August 2012

Christopher Merkel


The Blight at the End of the Tunnel

"And where is the book?" she asks. Her shoulders are forward, and she hasn't gone so far as to actually pushing herself up off of her chair, but the affected urgency of her total gesture sufficiently emphasizes the insistence of her tone. "I left it for someone else to read. And you didn't want it back. It was totally ruined." And I refuse to believe that the incredulity of her response could be honest. Because: "Come on. I was reading it off and on at the beach for, like, a month. It was in and out of my bag all the time. The bag that I took to the beach. I mean, the cover is completely torn off, and the binding is full of sand. So. Yeah. I guess I didn't think you'd want it back." Then, as she's making her response by way of explanation, I'm the one who turns incredulous. "No. I'm sorry, but you don't give someone an aging paperback -- I mean, like, actually, old and doesn't look good already -- knowing that he's going to take it to the beach for an indefinite amount of time and expect him to treat it like an heirloom." "I assumed that since you take such good care of your own books that you would take care of mine without me saying anything." "Oh my god. Dude. Just don't give me the book that your dad gave to your mom when she was in the hospital birthing you to take to the beach. That's all." "Still, why didn't you think it was a loan?" "No. That's all. I'll get it sent to you."

I had thought, too, that I was prepping quite the moment. After dark had fallen and the breeze had picked up, it was pleasant on the patio of the restaurant, despite that the patio of the restaurant was in a parking lot. And after the beer and the food (it seems hard to go wrong with Basque places, and this one had lived up to its reputation, well worth the difficulty it took to find), the mood was good, even if the event was bittersweet. And that's to say that the mood was good, even if ours maybe weren't -- which is to say that the dinner was quite fine, but it also wasn't impossible that it would be our last dinner together (indefinitely if not actually forever) in the city where we had become friends. So over the ends of that last plate that we ordered but probably didn't need, our forks (in the memory that I've decided to settle on) dangling from the ends of fingers at the ends of dangling wrists at the top of elbows rested on the table, I break a short silence with the quotation, and yes, the very same one, word for word, that was the entire text of the postcard I'd send her after she'd come to visit for my second weekend at the beach:

I have spent three strange days: the sea, the beach, the paths keep bringing me memories of other days. Not merely images, voices as well, shouts and long silences from other times. It is curious, but life is a process of constructing future memories; at this very moment, here where I sit facing the sea, I know that I am creating memories that one day will bring me melancholy and despair.

Except that I said it in Spanish, exactly as I'd copied it from the book for the postcard, and I said (and had written) it at least as much to impress on her how much of her language I'd learned as to characterize our shared experience by means of overblown smartness. We had spent three days together at the sea, and she had always been disposed to an above average appreciation of the maudlin. Plus, I suppose, the moment, and the beer. And it was overblown. And I don't know what I expected. I don't think that I was really thinking much past the lines themselves, and when I'd given the quotation I didn't have much time to think, because that's when I got heirloomed. Apparently I should have known not to take that old paperback edition of The Tunnel to the beach.

Thankfully (although maybe just for her own sake as part of the evening), after a shortly longer silence (which I made no attempt to break), she let it go. (And I let it go at wondering if there was any way that I could actually get someone at the beach to return her mother's ruined book.) Penguin Classics, however, was of a different mind. (Granted, no one there had been part of that moment between my friend and me, but...) As it happened, the Penguin Classics reprint of it English translation of The Tunnel, written by the Argentine author Ernesto Sábato in 1948, had been released at the end of June, only a couple of days before that dinner. But I could understand. If the book had been significant enough to be given as the gift that it originally was -- and then to be passed on to me as the gift that it apparently wasn't -- then it would stand to argue that it warranted the reminder of a rerelease in translation. And I won't argue.

Frankly, I welcomed the opportunity. Despite the somewhat uncomfortable reminder of having abandoned that paperback of my friend's (after, you know, ruining it), there was, on the other hand, the agreeable coincidence of being reminded that there existed a translation of the first and only book that I had ever read in Spanish. And I might not have been aware of it had I not gone online the next day wondering if I couldn't find her a replacement (not having ever had much hope in the beach). It wasn't going to get me a copy of that decades-old Spanish edition, but obviously this rerelease was meant for me. 

It was, at any rate, the obvious coincidence. The Tunnel, after all, is a work of existentialism, and the least that it offers any reader is carte blanche for a bit of a navel gaze. More importantly, however, The Tunnel is canon. Whether or not any given reader is particularly given to navel gazing, unless he or she has actively decided to ignore the book or its author, The Tunnel is one of those that wouldn't have much difficulty finding its way into his or her hands (and more so if the reader has certain special interests, like, say, in modern Hispanic literature). It's in red on the back cover: "One of the great short novels of the twentieth century." Here we have a case in which it isn't surprising that we have an extant translation of a novel, and neither, in fact, does it seem all that remarkable that the translation should have been published again.

