Category: Lost Without Translation

How to Learn Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes

“Beginning of modern thought.”

Witold Gombrowicz starts his guide through modern philosophy with characteristic concision. The “First Lesson” is a description of Kant’s contributions to philosophy, with some explanation of Descartes to see where Kant is coming from.

A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen MinutesGombrowicz — playwright, diarist, novelist, and thinker — leaps through philosophy since the Enlightenment with poetic, aphoristic prose. By the time the guide ends with Husserl and Nietzsche, we have travelled through Hegel, Marxism, and Existentialism with remarkable speed. In the end we get much more than perspective on some of the great thinkers of modern western Philosophy, but the style and insight of Gombrowicz himself. These lessons are given dates, leaving us the sense that we are moving through both Gombrowicz’s life and the life of philosophy. In these brief quotations from A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, translated by Benjamin Ivy, we find Gombrowicz’s lucid encapsulations with layered with his artistic flare:

On Writers and Kant:

“What was the most profound vision of the world in the 18th century? One finds it in Kant, without whom it would be impossible to know the development of consciousness through the centuries. Philosophy is needed for a global view of culture. It is important for writers.

On Philosophy:

“Philosophy allows us to organize culture, to introduce order, to find ourselves, and to attain intellectual confidence.”

On Schopenhauer and Art:

“Schopenhauer formulates an artistic theory which is, for me, the most important of all. And, just between us, the extremely naïve and incomplete manner of dealing with art in France is due primarily to the ignorance of Schopenhauer. Art shows us nature’s game and its forces, namely the will to live.”

On Existentialism:

“Existentialism is subjectivity.

Personally, I am quite subjective and it seems to me that this attitude corresponds to reality.”

On Marx and humankind:

“Man is in relation to the external world. He needs to dominate nature, and there lies his real problem, all the rest is frippery.

Placing the Placeless: A Conversation with Rodrigo Rey Rosa

This interview by Jeffrey Gray was originally published in vol. 4, no. 2 (2007) in A Contracorriente.


Placing the Placeless: a Conversation with Rodrigo Rey Rosa1

Jeffrey Gray, Seton Hall University

Rodrigo Rey Rosa was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 1958.  As a young writer, he lived for several years in Tangier, where he became a friend of the late Paul Bowles, who first translated and introduced his work to English-speaking readers.  Rosa has also lived for several years in New York City.  Based now in the Petén region of Guatemala, he continues to travel frequently to Tangier, Barcelona, and New  York, and at this writing is in India.   Of his numerous books, the following were translated into English by Paul Bowles: The Beggar’s Knife (El cuchillo del mendigo)(1985), Dust on Her Tongue (1989), and The Pelcari Project (Cárcel de árboles)(1991), all published by City Lights. These and other books—El salvador de buques (1992), El agua quieta (1992), Lo que soñó Sebastián (1994), El cojo bueno (1996), Que me maten si…(1997), and Ningún lugar sagrado (1998)—have also been translated into French and German. In 1995 he scripted one of his stories and directed the film, “The Proof”, for Laurie Parker, in Los Angeles.

ReyRosaPerhaps  fifteen  years  ago,  I  began  to  notice  Rodrigo  Rey Rosa’s books, translated by Paul Bowles, on the shelves of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. I had lived for half a year in Tangier in Bowles-Burroughs days, when I was 21.  I had also, coincidentally it now seems, spent the last half of the 1970s in Guatemala, where I returned in 2000 on a Fulbright, to teach a course at the University of San Carlos.  A Spanish friend of mine was directing a series of readings and discussions at a cultural center called “El Sitio” in Antigua, Guatemala, and had invited Rosa, who had just come back to Guatemala after living several years in Tangier, to read. I arrived at the discussion to find the young novelist and short-story writer in jeans and turtle-neck sweater, addressing the usual group of a dozen or so writers and artists, but also thirty uniformed high school girls who had read a book of his and had come prepared with questions.  I was impressed by Rosa’s response to one question in particular: Does it matter where one writes—Guatemala, Morocco, New York City? Rosa said that, for him, it did not.  Since his most recent novel, La orilla africana, is set in Tangier, with a vivid sense of locale, the reply intrigued me.

Two months later I took the subway from New York Penn Station to the East Village, got off at Lafayette Square and walked a few blocks up East 11th to visit Rosa in a small second-storey apartment he was borrowing from a photographer who was out of town.    We  talked  about  travel,  place  and  writing, and  about  the situation in Guatemala as well as that in Tangier. In the course of the interview, I asked Rosa about birds, because they appear often in his fiction, particularly in this recent novel where the entire story hinges on the pursuit, exchange, and finally the liberation of an owl.  He answered that birds had no special meaning for him. A few weeks later, I came across this account in Paul Bowles’ short diary book Days: 

February 6 [1988].

Rodrigo has bought a falcon.  When Mrabet heard this he decided that he was going to get it away from him, and began to announce his plans for teaching it to hunt.February 12.

Rodrigo brought the falcon here.   A beautiful bird.   Rodrigo wants to take it to the top of the mountain and set it free.

February 13.

Abdelouahaid and I drove with Rodrigo and the cage to the high point above Mediouna.   There was a hard climb over sharp rocks to get up there.  Abdelouahaid helped me.  When the cage had been opened and the falcon had been persuaded to come out, Rodrigo threw it upward into the air, and we stood watching it as it flew.  There was a strong cherqi blowing which seemed to keep it from rising very far.  It flew straight toward the northwest over the pine forest, as though it knew where it was going. Little by little it went up.”

1 Gray: What brings you to Manhattan?

Rosa:  I wrote the text of a catalogue for a painter friend of mine— Miguel Barceló.    His old gallerist, Leo Castelli, died, and the gallery closed down, so he’s having an opening at a new gallery, a big event, and they invited me.   The gallery is Grant Selwyn.   I haven’t been here since ’97.

2 Gray: When I met you in Guatemala, we talked about place and its relation,  or  sometimes  lack  of  relation,  to  writing. How  was  it growing up in Guatemala, and how and when did you leave and begin traveling?

Rosa: I traveled a lot first with my parents.  We traveled in Mexico and Central America, and we went to Europe. But the first time I went by myself was just after high school, when I was eighteen.   I went  to  London  and  then  traveled  through  Europe.  I  had  little money, and had to work in Germany. Then I went to Spain and traveled  all  around.    That’s  when  I  actually  started  writing.    I intended to go to Morocco at that time, but I ran out of money. I spent a year in Europe all together.  Then I went back to Guatemala for about a year, then left again..

3 Gray: Where did you go next?

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rosa: New York. I came to New York, really because I didn’t want to live in Guatemala anymore.   I was invited by a friend who had traveled in Guatemala.  As you know, it was a very bad time to be in Guatemala—it was 1979.  He was a friend from Spain who lived here, a photographer.  He was going on a trip to Thailand and offered me his  place here, just to  help  me out.   So I  took that up  and then decided I wanted to stay here.  He had Paul’s [Bowles’] Collected Stories; that’s how I got acquainted with his work.   And by coincidence—I was looking for a school, to get a student visa, in order to  stay  here  legally—I  didn’t  want  to  go  underground—I  was shopping around for a school, and I walked into the School of Visual Arts, where there was a big poster advertising a summer writing workshop with Paul Bowles.   As I had tried to go to Morocco once and failed, I looked into that and it was a good deal; it wasn’t so expensive. To go out and spend the summer in Morocco and at the same time to enroll in this school without having to go through all the normal requirements.  I didn’t have all the papers I needed to get into NYU, for instance; the School of Visual Arts was much more relaxed on that score.   So I decided to sign in, and they needed a short story for admittance, so I did that—I wrote a little short story in English….

4 Gray: You’d been writing by that time—

Rosa: I’d published one short story, just at that time. I’d left it in Guatemala with a friend, who gave it to the Imparcial.  So….I’d been writing seriously for about a year.

5 Gray: I didn’t know the School of Visual Arts had a literary program.

Rosa:   They had that creative writing workshop—they had it for three years—and then stopped.  But I enrolled for film.  I wasn’t interested in studying literature really.

I wanted to catch up with film because living in Guatemala I didn’t know anything about it; I’d missed a lot of it. For me it was more just general culture, but it was very useful.

6 Gray: How long did you stay in that program?

Rosa:  Two years, and then I dropped out. That was 1983.  I spent most of ‘84 in Morocco.

7 Gray: After the six-week session with Paul Bowles, did you stay on in Morocco or come back to New York City?

Rosa: No, no—well, everything happened very fast after that. I didn’t really have anything in common with the other students.  They were most of them much older—some of them in their sixties.  I decided I wanted to travel inland, and Paul gave me tips on where to go.  I left some of my stories with him, and I went. When I came back, I went to see him at his apartment, to say goodbye I guess, and he asked me if he could translate my stories to give to a publisher.   A small publisher here in New York had asked him for material, and he said he didn’t have any at the time, but that they might be interested in these short stories of mine.  I said “of course,” and we started.  He sent me the translations here to New York—I had come back to enroll in school.   We corresponded for about two years, until this book came out, and then I went back to visit him.  I didn’t stay that time, but I looked into an apartment that I could rent and a year later I did go, and spent three months or so there.  I decided it was a good place for me to work.  I think it was half a year later that I quit school here to go and stay there permanently.

8 Gray: So by the time you got to Morocco you were still very young—19? 20?

Rosa: I was 21.

9 Gray: Were you able to get by in Morocco, just on savings?

Rosa:   Rent was very cheap.   I paid $80 rent, and food was also cheap; that’s why I decided to go there…well, actually I took most of the SVA tuition—which was very expensive—for the next year, and I lived on that.

10 Gray:  It’s interesting that you were the one who dropped out of class and traveled around, yet you were the one who ended up being translated by Bowles. Was the class just revolting to you?

Rosa:   Not revolting, but I had nothing to do there. Part of it was that people were reading each other’s work.   And Paul, when he realized I was writing in English, said, “You should write in Spanish, don’t try writing in English.”   And of course he was right.   I didn’t know, before going over to Morocco, that he knew Spanish.  And anyway he wasn’t taking the class too seriously.   He said that he didn’t  believe  one  could  teach  writing,  but  that  he’d  try  to  help anyone who had questions.

11 Gray:  What was the first story that Bowles translated and had published?

Rosa: It was called “The Path Doubles Back.”

12 Gray:  Oh, the title story from that collection. How would you describe the structure of that? Are the vignettes related to each other?

Rosa:  No, Paul rearranged the order and numbered them like that. And he came up with the title. He said, “We need a title for that,” and I said, “Well, I don’t have one.” “Think about it,” he said.  So he sent me the translation, and I still hadn’t come up with a title.   And he said, “well, it’s in the text.  It’s a sentence from the text.  Maybe you’ll like it,” and I agreed.

13 Gray:  I assume that Bowles had an influence on you.  What other literary influences do you feel in your work?

Rosa:  At that time, by far the greater influence and my guide in the world of books was Borges.  And Paul was a fan of Borges.  We had that in common.  (We didn’t have much more in common.)  Paul was the  first  translator  of  Borges  into  English.    He  translated  “The Circular Ruins” for View.  He edited a Latin American number, in which he translated an episode from the Popol Vuh. He also translated a Spanish writer and a couple of Mexican writers for that number.

14 Gray: That’s interesting because I was thinking of Borges as I was looking at one of your earlier stories in The Beggar’s Knife.

Rosa: Oh, they’re very Borges—

15 Gray: But you moved away from that, didn’t you?  I mean, there’s a certain kind of fabulous mythical quality to the Borges pieces, and it seems your pieces are now more rooted in actual places; for example in La orilla africana, the actual detail of Tangiers.

Rosa:  Well,  that’s  written  almost  twenty  years  after.    My  early stories are more abstract as far as place is concerned; they’re more inside the head of someone.   There’s hardly any description of landscape. I think it’s a different kind of writing, much more dream- inspired.  Some of the stories—for example, in The Beggar’s Knife— are dreams.

16 Gray:  I was remembering the case of Raymond Roussel, who never really looked at the places he went to.  He was an aristocrat and had this sort of baroque Winnebago, a bizarre vehicle he traveled in and never left, but all his writing was imagined, nothing observed. Some of your pieces seem to be placeless, and even in a book like Dust on her Tongue, where something terrible has happened, we don’t quite know what, and we don’t know quite where—perhaps it could be anywhere.  So, I just wanted to pursue this question that I asked you in Antigua, whether place impinges on you, whether you work from notes on your surroundings.

Rosa:  They help me if I’m already writing, because everything sort of fits in.  They provide detail.  When I’m already writing, everything becomes….material.     But before I’m writing, everything is meaningless.  When I was writing La orilla africana, I would go to the places I was writing about, and then take notes about the objects I was seeing.  To go back and weave it into the text.  I would write in the morning, and then go to the market to see what I had forgotten or missed, and then I would add it.   Especially because it was description of very concrete places.  And I would go and see, and say “Oh, I missed that,” and I would put it in.  But it’s just adding a comma. Enumeration.

17 Gray:  La orilla africana is a special case in that you’ve got two converging plots,  each  occupying half  the  book:  one  concerns  an Arab boy, Hamsa, who steals an owl and the other an exiled Colombian who buys an owl in the market—how does something like that evolve?

Rosa: Well, I was in the middle of the novel without having written a word about the Moroccan boy.  It was only when the action goes to the house and he steals the owl that I realized that I could not get away without explaining why he took it.   And that made me create the character so as to explain that action.

18 Gray: So you wrote about the theft of the bird, and then….

Rosa: Then I stopped.  I had to stop for a couple of days.  I didn’t know how to solve it at first.  And then I decided I had to write his story.  So in that sense it was not planned at all and wouldn’t have existed without the theft.

19 Gray: You also played with the chronology after that?

Rosa:  I started writing about him. And then I had to figure out how to make his part fit in—it was a kind of puzzle, until things just fell in.

20 Gray: And why did Hamsa’s story have to come first?

Rosa:  It didn’t have to, but I thought it worked better, so the action wouldn’t be interrupted.

