I first encountered the work of the Austrian poet Ilse Aichinger about seven years ago. I was translating an article by a friend, in which Aichinger’s poem “Versuch” (“Attempt”) appeared, along with a reference to the poetic essay “Schnee” (“Snow”). I dutifully translated the poem, which read to me like a random assortment of nouns, plus a verb and an adjective, and the quotes from the essay, which I found intriguing but, in their linguistic particularity, frustrating to translate. I did not think about Aichinger again until the same friend happened to send me a few of her short prose texts last year—the very same “Snow,” and “Dover.” Upon reencountering them, I could not imagine how I could ever have read her work so carelessly.
There is something about Aichinger’s writing that requires attention and readiness, it seems, for I am not the only one who managed to forget about Aichinger after a first meeting. As Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey point out in their brilliantly concise introduction to Bad Words, it was Aichinger who indirectly brought Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan to “Gruppe 47,” the seminal meetings that significantly shaped post-war German literature. But while Celan and Bachmann are known and treasured in the English-speaking world, Aichinger remains undertranslated and nearly forgotten outside of her home language—a language which, ironically, she wrestled with, loved, and tried both to reclaim and to unmake.
If it is a matter of readiness, the time is surely long-since nigh. The most striking thing about the late short prose works collected in this volume is their contemporary feel. Pieces like “The Jouet Sisters,” with its snap-the-whip, knockout ending, for which the reader is both ready and totally unprepared—“I’m waiting, I’m waiting—for monkey bread and peanuts, for cotton balls, pastry, and the heroes of the fatherland. For Ascension day and its one-way mission to heaven. My sweet doves, my wooden lights. How can I say Amen before you say it?”—could be mistaken for an Emily Berry poem. “Privas” seems a close cousin of Lydia Davis’ “Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall.” “Albany” is a few pages fallen out of Beckett’s The Unnameable. Yet Aichinger spoke her own tongue, wrote with her own logic. She was everything avant la lettre, and although her work may be read in light of such affinities, and may even allow us to look differently at other, better-known authors, we should be careful not to lose sight of what is most peculiar to her writing. It would be a disservice if these associations saved us the effort, and pleasure, of reading Aichinger on her own terms.
Born in 1921 in Vienna to a Jewish mother, Ilse Aichinger survived the Holocaust, though many of her relatives did not. Her early works, including Das Vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate) and Die Größere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope; Herod’s Children in an earlier translation) were explicitly concerned with the Holocaust, persecution, and recent European history. In the texts collected in Bad Words, which were written and published later (Eliza, Eliza in 1968 and Schlechte Wörter in 1976), the Holocaust still shapes every word, but it is not even remotely mentioned. Reading overt political sentiments into these works takes imagination; the closest one gets is “Rahel’s Clothes” (“do you have any idea why Rahel hasn’t asked for her things to be sent after her? After seventeen years?”) or “Balconies,” which can be read, among other things, as anti-nationalist satire.
But even these two texts, like all of the pieces in this volume, are ultimately concerned not with subjects or storytelling but with language itself and so are political on a level that is at once much deeper and more oblique. In contrast to Germany, post-war Austrian society did little to face or reckon with the horrors of its past; when Aichinger wrote, the past was still alive and still breathing through the German language. For this reason, Aichinger, like others of her generation, saw it as their task to grapple with, to write with or against or through a language that could no longer be trusted; a language become foreign, which could only be reclaimed through further foreignization—or through silence. In her acceptance speech for the Nelly Sachs prize in 1971, Aichinger spoke of an “attempt to translate muteness into silence, engaged silence, without which language and conversation are impossible.”
This attempt presents itself as rebellion against everything one expects of writing and language. Everyone who has taken a writing class or been edited has been enjoined to be precise. Aichinger revels in doing the opposite: She gives us named figures that appear to be characters but then lack the qualities that would mark them as such: they serve a poetic function, rather than a narrative one. She introduces such “characters” a paragraph before the end of a piece without so much as a polite nod at the reader’s perplexity. She writes impossible anti-narratives that turn ninety degrees in every sentence: rabbits suddenly reveal astonishing vocabularies, and humans turn out to be made of straw. The paradigmatic Aichinger sentence is one with two seemingly unrelated halves linked by a conjunction: “Day is breaking, but the stains are still here.” Nor is one mystery per sentence sufficient, as in “Or the mushroom pickers whose voices and steps I often hear, though it doesn’t make me happy.” Or what? What mushroom pickers? Why would they make anyone happy, let alone the speaker, who may or not be “The Mouse” of the title? There are sentences, too, beautiful sentences that, to borrow an image from Anne Carson, “stop themselves.” “I will try to act like someone who never arrives, someone untempted, someone untamed by having no silhouette,” is one. The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but we cannot take it apart to find its meaning. We cannot get behind it; it remains indecipherable, yet meaningful in its irreducibility and materiality—like a foreign word, a foreign sentence, perhaps.
But Aichinger’s rebellion is not unprovoked. It is a counter-rebellion against a language grown unruly and unusable (“Down, words! Bad words, bad!” I like to imagine her saying in the title story). In several of the pieces, she makes her attitude toward language explicit, by turns sorrowfully, by turns playfully. “Bad Words” is something of a manifesto against precision, against “good” words: “They are too close to what they stand for,” she writes: “I know what I’m doing. I know that the world is worse than its name, and that because of this, its name is also bad.” In “My Language and I,” language is an indifferent companion that the speaker caters to and attempts to engage, to no avail. Speaker and language are locked in a relationship from which all romance and understanding has disappeared, though not all love: “I will do what I can for it. The conversations alone will help . . . in time, no one will want anything from my language. And I will do my part. I will weave in a sentence here and there to make it free of suspicion.”
In other pieces, Aichinger’s struggle with language is tacit but uncompromising. In “Hemlin,” for example, a central proper noun functions as a sort of totem, but its meaning changes—it is a child, a place, a woman, an object, a feeling. A proper noun is that most specific of the parts of speech, that irreplaceable, specific name that means only itself; to change its meaning challenges the very possibility of signification. And this is precisely Aichinger’s aim: to reject the rules of language, to reject the (power) structures that have shaped all of the world’s bloody history but without rejecting language itself. She chooses a different way: and who is to say that crossbeams don’t have “certain connections to floodplains,” after all?
The different way is often sound, and what masters of it are at work in this volume. Aichinger and her translators have a sense of rhythm that never falters, from the first line of this volume to the last. Whole paragraphs of “Dover” could be sung like jazz—there is the same blend of freedom and certainty, the alternation of a kind of staccato scatting and lyricism. Every word is perfect, not, of course, in its precision, but in its music:
And what about friendships made in Dover? Do they survive, or do they dissolve once they’re up against the familiar commensurabilities? It’s either this way or that. Dover doesn’t rely on friendships. Dover has its droolers, its rope-jumpers and pebble-players and its seldom-stranded sailors. It’s either this way or that with friendships in Dover, you get what you get. And if it’s this way or that, and if that’s what you get, then Dover will always plead for us: whether in Denver, in Trouville, or in Bilbao. It will entreat the places of the world for us with its easy gaze. It will keep an eye on the madhouse of Privas and all the other madhouses, too. It will not omit the things that don’t measure up to it—it will draw on their weaknesses, and on its own weakness. It won’t forget about industry, diligence, naïveté, nor that everything will be over soon. It will not shove aside our failed desperation, which is all we have. Not Dover.
That this text holds its sonic magic in translation is a testament both to the extraordinary ears and poetic wisdom of the translators and to Aichinger herself. Each word feels both surprising and inevitable: in English as in German. This surety of voice is rare, and the integrity of the English text certainly has much to do with the palpable kinship between Wolf, Hawkey, and Aichinger—in the fearless pleasure in subverting and remaking language and its constructs—but it is also a result of Aichinger’s translation-like approach to writing. She unmasks all writing for the process of translation it is and mocks the norms that suggest otherwise—the norms that crave clarity and correctness and logic: “I won’t care whether you can say pound when [rain] only gently touches the window panes—or if that would be saying too much. Or too little, if the rain threatens to shatter the windows. I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll stick with pound—let others worry about the rest.” These are the same norms that see translation as an art of failure, and Aichinger, Hawkey, and Wolf laugh in these norms’ faces. It is a bitter laughter, perhaps, a laughter that knows loss and destruction—a laughter that knows what it means to be laughed at.
The volume ends with “Snow,” the essay that eluded me on first reading. It is a perfect ending in that it doesn’t let the reader off the hook and doesn’t float away into the unparseable poetic prose that we have been allowed to revel in for so much of the book. Instead, it reminds us that all this—the words, their connections, our use of them—matters.
These are our choices, something we can compare. One can also rightly maintain that rain comes before snow in more than one respect, but I’ve been suspicious of everything one can maintain rightly for a long time . . . Maintaining and raining usually go too far but in most cases don’t achieve what matters. If at the time of the Flood it had snowed and not rained, Noah’s selfish ark wouldn’t have helped him one bit. And that’s only one example.”
“An advanced modern reader acts like a detective. In the forest of books, he can follow the clues and discover the enormous treasures underlying them. Those books give him messages: his inner concentrated essence receives the messages and immediately produces new ones. These blended messages lead him to enter a tunnel of the spirit, and in that place he begins a great exploration.”
These are the words of Can Xue (from her essay titled “'The Fair-Haired Princess' and Serious Literature," translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping), one of the twenty-eight writers featured in one of the earliest Words Without Borders anthologies, The World through the Eyes of Writers, published a little over ten years ago. Can Xue’s work was recommended to us by Ha Jin, who was answering an invitation to introduce us to an author writing in any language but English whose work inspired him. It took us years to compile that anthology of literature recommended by Nobel laureates, National Book Award winners, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winners, and more; and since that time we’ve continued to publish the work of these writers on our website.
This fifteenth anniversary issue takes a look back at the work of fifteen of these authors, the beginnings of what Can Xue aptly describes as "a great exploration" for us here at WWB, and one we hope you’ll enjoy as much as we have. In this issue you’ll find poetry, essays, stories and excerpts from novels, recommended by the likes of José Saramago, Wole Soyinka, and Naguib Mahfouz. Which author does Francine Prose admire? Whose work provides inspiration for Edwidge Danticat? Now we know.
As we embark on the next fifteen years of discovering and publishing in English the work of the world’s great writers, we’re inspired by the words of Ariel Dorfman, writing about the work of Juan Forn, the Argentine writer he recommended to us: “And if the reader feels seduced by this story, please remember all the other narratives I had to leave adrift and shipwrecked without a translator, and that look forward to calm eyes, avid eyes.”
@ 2018 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
“Would you be so kind as to carry me across the river?”
According to Iranian myth, this request is made by the creature Davālpā, an elderly man-like form whose legs unfurl like leather straps from the base of his torso. Unable to move on its own, it enlists passerby to hoist it onto their shoulders. It is a grave mistake, however, to consent to carry the Davālpā. Once hoisted, the creature wraps its straplike legs around the carrier’s neck, thus strangling its victim into submission for as long as they both live.
The Davālpā and its tenacious grip haunt the protagonist of Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel Moon Brow, which has just been published by Restless Books. Amir Yamini is a former Iranian soldier attempting to navigate a new postwar reality with a splintered mind and a severed left arm. Through Amir’s mental scrambling of time and memory, the mythic and the modern manifest without distinction in a progression through Iran’s cataclysmic recent history. It is not strange, then, to find the Davālpā wailing on the staircase or under the shedding cherry trees in the backyard. Amir wonders: when did he allow the creature onto his back?
In Moon Brow, as in postrevolutionary Iran, history refuses to ease up on the neck of contemporary times. Amir’s struggle with the past begins in his private life. Rebellion against his powerful and ultra-religious family takes the form of heavy drinking and sexual libertinage. But Amir’s conflict soon expands into the political realm as he witnesses the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and then serves in the Iran-Iraq War. The fragmented nature of the narrative suggests shell shock, and Amir attempts to recount in his own troubled manner the recent history of his country. It is through his haunted eyes that we see mobs chanting “Death to the Shah!” as royal monuments in Tehran are uprooted; the newly-reigning Islamic Republic erasing Western references (a street named for Anatole France, for example, becomes Qods, or “the Holy”); and the salvo of Iraqi chemical bombs against the Kurdish people in 1988.
The interfacing of past and present in the Islamic revolution was once praised, in its beginnings. When French thinker Michel Foucault visited Iran at the moment of revolution, he wrote, “It is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather then maintain obedience.” According to Foucault’s enthusiastic account, the revolution was a time in which the Iranian people simultaneously gazed into the nation’s past and distant future, and thus envisioned a more informed transformation.
Moon Brow is a polemic against exactly this utopian interpretation of the Islamic regime change.Revolution ushers in an authoritarian rule that incessantly intrudes on the personal lives of Amir and others. Surveillance looms over Amir’s backyard, where revolutionary guards are often stationed. Amir and his sister Reyhaneh suspect that acquaintances, such as their driver, are government informants. She struggles to comply with the state-required chador, the traditional Iranian-Islamic attire for women that covers the upper body and leaves only the face exposed. Amir’s friends relay the brutal killing of members of the underground Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group, the Organization of the Iranian People’s Fedaii Guerillas.
Amir’s own personal rebellion against his family takes on wider implications in these new political circumstances. When he breaks the newly-enacted law against alcohol consumption, he is arrested and punished with eighty lashes. In a bewildering move, he secretly enlists himself in the Iranian military and serves in the horrific Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that directly resulted from the revolution.
Amir’s military background parallels that of author and Iranian exile Shahriar Mandanipour. The criticism of history’s unyielding hold over his country is a recurring theme in his work. His first novel translated into English, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, recounted an author’s struggle to write a love story that would be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a government agency in Iran that restricts access to unapproved media. In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Mandanipour wrote of the current Iranian zeitgeist,“we cling to our past and rarely look to the future. We are forever proud of our glorious ancient history and are satisfied by it . . . Yet many of us still have a culture of religious zeal and fanaticism in our blood.”
Just as the trajectory of Iranian history calls for a thorough retracing, together Amir and Reyhaneh search for clues to piece together the shards of Amir’s memory. He is certain that he was secretly engaged to a woman he names Moon Brow—but nobody can tell him her identity. The narrative climaxes when Amir journeys back to the battlefield to seek his missing arm, desperate to find an engagement ring on its decayed finger. With each progression toward the buried bones, the narration speeds and turns, uncovering memories at an exponential rate. As he digs, the contexts of refrains and prior passages throughout the narrative are brought to light, and, like Amir, we are able to retrospectively shape a hazy but linear arch.
Moon Brow eschews propriety for disturbing realities. The Davālpā’s suffocating grip appears to extend to the rampant misogyny that Amir, his friends, and his fellow soldiers entertain. War especially offers a hyper-masculine landscape on which every enemy’s mother and sister is a hypothetical object vulnerable to violent sexual desires. Judgment is administered through the use of the angel of sin and the angel of virtue, who sit on Amir’s shoulders and act as scribes. The angels take turns recounting events depending on the matter at hand and often dispute what should be written and by whom.
Amir’s own impassioned thoughts are reflected in direct, often careening quotations that trail off before hurtling inquiries and interjections. Passages of Amir’s present quest for memories are interposed by the unearthed images themselves; thus, the structure emulates the disjointed remembrances of trauma. Translator Sara Khalili retains the richness of the language, which oscillates between the sublime and the grotesque. While the political facets of Amir’s story report the grim truths of contemporary Iranian history, the physical and emotional world described in Moon Brow is alive with vivid and provocative encounters: the pattering haze of rain, the muffled shouts and groans on the battlefield, the crashing Caspian Sea, and the mystic reverie of romantic love.
The story of the Davālpā is but one myth recalled in Moon Brow. Another relays the death of Attar, the eleventh-century poet who was decapitated during the Mongolian invasion. According to legend, he bent down, picked up his own head, and walked away with it cradled under his arm, his displaced mouth still reciting poems. Shahriar Mandanipour’s narration likewise sings despite the dreadful realities it faces. It offers beauty while confronting the ugliness of revolution, oppression, and war. Moon Brow forms a melodic whole in the face of the traumatic fracturing of both the protagonist’s body and the body of a nation. To its mournful song, we should bear to listen.
© Damara Atrigol Pratt. All rights reserved.
Cuban writer José Lezama Lima once remarked that he began to grow old the day his mother died. A similar sentiment haunts the pages of Tomb Song, the novel by Mexican writer Julián Herbert, which is both a visceral lament about his mother’s death from leukemia and a scathing portrayal of the author’s home country.