And that isn't to say that The Tunnel itself isn't remarkable (although it's not necessarily to say that it is, either). I enjoyed reading it initially in Spanish, but I'm aware that my enjoyment was influenced by an appreciation of my own ability to finally tackle a novel in a new language, and, admittedly, Sábato's straightforward prose was one of the reasons that I'd been passed that particular book. Had I not simply been so enamored of the experience itself, I might not have sent my friend the messages that I did, praising the book for things like its enduring modernity. Later, I enjoyed reading The Tunnel in English, too, although I'll admit that my enjoyment there was influenced by the recollection. Juan Pablo Castel, the painter whose existential tunnel is Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel, is delightfully misanthropic. I will probably always love reading about artists hating critics -- and I will probably never get over criticizing the literary machine for producing too much well-written more of the same. An existential masterpiece! (And one, even, that pokes fun at Sartre.) A novel about a crime that also discusses crime novels! And, above all, an opportunity to pretend something similar in correspondence with the woman who had shared it with me!

Again, don't get me wrong: I welcomed the opportunity. And I wouldn't have had it if it weren't for the English translation of The Tunnel by Margaret Sayers Peden, or for its re-release by Penguin Classics. It's just that, I don't know... the whole experience, after enjoying The Tunnel a second time, in English (and after the reminder of that whole to do surrounding the Spanish edition that I'd read), it's just that the whole thing seemed so goddamned contrived. I'm not going to say that popularity and wide acclaim should be enough to damn a work out of hand. And there: I didn't say it. But I can't help wondering how much of a choice I'd had. After being so excited to get to the translation of the passage that I'd transcribed onto that postcard, my feeling of simply having to get my hands on The Tunnel in English was replaced by the feeling that maybe I'd just had to. Literary canon as far as the idea that there are some things that everyone should read may be unfathomable, but understanding that doesn't, frustratingly, deny its inevitability.

But then I emerge from my navel, having stayed perhaps a bit longer than the bit that I allowed myself. I also may have liked an opportunity to be more indignant (an opportunity, as it were, to fall into that same old trope), but the truth is that I've nothing at all to say against The Tunnel or its author or its publishers. The book is fine. I understand why it's considered to be a book of importance, and that, I think, has just as much to do as not with the fact that it's considered to be a book of importance. And whether the copy I read in Spanish was originally gifted for reasons pertaining to the chicken or to the egg (or whether it just happened to be on hand on the way to the hospital), well, I'm not even going to bother to speculate. And come to think of it, I think that I remember my friend having said that she had no recollection of the book other than the memory of having at one point read it. The only passage she should remember now is the one I used to remind her that her mother's copy was gone. And the important thing for me now seems to be that I'm having difficulty letting go of getting rid of it.

No. I have nothing to say against the book or its author or its publishers. But I would have a question for Margaret Sayers Peden. It's that passage, my friend's and mine, from the postcard and from over the dinner table. And here it might be proper to note that those words from The Tunnel don't come from the painter Juan Pablo Castel but from María Iribarne, the woman he kills despite and because she is the only person who understands his painting as he would like it to be understood (or so he understands). And that's proper, maybe, because I wonder if Castel wouldn't consider some of my thoughts concerning his own to have been too fatalistic. Just so we're not putting words into each other's mouths. But that said, Margaret Sayers Peden seems to have left a word out.

"Creating memories," she's translated, "that one day will bring me melancholy and despair." And it may be a fault of memory, but I do think that I remember, in that ruined paperback (from a publisher in Barcelona, I think), that the "recuerdos" were "minuciosos" (you can ask to check my postcard if you like) and wonder why the memories in Peden's casting of María's letter to Juan Pablo aren't more detailed, exact. Fault, indeed, of memory. I can't guarantee that my own apropos of my reading of Peden's translation will prove any more exact than the memories I have of that dinner.  

I can ask my friend to double check. Living is a curious process of constructing future memories, and The Tunnel has given me yet another one to add to our own personal collection of existential melancholy and despair. I hadn't realized what it was until I was reproached for having lost it, but it turns out that I saved the receipt. It was worn and typewritten, and I thought that it looked nice at the corner of a print that I had in a frame in my apartment. I hadn't felt like ceding any ground in our spat at dinner, and so I hadn't said anything. But I think that I can send it to her now, in another book, not the one that she didn't give me, but one similar, at least, that won't be as misplaced (I hope) as my second delivery of that quote. It has a story, anyway -- and it still has its cover too.