21 Gray: I wonder if method has changed at all for you, the way a story  comes from or to you.   Someone said that all short stories should be written in one sitting—no matter how many drafts or notes you might make beforehand—so that it has continuity.  How would you describe your own experience of this?

Rosa:  I agree that short stories should be written at one sitting— ideally; I don’t think it’s a law, because it doesn’t always happen like that.   But usually if they come at one sitting, it means you already have the action clearly defined in your head.  I think that helps for a short story.

22 Gray: Do you usually have the action well defined in your head when you sit down to write?

Rosa:  For a short story, I think I do have a … I see where it’s going. That’s a five- or ten-page story.  Not a forty- or fifty-page story.  And then with a novel, of course, I think you should not know what’s going to happen.

23 Gray: What do you think about writers who say the characters surprise them?  Others repudiate that completely; Nabokov thought that was nonsense, for example.

Rosa:  Well, I thought it was nonsense before I wrote a novel.  Now I see that it’s true.  Characters do take on a kind of life, and they might not do what you want them to do.  You start following them in a way. That’s not a mystification.  I used to think so, but I’ve changed my mind.  If one follows a character, through a sequence of actions, it’s very hard to go wrong.  As in life, time arranges itself.  The action fits in, unless you forget, unless you’re very distracted. And then if you write another chronologically simultaneous action that another character is going through, it’s just a matter of being careful how you edit it.

24 Gray: So there’s an organic quality to time…

Rosa:  I think that’s it—organic is the word.  That’s why some stories fail.  Try not to go ahead of the action.  Go through all the motions to get there, instead of thinking “Oh, you know, I have a scene there where this happened.”  Then it makes everything more complicated together, false.  If you can go there step by step, it’s safer.  That’s something that I had to learn:  not to go ahead of myself.  Live with the character, and go through all the motions.  Even if I don’t write all that down, but just live it through. Work it out.

25 Gray:  You mean in the sense of not being in a hurry to get to a scene that you’ve imagined?

Rosa:  That’s it.  I think it’s a bit like in life: I can imagine I’m going to go have coffee with a friend, and that this and that is going to happen, and then when it actually happens, it’s different.  In fiction, there’s a danger of thinking the future is there already, when you haven’t gotten there. That creates confusion.

26 Gray: So, in this way—I’m coming back to the idea, with stories at least, of writing it all in one sitting—is it possible for you to come back to a piece that you left days or months ago and keep working on it?

Rosa: Yes, it has happened to me.  But I think it’s better to complete it, or just move on.  It has happened to me with a couple of pieces that I left because I got sick of them, or … I might go back and just cut something off.

27 Gray: You’re able to pick up again, or change?

Rosa:  Edit, I would say.  Because it’s a different process; it’s not writing anymore.

28 Gray: You’re known for a very sparse style. Do you write quickly?

Rosa: I wrote La orilla africana in a month and a half.  I don’t write more than five pages per day, but when I’m really working, I think that’s a lot of pages.

29 Gray: Some  writers write  quick drafts  and then  go back and revise, while  others  try  to  get  each  sentence  right  as  they  go.    I wonder which category you’d belong to.

Rosa: For me, it’s a little uneven.  I try to write it as I want it to be. But sometimes I guess I get tired, and I write quickly, and then I have to revise that particular passage.  I guess it depends on my mood, but I tend to write and not revise a lot.  In the case of La orilla africana, it’s mostly as it was written.

30 Gray: When you’re writing, do you think of an audience?

Rosa:  Well, Paul was my audience for a long time.  After that, it’s been, you know, a girlfriend–the person to whom the book is dedicated. For me, that’s important.  Maybe it is a trick, a kind of invocation.  It’s very hard for me to write thinking of an audience in the abstract.

31 Gray:  I remember all the kief stories in Bowles’ book A Hundred Camels in a Courtyard.   Tell me how it is now in Tangiers.   I remember the teashops, where you could smoke kief with your mint tea, and there were dancing boys.

Rosa:  Oh, that’s all gone, all gone.  Kief has become criminalized, because of the European influence.

32 Gray: Even in the Casbah, in the old parts?

Rosa: There’s a couple of cafés where you can still see people smoking, but really only a couple.  Kief is much more expensive, and it’s persecuted.   The government has to make believe that they are after it. They are not really, but . . . .

33 Gray: Even though alcohol is against Muslim law and kief isn’t?

Rosa: But it’s looked down on by Moroccans.

34 Gray: Because it’s an old or backward way?

Rosa:  Well, now they have hash, which is “in.”  But still, a true Moslem  would  be  against  it,  not  as  strongly  as  against  wine  or alcohol, but still, a virtuous man would not smoke. It’s a weakness, a blemish.

35 Gray: Do you smoke kief?

Rosa: Yes.

36 Gray: Does it enhance writing?

Rosa:  For me it does help concentrate.  It makes me want to stay in rather than go out.   It gives me a slight paranoia, which I think is conducive to work.

37  Gray:  Conducive  in  the  sense  that  it  keeps  you  inside,  or conducive in the sense of imagination?

Rosa: Well, it keeps me inside, but then, I think, in the sense of imagination too. For me, it works.

38 Gray:   And would that be a good reason for being in Morocco too? The fact that you can get good kief on the street?

Rosa:   No, it’s not so easy anymore.   But, yeah, I think it has something to do with it.  But of course you can get it in Guatemala just as easily.

39 Gray:  Perhaps you could talk about coming back to Guatemala and your reasons for returning.

Rosa:  Well, I went back to Guatemala in 92 or 3, and since then I’ve been in and out.  I moved out of Morocco—I mean I had a flat there and I kept my things but I put them in a warehouse—and I moved back –and then I came to New York for a year, and then I went to Colombia for some time, went back to Spain, and kept going back to Morocco to spend two or three months at a time to work.

40 Gray: So you’re mostly in Guatemala now? In Guatemala City?

Rosa:  When I moved back, I moved to Petén, between Cobán and Petén. I have a house in Petén now.2 I bought a piece of land, and I built a hut.   You know, that’s why you live in Petén, to be in the jungle. It’s near Sayaxché, by the river La Pasión.

41 Gray: How did you find that?

Rosa:  Actually, when I was just moving back there, I came with a group of Catalán friends, and we made a tour of Guatemala.  I had been there before, but I was so impressed with the place that I went back, and I met this old man who was a story-teller.  He was a guard at one of the Maya ruins.  And I decided I wanted to tape some of his stories.   I went back and there was an American there, a Mexican- American who had an inn.  He liked the idea of my recording that old man, so he let me stay there paying almost nothing.  And he had this great place in the jungle, in the forest—he hadn’t cut down any trees—really wild.  So I stayed there for about three months, working with this old man.  And someone offered me a piece of jungle for almost no money, so…I didn’t buy it then, but I went back a year later, and the land was still there.  They had cut or burned down half of the trees.  I decided I have to buy this piece of jungle before they finished it off. So I bought it and ended up staying there a long time.

42 Gray:  So the solitary life suits you, it seems, whether in Morocco or in Sayaxché.

Rosa:  Well, I need that to work, really.  I never had much of a social life in Morocco.   And that’s part of why I’ve been able to work.   I would go there always with a desire to work—not with an idea but predisposed to work.  My social life was limited to Bowles’ tea hour. I would go there and have tea, and I met many, many people there. Now I have an apartment in Guatemala City.  After the Peace Accords and all that, I was curious about the Guatemalan scene.  But it’s not a place where I can work. I have never been able to work in Guatemala City. So I have to get away.

43 Gray: Yes, Guatemala’s changed a lot.  I left in ’78.  Bad things happened, but the worst….

Rosa: …was coming.

44 Gray:  So, in the course of your travels, you’ve kept in touch with the events.

Rosa: Through my family, I was able to keep up.

45 Gray: This may be a less “literary” matter, but Rigoberta Menchú has come to occupy such an important moral position in the U.S. and Europe.   Her work is part of the core curriculum at Stanford and other elite schools.  Yet in Guatemala I hear these Rigoberta Menchú jokes; I thought perhaps this was a Ladino or anti-Indian thing, but I found among the Guatemalans I spoke to, even among the poorer or working  people,  that  opinion  was  not  that  high  about  Rigoberta Menchú.3  What do you make of this?

Rosa:  I think it’s a racist reaction.  Envy.  And I think they really don’t think that things are the way she says.  And I think they’re wrong.

46 Gray:  Maybe the most bizarre criticism I’ve heard was in David Stoll’s book, where Stoll criticizes Menchú for knowing Spanish, as if this were a damning thing, as if it revealed her inauthenticity.

Rosa:   Well, you see, even someone of Stoll’s—academic stature, I would say—can say that.   So in Guatemala—I mean, it is a racist country, there’s no question.  It is not a political thing; the Left is just as racist as anyone else.

47 Gray: Wouldn’t the Left tend to support Rigoberta Menchú?

Rosa: Not anymore.

48 Gray: And what would their argument be?

Rosa:   Oh, she’s an Indian!   Of course there are different kinds of Left in Guatemala, but you know the intellectual Left is not Indian, usually.   And they are very racist, and…it’s a kind of contempt…I think Guatemala as a state is almost as racist as South Africa.

49 Gray: What do you think about [President Alfonso] Portillo’s appointing indigenous people to government posts, like Otilia Cotij as Minister of Culture?

Rosa:  I have the feeling it’s a kind of smoke screen, but it’s good. That they think they have to, that they think that is important is a good sign.  I don’t know how significant it is, but it’s a good sign that they feel they have to at least have the appearance….And of course the Indian population is very complex and also in conflict within itself.  So it’s a very delicate subject.  As an anecdote, when the Stoll scandal   was   going   on,   Newsweek   sent   a   journalist   down   to Guatemala to get some idea of who was Rigoberta Menchú and what people thought. I met this journalist through a friend, and he wanted to see what people, what rich people thought of Rigoberta Menchú. Rich, “normal,” you know, bourgeois people. So I suggested we go to a bar and ask at random.  We went to “El Establo”—maybe you know where it is—a small bar on the Avenida de la Reforma, sort of an American bar.  I approached these two girls, they must have been in their thirties; they worked in real estate.   I said there’s a journalist from Newsweek who’d like to interview you, and they said “What does he want to know?”   And I said, “He wants to know what you think of Rigoberta Menchú.”   [Laughs.] They said, “Why does he want to know that?”  “Well, he’s writing this article.”  “Okay, I’ll talk,” one of them said, “but first I want you to know something:  I am a racist.”  That’s how she started!  [Laughs.]  And then she started saying, you know, how if anyone like Rigoberta Menchú got into power, the country would be fucked up, and…just let go.  And then we went to a restaurant.  I don’t know if you know…”Jake’s”?  Sort of a fancy place…

50 Gray: In zone 10?

Rosa: Zone 10.  And this girl, a friend of mine, knew Jake, who’s a New Yorker, and she said, “Well, we’re ready—Jake, what do you think of Rigoberta?”  And he went, “I don’t know what I think, but if she comes here, I would not serve her,”  [laughs]  knowing that this journalist would not print any of that.   But, later someone in El Salvador asked me to write an anecdote about Guatemalan life, and I wrote this story—it was called “Who’s Afraid of Rigoberta Menchú?”—as I told it to you, more or less.  Immediately after that I got three outraged open letters in the newspaper saying that I was lying, that Guatemala was not like that—letters from left, progressive newspapermen, saying that I just wanted to satisfy the American taste for this sort of thing.

It was a commentary on the Newsweek reporter too, because he  didn’t  want  to  print  that.    He  printed  a  very  watered-down version.  It was not against her or for her, just saying that she had a difficult time.   But it highlighted some of the supposed “lies” that Stoll accuses her of telling.  That her brother was here and not there, and so forth.

51 Gray: Which Newsweek was that?

Rosa: It was about a year ago.

52 Gray: And where did your article appear?

Rosa:  Well, now it’s going to appear in Magna Terra, a Guatemalan magazine also.   But it appeared in Buho, which was the Sunday supplement of La Prensa Gráfica, sort of a literary publication.   It was a good publication, but it recently folded.

53 Gray: It would be good to write something like that for the U.S. press. The perspective would be valuable.

Rosa: Who would print it? I don’t know….

54 Gray:   It’s amazing that Menchú has made the strides that she has, given the attitude in Guatemala.

Rosa:  Well that’s why people hate her, because she’s become so prominent.  She projects an image of Guatemala that people don’t really admit.

55 Gray:  When I left Guatemala a couple of months ago, and when you left, more recently, charges from Spain—á la Pinochet—had been brought against Ríos Montt and other generals, and counter-charges had been brought against Menchú for treason!  What’s the progress of that?

Rosa: Oh, I think that’s been dropped—the charges against her.  And the charges against Ríos Montt are being taken up.   They were deliberating, and now I think the trial’s going to go on in Spain.   I mean, who has ever done anything as valuable as that?

56 Gray: Let me ask you more about literature and publishing.   You started out with Bowles, and I wondered how the publishing process has gone since then. How have editors reacted to your work?  Do you have a standing relation with Seix Barral in Spain?

Rosa:  Well, Seix Barral contacted me.  I never dared send anything. The editor of Seix Barral is Pere Gimferrer, the great Catalán poet.  I think it was after Dust on her Tongue, there was a review in the Times Literary Supplement, and through that they got interested in who  I  was,  and  they  wrote  me  through  the  City  Lights’  agent  in Spain.   At that time I had this sort of amateur agent, who lived in Morocco part of the time. I already had those three books out—in English, and of course in Spanish, but published in Guatemala. So Seix Barral asked, and I sent the books.

57 Gray: What are you doing now?

Rosa: I’m not doing anything.

58 Gray: So it’s very clear to you:  you’re either not writing or you’re writing.   There’s not some area in between.   That must be a relief. You can really enjoy, you’re not anxious.

Rosa: Well, I might get a little anxious, but then I usually start writing.   But I haven’t written anything, I mean fiction, since La orilla africana. That was the end of ’98. It’s almost two years.