Born in Acapulco in 1971, Herbert was already known in Mexico for his poetry, his essays, and a well-received collection of short stories. Tomb Song, first published in 2011 to much critical acclaim, cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most original writers. It won the prestigious Jaén prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska novel prize in Mexico.
The book’s title plays on the Spanish expression for a lullaby—a cradle song. Except that here the narrator—also named Julián Herbert—is keeping vigil over his dying mother in a hospital room in the northeastern Mexican city of Saltillo and writing the book as a way of finding comfort while coming to terms with her life.
And what a life it was. Guadalupe Chávez, we learn, had been a prostitute, dragging a young Julián and his hapless siblings from town to town, changing her identity as she went from one brothel to the next. The result of this itinerant upbringing was, for Julián, utter disorientation: “It was Mamá’s fault. We traveled so much that, for me, the earth was a wickerwork polygon limited in every direction by railway lines.”
From its pathos-filled prologue to its poignant closing lines, Herbert’s novel is shot through with fury and filial love. This sounds bleak—it isn’t. Indeed, it is one of the novel’s characteristics that it is able to swing from heartbreak to grisly humor within a few lines.
Herbert the author (as well as Julián the narrator) has taken on board the essential lesson from Laurence Sterne: that digressions are the soul of reading. The bedside vigil is interrupted by long descriptions of a trip to Berlin with his pregnant wife and a surreal escapade in Havana in the company of a fictional character called Bobo Lafragua. Beyond offering relief from the unflinching observation of his mother’s disease, these meanderings also allow the author to ponder the purpose of authorship.
Critics have made much of the explicitly autobiographical nature of the novel—Tomb Song has been described as “autofiction,” “self-fiction,” or even (as French literary critics would prefer) “ego-fiction.” It has been compared to similarly autobiographical novels by other Latin American authors, including fellow Mexican Guadalupe Nettel and Chile’s Alejandro Zambra.
Herbert himself seems to relish the deliberate blurring of the line between fact and fiction, mischievously declaring in a recent interview that he has simply written “a nonfictional novel” or produced an autobiography “using a novelist’s tools.”
Among the novel’s many fruitful digressions are the author/narrator’s musings on the no-man’s-land between remembered experience and fictional representation:
When you write in the present [tense] . . . you’re generating a fiction, an involuntary suspension of grammatical disbelief. That’s why this book (if this does become a book, if my mother survives or dies in some syntactical fold that restores the meaning of my digressions) will be eventually found in bookstores, standing upright on the dustiest shelf of "novels."
Elsewhere, Herbert justifies his creative license as a result of illness: “So, from inside fever or psychosis, it’s relatively valid to write an autobiographical novel in which fantasy has set up camp. What’s important is not that events are true: what’s important is that the illness or the madness is.”
Literary sleuths aiming to tease out the correspondences between the author’s life and the author’s work may be wasting their time. It is obvious where Herbert’s loyalty lies: “In contrast to Wilde, who believed that real-life testimonies are inane and that to transcend this inanity we must embellish our perception of the real by filling our surroundings with sublime objects, I find ornamentation . . . a form of nouveaurichism, of obscenity. Transforming a collection of anecdotes into structure, on the other hand, offers the challenge of conquering a certain level of beauty.”
But transforming his mother’s agony into art brings its own moral challenges: “What I’m writing is a work of suspense. Not in its technique: in its poetics. Not for you, but for me. What will become of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?”
This authorial self-awareness hangs heavily on the narrator. Toward the end of the novel, he remembers arriving in Acapulco for a literary conference, only to be told that his father has just died in the very same city. “A muffled inner voice . . . said ‘This is good material for the ending of your novel.’ I cursed Paul Auster and his poetic feeling for chance.”
Beyond Auster, Herbert mines a varied seam of influences—from Pedro Páramo to Pulp Fiction, from The Magic Mountain to The Matrix. The cinematic canon is as conspicuous as the literary canon: “Forget it . . . it’s Chinatown,” says the fictitious Bobo Lafragua, as he and Julián traipse across the Havana night.
This potent brew of semifictions, rich in references and infused with Mexico’s vernacular Spanish, would cause even the most experienced translator to break out into a cold sweat. Christina MacSweeney has produced a version that radiates with Herbert’s original rage and raw energy, only occasionally missing the point—one of the novel’s best gags, involving a giraffe built out of Lego but also punning on an author’s giraffe-sized ego, is lost in translation.
“I always narrate in the present in the hope of finding velocity,” says the novel’s protagonist. “This time I’m doing it in the hope of finding consolation.” At heart, Tomb Song is the author’s knotty attempt to redeem his own mother and, in doing so, redeem himself.
One senses that, for Herbert, redemption may be harder to imagine for his country: “The whole of Mexico is the territory of the cruel . . . I’m a waiter in a country of waiters . . . here, all of us waiters uphold the civil code of spitting in your soup. First we waste your time with our proverbial courtesy; then we waste it with criminal stupidity. Welcome to the Sweet Nation. Tip, please.”
© Ángel Gurría Quintana. All rights reserved.
This story by Estonian writer Maimu Berg tracks a mercurial Stalin and his cowed entourage on a spontaneous trip to Tallinn.
After the film ended and the lights came on, J. V. Stalin gradually turned his face toward his companions, narrowed his eyes, and made a vague expression, so that one couldn’t understand what mood he was in. The comrades tried in every way to hide their boredom, tedium and simply their sleepiness—it was way past midnight, how far past they didn’t know. In the room where the films were shown there was no clock, and it was dangerous to peep at one’s watch: Stalin didn’t like it. Anastas Ivanovich valiantly stifled an incipient yawn. He had The Great Waltz memorized. As he did Stalin’s next remark, which was repeated every time as a conscious taunt. “A woman like that, a real little kabanikha, big face, little cunning wild-boar eyes. But her voice . . .”
“Her voice was genuine crystal, liquid crystal, Comrade Stalin,” Malenkov rushed to affirm. “A marvelous voice.”
“You, Maksimilianovich, are no expert—what do you know about singers or their voices?” Stalin eyed Malenkov’s chubby feminine face, which reminded him of old village women, with a grin. Once, at a nighttime party, Stalin had given an order to fetch a Russian scarf with a rose pattern. After a bit of searching, one was actually found, hanging from Olga the cleaner’s peg. Stalin handed the scarf to Malenkov and commanded him to tie it around his own face. “How do you want it, Josif Vissarionovich—shall I tie it under the chin or do it up or put it in a bow on top of my head? Shall I leave it inside or outside of my brow?”
“What are you babbling about, Maksimilianovich?” Stalin pronounced Malenkov’s genteel patronymic with ironic relish. “Don’t you know how to put a scarf on your head? Just put the scarf on, then we’ll have a look at how it suits you best.” Malenkov put on the scarf with trembling hands, tying a knot under the chin. The scarf was pretty, with a fringe, with pink roses on a black background and bright blue forget-me-nots and yellow daisies. It suited Malenkov’s porky red cheeks, small eyes flashing under dark eyebrows, and dainty girlish mouth very well. Everyone burst out laughing, whereupon Malenkov blushed demurely. “Baba, what a baba,” laughed the father and the sun of the Soviet people, and then he suddenly turned serious, furrowing his brow. “We’ve had a laugh, that’s enough! To bed!”
Within a few minutes the room was empty. Malenkov stood perplexed in the corridor, not daring to take off the shameful scarf. He listened for a while at the door, hearing Stalin’s coughing from inside, then everything went quiet; but before Malenkov had time to hurry away, Josif Vissarionovich opened the door. Seeing Malenkov wearing the scarf, Stalin roared: “Georgi, are you thinking of keeping the scarf on? You like it, do you?”
“Not at all, Comrade Stalin,” stammered Malenkov.
“But why not?” exclaimed Stalin. “It suits you—go and look in the mirror!”
“Of course it does, Comrade Stalin.”
“Take a look,” threatened Stalin with his finger. Malenkov vanished silently, in a flash, down the long dim corridor.
But tonight he was again in his place and this time Stalin didn’t start taunting him about wearing the scarf. The Great Waltz, which the party had had to watch to the point of boredom for several evenings, finally reached its end, the last scene, in which Kabanikha appears to Strauss in his mind’s eye in close-up, trilling her highest notes, and on the screen the words The End, Konets appeared on the screen, much anticipated by the company. “Well, Potyokhin,” said Stalin, addressing Molotov by his former code name. “What are you thinking about?”
“The film, of course. Impressive, magnificent, as always,” Molotov hurried to say.
“And you, Kliment?” Stalin looked Voroshilov in the eyes. “You’re an expert on that area.”
“Oh, what expert? Budapest isn’t Vienna! And it’s been three years since I was in Hungary.”
“Austria-Hungary,” said Stalin, almost dreamily. “Nice that we have Vienna—we should visit it again. It will soon be nearly forty years since Stavros Papadopoulos’s one and only visit there.”
“Stavros Papa . . . ?”
“Ah!” Stalin clapped his hands together.
“Stalin went there under a code name, as a Greek man,” whispered Mikoyan. Stalin looked at him severely. Mikoyan fell silent and huddled up instinctively. But soon he felt ashamed of his own timidity and straightened himself up to more than his full height.
Stalin grinned. The thought of visiting Vienna had turned his mood to melancholy. He remembered the great city from before the First World War, the parks, the squares, the Opernring and the uplifting military parade on the Ringstrasse, the manly, rhythmic quiver of the cockades on the helmets, the unsheathed swords, flags, and at the top, the enthroned Austrian eagle. It was the heyday of the Vienna Jugendstil. Stalin, too, had been pleased by Hans Kalmsteiner’s simple colorful postcards, and he had bought himself a complete set. Where had they got to afterward? Somewhere there at this time poor old Hitler was hanging around, maybe even imitating Kalmsteiner with his feeble postcards, maybe even forging them, and the pictures that he, Stalin, had got might actually be the botchings of that failed architect and politician. Well, in that case their value would be a thousand times more now!
Stalin wasn’t sure that he actually wanted to visit Vienna once again, as it had obviously changed and not for the better. At least they would no longer be holding the grand military parades with the Austrian eagle there. Why would such a shabby little country, filled with Soviet bases, have such a splendid capital, magnificent castles, churches, theaters, and parks? Like a hydrocephalic head on the scrawny neck of a deformed child. Why do those submissive beggars have Schönbrunn or the “beautiful blue Danube”? If he could have gone back in time, to the Vienna where people waltzed in the streets, where the mad Johann Strauss played his violin, and women, feminine to the core, tiptoed around in wide crinolines and large hats, raising the trains of their dresses, then perhaps Vienna might have appealed to him. That town of contrasts, where between the grand buildings there mingled with the scent of fine perfume the pleasantly soothing stink of horse manure, as it had when he visited it.
Stalin glanced at the men sitting in the cinema, who were ready, on a signal from him, to raise their bottoms from the soft armchairs to fall exhausted into bed. Into a bed where a fat woman with a creamed face was snuffling, having pulled with difficulty from puffy fingers gold rings studded with dazzling diamonds by the dimly glowing light of a dull lamp and lined them up on the bedside table. Why hurry into such chambers of horrors, stinking of dust, women’s farts, and sickly creams? The men should be thankful that he offered them more reasonable activities at night.
There sat Shvernik, continually tense, like a hunting dog ready to spring, but actually a cunning tomcat who always falls on his feet. Frowning, with his eternal little mustache under his nose. His wife has already gone to fat, and lately he himself has been putting on weight. No need to be so full of yourself, Nikolay Mikhailovich, just because you were born in St. Petersburg.
Or Nikita. Pretends to be a simple-minded and good-hearted Ukrainian, though actually he was born in Kursk Governorate and he’s really the biggest bully. He won’t go home, although Nina Petrovna is already snuffling under the orange silk eiderdown. But why orange? Nikita’s actually a dangerous chap, not to be trusted. Well, let’s see, let’s see.
And what are you grinning about, Skryabin? Want to go home? To Polina Semyonovna? You didn’t want to know when I recommended you get divorced. You did right—without your smart Jewish missus you’d be a mere nothing. Your Little Pearl is starting to get old. All right, a wrinkled face, and not much sense. Friend Potyokhin, your bright star won’t shine forever—surely you’ve learned enough from life, that it’s like the sea, with peaks and troughs valleys, always with highs and lows . . .
Anastas—erect and strong, as if he were sitting at a desk. Always in the Politburo, and there you will stay, my friend. You want to get higher? You can’t, you just can’t. You must fear, you Armenian, you must live in constant terror of a Georgian. You were the one who spread the rumor about my Jewish origins, about my father. David? Mother Keke hasn’t said anything to me—but see, Anastas knows better than me, better than my mother. Maybe he knows the truth?
So who’s that nodding off and dozing in the corner? Lazar! You’ve gone slack, brother. Where have your splendid curls gone? Good old Kogan, Kaganovich, a master cobbler like Papa Vissarion. I don’t trust cobblers—they all pound spikes into heels just as dully as they do under grubby fingernails. But they’re always money-grubbing.
Lavrenti? It was he who should have had a scarf tied around his head, a real old Merkheuli woman, a Megrelian. A secretive bastard, a careerist. During the last parade I noticed how many orders and medals the esteemed Lavrenti Pavlovich had hung on his chest. Who knows what for? Well, all right, let him have a bit of a career; we’ll get his fingers jammed in the drawer if we need to. The main thing is not to let him get too full of himself, or power will go to his head. I don’t know why, but that man makes me weepy.
Stalin got up abruptly from his armchair, and so did all the others after him. “Let’s go to Tallinn!” announced Josif Vissarionovich briskly, unexpected even to himself. The men, who had been hoping to get away easily, stared at him in astonishment. “Well, what are you looking at—so what did I say? Isn’t Tallinn the capital of one of our little constituent republics? Our own Estonian SSR?” Stalin looked from one to another. They were all silent, eyes downcast, unable to understand whether the great leader and teacher was making a bad joke or whether he meant it. Or was there something wrong with his mind? The first one to recover was Mikoyan. “Isn’t that Miliza Korjus, that Kabanikha, from Tallinn? She must be an Estonian.”
“Estonian? She’s half-Jewish,” said Stalin drily. Mikoyan blushed.
“But she hasn’t lived in Tallinn for ages,” stated Malenkov naively.
“So what?” Stalin raised an eyebrow and tapped his pipe empty on the edge of the desk. “Thinking of visiting her, were you? That’s enough for today. Off to bed! We’re not going to Tallinn today. Tomorrow we’ll have to arrange the trip. Anastas, Lavrenti, that’ll be your job!”
Mikoyan jumped up: “Comrade Stalin, do you want to go there officially, as national leader? Then there’ll have to be preparations, otherwise Karotamm will hang himself out of shock!”
“Karotamm’s already hung himself,” smirked the well-informed Beria. “They have that Kebin there now.”
“Is Karotamm dead? Such a young man . . .”
“You could say that—removed from his post, nothing more. Some die, some are relieved.”
“So when did this happen?”
“What kind of a question is that? Short memory, or are you mixing it up with Latvia? In March.”
“By the way, this Karotamm of yours has been in Moscow since the spring.” “All the rubbish ends up getting a place in Moscow.” “What’s he doing here?” “At the academy. Writing a thesis.” “Well, I’ll be! A scholar!”
“Stop the empty chatter. The trip to Tallinn is tomorrow. Arrange it as you think fit, but without fuss. Incognito. Is that clear? You’ll report in the morning, then we’ll see.”
“But Comrade Stalin, who’s coming along?” inquired Malenkov excitedly. “Volunteers,” smirked Josif Vissarionovich. “You and Lavrenti, of course . . .”
“But Comrade Stalin, who will—well—stand in for you in the Kremlin?”
“Heh-heh, what do you think? Or who will stand in for me in Tallinn?”
“In the Kremlin, I thought, this time it could be Aleksandr Simonovich.”
“Why him? Is it because one of his grandfathers was Estonian?” interjected Shvernik, who was particular about details.
“No, Nikolay Mikhailovich, it’s because of his pockmarks,” Stalin burst out with a chuckle. “Isn’t that what you were thinking, Anastas? Aleksandr Simonovich’s pockmarks are genuine!”
“Come on now, Comrade Stalin—he came to mind mainly because of his Estonian grandfather.”
The morning was gray and drab. Stalin was standing under the window, his hair still damp from washing, but the air was damp, too. “Let’s see what those blockheads have cooked up,” murmured Stalin, feeling a pleasant anxious tingling in his palms. Olga the cleaner was hurrying across the yard, with the same kind of pink-flecked black scarf on her head as Malenkov had amused the company with, a decisive, slightly scornful look on her angular face. Stalin grinned. “Tough old woman. She’d make a good camp commander. Sure to be a harder man than that fat-face Malenkov. Now where have our trip planners got to?” Straight away, as if Stalin’s thoughts had been read from behind the door, there was a knock, announcing the arrival of Mikoyan and Beria. “Well boys, is the trip going ahead?”
