the old man wasn’t aware of or didn’t know how to explain, the families gathered their belongings, left their flocks behind, and abandoned the land. Only Grock remained on the island, in charge of hundreds of sheep, the mothers of the mothers of the mothers of those quadrupeds that had made such an impression on me and that, as I seemed to understand, either because they were too many to be controlled by one man, or because the shepherd avoided them, didn’t take long to go from tame flocks to feral, bloodthirsty packs. “They did very bad things to Grock,” he said. “Very bad things.” I soon discovered that the shepherd utterly despised them. When he talked about sheep, his face took on a terrifying appearance, his eyes shone with wild fury, and he reveled in reciting the long list of punishments he’d made them suffer to show them that he was Grock, the master of the island, and that they had done “very bad things.” When I finally asked him what constituted the wicked actions of those beasts (secretly afraid he’d tell me), the ferocious gleam again dilated his pupils for a moment, then was replaced, almost immediately, by an unexpected expression of tenderness. “They killed Grock,” he said.
For the first few days, I often had to resort to imagination, sometimes pure invention, to interpret the shepherd’s perplexing statements. He insisted that I was from Glasgow—though, maybe, he was using that name to mean anywhere off the island—and he seemed very surprised by the story of the shipwreck, of my rescue, and of the subsequent disappearance of the remains of the Providence. I don’t think Grock knew how to pretend, but the absurd possibility that the old man—almost like a child—might be unaware of the ship’s mysterious destination left me baffled. Again I faced the large number of enigmas yet to be solved, and I had a feeling that the limited narrative faculties of my rescuer weren’t going to be of much help to me for the time being.
I had surrendered myself to dark conjectures when Grock, who had just polished off my last bottle of gin, broke into wild laughter. I didn’t have time to be startled. As if he’d suddenly remembered the reason for his boundless joy, the old man grabbed a case that was hanging from his neck, pulled out a wrinkled card and, still laughing, handed it to me. Here I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. What I had in my hands was a color photograph, a portrait of the shepherd himself, taken by an instant camera. So the island wasn’t as deserted as I’d been led to believe. I didn’t stop to think about what sort of disturbed mind would come up with the macabre idea of photographing Grock, nor did it seem appropriate to submit the shepherd to a new interrogation. All I knew how to do was join in his laughter as a simple proof of my good intentions. Between bursts of laughter, he told me about a little box with a button you could push, and little by little, shadows would appear, then colors, and finally, the image of a man. “A man,” he said. The apparent magic of the camera was what truly amused the shepherd. I looked back at the snapshot with a shudder. I held in my hands the cold, raw embodiment of horror. In front of me, convulsing with laughter, was little more than an old, mad child who had absolutely no idea he was laughing at himself.
(Translated by Emily Davis)Tweet
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