March 2011

Christopher Merkel


Thanks for Coming to My Party

Back in January, the Guardian ran an article on comments made by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk at the Jaipur literary festival in India concerning the paucity of translation in the Anglophone literary world. In it, Pamuk -- extensively translated and widely read in English himself -- lamented not just the shortage of translations available in England and the United States, but also the tendency of critics in those places to provincialize the experience and literary production of authors not writing in English. As an ardent reader of literature in translation, I read Pamuk's comments as both validation and encouragement, a call to arms even, to push for the publication of ever more translations and to resist clichéd reductions and easy essentializations when writing on translated authors; and I proudly waved the colors of my allegiance as the article made its rounds of the Internet.

One week after I'd made my wish and tossed my two cents into the blogosphere, I came across a critique of Pamuk's statements at the website of an American reviewer, translator and literary academician based in Paris. Over frequent visits to the site I'd come to think that its proprietress and I were of a piece (although I'll admit that a one-way blog crush is probably a better description of the situation), and I was surprised that she and I had expressed similarly opposite feelings toward the article. Instead of just lauding Pamuk for championing the cause of authors without an English voice, she questioned the centering of the conversation on English, cautious of how the ambition of authors wanting to make it in the world's largest literary market might influence their writing and their subjects. Thankfully (anything just to get them to recognize that you're alive, you know?), she entertained me in an online conversation on the subject. Perhaps my initial reaction had been a little naive, and I ceded the importance of her concern. But France isn't exactly the hinterlands of literature, and I did bring up that I'm unable to share many of my favorite works of Japanese literature with most of my friends in the States because they're only available in Japanese -- or in French. So granted, the Anglophone world shouldn't necessarily be the end all of the literary one, but if we're simply not translating more, we're removing ourselves from the discussion, right? "Soit," she granted me herself. To wit... but then and even so. (I couldn't help feeling a bit dejected at the apparent dismissal.)

We did, however, agree completely on the importance of one point (although my counterpart seemed reluctant to give the point to Pamuk): given the literary status quo in the English reading world, how do we celebrate literature from different languages and cultures without reducing it to the difference? Especially when one or a few authors are all we have to represent literature from the place or language in which they're writing (my corollary, but this is, after all, my column).

Then I was embarrassed. In my excitement to rally with Pamuk just in the interest of getting more books translated and getting translated books read, I'd let myself gloss over every appropriate nuance attendant to my cause. After my exchange with le critique in Paris, I reevaluated my selections for this month, The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui and The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda, and was immediately ashamed at my own ugly tendency toward generalization and pigeonholing. Two female Spanish authors just because they were both women and both from Spain, and because I knew too little about literature from Spain -- or the work of those two authors -- to make a less basic pairing. Not to say that the choice wasn't honest or well intentioned, but the choice of a champion it necessarily was not. Such a quick betrayal of the cause! But duly chastised, I've chosen to stick to my subjects, to do right by Gopegui and Rodoreda and their books, a penance for my transgression. Lucky for me that The Scale of Maps and Selected Stories are so dissimilar, but that both also present unique openings onto the discussion of issues in translated literature.

The Scale of Maps is heavy on metaphor. Gopegui employs it not just as a technique of language (e.g., "In a hotel room, on an unfamiliar table, I will draw the maps and give the final orders to an exiled band of guerillas in rebellion that is none other than myself") but also as a larger structural device that draws the borders of her central theme, what you might call a quantum mechanico-geographic repositioning of reality and imagination (e.g., "I'm a small man, but I have the feeling that you picture me within an even smaller scale, which makes me appear quite large. Couldn't you shift scales? Couldn't you enlarge your scale until, in your memory, I was the point that designates a town on a tiny map...?" or, "only when a woman is with me can I say that she exists, either as a wave or a particle. Thus all love is adulterous and all adulterous love is Schrödinger's cat, neither dead nor alive as long as we don't possess the woman"). Perhaps that's why Mark Schafer's translation seemed so plodding for the first half of the book. Was the figurative language so generally obtuse in Spanish? Was Schafer's just clumsy prose, or was The Scale of Maps a book that simply demanded to be experienced (and permitted) outside of "natural" language? Or, perhaps it wasn't the translator that found his stride as he worked through the book but the reader. Culling the first several dozen pages for a phrase about a mandarin that struck me as particularly awkward, I find the writing much easier going than on my first time through.