59 Gray: What have you been doing in that time?

Rosa:   I translated a book by a French writer last year, Paul Léautaud—a kind of journal, a “journal particulier,” which   Seix Barral asked me to do.  Between my last two books, I translated The Missionaries, a book by Norman Lewis.

60 Gray: The travel writer?

Rosa:  Yes, but he’s written ten or so novels also.  He’s at least 90, and he’s still working.  His first novel takes place in Guatemala: The Volcanoes  Above  Us.    The  story’s  set  in  the  fifties,  during  the counter-revolution.

61 Gray: Arbenz and Arévalo and….

Rosa:  Castillo Armas, overthrowing the Arbenz government. It’s not his best novel, but it’s an interesting one.

62 Gray: Are his other novels set in Central America?

Rosa:  No.  One is set in Italy, another in Spain—he knew Spain very well.  He has two books set in Spain and another in Libya.  He’s sometimes compared to Graham Greene—there’s a similarity.  The Missionaries is a kind of travel documentary, an indictment of the American missionary activity, like the operations of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.   It has two long chapters on Guatemala, one on Venezuela, and another on Paraguay.

63 Gray: Is Seix Barral also publishing that?

Rosa:  No,  that  was  published  by  another  publisher,  Herder,  in

Barcelona in 1998.

64 Gray:   I was struck in Guatemala this time that so many Guatemalan writers—Monterroso, Arias, Montejo, Liano, and others—are living in Mexico, Nicaragua, Los Angeles, Italy, here in New York, and so on. Now you’ve returned to live in Guatemala from Tangiers. I wonder if the phrase “Guatemalan writer” has any meaning to you.

Rosa:  Not really.  Not intrinsically.  For me it’s an accident, being Guatemalan.

65 Gray:   You wouldn’t say there’s a sensibility, then, whether in Asturias or Martínez or current writers?

Rosa:  Not in my case, anyway.  And not really in Asturias. He made himself into a Guatemalan writer because of the French context, the take they had on that.  I think that it was natural that they were interested in that aspect, and so he went farther in that direction because of those expectations. I may be wrong.

66 Gray:   What do you think of the Latin American “boom” novelists?—you know if you ask a fairly literate North American the name of a modern Latin American writer, they’d say “Márquez.”

Rosa: Márquez.  Or Isabel Allende now.

67 Gray:  Or Isabel Allende.  Do you think the “boom” writers have set up expectations for other Latin American writers?  How do you feel as a Latin American writer, writing in Spanish, I don’t want to say  in  the  shadow  of  Márquez,  but  in  the  context  of  Márquez, Allende, and others?

Rosa: For me, it’s totally indifferent.  It doesn’t go into the equation. Borges much more so, for me.   He’s the dominant figure. Márquez for me is an accident—a big accident, granted!    But I don’t think Márquez was possible without Borges, without what Borges did with the Spanish language.

68 Gray: Who were some of the writers you read while growing up? Was yours a happy childhood?

Rosa:  It may not have been a happy childhood, but it was good. Looking back, I see it was a privileged childhood.  It was sort of wild; we were on the outskirts, or what was then the outskirts, of Guatemala City—almost like growing up in the country.   I hated school.  I was by myself a lot of the time.   My parents didn’t let us watch TV, so…as I said, I don’t think it was happy, but it was good.  I read adventure stories.     Karl May, a German who wrote westerns, who had never been here.  [Laughs.]  And Salgari, I read all his work. Emilio Salgari, a tacky Italian writer, writing about pirates in Malaysia, where he never went.  [Laughs.]  I read those two—they published each over twenty novels—I read all  of those novels.  I’m also fond of a bad Guatemalan writer, Virgilio Rodríguez Macál, who wrote Guayacán and El Mundo del Misterio and La Mansión del Pájaro Serpiente.. Adventures in the Petén, where he had been. [Laughs.]

69 Gray: So, like a Guatemalan Stevenson…?

Rosa: Oh, Stevenson is far better!  But Macál has good passages of adventure.  Ideologically, he’s totally…wrong. [Laughs.]  So right- wing—he liked the United Fruit Company!   But he wrote about the life of the chicleros, the people who live in the jungle, and he lived that life.   He came from a rich family.   I don’t know why, but he ended up living in the Petén, for a long, long time.  In the jungle.  So it was very interesting. I don’t know if he was copying, or was influenced by La Vorágine, which is of a higher quality.   Do you know it?—José Eustacio Rivera, a Colombian, turn-of-the-century novelist.  La  Vorágine  is   strange—a  natural,  rich  platter,  very romantic and sentimental—but if you leave out, you know, the love part, it’s just amazing description of the jungle.  It’s a must, a classic. He wrote it in Barcelona, actually. He died rather young…

70 Gray: I think of Kafka once in a while in your earlier pieces, but then Borges also was feeling that influence—don’t you think?

Rosa:  Some of Borges is very Kafkaesque.   I really got into Kafka later, after I was here in New York.

71 Gray: What writers now are compelling to you? Who are you reading?

Rosa:  I mentioned Norman Lewis.  Adolfo Bioy Casares, who died a year ago. Cormac McCarthy.  Jim Thomson, also.

72 Gray: Anybody who, at this stage, could still exert influence on you?

Rosa: I don’t know.

73 Gray: Have you read Flannery O’Connor’s stories?

Rosa: Oh, I’m a fan of her work.

74 Gray:  Do you know her novel Wise Blood?  There’s an owl and a pretty unsavory protagonist…

Rosa:  I didn’t read the novel, but I saw the movie. (Laughs.)  I don’t think her novels are as good as her short stories.

75 Gray:  In your story “Proof”, a boy accidentally or foolishly kills a canary  and  both  the  maid  and  the  father,  independently,  try  to replace the canary.  There are the parrots of The Pelcari Project. And then there are the double owls of La orilla africana. This is why O’Connor came to mind.  Is there something going on here—with birds and doubles?

Rosa: No. But I think they’re very interesting—owls.

76 Gray: It’s never quite explained why the Colombian buys the owl.

Rosa: Well, he falls in love.

77 Gray:  I suppose the tendency is to look for symbols with canaries and owls.

Rosa: No, no symbols—not for me.

78 Gray: By the way, were you in Morocco when you wrote La orilla africana?

Rosa: Yes that I wrote  in situ.

79 Gray: When did you start thinking you wanted to be a writer? You said you started writing at eighteen.

Rosa:  I started then but I gave up, somewhere along the way.  And then, back in Guatemala, reading Borges—I remember exactly, reading Ficciones, I decided I wanted to really, you know, try to do that.

80 Gray: And you were eighteen then.

Rosa: I was nineteen.

81 Gray: Did you think about fame or notoriety? Did you think about being read by millions?

Rosa:   Not really.   But, of course, one is ambitious when one is young.   It was very ambitious to think that one could write like Borges.   To create worlds like that.   That was my ambition, rather than being read by millions.  Or being liked by people that I admire, like  Bowles. Or  another  professor, to  whom   I  showed  my  first things-he’s very old  now, probably  will die soon-I  wanted  him to like my work; that  was my ambition.

 

 

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a prominent member of the Guatemalan literary scene. Many of his works of fiction have been translated and internationally acclaimed, including Dust on Her Tongue, The Beggar’s Knife, and The Pelcari Project, all translated into English by the late Paul Bowles. He lives in Guatemala.

Jeffrey Gray is professor of English, Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He is author of Mastery’s End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry and editor of the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry.


1. This interview took place on 21 May 2001 in New York City.

2. The Petén is the northern part of Guatemala, bordering on Yucatán. It is mostly jungle,  sparsely  populated,  and the site of Tikal and other famous  Mayan ruins.

3. Not all readers are acquainted  with the term ladino, which means a non- Indian or someone who was Indian but has stopped wearing traje or Indian clothes and has discontinued  other Indian ways of life.  Since this is seen as a process, one speaks of “ladinization.”

The Corpse Washer, A Story of Death and Life

Sinan Antoon deftly tells of the gruesome conflicts and unfulfilled dreams of many Iraqis over the last few decades in his novel The Corpse Washer, which is now available to English readers for the first time. The story is told by narrator Jawad whose own personal experiences are shared by many other Iraqis who saw their hopes for the future halted by numerous wars and conflicts. Jawad was born into a traditional Shiite family and is the son of a long line of corpse washers and shrouders. When Jawad began helping his father at the mghaysil, or washhouse, he was very interested in the ritual of corpse washing and while he took his duties seriously, he soon realizes that this place of death is not how he wants to spend his life. He finds solace from the psychologically distressing days and the nightmares that follow in the pages of his sketchbook, drawing whatever he sees. This fondness for drawing and one inspirational art teacher propel Jawad to decide to study art at university despite his father’s wishes.

Click for larger image. After the events of war cause Jawad’s dreams of becoming a great artist to come to a standstill, the death of his brother and father, debts incurred from family medical issues, and the great difficulty of finding a job in a city wrought with unemployment, Jawad makes the tough decision to return to the mghaysil. Feeling cornered, Jawad returns to the arduous task of preparing the dead for the grave, promising himself that it will only be for a short while. After several years, Jawad is still at the mghaysil depressed and increasingly isolating himself from others, but throughout his experiences as a corpse washer, and through anecdotes from his time spent away from the profession, the gruesome daily lives of Iraqis are exposed. Antoon is able to provide a great portrait of Baghdad through the events of an everyday life. He tells the story of a man who is increasingly becoming more and more a stranger to his own city and even his own country. He expertly weaves the themes of life and death to exist as one through a character who symbolizes and tells of the strife of a nation and whose voice should be heard by many.

The Corpse Washer was translated from Arabic to English by the author and is part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Sinan Antoon describes the experience of translating his own novel:

A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” according to Paul Valéry. This is often true. Can one say the same about a novel?

Novels do end, of course, with the last word on the last page. But even before becoming a writer I always wondered as a young reader about the lives and trajectories of events after the act of reading comes to an end. As a novelist I still wonder what became of my characters. Alas, there is no way to communicate with them. I know more about the characters and the events that I have written on paper, but I don’t know everything.

Novels inhabit a liminal space between the real and the imaginary. The experience of translating my own novel has allowed me to return to that space and to inhabit it once again, temporarily. This time, however, the characters spoke English. Their lives (and deaths) did not change at all, but they said a few words here and there differently and left a few others unsaid.

All this is to say that when the translator inhabits the body and being of the author, s/he is given unique privileges that are otherwise denied or frowned upon.

The Corpse WasherThe Margellos World Republic of Letters identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

The Girl with the Golden Parasol

The Girl With the Golden Parasol

Click for larger image.

The Girl with the Golden Parasol, written by Uday Prakash and translated from Hindi to English by Jason Grunebaum, tells the story of Rahul, a university student. Rahul has returned to university with the goal of obtaining a master’s degree in anthropology. After meeting and falling in love with fellow student Anjali, the girl with the golden parasol, Rahul wheedles his way into the Hindi department, where Anjali is also a student. Soon their affection for each other is revealed and the two fall in love.

However, The Girl with the Golden Parasol is much more than just a love story. When Rahul fell in love with Anjali, he fell in love with a Brahmin, and when he entered the Hindi department, he became one of the few non-Brahmin students in the entire department. Being of a lower caste than the Brahmins, Rahul’s experiences remark upon the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system that still holds influence over India. All of Rahul’s teachers are Brahmin, the assigned texts are from Brahmin authors, and Brahmins have a hold over the field and the university. Outside the university, policemen, journalists, and even the postmen are corrupt. For money they turn a blind eye to victims of abuse and theft, report false facts and tell the “goondas” which students of lower castes are best to steal from. However, Brahmins are not the only ones to hold prejudices against another caste. Rahul himself holds prejudices against the Brahmins, claiming he knows what “a true Brahamist” is and being utterly surprised when they help him win a school election.

In addition to remarking on caste, The Girl with the Golden Parasol also comments on the effects of globalization on India. Throughout the book Rahul mentions the continued globalization of the world around him. Pepsi, Coke, pizza, burgers, beauty pageants, the lottery, liquor, which lead to crime, rape, prostitution, money laundering and more. Globalization is shown to bring about as much corruption as the caste system.

In The Girl with the Golden Parasol the issues of caste, globalization, and corruption are intertwined with a love story, creating a novel that offers insight into a complex culture. Jason Grunebaum’s seamless translation offers The Girl with the Golden Parasol to English readers for the first time.

The Girl with the Golden ParasolThe Girl with the Golden Parasol  is part of the  Margellos World Republic of Letters series which identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange. Learn more at www.worldrepublicofletters.org.

An Interview with Author Arturo Fontaine by Translator Megan McDowell

Margellos World Republic of Letters LogoWe are pleased to release an exciting interview between Arturo Fontaine and Megan McDowell, author and translator respectively of La Vida Doble, which is now available to the English speaking world through Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. In the interview, Fontaine and McDowell discuss what it means to be a Chilean writer, Fontaine’s writing process, and the role of the translator.

Megan McDowell: All of your novels have dealt with particularly Chilean subjects—Cuándo éramos inmortales has a lot of your own childhood in it, Oír su voz takes on the complicated process of Chile’s rapid economic liberalization with Pinochet still in power; and of course La Vida Doble deals with the mentality of revolution and the psychological effects of torture. This is your first book translated into English, and I wondered if we could take the opportunity to ask: what does it mean to you to be a Chilean author?

Arturo Fontaine: I have no way of knowing what I would be if I weren’t a Chilean writer. I guess I’d be a Uruguayan or French writer, or a Chinese or Congolese one, who knows. And then, all the same, my books would try to transform my world, to turn to fiction and use it as a means to bring my world closer to those who don’t know it, to turn it into a human experience that is open to anyone. When I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Banville’s The Untouchable, or Coetzee’s Disgrace, the Irish Catholic world, or a U.S. suburb, the world of a certain English milieu with its refined spies with their ties to the KGB, or the racial tension in South African—each is very present, with its unique local characteristics; nevertheless, through those very distinctive stories and situations the human condition of any time, any place is explored.