“The trip is going ahead, Comrade Stalin,” they replied in chorus.
“And how, then—by air? By train?”
“By the evening train to Tallinn. Aleksandr Simonovich is already here too, awaiting arrangements.”
“What arrangements is he awaiting? He’s already in charge of arrangements. Better that he stay in the office—he can sleep here for a few nights. Better to leave out consultations. We don’t need anything unexpected.”
“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”
“Is the luxury train car all ready?”
“The luxury car? But you ordered for everything to be in secret, no special measures.”
“How do you plan to keep me out of the public eye without special measures? The Estonian forests are full of bandits; enemies of the people are hiding underground in the towns.”
“Everything’s been taken care of, Comrade Stalin, trust us. Besides . . .”
“Besides, the Estonian forests have been cleared of bandits, the kulaks have been sent to Siberia, honest farmers are running the kolkhozes. Narva is now populated only by our own people.”
“Our own people?”
“Russians, Comrade Stalin.”
“Remember, in the Land of the Soviets there are no ‘ours’ and ‘theirs,’ Russians or Estonians. Everyone is our own people, Soviet people. And if they aren’t, they’re in detention centers, camps, prisons, or six feet under.”
“Of course, Comrade Stalin.”
“Good, good, go and let the secretary in.”
In the afternoon a twenty-strong team left the Kremlin with worn suitcases in their hands, broad flat Caucasian caps on their heads, wearing long black thick woolen coats with the collars raised. They moved close together, side by side, toward the Metro like a flock of crows who had lost the power of flight. In the Metro they all pressed together on the escalator, first helping on an old man with glasses, also wearing a large cap and a raised collar. Inside the station they tramped in a troop onto the platform, shoving aside the people ahead of them. A couple of old ladies crossed themselves on sight of them; one drunken man protested loudly: “They come here from God knows where, with their flat caps on. Too many aliens in Moscow! No wonder our people got slaughtered in the war, but they just sat by the fire at home chomping on mandarins.”
The train had already been announced, but boarding hadn’t begun yet. The men in caps pressed around the door of a passenger car, roughly shoved aside the old ladies and sack-carriers on their way to board, and as soon as the guard came and opened the door, they pushed her aside as they rushed inside, still helping and protecting the bespectacled old man between them, and when the last of them had climbed aboard, they slammed the door on the remaining passengers. When the guard tried to protest, one of the men, a thin, shriveled Caucasian, flashed some document under her nose. “Listen, comrade, don’t wave your papers around, show me properly, so I can check who the hell you are and why I should do what you want.” The scrawny man held the document a long time under the guard’s nose. The shocked woman read it carefully, looked straight at the man, and realized with horror that there was something very familiar about his face, somehow menacingly familiar. At this the woman just nodded and stammered: “Of course, of course, understandable, everything’s in order. Would you like some tea? Shall I bring mattresses and linen and make your beds up?”
“Tea wouldn’t be bad,” said a youngish man with a fresh chubby face, separated from the party, waving his hands.
“And anything to go with the tea?”
One could hear people rattling the latch of the locked passenger car door, cursing and screaming. The guard, ignoring the rattlers, drew the curtains on all the windows and rushed to fetch the tea. The men took off their caps and coats, Stalin his spectacles, too. They smoothed their hair and bald heads. They opened their suitcases and took out their provisions: jars of caviar, fried chickens, onions and genuine baked Georgian tonis puri bread, lavash flatbread, and mandarins. They uncorked bottles of Khvanchkara and five-star Georgian cognac. The guard knocked at the door, bringing tea and sugar. A tall lively man went to the door, grabbed the tray of tea-glasses, and hissed: “Don’t come in here—only if you’re invited. Knock. And the toilet had better be as clean as a whistle. Is that clear?”
“All right. Shall I heat the car?”
Gradually the train started moving. Stalin was silent, taking little sips of the deep red sparkling wine. Beria took rapid slurps of black caviar and broke pieces of lavash with it. “Armenian bread,” he mumbled with his mouth full, “isn’t that ours?”
Stalin silently handed him some puri.
“Thank you, Comrade Stalin!”
“Gratitude is a disease of dogs,” said Stalin, emptying his glass and beckoning the tall man who had received the glasses of tea from the guard. They moved to the corridor of the train car. For a moment everyone in the compartment felt relief; conversation broke out, and was again buttoned up as soon as Stalin and his companion came back. Two men separated from the company and returned with bed linen. The tall man went to fetch mattresses. There weren’t enough for all of them. Stalin was silent as he most often was, just sipping wine, but the drinking made him ever gloomier and he stretched out in the place made ready for him. Gradually the others also lay down to sleep.
In the night, as the train was jerking away from some station, Stalin sat up. He felt suffocated. His side was hurting. But he was pleased that he had got this herd of nincompoops moving, doing something at least. He pulled the curtain aside, pressed his brow against the window and smiled at the night. It was pitch dark; only now and then did the sparks rising from the engine’s stack whiz past the window. Stalin drew his head instinctively between his shoulders, shifted to the edge of his mattress, and looked around the compartment. His eyes, used to the darkness, started to make out a tall male shape standing by the door. On the other side of the corridor sat his most trustworthy bodyguard, Kolessov, looking straight at Stalin. Muffled whispering could be heard from the entrance to the corridor. Stalin recognized Beria’s and Malenkov’s voices. He beckoned to Kolessov, who got up and went to the door to listen. “They’re hatching a plot,” thought Stalin indolently, and then snapped wide awake. “But what if they are plotting, what if they do throw me out of this train car, in some unknown place? Out Tver way, now Kalinin.” Mikhail Kalinin’s toadying, goateed face appeared before his eyes. “Kalinin. Wasn’t he a Chukhna? Or was his wife a Chukhna—the one he left to rot in prison camp? Silly little man, with the heart of a lamb.” And Stalin thought back to when he had last tasted lamb’s heart. The entrance door clicked, Beria and Malenkov returned into the compartment, and Kolessov, who hadn’t tried to hide the fact that he was eavesdropping, sat down beside Stalin without waiting to be told.
“They were making a bet, Comrade Stalin, on whether it was you here or Aleksandr Simonovich.”
“If they knew,” said Stalin, instinctively withdrawing his damaged hand. “What about?”
“I didn’t hear, Comrade Stalin.”
“A pity.” Stalin stretched himself out again. The train was moving steadily and calmly. Gradually sleep came over him and Josif Vissarionovich started quietly snoring.
Some light snow had fallen in the night, but the morning was sunny. At the moment, they were traveling over a river; the train was slowing down. In the distance appeared two fortresses. Beria had been quietly approaching Stalin via the corridor by the window. “Ivangorod and Hermann,” he said importantly.
Stalin was startled: “You, Lavrenti, don’t creep around like that!”
“But how else am I to do it, Comrade Stalin—that is my job.”
“As if that’s a job,” snorted Stalin scornfully, eyeing the slowly passing, somehow unreal scene. The train was stopping at Narva; Stalin stepped quickly back from the window.
“Tea, Comrade Stalin?” asked one of the tall bodyguards. Stalin didn’t reply. Tea was brought; they drank it in silence. The train started moving again, and Stalin opened the curtain slightly. Flat, peaceful countryside, covered with a delicate crust of snow like a bridal veil. Stalin recalled Kato, his first wife, in her dark dress, on her shoulders the same kind of transparent white shawl as this thin layer of snow on the dark ground. Kato amid the flowers in her wooden coffin, beside it her weeping mother and sisters, beyond it her bearded father, and he himself standing at the end, angry with death and fate, his heart hardened. He slipped his hand over his face. Had his eyes really become moist?
Stalin didn’t like this Estonia that he saw from the car window. Featureless, sad scenery, no hills or lakes, plain and glum. Little color. Clumps of forest, dark, snow-flecked muddy fields, highways. Showy little wooden houses, mostly yellow. Boring and empty. Here and there some horse was pulling a cart, old women wrapped in scarves cowered in the carts, one old guy on a grubby bicycle, two ugly red-faced girls by the roadside waving energetically at the train. And one man quite openly and unashamedly shaking his fist, as if he knew who was in this train with the others, rolling toward Tallinn.
The Tallinn station building, built of gray limestone, just as depressing and colorless as the rest of Estonia. And gray, also of limestone, was a great fortress opposite the station, the only splash of color being the red flag fluttering on the high tower. “What would they be without us? A poor little scraggy country. Miserable. Now they’re the mightiest in the world.”
The party was preparing to disembark. Caps were pressed onto heads, coats donned, Stalin put his glasses on and raised the checkered homespun woolen scarf to his chin. No one could be trusted, not even oneself. How could one trust a person who would take on such an adventure with one thing in front of him, another behind? “There are difficulties with the hotel, Comrade Stalin. Since you’re traveling incognito, so to speak, we couldn’t get places in the only decent guesthouse in the city. But we have an agreement with a local military unit . . .”
“We’ll go back this evening.” Stalin furrowed his brow and recalled Ivan Vassilievich, the great ruler Groznyy the Terrible, who had encircled the German crows’ nest somewhere around here. “I don’t see any point in spending more time in Reval. There’s nothing to do here, nothing to look at. Flat countryside, gray and muddy. A town of ruins, oh what a town, more like a village. Ugly German churches with pointed towers . . .”
“They have an Orthodox church too, Comrade Stalin.”
“You think we came here to look at churches? We’ve got more than enough of those ourselves.”
“There’s a theater here too, the Estonia, they’ve just been restoring it, it got hit during the war.”
“Are you planning to take us to the theater in the evening? Interesting—how did you get that arranged?”
“I wasn’t thinking of that exactly—we could just pop into the building.”
“And where will we have lunch?”
“We thought we’d have it at the army unit.”
“That’s enough! No army units. We’ll catch the evening train back to Moscow. Kolessov”—Stalin turned to his tall bodyguard—“arrange a passenger car for this evening and get dinner.”
“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”
“Well, let’s go and look at this theater of yours then. Anastas, you’re the smart one— what sort of institution is it?”
“An opera and ballet theater. Miliza sang there.”
“Korjus hasn’t sung there,” interjected Beria. “I checked the facts: Miliza has performed in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad and elsewhere, but she didn’t get to sing at the Estonia.”
“What are you saying? Why not?”
“She wasn’t talented enough. And her appearance left something to be desired.”
“Kabanikha. But she was good enough for Hollywood.”
“And for the Berlin Staatsoper.”
“Well, German women are horrible anyway,” Beria summarized. Stalin took no further part in the conversation and for the rest of the way they walked in silence. Stalin was regretting this adventure. The idea he had been nurturing for a while, of adding an initial S- to the name Tallinn, didn’t seem so attractive any more. This town wasn’t worthy of such an honor.
The Estonia theater was freshly plastered and painted, it was quite a fine sight from outside, and Stalin’s mood improved a bit, although, trudging along in the middle of this squad of men, he felt a bit short of breath and his legs were quietly throbbing a little. Now the men in caps shoved their way through the only open door and stopped in the foyer by the ticket office. Immediately a security guard appeared from somewhere, an angry crease between his brows. “Citizens, where are you heading—what are you after?”
“We’re looking at your theater.”
“The theater can be viewed in the evening. Put some decent clothes on, buy tickets, and come to the performance. No need to come tramping in here and muddy the floor.”
“Look what a worker we have here!” Mikoyan took his identification from his breast pocket and jabbed it under the guard’s nose. The latter wanted to snatch it away, but Mikoyan didn’t let him. So, the guard took his glasses with deliberation from his pocket, put them on, read it and stared Mikoyan in the face.
“A real genuine paper, is it?” he asked suspiciously.
“Of course. So then—”
“Yes, but you gentlemen should take your caps off, it would be polite,” the guard ventured to state. Strangely enough, everyone except Stalin took their caps off. The guard shambled closer.
“Why have these Estonians built themselves all these—fortresses and churches and opera houses,” wondered Malenkov aloud.
“The Estonians didn’t build them—it was the Germans. The Estonians were slaves,” piped up Shvernik, who had been silent until now.
“Aren’t you, Shvernik, a German yourself, with a doubtful name like yours? And you’re from Petersburg, too. Look, if the Estonians are slaves, wasn’t it the slaves who built these churches and fortresses? Why would the Germans bother to put the stones together and pile up the walls?” declared Malenkov.
“But the Germans laid the plans. And the money came from them too,” Shvernik insisted.
“And why would those slaves need operas?” asked Malenkov sincerely.
“It must have been so that they could hear slaves’ choruses,” said Mikoyan instructively.
“What slaves’ choruses?”
“There’s an opera, Nabucco, and in it there’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves,” Mikoyan explained importantly.
“What have Hebrew slaves got to do with this place?” said Malenkov, shrugging.
From some back room, with a clacking of heels, came a ravishingly pretty girl, straight toward the party arguing about slaves. She was wearing an airy bright pink dress, her dark luxuriant hair framed a lightly glowing little face, her pretty legs in black high-heeled shoes stepped femininely but energetically. Beria’s mouth dropped open and he felt his whole body trembling. The girl was coming ever closer, and before the party had time to recover, she stepped up to Stalin and ripped the cap off his head. Immediately two bodyguards grabbed the girl by the delicate wrists and twisted her arms behind her back, so that the girl only moaned. She didn’t struggle or scream, but kept her frozen stare on Stalin, who, with a smile, took off his glasses and made an awkward bow. “Stalin,” murmured the girl. “Are you Stalin?”
Stalin remembered that there was an interpreter among them, and although he guessed what the girl was saying, he still turned to the interpreter: “What’s she saying?”
“She’s asking if you’re Comrade Stalin.”
“What’s the Estonian for tovarishch?”
“Seltsimees,” responded the interpreter rapidly.
“What’s your first name and patronymic?” Stalin inquired.
“Anton. Anton Nikolayevich.”
“Look, Anton Nikolayevich, I don’t speak Estonian at all, but Comrade is not what that girl called me.”
“Well, yeah, she didn’t,” agreed Anton swiftly. “She didn’t.”
“Let her go,” Stalin told the bodyguard. They released the girl’s arms, she looked downward and began cautiously massaging her wrists. “Ask her who she is, what she’s doing here, and why she took off my cap,” Stalin told the interpreter.
“I work at the Estonia,” said the girl, without waiting for the interpreter. “I’m a dancer, a ballerina. It’s a custom with us here, in the theater, or actually anywhere indoors, for men to take their caps off. I’m sorry, Comrade Stalin, I …”
“I’m not who you think I am,” replied Stalin drily, “but I understand you—I’ve been mistaken for Stalin before, we look somewhat alike. I don’t know exactly, I’ve only seen Stalin in pictures.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “Can I go now?”
“No!” shrieked Beria, “you’d better come with us, come with us to Moscow, I’ll guarantee to you—”
“Lavrenti Pavlovich,” Mikoyan interrupted him sharply, realizing too late that the unusual combination of name and patronymic might seem familiar to the girl.
“Out,” said Stalin quietly.
“Who—out?” said the bodyguard, uncomprehending; “Lavrenti Pavlovich?”
“No, take the girl away.”
“Am I supposed to tell you that? Take her to the security people here, the militia—I don’t care where, just take her away!”
That girl who was taken away from the foyer of the Estonia theater in the late fall of 1950 was my aunt. She only returned to Estonia in 1956. Until she retired she worked at the Kalev confectionery factory in Tallinn in the personnel department, she married, but she remained childless. She told me about her meeting with Stalin only a couple of years before she died. My aunt died in Tallinn in 1999, a few weeks before her sixty-ninth birthday. She was glad to have witnessed the return of the blue, black, and white flag and the Republic of Estonia. But my aunt would have liked to survive into the new millennium—we often chatted about that. She had never told anyone about her meeting with Stalin before, afraid that she wouldn’t be believed anyway. Looking back, she thought she recognized Beria and Mikoyan straight away.
From the collection Hitler Mustjalas (Hitler in Mustjala). © 2016 by Maimu Berg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Christopher Moseley. All rights reserved.
