The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality

Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Translation. Image Source

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I  wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes. Although the earlier titans of translation might be departing from the scene, either leaving this mortal coil like Gregory Rabassa and William Weaver or retiring like John E. Woods, new names are coming to the fore. There are industrious, talented, determined, and self-abnegating translators who are up to the task of struggling with the most challenging and the least commercially appealing projects to recreate in English the splendour of a foreign language masterpiece, to reinforce its deserved place in the pantheon of world literature. I have selected five such translators, of whom I’d like to think as the Shadow Cabinet of The Untranslated, for if somebody can face the challenge of rendering some of the books reviewed here in English, it is them. Based on their  achievement up to now, I have no reservations in stating that their names are hallmarks of quality and should be sought out on book covers  as vehemently as the names of your beloved authors. I have included here brief information about each of the five translators as well as excerpts from the works published in their translation. They should speak for themselves.

 

Adrian Nathan West is a Renaissance Man of literary translation. Not only does he translate from Spanish, German, Catalan, French, Italian, and Portuguese, but he is also extremely ambitious and as uncompromising as it gets when choosing which texts to translate. It is Adrian West who has introduced Marianne Fritz and Josef Winkler to the English-speaking reader, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of his aspirations is to translate an encyclopedic novel by the Catalan polymath Miquel de Papol, provided that he finds a publisher as intrepid as himself. 

From Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West:

Neither ferns nor algae covered the five small sharks, ten to twenty centimeters in length, lying prone in their white styrofoam coffin, their gray skin coarse as sandpaper. A bee sucked greedily at a viscid white calamari ring, and a fat fly, blue-green and shimmery, roamed through the eye socket of a swordfish, glinting silver beneath the sun. With the long green nail of her index finger, a humpbacked woman pulled open a fish’s gill to check it for freshness. A sparrow with a piece of fish meat in its mouth, nearly a third of its weight, flew faltering to the tin roof of the seafood stand before taking off again to light on a pine tree branch in the park of Piazza  San Vittorio where it began to tear the flesh apart. While a nun, her face covered in warts, was passing her payment for the mussels she had selected to Piccoletto, the end of the white cord she wore looped over her hips fell over the neck of a slimy squid. Indignant, unnoticed by the fish- monger, she pulled the cord from the white styrofoam crate of squids.

If somebody writes a mammoth novel containing a pandora box of horrors and narrated by an unrepentant Nazi war criminal or a one-sentence novel with an overwhelming abundance of historical and cultural allusions, there should be somebody who can skilfully render these and other similarly intimidating texts in English. Charlotte Mandell is the person in question. She is more than a translator. She is an ambassador of French language and culture in the English-speaking world.

From Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell:

Existence is a painful reflection, an opium addict’s dream, a poem by Rumi sung by Shahram Nazeri, the ostinato of the zarb makes the window vibrate slightly beneath my fingers like the skin of the drum, I should go on reading instead of watching Herr Gruber disappearing under the rain, instead of straining my ears to the  swirling melismata of the Iranian singer, whose power and timbre could make many of our tenors blush with shame. I should pause the CD, impossible to concentrate; pointless reading this offprint for the tenth time. I don’t understand any of its mysterious meaning, twenty pages, twenty horrible, frosty pages, which reached me precisely today, today when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased,  almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said, and following the disease’s evolution, evolution, there it is, there we are, contemplating a drop of water evolving toward disappearance before it reforms itself in the Great All.

Thanks to Brendan Riley, many can read Carlos Fuentes’ critical exploration of the Latin American novel from its inception until the present day.  It is also Brendan Riley who put Juan Filloy on the map for the Anglophone readership by translating his Caterva, the notorious tale of seven erudite vagabonds. However, it was just a warm-up for his current project: the translation of Luis Goytisolo’s novel-cathedral Antagony. The first Englished part of this literary monument is already available, and judging by the reaction in this post at Messenger’s Booker, it is spellbinding. I have shamelessly “borrowed” the  following excerpt from that blog post. This is what happens when a great prose stylist contemplates a great piece of architecture, as conveyed to us in a great translation.

From Recounting: Antagony, Book I by Luis Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

Isabel Fargo Cole doesn’t just translate from German – she also writes fiction in German. Her thick novel Die grüne Grenze was nominated for Klaus Michael Kühne Debut Prize. It is owing to her efforts that the GDR genius Wolfgang Hilbig has suddenly materialised in the Anglophone dimension to stun and enthral his readers.

From Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole:

While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited—all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment—I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil. I saw shapes in them like grimacing faces, not quite identifiable as vegetation, nor as any species of animal I knew; their expression had something strangely skulking, and they seemed ever ready to pull up, like worms from the mud, the roots that held them so unreliably, and shamble many-footed along the course of the waters that, for them, were both nourishment and death… In this contorted skulking, in their eldritch age, there was a spectral dignity, like invalids hobbling through weird tales, creaking and gray with craftiness…thus they seemed filled with abilities beyond their due, and like monstrous creatures long believed extinct they seemed gifted with supernatural senses that called into question the very death whose nearness bowed them down.

And of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning somebody working with the  Russian language. Oliver Ready has taken up the  challenge of translating some of the most complex prose writers of contemporary Russia: Yuri Buida and Vladmir Sharov. Thanks to him, a lot of English-language readers were astounded, puzzled, mystified and delighted by Sharov’s phantasmagoric canvas of a novel Before and During. Now that his translation of Sharov’s another apocalyptic masterpiece, The Rehearsals, is forthcoming in 2018, we can safely assume that the Russian author’s reputation among Anglophone readers will only continue to grow. 

From Before and During by Vladimir Sharov, translated from the Russian by Oliver Ready:

“In music, for all his innovation, Scriabin undoubtedly remains within the bounds of tradition, albeit in the broadest, freest sense; in smells, he denies not only tradition, but culture in general. It is the destruction and negation of everything, first and foremost of organized, man-made bouquets, whether cheese or perfume. Yet still, in that cacophony of smells that permeates Scriabin’s score, two interwoven themes can be clearly distinguished: the city in its St. Petersburg guise and the Russian south – the beginning of the movement of the Mysterium to India. Both themes are treated at ostentatious length; and through them, through these smells, it becomes easier to grasp how Scriabin imagined the course of the Mysterium than, strangely enough, through the music.
“‘St. Petersburg: war and gradual weakening, the dying away of the smells of normal, manicured life, of confectioner’s shops, restaurants, bakeries, where everything—who should smell, how and where – has long been established and become a matter of habit; in their place are the smells of men engaged in their primordial labor of war, leaving for the front, briefly returning home after hospitalization, leaving once more; the artificial smells of the sick quarters: iodine, spirit, carbolic, ointments of various kinds—all this mixed up with the smell of a body rotting alive, of excrement, urine, and the rich, abundant sweat of the wounded and the dying; the smell of the desperate and hopeless struggle for life, the smell of your body being cut into pieces like meat, the table where you are carved up, your part – an arm, a leg – is already corpse, but you are clinging to life. The sweat of deadly fatigue and deadly labor. And also: the smell of freshly laundered bandages, which take the place in this world of freshly laundered linen; the smell of a rotting wound and of the bandages, white and medicine-soaked, that have just been applied to it. Yet stronger than all is the smell of corpse, and it gets stronger all the time; you can’t get rid of it, it’s the definitive, terminal smell of man – the end of life.

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Forthcoming: Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol

Poetic and hermetic, unlike anything else you’re going to read for the remainder of the year, Audrey Young’s forthcoming translation of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy is a true gift to the English-speaking connoisseurs of meditative erudite prose. The three texts combined under the title Geography of Rebels (Geografia de Rebeldes) are hard to pigeonhole: it is quite possible that the writer, little known outside her native Portugal, invented her own genre which I will abstain from labelling but rather encourage my readers to experience for themselves when the book is brought out this December by the adventurous Texas publisher Deep Vellum. The magnificent heterotopia, constructed by the Portugese author out of the debris of European history and culture, brings together Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the ill-fated peasant uprising during the early Reformation, St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Catholic mystic and poet whose masterpiece Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma) narrates the peregrination of the soul on its way to the unity with God, and Friedrich Nietzsche, a rebel philosopher par excellence. The real protagonist of this tripartite extravaganza, however, is the sensual and cerebral Ana de Peñalosa, the major driving force of the community of rebels. She is also a mystic, as well as an intellectual whose goal is to recreate some kind of transcendental  space exclusively devoted to knowledge. Known today as just a marginal figure to whom St. John of the Cross dedicated the four stanzas of The Living Flame Of Love (Llama de amor viva), Ana de Peñalosa takes centre stage in Geography of Rebels to tell her story and the story of a Europe torn between the Reformation and Counter-reformation in a unique and utterly absorbing manner, weaving a complex tapestry of allegories, symbols, allusions and revelations, which is likely to invite just as many interpretations and learned discussions as the poetic heritage of her more renowned admirer.

