September 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Translation Down the Wire

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Colombian author of The Informers, and the now translated The Secret History of Costaguana, is a huge fan of The Wire. He named it as one of the items he´d bring to a desert island in Soho -- the Colombian version of Playboy with much more journalism -- so I guess he won’t mind my mentioning it in a review of his new book. It’s no surprise to me that Anglophone Mr. Vásquez would get the series. In fact, I’m sure he watches it without subtitles, but after watching nearly all of the fourth season at the wee hours of night for the last week, I can’t see how The Wire could make sense to anyone in another language, even less so dubbed, as it is in Spain. I wonder the same about some novels. Whenever the world literature conversation comes up, it’s as though we’ve let ourselves down. This assumes that everyone can follow a series of different histories, geographies, not to mention literary traditions.

When I read The Secret History of Costaguana a few years ago in Spanish, I thought it would never be translated. It is an ingenious, well-crafted novel, but difficult to understand without a working knowledge of the basic history of Panama, its canal, and Colombia, which the “common reader” -- if such a thing still exists -- probably doesn’t have. Nevertheless, it has made the leap. But beware, there are further prerequisites for the book. You must know that Joseph Conrad used his travels in South America as a sailor, as basis for Nostromo, a novel that takes place in a fictional country called Costaguana, a predecessor to the magical realist realms of Macondo and Facondo. Vásquez has even argued (in a book of essays that were released in Spanish, that I reviewed in Colombia) that Conrad wrote the great South American novel well before the boom. Of course. We know that. We’ve all read Nostromo, right after The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” just after we finished The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. So this is literary fiction for smart people.

Even to give a brief synopsis of the book, I first have to give some historical context. Panama and its canal -- subject of much controversy during the time of its construction -- can get confusing. For one, Panama City doubles as Aspinwall, a name the English gave it after the French abandoned their canal efforts. Also, Panama was a part of Colombia until it got caught up in the extremely tortuous political genealogies of the epoch (never mind that during the colonies it pertained to Peru). In Colombia, this is still a sore subject for some. And so it makes for an interesting topic for a work of literary historical fiction.

The narrator Jose Altamirano directs his story first-person to his daughter and to a jury. From the get-go, it's clear he has a bone to pick with Joseph Conrad: essentially, he gave Conrad the idea for his novel Nostromo, but it gets even more meta when we discover that Vásquez based Altamirano on a real Colombian who was living in London while Conrad wrote Nostromo. Just as in his previous novel, The Informers, there is much history that touches toes every now and then with fiction. That’s the easy part.

His father, Miguel Altamirano, a Liberal, joins forces against the Conservative president General Melo, and as a result must leave Bogotá for Honda, a port city near Panama, his eventual destination, where he becomes a journalist. In part two, Jose meets up with his father Miguel in Panama when the Million Day War erupts. Not following? Did you do your homework? Finally, the novel’s climax, the pay-off, Altamirano reads the fiction that Conrad has created expecting to see signs of his own suffering, but he doesn’t recognize himself in Costaguana.  He says, "You have eliminated me from my own life. You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me." The same could be said of the real person that Conrad based Altamirano on. Clever.

The trope "But no. Not yet. Too soon" echoes throughout the novel, as the narrator waits to reveal -- well, I won't reveal it. Suffice it to say you sort of expect it to appear again and again. Other extremely sharp, internally coherent, not to mention short sentences -- more and more common in Spanish lately -- have you thinking “Whoa,” and the literary etchings continue. There´s hardly a bad sentence in the bunch. It's neat, but it's spurious.

There’s no doubt Juan Gabriel Vásquez is brilliant, as is this book, but while re-reading this, I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. Maybe it was because I was asked to review it; maybe from watching too much The Wire, but the characters for all of their three dimensions -- they are very well crafted -- didn’t capture me. Much of the story felt contrived. I was never fooled and I never forgot I was reading a novel, for very smart people.

If I thought The Secret History of Costaguana was difficult for an English-reading audience, Manuel Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, translated and published originally nearly fifty years ago, is even more so. Have you seen The Great Zigfield? Do you know who Rita Hayworth is?  Did you know she was half-Spanish and from Brooklyn? I didn’t, and yet it didn’t ruin Puig’s polyphonic romp through provincial Argentina for me, although I had to confer with Google more than a few times.