I’m greedy everything’s got to be mine—
truth and pain and all the coconut yogurts
I hold onto everything with a hundred claws
as if I’d lived in the Soviet era too
you’ve no idea
what it means to stand in a sausage line!
a bread line! a milk line! an egg line!
standing in a sausage line was probably just like it is today
still women’s work mostly because only women
have criticized me for
my lack of experience standing in a sausage line
under a totalitarian regime
it makes you wonder what the hell
those women fought so hard for then
was it so that in the future they could
rub it in young people’s faces
look we had to live in a society like that
none of you know a thing about it you’re like shit on a silver spoon
whereas one time a saleslady in a cellar shop a blonde beauty
said you know things were good in the Soviet Union
everybody had a single uniform to wear to school
everyone was equal
course I was maybe seven at the time she told me that
but even then I didn’t like
the idea of a uniform I’d just gotten stylish new jeans
and didn’t even think of displaying myself like
I might see me as others’ equal
because we weren’t
not my stylish jeans
nor that cellar-shop saleslady with her fading beauty
in a childhood of identical pioneer uniforms
somebody’s always more equal
even if you paint them all red
© Sveta Grigorjeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
In these two stories by Estonian author Urmas Vadi, Roman declares war on Putin and Gérard Depardieu, and Margo receives a peculiar order from the king of Ground Beef Land.
Roman wanted, unconditionally, to be present during the delivery; he wanted to deliver the child himself so no stranger’s hands would come between him and the baby. There had already been too many other people ahead of him in life, preventing him from reaching something of importance. Now, Roman wanted to be the first; he wanted to be the one to cut the child’s umbilical cord. Roman wasn’t sure if Sigrid even wanted him to come along to the hospital. Seeing how distant Sigrid could sometimes be, Roman reckoned she probably didn’t want him there at all. But he also supposed that when the time was at hand, Sigrid would certainly need him, and would call. Roman kept his phone on 24/7.
The first thing Roman did in the morning was check his phone. Nothing. It was a disappointment that swelled into trepidation and anger. But his face showed no expression; was seemingly frozen up—that happened. After a certain family gathering, Roman discovered that his facial muscles no longer flexed well, that he lacked facial expressions, and was thus unable to convey his emotions. He might, for example, feel joy, and laugh, but a moment later he stiffened up and only an odd, painful grimace lingered on his countenance. Because of this, he frequently checked his cheeks, jaw, forehead, and lips. Roman was deeply bothered by the fact that he had a defective physiognomy, because now it was even harder for him to connect with others and make himself understood. Would he ever connect with Sigrid? Would Roman be capable of manifesting in the way that he personally feels and sees himself?
Maybe this immobility will even be to my advantage sometime in the future, Roman considers, because that’s how things are these days. I could use it in poker, but also anywhere else you need to either bluff or refrain from betraying secrets, like in war or espionage. I don’t know what the future will bring. What’ll become of Sigrid, and what’ll become of Estonia’s national security? Could he promise his child that the Republic of Estonia would still exist in a year? There were absolutely no guarantees: Russia was making a show of might; the war machine had been put into motion. Roman felt he couldn’t just sit around and witness it anymore! Crimea was gone, Ukraine’s military was simply watching it happen, all of Europe, the entire world was just watching a country be steamrolled.
Online, Roman alternated between reading child-rearing forums and foreign policy. Syria and everything else, but primarily Ukraine, of course. Every day, even frequently at night, he would look up conflict maps on news sites and watch the front line in Eastern Ukraine ooze outward like a bloodstain. After Crimea, there was Donetsk, Sverdlovsk, Lugansk . . . Soon, they’ll be all the way to Kiev. Europe, with its feeble sanctions against Russia, is just as powerless as my face.
Roman felt he needed to take action before it was already too late—before we’re gambled off to the Germans or the Russians again! Much as he didn’t like Putin, he also wasn’t fond of Merkel, who was against the formation of new and bigger NATO military bases in Estonia. Europe as a whole with Merkel at the lead is either dumb or blind, but definitely too polite. You don’t need to play the diplomat here anymore: once Putin is wielding his battle ax, he won’t just stop with Ukraine—he wants to restore the Soviet Union in its entirety! Will it really turn out that we can’t manage to stay independent for longer than the first Estonian Republic, just twenty years?
The more Roman followed the news, the more rage and desperation he felt, and he asked himself: what can I do from here? He was also at war and no longer bought anything produced in Russia: not beer, vodka, nor even dairy products with Russian-language labels. Neither did he read Russian literature anymore, or watch films that starred Russian actors or were made in coproductions with Russia. Roman likewise boycotted Western films that featured defectors. He pulled all the films with Putin-sympathizers Steven Seagal and Gérard Depardieu from his collection. Some of the movies were on videocassette, others on DVD.
He went into the garage and, one after another, he crushed the tapes and discs in a vise. It gave him childish joy and momentary satisfaction. But he had to start somewhere. And he started with Depardieu. He spun the vise on The Man in the Iron Mask to the point where it started to crack. Then he took an electric planer, regulated the blade to cut at a quarter inch, as deep as it possibly went, and simply planed the cassette to shavings. He did the same with the Asterix DVD. Roman was, for some reason, especially repulsed by Napoleon, which he had once thoroughly enjoyed: Napoleon, Depardieu, Putin; they all fused together. This in both the figurative and the literal sense. Roman lit a blowtorch and heated the DVD until the plastic crinkled. Finally, it ignited. Roman let it incinerate completely. Next was Seagal’s turn. Roman didn’t even bother to open the vise, because as an actor, Seagal was considerably more monotonous than Depardieu; a mere mountain of meat. Disc by disc, cassette by cassette, Roman stacked the films on an anvil and bashed Seagal with a sledgehammer. Marked for Death. “You got that right,” Roman commented, and the shards flew. Hard to Kill. “Well, not that hard!” The hammer fell, the plastic screeched and crunched. Above the Law, A Dangerous Man, Against the Dark. They all got what was coming to them: you had to confront the darkness somehow! On top of that, Roman had always liked Stallone and Schwarzenegger more—and even Van Damme; not Seagal, whose fragments were now scattered across the iron work bench and the cold concrete floor with the remains of another traitor. Such is the betrayer’s fate! Still, Roman felt this wasn’t enough.
In fact, he almost always felt like something wasn’t enough; that he had been left out of everything important throughout his life. It had started in childhood and only intensified with time. Roman’s older brother was a great deal bigger than him, was capable of and accomplished more of everything, received more attention, and on top of that, he ate more. Not that Roman was ever left feeling hungry, but that’s what it felt like—a sense of being deprived. That he was merely bypassed and dealt only the crumbs, his brother’s hand-me-downs. Mom and Dad justified it by saying Aleks was bigger: “If you were older, then your clothes would have gone to him.” Roman knew that would never have happened. And all the clothes Roman would have wanted from his brother, such as the acid-washed jeans and the denim jacket with the big Iron Maiden patch on the back, were so tattered by the time he’d have gotten them that only the buttons remained. Aleks had ripped the Iron Maiden patch off and stitched it onto a new jacket.
By now, Roman’s interaction with his brother was nearly nonexistent. They never called each other just to talk or met up or had a couple beers. They saw each other only when obligated, such as on their parents’ birthdays. And on those occasions, Roman once again felt like his brother ate more and talked more and was generally dealt much more attention. When Roman spoke, he was certainly listened to a little, but was soon interrupted because Aleks had something much more interesting to say. In general, Roman had a hunch that the most important topics were discussed only after he left the room. Or else they talked about him behind his back and laughed.
Roman swept the fragments of Seagal and Depardieu into a dustpan, locked the garage door, and went inside. Sigrid had told Roman she wasn’t coming over today; that she wanted to sleep. Roman accepted Sigrid’s wishes unconditionally. So, what to do? Roman’s heart was pounding, a blood vessel throbbed at his temple. He decided to take an important step and join the Elva Unit of the Estonian Defense League. Many people had joined the voluntary Defense League recently. Roman was prepared to do so, also. He took a shower, stepped out of the tub, toweled off, and felt the floor was cold. Summer was ending. Before leaving, Roman ducked into the utility room and switched on the gas boiler.
Ground Beef Land
After Margo left his mother’s apartment and had gotten back from the cemetery, he stood in the kitchen of his summer cabin and tried to soothe his nerves. He’d sweated through his shirt and even his pullover, was slouching in front of the window, staring off into space, and slid into a state of lethargy. The whole world drifted further and further away, he was bothered less and less by the apples thudding onto the lawn, by the overgrown grass; everything was so distant, so alien and meaningless. The only things Margo had left were his appetite and ground beef. Every morning, he took a packet from the deep freezer and set it on the counter to thaw. Ground beef couldn’t betray or abandon you, nor could it kick you in the balls. When thawed, it’s so soft that you can do whatever you like with it: it doesn’t resist, doesn’t protest, doesn’t accuse.
Even though the deep freezer was fully stocked, he always picked up fresh ground beef whenever he was in the city. He’d gone into town today—today, he felt he was ready to try boeuf à la tartar. Margo dropped the meat into a bowl, ground salt onto it with a satisfying crunch, added a dash of pepper, and kneaded the mixture. A minced garlic clove and some chopped onion went in as well. The recipe recommended adding pickled cucumbers and capers. Margo felt those would be excessive, and would already come between him and the ground beef. He shaped the mass into a patty, set it on a plate, and made a hollow in the middle, which was where the raw egg should go. Margo wasn’t quite ready for that part yet—eggs were to be either fried or boiled—so he left it out, leaving the indent where it was in the middle of the ground beef, as if waiting for something to enter it. We all have hollows and holes in us: in our hearts; in our souls. It’s rare for us to know how and with what to fill them.
Margo set the plate on the table in front of him and sniffed at it. The smell of freshly ground pepper and garlic and onion and ground beef filled his nostrils, overwhelming every one of his senses. It looked so perfect. For whatever reason, he wanted to eat it with a spoon. He ate slowly, savoring each mouthful. Soon, he’d already finished and felt full to just the right point. The flavor he’d relished in every spoonful lasted on and on and on, so much as carrying him forth. Margo felt like he was somewhere in a film. Movies themselves are nice, downright pleasurable, and this film wasn’t cliché, but unique: his and only his; he plays himself in it and watches himself, likewise. And he’s not just some slouching, run-of-the-mill oaf who’s consigned to oblivion at his cabin, but is bound to something important and great—he realized what it’s all about!
He was no longer in the kitchen but walking across a wondrous meadow. The ground beneath him was so soft, the grass was just the right height, and there wasn’t a single rotten apple in sight. His tread was so light. In the distance, he glimpsed a city with walls and towers, flags fluttering upon them. The main gate was open, Margo walked onward, the townspeople halted, stared at him, and hushed. Margo arrived at the town square and stopped. He was guided to the king’s castle. It all pleased him—certainly—everything was so light and amazing, but he was still troubled by several questions: What city is this? What people are these? Why am I here? The king, whose face was somehow so familiar, received Margo and sat him at his side. They were silent at first, then the king greeted him:
“Welcome to Ground Beef Land!”
“Thank you for inviting me as your guest,” Margo replied gratefully but without overdoing it.
Even in dreams, Margo was incapable of feeling at ease with himself or saying the right things at the right time. He wrote and rewrote his lectures for work several times over, memorized them—no improvisation!—and even wrote the jokes in. Yet sitting here next to the king, he suddenly felt incredibly light and pleasant:
“I feel as if I’ve arrived home after many long years of travels.”
The king nodded and waited a few moments before speaking again: there was time aplenty, nowhere to rush.
“But even now, you still have not arrived; you still must embark upon more travels and journeys. There are paths yet untread and lands yet undiscovered!”
Margo nodded, no matter that he didn’t know what to think of the fact that he still had more journeying to do. The king could tell what Margo was thinking, and added:
“Here in this world, or there in that one, each of us has our own task. And none of us has arrived before that task is complete.”
“Good King—what, then, is my task? What is the journey, to which my path leads?”
Margo’s frankness didn’t bother the king, not in the least. Rather, he nodded as a sign of goodwill.
“I am the ruler of Ground Beef Land: everything you see in this country is made of ground beef, even you and I.” This came as a surprise to Margo. “Yes, yes, even you and I—we are all made of ground beef; I have made you all of ground beef. But that’s not what is important. What’s important is the path itself, though even that is made of ground beef.”
Again, Margo wondered whether the king was just speaking in metaphor:
“Good King, is all of this just one big allegory?”
“It may be, it may not; what is true is that everything here is made of ground beef. Ground beef is best for creation. But the meat must be filled with meaning and purpose! Only then does ground beef start to live and blossom. Only then, without ulterior motives or self-interest, is it capable of being happy; of enjoying the moment; of seizing the day; of using the day. Have you felt selfless submission? Have you yourself offered it?"
The king turned to look at Margo, and Margo recognized the man as his father:
“Dad, it’s you!"
“Yes, yes, it is I—now, answer my question. Have you offered anyone selfless pleasure?”
Margo was silent for a moment, thinking.
“Suppose I haven’t,” he finally answered, and a sadness came over him.
“You see!” the king added. “You’ve been neglecting your garden!”
“That’s true.” Margo recalled his garden, the grass turning to hay, the apples.
“But what must I do then, Dad?” Margo pleaded in despair. “Should I mow first, or gather up all the apples?”
“Not one nor the other!” Still, the king seemed indifferent. “The garden you have left fallow is not of this land.”
“What’s it of, then? Where’s the garden I must tend to?” The king didn’t reply. Why doesn’t he reply? “Dad, help me, I can’t seem to understand, just tell me what I have to do! Tell me what can fill this hole in my ground-beef soul!”
“Why wouldn’t I tell you? Of course I’ll tell you. That’s why I summoned you here.”
Margo waited; waited with bated breath. The king’s old and gray ground-beef eyes, eyes that had seen everything, stared straight into Margo’s, straight through the back of them, and he spoke:
“You don’t know how to treat women!”
“Oh-ho!” Margo exclaimed, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Precisely that! You haven’t offered them satisfaction!"
Margo felt just miserable, unsure of what to do, and the king wasn’t helping, either—he was being downright ornery.
“Your path and your task is to return to your own land and give back all those orgasms to all those women with whom you’ve had intercourse, and whom you’ve left without satisfaction!”
Margo sagged: there was no way he could have expected something like that! The king nodded:
“Until you have completed your task, you are no more than the pack of ground beef put on the kitchen counter to thaw this morning!”
“But I went to the market today!”
“As if! You don’t see hallucinations like this with fresh ground beef, now do you?! Fine, it is what it is. You must go.”
Margo realized that everything the king had said was true, but nevertheless: where was he to begin?
“Go now, you’re awaited!”
The king’s audience had ended and his envoys, who had been standing at a polite distance throughout the whole conversation, now stepped closer. Margo rose to his feet, overcome with confusion:
“Who’s awaiting me? Where am I supposed to go?”
“Why, back to the maidens of my land, who certainly aren’t quite maidens anymore! They will instruct you.”
“I don’t know, I probably don’t need instruction.” The thought seemed so disagreeable to Margo at first.
“Come, now—of course you do! You, sir, don’t even know where the G-spot is!”
“Yes, I do!” Margo lied, and at that moment, he realized the king could see straight through him, just as he had seen everything without bothering to respond. The king’s envoys guided Margo through torchlit hallways to the maidens of Ground Beef Land, who first and foremost tore his dumb oversized band T-shirt to shreds.
From Neverland. © 2016 by Urmas Vadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
Humans are, in essence, not much more than highly developed mammals. We are scientifically classifiable by Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, just like the pine tree and the bark beetle. Human intelligence has led our species to marvelous zeniths of technology and an ability to survive in the most punishing habitats imaginable. Yet, just as crucial as respiration and physical endurance are the tasks of reproduction and cooperation. Humans are a social species, but the question of compatibility with genetic fellows remains one of our greatest challenges, one that no gadget can facilitate or perform for us in a failsafe manner. Understanding and managing our own psyches is a gargantuan task in itself, but coordinating and harmonizing our lives with those of others?! Few convincingly master the art. More often than not, modern-day technology seems to actually inhibit our ability to truly interconnect with peers, even though connectivity has reached a dazzling pinnacle. Alienation draws us into a vicious cycle: an insatiable hunger for emotional connection and understanding leads us to ever more pious attempts at communication. We feel lonely in the vastness of the social cosmos, overwhelmed by the many possibilities for interaction; nevertheless, these sensations are nothing new—it’s not as if we humans have ever been flawlessly adept at coexistence in any era!
Estonian authors have not failed to notice and address this quandary, and over the last few decades, several writers in the snowy crown of the Baltic States have delved eagerly into the complexities of human communication and interaction. Frank social critique and a fascination with relationships have been central tropes of classic and contemporary Estonian literature, in spite of—or thanks to—the common perception of Estonians being an emotionally chilly and withdrawn people.
