The Game of Contemporaneity (Игры современников, 同時代ゲーム) by Kenzaburō Ōe

IgryOeThe title of Kenzaburō Ōe’s 1979 novel Dōjidai Gemu has been translated in a variety of ways. In Vladimir Grivnin’s Russian translation that I have read the book is called The Games of Contemporaries, but I have decided to keep The Game of Contemporaneity as the default title here for the simple pragmatic reason that it’s the one most often used in the English-language secondary sources. The Russian version of The Game is a mixed blessing. Of course, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to read what is considered one of the Nobel Prize laureate’s best novels, but the fact that it was translated in 1987, when the Soviet Union still existed, inexorably means that a lot of “controversial” content (mostly related to sex) has either been toned down or left untranslated. To give you one telling example, let me get straight to the episode of the incestuous encounter between the narrator/protagonist Tsuyuki and his twin sister Tsuyumi. The narrator tries to rape his naked, drug-befuddled sister in the pantry room of the Shinto temple where the chief priest, their father, has been instructing them since early childhood. Tsuyuki has been sexually obsessed with his sister for a long time now, but there is more to his actions than the mere pursuit of gratification; by committing the ugly transgression, the brother hopes to avoid the destiny prepared for them by the father/priest: the boy is to record the myths and legends of his native village and the girl is to become the priestess of the supernatural entity known as the Destroyer, who is the culture hero in the local lore. It is hard to tell what exactly happens between them, but only if you read the Russian translation. The reader is left hanging with the following sentence: “ты вначале сопротивлялась исполнению моего постыдного плана, но в конце концов пришла мне на помощь” (“at first, you resisted the realisation of my shameful plan but, in the end, you came to my aid”). I have managed to find a more faithful translation in Michiko N. Wilson’s study The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo, which has been very helpful to me in writing this review. Only thanks to this brief quotation provided in a scholarly monograph did I learn what had really happened: “When you realized what I wanted, you changed the tactics of resistance. Extending one arm lithely behind, you held my penis gently in your hand and made me ejaculate.” As it turns out, she gives him a hand job, preventing him from having full-on incestual intercourse with her and thus inadvertently foiling his plan to release him and her from the obligations imposed by the father/priest. Although I promised you just one example, let me cite another quotation from Wilson’s book to cement my point. This is a description of the narrator’s sexual encounter with another woman: “As my belly touched her buttocks which were twisted slightly to the left, I inserted my penis. In a slow thrust my right hand stroked time after time the spot where the vagina held the penis in between and over the mound of Venus, the way a woman caresses her own vagina.” There is nothing even remotely similar in the Russian translation, of course. What is more, I have no idea who this woman is and when the main character has this affair because it is not to be found in the book I have read. Yes, the whole thing has been either removed from the final translation or not translated at all! It is on page 251 of a Japanese edition (I couldn’t find which one), so if you know Japanese and have the book, please tell me what’s going on there! Although the knowledge of having read a bowdlerised version of the text does not add much enthusiasm to my effort, I will try my best to write a passable review of this important novel. Fortunately for us, the detailed descriptions of sexual encounters are not paramount for its appreciation. It has a lot more to offer.

Dōjidai_GemuAs Michiko N. Wilson points out, the main inspiration for the novel came to Ōe when he travelled to Mexico in 1976 as a visiting professor and discovered the sophisticated grandiosity of Diego Rivera’s murals. The writer was particularly impressed by the 15.6-metre long Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. The mural represents various characters from the 400 years of Mexican history strolling together through the Alameda Central Park in Mexico City. Among the historical figures participating in this outlandish walk are Hernán Cortés, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz, José Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo, and the artist himself depicted as an adolescent. In the centre of the composition, the printmaker and lithographer Posada is walking arm in arm with his most recognisable creation that has become the staple of the Mexican Day of the Dead: La Calavera Catrina. The Japanese author found it fascinating that the historical events separated by centuries could be depicted simultaneously within a shared space. That’s what he himself said in the 1979 interview to the magazine Asahi Shimbun (translated by Wilson):

Those colossal murals depict Mexican history from ancient times to the present synchronically. I said to myself, can it be done in literature? If you consider The Game of Contemporaneity as a mural, it portrays the history of a village from ancient times to the present. Right beneath the mural is a giant sprawling and looking at the entire history as contemporaneity. Both the writer and the reader can also read the novel in that fashion.


Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, 1946–1947. Image Source

To read the novel as a giant who, from his frame of reference, can easily observe events from different time periods. Does that not remind us of the block universe theory? Actually, Kenzaburō Ōe makes the narrator of his novel describe this possibility in a joking manner as an amusing science fiction plot. (My translation of the Russian translation):

We’re going to visit on our spaceship the millions of worlds inhabited by humans or human-like creatures, and we’ll see that each planet has its own time, being a unit of space and time. And if it is possible to catch in one glance that infinite multitude of spacetime units, then the whole history of humankind on earth can be represented in one time slice. Then it would be possible to select out of this infinite multitude of spacetime units certain events and replay the history of humanity. … Perhaps the history to which we belong is one of such games!

At a certain point, the primeval forest that occupies the valley in which Tsuyuki’s village is situated becomes a model of block spacetime which allows the narrator (who is a kid at the time) to visit different historical events and the people involved in them as he takes a rambling walk along the route landmarked by globular capsules of light. In some of the capsules, he sees the characters from the village history, the past and the future alike. There are also empty globes, however. By passing through them, the boy carries out the symbolic task of collecting the dispersed body parts of the Destroyer, the mythical giant whose continuous presence has been haunting the history of the secluded village since its foundation in the Edo period. This bizarre tour of random incidents from the history of the village=nation=microcosm (which is what it is called most of the time), liberated from the fetters of linear chronology, serves as a mise-en-abyme of the novel itself whose reader, to use Ōe’s metaphor, acts as a giant simultaneously observing different historical events on the monumental mural worthy of Diego Rivera’s brush.


 Izanagi and Izanami in Eitaku Kobayashi’s painting Searching the Seas with the Tenke , c. 1885

One of the possible translations of the book’s title is The Game of Simultaneity, which even more emphatically expresses the author’s creative concept. That is how Sanroku Yoshida refers to the novel in his insightful article Kenzaburo Ōe: A New World of Imagination (Comparative Literature Studies Vol.22, No1). It is to Yoshida that I owe the plausible explication of the narrator’s incestuous passion for his sister, who does not yield to it completely yet stokes it from time to time by exposing herself to her ogling sibling. According to the scholar, the uncomfortable relationship between Tsuyumi and Tsuyuki has mythological roots: “This slight difference in the last syllables in their names undoubtedly alludes to the incestuous brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, in the creation myth.” Indeed, the story of the creator deities Izanagi and Izanami recounted in the Kojiki, the 8th-century compilation of Japanese sacred texts, has certain parallels with the story of Tsuyumi and Tsuyuki. Just as the union of the mythological siblings gives birth to the islands of Japan, so do the six letters of Tsuyuku to Tsuyumi conjure up into being for the reader the mysterious village=nation=microcosm. The fact that Tsuyumi has an abortion shortly before she is assaulted by her brother in the temple could allude to the firstborn Leech Child, whom Izanami and Izanagi reject on account of his malformity and set adrift in a reed boat. The cancer-suffering Tsuyumi’s mock death staged on a ferry brings to mind Izanami’s departure to Yomi no Kuni (the underworld) after succumbing to the burns caused by giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi. At least fleeting acquaintance with the Japanese creation myth makes the reading of Dōjidai Gemu a less shocking but definitely more informed and interesting experience.

As already mentioned, the text of the novel is made up of the six letters written by Tsuyuki and addressed to his twin sister, who has returned to their native village and is now staying in the temple with their father, also known as the father/priest. Tsuyumi is taking care of the Destroyer, whom she found in a mountain cave as a mushroom-like creature and has since raised to the size of a dog. Her brother writes the first letter from Mexico City, where he is teaching Japanese literature as a visiting professor, and the other five from Tokyo, the place of his permanent academic job. The fate they tried to avoid has caught up with them: he has assumed the role of the historian of the village=nation=microcosm and his sister has become the priestess of the Destroyer (unless the creature she is tending to in the temple is a child from her own father, which is something hinted at but never confirmed).