La Vida Doble


MMcD
:What does it mean to be translated for an English-speaking audience who won’t have the intimate experience and knowledge of Chile’s history that your Chilean readers have had?

AF: It’s true that the Chileans, Argentines, or Spanish who have read the novel are closer to what I’m narrating. Even so, the story itself is enough. A novel is like a laboratory where an experiment is taking place, but the experiment can be repeated in other places and in other ways because what it shows is of general significance. Hopefully the readers of La Vida Doble: A Novel will be submerged in the strange and idiosyncratic world in which Lorena must live, where they’ll find not “Chileans” or “Latin Americans” but rather simply humans of flesh and bone who cross over by means of the story. Hopefully. Lorena herself says: “Listen well: don’t let the historical anecdote I’m telling constrain you; Chile’s narrow geography, either.


MMcD
: A related question—in the U.S., words like “Socialism,” “Communism,” and “Revolution” have a different resonance than they do in Chile. Even for people on the left, “communism” is associated with experiences of dictatorship and repression, and doesn’t have romantic or idealistic associations that it does for Lorena, or that people in Chile are more aware of, even if they don’t share them; there is little history of socialist ideas or movements in the U.S. Is there anything in particular you think your North American readers should be aware of about Chile’s history as they read your book?

AF: Not much, really. Lorena makes things understood as they need to be understood; for example, what it means to her to belong to a radical revolutionary movement that tries to win a utopia through armed struggle, one that demands from her the complete sacrifice of her life. There have been so many movements like that, and there always will be. Whether the inspiration comes from Che Guevara, or the movement’s name is this or that, or whatever the specific content of the project for a new society, these are not essential matters. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for something that feels huge, almost impossible, is always a human possibility. The Islamic fundamentalists are painful reminders of this. Furthermore, the immediate enemy is brutal dictatorship. But the use of torture to get information out of terrorist groups is something that has happened in many countries, even in some democratic ones and not too long ago… I would like for the novel to show, in contrast to the film “Zero Dark Thirty”, the victim’s perspective, the way his or her identity as a person is gradually torn to shreds. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”—in spite of its merits, such as its momentum—takes on torture in a superficial way. It only shows us the perpetrator’s gaze, and the victim is thus dehumanized. This kind of treatment “un-realizes” cruelty. Henry James, comparing some Dutch painters with Guardi, at some point uses the expression “artistic conscience”.  “The Italian,” writes James, “…dispenses with effort and insight, and trusts to mere artifice and manner—and a very light manner at that. …The Dutchman… feels that, unless he is faithful, he is doing nothing.” I believe in that concept. I believe that an artist must be faithful to the world he is trying to show, to the world he wants us to imagine. Kafka, for example, was a master in this. For an artist to do this superficially is an ethical failure in his work as such.


MMcD
: As I worked on the book, you were very helpful and generous in answering my questions, and you also kept a bit of distance, stressing that I had to find the voice, the way to convey the book in English, which was something that I appreciated a lot—a translator couldn’t ask for a better balance. I wonder if you have spent time considering your stance on the translator’s role, or if you’ve ever been a translator yourself?

AF: I’m happy you felt that way. The novel in English is your work. La Vida Doble: A Novel should read as if it had been thought and written in English. I think your translation achieves that. It’s been your responsibility, as translator, to find an equivalent to what one reads in Spanish, but also flows in English. Translating is a creative task, an artistic and difficult one. But not impossible. Proust’s A la recherché…  flows with a rhythm characteristic of French, of English in Scott Moncrieff’s translation, and of Spanish by Pedro Salinas, José María Quiroga Plá and Consuelo Berges. A priori, it seems like it shouldn’t be possible. I don’t think El Quijote ever had an English translation that did it justice until Edith Grossman’s. If Nabokov had read Cervantes in that translation he wouldn’t have written what he did in his Lectures on Literature. He didn’t get the humor or the humanity of Quijote. Gregory Rabassa did an extraordinary translation of 100 Years of Solitude. When I was studying at Columbia University, Rabassa came to a translation workshop directed by Frank MacShane, who was then the director of the Writing Division. I asked Rabassa what his secret was in translating 100 Years of Solitude. He answered: “Before starting to work, I would spend twenty minutes reading a novel by Faulkner”.

And yes, I have published some versions—I don’t dare called them translations—of some classic poems in Spanish. Many times, I must admit, I’ve failed. For example, I’ve struggled and struggled for years trying to translate two very famous poems by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” They stood by me like two faithful dogs during my father’s long and painful illness before he died. I have never managed to translate them. I go back and try again every once in a while. The problem, of course, is their music, so interlaced with the metaphors and the meaning. These are cases when it seems like the music shapes the meaning.


MMcD
: La Vida Doble has a great deal of research behind it. There were three people in particular who had experiences very similar to Lorena’s, although the character is not directly based on any of them. You also interviewed people from the left and from MIR. Can you talk a bit about how those interviews were? You also interviewed people who were close to the dictatorship, and their families. How did you approach them? Was it difficult to broach these topics?

Megan McDowell

Megan McDowell

AF: It’s true, I read many testimonials and watched many documentaries. They are listed at the end of the book. On one hand, I list them out of respect for the truth—this is not just pure imagination; there were many people who suffered though similar horrors, in Chile, in Argentina, and other countries—and also to salute the people who investigated and told these stories, sometimes at great risk. I got the chance to talk for a long, long time with one of the three women on whom the novel is based. I promised not to tell which one. I also talked with some intelligence agents of the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus, the CNI; some of them knew and worked with these women. They were weary, slippery men who knew their destiny lay in jail. I also spoke with people who participated in MIR, an armed revolutionary organization founded in the 70’s; they lived in secrecy and they fought back during the dictatorship. The book’s structure—one long interview—arose from those experiences. But, of course, the fiction is not the double of the real, it brings something new into the world with the goal of shining light on the real.

Were they difficult conversations? Well, yes, at times. Luckily, many of them had read previous novels of mine. They felt free because I wasn’t a reporter. And they wanted, I suspect, to tell me their stories. For some mysterious reason, there is something healing about telling one’s story. Maybe, when you feel you have lost, it can mean a lot to have someone seek you out who wants to listen to your story. And once we were there and a certain climate of intimacy had been created, phrases emerged that were dead at birth, certain silences, certain movements of the face or hand that were marked by an insurmountable pain—those, I will never forget. Those involuntary gestures influenced the novel more than most of the stories I heard.

My challenge was to find a language that could transmit the experience of horror with the immediacy of the real. I had to find a language that would not dull sensibilities. But a language that would also not be like squeezing lemon onto a live oyster. On the contrary, I had to make the reader imagine the horror and still want to keep reading. I thought a lot about the question in Lessing’s famous book: Why do we find beauty in the sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” when, if we were facing the scene in real life—two boa constrictors tightening around the extremities of the father and his sons—we wouldn’t be able to stand it, it would inspire only horror in us and would be devoid of any beauty? What transmutation of the real allows us to look and keep looking at the sculpture and to approach the real experience of unbearable pain? I wrote hundreds of pages searching blindly for a language, not knowing what language I was looking for. Suddenly, out came the sentences that begin the novel: “Can I tell you the truth? That’s a question for you. Are you going to believe me? It’s a question only you can answer. All I can do is talk. It’s up to you whether you believe me or not…” The next day I reread the lines and I knew immediately: there, in that tone, was the novel. Lorena was born in that tone. She is that tone.


MMcD
: Your portrayal of Lorena’s torture is so affecting because it is so subjective, or maybe suggestive. There is little linear or objective narration of what is happening, everything is told from the point of view of Lorena as she experiences it, and the effect is disorienting and disturbing. Can you talk about the process of imagining and writing those scenes?

AF: Well . . . I wanted to avoid the objective, cold, positivist and meticulous language that is used in documentary testimonials and in reports. That language allows you to know, but not imagine. And when you don’t imagine, you no longer feel a thing. I thought: these testimonials are a reconstruction after the fact, oftentimes put together from previous information. Often it seems like the person talking is looking at the scene from outside. For example, you don’t see, they’ve covered your eyes. That darkness was my starting point. You hear voices, you hear their threats, their humiliating insults, you feel naked and they manipulate your body, you’re at their mercy, the world disappears, then, all that’s left is your pain and you cry out, you scream like never before, you screech like a boar, like a donkey, possessed by an unheard-of and infinite pain, but no, there is someone controlling your pain, someone who is calculatingly shaping you with a chisel.


MMcD
: Were there challenges to writing in a woman’s voice? Could the character have as easily been a man? How would the book be different then?

AF: When I reread those lines I cited before from the beginning of the book, I had no doubt: this was a woman’s voice. A very particular woman, of course. Because she was a woman, I think now, maybe it was easy for me to love her, in spite of everything, in spite of everything.  Everything depends on her: Who is Lorena? That’s the enigma that runs through the novel from beginning to end. I kept on writing only to find out who that woman was. The political situation is only the first layer to the book. Really, what matters is Lorena.


MMcD
: Lorena is a graduate in French literature, and the novel is peppered with quotations of poetry and philosophical references. I believe I read you say (to paraphrase) it was important for you that she have a critical ability to analyze herself and her situation, to be outside herself, watching and criticizing, at the same time she lives through events. It seems to me that Lorena’s education, particularly her knowledge of literature, gives her a way to conceptualize and find metaphors for her experiences that in a less educated person would be left unarticulated. Lorena makes reference more than once, for example, to Dante’s conception of traitors: once a human commits a betrayal, his soul is immediately banished to the final circle of hell, even while his body goes on living, inhabited by the devil. This is a powerful image to express the utter desolation Lorena feels for her actions, which to her are beyond forgiveness or comprehension. Can you talk a bit about why it is important for Lorena to be an intellectual?

AF: Experience is always richer than language. But a cultured person has, perhaps, more colors on his or her palette. Above all, the idea was, as you say, not only to narrate, but also to reflect during the narration. The intelligence agents in the novel are tough and simple. They are astute men, but not very contemplative. They don’t see themselves. They don’t feel much need to explain themselves to themselves. They can’t tell their story. Lorena, though, can see them. Lorena with her antennas, with her intelligence, allows us to explore the clandestine combatants’ world, and also the world of the agents who hunt them down. She has that double gaze.

Lorena mistrusts writing, she doesn’t believe in the possibility of telling what she is telling: “The truth was invented not to be told,” she repeats. She says: “The truth is too disturbing, too thorny, too contradictory and horrible. Truth is immoral. It shouldn’t be printed. You won’t write what I tell you.” And even so, she goes on talking as if it were an imperative to try, even as she is conscious of her inevitable failure—she plays with the idea that she is lying, and maybe she is. She says: “Do you want to believe me? Because we’re here in this hospice home in Ersta, Stockholm, and if you don’t want to, I’m not about to try to convince you. I don’t have any way to. As for me, I don’t give a shit about the truth. Am I telling the truth when I tell you I don’t give a shit about the truth? It’s my story, after all. But, does such a thing exist? As I talk to you, I look at you and calibrate your reactions. What I’m telling you is thought of as for you. I would be saying this in a different way to Roberto, in another tone, with other things emphasized and other omissions. Understand? What you want to do with my story, and above all your gestures—the way you suddenly raise your eyebrows or twist your mouth or interlace your fingers—are incorporated into me and they give shape and content to what I say and don’t say.” The one who tells the story is a fictional narrator, Lorena, created by the person talking so that she can tell the story. “I want to be Lorena to you. You’ll never know my real name.” She resists being understood, as if being understood meant a reduction in the complexity of life. “You are a crow with an ear for a beak,” she says. “No one can understand this story. And no one would want to. It’s futile. Only the edifying fable will be left, along with its moral; only the husk of the facts will remain, their pornography of horror. We already know them. But what gave meaning to them, what made them human—that dies with us.”

What’s more, her words are trying to give shape to what the writer will write, she gives him instructions and aesthetic advice: “I don’t know how you’ll use what I tell you, though I’m curious. I don’t know if it will help you at all. I don’t think a novel should repeat reality. Perhaps you should just imagine me on your own.” And, towards the end: “So here I am, telling you my shitty story… But it’s better if you don’t write it. Change it, make up something else, find a metaphor.”

Not only that: she gets ahead of the reader, she seems to also want to create her own reader. “I don’t want to go on. It’s too much. I don’t like the curiosity in your eyes, I don’t like the corners of your mouth; there’s something obscene about them.” And further on: “You’re not going to like what you hear at all. I can read it in your eyes. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère: Hypocritical reader, my double, my brother!… Ha, ha! Why am I laughing? You said you wanted my version, so don’t ask me to give you yours. You have to listen to my story. That’s why you came to Ersta. No one made you come here. You know what? I can smell your contempt, your virtuous-souled contempt.”

So, within a very simple and stripped-down narrative structure—a woman who talks and a writer who listens—three stories are told: first, the combatant transformed into a victim and then, into traitor and torturer. Second, the story of the betrayals and abandonments of her childhood and early adulthood. And third, the story of her attempt to tell her story.

Arturo Fontaine

Arturo Fontaine


MMcD
: It’s also important, perhaps, that as an intellectual, Lorena could not be accused of blindly following either her revolutionary brothers or the men of the repression. Rather, she is aware, and she is searching for something, some way of belonging to the world that she has never found. What do you think?

AF: Of course, she is no naive little girl. She knows what she is doing. She thinks, analyzes, scrutinizes. She pushes herself and wounds herself over and over with the thorn of her guilt. Her reading, those quotations, that’s what she is. “My being is a pit filled only with quotations,” she says. She holds herself over the abyss of her self, she lives from what she reads, her days are like pages. I didn’t want an “intuitive” woman who makes guesses based on hunches and doesn’t reason. I didn’t want Breton’s Nadja or Cortázar’s La Maga. “I describe those rivers,” says Oliveira in Hopscotch, “she swims in them.” No. Nor did I want a woman who was frigid or insensitive to motherhood. No. I didn’t want an intellectual or a combatant who channels all her erotic needs into those identities. No. I wanted a complete woman. I wanted a womanly woman who was truly intelligent, able to be lover and mother, both intellectual and political, an able combatant and, later, a ferocious agent. What’s more, as a man myself, I was drawn to the challenge posed by constructing a feminine character.