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Solenoid (Solenoide, Solenoid) by Mircea Cărtărescu

I have read  Mircea Cărtărescu’s latest novel in Marian Ochoa de Eribe’s Spanish translation, which was kindly provided for this review by the publishing house Impedimenta. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be an English translation any time soon – indirect evidence of that is the fact that the English translation of Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy Orbitor ground to a halt after only the first volume came out in English as The Blinding back in 2013 So, if you can read Spanish or Catalan, or any other European language in which the book will appear within the next few years, I recommend getting this novel and plunging right into it: it is one of those awe-inspiring literary juggernauts which grace exacting readership only once in a decade.

Moreover, I will allow myself to be outrageously opinionated and blunt: Solenoid is the greatest surrealist novel ever written. I can imagine it firmly sitting at the top of a gigantic totem pole sculpture built out of the debris representing  the evolutionary chain kick-started by the publication of Breton and Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Among the myriad elements of the construction  you can make out the manuscripts of The Surrealist Manifesto and Nadja, a screen showing a repeating loop of Un Chien Andalou,  paintings featuring the milestones of visual surrealism: the anthropomorphic chests of drawers and insect-legged elephants of Salvador Dalí, the sentient blobs of Ives Tanguy, the paradoxical tableaux of Remedios Varo, as well as more books: Julien Gracq’s The Castle of Argol, Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man, and so on until this enormous column of artifacts terminates with the hefty volume written by  Cărtărescu. Here is the most advanced stage of this century-long development: a surrealist novel, which is also a maximalist novel whose encyclopedic penchant for exploring various realms of human knowledge is only matched by its savage commitment to bending, exploding and metamorphosing the “reality” it depicts.

Now, if that were not enough, Solenoid is also one of the four great novels of the 21st century exploring the theme of the fourth dimension, the other three being Miquel de Palol’s El Troiacord, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem

That being said, Solenoid is far from perfect. It hasn’t avoided the usual pitfalls of  ambitious long novels: the book may feel repetitive, turgid and navel-gazing at times. Nevertheless, going through it relatively quickly took my breath away, and my main reaction after closing the book was: “What an achievement! They don’t write like this any more!” Reviewing it will not be an easy task, but I will try my best.

So, where do I even start with this? In a nutshell, the novel is presented as a manuscript of a failed writer who teaches Romanian at an elementary school in Bucharest, hates his job and wishes to find an escape route from the confinement of his body and the three-dimensional world around it. As in his epic poem The Levant, Cărtărescu includes plenty of biographical details in Solenoid. The nameless narrator, in fact, lives a life very similar to that of the Romanian writer until the crucial bifurcation point at which their paths begin to diverge. The moment in question is a literary soirée at the Faculty of Letters at which the aspiring author reads his long poem The Fall, hoping it would launch his literary career. Instead, he suffers  a complete fiasco as the audience ruthlessly tear his work apart , making the young man forsake his literary ambitions forever. He will go on to have a mediocre life of a schoolteacher, whereas his other version  will become a successful writer in an alternative world created by the positive reception of his poem. 

The manuscript of the failed writer is not meant for publication – it is there to document his quest for the escape. This metaphysical journey is narrated through childhood recollections, the accounts of the everyday life at the school he teaches in, which exemplifies the sordidness and absurdity of the existence under the communist regime in Romania, the excerpts from his personal diaries, descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations, fragments of his “unsuccessful” literary experiments. On more than one occasion, the narrator emphasises that what we are reading is not a novel. He believes now, after his failure, that writers, just like artists and other creative people in general, are mere charlatans: they create trompe-l’oeils, doors so realistically painted on walls that for a moment we might even think that they lead somewhere, only to realise upon closer inspection that they don’t. His manuscript, however, presents ample evidence of the existence of  doors into other dimensions, which are as difficult for us to conceive as is our 3D world for a Flatland inhabitant.