The story of the village is related in a loopy and repetitive manner in keeping with the simultaneity principle to which the narrator was exposed in the primeval forest as a kid. Quite often, we first learn about the aftermath of a certain event and only later, after several digressions, return to its origin and the way it unfolded. The mythological stories that sometimes have several alternative versions are randomly mixed with the narrator’s childhood reminiscences as well as with the account of the most recent events in his life. It is a game, after all, the Game of Contemporaneity, which he is playing with us. However, the disorganised manner in which the events are presented in the letters does not prevent us from restoring the sequential chronology of the village history since the Edo period (the exact year is not given) and until the 1970s. The village is founded in a mountain valley on the island of Shikoku by a group of renegade samurai who have escaped from the dictate of the Tokugawa Shogunate on a ship laden with food supplies and construction materials. The leader of the adventurers is the man in possession of dynamite who opens the way to the location of the future settlement by blasting the fragments of rock that block access to the valley. This man is the Destroyer. He suffers horrible burns as a result of the explosion, but, after fifty days marked by uninterrupted rain, he miraculously recovers and resumes his leadership of the community. According to one legend, he and the other founders of the village live to be a hundred years old and turn into giants. With time, the Destroyer becomes a ruthless tyrant forcing his former comrades to build the Road of the Dead, whereas their descendants, the ordinary folks of the village, are burdened with the colossal task of feeding them. The Road of the Dead leads nowhere: it starts abruptly on the mountain slope, runs along the edge of the forest, and ends just as abruptly as it begins. The narrator conjectures that the purpose of the mysterious road is to serve as a landing strip for aliens. Whatever the true motivation of the Destroyer may be, the absurdity of this enterprise brings to mind the useless forced labour to which millions of people were subjected by the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Mao Zedong. Tired of the Destroyer’s despotism, the villagers kill him by adding to his food a decoction of the poisonous herbs that he grows in his garden. After that, they cut his body into pieces and proceed to devour them in a kind of grisly mass communion. But the Destroyer does not vanish for good. He keeps returning to the people in their dreams throughout the history of the village, and, according to some sources, he also reappears several times in a physical shape. The last such revival happens when he is discovered by the sister of the narrator in the cave as a withered, mushroom-like being. Shortly after the murder and collective consumption of the Destroyer, the village experiences a cataclysm which is a thinly veiled allusion to the Cultural Revolution in China. The valley is filled with a mysterious noise that causes great discomfort to the grown-up denizens but is pleasantly invigorating to the children. The men and women affected by the sound have to relocate to the places in which it is the least irritating, and since the noise affects each adult differently in a different spot of the valley, quite often spouses are compelled to live separately, whereas their children can decide with whom to stay. For the fifty-day period in which the sound blares in the village, the teenagers and kids take power and enforce collective resettlement. The families that refuse to move get brutally beaten and even murdered. The resettlement is followed by the great reforms of the movement in favour of the return to the old times helmed by the Destroyer’s last wife. As a result, all private property is abolished, the houses are burnt down, and the villagers, stripped to loincloths, begin tilling one common field, eating from the same pot, and raising their children collectively. Many believe that the strange noise, which has triggered this societal upheaval, was produced by the spirit of the dead Destroyer. As many revolutions, this one ends in a reaction: all the original leaders of the great movement are overthrown, the giant widow of the Destroyer is imprisoned in a cave, the land is redistributed among the new leaders, and the villagers start building individual homes again. The village continues to exist in total isolation from the rest of Japan until it gets embroiled in a peasant uprising against the neighbouring han, which is the same domain from which the founding fathers led by the Destroyer escaped several centuries before. In the aftermath of this conflict, the village=nation=microcosm loses its independence and is subjected to the direct control of the han. During the Meiji Restoration, which sees the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the dismantlement of the han system, the settlement in the valley becomes a subject of the Great Empire of Japan (as it is called in the novel). In a bid to reduce the burden of the Imperial taxation and conscription, the villagers come up with the family record book ruse: they begin to register two new-born babies as one, thus, with time, tricking the empire into believing that the population of the village is two times smaller than it really is. At some point in the twentieth century, probably in the 1930s, the Great Japanese Empire discovers the ruse and sends its troops to establish complete control over the insubordinate territory. The ensuing conflict, dubbed the Fifty-Day War, sees casualties on both sides and is striking in the way the outgunned villagers put up fierce and ingenious resistance against the Imperial forces. The whole population of the invaded village withdraws into the primeval forest and engages in guerrilla warfare using the firearms that a small military plant hidden in the thickets produces by modifying toy guns imported from Germany. An important role in the war is played by the Destroyer, who visits the locals in their dreams to give military advice. After fifty days of armed resistance, the villagers have to surrender because the Nameless Captain, the commander of the invading troops, threatens to torch the primeval forest. The surrender is followed by the mass execution organised by the Nameless Captain. He orders to hang one person out of each pair registered in the family record book as a single resident. As part of the Empire, the village lives through the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat in it. By the 1970s, the valley community is in decline as there hasn’t been a single birth in the village for the last twenty years. One of the last people to be born there is a young theatre director who intends to stage a play about the tumultuous history of his homeland shortly before the Meiji Restoration and asks the narrator to act as a consultant in this production. Although this endeavour does not lead to anything substantial, the narrator’s account of his involvement in this project provides lots of interesting facts about the history of the village=nation=microcosm whose chronicler he was destined to become since early childhood.


Yukio Mishima on the balcony of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Eastern Corps Headquarters in Tokyo. Image Source

Unfulfilled potential and disappointed expectations are the major motifs in Tsuyuki’s narration about the rest of his family (besides the twin sister, he also has two elder brothers and one younger brother). Their stories are bleak and tragic. One of them, a promising baseball player, gets one chance to play for a major-league team and blows it. Another becomes a performer at the Shinbashi Enbujō Theatre in Tokyo, but his career is cut short when he dies after a botched gender reassignment surgery. Perhaps the most representative of the post-war frustration plaguing many Japanese is the fate of Tsuyuichi, one of Tsuyuki’s elder brothers. Conscripted near the end of the Pacific War, Tsuyuichi develops a mental illness in the boot camp and after Japan’s defeat spends twenty-five years in a psychiatric hospital. All these years he keeps thinking that he is still a conscript of the Imperial Army. In 1970, dressed in the obsolete uniform of the Empire of Japan, he travels to Tokyo and attempts to storm the Emperor’s Palace in order to persuade the monarch to grant independence to his native village. In reality, all he manages to do is to scare off a couple having sex in the park (after which he gets beaten by a bunch of frustrated voyeurs) and to loudly recite a poem in Esperanto in front of the palace before being detained and returned to the psychiatric facility. The escapade of the insane elder brother is an obvious satire of Yukio Mishima’s failed attempt at inspiring a coup among the servicemen at Camp Ichigaya on 25 November 1970. The passionate speech calling on the audience to overthrow the constitution and bring back the power of the emperor was drowned in the collective heckling, after which the snubbed nationalist saw no other option than to commit seppuku. In Kenzaburō Ōe’s parodic re-enactment of Mishima’s ill-advised and doomed act, the rousing appeal that was shouted down by the booing crowd becomes a poem in an artificial language, which, of course, nobody around understands.

The village itself can be viewed as a satire and critique of Japan’s isolationist tendencies that did not quite end after the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. The secluded settlement does not develop into a prosperous and equitable society but rather mimics on a smaller scale the history of the country from which it has isolated itself. Throughout its history, the village suffers from internal conflicts, tyranny, and obscurantist ideology. Some cultural activities of the denizens entail physical and sexual violence. Even children’s games are tainted with uncanny viciousness. For example, during the Game of the Destroyer, the participants wreak havoc and mayhem on purpose: they shit on the playground, devastate kitchen gardens, stab domestic animals. The game finishes when the boy who plays the role of the Destroyer comes out from a cave and metes out justice to the troublemakers. Limited foreign trade practised by Japan in the period of the isolationist policy known as Sakoku is parodically reflected in the export of plant wax produced in the village. The author’s skeptical view of the prospects of the development of an economy with an extremely restricted international commerce is expressed in the fact that the village’s greatest accomplishment based on the revenue from the sold wax is the construction of a large shed for its storage. The desire to develop in isolation from the rest of the world does not lead to much development. Here we could bring up now rather a hackneyed trope of a closed system in which entropy tends to increase. The protagonist’s chronicle of his native village and its legends also gets caught in a kind of closed circle. Although his position of a university professor would allow him to make the history of the village known to everybody if he chose to have it published as, for instance, an academic monograph, he does nothing of the kind. The paradoxical character of his narrative is in the intended audience, of course. The chronicle is haphazardly related to his twin sister who is an insider and already knows most of it. What makes the matter even more stifling, is the fact that we do not know for sure that Tsuyumi even reads the narrator’s rambling messages. We find out in the last letter that after the death of his father, Tsuyuki receives back all his previous letters. After carefully inspecting them, he discovers the traces of the deleted pencil marks left by the father/priest. It is likely that the only reader of the convoluted and fabulous story of the village=nation=microcosm has been the person who himself told this story to its future author! There is, however, a possibility that at least some of that story swallowed by the communication ouroboros created by Tsuyuki and his father will escape outside. For many centuries, an alien envoy that looks like an amorphous blob has been waylaying the people of the village in the primeval forest and making them speak to itself. The villagers have dubbed this creature from another planet “the Wonder”. What is remarkable about the Wonder’s activity is that it doesn’t require any specific information but just wants to listen to people talk on any subject. While listening, the creature takes different shapes and changes its colour as a reaction to each uttered word. During the Pacific War, twin brothers Apo and Peri are evacuated to the village. They are specialists in celestial mechanics, which is even suggested by their names (i.e. apogee and perigee). The twin brothers take a keen interest in the phenomenon of the Wonder and propose the theory that the alien civilisation that has sent the Wonder to Earth believes that the most important aspect of the human race worth studying is its ability to speak. The centuries-long mission of the Wonder is to absorb and analyse as many speech samples as possible. When it returns to its planet, it will assume the shape and colour the most accurately corresponding to the concept of the human word. This word made incarnate on the distant planet will certainly contain some bits of the fascinating and terrifying story of the village=nation=microcosm.

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Interview with Max Lawton: on reading Russian literature, translating Sorokin, books in need of translation and retranslation, learning languages, and ambitious projects

We finished this interview a month ago when even in the worst nightmare I could not have conceived that the deranged Kremlin dictator would launch an open, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If we were talking now, this conversation would definitely be different. At first, I thought about updating our exchange considering the present situation but then decided to leave it as it is. All the updates that you need are in Vladimir Sorokin’s withering indictment of Putin translated by Max for The Guardian. Let this interview read like a document from another era when literature still held priority in our minds.

The Untranslated: What was your relationship with Russian literature before you learnt the language and how has it changed since you started to read it in the original?

DostoevskyCoverMax Lawton: It would be nice to claim that my desire to read Russian literature stemmed from something organic or intellectual, but I first encountered Russian literature as physical objects. 1. My dad’s old copy of Crime and Punishment with a face that looked like a composite of many illegible photographs––what was ostensibly Raskolnikov’s visage––on the cover. Looked like a Chuck Close collage in my memory, but turns out to have been a painting by Seymour Chwast. An old book from the Suttons Bay Library (where my dad grew up in Michigan) that had been sold off after being DISCARDed (as was stamped in big letters on its first page). 2. The main actor’s girlfriend reading a copy of the famous Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club sticker intact) in the audience of my mom’s play in Chicago in about 2003. ‘What a mysterious object,’ I thought in the first case, knowing someone murdered an old woman with an axe in it and remembering Gromit reading some canine version of the novel in A Close Shave. Still, I never bothered to open the thing. And, in the second, I think the flowers against the lady’s bare thighs, plus the book’s deckle-edged paper, were what made an impression. Then, thinking P+V were the way to read these books I’d been abstractly entranced by the objective manifestations of, I made it a habit to ask for their translations of Russian classics at all birthdays and Christmases. It would be many years before I’d finish all of them. And so, alas, my first introduction to Russian literature was by way of new translations seen on shelves of Barnes & Nobles in the suburban Midwest-–seen and sometimes purchased.

The set that I was most attracted to was the five Vintage paperback editions of Dostoevsky’s long novels and, having been given three of the five, I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was 13, excited to see why it always made Michel Houellebecq cry when he came to the last chapter (yes, I did read The Elementary Particles much too early). I didn’t cry, but found myself in an almost entirely incomprehensible world of droshkys and samovars and elders and scandals during visits to salons involving the rupture of social norms I didn’t quite grasp… This world was as different from mine as any chapter in Telluria. Plus a vision of Christianity that has had an enormous impact on my intellectual life to this day. Yes, an awful cliché: Dostoevsky made me a Christian (kinda). P+V are often raked over the coals for their unnatural-sounding texts, but, in the case of Dostoevsky, I find the unnaturalness of the prose to be stilted in an enchanting way. Like a strong British cheese. I still am a great fan of their Dostoevsky.