Her transformation takes the lid off the taboo of violence and with it, that of Eros. Her exploration of different forms of sexual pleasure is, in its way, an investigation of different forms of domination and submission, and their unsettling pleasures. But it is also a way to be a different person; better yet, to be different people, to be whoever. Her “self” is completely malleable, liquid and discontinuous, which she experiences as a liberation after the years of asceticism that the redemptive project of revolution forced on her. “I can tell you,” she says, “whatever I want. Like everything that happened in that club in Malloco. I can be someone else. That was the fascinating thing.” And, elsewhere: “Our hypocritical education is a gag. There’s a tyrannical pleasure in the degradation of oneself. We are that, too. In the underworld of that dark, bewitched house, I lived it frenetically, like one returning to a lost Paradise—not the sterilized and anodyne paradise of Genesis, but a cruel and delicious unleashing, a plunge into the burning and confused sea of our origins, a sudden fusion with the savage animal that inhabits us and that we cut ourselves off from. In that pit I touched the bottom of the truth that we deny ourselves, the truth that we invent. Not “The Truth,” but rather instants of vehemence, vertiginous truths like bites or burns, momentary passions that I lived deeply and free from confusion.”


MMcD
: You are a man who wears many hats—professor at the University of Chile, Director of CEP, board member of the Museo de Memoria. Do you have enough time to write? Is writing a major part of your life? Can you talk about the nuts and bolts of your writing—when do you do it, what rituals and routines do you have?

AF: I never have enough time. I could always use more. Although I’m not sure that I would know how to make the most of that time, if I had it. I like to share life with people who are not writers. The idea of living only among writers doesn’t attract me, it seems boring. I have the impression that a lot of what I read has been written because someone had to write; it hasn’t been written from the guts. So they seek, then, to épater le lecteur and fill up pages—a bad-tempered, capricious imagination. I try to write every day. Often I don’t have the energy. Writing is tiring, and it hurts. The words emerge from layers buried within you, and it doesn’t come out of there without tearing you up. At least not in my case. I know there are writers who this doesn’t happen to, they are more professional than me. They write more methodically. Good for them. As for me, the birthing process doesn’t come easy.


MMcD
: You are both a poet and a fiction writer—do you prefer one over the other?

AF: I wanted to be a poet from the time I was a child, although I also wrote stories. The novels came later. I’ve published several books of poetry, and some of my poems have appeared in well-known anthologies. Even so, the truth is I’ve had more recognition as a novelist than as a poet. It occurs to me that my readings and work as a poet have given me a certain sensitivity that underlies my novels. Still, I think that as a genre, in general, poetry is superior to the story, and the story is superior to the novel.


MMcD
: You’ve given many interviews about the book, and I hate to make you repeat yourself. What question/s do you wish people would ask you about La Vida Doble that you’ve never been asked?

AF: I can tell you that for me, by far the best recognition has been that some of the victims or people close to victims have called me or wanted to talk to me. One woman told me: “Look, my husband, well, we knew he had been held prisoner, we knew he’d been beaten, but he never told us anything about it. Someone gave me your novel, my old man read it, and for the first time in thirty years he cried with me, for the first time ever, he told me. I’ve slept next to him for thirty years and not a word. And now, everything, after thirty years…” That day I knew it had been worth it, all those years I dedicated to writing this short novel.

 

Arturo Fontaine was born in Santiago and is professor of philosophy at the Universidad de Chile. He is the author of four volumes of poetry and three novels, and he regularly publishes essays on cultural topics. He is the director of the Chilean Center for Public Studies, and he is on the board of Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights. He lives in Santiago.

Megan McDowell is a translator specializing in Chilean and Latin American literature. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

An Interview with Carlos Rojas and Edith Grossman on The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell

Margellos World Republic of Letters LogoFollowing last night’s book launch event at the Cervantes Institute, New York, the Margellos World Republic of Letters and Yale University Press are pleased to announce today’s publication in English of Carlos Rojas‘ novel, The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hellmasterfully translated by Edith Grossman. Here we present a conversation between author and translator on the details of the novel and the dialogue inherently created by the art of translation.


Yale
University Press/Margellos World Republic of Letters: Professor Rojas, your works have been translated into English, French, German, Hungarian, and several Slavic languages. Are some languages more “fitting” than others for the translation of your prose? What is the experience like reading your own work in a different language?  

Professor Grossman, are there peculiar challenges associated with translating from Spanish? What were some of the specific challenges in translating this novel in particular? Could you please give an example of a particularly difficult or ambiguous passage?

Carlos Rojas: Of all the main languages into which my books have been translated English, French. German, and Russian, I know only English and French. Profs. Grossman and Michel Mouret translated The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet in the idioms of Poe and Proust. As they progressed in their work they discovered and discussed with me new and revealing aspects of the novel that I had overlooked because, as Salvador Dalí truthfully said, nothing is harder than understanding what you have painted or written. And more of the same happened to me with Profs. Cecilia Lee, Alma Amell, and Diana Glad when they rendered into English other books of mine.

Edith Grossman: The challenges of translating from Spanish to English, or from any language to any other language, are the result of inherent differences in syntax, lexicon, grammar, and so forth. I think the greatest difficulty for me in translating The Ingenious Gentleman was the quantity of historical references. I checked all of them, which was time-consuming but enlightening.

The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell

 

YUP/WRL: Do you see the translator as an outsider to the text or as an insider and a covert commentator? Do you try to disengage yourself from the work you are translating and from your own attitudes to it (insofar as such distance is attainable)? Or, on the contrary, do you believe it is important for the translator to have a specific affiliation with the original text?  Is the translator’s task one of self-effacement or self-affirmation (or both)? In this sense, are there inherent parallels between creative writing, literary criticism, and translation?

EG: When you translate, you are so deeply involved in the work–the tonalities and intention of its language—that I can’t imagine translating a work you didn’t like or, better yet, love. I think the translator can often be as deeply involved in the text as the original author, since the translator is actually rewriting the book. How, I wonder, would you efface yourself from that process?

 

YUP/WRL: Do you write both in Spanish and in English? If yes, is the creative process different when you write in your native language? Do you have a specific writing routine?  Could you please speak also about the composition and the translation process of The Ingenious Gentleman in particular?

CR: As I stated elsewhere The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet is my only novel literally born of a dream. Sound asleep, more than three decades ago, I saw Pieter Brueghel, Tower of Babel, in its Prado version. Out of the canvas and erected on a waste land, if you and TS Eliot’s shade pardon the inevitable pun, it looked extremely “real” to me.

In my dream I was conscious of dreaming and I also identified Brueghel’s tower with the Inferno. I always name Hades in Italian because I regard Dante’s journey through the nether world as the best book of poetry ever written on earth.

Though time is more relative in dreams than in wakefulness, I realized immediately afterward that dead Lorca was in that unfinished tower awaiting Final Judgment. I also knew that the poet’s tier in that building enclosed not only a residence but also a theatre, and the remembrance of his life and murder sporadically staged itself, before him, throughout a diversity of scenes. Every deceased, since Abel I assume, had been assigned a floor with a theatre in Brueghel’s construction, and the tower would be completed when the last dead had entered the Inferno.

I was on sabbatical at that time, if I remember correctly, and the next morning I started taking notes for the novel in Spanish and English. I wrote the book in Spanish, from beginning to end, as I did with all my novels. The Cervantes Prize, most unexpectedly awarded in 1968, endowed me with a promotion to full professor and a teaching schedule that permitted what I much prefer, writing or doing research from breakfast till noon.

EG: The origin of this novel in a dream is intriguing. One shape, one incident dissolving into another—I think this suggests a very persuasive definition of surrealism.

 

YUP/WRL: Professor Rojas, in one of your interviews you have said: “Collage is the art of making worlds encounter each other.”  In a way, such encounter between worlds is also at the heart of The Ingenious Gentleman, a novel that too can be seen as a collage. Do you view this novel in such terms?  What for you are the relationships between the visual and the verbal arts? Is translation also a collage of sorts?

Carlos Rojas, credit Eunice Rojas

Carlos Rojas, credit Eunice Rojas

CR: Yes, translation and for that matter all artistic and literary expressions tend to be uniting encounters of different worlds. But as of lately I am inclined to look at them “through the looking-glass,” so to speak and if I may borrow the term from Lewis Carroll. My dream of the Tower of Babel was the through-the-looking-glass reading of The Ingenious Gentleman before I wrote it. Thirty two years after its publication, discussing with Edith Grossman the disappearance of François Villon, after being reprieved from hanging and pardoned by the king of France, as well as the vanishing of Lorca’s remains when murdered by fascist thugs, I realized that it might be there a possible through-the-looking-glass writing of another novel that will never be. What I have in mind and remains impervious is the parallel narrative of two faded great poets, Villon in 1463, at 32, and Federico García Lorca in 1936 at 38.

The same kind of across-the-looking-glass perspective applies to their poetry, as Villon and Lorca wrote their verses in a plain language understandable to everybody, their fellow poets, soldiers, char women and even theologians and college professors, as the complex moral, social, and intellectual content of their poetry remains for ever present and pertinent under the sun and on the face of earth.

EG: That looking-glass of Lewis Carroll’s seems to sit inside? beside? in front of? behind so much contemporary expression. It’s probably surrealism before-the-fact.

 

YUP/WRL:  Your works are deeply rooted within a particular tradition and history, yet they are also universal and transcend geographical boundaries. How do you find a balance between these two elements? Professor Grossman, it seems that there may be a need to find equilibrium between fidelity the original and the accessibility of a text to the reading audiences. Do you seek such equilibrium in your work?  What would you define as “faithful” translation? Do you attempt to convey the meaning of the original through preserving the verbal component or the tone, rhythm, or sentiment of the original? Can conveying the original meaning require changing or adding words?

EG: As I’ve said on other occasions, fidelity in a translation isn’t accomplished with tracing paper. You can’t translate words, or word-for-word. Languages are different systems and don’t fit each other like a glove. You can translate only concepts and tonalities and what you intuit of the author’s intentions.

 

YUP/WRL: Professor Rojas, your works are highly imaginative. At the same time, the fantastic unfolds against the backdrop of, and in conjunction with, allusions to historical events.  What kind of research is involved in your writing? How much research went into the process of writing The Ingenious Gentleman and of translating it? Do creative writing and translation require similar kinds of research?

CR: I hope you were right when affirming that my work, deeply rooted within historical and geographic boundaries, transcends its enclosure and outreaches toward the universal. And I would like to think that you were also correct when you stated that in The Ingenious Gentleman the fantastic conjuncts with the historical. But as I said before, paraphrasing Dalí, the author is the blindest reader of his own fiction and he seldom understands what he has written.

I only know for certain that I yeomanly tilled long fields of research before I dreamed of the Tower of Babel. Moreover I directed Cecilia Lee’s doctoral dissertation on Lorca as a literary critic and I read lectures on Lorca and Dalí in USA, Spain, Argentina and Colombia. Likewise I visited the poet’s birth and childhood places, as well as the ravine where he probably was shot, presently covered up and discretely mosaicked. That amphitheater-looking spot, presently quiet and almost idyllic, gives you the creeps for some reason or other, perhaps because hundreds of people were murdered in the province of Granada in the first two weeks of the Civil War.

    

YUP/WRL: Do you think that communication between the author and the translator is necessary in order for the peculiarities of the original to come through more effectively? How often did you communicate with each other in the course of the creation of this edition? To what extent did the interaction shape the final version? Is translation ultimately a dialogue?

Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman

EG: That’s a nice phrase: translation as a dialogue, but it’s a dialogue with the text, not with the author. I’ve always believed that what the author wants you to know is in the text, so that direct communication between author and translator is not absolutely necessary. Obviously, when the author’s dead, it’s impossible. Carlos and I chatted by e-mail while I was working on the book, but I didn’t ask him questions until I was finished. That’s my normal practice: at the end, I ask the author about his or her intention in the use of certain words and phrases. When I’m working on the translation of older works, when no author is available, I have to cross all my digits and trust my instincts and intuition. 

 

YUP/WRL: The Ingenious Gentleman conflates the real and the fantastic; it presents the human condition through individual history and vice versa.  What do you hope readers would take away from reading the novel? Do you expect them to be actively involved in unraveling the plot, or should they approach it from a distance, looking at it as if it were a theatrical performance, and thus almost replicating the experiences of the protagonist?

CR: If it is hard for me to understand my fiction, not my so-called scholarly books, and thus transcend reading into reading through-the-looking-glass. But it is more demanding to discern to what kind of reader I should address my writing. Once a Catalan editor, young and somber man of scarce words who never say anything remotely related to literature, as though he were illiterate, rejected the manuscript of one of my novels saying that I was “too intellectual and excessively cultured.” I thought of the reactionary president of the University of Cervera who famously attested in 1827: “Let us expel from this country the disastrous obsession of thinking and reasoning”.

The late, old man José Manuel Lara, allegedly the most successful Spanish publisher of all time, used to wisely and paternally advise me: “Carlos, you and the likes of you are a bunch of pedantic dudes, who know just about four things. Therefore you believe that readers should know at least two things in order to resemble you. What you do not want to understand is that readers do not know anything. The day you comprehend such evident certainty you will write wonderful novels that will sell like bread, and all of us will strike it rich”. He was right, of course.

EG: That horrifying “disastrous obsession of thinking and reasoning” reminds me of the equally repellent confrontation between Unamuno and some Falangists at the University of Salamanca, in 1936, when General Millán-Astray actually said Muera la inteligencia! Viva la muerte! [Death to intelligence! Long live death!] and the fascists in the audience cheered.            

 

YUP/WRL: Professor Rojas, you were born in the Catalan-speaking region of Spain, yet almost all your books were written in Spanish. Are you writings, too, perhaps metaphorically, an act of translation? To what extent is your writing defined, or shaped, by your native country and your native language? Is all writing in a sense a translation (after all once can never fully transport emotions and thoughts into language)?