Estonia celebrates its centenary this year, but the birth of Estonian literature came with the period of national awakening in the late nineteenth century. Prior to early Estonian writers such as Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–22), Lydia Koidula (1843–86), and Juhan Liiv (1864–1913), the oral tradition was the sole vehicle for preserving folklore. In 1861, the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, similar to the Finnish Kalevala, was published bilingually in German and Estonian by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald as a conclusion of work done originally by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann. However, Estonian literature truly began to flourish in the early twentieth century with the literary group Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) and the Siuru movement, the name of which was taken from that of a mythical character in Kalevipoeg. The latter of these in particular, the members of which probed the limits of cultural expression under the motto “The joy of creation—may it be our sole driving force,” fostered the popularity of burgeoning Estonian-language literature in the years leading up to the country’s independence, and has had a lasting impact on the local literary tradition. Estonian writers strained to express themselves genuinely under the censorship of Soviet occupation (subsequently perfecting the craft of “writing between the lines,” especially the authors Mati Unt [1944–2005] and Mihkel Mutt ) and struggled to find both footing and funding in the tumultuous years immediately following the restoration of independence. Nevertheless, Estonian literature has since regained its confidence and the status of a bold, vibrant, intellectually stimulating force. Although a mere million or so people claim Estonian as their native language, the list of contemporary Estonian authors who have penned remarkable works well worthy of translation is long.
The authors featured here—Maimu Berg (1945), Urmas Vadi (1977), and Sveta Grigorjeva (1988)—represent three distinct generations of contemporary Estonian writers, and the distinctive qualities their writing possesses are wonderful indicators of the diversity Estonian literature has to offer.
Berg’s collection of short stories Hitler in Mustjala (Hitler Mustjalas, 2016) was a nominee for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Prize for Literature. Though Berg published her debut in 1987 at the seasoned age of forty-three, she dove straight into the tense and tangled issues of interethnic relationships in a society that was still steadying itself after momentous political and social transformations. The reimagined histories that constitute roughly half of her latest collection feature a cast of globally recognizable characters such as Hitler, Vladimir Putin, and Angela Merkel. “Stalin in Tallinn” boldly puts readers behind the eyes of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin sometime after the end of World War II, when the persistently paranoid dictator is troubled by growing ennui. Irony has traditionally been a favored instrument of Estonian authors and Berg employs it with a surgeon’s steady hand. Deftly, she exposes the childishly eccentric mental wanderings of a man responsible for the forced relocation and deaths of millions, humorously drawing forth the wholly human fears and nervous reactions of those subject to his everyday whims while still not failing to emphasize the atrocious consequences in which such seemingly innocent actions can result.
Urmas Vadi’s novel Neverland (2016) is his seventh work of prose to date, and arguably his most successful. A playwright, Vadi has likewise published several collections of his original theater works. This background in particular has endowed him with a sharp eye and a keen ability to conjure evocative, complex humanist characters onto both paper and the stage. As the author remarked in an interview with the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, the title of Neverland (which is in English in its original) provides for “an intellectual space with room for the four protagonists.” In the same interview, Vadi expands upon the statement that is printed on the book’s front cover, “a novel about interhuman relationships”: “I often feel like people are some kinds of social deviants who are unable to communicate, and I feel like I myself am that way, too. It might be one of the reasons why I write. By writing, I’m able to elaborate and precisely word all those life situations where I felt inadequate or scattered. [ . . . ] At some point, the problem of communication becomes outright existential: How much are we actually capable of understanding another human being in the first place? How close can we get to those who are dearest to us? Is it even possible to truly help someone else?”
The untitled poem by Sveta Grigorjeva presented here in translation was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of the Estonian cultural youth journal Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure, which is only one letter removed from translating as “Fresh Air”). Grigorjeva is a poet, a choreographer, a modern dancer, and an artist. She is known as one of the “angry young women” of Estonian poetry, an unaffiliated chorus of active, brazen, and uncompromising contemporary female voices. Reviewing her 2013 debut collection, Who’s Afraid of Sveta Grigorjeva? (Kes kardab Sveta Grigorjevat?), the “avant-poet” and literary critic Jürgen Rooste wrote: “What we have here are the inner workings of a woman who seeks and wanders, a Russian-Estonian identity, a young bud, a prefab apartment block resident, someone who mercilessly tears down the curtains and the set.” Speaking not only of Grigorjeva, but of these forceful “angry young women” on the whole, he continues: “This passion is spectacular and amazing: this dangerous passion which blurs art and ’real life’; i.e. which sets new demands and poses a new challenge to the latter.”
Although their observations and interactions unfold in a small society where little can go unnoticed—in a unique, sensitively self-conscious linguistic and cultural environment—Estonian authors do not shy from probing societal scrapes and cuts; from using their writing as a disinfectant that stings and jerks attention to the issues we would more readily ignore, but which must be addressed for healing and understanding to gain ground. At the heart of this lie the most fundamental intentions that define humanity: to express, to understand, and to be understood. In short: to make human contact. With generously applied, balanced doses of irony and critique of modern-day society, many Estonian authors such as the three featured here manage to fluidly draw attention to issues while simultaneously recognizing we are inherently flawed, ultimately encouraging us to practice that most human of acts in regard to ourselves and to others: forgiveness.
© 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
He lives in several worlds simultaneously.
—Juan José Saer, La Grande
In the opening pages of La Grande, the final, unfinished novel by Juan José Saer, the writer from Santa Fe who lived most of his life—and died—in Paris, Willi Gutiérrez has returned to Argentina after thirty years abroad. His return is shrouded in mystery, and the observation above is both a reference to Gutiérrez’s past—which, rumor has it, constituted a double life—and a supposition about the man’s present. While the description of Gutiérrez is an assumption of fact and references an alleged duplicity, it might be applied in a much different context to the writers included in our April issue. Their work and their characters occupy several spaces, several worlds, and ask us to reconsider what we think we know of our own. And like Gutiérrez’s return, their appearance here marks a return to a past about which we still have much to discover.
Saer is here to lead us a little further along the way. Not via his own work (much of which has been translated into English by Steve Dolph for Open Letter Books), but in an homage to the deceased giant by contemporary writer Sergio Chejfec. In Chejfec’s story, a novelist, an essayist, and a theologian set off on a pilgrimage to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Saer’s final resting place. Their search for Saer and their musings on the ultimate importance of their pilgrimage mirror similar quests that permeate the writing in this issue. “They act like protagonists,” Chejfec’s narrator tells us of the Saer search party, “but what does it mean, exactly, to be a protagonist?” Not only are they frequently engaged in a search of some kind, but the protagonists who appear throughout this issue often find they exercise less control over their destinies than they would like to believe.
It is perhaps appropriate that Chejfec’s short story begins in Paris, for one of the many things that tie together the contributors here is their identity as Argentinean writers who have often considered their relation, and that of their country, to points abroad. What likewise unites the five writers presented here—much more than, and perhaps in place of, any sense of national identity—is a common commitment to searching and seeking out. Each of these writers seeks something different, but all of them grapple with myths. Myths of identity, myths of place, myths around our relationship to others. Each writer’s respective search leads English-language readers weaned on a steady diet of Borges, Bioy Casares, and porteño legend to do some searching of their own.
This search begins by inviting us to reconsider what we think we know of Argentina and Argentine letters. Following Chejfec, the appearance here of Norah Lange—who belonged to the same avant-garde generation as Borges, Girondo, and Silvina Ocampo, but whose work has languished unrecognized by English language audiences—continues recent undertakings begun with the publication of Ocampo’s poetry and prose. The publication of Lange’s fiction now in English gives us a broader understanding of the generation that marked the move away from the literature of the pampas to a literature whose references were international and whose work engaged not just with other Argentinean writers but with international literary movements at the time. Meanwhile, fierce literary and cultural critic—and Borges specialist—Beatriz Sarlo tackles the myths of Buenos Aires through a literary and historical exploration of the Argentine capital. Marcelo Cohen considers the linguistic implications of nationalism, exile, and nostalgia in the work of the writer and translator, with a cameo by his coeval Osvaldo Lamborghini. And Sara Gallardo’s story gives us a glimpse into the early short fiction of an important writer of the middle and late twentieth century who—like Di Benedetto before her—has enjoyed rediscovery in Argentina in the last few years, decades after her death.
If indeed Norah Lange registers at all on English readers’ radars, it’s likely for some mention of her part in the vanguard of the early and mid-century alongside Borges and her husband Oliverio Girondo. (Borges wrote the preface to her first poetry collection, La calle de la tarde, published in 1925. Girondo, however, beat out Borges for her affections, and it’s said Borges resented him for it for the rest of his life.) As her name suggests, Lange was born in 1905 to Norwegian parents who emigrated to Argentina. In the late 1920s, she would travel to Norway to visit her sister Ruth, and she and Girondo would spend much of the 30s, 40s, and 50s traveling throughout Europe and Latin America, including a period in Brazil where they encountered modernist writers Mario de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade. Her work includes two memoirs, including Notes from Childhood, her first major success, and the novels People in the Room and The Two Portraits. The house she shared with Girondo—the scene of frequent literary gatherings—still stands at calle Suipacha 1444, in Buenos Aires’s Retiro neighborhood, and is presently part of the Museo Fernandez Blanco and marked by a plaque erected in the year 2000 to mark the spot.
In the excerpt presented here from her 1950 novel People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and forthcoming later this year from And Other Stories, Lange’s seventeen-year-old narrator tries to decipher her mysterious neighbors, three unmarried sisters who refuse to give her their names or install a telephone in their home across the street from the narrator’s. In a burst of audacity, the young narrator seeks finally to cast a light onto the enigma of the three sisters’ identities and is sent fleeing the house, her search “to get closer to them, to force them to be precise and at least say who they were” thwarted but the thrill of the hunt attained.
Decades and sensibilities divide Lange and Gallardo, whose story “Things Happen” introduces us to a retiree whose garden is the envy of Lanús, a municipality just beyond the southern edge of the city of Buenos Aires. The history of Gallardo’s family is closely entwined with that of Argentina. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Bartolomé Mitre, the president of Argentina from 1862 to 1868 and founder of La Nación, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Her father was Argentina’s minister of foreign affairs and later president of the University of Buenos Aires. Gallardo herself worked as a journalist, and published her first novel Enero (January) in 1958. In the late 1970s, following the death of her second husband, the writer Héctor A. Murena, she moved with her children to Spain, later spending time in Switzerland and Italy. After returning to Buenos Aires, she died after an asthma attack at the age of fifty-seven, in 1988. Between 2001 and 2016, her entire oeuvre—including five novels, two story collections, and works of children’s literature—was reissued in new editions. During that time, her reputation among critics and readers has grown. Critic Leopoldo Brizuela (who, like contributor Marcelo Cohen, has translated the work of Clarice Lispector into Spanish) has compared her work to that of Bioy Casares, a comparison warranted by the story that appears in this issue.
In “Things Happen,” the protagonist looks on as his garden is engulfed by the sea. The man’s loss of control over his carefully plotted circumstances—and his descent from the owner of a carefully pruned garden and erstwhile retired civil servant to captain of a one-man ship—leads him to try to steady himself by recording details of his previous life as water and ice floes close in around his house.
Marcelo Cohen’s 2014 essay “New Battles for the Propriety of Language” evokes a different sense of at sea, recounting his flight from Argentina in the Dirty War era and his subsequent travails as an Argentinean translator working for Spanish publishers. Cohen, born in Buenos Aires in 1951, made his home in Barcelona for over twenty years, returning to Argentina only in 1996; his publications include more than fifteen books and translations of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Fitzgerald, Raymond Roussel, Fernando Pessoa, and others.
Moving between memoir, political history, quest narrative, and translation manifesto, Cohen examines the influence of our relationship to language, the demands for conformity in the publishing world, and the implications of these for the task of the translator. Cohen finds his search for a language—his own but also a voice for the writers he translates—leads him into often uncomfortable confrontation with the myths we maintain about ourselves, our private idiom, and the uses of language.
It would be difficult to overstate Beatriz Sarlo’s impact on Argentine culture in the last fifty years. Sarlo is no stranger to those in the academic world, having taught at Columbia, Maryland, Berkeley, and Cambridge. She has also been a Wilson Center and Guggenheim fellow. She is an authority on Borges, but also on Sarmiento and Cortázar. But while her training is literary, she has—as she signaled when, in 1978, she co-founded the important magazine Punto de vista focused on popular culture—never been afraid to set her sights on the culture at large. In her essay here, she returns to one of her favorite subjects, the social and cultural development of Buenos Aires. Tracing the city’s development throughout the twentieth century, she provides us a history of its intelligentsia.
Sarlo’s target—the mythos surrounding Buenos Aires that would have it the “Paris of South America”—also leads her toward a dismantling of, if not of language itself, the linguistic constructs employed to buttress an idealized Argentine capital. Not only is Buenos Aires not the Paris of South America, Sarlo asserts, its development has drawn inspiration from cities beyond Europe and its present-day incarnation is home to many of the hallmarks of other South American capitals from which it has sought so desperately to distance itself. “Those roaming the streets,” Sarlo tells us, “are not always flâneurs, the chic, dandies, or artists.” Drawing on literary observations of the city by writers from Borges to Arlt to Martínez Estrada, Sarlo seeks to give us a fundamentally new understanding of this dynamic city, and she succeeds. (Her book Una modernidad periférica, a remarkable work of literary and cultural criticism, treats this theme in greater detail,) By questioning age-old clichés about the capital city, she also strikes at the heart of long-held beliefs about what it means to be Argentinean.
Through their own interrogations of language, of style, of history, the writers here lead us to a much more nuanced understanding of twentieth-century Argentina and its writers, their work an antidote to the literary equivalent of tourist guides that, as Sarlo sneers, “inform [tourists] that Buenos Aires is America’s most European city.” Looking back on his exile with the benefit of hindsight, Cohen observes that “my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity.” After reading the writers here, we should have no doubt that ours demand the same.
© 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker
In this homage to Juan José Saer, Sergio Chejfec sends a novelist, an essayist, and a theologian on a pilgrimage to the great writer’s final resting place in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Three Argentineans are in Paris one Sunday in spring. They walk through its empty streets as if they had nothing else to do that morning. They think of their families, of the people they’ve momentarily left behind, and of their imminent return to routine: each will begin the journey back in just a few hours. The city seems to have been abandoned; in its stillness, it also seems to have taken on a deliberate and scenic artifice, perhaps the result of a last-minute agreement among the residents to show off its neglected buildings, businesses, and streets. All this is subject to the most profound silence, a constant kind that manifests most clearly when some noise breaks it and is gone, leaving an air of desolation in its wake.
The group is composed of a theologian, a novelist, and an essayist. A musician will join them later. They walk slowly, indifferently, somewhat grudgingly: they did not expect a Sunday in Paris to seem so much like a Sunday in their respective cities. The idiom “Sunday morning” easily captures the moment, because Sunday mornings are the same everywhere. Perhaps because they are in a foreign country, or because they imagine themselves to be the sole actors in a piece they can’t quite identify yet somehow know is profound, one of those with a certain psychological depth, they sink into a more tangible indolence, a more eloquent silence.
They have known each other for years, though they will soon part ways and may not see one another again for a long time. They act like protagonists . . . but what does it mean, exactly, to be a protagonist? They move like a gang, and maybe feel they form a collective subject, assigning roles they adopt but do not own. Each body is an extension or arm of the one walking beside it. They advance as if they were interested in everything and nothing at all; anyone who saw them might imagine a well-oiled set of gears made of mistrusting characters in decline.
The novelist has gone to pick up the essayist and the theologian; in order to do so, he ate breakfast, packed, and checked out of his hotel room early, since he is returning to his country that same afternoon. The essayist and the novelist have had a few stilted exchanges—stilted but somehow natural, as if their friendship consisted of that kind of communication, of stringing together snippets of conversations—during the brief daytime coexistence to which they’ve subjected themselves as part of a two-day symposium on literary studies. Breakfast was a recurring theme of these dialogues. The novelist and the essayist tend to develop, over time, conversations of varying degrees of significance. On this occasion, they have taken advantage of coffee breaks, the time spent walking from one building to the next or waiting in hallways, and especially the long commutes to off-site events: these are all opportunities to deepen their complicity, and as a result they can discuss nothing even remotely serious or conclusive without endangering their mundane yet abiding friendship.
Each time they meet they pick up at least one topic where they left off. Both men feel that this topic, whatever it may be, asserts itself completely according to chance yet always at just the right moment to rescue them from indifference. The essayist is staying at an expensive hotel, the novelist in a cheap one: this has given rise to jokes and a comparison of breakfasts. The novelist must resign himself to the crumbs offered him in the damp catacombs passed off as a cafeteria, while the essayist can choose from a wide array of options presented in a spacious dining room with tablecloths and windows overlooking the boulevard. They spoke of these disparities one day without reaching any valid conclusions.