I continued to flick my way through various P+V translations and completed my set of Dostoevsky’s Big Five. Eventually, I began to study at Columbia where, during my freshman year, I took two enormous lecture/survey classes about Russian literature with Liza Knapp, a wonderful professor who specializes in 19th-century Russian literature at Columbia. There, I read and understood (in undergraduate fashion, to be sure) all of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s masterpieces. So, no, we read neither Resurrection nor The Adolescent, but all the others––yes. I could almost always sense that I was reading a translation, it was something about the way the sentences were put together and because of words like “frippery,” but the artistic visions presented in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were powerful enough to blast their way through to the reader despite the distortion inherent to re-rendering. I also began to study Russian my freshman year. Then, my sophomore year, reading Nabokov with Cathy Nepomnyashchy, another wonderful professor of Russian literature at Columbia who tragically passed away the following year, I continued to feel somewhat immunized to issues of translation. After all, it seemed Nabokov had kinda written all of the texts of his that’d been translated. However, in The Gift in particular, I could sense an idiom that was untranslatable. I didn’t like that book at first, but wanted to have another crack at it––in Russian ideally. And, in another survey course, while reading Gogol and Pushkin, I sensed the whole of an idiom––an atmosphere, a feeling, a set of meanings––that didn’t come through in translation (or came through only in the briefest of snatches).

It was probably during my sophomore year that Vladimir Sorokin became my holy grail. I’d read about Blue Lard and was obsessed with the notion that he was a transgressive Russian novelist somehow akin to Houellebecq (a comparison from an over-expansive article in a fashionable periodical, I’m sure). I read a few of his books in French, but saw how much he’d written and would obsessively buy (yes… a reader by way of a commodity fetishist, there are a great many of us, I’m sure) any of his books that I could find, capable of reading no more than a few lines in my second and third years of Russian study before I’d collapse down onto my thin dorm mattress, exhausted by the effort. And I read those books of his that were translated into English by Jamey Gambrell too. But I was never satiated… Whenever I was reading his books in French or English, I felt like I was visiting an alien planet I couldn’t wait to share my recollections of, but then could remember nothing when I was done. I’d forgotten what was so profound or important. It was as if I’d neglected to take any photographs.

Soon, I began to be able to read in Russian (emphasis on began to) and realized that the entire language of translated Russian I’d grown so accustomed to was a mere shadow of the world of light it had come down from. Like bootleg DVDs vs. IMAX. I discovered idioms that couldn’t possibly be translated into English––Gogolian strangeness, Pushkinian lightness, Nabokovian long-windedness, Sorokinian what-the-fuckness––and became quickly obsessed with the notion of translating Sorokin. I’m not entirely certain of why I was so sure I wanted to do it (or believed that I could). I could sense a world of incomprehensible words and objects through the screen of the Cyrillic-crabbed page, could sense something utterly new, and directed all of my energy toward seeing what lay beyond those strings of words––toward understanding what made Sorokin’s brilliance tick. I had to learn the language better, to study it more, and I devoted myself to doing so––at Middlebury in the summer and at Oxford during the year. I devoted myself to reading and understanding Sorokin with all of my intellectual energy.

In the process, I discovered that any given language is not one single language, but many dialects, some of which, as, for example, in Platonov’s case, are limited to a single speaker. Increasingly, the sounds, shapes, and rhythms of Russian became a part of my understanding of language as such. I learned why the last lines of Limonov’s It’s Me, Eddie are so brilliant. Heard the speaker stuck inside of A School for Fools and, no, I wasn’t listening to the audiobook; he spoke through the ink on the page––his microphone. I laughed aloud at mere combinations of odd words in Bely and Gogol. I was starting to get it… or am starting to get it. But continue to work (as in: read) every single day.

The Untranslated: Tell me about your stay in Moscow and your collaboration with Sorokin. I am particularly interested in how his elucidation of his works as well as their cultural and political context helped you in translating them.

M. L.: My two stays in Moscow so far (and perhaps a third by the time this interview is published) have provided invaluable context for my translation work. Living in a concrete apartment from the 70s during the whole summer of 2018, I now have quite a concrete sense of the Soviet odor that permeates all of Vladimir’s early work. Or its Post-Soviet decay, I guess. The rotting of that which was already putrefied. The swastika etched onto the wall of the elevator, presumably with a car key. The cigarette butts covering over every landing. The armored doors. The moldy shower-room with paint peeling in giant chips off of the ceiling. How could I have ever translated the early stories or The Norm without these memories as background? And how could I be Sorokin’s translator AT ALL without having amply sampled the country’s cuisine, both high and low, from bench outside supermarket to AC’ed dining room with exp(a/e)nsive view, from greasy chebureki in kitschy canteen to delicately prepared nel’ma at Chemodan, a fantastic Siberian restaurant on the Boulevard Ring. I’ve only just stopped short of eating the vatrushki sold by elderly women in Moscow underpasses, but hope to one day work up the courage to try one.

I met Vladimir on my very first night in Russia. Out of an inveterate sense of laziness, I’d never gone to the not-so-inconsiderable trouble necessary to acquire a visa and, as such, had never been there, even after six years of studying “Russian language and literature” and having spent two of those years working with Sorokin. I emailed him that I was on my way, to which he asked if I’d like to have dinner about 40 minutes after I landed. Too bashful to suggest we meet a bit later, I spent the whole flight on board the unhappily old chartered Czech Airlines plane praying to be on time. And was, thanks to my actor friend Max Stoyanov who graciously drove me from the airport to Café Pushkin at high speed. It was a hot June day and my first taste of Russia was cold, fancy kvass. I’d only ever had it in Brighton Beach and was shocked at the difference between this and what you got in giant bottles imported from Ukraine in NYC.

Nothing in Russia was extraneous as regarded my development: not asking where the forks were in the grocery store and getting nothing more than a puzzled look in reply (I wanted to eat a tub of shuba (a tasty herring, beet, and mayonnaise salad) on a park bench outside the supermarket, which made no sense to the Russian sensibility), not the drunk guy in a bookstore who needed help finding the third, five, and seventh Erast Fandorin books (the historical series of wannabe-Sherlock Holmes novels by Boris Akunin) then was yelled at in Byzantine mat (Russian curse words) by a middle-aged woman who seemed kinda unhinged and eventually apologized to me (standing there open-mouthed with a fancy copy of the complete Kolyma Tales in hand), and certainly not the older man who cornered me at a bar to tell me that the only way to have sex in Russia was behind monuments in the middle of the night… Suddenly, Sorokin made a lot more sense.

And Vladimir himself, endlessly kind and gracious, inviting me to his home and introducing me to his family, showing me the tastiest spots in Moscow, and roasting us the most delicious of wild game, just as described in his books (well… with maybe a few key differences…). His daughters Masha and Anya also serving as wise guides, Virgils to my Dante––like last summer when we accidentally went to Gorky Park for an evening wander on the Airborne Forces Day and ended up in the midst of a drunken crowd shouting profane slogans straight out of Zakhar Prilepin’s novels…


Max Lawton and Vladimir Sorokin at Sorokin’s home in Vnukovo. Photo by Maria Sorokina

Vladimir has always trusted my instincts and given me a good deal of freedom. To most of my questions about made-up words or gibberish, he replies that he’d prefer I change them as little as possible or not translate them at all. He often tells me that he doesn’t know what made-up expressions or acronyms mean. He builds them based on intonation alone. In Telluria, he created a profane form of address based on the name of the company that heats his house in Moscow (Buderus). The areas he most scrutinizes in my translations are, yes, profanities, but also physical objects. He sometimes refers to movies like Blue Velvet in attempting to describe the precise feeling an obscene expression is intended to convey. The fact that he is able to read and evaluate my translations, sometimes giving me permission to make an intentional departure from the original so as to make the translation as self-contained as possible, gives me confidence I much need if my translations are to even approach their forebears in terms of linguistic punchiness and stylistic inventiveness. As a living author, he is able to co-sign my most daring decisions (like making the Nabokov-clone’s text in Blue Lard read like the English Nabokov rather than the Russian). For this and everything else he’s done for me (an awful, awful lot), I am filled to bursting with gratitude most eternal.

Of course, there is another subset of instances when I simply don’t know a term or word that is archaic and hard to find in dictionaries, bound or digital. In those cases (mostly to do with hunting and architecture––sometimes with religion too), Vladimir gives me concise, handy definitions, which often become footnotes.

The Untranslated: To what degree have you been inspired by your favourite Anglophone authors in doing your translation of Sorokin’s works? Were there cases when their style or diction helped to solve a translation problem?

 M.L.: The rural idiom of Faulkner and McCarthy has been an enormous aid in rendering Sorokin’s own rural Russian. This is a side of Vladimir’s work that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough airplay. He is a sort of half-patriot divided between soil-borne love for homeland and its provincial traditions and a longing for European cosmopolitanism. As such, his loving depictions of down-home speech and ways of life are one of the only through lines that unite all of his work, from 1979 to now. It is a great gift to have an idiom at my disposal that is able to make this through line legible to Anglophone readers. Certain conceptual sci-fi writers like William Gibson have also led the way in terms of how to smoothly and effectively weave neologisms into knotty, muscular prose. While Sorokin’s style is rather different from Gibson’s, the mere existence of a predecessor is a blessing in this case.

There are a variety of instances when I’ve made use of pre-existing idioms that aren’t necessarily literary (or don’t necessarily belong to an Anglophone tradition/author). Rather than narrating the thefts I’ve committed, it might be more efficient to merely enumerate them as a list.

And so:

I have attempted to cultivate Joyce’s ear for gibberish in a Wakeian mode whenever Sorokin starts to play with neologisms and gibberish.

I turned to Blake for the metaphysical style of the Pasternak-clone’s poem “Pussy” in Blue Lard (in the first part of the novel, famous Russian writers are cloned and the reader is given access to their highly imperfect texts).

I pilfered from the English Nabokov to doll up the Russian one’s clone in Blue Lard.

I let Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Stilton-flavored prose infiltrate the clone-Dostoevsky, the clone-Tolstoy, and Roman.

I tried to make Roman’s narration as stiff-limbed as Constance Garnett.

I looked to Mid-Atlantic-accented English as it appears in detective films and TV series (cf. Dragnet, Hitchcock’s early films, and anything with Humphrey Bogart) for help with the antiquated rhythms of Soviet speech in the second half of Blue Lard.

A certain King James-ness of intonation is not alien to the Blue Lardian Earth-Fuckers, the characters who transport the blue lard from the lab of scientists cloning Russian writers in the first part of the novel to the alternate-history Soviets in the last.

The clean precision of Hemingway’s short-story sentence is Vladimir’s paragon in the creation of his own short stories. To have ignored Old Man Ham, then, would have been practically suicidal on my part.

I looked to Humbert Humbert’s narration as inspiration for the style in the letters that make up the first third of Blue Lard.

I brushed up on Chaucer, Donne, Burton, Jonson, and Shakespeare in the interests of creating a dialect for Sorokin’s New Middle Ages that is both familiar and wonked in equal measure.