Manuel Puig is an Argentine writer that should need no introduction, and yet he does. Some consider him a boom author, despite having little contact with Carmen Balcells, Catalonian ringleader of the group. Stylistically, he has much in common with the other boomers. His interests -- local color, voice, oral tradition, Hollywood, the modern Latin American housewife -- were also those of Gabo and Vargas Llosa. Aside from that, he taught at NYU for a while, and he nearly always makes the best twentieth-century Argentine novelist list. He died twenty years ago.

Contrary to the back of the book, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth isn’t centered around the young character Totto. The novel hardly has a center; however, the characters Tete, Hector, Paqui, Choli, Delia all do know the boy Totto, but they don’t always talk about him. Each of these characters narrates a chapter in their own voice, chronologically and episodically. It’s more or less a family in the '40s in the dusty, flat, dull, pampas, where modern life creeps in via cinema, thanks to Hollywood, Paris, and Buenos Aires. None of the novel’s characters resemble Hollywood caricature in the slightest. In fact, life in the pampas in the '40s wasn’t fit for anyone it seems and that’s what makes this world fascinating.

Totto, the curious boy (yes, maybe in that way) is an adorable smart-aleck, adept at discovering the world that surrounds him. He asks, “What does ‘fucks’ mean?” and puts this together thus: “It’s a bad thing that you can’t do, you can only make believe, because if a girl does it, she’s lost finished forever. Instead of not looking I looked because in the nice clear water at the bottom of the sea those hairs like streamers that wave come together all of the sudden and the fishies coming in between the hairs get caught.” Inevitably he grows up, and by the end of the novel, he’s having nightly conversations with his piano teachers, citing Schopenhauer and Schubert.

Puig destroys and recreates so many fictional conventions in this book. Sure, you can cite Celine and Joyce as inspirations for the interior monologues, along with the extra-emphasis on the parts of life art once did its best to ignore (shitting, pissing, raping, etc.). However, this is not a coming-of-age story as the back of the book says, or as you might think. There isn’t even what I would call a definite end to any of the interlocking stories. If anything the children, and adolescents, teach their elders about this new modern world. We, as the readers, likewise do not see the child mature and accept societal norms; we see just the opposite. Totto, and his sister Mitta, are much more educated and savvy than their parents are.

Herminita, the piano teacher, writes in her diary towards the end of the novel, “Adolescence certainly is the age of unbalance.” But this unbalance holds this book together. Aside from the family it loosely revolves around, the differences between the male and female worlds are astounding. The boys, with their hypermasculinity, brag about dick size and accosting women, while the girls and women mention none of this, as though they weren’t even capable of entertaining lusty thoughts.

I should also say it isn’t “screamingly funny,” as some New York Times reviewer said when it first came out in 1971. If I were going to write a blurb, I’d write: “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is sometimes beautiful, sometimes captivating, other times estranging and expressionist (but not ‘screamingly’ so). How anyone found the series of anal rape scenes funny, I don’t know. I have a pretty dark sense of humor, however sentences like: ‘you Paraguayan come behind me and hold his legs, since Colombo will hold his arms while I cover his face with the handkerchief soaked in chloroform, all set?’ don’t put me in stitches.”

Suzanne Jill Levine, the translator who rendered Puig in English, knew him well and even wrote of a biography of him (I hope to review it here at a future date). That said, there was one term I think she got wrong. In South America, turco -- what would literally be Turkish in English -- refers to Arabs generally. This misnomer is often attributed to the passport early Arab immigrants carried during their great migrations at the turn of the twentieth century, that of the Ottoman Empire whose capital was Turkey, so they were called turcos. In comparison to other migrant communities, there are hardly any Turks in South America. Levin translates turco as Turk, where its meaning is closer to Arab, or even Hajib. But this is just nit-picking. Translating this so well must not have been easy, and she is certainly an expert. 

Dalkey will publish more of Puig’s novels in this coming year. I look forward to reading them. I’m also glad Dalkey was able to see the merit in reprinting this novelist's rewarding albeit challenging fiction. Novels have a lot of competition these days. No one wants to take a chance. I think these were risky translations, but both were worthwhile, at least as much as a season of The Wire.