A great honour

June 15, 2014

2072318118_e3555f6623_b

I had a nice surprise this weekend. There was a very familiar name on the list of people receiving Queen’s Birthday Honours (the titles awarded every year by Elizabeth II to mark her official birthday). The person in question was celebrated Portuguese- and Spanish-literature translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has been given an OBE for services to literature.

I first came across Jull Costa’s work back in the initial week of my year of reading the world when a colleague at the newspaper I was working at lent me her translation of Eça de Queiroz’s The Mandarin and Other Stories to read as my choice from her home country, Portugal.

A few months later, I encountered Jull Costa again when I read Luís Cardoso’s powerful memoir The Crossing, one of the few books available in English translation by a writer from East Timor.

On both occasions, I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing and, as my appreciation for the extraordinary skill that translation requires grew throughout the project, I began to realise how deserved the many accolades Jull Costa has received over the course of her career are. But it wasn’t until September of that year that I witnessed her dedication to literature first-hand.

That month, having tried and failed to find any stories in translation from the small African nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I decided to appeal to the kindness of strangers and see whether Portuguese speakers might come to my rescue to translate a short story collection especially for me. As happened so many times during my quest, the world’s literature lovers overwhelmed me with their generosity and before a week had gone by, I had more offers of help than I was able to accept.

In amongst the welter of messages, however, there was one particularly exciting email. It was a message from Margaret Jull Costa, who had heard about the venture from a student on a summer school she had taught at, and wanted to offer her assistance.

I couldn’t believe it. This was Margaret Jull Costa. The Margaret Jull Costa – translator of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and Javier Marías and a shelf-ful of other revered writers. And she wanted to do a translation for me? As I said at the time to a friend, I felt as though I had asked to borrow a bike and been lent a Ferrari.

True to her word, along with eight other volunteers, Jull Costa translated the stories I selected and sent them back, enabling me to read Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor in its entirety. Without her work, both published and unpublished, I would not have been able to read the world as I did. Hearty congratulations to her on this latest achievement in a glittering and immensely valuable career.

Picture by marcus_jb1973

IMG_0383

Sometimes when you’re trying to read a book by a writer from every country in the world, you have to travel in time as well as space. While there may not be any translated literature from that nation available in print at the time you’re looking, if you dig back into the past you can occasionally get your hands on an edition of a translation published decades ago that will take you into an imaginary universe from which you would otherwise be shut out. These out-of-print books are like portals, opening and closing  at will: not everyone can get to them, they pop up in surprising settings and you’ll rarely find one in the same place twice.

My Paraguayan pick was one of these books. As far as I can find out, there is little other than Helen Lane’s 1986 translation of Augustos Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme out there for us English-language readers (do tell me if you know differently). Luckily, I was able to get hold of a faded 1988 edition listed by an independent bookseller on Abe Books (there are a few others on there at the moment, but they may disappear at any time).

The 1974 novel, which saw Bastos permanently exiled from his homeland, is a fictional rendering of the recollections, pronouncements and paranoid fantasies of the early 19th century Paraguayan dictator Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (who dubbed himself El Supremo). Constructed by an anonymous compiler from a mountain of charred dossiers, pamphlets, correspondence and other documents salvaged from a fire at the time of the ruler’s death, the narrative presents a mind turning in on itself as the tyrant confronts his own mortality.

From the first page – which displays a lampoon in the voice of El Supremo found nailed to the cathedral doors in the capital – the text babbles with questions about identity, authority and authorship. The novel is shot through with footnotes and extracts from other works that contradict the primary account, as well as revisions from the tyrant as he creates his own account of the founding of the Perpetual Dictatorship. As El Supremo’s shadowy scribe puts it, in this world of reconfigurations, suppressed voices and fabrications, ‘even the truth appears to be a lie’.

For all the slipperiness of the narrative, however, the character of El Supremo looms large, riddled with the conflicts, eccentricities and the lack of empathy that comes from years of being cut off from normal human interaction. Bastos’s portrait of the ruler’s paranoia, who sees himself surrounded by people with ‘a bad case of the itch to be kings’, is brilliant and points up the psychology behind the grotesque and brutal punishments he metes out as casually as he orders his food – the cells blocked up to admit no light, the traitors left sitting in the sun, the man forced to row until he dies. These are offset by El Supremo’s delusions about his own benevolence, reflected in outbursts of irrational generosity – as in the case of the meticulous list of toys he orders to be distributed to children at Epiphany.

Bastos’s greatest achievement, however, is that, while revealing the monstrous actions and self-deception of the tyrant, he brings out his humanity too. This comes through in the lonely, sober tone of many of the entries in El Supremo’s private notebook, as well as through glimpses of the ruler as a frail old man playing dice in his slippers and contemplating the impending loss of his faculties. It also lives in his flashes of insight into his situation and his wistful daydreams about how if he had met a woman and had a family he might have enjoyed a peaceful, quiet old age, rather than sitting in fear and isolation, thinking about crowds burning his effigy and listening to ‘the sounds of a sick mind clattering along’.