The preconditions making the nameless narrator an eligible candidate for the escape attempt are to be found, naturally, in his childhood. The lonely kid reads voraciously and has the first glimpses of the possible existence of other dimensions in sci-fi and mystery stories. His favourite is the one about a prisoner who manages to flee captivity thanks to the inmate in the neighbouring cell who transmits the getaway plan encoded in a system of knocks. The protagonist of the story translates the knocks into his own symbolic notation and breaks free. Some years later he returns to the prison to find his saviour and express his gratitude only to find out that the adjacent cell doesn’t exist and the wall that the mysterious neighbour used for his message faces outside. Another important source of arcane knowledge is the narrator’s dreams, hallucinations and the nightmares brought about by what appears to be sleep paralysis, i. e. a state of numbness one experiences between wakefulness and falling asleep, during which the person has an illusion of being in the presence of strange things or people, often of threatening nature. In case of Solenoid‘s main character, during the episodes reminiscent of sleep paralysis he sees strange individuals sitting on his bed. The “visitors”, as he prefers to call them, might as well be messengers from another world trying to get across some important clue he’s yet unable to understand. The narrator also keeps diaries in which he writes down detailed descriptions  of his dreams, some of which  are reproduced in the manuscript. There is no sharp distinction between actual events, memories, dreams and hallucinations when it comes to the narration in Solenoid. As the protagonist himself confesses  “I live in my own skull”; so, everything he sets down here is the subjective product of this limitation. Not that he’s very content with this state of things either, which is evident in his other statement: “All I’ve been doing my entire life is looking for cracks in the seemingly smooth, solid, logical surface of the mock-up of my skull”.

Besides the constraints imposed by our five senses, there is a more sinister limitation: that of  human life expectancy. The inevitability of death and various ways of coming to terms with it inform the strong  thanatological element of the novel. The narrator, whose first significant encounter with death happens when he loses his twin brother when still a child, dedicates considerable part of his enquiry to the nature of last things. The perfect environment for such ruminations is the tuberculosis sanatorium Voila to which he is sent after testing positive for TB in school. The narrative about the sanatorium  is a morbid and fascinating set piece that can be read as a children’s version of The Magic Mountain. There the young narrator gets to know another boy called Traian who becomes his companion and even mentor in his search for the cracks in reality. Traian has arrived at his own eschatological model which he readily shares with his friend. According to it, after death people are doomed to a millennia-long journey in a dark otherworldly realm along a branching and crisscrossing  path, occasionally meeting monstrous beings who ask them questions. If the answer is wrong, the monsters lock the traveller up in their own hell; if not, the journey continues for millions of years interrupted by scarce encounters with other monsters. When this seemingly infinite trek comes to an end, the dead soul enters a cave where he meets his mother who can take up any shape: a lioness, a moth, a lizard or even a translucent larva. The wanderer crawls into the womb of his mother to be born again in our world. For the mother is the final monster. It is also Traian who first shows to the other boy a secret sign that is going to be widely used by various sects prophesying death-defiance in Romania at the time when the grown-up narrator works at school: an insect sitting on the open palm. 

Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine. Image Source

One such sect is called “picketers”. What they actually do is gather around places associated with death and dying (for example, morgues, cemeteries or hospitals) and picket them, holding up protest signs with slogans against death, mortality and disease. The narrator attends one of their most significant pickets which takes place near the Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine, a veritable palace of death that comprises a morgue, an amphitheater, a library, forensic laboratories and a pathological anatomy museum. Cărtărescu takes the real historical building and embellishes it to the state of grandeur worthy of St. Peter’s Basilica. In his version the cupola of the institute is surrounded at the base by twelve allegorical statues representing twelve gloomy states of mind, whereas the thirteenth statue, four times bigger than the others, is hovering half a metre above the top of the building. It represents Condemnation. Led by the preacher with the telling name Virgil, the picketers intend to implore the statue of Condemnation to interrupt the never-ending series of death and suffering the countless generations of humans are condemned to go through. In return, Virgil offers as a sacrifice his body and all his memories, invoking the total sum of human knowledge, the scientific and cultural achievements which will be saved along with humankind if the brutal cycle of destruction is broken. However, this offering does not appear as valuable for the forces in charge of the grim determinism of human life as the preacher believes. Eventually, it will be up to our narrator to come with a better offer, but in order to reach that status he still needs to learn and experience a lot. 