Prior to that Sunday, the novelist had seen the theologian only once. It was in Rosario, around fifteen years earlier, at the wedding of a mutual friend (of the essayist and the theologian), a philosopher by trade. The novelist had attended the wedding as the essayist’s guest. Though his memory of the theologian is vague, the novelist knows he would have recognized him in any city or climate, at any hour or day of the week, even if he weren’t in the essayist’s company.
The essayist and the theologian are staying at the same hotel. They are childhood friends and are using the symposium that the essayist is attending as an excuse to get together, since the theologian lives in a city near there and has not been able to make it back to Argentina in recent years. The theologian and the essayist are from the same neighborhood, and the narrator imagines they even lived on the same block. The novelist is jealous of their Rosario connection; above all, of something that could form between them or, rather, something he believes has already formed and takes on an almost physical quality when he walks alongside them.
He believes there is a complicity between them from which he is excluded. His biggest worry is that, after their Sunday excursion, the essayist and the theologian will look back on the day, listing each time the novelist made a weak or untenable point. The novelist feels as if he’s being tested by the theologian and the essayist, which leads to a proliferation of long silences and his double-guessing everything he wants to say. Now and then he is overcome by the idea of one of them grabbing a book at random later that night, reading a phrase out loud, and the two of them doubling over with laughter, without shame or need of any explanations.
The essayist is the only one among them with a camera. His daughter has charged him with a task. She has given him her teddy bear, named Colita, to photograph in different places and situations during his trip; the essayist often interrupts their walk to set Colita on the roof of a car, for example, or beside a famous or otherwise impressive shop window. Then he takes a few steps back and captures the image. Colita’s fur is white with a black stripe around the neck, like a sailor’s shirt, and two thin rings where the bear’s wrists would be. Later, the essayist will ask the theologian and the novelist to stand near the stuffed animal, saying that it will make his daughter happy. The novelist doesn’t know what to do when posing with Colita, unlike the theologian who always looks good in photographs, whatever the situation.
The three walk a long way down the middle of the street until they arrive where they’ll meet the musician. It is a bar or a brasserie and seems to be the only place open for blocks. Once there, they stand silently at the curb, observing streetside activities that merit no comment. The musician, who has lived in Paris for years, had suggested that the novelist meet him there. The novelist, who had already planned to meet the essayist and the theologian that same morning, asked if anyone minded meeting the others. And since no one did, there they all are when a few minutes later the musician walks up to them, a smile on his face. The musician is the youngest of the four. The novelist doesn’t know whether to attribute the essayist’s and the theologian’s cold greeting to this fact or to their defensiveness upon realizing that the musician, who is also from Buenos Aires, has canceled out Rosario’s numerical advantage.
A short while later they are seated at a table, ready to eat. Each has ordered a beer. When asked by the musician what he does, the theologian explains that one of his neighbors is a former machine operator in a textile factory. He did this work his whole life, making his way up the ranks, overseeing intricate processes, and operating remarkably complex machinery. Because the building is small and all the mailboxes are joined together, the theologian is always coming across letters addressed to this neighbor; no matter what the nature of the correspondence, the envelopes always include his title with his name. The letters are addressed to a “Mr. so-and-so, Textile Machinist.” The theologian laments that the correspondence he receives addresses him by his name alone, not, as consistency would dictate, “Mr. Theologian” or even just “Theologian.”
The comment seems clever, but it strikes them all as something to reflect on rather than to laugh about. The novelist is inspired and is on the verge of sharing his hypothesis about honorifics and special forms of address, unionization, the images surrounding artisans, professional identities, and so on but remains silent because he senses that he will regret whatever he might manage to say. The essayist, apparently used to the theologian’s humor, which was elliptical at first and then somewhat sly, looks down and smiles faintly, enigmatically, as if he were already aware of the theologian’s concern but had not expected to hear it in that context.
The musician has no opinion; he probably doesn’t see it as a joke, either. The musician has an abstract notion of humor: to him, it is not about contradictory or anticlimactic situations, or moments inflected with irony or paradox. To him, it is a question of slippage. Every event has the potential to be humorous, but this aspect is not always revealed. As such, he believes that nothing can be inherently funnier than anything else and that everything depends on the syntax of the situation and the information accumulated. He secretly knows this is why he chose music: he feels he can juxtapose dramatic and comedic versions, or offer something that has neither of those qualities, without being obvious about it.
In the brasserie, they feel sheltered by the company and by the conversation in a shared language spoken with the same intonation. Given this, and influenced by the theologian’s comment, they start telling jokes. For all four of them, jokes are the cords that bind them to their past and their community. But also to the present or, in any case, to the past that still echoes in the present. They will proceed by category—jokes about Jews, about little Jaimito, about morons and bumpkins—and then amuse themselves with a brief round of “world’s worst.” They even reflect for a moment on the idea of the “world’s worst” anything and try to apply it to their own professions: world’s worst essayist, musician, novelist, theologian. Then, as if they’d planned it from the start, they wrap up with the most ubiquitous category of all, but also the hardest to pin down: bad jokes.
At a key moment in their animated conversation, the essayist leans forward to extract Colita from under his chair and places the stuffed animal on the table beside two beer glasses. True to kind, Colita is an affable, round-faced little bear. He is wearing a miniature backpack that looks gray from a distance but up close is a tiny checkerboard pattern in black and white. The essayist makes sure the stuffed animal is steady, adjusts the straps on the so-called backpack to straighten it out, and waits for their server to appear so he can ask him to take a photo of the four Argentineans with Colita.
While he waits for their server to appear, the essayist shows them other images of Colita saved to his camera. A brief list of noteworthy situations: “Colita on a bridge over the Seine,” “Colita on the theologian’s bald spot,” “Colita in the Metro,” “Colita in Notre Dame,” “Colita in the Galerie Vivienne,” and so on. The essayist remarks that his daughter cares more about Colita’s grand tour than his own. The musician interrupts him to say that he’s remembered a great Jewish joke and would like to tell it, if no one minds returning to the topic. The others agree. As a result, however, the essayist will forget to ask the server to take their picture. Colita will remain on the table, a silent witness to the musician’s joke.
Moments before, the musician had mentioned an anecdote about Witold Gombrowicz: he said that, back when Gombrowicz used to work at the Polish Bank in Buenos Aires, he would take off his pants on hot days and attend to customers in his underwear. In those days, the tellers stood behind tall, imposing counters and only their upper body was visible. Gombrowicz took advantage of this fact to stay cool and, according to the musician, to laugh at the bank’s patrons as if they were the other kind, the patrons he himself lacked at the time.
Just as the musician is about to launch into his joke, the theologian thinks about the small but obvious injustice in the fact that his neighbor, the former textile worker, is addressed formally by the post office and other people and institutions, as befits his status, while he, an accomplished theologian, is anonymous as far as the world of correspondence is concerned. He thinks about how titles often confer identity more than names do. How anyone can have a name, but it’s the title that makes the name stand out.
Sitting across from him, the novelist realizes that he, too, knows a Jewish joke he forgot to tell in the appropriate round. It’s the best joke he’s ever heard, of any genre, and he deeply regrets wasting his chance to share it. He keeps his eyes fixed on Colita as the musician begins and is relieved as it becomes clear that, contrary to his fears, it’s not the same joke.
By now, the essayist has taken one of the teddy bear’s paws in his hand and has no intention of letting go until the musician has finished his story, as if the anecdote might upset the animal. The gesture has revealed the watch he wears on his right arm. A black watch with a white face that would be completely unremarkable were it not for the fact that, instead of numbers, the hours are marked by twelve distinct and fairly exotic chairs. Though he has memorized its features over the years, the theologian always gives in to the temptation to stare at the essayist’s watch, especially when it is exposed by accident, as it is now. The essayist, who has forgotten he is holding Colita’s paw, pays close attention to the musician’s story; the theologian listens while staring at the essayist’s watch, that is, while his eyes drift between the folds of the musician’s gray turtleneck, which the theologian thinks is much too warm for the day, and the essayist’s watch, which has become a mute emblem in the middle of the table. The theologian knows every last detail of the watch, such as—and this knowledge confirms the closeness of their friendship—the hour assigned to several of the famed chairs. Frank Gehry’s celebrated cardboard chair sits at nine o’clock, across from Marcel Breuer’s model B3 where the two would be; Saarinen’s Tulip chair marks seven o’clock.
No detail of that watch is unknown to him: once, he even managed to decipher the tiny engraved initials that indicate its provenance. If he cannot stop staring at it, then, this is because, though it holds no secrets, it does retain a remainder as inscrutable as a talisman and more complicated than that of any other watch. The theologian’s thoughts about the watch are just that nebulous, practically null, a brief chain of minutiae. He is aware, for example, that the essayist pays no attention to it, but a pact between timepiece and owner will keep the watch on his wrist. He also knows that every time someone discovers the trick—when those intricate figures reveal themselves to be not numbers but chairs—and reacts with a combination of delight and defiance, the essayist always responds with what the theologian likes to describe as discreet aristocratic aplomb. His reaction is, above all, restrained, because the last thing the essayist wants to do is draw attention to himself; and yet, he is not inclined to give up the useless—for its brevity and triviality—distinction he gains from wearing the watch.
The musician has been praised enthusiastically and unanimously for his great joke. He will remember this as he walks back to the apartment he rents a few blocks from the brasserie after lunch. It is a joke that has always gone over well; he believes this is due in part to the story itself and in part to his notion of comedy as slippage. The novelist, the essayist, and the theologian definitely seemed perplexed by the fact that they couldn’t identify the genre of the story as he was telling it, then burst out laughing at the end, and finally seemed a bit surprised to realize they didn’t know why they were laughing, whether it was the mishaps of the plot, the vivid language used to tell it, or the cynical moral that emerged if one chose to interpret the story as a joke.
The musician believes he managed to hold the three men in suspense with a well-timed pause, which pleases him immensely because that is what he tries to do with his music: keep the audience in the palm of his hand, caught between excitement and shock. He has lived in this city for a long time but in all those years he has never gotten over the feeling, when walking down certain streets, that the buildings that pitch forward alarmingly above him might come crashing down at any moment. Not on him, but instead benevolently in his wake. On those occasions, he imagines the staggered collapses—which are limited to the buildings’ façades—accompanied by Wagnerian music. Then he imagines walking back the same way in the silence that always follows a disaster, advancing along the stretch of frontless buildings and peering into their exposed interiors as if he were looking at a sketch or a design for the scenery of his next piece.
After lunch, the essayist, the theologian, and the novelist told the musician they were thinking of going to the cemetery and asked if he wanted to join them. It was the novelist who took the initiative, saying that since it was their last day in Paris for who knows how long, they planned to visit the remains of Juan José Saer. He had proposed the idea earlier to the theologian and the essayist during their walk that morning; now, based on a series of flimsy but well-meaning impressions, he sensed that the musician’s absence might jeopardize their funerary excursion. To the novelist’s mind, they have formed a group, a kind of plural individual, and anything they might do will have greater effect and repercussion if they do it together. Especially in the case of an urban pilgrimage to visit Saer.
The novelist has many memories of the writer, which occasionally merge into a kind of overarching religious memory; religious, in the sense that he experiences the feeling as vaguely devotional. In this memory, readings, impressions, and facts from the past fuse with situations of a far less precise nature that, for lack of a better word, he has taken to calling intuitions. These intuitions might be precarious thoughts or the tentative inclinations of his will, or even convictions that had been internalized but not yet formulated. These intuitions, unlike demonstrable facts, prior readings, or lasting impressions, do not come from the past, yet they nonetheless play a definitive role in his memory because according to the narrator they determine, in this case, the devotional nature of his feeling. A firm belief in the memory of someone no longer with us, the novelist might say.
He knows, however, that the schema of his devotion is not derived from a system of arguments, because he could apply these same arguments in praise of other writers and the result would always be different. Instead, the novelist supposes he should justify this devotional memory by its effects, rather than its causes; along these lines, it occurs to him that Saer is the only writer whose diffuse presence, or memory—or the triad of circumstances mentioned above—produces a tremor in him that he would not hesitate to describe as spiritual. In this way, the affection he feels toward this writer and his works is sometimes stirred by material objects like images, signatures, books, or papers in general. In this sense, the possibility of visiting his physical remains, for lack of a better phrase, contains the promise of an encounter with the ultimate “place” or “object,” the definitive emblem. Moreover, the religious memory leads the novelist to get ahead of himself; he imagines himself taking a photo at Saer’s tomb and later carrying the image with him wherever he goes as yet another manifestation of the mysterious and sometimes elusive writer.
The musician declined the invitation as directly as he could. He had a deadline to meet, but didn’t want to seem like he was belittling his friends by offering them such a common excuse. Instead, he regaled them with an ornate and intermittently confusing explanation that occasionally seemed like a joke about being invited somewhere and also not, last-minute additions, the regret or anxiety that might follow from not being part of the original group, some price that must be paid due to the intervention of chance, and so on.
The theologian took the musician’s words to mean that he wasn’t prepared for the excursion. The essayist imagined that the invitation had caught him off guard and, in his surprise, the musician had preferred to decline as elegantly as possible. The novelist thought the musician had been living in Paris for a long time, and that it must have seemed ridiculous to be invited to a cemetery in his own city by people who were just passing through. He thought that he should have been more tactful, that perhaps if he hadn’t mentioned the search for Saer, the musician might have joined them. After all, the novelist thought, when you say it like that, who would go looking for a grave marker in that enormous cemetery without any idea of where it might be. It would be enough to discourage anyone, but especially a local.
They part ways at the brasserie and head in different directions; the musician goes back the way he came, and the other three set out uncertainly, debating whether to go to one metro station or another. No train will take them directly to the cemetery, so they stand for a long time in front of an enormous map of the metro system, debating the best route. If someone were to see them from a distance, the theologian muses, he would think each of them was speaking directly to the map, hoping for a reply he could then transmit to the others. It isn’t easy to memorize the route, either, since it requires several transfers and because the names of the lines and the stations mean nothing to them. Its orientation and geography are a mystery to them; as a result, they are under the impression, even if they realize it is erroneous, that the metro system connects pairs of points, an origin and a destination, and that all the other dots on the map and the lines marking possible transfers exist on a second plane and only make an appearance as needed when one of them identifies it as a possible solution to the route, which by this point has turned into a riddle.
At one point, as they reach the platform just in time to miss a train, the novelist sees the theologian and the essayist take off like a shot toward the closing doors; he is struck by how they move, how they avoid the movements of other people, as if they came from a city where subway travel was common. According to the novelist, who has been left behind, this simultaneous impulse is further proof of the bond between the theologian and the essayist, from which he is repeatedly excluded.
As he watches them return with a defeated air after they failed to catch the train, his inability to explain what just happened leads the novelist to focus on their clothes, because, for some reason he can’t explain, either, he feels as if he were looking at them for the first time. The essayist is wearing all black: tight pants and a crew neck sweatshirt. The garments are so similar it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He has on a white long-sleeved T-shirt and its cuffs stick out from under his sweatshirt.
The novelist had stopped in his tracks when he saw them both sprint toward the train; now, as he observes them among the crowd as if they were not a part of his known world, he notices a faint message being given off by the essayist’s attire. It seems both familiar and extravagant, though nothing specific catches his eye. The essayist is wearing his customary gray backpack; in it, Colita travels beside an umbrella, the camera, and a few books. Because he never, ever goes anywhere without at least two books. For his part, the theologian is wearing faded jeans, a pale oxford shirt, and a brown sweater. He also has on a light jacket, which is brown, too, but more of a beige—unlike his sweater, which is dark. The novelist watches them approach and is struck, for a moment, by the impression that they are at once quite different and very much alike.
He sees them murmuring between themselves and thinks that either could say what the other is saying and it wouldn’t change the meaning of their conversation. This sort of equivalence between the theologian and the essayist leads the novelist to formulate an outrageous hypothesis, a combination of empirical observation and abstract thought. An impression made possible by his own extravagant nature. The novelist thinks that the theologian and the essayist are always splashed with the same water. This is what occurs to him as he watches them approach the spot where he stands motionless. He does not know what the metaphor means, really, and though he can imagine several possibilities, the only one he could accept as true is the most extreme or impossible, that is, the idea of two beings in complete harmony throughout time.
But this combination of unexpected revelation and empirical observation sets off an alarm in the novelist’s mind: he knows he is about to have an unusual intuition, and he fears becoming so irrational he can’t understand the meaning of his own ideas. Not their ethical or psychological meaning, he couldn’t care less, but rather their literal meaning: he does not know what he is saying to himself. Yet he senses that this idea, the idea that the essayist and the theologian are splashed with the same water, though surprisingly visceral, is truer than any rational description.