CR: I was born in Barcelona, right in front of Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà. But I lived in Madrid almost all of the first five years of my life. At that time I could understand kitchen Catalan as my mother and my grandmother currently spoke it, but I did not say a word in the idiom of Gaudí. My father was a Colombian doctor with two other parlances, his native Spanish and French. When my parents divorced in 1935 my mother took me back to Barcelona, and I never saw the good doctor again. In Barcelona I became a bilingual speaker of Catalan and Castilian, like almost everybody else.

I think and dream in Spanish or English, but I count and swear in Catalan. When watching soccer on TV I root for Spain in Catalan and for the Barcelona FC in Spanish.  José Ortega Gasset made a clear distinction between “living” and “knowing” different names and forms of creativity. I have thus “lived” Cervantes, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Poe, Bécquer, Machado, Lorca, Rubén Darío, Delmira Agustini, and Neruda, among others, but I do not find anyone remotely comparable to them, in Catalan literature. On the other hand there is a Catalan artistic tradition that goes from the master of Tahüll, in the XIII century, very probably an itinerant Lombard or a French painter, to Picasso, Miró, and Dalí in our time, and it is almost comparable to that of Florence and Venice. Moreover I do not know of any Florentine and Venetian painter or architect, in the last two centuries, cast in the same mold as the Fortuny of Vicariate, the Gaudí  of Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia, the Picasso of the Blue Period, Cubism, and Guernica, and the Dalí of Persistence of Memory. (Let me close the paragraph with a misplaced, parenthetical foot note. Yes, Picasso was born in Málaga but he got the élan for the blue period and cubism in Barcelona and in Gossol. Au reste his French and above all his Castilian were heavily accented in Barcelona’s Catalan).

Let me close on a personal note. Last night I woke up at two in the morning. I was perfectly relaxed but for a couple of hours I could not go back to sleep. Unexpectedly I started thinking of the above paragraph, the Barcelona FC and the Persistence of Memory included, and I worded it in my mind. I think that I paraphrased it here with approximate correctness. Paragraph completed but still unwritten, I peacefully slept and awoke around 7 am, my usual time of returning to the active world. I wonder if asleep I dreamed of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, which I have not seen in dreams in quite some time. I will never know.

EG: I’m charmed by your counting and cursing in Catalán. I still find it difficult to say my phone number or Social Security number in Spanish. And when I’m angry, I do find Anglo-Saxon incomparable.

 

YUP/WRL: Based on your own experiences, have you seen changes in the field of translation? Is the translator now perceived differently than a decade ago? If so, to what do you attribute such changes?

EG: Translation is still the Cinderella of the publishing world, but I do think the situation has improved as more translators pay serious attention to their contracts, think of themselves as professionals, and demand certain basic rights. The growth in the past few years of university programs in translation may have facilitated this.

 

YUP/WRL: Could you please speak about your literary projects at the present time and in the immediate future?

EG: I’m currently working on an anthology of poetry and prose by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican, for Norton. She’s an extremely challenging but very important writer. Her “Response to Sor Filotea” is a major feminist document, and much of her poetry is beautiful and complex, in true Baroque fashion. I expect to be finished by September or October of this year. Then I turn to the exemplary novels of Miguel de Cervantes, for YUP. Also challenging, important, beautiful, and complex. I can’t seem to leave the 17th century, at least not for the next couple of years, and by then I hope I can do another book by Carlos.

CR: My forthcoming novel – Sacro Inferno. Galaxia Gutenberg. Barcelona. September 2.013 – comes from two well-documented occurrences in Dante’s life: a dream he reminisced in his first book, Vita Nuova or New Life, and the name his daughter Antonia Alighieri chose for herself when she professed at the nunnery of Santo Stefano of Ravenna, Beatrice Portinari.

As the world has known for seven centuries, Dante loved Beatrice since their childhood, though they both married other partners in their adolescence by parental imposition, and she died at barely twenty four. About a decade into the aftermath, and two or three years prior to the beginning of Dante’s perpetual exile from Florence, he swore to write a posthumous poem that would immortalize Beatrice’s name and his love for her. He finished the Divina Commedia or Divine Comedy in the ebbing days of his life and in the same Ravenna where Antonia was a novice and assumed the name of the woman to whom her father had rendered a unique passion that strikes me at being both sublime and monstrous.

A few days prior to Beatrice’s demise Dante dreamed of her all naked under a sheer chemise and next to a much older and also disrobed ogre-like titan, who tightly embraced her with one of his arms.  Meanwhile, Beatrice held in her palms a bleeding human heart. I am your master. Look at your heart, said the ancient giant, and at that very point he and Beatrice changed their demeanor in Dante’s dream and in the Vita Nuova. The elderly self-appointed tutor or educator burst out in desperate sobbing and Beatrice devoured the poet’s heart in bites suitable to those of a starving she-wolf in heat.

Considering that Brunetto Latini and Folco Portinari, a much learned banker and Beatrices’s father, were the only private masters that Dante had in his adolescence, I believe the alleged identity of the elderly apparition, and his crying repentance at the end, make the incestuous connotations as evident as they are in the case of Antonia naming herself Beatrice in Santo Stefano. Nevertheless Dante showed in the Inferno a much tolerant understanding of adulterous and incestuous women, i.e. Francesca di Rimini or Myrrh, the mythic Cypriot princess who had intercourse with her father, king Cinyras, than he bestowed to greed, imposture, corruptness, and counterfeiting, among other cardinal sins.

My through-the-looking-glass reading of Vita Nuova and Dante’ dream couples with a not unlike approach to his Inferno in the Divine Comedy, when a nameless actor and producer, hand in hand with his identical twin brother, who by reasons unknown to me bears my own initials, successfully staged in Barcelona, Madrid and on Broadway, a drama named Críptica Commedia. Sacro Inferno is supposed to be the transference of that play into narrative structure and prose. At least this is what I think though I am not certain because, as it was already stated here, a writer seldom understands what he had written. And if he does he should try to write it again because it does not ring true.

In fact and as Luigi Pirandello would say about his own theatre, when Sacro Inferno commences everything is over already and the curtain has fallen on Críptica Commedia. Perhaps a medieval mystery within a novel begins in chapter one of a book where, among other believable prodigies, the nameless protagonist meets with his dead father, reincarnated in a greyhound, in the Florentine Romanesque church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi. And they start silently conversing next to Beatrice’s wondrously well-preserved sepulcher, in an eye-to-eye language that preceded all verbal and written tongues. But it was the visual kind of communication that the Almighty used with Adam and the serpent employed to seduce the mother of mankind. You know if you listen to me you will be like gods. Period. And Punto final.

 

 

 

Carlos Rojas is a novelist, an art historian, and since the age of fifty a creator of visual works of art. He was born in Barcelona and came to the United States as a young man. In 1960 he joined the faculty of EmoryUniversity, where he is now Charles Howard Candler Professor of Spanish Emeritus. He has received numerous important Spanish literary prizes, including the Premio Nadal. He lives in Atlanta, GA.

Edith Grossman has translated into English many works by major Latin American and Peninsular writers, garnering an array of awards and honors.

 

Yale University Press Director John Donatich on the Margellos World Republic of Letters

Continuing the English-language publishing success of Greek poet Kiki Dimoula’s new volume of poetry, The Brazen Plagiarist, Yale University Press Director John Donatich comments on the mission of the literature in translation series, the Margellos World Republic of Letters. The video below aired at the Athens Concert Hall on Tuesday, January 29, where crowds of people paid tribute to Dimoula. Donatich discusses the state of world literature, the paucity of works from around the globe translated into English, the labors of translators, and the ambitions of the series’ endeavor to increase awareness and discovery of writers outside their native languages and nations.

He concludes by saying of Dimoula: “She is now the world’s poet.”

An Interview with Poet Kiki Dimoula by Cecile Inglessis Margellos

Kiki Dimoula, credit Michalis Anastasiou

Kiki Dimoula, credit Michalis Anastasiou

Following last weekend’s profile in the New York Times, we are pleased to release a special intimate conversation between Greek poet Kiki Dimoula and Cecile Inglessis Margellos, one of the translators of Dimoula’s new volume of poetry, The Brazen Plagiarist, now available to the English-speaking world through Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. In the interview, which took place last October, Dimoula and her translator discuss poetic influences and expressions, the exercise of writing, and an in-depth consideration of what poetry is and what it does.

 

Cecile Inglessis MargellosIt is unanimously acknowledged that among contemporary Greek poets you are the greatest, the most read, and the most loved. Authoritative critics proclaim you the new Sappho. Is that a source of joy or of anxiety?

Kiki Dimoula: I do not share this assessment. But my compensation comes from the priceless esteem of a few remarkable people and the equally remarkable affection of my readers. That payment is a source of true joy, but also constant anxiety, for I keep worrying about whether I will continue to receive it.


CIM: In 2002, you were the third woman to be made a full member of the Academy of Athens since its creation in 1929, thus becoming “immortal.” What did this honor give you and what did it deprive you of?

KD: I gained a place as a dumbfounded, daunted, and dim star in the Academy’s bright firmament, but I lost my natural place, the one that frugality assigned to me in both my inner and my outer world.

 

CIM: As an employee of the Bank of Greece, you contributed to the Bank’s literary magazine (1959–1967), for which you wrote exclusively short stories, while at the same time publishing only poetry. Did this somewhat enforced concentration on prose play a role in your self-definition as a poet?

KD: Yes, it acted as a scarecrow, frightening me away from a foreign field that, except for high school essays, I had never dared enter. How could I plow it? On the other hand, where was the plow when I broke into the equally foreign field of poetry, cutting through the sharp barbed wire that surrounded it? Yet that field was where I took root and grew.


CIM: You have often stressed that your husband, the poet Athos Dimoulas, had a decisive influence on your becoming a poet. Would you still say that?

KD: I might start by reminding people that Athos was first and foremost a great poet, but doing so would mean participating in his establishment as nonexistent; so I’ll leave this dreary responsibility to untalented oblivion. I will simply reiterate his rare quality of not being competitive; on the contrary, though a poet himself, he often publicly declared that I had capabilities he did not possess. But had he not persistently fueled my small, weak flame, I might have been extinguished.

It is not his support I so bitterly miss, however, or the many and irreplaceable things he gave me, but rather the things he kept for himself. For love, as we know, grows by not giving to us. And if our passion for poetry lives on and persists, it is because poetry offers us only its bits of lint.


The Brazen Plagiarist: Selected Poems
CIM: Is that why you chose poetry?

KD: Did I choose to breathe? Was it my choice to breathe, as poetry does, through melancholy’s stuffed nostril? Life’s essential length is only a few pages long, as succinct as a line of verse and as brief as the title of a poem.


CIM:
When did you first consider yourself purely a poet?

KD: Never. Unless I unknowingly elevate myself when I take half a sleeping pill at night and sink deep into a dream. No manifestation of ours is pure, unalloyednot even our death, for it is adulterated by our belief in the other, next life.


CIM:
What is poetry?

KD: Many things. A second life of the living and the dead; the Quixotism of the unquenchable; a mirage of people in the desert; crowds flocking to hear the future’s lecture on death; the return of the prodigal uncertainty; and countless other lost sheep.


CIM: Is it a godsent inspiration or the arduous mastering of an art?

KD: It is inspiration, which is sent by god but also by our toilsome perseverance, and strangely enough it is sometimes brought on by our disheartened renunciation of all expectation.


CIM: Do you read poetry? Do you acknowledge debts to other poets?

KD: I’m indebted to all of them, even to those I haven’t read, those unknown to me. This unknown is my main influence, since that’s where I too came from.


CIM: Do their many illustrious predecessors–Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Solomos, Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis, to name but a few–cast a heavy shadow on modern-day Greek poets?

KD: I avoid too much contact with such magnitudes; I strive to forget about them so as to not to be crushed by an unfavorable comparison.


CIM: In Greek, the words for “poetry” and “writing” are both feminine, and you are a female poet. Is there such a thing as a female poetry?

KD: There is insofar as it is written by women. But making it a separate category demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve equality between the sexes. What’s most exasperating, and extremely anti-poetic, is that the term “female poetry” implies a “genetic” inferiority. Why do we never speak of male poetry?


CIM: Do you remember your very first poem?

KD: I don’t even remember my last one.


CIM: This volume’s title is borrowed from one of your most recent poems, “The Brazen Plagiarist,” which accuses writing of being a plagiarist. Is it?

KD: Yes, after a thorough investigation I definitely consider writing a plagiarist. I have caught it sneaking in, searching and finding out all the innermost notes kept by our being. Notes about all that has remained unspoken, all that wants to but is afraid to be spoken, all that did not find its way to deliverance, all those bulky things that managed to scrape through imagination’s cracks because they could not bear the idea of never having happened. All that is guilty and has resorted to allusion so as to be saved from its revelation, and all that is dead but thanks to death’s crucial omissions haunts us by drinking its secret’s blood. Writing reads and copies all this in its dark little notepad, giving it a fleeting, unrecognizable shape so that it will not be identified as ours, so that its theft will be mistaken for . . . the authentic creation.

Cecile Inglessis Margellos

Cecile Inglessis Margellos


CIM: What awakens the desire or the need to write? A feeling, an image, a word?

KD: Something big or something tiny, like the skeleton of a desire whose name and face have withered away; or a shadow perched on the broken branch of your gaze; or a feather floating down from above which with a slow, oscillating intonation delivers the funeral oration of a bird. Or the insolent ease with which the unexpected walks in without knocking and fills a poem condemned to die unwritten with the frantic hope that it will be written after all.


CIM: Does place influence writing? To what extent have your poems been defined by your neighborhood, from which you have never moved, or by Greece, which you have seldom left?

KD: My homeland is more the neighborhood of Kypseli, biographer of almost my entire life, assisted by its co-biographer Pythia Street. I lived there as a child, as a married woman, and as a mother; my present solitary home is just two steps away. That street corroborated all that my inner Pythia prophesized and all that it could not, leaving me thus totally unprepared.