I re-read Ivanhoe before editing the noblewoman’s diary from Chapter 17 of Telluria.

I imitated Céline’s style for the harem of phalluses and the robot robbers in Telluria (especially the latter).

I have often imitated the inarticulately precise rhythms of Bret Easton Ellis’s style of dialogue (the new story “Tatar Raspberry” will be a wonderful showcase of this imitation, as well as the dialogue-heavy first part of The Norm).

I was thinking of the spirit of Sátantángo the whole time I was translating “The Scourge,” a vicious novella about collectivization in The Norm––not the style, but the spirit.

I have imitated the simple syntactic rhythms of the Old Testament whenever language dries up and becomes violence (cf. Their Four Hearts).

In more general terms, I would not write half as well as I do (however well that is) without having read Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s English is very rhythmic. So is Sorokin’s Russian. A necessary alchemy from an earlier source.

But, most of all, what I have read is Vladimir’s Russian. I’ve let it enter my head, allowed it to take me over, felt it flow into my hand and take control of my fingers as they type… Vladimir’s Russian goes in through the eyes, gets chewed up in the brain, then shoots out from under my nails and into the word-processing docs where the text constitutes itself. Vladimir’s Russian has taken me over like Voodoo medicine or an ancient spell. Vladimir’s Russian has forced itself through me and become my English. THIS, then, the primary gist of what has come to pass.

 The Untranslated: The first novel by Sorokin to be published in your translation (forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in April) is Their Four Hearts, arguably his most radical work. There is an anecdote about the typesetters who refused to compose its text shocked by the content. But that was twenty years ago in Russia, shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today’s Western blasé reader might ask you: What does this book have to offer that I haven’t already read in the works by William Burroughs, Bret Easton Ellis, Samuel Delany, Georges Batailles, Pierre Guyotat, and a dozen other so- called transgressive authors?

4HeartsM.L.: Transgression is always at play in Sorokin’s early work, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it the operative principle of the texts. Their Four Hearts is certainly shocking, I’d be a fool to deny that. But I think that the difference lies in the sense of classical unity and proportion that Sorokin always brings to the depiction of absolute atrocity. Guyotat’s works, much as I find them to be fascinating, are characterized by a total flabbiness of form. This is not so with Their Four Hearts. In fact, I’d say that Their Four Hearts is defined by its energetic combination of a transgressive idiom with the neat movement from scene to scene––the movement from beginning to end of book with total logic––that defines the work of Golden Age Hollywood directors like Hitchcock. What do you get when you cross Hitchcock and Guyotat? Their Four Hearts!

Beyond that, it’s worth remarking that the use of sex and violence in Sorokin’s early work is a kind of shock treatment for Russia. According to the aesthetic principles of the young Sorokin, the ideological restrictions that all art was subject to in the Soviet Union had to be attacked with great violence. They were a suffocating stricture, not only for Sorokin, but for the gut bacteria of the entire nation’s writers––with no probiotic pills or health-store kombucha in sight. One need only think of the furor that greeted Pamuk’s mildly critical portrayal of Atatürk in Nights of Plague. Without Sorokin, Russian writers might still be subject to this same sort of perpetual outrage… And, as Sorokin’s sex and violence (and scatology and TOTAL ABERRATION) are a form of shock treatment, so too must they be directed neatly and accurately toward their ideological targets. Yes, Sorokin has damn fine aim and his texts shock the ideal shockees each time he flips the switch to set the current flowing.

In this particular case, Their Four Hearts is the inversion of a Soviet production novel, in which things are only destroyed. It is a total desacralization of Soviet speech that is hilarious if you’re at all familiar with the tropes it’s deconstructing (and, even if you’re not, the twisted monologues of characters like Shtaube are mesmerizingly fucked). Sorokin wrote this novel as the Soviet Union fell. A profoundly spiritual man, he was attempting to come to grips with what it all had meant. Why the death? Why the production quotas? Why the ideological focus on making mechanical objects highly efficient? Why the shit-eating––both metaphorical and not? Was there any purpose to all of it? A metaphysical purpose, perhaps?

If all you’re looking for, then, is SHOCK AND AWE, there are many purveyors of the stuff––rape and violence in a single liquid medium, often with a saucy Gallic aftertaste (oh, New French Extremity, you were nothing compared to the books that had come before you…). And certain books might actually deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Sorokin in terms of accuracy of aim and level of craft (I’m looking at you, American Psycho). But I might also be tempted to claim that “transgressive” lit has heretofore been defined by an appalling flabbiness, one that is utterly alien to Sorokin. As if blood and guts and the nausea they call forth in the reader were enough to be called a book’s engine. It also bears mentioning the tautness of “binary bombs,” Sorokin’s pet name for his early stories. In these tales, the first half is an utterly normal portrait of Soviet life, the sort that was omnipresent in mealy-mouthed Soviet trash, whereas the second half is totally aberrant, filled with spoken gibberish, mutilated bodies, and feces gobbled down. There is no reason for the bomb’s detonation––no narrative purpose––but waiting for the other shoe to drop, the anticipation the reader feels just before the world of the text goes wrong, structures the stories in a way that entirely preserves them from transgressive flab…

So, if you assent with me that transgressive literature is often painfully structureless (hello, Mamleyev!!), then what Their Four Hearts offers is something like the spectacle of the Marquis de Sade being brought on as script-doctor for North by Northwest. Totally wicked.

The Untranslated: The second Sorokin novel in your translation is Telluria, which is going to be published by NYRB Classics in July. This book represents the “New Middle Ages” discourse of Sorokin’s oeuvre. Such works depict a dystopian future in which society has reverted to archaic language and practices despite some elements of scientific progress. Which aspects of this brave new medieval world in Telluria would be immediately relatable to the English-speaking reader and which might be misunderstood or misinterpreted?

TelluriaCoverM.L.: The first thing to say is that this book is a satire of the sort of ode to medievaldom offered by Houellebecq in Submission and by Alexander Dugin, the Russian crypto-fascist who founded the National Bolshevik Party with Limonov, in pretty much all of his philosophy. Given the book’s international setting (it’s as much about Europe as it is about Russia), it’s difficult to imagine that parody not landing for the Anglophone reader. In Russia, conservative odes to medievaldom take up a relatively large amount of cultural space, but they’re not alien to American or European ears either. In all of Sorokin’s books that take place in the New Middle Ages––Day of the Oprichnik, The Sugar Kremlin, Telluria, Manaraga, and Doctor Garin––he is very critical and suspicious of this discursive mode, this totalized longing. He ain’t exactly buyin’ it, so to speak. However, he’s not buying it more in the context of Russia. Which is to say: his portrayals of the new oprichniks and a Russian cyberpunk-feudal society are brutally critical. Day of the Oprichnik and The Sugar Kremlin are the defining works of satire treating contemporary Russia. In Telluria, on the other hand, Sorokin seems to almost long for the kind of “return to human scale” offered by a collapse into medievaldom. Indeed, the most convincing nail-trip (tellurium nails are hammered into the brain to produce vivid hallucinations in the text) in Telluria is a lengthy sojourn spent with the apostles (again, remember Sorokin is religious). Plus the crusaders aren’t exactly parodied like the oprichniks are. While writing about Europe, Sorokin is more interested in what the possible benefits of medievaldom might be than when he deals with Russia. And, not having had this conversation with him, I could perhaps imagine his response as to why: the European Middle Ages were quite different from the Russian and certain things that were common in Europe do deserve our attention––unlike in Rus’ or whatever… This ambivalence shouldn’t surprise us. There’s a thread of nostalgia for the long-past that runs through much of Sorokin’s work, always deconstructing itself even as it looks back wistfully. In Part 3 of The Norm, the narrative about the young man returning to his childhood home in the country exemplifies the values that Sorokin himself holds dear. But they’re still torn apart brutally. Same with Roman, the first 75% of which represents something like Sorokin’s ideal. And yet… it still turns sour… very, very sour. As such, the fact that Sorokin is hunting for the positive sides of a catastrophic collapse back into an earlier mode should not mean that he is presenting this nostalgia in un-deconstructed fashion. It is the tension between ode and submersion blender that should guide our readings of the text.

Anyways, this discourse surrounding the book should be easily accessible to Anglophone readers. I mean, there’s even a Dugin meme-video making the rounds on Instagram that’s soundtracked by MGMT’s “Little Dark Age.” What might be confusing is the language, the strange and uneven use of archaisms. And the most important thing to note there is that not everyone uses them. They’re a sort of code, a buy-in to the system. They seem to be in more prevalent use by the poor and with those who represent the powers that be, but this isn’t always the case. I have tried to be very consistent in my application of English archaisms so that they might represent an equivalent system to the Russian. As for the rest, there are very few elements of the European sections that require any elucidation whatsoever. Some elements of the Russian, on the other hand, might: Victor Pelevin as a meditating bat surveying the “manifes-dough,” a parodic concretization of the masses protesting against Putin, is an example that comes to mind.

I am happy Edwin Frank, the NYRB editor, chose to put this book out first because of how punchy and accessible it is. It represents the perfect foil to the lavish extremity of Their Four Hearts. I heartily recommend all new readers gobble down both books in succession so as to make up a complete Sorokin refection (a very unhealthy breakfast, indeed…). Either one of the two will present an incomplete picture. But maybe read Telluria first. It’s certainly a bit easier to understand than Their Four Hearts… and a touch lighter on the stomach too.

The Untranslated: Now let us zoom in, and explore a bit your translator’s laboratory. What I am going to do is to quote your translation of a passage from Blue Lard along with the original.   would like you to explain your choices with respect to certain “weird words” or zaum’ Sorokin is notorious for copiously using in his works. Here you have left some of those words as they are and come up with the English equivalents for some of them. I would like you to explain each case, but in such a way that a person who doesn’t know Russian will understand you.