They are, in the end, tourists, and have a harder time than expected with the transfers on their way to the cemetery. The theologian feels the Sunday afternoon compress while they are in the subway. In the half-empty train car, they converse about topics ranging from politics to books, by way of daily schedules, forgotten habits, mutual friends, and people in the cities where they live. As the subway leaves a station, the essayist pulls Colita from his backpack. The moment he sees the stuffed animal, the novelist discovers the reason behind the strange sense of familiarity that pushed its way to the surface, before. Colita and the essayist are dressed alike, but as opposites: Colita is white where the essayist wears black, and vice versa. The novelist wants to say something but worries it might be a gaffe if the essayist hadn’t dressed that way on purpose. He wouldn’t want to put him on the spot, in any sense of the word.
The essayist takes the animal out to photograph it riding the subway. The three debate whether the teddy bear should be alone or accompanied, but the essayist is ultimately in charge of the images, and in the end he determines it will be alone in one and he’ll pose with it in another. He sets Colita on an empty seat and takes a few steps back; after several failed attempts, he snaps the photo. Meanwhile, an older woman who had been watching the essayist’s movements with the bear walks over and asks, smiling, if he would like her to take a photo of the four of them together. The essayist accepts her offer, on the condition that they not be asked to sit; she laughs heartily and says, “Of course, of course.” The theologian, not paying attention, had started explaining that many of his students had signed up for his class expecting a course in aesthetics, and that, though he did indeed teach aesthetics at one point, theology had been his focus for a long time already; or both things at once, but definitely not just aesthetics, though his interest in theology had begun in that field. The essayist interrupts him, asking him to stand and pose with the others. So the three crowd together as if they were capturing an important moment. In the photo, the essayist will appear holding Colita up to his chest, with the novelist to his left and the theologian on the other side.
Weeks later, the essayist will look back over his photos from the trip. When he gets to the one in the subway, the one with all four of them in it, the first thing he’ll notice will be the sartorial detail the narrator decided not to mention. But what will really catch his eye is the stuffed animal’s demeanor: perhaps influenced by the ceremonious dedication of the three friends, Colita is making a real effort to look alive, too, keeping his eyes fixed on the camera and his legs slightly raised, as if he were trying to find a flattering position. Of all the pictures of Colita, this one interests his daughter least. Yet, the essayist manages to note, it is the best one: the one in which the stuffed animal is most present and has invested the most, perhaps because he was trying to distinguish himself in the eyes of his owner from the trio of adults transporting him.
The novelist and the theologian will also receive the photo as part of a selection prepared by the essayist. The theologian thinks it is a good photo, but prefers not to look at it too closely because it reminds him of the interruption to which he was subjected. For his part, the novelist is also struck by Colita’s demeanor, as if a halo of life had formed around him. He also thinks the coordinated clothing is fundamentally important because the precise contrast with the man holding him makes it seem as if Colita, being the smaller of the two, adjusted his wardrobe to look like the essayist’s favorite pet—a living being, close yet at the antipodes.
Among the others, one photo taken in the cemetery stands out. Colita on a tomb from long ago, which had lost any inscriptions or embellishments it might once have had and is covered in a moss found only in humid, vegetal places. It is a horizontal two-tiered structure, the original materials of which are no longer discernable; had Colita not been posing on its edge and looking straight at the camera, he might have seemed like a solitary offering left moments before. At first, the essayist had pedagogical qualms about including their funereal stroll in Colita’s photographic travels, but the theologian’s comments convinced him indirectly, particularly his praise of quiet, tree-lined spaces like cemeteries—the only places, according to him, where clichés were permitted.
He listed Argentinean cemeteries and Italian ones; German, North American, Brazilian, Mexican, and Portuguese ones; and then went on to mention a few more. He clarified, however, that cemeteries belong less to countries than they do to cities. So he started listing cities and said that the cemetery they were walking through had its origins in a macabre endeavor: to resemble the city that surrounded it. A tidy, funereal city with streets along which next of kin can stroll as they visit those who are no longer there to walk with them. Finally, he praised cemeteries as more peaceful, welcoming miniature cities and, most importantly in his view, places where physical ruin was most unequivocally accepted.
Of this sweeping praise, only the word “miniature” convinces the essayist that it would be acceptable to pose Colita for a picture. Miniature, to the extent that it is a word associated with childhood, and because Colita is a miniature. The late afternoon, the natural silence, the humidity in the air, and the approaching dusk turns the cemetery into an acquiescently welcoming place.
Later, after Colita has been returned to the essayist’s backpack, the novelist brings up Saer, who is, when all is said and done, the reason for their excursion. The essayist knows what he is going to say. Anticipating the words and ideas of others is a gift he gradually developed without ever meaning to. The essayist associates this gift with his vocation, which consists, in a way, of restating arguments. So, he knows what the novelist is going to say. Because he has known him for a long time, because he knows Saer, and because he has noted the influence of their immediate surroundings, the so-called “city of the dead.”
The theologian’s attitude, on the other hand, is better suited to the circumstance. He wouldn’t mind walking down those narrow streets for hours, as long as no one asked him to speak. He thinks that, fewer than two meals from that moment, he will see his retired neighbor and maybe a letter addressed to him, and that this Sunday stroll will begin to seem chimerical, ambiguously transcendental. He, who has dedicated himself to that most transcendental of sciences, feels authorized to question the transcendental nature of their stroll. The old worker will greet him with the same friendly remark as always, confident in having found, in the title of former machinist stamped on his correspondence, a reconciliation with the world he always thought would elude him. On his side of the wall, the theologian would plan future readings of antiquated manuscripts with the aim of discovering aesthetic considerations dressed up as theological arguments.
The day before, the novelist had gotten some fairly vague instructions for finding Saer. His informant—as he describes this person to the theologian and the essayist—had told him only that he had a niche in the crematorium, on the second level down. Now they are walking in that direction, orienting themselves by the signs made of painted wood that appear every so often where two streets intersect. The novelist feels an excitement that very few things provide in their fulfillment. Something like paying off a debt or closing a circle. He could try to explain the feeling to the essayist and the theologian, but he doesn’t know if it can be expressed clearly, for one thing; for another, he isn’t sure it will be understood. He prefers to summarize his motivations by saying that he is curious and wants to see Saer’s place. He understands that the phrase “Saer’s place” might come across as sardonic, but he is not inclined to specify the kind of place, since under those circumstances it would be obvious to anyone that he is talking about a so-called final resting place. Few people demand proof that this resting place is, in fact, final, but everyone knows what is meant: where the individual’s remains are kept.
And so, after having avoided the cliché for decades, the novelist realizes he is condemned—then and there, at least—to fall into the trap, or rather make use of it, in order to express his impressions. He has learned from the theologian that anything goes in a cemetery, especially when it comes to certain types of formulations, but his issue with the cliché is not a moral one, though he wouldn’t hazard a guess, either, about what kind it really is. By way of a simple explanation, he might say that it was an emotional issue or, perhaps, even a psychological one.
At the end of an elevated street they stumble upon the crematorium, which looks at first glance like a large monument: not particularly old, but definitely imposing. Going two levels underground at that hour of the day means sinking into the shadows. There is almost no direct light: only a few surfaces are illuminated at all by light reflected off polished moldings, cornices, or panels, which survives in the half-light among faint glimmers as if it belonged in a scene by Tanizaki.
The sections on this level are organized into rooms and hallways; the walls shared by more than one room end up being endless expanses populated by plaques consistent in size and shape, while the hallways end up seeming like inhabitable tunnels. Without discussing it, the essayist, the theologian, and the novelist spread out to make the search more efficient. The essayist decides to begin in a section set apart from the rest. He could read vertically or horizontally, but due to his lack of linguistic experience, he succumbs to what he sees as the iron uniformity of the surnames and is surprised every time he comes across an Italian, Spanish, or otherwise foreign name. Oddly enough, whenever this happens, he feels as if history were trying to speak to him through individual cases. For a moment, he forgets about searching for Saer and imagines the lives of émigrés, the violence and affirmation inscribed in each.
The novelist has the sense he doesn’t know where to begin, even after choosing a section on which to focus his investigation. Closely tied to the feeling of anticipation is that of failure. He sees himself in the near future, walking empty-handed with his two friends down the street that slopes toward the exit, overwhelmed by the weight of not having closed the circle, as he refers in his private language to finding Saer’s niche. The pressure he feels is making it hard for him to read the plaques. So he throws himself into an exercise in peripheral observation, hoping that something like the graphic figure “Saer,” that is, the miniscule group of four letters without the expected French b, c, n, l, or d, or the sequences au, eau, ou, or ai, would appear as a shape more readily than as a signifying chain. He gets to thinking and muses that, in a sense, one shouldn’t expect more from novelists than disjointed emanations without guaranteed outcomes.
For his part, the theologian has an unexpected advantage. Determined to make an exhaustive search, he has begun in the darkest corner, perhaps with the idea, a professional hazard, that distant or challenging domains are best at preserving the treasures they conceal, or, better yet, those they create. He hopes, then, that Saer might appear as a result of the darkness and wields a weapon suited to the task, his unexpected advantage. The theologian has with him his cellular telephone and has thought to set it to “flashlight mode.” He sees the walls covered in marble plaques from floor to ceiling, as if he had sunk into a mass crypt; he sees the white beam in movement and it seems to him both meticulous and abstract. He had never encountered a more fitting occasion for the phrase “awash in light” than the one in which he finds himself now, as the beam emanating from the telephone seeps into spaces like an insatiable tide consuming the darkness as it advances.
He thinks of ghost stories, tales of archaeological digs, thrillers, and movies about criminals or captives. He is tempted to pursue some far-reaching concept and then brandish it at the essayist and the novelist as a notion both deep and droll. It should be something about the light, he thinks, about light as a symbol of faith—he is a theologian, after all—of a faith that produces signs and illuminates miracles, a light that enhances intuition and casts a shadow on doubt, and so on. He knows that he is building a dreamscape, and that, in a moment, his recitation of the names carved into the veined marble plaques, first then last, with a set of dates underneath, will begin to look like faces staring out from the penetrating depths; and he knows that when this happens, he will have no rebuttal.
A voice rescues him from his delirium. It is the novelist, who, with a shout of “I found him! I found him! Over here!” suspends all other actions in progress. The essayist, who was closer but still relied on the sound of the novelist’s voice to guide him, is the first to arrive. The novelist almost doesn’t recognize him: because of his dark clothes, only the cuffs and collar of his shirt are visible, as if he were a ghost in disguise. The theologian is a bit slower: he prefers to shut off his cell phone and stick it in his pocket, so it doesn’t seem as if he’d been using it.
The novelist was about to move on to another room when, as he scanned the niches nearest the floor, he caught a glimpse of something shaped like “Saer” in the second row from the bottom. A black marble plaque with gold lettering. It could have been gray, he thinks, like so many others in that building, but someone chose black and gold, and the choice strikes the novelist as being the right one. While the theologian and the essayist make their way to his place, the novelist dedicates a few moments to solitary contemplation. He crouches down in front of the niche and his intuitions are confirmed. He doesn’t know what is behind it, but the plaque is the point, object, and abstraction he had wanted to see before the day was done. He arrives at an obvious, but for him sufficient, observation: that the plaque is the visible surface. He cannot believe “that,” whatever it may be, is on the other side, manifested by this thing that covers it.
When the essayist arrives, the novelist asks to borrow his camera; he wants to be sure to capture an image of the niche, one more element in the still-shapeless altar he is building. Meanwhile, the theologian has also arrived and silently witnesses the loan before leaning forward to peer at the plaque. The essayist explains to the novelist how to use the camera. The theologian makes out the golden letters and reads: Juan-José SAER; underneath, the numbers 1937–2005. His mind is blank; he has a vague sense of what he saw in the darker parts of the hall and would say that his thoughts are still there, but he knows there is nothing worth remembering in that other place and quickly steps aside so the novelist can take the photo.
The essayist reflects on the chain of events leading up to that moment, above all the fact that he did not bring the camera along simply to capture images. He has the camera with him for documentary purposes. His daughter, using different words, had asked precisely that of him when she handed over Colita, and it is precisely that which the novelist seeks now. He thinks of a topic for a future essay: the document as a concept that precedes experience, and the tremendous implications of this shift with regard to our idea of history, and even that of literature.
The novelist steps back from the niche; while he determines the best distance for the photo, he reads the names of Saer’s neighbors: to his right is Claude Monteil and to his left is someone named Serge Mansard. It is almost impossible to see anything, but he is certain of those two names. He reflects on the unimaginable string of coincidences that led to this eternal cohabitation two levels underground, and concludes that this is the real lesson death teaches us.
Moments later, there is a setback. The camera’s flash is not responding. The novelist and the essayist try several times; the essayist checks its settings to make sure the flash is activated, but it still refuses to work. The theologian, who appears completely disinterested, is the one who ultimately has the solution. He tells the novelist not to worry, he can use his phone as a flashlight. He stands beside Saer’s niche and holds out his arm as if the beam were a liquid that could flow down its surface. And maybe it is precisely that, thinks the essayist as he watches the theologian dutifully illuminate something parched for light.
"Una visita al cementerio" © Sergio Chejfec. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Heather Cleary. All rights reserved.
In this 2014 essay, Marcelo Cohen reflects back on decades as a translator in Spain and the complex relationship between translation, exile, and identity.
This text takes as its starting point another that I wrote once for a talk on exile and Argentine literature. But don’t think I’m simply trying to make things easier on myself. Remembering Joyce’s famous motto, “silence, exile, and cunning,” I briefly considered as a title for this chronicle: "On the Translator’s Exile as Arduous Passage to Freedom." But then I remembered Cabrera Infante, a very sad case of forced loss of one’s beloved language and nation, and I decided to be more prudent. If I’ve mulled over these ideas previously, it’s because I write and translate and because sometimes I think that, maybe even more than writing, translation inspires bitter and sweet and always interesting perplexities on language, perception, politics, exile as a generalized existential condition, and the truths and fallacies of identity. But I’ve never reflected on these issues for a very long stretch, much less developed a theory. I think that the best way to get to the point is to charge into the repeated occurrence of certain dilemmas.