The statue of Condemnation is suspended in the air on account of a huge solenoid (a coil of wire producing magnetic field when electricity runs through it) embedded in the wall beneath the imposing cupola of the forensic institute. The discovery of huge solenoids hidden in certain “energy nodes” of Bucharest marks an important development in the teacher’s search for the access to other dimensions. One such coil is immured in the foundation of the house he buys from the crackpot scientist and inventor Nicolae Borina. Perhaps due to the influence of the solenoid or some other mysterious forces, the newly-bought house turns out to be a receptacle of ambiguous and paradoxical spaces bringing to mind the architectural puzzles of M. C. Escher. Not only it is impossible to say how many rooms there are, not only the owner himself has to be cautious not to get lost in his own home, there is also a mysterious place concealing a rip in the fabric of reality behind a window designed as a porthole. The place in question is a turret that can be accessed only by a staircase. Inside the turret the teacher finds a chamber occupied by a dental chair with the relevant armamentarium, a reified metaphor for human pain and suffering easily identifiable by those who had to visit the dentist before the 1990s. The round window in the turret offers a glimpse of an alien world, a different dimension which might grant the coveted escape route for the narrator, but it is unlikely that he would be delighted to take it. What he sees is a bleak and crepuscular landscape populated by nightmarish beasts:

With a melancholy impossible to express in words, processions of entities roamed this landscape: herds of creatures that sometimes resembled elephants — but on spider legs, like the ones in Saint Anthony’s vision by Dalí — at other times, cows with bestial masks on their heads, and, on occasion, insects of a long-gone kingdom. On their articulated legs, similar to the fingers of a human hand, they were laboriously dragging a shapeless body covered by soft carapace through which sprouted sparse hair. Each protuberance, each rough spot, each bulge and each bristle looked limpid as if under oblique light. Their faces, dominated by beaks and hooks, were blind. They were making way through intertwined fibre by virtue of the sensitive filaments with which they were palpating the backs of those walking in front. 

Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1946. Image Source

There will be more inter-dimensional rifts like these, and each time the narrator comes across a similar portal into the unknown, he will feel being closer to the solution of his main problem, all the time aware of the giants who came before him, and on whose shoulders he is carrying out his research.

Nicolae Borina, the inventor of the paranormal solenoid, is a fictitious character, but besides him there are quite a few real historical figures in the book. We get to learn about Mina Minovici, the founder of the above-mentioned institute, who was one of the greatest forensic scientists of his time. Even more curious is his brother Nicolae, a keen researcher of the effects of hanging upon the human body, who conducted hanging experiments on himself. In Solenoid, Nicolae Minovici is portrayed as a thanatological visionary who produces a number of gruesome engravings that depict his hallucinations experienced while hanging himself. Another important contributor to the narrator’s growing database of recondite knowledge is the psychiatrist and psychologist Nicolae Vaschide. He is also a real historical personage who devoted a lot of effort to the exploration of dreams, which resulted in the publication of his treatise Somnul și visele (Sleep and Dreams) in 1911. In the novel Vaschide  proves to be a member of a secret fraternity of oneiromants  with the uncanny ability to see other people’s dreams. His goal is to experience the crystal-clear dream he calls “orama”, the highest manifestation among all types of dreams. We follow his search through a series of lavish oneiric adventures, such as entering a giant skull excavated in a hill in the Ferentari neighbourhood of Bucharest  and finding inside a little girl resting on the butterfly of the sfenoid bone. 

Alicia Boole Stott’s models of  cross-sections of 4D polytopes. Image Source

George Boole, his wife Mary Everest and their children deserve a special mention. Their incredible story feeds the narrator’s insatiable curiosity about the four-dimensional world.  It all starts also in childhood, with his reading of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, a cult book in the Soviet Bloc countries due to its romantic portrayal of the revolutionary struggle in the 19th century Italy. Ethel was one of the daughters of the two mathematicians, George Boole, the founder of the logic of algebra (later known as Boolean algebra) and Mary Everest, an author of progressive education materials on mathematics. His other daughter married Charles Howard Hinton, also a mathematician and an intrepid investigator of the fourth dimension who introduced the term “tesseract” for the 4D hypercube and who developed a complex system for visualising it using a collection of colour-coded cubes. And then, there is yet another daughter: Alicia Boole Stott, who elaborated on her brother-in-law’s research and made an important contribution to the study of  four-dimensional polytopes by calculating their three-dimensional central sections and making their models. So much effort invested in the attempt to approach the hidden world in which tesseracts and hyperdodecahedra are as mundane as the Platonic solids are in our 3D reality! So, will the penetration into the fourth dimension grant true freedom? Our protagonist thinks about this issue a lot, marvelling at the extraordinary possibilities of those existing outside the prison of length, width and height. The inhabitants of the four-dimensional world would be able to cure patients without opening up their bodies and even to resurrect the dead; they would be able to appear and disappear in the 3D world whenever they pleased. When the contact with the dwellers of the higher dimension does occur, it happens within the context of the now happily forgotten communist-regime enforced practice of collecting waste paper and empty bottles.  It takes the writer of Cărtărescu’s peculiar wit and inventiveness to come up with the idea of a schoolgirl bringing a genuine 4D Klein bottle to school along with regular empties. Having stumbled upon the impossible object, the author of the manuscript seeks out the girl who shows him her impressive stash of  polytopes which she picked up in some kind of zone visited from to time by a mysterious bubble. At the same spot, the invaders from another world  abduct the heavily-drinking school doorman, perhaps in exchange for their gifts. The man eventually comes back, not as an enlightened mouthpiece of the salvation message, however, but as a  victim of a cruel medical experiment. What kind of freedom is that?

Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) Itch mite (Sarcoptes scabiei). Optical microscopy technique. Image Source

There is one more lead offered by the history of the Boole family: as we know, Ethel got married to Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who came into possession of perhaps the most mysterious manuscript of all time, which has carried his name ever since. The narrator’s enquiry into the history and possible meaning of the Voynich manuscript brings him to a man who has interest not only in enigmatic books, but also in the subclass Acaridae, all representatives of which can be found in his personal library of glass slides. Having examined the possibilities of extra-body experience provided by dreams, hallucinations, death and the fourth dimension, the narrator is ready to take a dive into yet another mysterious realm, that which we can normally see only through a microscope. In a hilarious episode, weird even in comparison with the other surreal vignettes, the protagonist travels to the subcutaneous city of itch mites with the good news of salvation entrusted to him by the scientist who cultivated the scabies on his own hand. Maybe, before trying to decipher messages from higher dimensions, before attempting to puzzle out the motivation of  entities beyond our reach, we can make our presence known to the creatures to which we, in our turn, may appear as inconceivable godlike inhabitants from another world? With this episode, Cărtărescu accomplishes something extraordinary: a bio-punk rewriting of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which an itch mite possessed by the human mind encounters aggression and incomprehension among the fellow acarids and is ultimately doomed to martyrdom. The inconvenient truth is that humans might also be just parasites on a super-colossal body without any prospects of getting their voices heard.  Not only here, but throughout the whole novel Franz Kafka is a salient presence. He is the most important writer for the author of the manuscript, but not because of his fiction. The teacher believes that his greatest work is the diaries, and that the most stunning thing Kafka has ever written is this baffling short text: “The Dream Lord, great Isachar, sat  in front of the mirror, his back close to the surface, his head bent far back and sunk deep in the mirror. Hermana, the Lord of Dusk entered and dived into Isachar’s chest until he disappeared.” Here, according to the protagonist, the great writer managed to distill the pure essence of his self, leaving out all unnecessary artificial elaborations employed millions of times in millions of useless literary works.

The protagonist’s girlfriend Irina, with whom he habitually makes love levitating above his bed thanks to the energy emitted by the solenoid, at one point presents him with a dilemma that proves to be the cornerstone of the whole novel: if you had to choose between saving a baby and a great work of art, what would you choose? The answer isn’t so obvious as it may seem, since there are always additional factors: e.g. the baby is incurably sick or it is going to become Hitler when it grows up. The narrator firmly replies that the baby is more important to him than any piece of art, even more than Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (which has considerably influenced Solenoid itself, by the way), not even if it is an artwork created by himself and opening thus a different kind of escape route: the one of cultural immortality. This is the question  which the narrator will have to answer again at the end of the novel in the murky hall of the Mina Minovici Institute, in front of the monstrous statue of Condemnation sitting in a giant dental chair. A monster demanding a reply – just like in the eschatological scenario  revealed to him by Traian in the Voila sanatorium. Perhaps the true portal of escape is to be found in his manuscript. After all, it was never meant to be a trompe-l’oeil, but the distillation of the narrator’s self in all its baroque complexity. Is he ready to sacrifice the child he’s had with Irina and turn his personal notes into a work of art, a novel? No, even if what is going on is just a hallucination, an allegorical masque performed inside his skull, he is not. The narrator will forever remain a man without a name. He is ready to give up his dreams of artistic transcendence in exchange for the cessation of pain and suffering, albeit temporary, and even if that means letting go of Bucharest, the saddest city on the face of earth, which gets torn away from the ground and, like Laputa – both Swift’s and Miyazaki’s – soars up powered by the vibrating solenoids and disappears in the sky. But can we be sure that Mircea Cărtărescu,  the successful double of the author of the manuscript in an alternative world, would have made the same choice?  What sacrifice has he offered to write such an extraordinary novel? I pray to God we’ll never learn.