 Why did you translate:

oznezil as got ongry

khokhorep as houghmagandy

obrodo as choorfolly

The door to the throatcuttery opened silently. The butchers came in with their morning victim, bowed to Alexander, and got to work. One pressed the Japanese youth’s shaved head to the sacrificial washstand and the other ripped open his throat with a curved knife from Turkmenistan. But if this ritual, sumptuously familiar to him since his childhood, had always calmed Alexander before today, bringing forth sleep and a calm mind, now the throatcutting had an unexpectedly rousing effect on him. When the butchers, with their heavy bodies, began to squeeze blood out of the Japanese man, who, vivisected, was dying in agony, Alexander jumped up, ran to them and kissed his own palm as hard as he could. The butchers looked at him fearfully. Once they had gone, he put his hands down into the warm blood. “I must,” he thought purposefully, “must as husband… must as a monad.” This ablution gave him strength. Jumping up, he smashed his head on a ceiling beam. Svetlana returned joyfully with a bunch of funny mortells. “Today!” she shouted at Alexander’s unhirsute chest. “I’m ready, my undarling!” Alexander took offense and gat ongry. The conception was held at noon. Svetlana cleaned their bedroom with bandages and burrs. Her husband tormented her for a long time, attacking with bugles and retreating with homemade baked goods. “Houghmagandy, houghmagandy, houghmagandy!” she sang, actively disturbing him. “Sislov! Sislov! Sislov!” Alexander roared, attempting to sweat with all his might. Their servant Afanasy skillfully took part in their union. After about eight hours, Alexander’s sperm sprayed out onto the rubberized sheet. “Too kessy, too choorfolly…” Svetlana mumbled palely, pulling herself up on a palpatetic rope, her torso quivering. Afanasy skillfully pushed Alexander’s sperm into her. “More evenly, you bastards!” she cried suddenly, unleashing an avalanche of slobbery kisses onto the servant’s indifferent face. “Nasal Ferdinand…” Alexander exhaled, plunging into a shallow sleep. Sealing her vagina with a nutty ligature, Svetlana rushed over to the incubator. After nine months of wooly silence, a silence that recalled the profile of a young Roosevelt, they met in the nursery. Husband greeted wife with roses, honey thread, dried udder, an axe, a flower, and dandruff, all of which he presented in a characteristic frenzy. “I missed you monstrously, my undarling darling!” he burst into hysterical laughter and gritted his teeth enviously. “I worship you, you bastard!” Svetlana could hardly contain her indifference, sensing an approaching fit of vipr.

goluboe-saloДверь горлорезной бесшумно отворилась, вошли резники с утренней жертвой и, поклонившись Александру, приступили к делу. Один прижал к жертвенному рукомойнику бритоголового японского юношу, другой кривым туркменским ножом вспорол ему горло. Но если раньше этот хорошо знакомый с детства ритуал всегда успокаивал Александра, навевая сон и благодушие, то сейчас горлорезанье подействовало на него неожиданно возбуждающе. Когда резники стали выдавливать своими грузными телами кровь из агонизирующего японца, Александр вскочил, подбежал и со всего маху поцеловал собственную ладонь. Резники испуганно покосились на него. Когда они вышли, он опустил руки в теплую кровь. “Я должен, – сосредоточенно думал он, – должен как муж, должен как монада”. Омовение придало ему силы. Подпрыгнув, он проломил головой потолочную балку. Светлана вернулась радостная, с ворохом смешных мортелл. “Сегодня!” – закричала она в безволосую грудь Александра. “Я готов, недорогая!” – набычился и ознезил Александр. Зачатие проводили в полдень. Светлана убрала спальню бинтами и заусенцами. Муж мучил ее долго, набрасываясь со стеклярусом и отступая с домашней выпечкой. “Хохореп, хохореп, хохореп!” – пела она, активно мешая ему. “Сислов! Сислов! Сислов!” – ревел Александр, изо всех сил стараясь потеть. Слуга Афанасий ловко подмахивал им. Часов через восемь Александра вырвало спермой на прорезиненную простынь. “Слишком кесси, обродо…” – забормотала побледневшая Светлана, подтягиваясь на пальпотивной веревке и вибрируя торсом. Афанасий умело запихивал в нее сперму Александра. “Ровней, скотина!” – вдруг закричала она, обрушив на оторопелое лицо слуги лавину слюнявых поцелуев. “Фердинанд носовой…” – выдохнул Александр, погружаясь в неглубокий сон. Запечатав влагалище ореховой вязью, Светлана поспешила в инкубатор. Через девять месяцев шерстяного безмолвия, напоминающего профиль молодого Рузвельта, они встретились в детской. Муж приветствовал жену розами, медовым нарезом, сушеным выменем, колуном, цветом и перхотью, преподнесенными со свойственным ему остервенением. “Я чудовищно соскучился, недорогая дорогая! – истерично захохотал он и заскрежетал зубами от зависти. – Я боготворю тебя, гадина!” Светлана с трудом сдерживала равнодушие, чувствуя подступающий приступ випра.

 M.L.: Boy, is this a tricky and interesting question! For a few of these words, there will be very precise and “satisfying” answers. For some of the others, as we are entering into the territory of the “Wakeian,” there will be only the rehashing of instinct. My instinct. Then the fear that shades in to replace it as I think back on why I did it how I did. The danger in translating Sorokin is that I either under- or overcook the translation. I have been guilty of both tendencies at various times. In undercooking, I don’t translate enough and let weird words that actually mean something congeal into a very alienated form of Translationese. I was especially guilty of this in my first few drafts of the letters in the first part of Blue Lard. Overcooking the translation, on the other hand, is when I refuse to let gibberish just be gibberish. I was especially guilty of this in my first few drafts of Their Four Hearts, frightened of the globs of meaningless languages that are littered all across its blood-spattered surface. Having just finished working with the copyeditor on the final draft of Telluria, I found a few moments of both under- and overcooking. Both dangers are equally present; both mistakes can just as easily be made. In this passage, I think the translations you picked out are good (there’s always the fear that your keen eye might make me rethink something, Andrei!). None of them make me cringe. But the embryonic tendencies of over- and under-explication are also present in the impulses that lie behind each of them. The easiest one to explain is “houghmagandy,” a word used by Nabokov in Pale Fire. Because the English Nabokov has his pet words and this is a text written by a clone of Nabokov, I combed through a few of the original’s English texts to find notable words, then synonymed them into the Nabokov clone’s text in Blue Lard. A clone of Nabokov in English couldn’t just sound like a translation of a Russian text, that would make no sense. And the pet words seemed like a good way to avoid that danger––talismans of the Anglophone Nabokov.“Khokhorep” is pure gibberish, but phonetically similar to “houghmagandy.” This translation is medium-rare––just right for my taste. The others get trickier.. The words “oznezil” and “obrodo” are also gibberish, but you can tell which parts of speech they are. Sorokin also loves using excessive o’s in his gibberish words, don’t ask why. “Oznezil” is clearly a past tense verb and bears some resemblance to the verb “obozlilsya”, or “got angry.” I thought it would be funny to just switch the letters around and make the Nabokov-clone sound like a malfunctioning robot––an effect at play in many of the clones’ texts, especially Dostoevsky’s––so that’s where “gat ongry” comes from. This translation is perhaps a touch overcooked because it explicates the meaning more than Sorokin does, but the sound of it makes me smirk and I think it works. Same thing with “obrodo,” which looks a bit like an excessively o-filled version of “bodro,” or “cheerfully.” Therefore: “choorfolly.”

I’m grateful to my readers Yelena Veisman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Ben Hooyman for pointing out under- or overcooked translations wherever they find them. Not to mention mistakes, but better we should pretend those don’t exist…

The Untranslated: Which books in any language you can read should be translated into English ASAP?


The Marquis de Sade. Print made by H. Biberstein. © The Trustees of the British Museum

M.L.: I’m thinking longingly right now about Sade’s last novel, which Jonathan Littell was just telling me about. It was called Les Journées de Florbelle and is meant to have been a maximalist version of The 120 Days of Sodom. Thousands of pages. His son had it burnt after he died. Little shit. All of Sade’s lost texts should be translated out of oblivion, then translated into English. And all of his extant texts should be given fancy new editions and new translations by Penguin and OUP every few years––they deserve it. All of Guyotat’s late novels, insane mixes of Finnegans Wake and Sade, must absolutely be translated: Progénitures, Joyeux animaux de la misère, and Par la main dans les enfers: Joyeux animaux de la misère II. It’s shameful they haven’t been. Come to think of it, the whole of Guyotat’s Prostitution also needs to be translated. Only a long excerpt has been published. The two lesser Tolstoys––Alexei Konstantinovich and Alexei Nikolaevich––and their historical novels should be retranslated with careful attention paid to kitschy historical language––those books being The Silver Prince and Pyotr the First. A poet should retranslate Doctor Zhivago so that readers understand how beautiful Pasternak’s prose is. Fyodor Sologub’s The Petty Demon should be retranslated and read by EVERYONE. It’s like Gogol at his most acerbic mixed with Edgar Allan Poe. I thought the murderous, schizophrenic dénouement was hilarious. Vladimir didn’t agree when we discussed it at the first feast I attended at his home and I feared this readerly misprision had spoiled the impression I’d made––that I’d seemed unhinged. I’m sure I did. Mikhail Shishkin’s The Taking of Izmail must absolutely be translated, as it’s a deeply important contemporary Russian novel. His already translated works pale in comparison in terms of erudition and complexity. The Children of the Dead, Elfriede Jelinek’s zombie novel about the Holocaust should have been translated long ago. Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs, the baroque German metaphysical comedy beloved by Schmidt and Bernhardt, is shamefully out-of-print in English, even though it was translated a long time ago. It should be retranslated and reprinted. Of course, all of the books you’ve identified as worthy of translation should have been published in English, like, yesterday. I’m rereading the first book of Antonio Moresco’s trilogy, translated into French by Laurent Lombard, right now (I read it before in my less-than-stellar Italian, which was a bit like deciphering it––this is much more pleasurable) and it’s just such a trip… It’s shameful the trilogy hasn’t been translated into English-–a true gap in what English-language readers have access to. I’m a big fan of Vladimir Makanin’s staccato prose; someone especially ought to translate his novel Underground. Régis Jauffret’s two vicious volumes of Microfictions must be translated. Each more than 1,000 pages long; they’re made up of hundreds of very short stories filled with markedly contemporary violence and degradation. They’re mosaic-novels that somewhat resemble Sorokin’s Telluria in cribbing the fragment-method from Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Thinking more of Russian classics, Goncharov deserves to have all of his books retranslated; they should be as readily available as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s novels, as they’re quite good and are important points of reference for Sorokin’s Roman (a selfish reason I want more people to read them). Another one: I hope that Oliver Ready continues to produce his fantastic renditions of Vladimir Sharov, whose body of work is formidable––a whole shelf of modern classics, there’s no doubt. I also read a few non-German novels in German last year because they haven’t yet appeared in English: Paul Berf’s translation of Knausgaard’s Out of the World and Heike Flemming’s translation of Krasznahorkai’s Herscht 07769. Those are coming out in English in the next few years (from Archipelago in Martin Aitken’s translation for Knausgaard and New Directions in Ottilie Muzlet’s translation for Krasznahorkai) and are very worthy of your attention. I’m happy they’re being/have been translated.

The Untranslated: What’s your translation routine? Do you have any rituals or, maybe, superstitions related to your daily work? I am also curious how your workspace is organised.