CIM: Do you write every day? Do you follow a strict discipline?

KD: I write very rarely. Only, in fact, when the sheet of paper suffers an existential crisis and threatens, if I don’t surrender to it, to bury me alive under its whiteness.


CIM: Is poetry necessary?

KD: Yes, poetry is necessary. Especially to the “why.”


CIM
:  And does poetry need love?

KD: If anything needs love it is reality, for it is reality that lacks it the most–I doubt that it was ever loved. Poetry contains love and holds it in high esteem, even though love always humiliates it by using it merely as a soothing after-shave lotion.


CIM: You have been a poet for at least sixty years. Has the passage of time, a deeper–perhaps also heavier–maturity changed your relationship to poetry?

KD: Poetry relishes ripe fruit–but ripe is one thing and overripe quite another. That’s something poetry doesn’t like, so it couldn’t care less if I were to fall overripe to the ground.


CIM:
 Any advice for younger poets?

KD: I would advise them to not allow emotion to dominate the poem. Looking back over my own youthful efforts, I realize how often emotion monopolized them, leaving the deeper, essential residue lying stagnant.


CIM: Do you avoid emotion then?

KD: How could I avoid it? I carry it inside me. What I try to do is to keep emotion on a tight leash; otherwise, it can never be transubstantiated into poetry. For what poetry prefers, above all, is to think.?


CIM: What is it that you aspire to generate through your poems?

KD: I don’t aspire, but I would be very happy if one of my poems suddenly offered someone a shady rest stop, a breather in our interminable march under the murderous, scorching heat of the superfluous.


CIM: What are your feelings about having been published by the Margellos World Republic of Letters of YUP?

KD: This publication is an indication that the unhoped-for did not remain unconvinced by me.   But since I will never let any consolation of happiness obscure my judgment, I must add that, to a great degree, I owe this honorary entrance permit into Yale to the transmutation performed by the translation. It infused formidable energy into my poems, an energy drawn from the incalculable soul-spending of the visionary translators.

 

Kiki Dimoula is a full member of the Academy of Athens, one of three women ever to be inducted. She has been awarded the Greek National Poetry Prize twice, the Grand National Prize for lifetime achievement, the Ouranis Prize of the Academy of Athens, the Aristeion of Letters of the Academy of Athens in recognition of her complete oeuvre, and the European Prize for Literature. She published her first collection of poetry in 1956 and has since been widely published in Greece and translated into English, French, Danish, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and many other languages.

Cecile Inglessis Margellos is a translator from French, English, and ancient Greek, a scholar, and a literary critic. She has translated into Greek works by Céline, Antoine Berman, Colette, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Jean Giraudoux, Raymond Queneau among others, and is preparing an annotated translation of Plato’s Symposium from ancient to modern Greek. She divides her time between Geneva and Athens.

The Poetry of Kiki Dimoula

“These beautiful poems are reflections of a cloudy sky in earthly words. Their rays of light, also, their reasons for hope.” —Yves Bonnefoy

The Brazen Plagiarist: Selected Poems compiles a poignant selection of poems from the oeuvre of Greek poetess Kiki Dimoula, to be published next month by Yale University Press. In this volume, Dimoula — a recipient of the European Prize for Literature — succeeds in blending the esoteric and the popular to create poetry that can move an entire range of readerships. Her poems appeal equally to readers looking for mystery and those looking for flashes and streaks of recognition; by conflating opposing ideas and manipulating the Greek language in a way that mystifies the familiar, Dimoula has fashioned a work that is beguiling, emotional, and arresting.

Dimoula’s considerable manipulations of grammar and diction in Greek put the translators’ work on par with the poet herself. Award-winning translators Cecile Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser have recreated the work in a language with an exceptionally different syntax and range of vocabulary while preserving its essence — an elusive, if not almost impossible, feat. Yet Dimoula’s poems read and move as easily in English as they do in Greek, which testifies to these translators’ superb talent and hard work. Cecile Inglessis Margellos is herself a donor to YUP’s Margellos World Republic of Letters – a literary series dedicated to making noteworthy titles from world literatures available to an English-speaking audience through quality translation. The Brazen Plagiarist is exemplary of the series in that it beautifully fulfills its purpose: a foreign work of poetry becomes available to English speakers willing to explore the powerful and insightful perspectives offered by international literature and creative exchange. The experience of Dimoula‘s poetry reminds any and every reader that “[e]ach word has its life, its past, its ego, its self-esteem.”

We invite you to read and share Dimoula’s poems in Greek and English; a sneak preview is available here.

 

 

A Conversation with Novelist Claudio Magris and Translator Anne Milano Appel

To celebrate the publication in English of Italian novelist Claudio Magris’ innovative novel, Blindly, translated by Anne Milano Appel, we are pleased to present an intimate conversation between author and translator in advance of Magris’ U.S. book tour. Hailed as a masterpiece when first published in Italy, the book twists through time and space, recounting the horrors, the hopes, and the revolutions of the last century.

Anne Milano Appel—

Separated as we are by a nine-hour time difference, my conversation with Claudio Magris necessarily had to be conducted long-distance, not in a cozy café sipping a strong espresso or enjoying a glass of wine. Instead, here we are in the no-time-zone of the internet that renders irrelevant the fact that I am in San Francisco and he is in Trieste.

When I first read Claudio Magris’ Blindly (Alla cieca, Garzanti, 2005), I was reminded of the third canto of the Inferno, where Dante and his guide Virgil, having passed through the gates of hell, come upon a wretched group that has been left for all eternity in the vestibule, not even worthy of entering that infernal realm: “Let us not / Speak of them: look and pass on (Inf. III: 49-51, Robert Pinsky, tr.). These abject individuals are the object of particular contempt because they led a “cieca vita”, a blind life. They are the disinterested, those who chose not to act, not to see. Virgil’s succinct dismissal of them is a fitting response to individuals who move through life “alla cieca” as so many do, preferring to close their eyes to the disquieting things around them, to look through the spyglass untroubled, blindfold securely in place — as Magris tells us Nelson did so as not to see the white flag of surrender before firing on Copenhagen — to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the world’s injustices. Alla cieca, it would seem, is Claudio Magris’ attempt to clear our vision, to rip off the blindfold and expose those injustices. It’s one of the things I asked him about.


Anne Milano Appel
: In Dante’s Divina Commedia, we find the words “guarda e passa” (Inferno III, 34-51) which is what so many of us in today’s society do: look and move on. It is a form of the occhio bendato, of unwillingness to see. Is Blindly your way of breaking the pall of silence, of unshrouding the truth by bearing witness and attesting to it? Is writing for you a way of vindicating injustices, of applying the hand of tenderness and compassion even while waiting for a cease fire order that never comes?

Claudio Magris: The title of the novel and the anecdote about Nelson – I’m not sure if it’s historically verified, but in any case reported – are meant to show how often we don’t see violence and evil, we don’t want to see violence and evil, we try to hide the truth even from ourselves.  A person can also love blindly, or walk along blindly, perhaps falling into an abyss.  Certainly I believe that writing to some extent means avenging injustice, at least battling the oblivion that seeks to destroy victims a second time by obliterating their memory.  Yes, I recognize myself in your beautiful definition of the hand of tenderness and compassion that reaches out, knowing that the cease-fire will never come, yet continually trying to stop the wrongs.


AMA
: In your keynote presentation at the European Identities Conference held in October 2010 at the University of Guelph, you spoke about Blindly and the ways in which moral and political writing seek to both establish and break down barriers between history and time. And among the many reasons one writes, you’ve cited that of obedience to a categorical moral imperative. What do you mean by that? How do you define moral writing?

CM: A difficult question to answer. To begin with, fundamental duties and moral values – and therefore political values as well, if by political we mean Polis, communal life in relation to others – these values concern everyone, whether they are writers or not, and no one is exempt from them in his life and in his actions.  On the other hand, literature in and of itself has no moral duty, it’s not a father who has to raise and educate a child, but rather a rebellious offspring trying to find his way in the world, without any qualms or restraints.  Literature is not a school teacher; it can only play an important educational role if it does not do so explicitly, in which case it destroys itself.  Literature certainly shouldn’t tell us how we ought to behave, but can distinctly show us and make us feel what it means to behave in a certain way – cruel or generous, base or humane – in life.  Conrad’s Lord Jim certainly isn’t meant to suggest that we join a lifesaving corps to rescue those who are drowning.  But it can directly make us feel what it means, at a decisive moment in our lives, to have behaved one way or another, to have helped someone or let him die, and so on.  In this sense, and in this sense only, can literature be said to be moral; for that matter, even morality itself is never very effective when it preaches.

I am strongly aware of the difference between writing for ethical-political reasons (I write many such commentaries in the Corriere della sera and other newspapers) and literary writing.  When I take a position on a given subject – when I protest, defend, criticize or attack – the style becomes urgent, paratactic; moral judgment is essential, the awareness of the complexity of each situation does not prohibit me from “yes, yes no, no.” When one is writing about the life of a man, on the other hand, moral values ​​become mixed up with his natural instincts and impulses, the chance fortuitousness of existence and chaos. Everything becomes much more ambiguous, so the style itself becomes sinuous, hypotactic; every precise affirmation is immediately accompanied and revised by one that calls it into question, one that disproves it.  If we recount how an injustice, even a horrible crime, is committed by a man, we must describe the contradictions in his character, in which good is mixed with evil.  The greatest example is perhaps that of Dostoevsky in his Crime and Punishment, in which he fully reveals the atrocity and also the stupidity of the crime committed by Raskolnikov – believing himself to be one of the “extraordinary” people who do not need to follow the moral codes – while also showing us all the vulnerable tenderness and longing there is in Raskolnikov’s soul. Though he remains a murderer, and therefore must be punished , he’s not just a murderer but, first and foremost, a man.


AMA
: You’ve used the terms “nocturnal” and “diurnal” writing originally owed to the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sábato. Presumably there are parts of Blindly that constitute “diurnal” writing and other parts that are “nocturnal”. Can you give us some examples of each? And what you mean by those terms?

CM: In diurnal writing a writer, even when he invents, expresses a world in which he recognizes himself; he conveys his values, the things he believes in, his way of being.  But Ernesto Sábato himself, in one of his diurnal books in which he recounts his life and his ethical-political commitment, says that the most profound truth of his essence is not to be found in that same book, but that it is found instead in the hidden truths expressed in his noctural narrative, truths that are sometimes loathsome, as he says, that have often betrayed him or rather that have betrayed his moral convictions.

In nocturnal writing the writer comes to terms with something that suddenly emerges in him and that he didn’t know he had: disturbing and even horrible feelings and instincts that surprise us, that appall us, that make us see a face we didn’t know we had, that tell us what we could be, what we fear and hope to be, what by pure chance we haven’t become.  We find ourselves face to face with the Medusa of life and at that moment you can’t send her to the hairdresser to arrange her head of snakes and make her look presentable.  When a writer meets his doppelganger, he might prefer that his other self say things other than what he’s hearing, but if he’s honest with himself he must attest to that unpalatable truth and leave his pen to noctural writing.

Of course, those “horrible truths” that emerge from the depths cannot be transformed into a negative ideology, they do not contradict the values ​​in which he believes.  Just as in the novels of Joseph Conrad the obscure impulses leading to desertion, betrayal, sometimes even infamy do not renounce the great values ​​of loyalty, order, remaining at one’s post, as his captains do waging the good fight until the last. Works in which nocturnal writing has emerged with the greatest violence are perhaps plays, in which this writing rises up from the depths like a voice that one may not recognize; theatrical texts such as La mostra (The Exhibition) or Le voci (Voices).  In Blindly I tried, unconsciously, to merge the two types of writing, the two worlds:  the diurnal world of responsibility, ethics, values, and the nocturnal world of nightmares, horror and breakdown.


AMA
: Are you always consciously thinking about or looking for themes to write about? Do you keep a notebook or a folder of ideas waiting for the right moment to mature?

CM: Starting with the first book I wrote, the essay The Habsburg Myth (1963), when I write a book I never know at the beginning what it is I want to write. Only when I’ve written a third, sometimes half of it, do I know what book I’m writing, know what its explicit theme is a metaphor for, and therefore what it’s real theme is, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the explicit, just as a poem about a tree, or a flower, for instance, can be the only way, at that moment, to express one’s love not for a tree or a flower but for the person one loves. Initially there is a strong suggestion, perhaps confused; something (a figure, an event, an intuition, sometimes even a detail of a landscape) turns my head, and unless it dies along the way, it begins to gradually take shape.

During this first phase there is a period of uncertain reflection in which I take notes, not systematic or organized, I write a few pages, very few, in one direction or another that the story is leaning or that I think it’s leaning. At a certain point, when things are working, things become more precisely defined inside me and then there’s a period of fierce, torrential writing, in which I throw myself into writing without paying much attention to elegance or style, but letting myself be pulled along by the story, by my intuitions, and most of all by the force of the images. It’s at this stage that you decide if a book is born or not. If I feel that a book is going to be born, I let it alone for a time at the end of this feverish, stormy writing and later take it up again and revise it with a great deal of rationality, weighing sentence by sentence, word by word, in short, with rational control after the irrational tempest.

I don’t keep a real journal about the writing process, but I write many – sometimes very many, as in the case of Blindly - pages of notes, factual elements and other information. Place names, colors, names of taverns that have to do with the story and so on. I do this because I’m fascinated by reality, the things that really happened; like Svevo I believe that life is “original” and, like Mark Twain, that “truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s as if I were writing a mosaic in which every single tile corresponds to a piece of reality, but then using those tiles to compose a design that is completely imaginary.

 

AMA: You’ve said that your books are almost always born from a combination of a profound interest in a particular subject and some immediate cause, some circumstance which acts as “midwife”. What was the “midwife” in the case of Blindly?