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Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death (Matando enanos a garrotazos) by Alberto Laiseca

The debut short-story collection by the recently departed Argentine maverick Alberto Laiseca contains the seeds of all the major themes that will be brought later to exuberant fruition in his mega-novel The Sorias. The thirteen stories first published together in 1982 cover a lot of grotesque, cruel, and absurd topics save the titular extermination of the dwarfs. As a matter of fact, there are no dwarf characters at all in this collection. Laiseca’s book begins and ends tongue-in-cheek, dragging the reader through the diseased Disneyland of his perverse imagination, in which each attraction is an affront to the good taste and an ingenious exercise in gallows humour that will make you  guffaw at the ridiculous atrocities unfolding before your eyes and immediately feel embarrassed at such a reaction. Not since Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal have we been in the hands of such an incandescent satirist holding a distorting mirror to our reality twisted beyond repair in the first place.

The world of The Sorias is already present in the collection, albeit in a rudimentary state. Most of the stories are set in the dictatorial state of Technocracy ruled by the cruel Monitor. There are also references to the rival state of Soria and to some geographical features of  Laiseca’s fictional universe such as the desert Satan’s Bronze. Here we meet for the first time the duo of hobos Crk Iseka and Moyaresmio Iseka relaxing at a vagabond resort which nobody would risk to take away from the homeless folks as the Monitor has a soft spot for hobos, believing them to be “magical animals”. Crk and Moyaresmio provide some degree of cohesion to the collection: they are featured in two stories  (the second and the last one) and one more story is presented as a tale narrated by Moyaresmio to Crk.  Moreover, in the final story there is a metafictional trick of suggesting that the whole collection might have been written by Moyaresmio and is to be submitted for a literary competition.

Despite the overall playfulness, the stories mostly deal with grim and disturbing topics. The most shocking, and at the same time, strangely enough, the funniest, is the first story titled The Great Fall of the Indecorous Old Woman (Gran caída de la indecorosa vieja). It is a tale about the sadistic torture of an old lady in an ostentatiously exoticised Arab land that one could only hope to encounter in One Thousand and One Nights re-written by the Marquis de Sade. It can be read as a morbid  allegory of the legal injustice of a totalitarian system. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I think that the satirical effect is achieved by the inversion of the ludicrous situation described by Anton Chekhov in his short story The Death of a Government Clerk. In Chekhov’s story a petty clerk accidentally sneezes on the head of a high-ranking official sitting in front of him in the theatre and cannot forgive himself such an impudence. After several increasingly annoying apologies to the official, the miserable man arouses in his high-status “victim” an angry outburst and goes home to die, unable to reconcile himself with the offence he has committed. In Laiseca’s story  the tables are turned as a similarly minor insult provokes a disproportionate response from the affected party. An old woman inadvertently pokes a qadi in the eye with a corner of her bag while riding on an archaic bus propelled by a team of slaves. This hardly grave incident leads to her suffering unimaginably painful tortures at the hands of the qadi’s assistants, while the sadistic magistrate keeps wondering at the discourteous behaviour of the woman who refuses to answer his questions after red-hot nails have been driven into her gums as a new set of false teeth. Even the sweet music played on the flutes fashioned from the shinbones of her amputated legs is unable to obtain from her an intelligible response!

Laiseca’s two well-known interests, classical music and ancient Egypt, converge in The Mummy of the Clavichord (La momia del clavicordio), a tale recounted by Moyaresmio Iseka to his companion. The story tells about two egyptologists and their aides visiting the Valley of the Kings of Music with the purpose of extracting Mozart’s clavichord from the tomb of pharaoh Tutantchaikovsky (sic!). The clavichord is cursed, for, as it later becomes known, there is the mummy of Mozart hiding inside. The removal of the musical instrument triggers a chain of mysterious deaths among the members of the team led by the egyptologists. Quite soon everyone is dead except one of the heads of the expedition, a fellow called Pedro Pecarí de los Galíndez Faisán. His fate is the most dreadful of all: he is chased in a nightmare by the mummy of the great composer, bowed ponytail and all, wielding a huge fork.