For all its brilliance, however, the novel does come with a health warning: its dense, heavy style will be too rich for some appetites. The concentration wanders in its maze of associations and you sometimes have to retrace your steps to pick up the thread again. Although Bernard Levin might have read it twice in a weekend – as he writes breezily on the back cover – the book will take most people much longer to get through (I had to allow four days).

If you stick with it, however, the rewards are great. The I the Supreme is many things: a portrayal of the nightmare of being able to trust no-one but yourself; a portrait of a mind hemmed in; and a reminder of how easily we might be other than we are. Extraordinary.

I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo) by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated from the Spanish by Helen R Lane (Faber & Faber, 1988)

This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)


I’m a sucker for a good dedication – which is great because the 67 books I’ve blogged about so far this year have provided loads of them. From succinct statements such as Roberto Saviano’s ‘To S., damn it’, which hints at the massive toll taken by his investigation into the Neapolitan mafia, to Dany Laferrière’s playful ‘For everyone who would like to be someone else’, 2012 has given me a feast of dedicatory delights.

Even so, I’ve rarely come across a more intriguing – or even backhanded – inscription than the one that appears after the title page of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness: ‘To S.D., who made me promise I would never dedicate this book to her’. Perverse, playful and wilful, it piqued my interest and, as I was to discover, it sets the tone for the cat’s cradle of contradictions and contrariness of which the novel consists.

Let’s face it, the premise of a ‘depraved atheist’ accepting a contract to edit a lengthy report on massacres in local Indian villages for the Roman Catholic Church, was always going to generate a degree of narrative friction. However, the sparks that fly as the protagonists sinks into paranoia and an unhealthy obsession with the graphic accounts he is working on are something else. Retreating further and further inside his own mind and the visions of the atrocities he is reading about, the editor finds himself wandering the naves of a vast cathedral of craziness in which he is the author of both heaven and hell.

Breathless, furious and funny, the writing reflects the mental unravelling of its subject. Moya sets out his stall on the very first page with a labyrinthine sentence that reels the reader from the editor’s desk through into the heart of one of the massacres about which he is reading. This is complemented by various startling metaphors that reflect the breakdown of the protagonist’s inhibitions as the narrative proceeds – at one point, he tells an acquaintance that Erick, the friend who found him the work, ‘had stuck it in me crooked and without lubrication’ because the manuscript is longer than he expected – and a series of hysterical rants against topics ranging from the media to vegetarianism.

The narrator’s capacity for self-scrutiny keeps him three-dimensional and he lays bare the workings of his mind with disarming frankness. At first his confessions about his tendency to get hysterical and his descriptions of the ludicrous frenzies that leave him standing in the middle of his private office acting out stabbing his mild-mannered colleagues have an endearing quality. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that they are part of the problem themselves.

Much as the editor’s habit of reading out quotes from massacre survivors to everybody he meets to demonstrate the ‘poetic quality’ of the report begins to unsettle his acquaintances, so the unflinching descriptions of his responses to the world around him begin to take on an unsettling quality. The description of his impatience when a woman he is dating breaks down – ‘for there is nothing more repulsive to me than a woman who cries as a result of her own stupidity and who in addition asks for my commiseration’ – for example, displays a cold, almost psychopathic edge. Strangely devoid of the social filtering processes that most people sift their thoughts through, this unedited stream of confessions becomes every bit as disturbing as the manuscript with which the protagonist is working.

The result is a masterful and engrossing portrait of a mind unmaking itself. I want to say I loved it, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable to put it that way. Something gapes beneath the narrative’s surface and makes you wary, as though you might tumble through into its labyrinth and be lost if you allow yourself to get too close.

Maybe senselessness is only one unedited manuscript away from each of us. And maybe the reasons for S.D.’s reluctance to be mentioned in the dedication aren’t such a mystery after all.

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2008)

There are some titles that reach off the shelves, grab you by the throat and all but frogmarch you to the check out (or in this case the virtual cash desk with the little man hiding somewhere around the back of the computer) to make you buy the book. Horacio Quiroga’s The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories was one of these: as soon as I stumbled across the work on one of Wikipedia’s lists of writers by nationality, I knew I was going to read it. The fact several visitors to this blog subsequently recommended it only made me more excited about what I might find inside.