CM: Yes, it’s always been that way. Danube would not have been born without my interest in the world of Mitteleuropa and without the years in which I came to know, study and experience it, but it also wouldn’t have been born without a particular moment one September afternoon, on the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia, with a group of friends, a moment of blissful harmony with life’s course, watching the Danube flow by, shining so that its glittering waters could not be distinguished from the sparkle of the meadows. At a certain point, an arrow on the road pointed to the “Museum of the Danube.” And that word Museum was so strange , as if an amorous couple in a park were to suddenly discover that, without knowing it, they were part of a museum or an exhibition about lovers in public gardens. Then Marisa said: what if we kept meandering on to the Black Sea? That was the moment that triggered the idea, still very confused, about that trip and writing, without knowing what kind of book I would write. I could cite other examples like this. In the case of Blindly, of course, my interest in the incredible, appalling account of Goli Otok was fundamental. I had already spoken of it in previous books (A Different Sea, Microcosms), but only very briefly , and I couldn’t seem to turn it into a story. But there were two moments when the midwife’s action came into play. The first occurred, unexpectedly, in Antwerp, where I had gone to present the Dutch translation of Danube and where I saw several figureheads, those women’s faces, eyes open and dilated, as if scanning for imminent catastrophes that were still invisible to others. And the other was when, by chance, I came across the story of Jorgensen, a kind of opposite, contrary alter ego; his Icelandic revolution that was like a grotesque mirror, distorting and revealing the Revolution par excellence, unblocked me.

 

AMABlindly was written over the course of many years. How did the initial idea and theme change and evolve during this “gestation” period?

CM: Indeed, the gestation period lasted 18 years, though obviously interrupted by a number of other books that I wrote during that time and by many other things that happened to me, both good and bad. I had started writing the protagonist’s story in the form of a traditional, linear novel, but it didn’t work because in a novel the “how,” that is, the style, has to correspond to the “what,” the meaning of the story that’s being told. It’s not possible to write a story of utter disharmony, of turmoil that shatters everything, in a harmonious, peaceful way. The failed attempt at a linear novel was very useful to me, but only as a quarry for material which was then radically transformed. Then little by little everything began to come together: Jorgen’s fate corresponded to that of the protagonist, Salvatore, deported to Goli Otok; the trip to Australia to that of 20th century emigrants; the frightful prisons of Australia and Tasmania to 20th century concentration camps and gulags; the black war that exterminated the Tasmanians to the horrors of the 20th century; and the story itself to the underlying structure of the myth of the Golden Fleece, an interweaving of the archaic and post-modern, a clash of civilizations, myth and marketing campaign.

The fundamental problem was precisely the writing. Writers in the 19th century were able to utilize the same writing for their creative inventions and for their ethical-political works; Victor Hugo could use more or less the same language to write Les Miserables and his political texts against Napoleon III. From the 20th century on, this has no longer been possible: Kafka could not have written a political text or one on social commitment using the same writing as in hisMetamorphosis. At some point my block dissolved and the novel was born the way it is, a whirlpool of a monologue, in which the protagonist, a veteran of numerous 20th century battles and a survivor of Goli Otok, recounts his life, talking to a doctor or perhaps only to himself, weaving many other voices in with his own voice, identifying with others from time to time, losing and finding himself in other destinies, in a strange vortex of words that is like a snake suffocating the Self, but the snake is the Self itself, it’s our story, which at times is too much for us, so we feel like Atlases too weak to support a world on our shoulders, a terrible, heavy world that crushes us. It was this voice, this monologue, that swept me along like a river, gathering up all the things I had thought, written and put together in those years, dragging them who knows where.

 

AMA: One of your recurring themes, besides the sea and travel, has been borders: borders lost and found, borders between the known and unknown, borders within the Self, political, psychological and social borders, and so on. Which borders feature most prominently in Blindly?

CM: Yes, the border has been a fundamental theme in me, since I was a boy, when shortly after World War II, I would go to the Carso, the rocky area surrounding Trieste, and I would see, close up, the border that wasn’t just any border but an Iron Curtain, which split the world in two. Behind it lay a universe at once disturbing and unknown – because you couldn’t go there – but also familiar, since it was land that had been Italian until the end of the war when Yugoslavia had occupied it, and that I knew well. I think this overlapping of the known and unknown has been fundamental in general for my literary vocation.

In Blindly there are many borders, even aside from the historical and geographical boundaries created and erased by time and the sea.  The tragic, vital border line between utopia, the dream of creating a world that, if not perfect, is at least better, and disenchantment, namely, realizing the failure of that attempt; the boundary between surrendering to a sense of emptiness, after discovering this fracture, and resolutely continuing to want to change and improve the world instead. The border, upheld or trampled, between the great hopes of the 20th century, the great liberties won in the 20th century, and the horrors of that same century that denied them. Maybe above all the very boundary of individuality, of the Self. Salvatore on the one hand has an extremely strong, distinct personality, with very specific loves and ideals; on the other hand, his voice is interwoven with many others, listening to the tape recorder he sometimes doesn’t distinguish his responses from the questions asked by the doctor, he identifies from time to time with other people and their experiences. In one way, he’s a mentally disturbed Self, who did not hold up well under the numerous things that happened to him, that came crashing down on him, and is therefore a split Self, even in a clinical sense, these voices that speak may all be his own, or maybe that of the doctor and the torturers who interrogated him throughout his life.

But perhaps his voice is also a choral voice, since each of us is always a chorus. Falling in love, growing up, growing old, getting sick, finding faith or losing it, dying, these are facts that are unmistakably and uniquely ours, but not only ours, that make each of us resemble the Unknown Soldier, who is everyone and no one. It has been said that protagonist of Blindly embodies all the fugitives in the world, the illegal aliens, those who are persecuted.

 

AMA: You once wrote that you consider your country to be the Italian language and all that it means to you in terms of sensibility, perception, vision – in short, your way of being. Given that, how does it feel to read your own words translated into another language? It must be a jolt!

CM: No, it wasn’t a jolt or, if it was, it was so in a positive sense, because asobbalzo, a jolt as you say, can also be a revealing awakening. Translation – I’m talking now about the ones I am able to read and understand – is first and foremost an initial form of literary criticism, because you can’t fool the translator and a translation immediately catches any possible weak points in a text . But above all translation reveals new aspects, sometimes even to the author himself; I’m referring first of all to the rhythm, the music, which must somehow be analogous to the original, yet analogous independently, within its own language. So reading one’s own book in translation is fascinating, like meeting someone you know quite well, who reveals some other aspect about himself: it doesn’t negate the idea we’ve formed of him, but alters or expands it. Even having others read our books can reveal new aspects to whoever wrote them. This happened to me with your translation of Blindly, where I both found and discovered myself, and it’s also happened in several other translations of my books.


AMA
: I seem to recall reading somewhere that you learned English in order to work with your early English translators. Is that true or did I dream it up?

CM: It’s not exactly so, but almost. When Danube began to be translated in various countries, I started going around to promote it, and in England and in America but also in other countries – aside from Germany, France and Spain – I wanted to try to get along a little better with English, at least with spoken English. And it was pretty funny, because I even went to school, for example, Regent School in London, where I was admitted to the advanced course in a class in which there were seven of us. I was 49 years old, the next oldest after me was 27, and the youngest, an Argentinean boy, was 18. I did my assignments, among others a composition on “The Likes and Dislikes of the Milkman’s Job,” which received many red marks from our teacher, Carol, and which I later published in the Corriere della Sera … I also took an intensive, eight-hours-per-day course of individual instruction at Oxford, and one time, between one lesson and another, I was so exhausted that as I was trying to make a call to Germany, it was suddenly as if my German – which I actually speak very well – had disappeared! After a moment of sheer terror at the thought of going home having lost the one essential element of my work – given that I taught German literature – I started laughing, and with the laughter the German came back to me…

 

AMA: For you personally, how does the translation process change for a book of yours that’s being translated into a language that you read and understand, as opposed to being translated into a language where your knowledge is limited or non-existent?

CM: Naturally there is an enormous difference, because obviously if I pick up the Chinese translation of Danube or the Vietnamese version of Utopia and Disenchantment I can’t understand a thing. But the real experience in this case takes place earlier, in the contact that I almost always have with my translators, to whom I devote a great deal of time, discussions, letters (hundreds and hundreds of pages …). It is very interesting to see how the translators approach the text; I can tell from their questions, from the issues that arise. Sometimes it also has to do with intercultural translation, because conveying one of my books into Korean or Portuguese are two different things, so it’s fascinating to see all the problems, such as transcultural translation issues, that arise (for example, in one language or better yet in one culture, a certain color may signify mourning, while in another culture the same color can mean something very different or even something totally opposite). I always tell the translators that they shouldn’t try to simplify, to “explain” the text, because the writer isn’t a guide leading the reader by the hand to make him admire how good he, the writer, is. Each reading is a cooperative dialogue between the writer and the reader and, in the case of translation, with the mediation of an essential third party, the translator. What’s vital is the rhythm, the music; that’s where the excellence or failure of a translation is at stake.

 

AMA: When I was recently interviewed myself, I was asked about what the interviewer called your “provocative” quote about a translator being “a co-author, part accomplice, part rival, part lover….” I gave her my take on what I thought you meant by “accomplice”, “rival”, “lover” (i.e., that among other things it had to do with being affiatati, on the same wave length, empathetic), but I’m wondering if you’d like to expand on your words.

CM: Of course, l’affiatamento, empathy, as you say, is fundamental; syntony, consonance in the strongest sense, feeling in tune. In short, if the author says blue, the translator must somehow sense which blue he’s talking about and what that blue means to him, nostalgia, absence or anything else. The translator is a co-author because the translation is not a calque, a copy of the text, but her own recreation. It’s a little like when the mythographers faithfully recorded the same myth, like the rhapsodists who recited the stories and poems of Homer, not arbitrarily inventing but finding the right words, creative and not just informative; or, more simply, like when we tell a story that has impressed and fascinated us, that we return to and repeat faithfully yet always adding something, giving it another meaning just by our tone of voice, the things we choose to stress more or less, and so on. As in every close partnership, complicity and rivalry coexist.

 

AMA: Yes, I took “accomplice” to mean a collaborator perhaps, and “part rival”, not as an adversary but as a partner in the challenge to recreate the author’s work in another language. On another subject, I recently translated an author who wrote in an armchair, with an empty box on her knees as a desk, surrounded by notes scattered all over the floor, drinking tea and smoking endless cigarettes. She used a fine-tip Bic pen on ordinary typing paper folded in two, and she always wrote by hand because she said she needed to feel the emotion throbbing in her pulse. It was a cozy, intimate view of her. Can you share with us how you write?

CM: I write by hand, with a pen that in Italian is called Tratto Clip, with a fine point and blue ink, a very common pen that runs out of ink quickly and must then be replaced; in fact I buy three or four at a time. I always write on lined paper with a margin, like the ones I used to write my compositions on when I was in high school. I write by hand because I’m so inept on a typewriter or on a computer that my fingers can only produce single words and not the sweeping music of the sentence. Typing for me is like writing in a language that I don’t know very well; it forces me to focus on the individual words, thereby losing the flow of the narration. You don’t write words, you write sentences. Of course this is only a habit of mine, legitimate, but without any affectation; I don’t like people who think that the computer is something artificial and less genuine, as if my pen were closer to God or to nature than a computer is. It’s just a routine practice of mine, legitimate because it’s my own but that certainly can’t be flaunted pretentiously.

I like to write at the café, not just because there I’m not distracted by so many things at home (starting with the books in my house, which would make me lose my interest in writing and feel like reading them instead …), but also because I like the solitude in company with others, being surrounded by the hum of voices (a hum that isn’t too loud, of course). Besides, when you’re writing and constantly seduced by the delirium of omnipotence, it’s good for you to see people around you who couldn’t care less.

The beginning is always difficult; very often I start the same page over and over, perhaps repeating the same sentence, as if searching for a kind of musical pitch. Naturally there’s a big difference between creative, literary writing (modest though the results may be) and expository writing, such as conference texts or lectures. In the latter case I can stop writing and resume the work at any time, I can write even in the midst of confusion, in the few moments of time stolen from other activities. When I write a literary text, however, I need to have a fair amount of time ahead of me, to either take my time or throw myself into writing non-stop, but it’s a much more neurotic ritual, which can be easily disturbed or interrupted by external events. Annotations are handwritten and at times make the page so difficult to decipher, sometimes even for me, that I am forced to dictate into a recorder and give it to someone to type up.

 

AMA: To conclude, Claudio, can you give us a hint of what you’re working on now? Are you at the vague, suggestive stage waiting for things to crystallize, for a book to take shape? Or maybe swept up in the feverish period of intense writing? Perhaps things have even fallen into place and you’ve reached the post-tempest phase of coherent, lucid discipline?

CM: Well, I’ve been working on a wide-ranging narrative project for some time now. I’ve already written quite a bit, but I haven’t yet reached the point where the individual streams flow into the ultimate river. I find it hard to talk about, not because I’m superstitious, but because in writing everything happens when you write and, for me at least, it’s difficult to talk about it beforehand. It’s a little like talking about marriage in a romantic relationship, when any response, yes or no, would be forced. If all goes well, I hope to finish it by next summer.Unberufen, as they say in Yiddish, keep your fingers crossed.

 

AMA: Yes, knock on wood! Thank you for allowing us this glimpse into your life and thoughts, Claudio. For one thing, you’ve made me think about the difference between the work of the author and that of the translator: while for the author the initial flash of inspiration comes from some compelling, perhaps yet uncertain, external stimulus, for the translator the “midwife” is the original text. As you know, rendering Blindly into English was both a pleasure and a gratifying challenge for me, and I can only hope that our readers will find as much satisfaction in reading it as I did in translating it. Perhaps one way the reader might experience it – in keeping with Salvatore’s words as he goes about composing epitaphs: “Gravestones are condensed novels. Or rather, novels are expanded gravestones… My autobiography is one of these expanded headstones” – is to think of it as an expanded commemorative stone that rips off the blindfold.

 

 


Claudio Magris
 has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer. Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.