M.: My workspace is just my apartment. Usually sitting on my couch and sometimes at my dining table. Or anywhere else I might find myself. My routine is simple: 2,000 words every day when I’m working on a project. Right when I wake up, I leap out of bed, brush my teeth, make coffee, and get to work; it’s my favorite time of day. If I have the text and my computer and a wi-fi connection to look up words, almost nothing can get in the way of my daily quota. Plus my morning coffee. It’s not too interesting of a routine. No cold showers or cocaine. But it is very effective. This routine also exists in the context of being a student and teacher in a PhD program. I teach or TA twice a week and am always enrolled in a couple of classes. Working around those responsibilities might mean waking up early to get the work done. But, sometimes, I have to translate as my second or third item of the day. I try to avoid this, as morning energy is great for writing, but there’s rarely a situation where I can’t manage to get my words done at some point during the day. Even if I’m on a long flight and haven’t yet hit my quota, I just buy the wi-fi and do it on the plane. Otherwise, I can’t relax. And it’s the same when I’m writing: 2,000 words.

Having all of my Sorokin books with the marginal notes I make in them in my apartment is handy to refer back to when I run into a problem that resembles one I’ve run into before, but all of my translations are also on my computer, so I can also refer to them there.

A.: I know that you are constantly working on expanding your arsenal of the languages to translate from. Do you have any tips for those who would like to learn a language so they can read literature in the original?

M.L.: My advice would be to get a grammar outline (like a Schaum’s book or whatever), then work on that and a digital program like Duolinguo in tandem. Just to get an arithmetic understanding of how verbs conjugate and tenses operate––maybe even memorizing a bit of vocab as you go. Of course, there’s no replacement for a class or a tutor. So, after you get through the equivalent of a first year of language study with grammar outlines and Duolinguo, then you should get into a class or find a tutor. This might be a financial investment, but having another language also makes you more valuable no matter your profession. The reason I think you should avoid paying for a first-year language class is you can easily acquire that knowledge on your own. By dint of sheer repetition. Don’t waste your money on that first year. As you get better, then, during the second and third years of study, hopefully under the wing of a tutor or teacher, I would recommend you get a Kindle to read with. It makes an enormous difference to be able to tap words you don’t know and see their definitions or translations. If you can begin to read at a trot rather than a sluggish ooze, it’ll be no time before you’re reading at a gallop. Then, of course, if you want to speak better, you’ll have to go to a country where the language is spoken. And find a romantic partner from that country. At that point, you’ll be well on your way to fluency. But if you just want to read, you can tap out after you get the Kindle.

As an example, I started to learn German with Duolinguo and the McGraw Hill German Grammar Drills book, then slotted into the Intermediate German Course at Columbia during my PhD program. After a year of Intermediate German I could read essentially all of the books that I was interested in reading, but I continued on to the “advanced” year of the progression to polish my writing and speaking. My Kindle helped me to read as I was just getting revved up (Handke’s early work is nice and simple from that perspective). As such, it took six months of individual study to “memorize the grammar,” then a year of classroom work to be able to read. After a further year, my speaking became more or less fluent. I am looking forward to spending time in Berlin so as to develop my speaking even more.

The Untranslated: What are you currently working on and what are your future plans?

M.L: I am currently working on completing the Sorokin novels signed up with NYRB and Dalkey. 6 of the 8 are done (not to say that they’re entirely polished) and Roman, which I’m currently working on, is more than halfway complete. Marina’s Thirtieth Love is still virgin territory. I’m also excited about five Sorokin books that aren’t yet signed up: The Sugar Kremlin (which I’ve already translated), Doctor Garin, Manaraga, Nightingale Grove (selected stories), and The Complete Dramatic Works of Vladimir Sorokin. Everything needs to come out; to understand Sorokin entirely, the whole is a necessary ingredient to every one of its parts.

LittellVieilleHistoireI am also thrilled to be working with Jonathan Littell on translations of The Wet and the Dry, a work of nonfiction, and An Old Story, his second novel, for OR Books. The Kindly Ones is one of my 20 favorite novels of all time and An Old Story is every bit its equal. It’s sort of like the most extreme and ambitious nouveau roman possible. Talk about New French Extremity… To be working with Jonathan is an incredible honor, and I hope my work will be up to the standard of Charlotte Mandell’s very fine translations of his previous fiction. Were I not translating An Old Story, it would be high on my list of texts that need to be brought into English from your previous question. And, in fact, that’s true of many of the projects I’ve embarked on. My colleague from Columbia, Cosima Mattner, and I have completed a 20,000-word sample of your beloved novel Schattenfroh. I hope that we will be given the opportunity to translate the whole text. It’s perhaps the strangest book I’ve ever read and gives me the same feeling to work on that I had first embarking on my Blue Lard odyssey. Speaking of books you love, I have also completed a 15,000-word sample of Remember Famagusta that one publisher has said they would like to take on; I simply haven’t yet had the time to polish the sample and submit it to the official review process (it’s an academic press), etc. I have spoken with one editor about translating the newly discovered Céline novels, as well as working with Iain Sinclair on a complete, single-volume translation of Guignol’s Band, which doesn’t yet exist in English (it’s split into two books by separate translators and the translations are… yeah…). I recently co-translated Elena Botchorichvili’s A Light Rain and hope to translate several more of her elegant puzzle-box novels. I am in talks with one publisher to translate Mikhail Elizarov’s brutal and immersive Earth, a tour through the Post-Soviet graveyard industry with one of the greatest femmes fatales in recent Russian literature. I have also been in talks with a publisher about possibly translating Limonov’s early autofiction, which would be yet another dream project, as those books are so iconic. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but this is enough to keep me busy for at least 6 or 7 years, if not much, much more (and, let’s be honest, you surely must know I want to translate all the books I listed in my response to your question about what books should be translated into English ASAP… well, maybe not Goncharov… but if any publishers pay me to translate Guyotat, I’ll weep with joy and terror at the task that lies before me).

I would also love recommendations from Turkish readers about what authors are as good as Orhan Pamuk (or better) and deserve to be translated. I’ve not yet found anything that really gets my pulse pounding.

I hope to soon find a publisher for my novel Progress, a text that forces the reader to stick their head into the battery-acid river of how I imagine our era. I have about 30 short stories planned and am working on those as I translate. I will then write my second novel in the next few years––I already have a rough sketch of what it will look like.

My dream is to be nothing but a writer and translator. The two professions reinforce each other. Translation for staying in shape when you aren’t writing and are waiting for ideas to seduce you, as Sorokin says you must let ideas do before you begin to write. And writing to stay in touch with the electricity indispensable to good prose––in both original texts and translations.

About Max Lawton

Max Lawton is a translator, novelist, and musician. He received his BA in Russian Literature and Culture from Columbia University and his MPhil from Queen’s College, Oxford, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Céline and Dostoevsky. He has translated many books by Vladimir Sorokin. Max is also the author of Progress, a novel currently awaiting publication, and is writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenology and the twentieth-century novel at Columbia University, where he also teaches Russian. He is a member of four noise-music ensembles.

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Romance of the Stone of the Kingdom and the Prince of Coming-and-Going Blood (Romance d’A Pedra do Reino e o Príncipe do Sangue do Vai-e-Volta) by Ariano Suassuna

RomanceCover2The word sertão is often translated as “backlands”, albeit to the Brazilians it denotes a specific region in the northeast of the country. Its area is approximately 250,000 square miles and the predominant relief is that of low uplands covered by the scrub forest caatinga.  This dry hinterland with a long history of violence, survival, and social turmoil has become a mythological space thanks to the writers, poets, and, later, filmmakers who have made the sertão the central theme of their works. Nowadays, the cultural landscape of this region is unthinkable without its anti-heroes: the cangaceiros (bandits) and the messianic cult leaders. Despite the abundance of Brazilian literature, both fictional and documentary, exploring the history and culture of the sertão, it is possible to single out the three main books about it. First and foremost, it is Euclides da Cunha’s non-fiction work Os Sertões (translated as Rebellion in the Backlands), which is dedicated to the War of Canudos, waged between the Brazilian government and the inhabitants of the sertão led by the religious mystic Antonio Conselheiro. The second book is João Guimarães Rosa’s notoriously untranslatable Grande Sertão: Veredas (known in English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands). This novel is presented as an extended monologue by a sertão outlaw whose speech flaunts idiosyncratic syntax, archaic vocabulary, and neologisms. It would be a safe bet to assume that these two books are well-known to Anglophone readers of world literature due to the simple fact that they have been translated into English and reviewed in the English-language press. The third book in this backlands trinity, usually referred to by its shortened title A Pedra do Reino (The Stone of the Kingdom), is likely to be a great unknown. Its obscurity in the English-speaking world seems to be in inverse proportion to its fame and cult status in Brazil. There have been seventeen editions of Ariano Suassuna’s novel so far; the latest one came out quite recently, in 2021, to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. The Stone of the Kingdom has been adapted for theatre and television, and its woodcut illustrations, made by the author himself, have been shown at art exhibitions. When we speak about the Latin American counterparts of the big US postmodern novels of the 1960s and 1970s like The Sot-Weed Factor, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Public Burning, we are more likely to mention complex and ambitious books from Spanish-speaking countries such as Hopscotch, Terra Nostra, and Palinuro of Mexico. It might seem that there is a major gap in Brazilian literature when it comes to that type of novel: long, multi-genre, erudite, satirical, surreal, metafictional, playful. Having finally read this bewildering masterwork by the Renaissance man from Pernambuco—for Suassuna also distinguished himself as a playwright, poet, visual artist and university professor—I can assure you that there is no gap. It just happens that the only novel that fills it also happens to be unavailable in English translation, which makes it all the more precious and alluring.