As its name suggests, this collection of short stories – selected from across Quiroga’s oeuvre by translator Margaret Sayers Peden – focuses on the startling, violent moments in which lives are altered beyond recall. Death, cruelty and vicious coincidence stalk its characters, feeding off their weaknesses and rarely allowing anyone to escape scot-free. There is the Indian worker driven to plot his bloody revenge by the high-handed discipline of a captain in A Slap in the Face’ and the father who retreats into eerie hallucinations after his young son’s death in a shooting accident in ‘The Son’ – a real shiver-in-the-sunshine moment in the best of the Gothic tradition. Meanwhile, the mini-masterpiece that is the title story shows how years of disappointment, hard luck and neglect can be distilled into a single, horrific act.

Jean Franco and George D Schade make much of the disturbing events of the writer’s own life in their Foreword and Introduction (several of Quiroga’s closest relatives and friends died in violent accidents, his first wife committed suicide and he killed himself in 1937). While these traumas must have impacted heavily on Quiroga, there is a strangely panicky feeling about the critics’ repeated references to them, as though they are anxious contain, defuse and even explain away the savage power of the text. At times, their comments take on the apologetic tone of the relative outside the room of the manic-depressive, whispering that dear Quiroga is not quite well.

This is perhaps because many of the stories in the book exhibit a disturbing, almost anarchic, approach to reality and sanity that is even more troubling than the violence they portray. From weird parables such as the story of ‘Julian Darien’, in which a tiger transforms into a boy only to be tortured to death by the villagers when his mother dies, to the excellent The Pursued’ — which describes the narrator’s obsession with a mentally ill friend-of-a-friend that makes him desperate to get at ‘the madman behind the actor who was arguing with me’ — the stories never allow the reader to relax. Turn your back for a second and the landscape has shifted, the rules changed: Quiroga is a writer who must be watched at all times.

It doesn’t always work. Some of the reversals are too abrupt and, while many of the animal stories are compelling, the anthropomorphism occasionally falls flat on its face – ‘Anaconda’, for example, in which snakes set out to attack the research centre trying to find an antidote to their venom feels like a bridge too far. Similarly, Quiroga’s dipping between registers, which is often effective, can sometimes feel odd, as in the opening story ‘A Feather Pillow’, the ending of which reads more like a public health pamphlet than a denouement.

But these are minor quibbles. All in all, this is a masterful collection that lifts the lid on some of the deepest and darkest wells of human experience. It will linger with the reader long after it’s been put on the shelf. Highly recommended.

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

This project would be nothing without the people all over the planet who get in touch to suggest books, publishers, experts and organisations to help me read my way round the world. I’m continually delighted by how generous fellow booklovers are with their time and expertise, and the way these recommendations are opening up new vistas of reading.

Cherie Elston is one of those people. As arts editor of Palabras Errantesan ezine dedicated to promoting Latin American literature (which Laura introduced me to via a comment on The List), she knows a thing or two about books from South America. All the same, I couldn’t help being impressed by the list of 65 authors she sent in reply to my email.

I’m still researching my way through it and it will probably take me years to get hold of all the books (translations permitting). But I had to start somewhere and, as I didn’t have anything down for Venezuela before Cherie got in touch, I decided to begin with Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

Charting Dr Andrés Miranda’s response to the discovery that his father has terminal cancer, Tyszka’s Herralde Prize-winning novel The Sickness explores health, illness, life and death, and the strange, dispassionate vehicle of medicine that shuttles us between them. As Dr Miranda’s professionalism crumbles in the face of his impending loss, he is forced to confront his limitations and reassess his relationship with the vocation to which he is dedicated his life.

Tyszka’s ability to write about loss in all its guises is exceptional. From the seismic tremors it sends through an ordered existence to the absent-mindedness it interpolates into everyday moments, he captures it expertly. He also has a talent for presenting the inner workings of paranoia, which he sets forth through an email correspondence between Dr Miranda’s secretary and a strangely dependent patient.

The imagery he finds to convey the physical effects of shock and sadness is powerful too. When Andrés first sees his father’s results, we read that he feels ‘as if he bore inside him some helpless, stumbling creature, as if he were giving birth to a disaster’ and later, when his father phones to hear the news, that he ‘has a hedgehog on his tongue. His throat fills with pineapple rind’. This directness spills into Tyszka’s observation’s about his own craft as well. ‘Tears are very unliterary: they have no form’, he observes.

This insight is not always matched when it comes to observations about other areas of human existence. There are some strange generalisations about sexuality and the sexes, which ring oddly in the work of so generally empathetic and intuitive a writer.

Now and then the portrayal of hospital life stretches credulity too. Having grown up in a medical household, I found the idea that a surgeon would cancel an operation because his friend had just had some bad news hard to swallow. Now and then it seemed that Tyszka had underestimated the thick skin that most medical practitioners have to develop to survive their careers.

But these were minor points. The book was immensely enjoyable, as well as being touching and profound. Its exploration of the emotional spectrum and the stories we tell to inoculate ourselves against its worst effects will no doubt resonate with readers around the world, as it did with me.

Thanks Laura, Cherie and everybody else – please keep those recommendations coming.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 18,037 other followers