The citizens of  Technocracy appearing in the collection, from the highest state officials  down to the grass roots, are usually obsessed with solving some intractable problem. For example, Professor L.B.J. Iseka aspires to build a flying machine capable of taking its pilot inside a tornado. Luckily for him, it is up for his assistant Laponio Iseka to find out whether the newly invented apparatus can sustain the destructive force of the rotating wind. Dionisios Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the secret police of Technocracy called the I Double E, wraps his head around the challenge of disposing of the millions of the dead bodies of the enemies of the state murdered in the numerous concentration camps. His solution, based on the mathematical calculations faithfully reproduced in the story, is to throw the corpses from aircraft into an enormous crevice with a recently discovered cavern adjoining its bottom. The cavern, which was exposed  by the Technocratic engineers, will provide the necessary additional space to accommodate all the victims of the regime. Political commissar José Kaltenbrunner Garbanzo (no relation to Dionisios), after declaring the independence of a small province in Technocracy and staving off the inept attempts of  the secrete police chief to oust him, now faces the major invasion led by the great Monitor himself, an operation which might grow into a civil war. During a staff meeting in the Situation Room of his HQ guarded by the SS troops (he has adopted the Nazi style of dictatorship) Garbanzo is also trying to solve a problem: he wants to put his finger on the exact moment during the historic Battle of Stalingrad when the equilibrium between the Soviet and the German forces was broken, which precipitated the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich. A typical Laiseca touch is the presence of the Nazi-sympathising dictator’s importunate mother who turns out to be a cartoonish stereotypical Jewish mum. She is constantly interrupting the meeting in the headquarters, asking in Yiddish if her son is alright and even brings to the participants a platter with traditional Jewish hot cross buns. The three problems that have been puzzling humankind for centuries are “solved” in the short story with the telling title The Quadrature of the Circle, Perpetual Motion, Philosopher’s Stone (La cuadratura del círculo, el movimiento perpetuo, la piedra filosofal). The leader of an esoteric sect talks about the outlandish ways in which he has succeeded in squaring the circle, inventing a perpetual motion machine and transmuting lead into gold. It is obvious that his elaborate solutions are just groundless fantasies worthy of a madman suffering from the delusion of grandeur. However, woe to those will dare to dispute his grandiose achievements: terrible retribution is in store for them. Perhaps, it is the sad fact the leader of the sect spent sixty years dividing the circle into ever-diminishing triangles that has made him so cruel and intolerant?

The last problem to be solved in this short-story collection is finding the right name for it. In the concluding piece, appropriately called Inventing Titles in the Winter Cave (Inventando títulos en la caverna de invierno), Moyaresmio Iseka discusses with Crk various possible names for the collection of short stories he has almost finished. There are dozens of variants: some are funny, some absurd, and some are pilfered from well-known literary classics. Finally, the cultured and respectable hobos decide to opt for the same title which, as we know,  Laiseca gave to the story collection in which they are prominently featured. Indeed, Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death is a cool title, especially considering the absence of the little pesky creatures in the book. But what does it mean? Of some help is the epigraph to the collection taken from a quote in Argentine writer Horacio Romeu’s novel A bailar esta ranchera:

 A la vera de un camino

dos enanos castigaban una flor

mientras le decían:

—Aunque tengas buen olor

¡no nos gustan las florcitas!

 

On the edge of a road

two dwarfs were tormenting a flower

all the while telling it:

“Although you smell good,

we don’t like little flowers!”

Far from demanding to exact revenge on the flower-hating little men from a verse, Laiseca calls upon us to bludgeon to death the metaphysical dwarfs of political and cultural intolerance, state-sponsored violence and bigotry. At least, that’s my interpretation of the title. We shouldn’t forget that all these stories were written during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a period of mass persecution and murder of thousands of political dissidents by the military government of the country. So, the dwarfs must be a symbol of all things heinous in human nature that Laiseca exposes and castigates in this work the way he does it best: by diluting the mundane horrors of repressive regimes with the grotesque, the absurd and the fantastic.

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The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.

The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated  wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of  encapsulating  the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel,  the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant  Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of  Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:

The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

 

Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon. Image Source.

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