Pedra Bonita. Image Source

We cannot begin our discussion of The Stone of the Kingdom without at least a brief roundup of the Portuguese messianic myth of Sebastianism and the peculiar shape it took once transplanted into the Brazilian soil. King Sebastian disappeared during the Battle of Alcácer Quibir fought by the Portuguese and their Moroccan allies, commanded by the ousted Sultan Abu Abdallah Mohammed II, against the troops of Abd Al-Malik I, the new Sultan of Morocco. The Portuguese and their allies were routed. The young king of Portugal, who apparently had been killed on the battlefield, left no heirs. The loss in the Moroccan campaign had disastrous consequences for Portugal, perhaps the heaviest of those being its subjection to the Spanish rule for the next sixty years. That’s when the new cult was born. More and more Portuguese people started believing that King Sebastian was still alive and that someday he would return to liberate their homeland from Spain and restore it to its former glory. When this messianic faith migrated to Brazil, it took an ugly shape on more than one occasion, and the massacre at the Pedra Bonita was probably its most gruesome manifestation. The Pedra Bonita (The Beautiful Stone), which is also known as the Pedra do Reino (The Stone of the Kingdom) is, in fact, a group of two stones. This feature in Serra do Catolé, state of Pernambuco, is made up of two tall boulders (30 and 33 metres) parallel to each other. The “kingdom” that sprang up on the territory around the two stones in 1836 was an encampment of the poor sertão dwellers who followed the preaching of a certain João Antônio, the prophet of the imminent return of King Sebastian. The members of this cult believed that the two boulders were the towers of the enchanted castle in which their messiah lay hidden and that he would eventually emerge to lead them to prosperity. The situation in the community took an ominous turn when João Antônio abandoned it, leaving in his place his brother-in-law João Ferreira. The second “king” proved to be even more zealous Sebastianist than his predecessor. On May 14, 1838, he announced that in order to disenchant King Sebastian it was necessary to bathe the stones with sacrificial blood. For four days, the heads of the settlers were rolling down at the foot of the Stone of the Kingdom. Some of the victims volunteered to be decapitated, but a lot of them certainly did not. The homegrown executioners beheaded men, women, children, and also dogs, for João Ferreira promised that the sacrificed animals would return as dragons and devour the rich landowners. When the troops commanded by Major Manoel Pereira da Silva reached the encampment to put an end to the mayhem, more than fifty members of the community, including João Ferreira himself, had lost their lives. This backlands kingdom underpinned by the messianic belief imported from Portugal plays an important role in the formation of Pedro Dinis Quaderna, the protagonist of Ariano Suassuna’s novel, for he finds out one day that he is a descendant of João Ferreira the Execrable. The second monarch of the Kingdom of the Stone was his great-grandfather.


João Ferreira the Execrable. Woodcut illustration for The Stone of the Kingdom. Image Sorce

The seventy-five chapters of The Stone of the Kingdom are called chapbooks (folhetos) as a tribute to cordel literature, which profoundly influenced the making of the novel.  The term literatura de cordel  (literally: “string literature”) originates from the canonical form in which it is disseminated: as inexpensive booklets attached with clothespins to a string. A typical cordel chapbook contains a folk tale or a popular historical account written in rhymed verse. The length of the booklet varies from 8 to 64 pages, and, as a rule, there is a woodblock print on the cover. Suassuna evokes the cordel tradition in his novel with a bang by packing it with the characteristic poems, ballads, and songs as well as with woodcut illustrations unmistakably styled after the cover art of folhetos. What is more, the protagonist of the novel works part-time as an editor at the office of the local newspaper Gazeta Taperoá and uses its printing shop to produce cordel chapbooks, which are sold at open-air fairs. The covers of these booklets are illustrated by the woodcut prints made by his bastard brother Taparica Pajeú-Quaderna, who is also the “author” of all the illustrations embellishing Suassuna’s novel.


Cordel literature. Image Credit: Diego Dacal

So, who is Pedro Dinis Quaderna? The main character, partly modelled on the author himself, is a man of many guises. He is a librarian, a public notary, a journalist, an astrologist, a puzzle-maker and decipherer, a poet, a writer, a historian, a heraldist, a vexillologist, and the aspiring Genius of the Brazilian Nation. If that weren’t enough, he is also Dom Pedro IV the Decipherer, the King of the Fifth Empire, and the Prophet of the Catholic Church of the Sertão. This denizen of the small town of Taperoá in the state of Paraíba prefers not to reveal his royal status, which has been conferred to him as the direct male descendant of King Dom João II the Execrable. His cautiousness is dictated by the harsh lessons of history, which saw so many kings meet a premature and violent end. He decides to rule in the literary kingdom rather than in the earthly one, harnessing his encyclopaedic knowledge of cordel romances and folktales to produce what Brazil has been direly lacking—the definitive work of Brazilian literature capturing the spirit of the nation. He metaphorically refers to this artistic creation as his “backlands Castle” (Castelo sertanejo).  Is Quaderna patently insane or just a fantasticating eccentric? This is one of many questions the reader will have to figure out while disentangling the narrative clew of The Stone of the Kingdom

The novel begins on October 9, 1938. Dinis Quaderna is in prison accused of unspecified crimes and political subversion. He offers to the readers, whom he addresses as “gentlemen and soft-bosomed ladies”, a non-linear and highly digressive account of how he has ended up there. There are two pivotal events, to which he will keep returning throughout the narrative, each time showing them from a slightly different angle, Rashomon-style. The first of them is the mysterious murder of his uncle and godfather Pedro Sebastian Garcia-Barretto. On August 24, 1930, the body of the rich landowner was found in the locked chamber in the tower adjacent to the villa on his farm called “Jaguar” (Onça Malhada). Quaderna lived on this farm during his formative years and owes his relative financial security to the protectionism and generosity of his late uncle. The second event took place on June 1, 1935, when a bizarre cavalcade of some forty leather-garbed riders led by the Youth on the White Horse and accompanied by what seemed like a travelling animal circus arrived in the town of Taperoá and caused pandemonium by letting loose deer, peacocks, herons, cobras, jaguars, and cougars from the cages. It was believed that the youth was the miraculously resurrected Sinésio, Pedro Sebastian’s youngest son and Quaderna’s cousin, who had disappeared from the Jaguar farm on the day of his father’s murder and was found dead two years later in Paraíba, not far from the cross in front of the Church of San Francisco.

Dinis Quaderna owes his long-standing interest in folk literature and culture to his aunt Filipa, who recited to him the adventure stories from folhetos when he was a child. Later, his intellectual nourishment was provided by two mentors who were allowed by Pedro Sebastian to stay at the Jaguar farm and teach Dinis and his cousin Arésio. As a grown-up, Quaderna still keeps company of these totally different learned men and lets them live rent-free in two of the houses he has inherited after Aunt Filipa’s death. Although Quaderna’s mentors constantly bicker both among themselves and with their pupil, there is some invisible force that holds this comical trio together. One day they even reach enough mutual agreement to found the first Academy of Letters in Paraíba consisting of three members (themselves), each of whom fulfils the duties of the vice-president. These mentors reflect two radically opposed political and cultural aspects of the country. Philosopher and historian Clemente Hará de Ravasco Anvérsio is half-black and half-Tapuian, atheist, communist, and a champion of socially engaged prose based on the history of oppressed people and rooted in indigenous mythology. Poet and lawyer Samuel Wandernes is a white, right-wing catholic and a proponent of aristocratic poetry extolling the virtues of the Empire and the exploits of the conquistadors. Despite the irreconcilable differences, they both often unite in their derision towards Quaderna, who does not have a clear-cut political agenda and whose enthusiasm for cordel literature is laughable to them. During one of the sessions of the Academy that takes the form of a horseback ride across the sertão, the three vice-presidents discuss the hypothetical Genius of the Brazilian Nation and the great National Work he is supposed to write. Predictably, Clemente suggests that this genius should be of black and indigenous descent and that this definitive work should be written in prose and express the revolutionary worldview promoting the abolition of private property. Samuel, on the contrary, believes that it should be a poem penned by a hereditary noble and sugarcane mill proprietor and dedicated to the Mediterranean and Catholic culture brought to Brazil by the conquistadors, “the race of Iberian giants”. Quaderna has his own opinion on this count, but he chooses to share with the co-founders of the Academy the bare minimum, namely that the most appropriate genre for the National Work should a romance inspired by chivalric literature of Europe and the sertão lore of the popular chapbooks. What he doesn’t say out loud is that it his ambition now to write this romance and thus to become the much-discussed genius. As to the form of the work, he doesn’t see the necessity in choosing between either prose or verse, intending to use both: “the Romance reconciled everything! To make things even more certain, I decided to intermingle my prose narrative with my own verse and that of eminent Brazilian Poets: thus, besides condensing in my book the entirety of Brazilian Literature, I would make my backlands Castle a unique Work written both in prose and poetry, a complete, first-rate and exemplary Work!”  Little does he know at the time that the creation of this exemplary romance will be closely linked with his interrogation at the prison.

In April 1938, Magistrate Joaquim Navarro Bandeira aka the Pig Head summons Dinis Quaderna to his office in the prison building to ask him some questions related to his investigation of the two already mentioned events: the murder of Quaderna’s uncle in the tower at the Jaguar farm in 1930 and the arrival of the Youth on the White Horse in Taperoá in 1935. When the protagonist sits down before the magistrate and his secretary Margarida, who is to take written notes of the deposition, we expect it to be another amusing episode in the life of Quaderna, after which he will go about his business, having other interesting encounters and running into more weird situations. When the interrogation episode exceeds a hundred pages with still no end in sight, we start getting impatient. When it’s already two hundred pages, we realise that the encounter with the magistrate is not supposed to be just another scene in the novel, that not only it is the most important part of The Stone of the Kingdom but also that it takes up more space than the rest of the novel. Quaderna’s answers are erratic, to say the least. He keeps interlarding his deposition with poetry recitals, anecdotal and fantastic digressions, and ecstatic pseudo-religious babble. To illustrate some of his stories, he shows the magistrate woodcut prints made by his brother Taparica—he brought them along in a briefcase. His register fluctuates from colloquial to highly literary, with antiquated flourishes of the Baroque style. His deposition becomes that epic romance that is supposed to make Quaderna the Genius of the Brazilian Nation. Not unlike Don Quixote, Dinis exaggerates, distorts, embellishes, and utterly transmogrifies real events to make them worthy material of his great literary work. At the centre of this epic is the story of his murdered uncle Dom Pedro and his three sons: Arésio, Silvestre, and Sinésio, which becomes a romance about the King with the Slit Throat and the three princes: the Outlaw Prince, the Bastard Prince, and the Radiant Prince. He does not represent the factual events entirely as a sertão version of the chivalric romance, however; what he narrates boils down to a straightforward story about the mysterious murder of the rich landowner, the disappearance of one of his sons, and the following dispute over the inheritance of the fazendeiro’s fortune with the political and social unrest in Northeastern Brazil as the background. It’s just that Quaderna keeps interpreting these events in his own way, adding fantastic and mystical elements that stem from his voracious reading and, undoubtedly, from the occasional use of the sacred “wine” made from a mixture of two natural hallucinogens: jurema and manacá. The epic romance that comes into existence thanks to the interrogation is an unwieldy, eclectic affair, not only because it mixes prose and poetry, but also due to the variety of its aesthetic and discursive approaches to the depiction of the events.