Either way, the story unfolds as if from a dream, the dream of its narrator, Sergio Prim, to escape to what he calls a "hollow," a kind of dent in time and space that exists outside the collective experience of the day to day. Sergio, who refers to himself throughout the book in both the first and third persons, is a shy, middle-aged geographer in love with Brezo Varela, to whom Sergio refers throughout the book in both the third and second persons. Some paragraphs share multiple combinations of perspectives, enhancing the dreamlike quality of Sergio's quest and emphasizing a constant interplay between imagination and physical experience. Sergio and Brezo share a past, and they might share a future if Sergio can figure out how exactly he wants to share his time and space with Brezo and what he can do to get rid of the specter of reality and physical desire that haunts him in the form of a beautiful vamp in a black dress. Hence his search for a way to the hollow and also his visits to the psychologist, during one of which the book begins. "As far as I have determined," Sergio tells her, "objects contain invisible hollows. But I don't yet know if our ability to detect them depends on a common characteristic -- if all objects are interconnected -- or on the state of the person who approaches them seeking protection." (Think of the mall. You're there and you could be anywhere.)

Later, Sergio attempts an explanation to Brezo. "Imagine… that today you hear that an old friend has returned whom you had long ago decided was lost forever to a distant continent." The imagined Brezo gets on a bus. She imagines all of the places she will go with her friend, only to find out that the friend is not coming.

"The person who had told you that your friend was returning had mistaken the date or the name. 'What a drag,' some would say. Sergio Prim would say, 'what a hollow.' Where were you while you were planning this meeting? If you answer, 'on a bus,' aren't you committing a sin of imprecision, to say the least? What was the emotion you were feeling composed of and where was it located: forty-five minutes of palpable happiness incited by an illusory event? The drag, though it hits hard, happens after the fact. It only affects the last minute, can't erase the other forty-five that have moved out of its jurisdiction."

Over 200 pages like that. And aside from its focus on the idea of place, The Scale of Maps isn't focused on any one place in particular -- anything but. Despite taking place in Spain, the book isn't about anything particularly Spanish (unless it is and I entirely missed it, in which case you know I'm good for an apology). But still, I haven't encountered anything particularly like its intricate cartography from anywhere else. The Scale of Maps is very much an idea book of cosmopolitan character, and Gopegui seems to have intended it as such: according to Sergio, "books are the maps of men. Every act of reading involves the paradoxical act of touching a map with the tip of the index finger… I believe in maps. They establish a unique relationship between us and the world, as do books."

However, that very cosmopolitan character is the frequent focus of arguments on "world literature," celebrated by Goethe, who coined the term as translation was making more and more foreign literature available to Western Europe, but cautioned against by the likes of Karl Marx, who warned of the subsuming of the periphery into the assumed universality of the established (bourgeois) power structure. My own interaction over the Pamuk article was nothing new. And to be sure, I'm not denying Gopegui her Spanishness or asking that she not claim her ideas for Spain. A Communist, she certainly knows the stakes, and it's very unlikely that she styled The Scale of Maps only so that it would be translated into English. Rather, its translation is likely more representative of a different trend in the marketing of translations on the American market. The Scale of Maps, Gopegui's first novel, published first in Spanish in 1993, was hailed as a masterpiece and won the author an award, the probable impetus for her winning an English translation nearly two decades later. That the book hasn't lost any of its effect for the time between is testament to its value beyond the topicality of a specific time or place. If only Sergio could have read his own story as consolation.

My redemption? Not quite yet. I still need to do right by Rodoreda -- although I would probably do her wrong were I one of her male characters. Selected Stories is a collection of thirty stories by Catalan author Mercè Rodoreda spanning her entire career and nearly a century of history and emotion. And if I can be allowed one preliminary generalization about Rodoreda's women, it would be that they all seem in one way or another lonely -- and insolently resigned to their loneliness -- variously isolated by loves from which passion has receded, as if that were simply womankind's universally accepted lot. And as for those women's men, their lot seems to be to have eyes only for ever younger women. A story titled "Happiness" closes, "What remained, all curled up, was a girl without troubles, without agitation, a girl unaware that she was tyrannically imprisoned within four walls and a ceiling of tenderness." And this is a story about a woman who wants to run away, to leave the man she's with and start over. I hesitate to quote a particular passage because I have a weird sense of déjà vu over some review that probably doesn't exist and so I couldn't actually have read, whereby the passage strikes me as one that is probably too often quoted. But then the power of Rodoreda's prose lies exactly in her ability to present the trite and commonplace with crystal poignancy: on the morning after it's become clear that winter was almost over and there would soon be no more cold, "It's over, she thought. Love is ending. And this is how it ends, quietly."

For as figuratively as Gopegui delivers The Scale of Maps, Rodoreda tells her stories with an equal measure of straightforward candor. That's not to say, however, that Rodoreda's stories are stylistically uniform. Although most of the stories in Selected Stories are written naturalistically, there are marked exceptions. "Paralysis" is impressionistic and softly allegorical, gracefully outlining, among other  "numbnesses," the special paralysis of writer's block. "It Seemed Like Silk" stands out for its vivid symbolism, magic realism even, if you will (and I will because there's a Garcia Márquez quote on the jacket of this copy of mine, and women don't really turn into salamanders or get followed by angels). I mean to say rather that these two female Spanish authors have virtually nothing in common beyond being women of the same national origin. Rodoreda even wrote in Catalan. I shouldn't have foist them on each other in the first place. My bad?   

Selected Stories has a strangely soothing, bittersweet ambience -- a heat, I kept thinking, like an oppressive summer day that forces a place's complete acquiescence to languor, to just accept and enjoy whatever possible. Rodoreda doesn't, however, purport that the experience of her characters is anything unique to a particular era, least of all this one. She died, in fact, almost two decades before the twenty-first century hit. Were she alive today she'd be almost 103. I didn't know it while I was reading her stories -- I knew absolutely nothing about the author, actually, other than the Catalan thing -- which I took as a boon when I finished Selected Stories and finally turned to the biography page. Some of the stories definitely place themselves in certain times, and inferring that Rodoreda had probably experienced the Spanish Civil War and World War II as an adult I shouldn't have thought so, but during my reading I imagined that she could still be writing. "Afternoon at the Cinema" could have been set in any of several decades, and although they may not be uplifting, its sentiments are timeless. "Now that I've read what I just wrote, I can see this isn't exactly what I wanted to say. This always happens to me: I explain things that at the time seem important and later I see they aren't at all." (I include that in part as a final self-recrimination.) "I know I'm a bit naïve and Papà always tells me Ramon's a fool, and finally that's what makes me saddest because I think the two of us will be miserable." Thanks, lady. There's nothing for getting over yourself like other people's problems.

I hadn't heard of her, but Rodoreda is famous. She's been published in English before. I don't know much about Catalan, either, but I do know that it's a border language and culture, which makes it an interesting subject for translation. Selected Stories seems to have been compiled to coincide with the progression of Rodoreda's biography, who lived in exile in France and Switzerland after the Spanish Civil War until 1972. Her stories in this collection take place in those countries as well as in Catalonia, most recognizably in Barcelona, and incorporate allusions and dialogue in French and German -- rendered seamlessly with the rest of the text in Martha Tennent's translation. Simply put, Rodoreda was no stranger to translingual manners and methods. I couldn't find whether she had ever published translations of her own, but to some extent the stories in Selected Stories represent acts of translation in themselves, although for all indications Rodoreda wrote intentionally in Catalan to be read by her fellow Catalonians.

But, obviously, I wouldn't have had any inkling of her had she not appeared in English. I can't wear my naïveté nearly as well as some of Rodoreda's characters, but that I can sympathize is certainly indication that the appeal of those characters is broader than Catalonia, just as Gopegui's Sergio and Brezo aren't just extensions of the streetscapes in Madrid where they meet. I don't wonder if Gopegui ever read Rodoreda, but I'm happy for my introduction to both, even if I gathered us all in the same space under not so sturdy pretenses and dissembled the party without directly addressing any of the issues as they were. But if it's enough just to have learned something then, with all due deference to my guests in the future, I'll stick with Mr. Pamuk and be satisfied if insisting on them means access to more and more translations. Whether they're good, bad or even dubiously intentioned, they're good just for keeping up a conversation, which my friends think I need more of -- they tell me I read too much.