Bared to its essentials, the story of the late uncle’s inheritance represents the mystery and adventure aspect of Quaderna’s romance. When the supposed Sinésio (for we never get the confirmation of the youth’s identity) returns to Taperoá in June 1935, the country is engulfed by political turmoil and is on the verge of the Communist Uprising that is going to break out six months later. The landed gentry and urban bourgeoisie, who side with Dom Pedro’s eldest son Arésio as the only rightful inheritor of the fortune, gawk in horror at the rag-tag cavalcade and their caged animals, believing that the dreaded revolt of the poor masses has already begun. Sinésio’s right to the inheritance is supported by mule drivers, cowherds, peasants, and other common folks of the sertão. Then there is a third force represented by the gang of cangaceiros who plot Sinésio’s assassination, and it is not entirely clear if there is a secret paymaster directing their hand.  Quaderna is a major suspect in all the events related to Dom Pedro’s disputed fortune. He was at the Jaguar farm when his uncle had his throat cut in the tower, and he witnessed the arrival of the cavalcade while having a ritual lunch at the top of the lajedo (a rocky outcrop) from which, supposedly, the would-be assassin of Sinésio was shot down. It was also Quaderna who, together with Sinésio, organised a pretend travelling circus so they could roam the sertão in search of Dom Pedro’s treasures that had been supposedly hidden in a cave. According to the anonymous letter denouncing Quaderna, they were going to use the fabulous gold, silver, and precious stones to sponsor a popular revolution in the region. While Quaderna does not deny the factual side of the allegations and admits being in all the places at the indicated time, he rejects point blank all the accusations of having malicious intent and committing anything punishable by law.


Cangaceiros. Image Source

Then there is the visionary aspect of Quaderna’s deposition. His epic romance is not only about what happens in the sertão but also about what he and his fellow denizens of the region see and experience in revelations, deliria, and hallucinations. For Dinis, the sertão is not just a geographic area but also a mystical religious space in which Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise co-exist. The infernal and diabolic features of the sertão are manifested in the hermaphrodite monster Bruzacã, which emerges from the sea once a year and brings to the region scorching heat and drought. The appearance of this seven-horned monster somewhat resembling the Beast from the Book of Revelation was witnessed by the cowherd named Manuel Inácio. The man climbed a mount overlooking the sea to enjoy the view and saw, to his terror, an enormous sulphur-snorting winged bull with female breasts and a mane of writhing snakes coming onto the shore and proceeding inland, burning everything in its wake. Quaderna asserts that all the while the cavalcade led by the Youth on the White Horse was travelling towards Taperoá, Bruzacã was also present in the form of invisible bat-like demons thronging the road together with the likewise invisible sword-wielding archangels.


Bruzacã. Woodcut illustration for The Stone of the KingdomImage Source

The most important revelation in the romance, however, is Quaderna’s discovery of the metaphysical cougar that embodies the whole world and serves as an antithesis to the godly jaguar. It is crucial to note that both creatures in the book are referred to by the same word—onça. The meaning of this word in English depends on the adjective following it. Onça pintada or onça malhada (that is, spotted onça) should be translated as “jaguar”, whereas onça parda (brown onça)—as “cougar”. It would be definitely wrong to call them both “jaguars”, as the cougar belongs to a totally different genus. Quaderna’s uncanny vision takes place back in the days when he studies at the Seminary of Paraíba. On his way to school, he takes a break in the shade of an imburana tree, and, while sharpening his shaving knife, accidentally glances into the mirror he has taken out from his bag with the other utensils. What he sees there is the reflection of a cougar that is not physically present in front of the mirror. This animal is a metaphysical being, and this encounter is going to radically change Quaderna’s life because after this visionary experience he is going to drop out of the seminary and eventually establish his own church, the Catholic Church of the Sertão.

It was an enormous and ill-defined feline beast—leprous, toothless, mangy and scornful, a malevolent Entity that, at the same time as it was enveloping and swallowing me, was also being swallowed, little by little, by a perilous gaping Hole filled with ash. While the Hole was devouring it, the animal raised its blind and wicked face against the face of Time, which was scorching it stronger each moment, withering what still remained of its demented and petty life and turning it into Dust, ash, and mange! I couldn’t see yet but knew with certainty that in the fur and mangy sores of that Cougar the louse-infested humans were crawling; they were also mangy and petty, scratching themselves like a bunch of monkeys in the face of the scorching Storm, waiting for Death to which they had been condemned the day before!

Years later, already in the capacity of the Pontiff and Prophet of his own church, Quaderna starts frequenting the above-mentioned rocky outcrop to perform a complex ritual that ends with the prayer wishing that the mangy cougar of the human world get transformed into the golden jaguar of the divine realm. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what he is doing, if we are to believe his words, when the Youth on the White Horse enters the town. While being a real event, this arrival also assumes visionary undertones when seen through the mystical prism of Sebastianism. Some people believe that the youth is just the youngest son of Dom Pedro Sebastian Garcia-Barretto, returning to his hometown in order to reclaim the inheritance. There are others, however, that view Sinésio as a reincarnation of King Sebastian finally arriving to install his just kingdom in the sertão that will end the misery of its poor residents and establish universal happiness and harmony.

The chivalric elements in Quaderna’s narrative are primarily linked with the legend of the Twelve Peers at Charlemagne’s court and the stories of the quest for the Holy Grail from the Arthurian cycle. As befitting a king, Quaderna has his own guard of honour, made up of his twelve bastard brothers. They take part in jousts and battles, but not in real ones, of course. To act out his medieval fantasies, Quaderna organises in his town Cavalhadas, which are staged horse shows whose participants play the roles of twelve Christian knights and twelve Moors, dressed, respectively, in blue and red. Since Quaderna’s political stance is that of a left-wing monarchist, he does not prefer one side to the other. During the Cavalhadas, six of his brothers wear the blue outfits of Charlemagne’s Paladins, and the other six sport the red garbs of the Moorish knights. By conducting this pageant, Quaderna reinforces his fabulistic vision of the sertão, where farms are small kingdoms, farmers are kings, counts, and barons, and cangaceiros are knights-errant. His friend and colleague Lino Pedra-Verde goes even further in this transformative zeal, creating a very complicated and equally absurd mythological version of the sertão to accommodate his belief in the successive reincarnations of King Sebastian. This is a headache-inducing hodgepodge freely mixing the historical and political events in Northeastern Brazil with Greek myths, biblical stories, hagiographies of Christian saints, Arthurian legends, and, of course, the tales from folhetos. He recites a fictious cordel romance in which a version of Sebastian appears as one of the knights roaming the tablelands of the sertão in search of the Holy Grail. This knight, whose name is either Sebastian or Sinésio or Galarraz or Persival, defeats his archenemy Dom Galvão, and, as a result, obtains dual nature: by day, he rides his white horse Tremedal and at night— Dom Galvão’s black steed Punhal. Two kinds of blood, good and evil, run in his veins, and only after his body is cleansed from the bad blood, he succeeds in finding the Grail. The obsession with King Sebastian, stoked by the return of Sinésio on the one hand, and the unbridled mythological concoctions of the likes of Lino Pedra-Verde on the other, is further reinforced when the Archbishop of Paraíba decrees the establishment of the Venerable Order of the Temple of Saint Sebastian. Dinis Quaderna and both his mentors receive prestigious positions in this new organisation, and not only that—they are also granted noble titles and allocated the corresponding coats of arms. This leads us to the heraldic aspect of the romance, which is the final distinctive feature of Quaderna’s bizarre story that I was going to mention.


Cavalhadas at Pedra do Reino. Image Source

To a certain extent, Ariano Suassuna makes the protagonist of The Stone of the Kingdom a spokesman of his own artistic and cultural initiative known as the Armorial Movement (Movimento Armorial). This vast cultural enterprise, spearheaded by Suassuna upon the completion of his novel in 1970, attracted more than a hundred participants and involved a rich variety of art forms: literature, painting, sculpture, engraving, music, dance, theatre, cinema, and architecture. The main idea was to create a new syncretic Brazilian art on the basis of the rich folk tradition manifested in woodcuts, the ballads of cordel chapbooks, and the music of the viola or rabeca that accompanied the public singing of those ballads. The “armorial” aesthetics of this new art stem from its founder’s fascination with coats of arms in general as well as with the heraldic elements present in Brazilian popular culture. As Suassuna himself explains:

[This term] is related to the pure and bright tinctures of heraldic insignia, either painted on metal or sculpted in stone, depicting fabulous animals surrounded by foliage, suns, moons, and stars. That’s when, half-seriously and half in jest, I began to say that a certain poem or a certain Cavalhada banner was “armorial”, that is, it gleamed like pure, festive, bright, metallic, and colourful tinctures, like a flag, a coat of arms, or a clarion call. […] The Brazilian national unity comes from the people, and the Brazilian popular heraldry is to be found among them, from the cattle branding irons and the Guerreiros performances in the Sertão to the flags of Cavalhadas and the blue and red colours of the pastorils in Zona da Mata. From the flags of Maracatu and Caboclinhos to Samba schools and the jerseys and flags of the football clubs in Recife or Rio.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Dinis Quaderna is also obsessed with heraldry and adorns his romance with all kinds of emblems, flags, and armorial bearings. Thanks to the woodcuts of Taparica, not only do we get the visual representation of the banners carried by some of the riders in the cavalcade entering Taperoá but also of the banner held by the invisible angel who accompanies them. The Jaguar is obviously the most popular heraldic animal; we can find it on flags, escutcheons, and even on a treasure map. Besides this esteemed animal, Quaderna’s newly-bestowed coat of arms is emblazoned with Pegasus and a stag with conspicuously protruding genitals. The heraldic aspect of the narrative is by no means limited to the woodcut illustrations. Quaderna’s language itself becomes armorial when he meticulously describes, for instance, the appearance of the horse riders on the road to Taperoá or the participants of the Cavalhadas. Every single detail of the clothing, headgear, harnesses, and accoutrements is presented as a shiny heraldic element that deserves admiration in its own right.


Jaguar Flag. Woodcut illustration for The Stone of the Kingdom. Image Source

The magistrate indulges Quaderna in all his wild ramblings, and it seems that even if his initial goal was to let the garrulous suspect accidentally give himself away, the servant of the law became genuinely fascinated by this weird romance in the making, something that we would call today a postmodern tour de force. The status of Quaderna as a genius can be contested, but there is no doubt that he has succeeded in creating a work that captured the essence of Northeastern Brazil, drawing inspiration from its turbulent history and popular cultural heritage. The same holds true, of course, for Ariano Suassuna’s novel itself. The Stone of the Kingdom was supposed to be just the first volume of a massive trilogy with the abridged title Quaderna, the Decipherer (Quaderna, O Decifrador). The second volume was to be called The King with the Slit Throat (O Rei Degolado) and the third one —Sinésio the Radiant (Sinésio, o Alumioso). Both parts were conceived to be as sprawling and complex as The Stone of the Kingdom, so the mind staggers at the mere thought of what monumental work of art we would have now if that ambitious project had come to fruition. The novel has a fair number of loose ends and unexplained events, which perhaps would have been dealt with in the follow-up volumes. But even the way things stand, this work is a great achievement, which has rightly become a classic and one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century Brazilian literature. The Stone of the Kingdom, with all its protean and hybrid brilliance, demonstrates what is possible when a rich folk tradition meets a sophisticated and imaginative mind.

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