I arrived in Spain in December of 1975. I hadn’t left Argentina out of fear, nor was I in any greater danger than your average political activist. I had the feeling I was suffocating, the product of something more than the ascension of López Rega and the Triple A, and, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I simply wanted to travel for a year or two. I was full of Hemingway and of Blaise Cendrars. Three months after I’d left, in March of 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina. I lived in Barcelona until January of 1996. It’s a lie to say that twenty years is nothing. In those twenty years I fell in love and formed relationships that later fell apart, I learned three new languages, I made friends and sometimes lost them, I lived in eight different neighborhoods, read the majority of the writers that I return to most often now and saw the movies and listened to the music that I prefer today; I had paying jobs and received unemployment benefits; I played in neighborhood soccer tournaments, wrote for the press, and participated in an athenaeum of free thinking; I translated over sixty books, half of them very good, and I wrote twelve. Those two decades transformed the young middle-class Jewish Argentinean maximalist into a shape-shifting aggregate of nutrients gleaned from people, books, and experiences. I arrived in Spain on December 12, 1975. Three weeks prior, on November 20, Francisco Franco had died. I’m not going to rack my memory to extract a distillation of everything I saw gush forth after the lid of the dictatorship was ripped off. Today almost all the resulting frenzy has simmered down, leaving a society of immediate satisfactions and digestible discomforts, just as in any society that knows moderate abundance. But I remember that in the beginning, one afternoon, I watched from a corner as a march for Catalan independence converged with a protest to free the caged birds sold on the Ramblas, which in turn intersected with a demonstration of the Workers’ Commissions, and that same night, on the Ramblas, I was swept up by a horde of transvestites who paraded among the dealers, Red Brigade posters, and illicit card games. I remember that a cultural magazine I wrote for, El viejo topo, shifted focus four times in half a year, from workers’ rights to gender equality to surrealist anarchy to Foucauldian ethics. I remember that every week new translations were published of books that had been banned for years, from Dylan Thomas to Alfred Döblin, Gérard de Nerval to Guy Debord. I remember the air of sensuality that made any publishing initiative, whether mundane, journalistic, or political, feel like a rock concert. The joy that this carnival provoked in me was multiplied by the fact that, based on the common law of the geographical transplant, I foolishly believed that I had virtually no responsibilities. This involuntary self-delusion consisted in believing that my true responsibilities lay somewhere else, in the place I’d left behind, and in the horrifying stories of my country that reached Spain. One night a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen for at least ten years called me on the phone. He was at the airport with his wife; two days prior they’d killed his sister, who like him was active in the Peronist Youth Party, and he didn’t know where to go and he didn’t have the slightest idea what Catalonia was. I remember the couple spent a week without leaving the room I got for them. I hosted many refugees from my country, most of whom had been married and living clandestinely almost since adolescence, never having learned anything about the streets, and they recalled with tears a Rosario or a Buenos Aires that I didn’t know. Apart from the rage and the grief of defeat, there was desperation, pain, longing for the protection of family or even for this lack of protection to become familiar. But all this was absorbed into the effervescent broth of a Spain in transition, which dissolved it, tempered it, transformed it. It was a situation of irritating, sometimes ridiculous uncertainty. It didn’t last much more than two years—three, maybe—until democracy was established, Spain accepted its geopolitical role, and began the slow path to liberalism. I followed this process with some apathy as well; but not too much, because many of us had learned from Argentina’s failures. The libertine climate of Spain at the end of the seventies fostered an almost automatic criticism of ideology, which in my case included a rejection of Leninism, all real Socialisms, and the philosophy of power, but also the local Spanish varieties of Buenos Aires fundamentalism, family machismo, military-like hierarchy, sexual violence, nostalgia, unbridled passion, and widespread petit bourgeois repression. All this fed into an expansion of consciousness, an urge to destroy paradigms that was as pressing as the need for independence. The endeavor was consolidated by disparate slogans. The notion, for example, that we weren’t trying to change reality in order to continue being who we’d been before but changing ourselves in order to create a new reality. Or later on: the realization that change implied accepting that one doesn’t belong, that every life story or biography is an impermanent and changeable version of what has happened to a person, what has made them who they are and who they aren’t, that we are the product of an extemporal, indifferent sequence of events whose other possible versions should be respected. What I had not yet accepted was that the condition of exile forces us to face up to our responsibilities. Irresponsibly, to be sure, after holding various jobs more or less typical of a young exile, I accepted a book translation through a friend. Translating seemed dignified, it meant playing at man of letters rather than adventurous narrator, and in general it seemed like a mentally absorbing activity. I believed I’d cut my teeth translating Beat poets and science fiction stories for Argentine literary magazines and I knew enough Latin to put on an air of annoying smugness. I was dealt a blow. The book they gave me was a biography of Indira Gandhi, and when it was reviewed the critic declared that it was translated using “a Spanish as messy as the dickens.” I was annoyed that that cruel accusation of barbarism hinged on the phrase “as the dickens,” which my mother used and which I thought was an Argentinean turn of phrase, and it annoyed me even more that in the future, if I wanted to survive, I’d have to worry about what constituted messy Spanish and what didn’t. I understood immediately, almost overwhelmingly, that no one who thinks about language regularly and in depth can avoid running into politics. And I began to understand why some visionaries, such as William S. Burroughs, affirmed that language is the most efficient instrument of behavioral and societal control; but not only control applied externally, through political, advertising, and educational slogans, but also from within; through the delimitation of illusions, the projection of who we are from the time we’re born and the fear of failing to meet expectations, the neural networks of ideology. Unfortunately, my first reaction was to take refuge in a devotion for my uterine language. But I found myself in an irremediable predicament: I needed to earn a living as a professional translator in Spain.
Meanwhile, just as I was getting over my aversion to fanatical leftism, I struck up a conversation at the bar on the corner of my street with an Argentinean who turned out to be Osvaldo Lamborghini. I’d like to pay homage to this intimidating writer. Around that time, I read La causa justa, in which, the story goes, a Japanese man who lives in Argentina ends up committing hara kiri because he can’t stand that Argentineans have no word of honor, and I realized that Lamborghini’s aberrant literature—comparable only maybe to Puig’s—shined a light on the pornographic nature of Argentine politics, which in turn was the manifestation of the Argentinean mindset. He was a cantankerous and very impolite man. One morning in 1983 he came up to my house, rang the doorbell, walked in, and, without asking for permission, snuck a look at my typewriter, which held a translation of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. “You’re not going to translate it using Castilian, are you?” he said, and discussed ways we could sneak subversive shards of our peripheral dialect into the thriving and arrogant Spanish publishing industry. He ordered me to read Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, by Deleuze and Guattari, and to reread more carefully some of Borges’s essays, especially “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights.” In this psychopathic yet effective way, he struck the heart of the exile’s dilemma: language. From there on out, my sights would be set on language, all other concerns disappearing with the stroke of a pen. This would unwittingly help me in the long run, as well. Because by then, although my reverential fear kept me from fully thinking it through, I felt that there was a contradiction in Borges’s objection to the dominance of identity, which he calls “the nothingness of personality,” and his fierce support of local dialects, translations irreverent about Western laws of language. Regional variations in language perhaps contribute to the individuality of bordering nations; but as would become evident over time, the emphasis on national, religious, or linguistic identity is catastrophic. But Borges, it would be foolish not to acknowledge, wasn’t advocating an anticolonial message but rather the continuous renovation of literature, breaking the confines of this deceptive world through localization of inherited expressions.
As for me, I had a very insistent urge to break all restraints, perhaps as a way to march in step with the unusual freedom I had crashed up against. The typical agents of guidance had disappeared: I didn’t have any family, political affiliation, university studies, nor did I have a steady job or relationship, I just had friends, elective interests, and no aims beyond literature. As a still-undocumented exile of little means and an incipient libertarian, I toyed with a modest amorality. The fantasy of breaking my restraints culminated in a myriad of heterogeneous shards that would shred my personality and lead to a loss of myself, casting my identity beyond the limits of perception, possession, imitation, and fear of the passage of time. Unfortunately, my internal agents of guidance, entrenched in the superego, had become fixated on an insidious defense of my Argentinean identity, and I became riddled with guilt at the slightest provocation. Deep down, I submitted and this manifested in a maniacal rejection of everything Spanish. It was something like a campaign for health. I wanted to disintegrate, yes, but while preserving my voice. It’s a known fact that the Voice, with an uppercase V, is the metaphysical absolute, the intangible, immaterial fact that language is a place. But the voice that I wanted to preserve wasn’t that pure desire for expression that separates culture from nature, but that second voice, unique and fine-tuned which, I supposed at the time, ties us to the source of the self by way of our biographical origin; a kind of shared fingerprint. I didn’t know it, but from there to the worship of one’s roots, so harmful to someone who wants to depersonalize himself, there was no more than a step. All I knew was that my voice railed against the oppressiveness of peninsular Spanish. I was a foreigner in a mother tongue that was not my mother’s tongue. A mother tongue with a long tradition of imperial centrality and theology, restored by Francoism, its illogical polished by the Academy and its hatred of the technocracy. It was the Latin Americans who “spoke poorly;” the Argentines, especially, used the vos and, as I already said, oozed certain Argentineanisms that in the Spanish publishing industry were considered blasphemous. Editors and proofreaders treated us with a polite smugness. I was plagued by the constant chafe of misunderstanding, distress over living in a language that hadn’t developed a culture of suspicion, that didn’t interpret; that, as we said, “lacked a subconscious.” The Spanish uttered refrains as if they could only mean one thing, what the refrain said, but they implanted them into an unending variety of situations. They confused the present perfect with the preterite indefinite—they said “Last year I’ve been in London”—and they didn’t distinguish between the direct and indirect object; they considered their way of speaking straightforward but their thoughts were imprecise. They crucified what could have been delicate expressions of emotion through sentences that were highly styled yet stiff as boards. The Spanish and I said very different things using almost the same words. Instead of examining these misunderstandings from both sides (weighing, for example, the presumptuous and gaudy tendency of Argentines to emulate great poets they have not read), I converted each misunderstanding into distrust and, eventually, disdain. I once photocopied an article by María Moliner which explained that the pronoun “lo” was the correct choice for replacing the direct object and “le” was only a tolerated exception. I gave it to one of my Spanish editors. Imperiously, and quite rightly, she explained to me the notion of usage and never called me again. These and other confrontations were where my exiled superego had gotten me, and by that time my identity as an exile had precluded any possibility of opening myself to new experiences, or more like new feelings. It’s a known fact that ideas function like fences. The most widespread notion of exile gives birth to and nourishes an obsession with returning to one’s country with one’s national identity as intact as possible, as the desired end to all migration (in this sense, it completely supplanted the idea of revolution), and as a way of recovering the self. This dominant self-narrative, which dictates one’s development and level of achievement, aims to foster an estrangement from reality that doesn’t aid understanding in the slightest; it’s a deceptive estrangement, fraught with constant comparison. There was, of course, a hint of political rebelliousness in my discontent. My Spanish surroundings alienated me from my culture, my language was a tool of possible emancipation; peninsular Spanish sullied me, it drowned out my voice, it obliterated me as a vehicle of exceptionalism. As you can see, I was engaged in a battle for the propriety of language, in both senses of the word propriety. It wasn’t only about settling who could lay claim to the language but also who employed it to greater effect. I was ultimately echoing Sarmiento’s bitterness (“the Spanish translate little, translate badly, and they don’t know how to choose”) and Borges’s sarcasm over Américo Castro. The battle was hard-fought, crude, astringent, more work than was needed to sustain the notion of a homeland and the emblems of the past, but it was a way to ensure that my exile’s narrative wouldn’t disintegrate into disjointed memories. I felt oppressed, not by the might of an empire but some residue left behind by the newspapers, dubbed movies, politicians’ anacoluthons, advertising slogans, and the increasingly depressing tendency of large publishing houses to simplify translations—sanding away stylistic relief, shortening and segmenting all sentences with more than one subordinate clause—in order to facilitate consumer access. (I’d like to take a moment, if you’ll allow me, to examine this process. The Spanish custom of dubbing all foreign movies instead of subtitling them had given birth to a strain of “translated Spanish” that the public could easily understand even though no one spoke in such a way. In the eighties many translators adopted these expressions, which offered quick and recognizable solutions, and eventually some publishing houses began to require them. The series of maneuvers that wiped out all stylistic uniqueness was referred to as “ironing out” the original. The not infrequent consequence was that in the majority of Spanish translations in the eighties, especially the ones paid for by publishing conglomerates, Michael Ondaatje’s prose showed an ominous kinship to Stephen King’s. The most varied characters of the two were capable of saying, for example, Six of one and half a dozen of the other, Well aren’t you a hayseed? or, Whatever are you thinking? Then this mix of false colloquialism and trite stylistics began to appear—and this was the truly savage part—in the writing of several young novelists who read translations extensively and little of their own national literature.)
These myriad motives for strife provoked in me an outbreak of Argentinean fundamentalism. My work would have benefitted, as it eventually did in the end, if I hadn’t taken the tension between a loyalty to my roots and the obligation to translate using the dialect of the Iberian Peninsula as a declaration of cold war. The irritating second-person plurals and the different names for the same things weren’t hard to accept, because my day-to-day speech was in fact already a kind of Catalanized half-Spanish. But it was the peninsular way of organizing sentences, the cadence of questions, and various other elements that signaled a major, agonizing rift between the diction, intonation, and prosody, that is to say the temperament of this language, compared to mine. But this difference consoled me. It was an abstract difference, treacherous, but grounded in the correct assumption that the main contrasts between Iberian Spanish and the South American dialects weren’t lexical but related to sentence organization and its implications for intonation, rhythm, the preference for certain verb tenses and the respective adherence to or defiance of rules and norms, for example the use or omission of certain prepositions. Ezra Pound reminds us that there is no language that contains the sum of all human knowledge; no tongue capable of expressing all forms and levels of comprehension. Instead of reflecting on this adage, I submitted every word that seemed like a possible Argentineanism to a quality control process that had each translation awash in a daily tide of delirious inebriation. Behind my superego’s back, from time to time, I’d enjoy the subtlety of great Spanish translations, such as those by Miguel Sáenz or Javier Marías, and I envied them the richness that, I knew, could only come from an intimate relationship with the more recent additions to the dominant dialect. My tradition included Quevedo, but it also included the Argentinean gauchesca style and the Latin American translations of North American literature.
Given that this was the way I experienced translation, as an asphyxiating space where everyone begrudged the existence of the Other, I tried to soothe my irritation through smuggling and linguistic insurgence. I thought that if I could graft, divert, and upset the language that was imposed on me, perhaps I could create small islands of alternate reality, makeshift shelters where readers could avoid their now inevitable condition as consumers, the new gold standard of oppression, and something from which Latin America could still escape. I insisted on using the preterite indefinite, rigorously avoided the use of le; the characters in my translations exclaimed What a lie! like my grandma, maybe What a whopper! but never Such a fabrication! like my Spanish tobacco seller, and instead of OK, I used Agreed. I obsessively strained my ears to find the strangest colloquial expressions the closest to “ours” that the publishers would tolerate, and I treasured terms from the Golden Age that modern-day Spanish varnished over but which had survived in the more flexible South American dialect or words miraculously shared by the Madridleñan Cheli and the Lunfardo of Buenos Aires. Does it have to be said that I refused to use the verb coger, which in Spain is used in a variety of mundane situations, but in Latin America means only one thing: to fuck? My objective, when the original allowed it, was an elegant omission, sophisticated, playful and inviting, conscious that all writing involves a mutilation of meaning, an incessant, fatal loss of the idea you aim to capture, the erasure of what is named, and in translation the problem is made double. This solution, which gave my projects a slightly whimsical texture, didn’t elicit any major reactions. Some publishers continued to call me, others discreetly got rid of me, and I ended up doing most of my work for two presses, Minotauro and Muchnik, which were run by Argentineans, or for independent houses such as Anagrama, Icaria, Lumen. By then I’d had the privilege of translating Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, even William Burroughs, Henry James, no less, and as my self-pity began to wane my sense of responsibility began to grow. My next subterfuge redirected my ire toward the standard literary Spanish that privileged plot-driven narratives and the supposed balance of form, something book reviews at the time praised as “fluid language.” The balance of form! These people had never read Gombrowicz. The exaltation of fluid language was the black beast of my writer self, and I railed against the purging of my intimate language in a public explosion of rage against the contaminating factors: a very long article in two parts under the title “Some Questions on the Propriety of Language,” which I published—and this should’ve made me think twice—in La Vanguardia. The first part was called “On the Writer as Shoe Softener,” in a biting, melancholy homage to a job—softening the new shoes of the rich—that some eccentric poor people in 1950s Buenos Aires had done for work. To put it briefly, the article said that when we’re born, we fall into a language like a pair of shoes assigned to us at random; discomfort first emerges when we try to say one thing and people understand something different; that nevertheless it’s not easy to avoid language as an essential element of belonging, so in the end one forgets that the shoes hurt their feet and they adapt to common usage because it allows them to build ties more easily. Then I accused Spanish writers of having settled for a fixed set of tools to shield themselves against walking barefoot, that is to say protecting themselves in literature the way they do in life. The Spanish wore their inherited shoes as if they were comfortable; they made do with functional words, relied on the illusion of transparency. What set Latin American literature apart, on the other hand, was the awareness of an unavoidable discomfort, the incessant worry over correct usage, a constant insolence, impertinence, and suspicion of the word and the speaker; the acknowledgment that every voice is filtered through a mask, recognizing the arduousness and impurity of literature, which is born from dissatisfaction, so that the only correct word is the one that challenges the fallacy of the familiar. My obvious bitterness, the product of a not entirely unwarranted resentment over my position as a member of the cultural proletariat on the payroll of the literary industry, was distilled in a passage dedicated to the diffuse but sustained campaign that at the time—a period when the Spanish publishing industry was establishing and affirming itself—was being waged against the South American translations from the forties, fifties, and sixties that had nourished readers during the lean years under Franco but were now classified as crude and unbearable. I don’t want to get into the minute details of what we discussed at translator conferences. What mattered for me at the time was that Spanish writers not only attacked South American translations full of terms such as cuadra (a city block) or durazno (peach); they also refused to consider that millions of Latin American readers didn’t know the meaning of the Spanish equivalents melocotón or chaval.
And so on. If secretly I hoped for some response, what’s certain is that none came. All I received in recompense was a morbid swelling of pride. A few weeks went by and the swelling became a contusion, a hemorrhage, and I felt silly. Some years later, amid the hype of the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, there would be an attempt to prove that the official neutral Latin American Spanish, a language no one speaks, could heal the wounds left in the language by local dialects. Translation was the ideal way to shatter that farce of homogeneity through a multiverse of voices that were simulated yet unique. The fact is that after publishing my manifesto I slowly began to let go. It wasn’t what I’d wanted. It was the breakdown of my romance with conflict which had dictated my behavior. I understood that my experience of exile was something superimposed, projected onto my consciousness, curiosity, and daily evolution, fabricated a priori through my culture and background. This thing or object fit the mold of a long list of documented exiles, fortified by tradition and history, and working daily to reproduce itself. Many theories throughout history have argued the moral superiority of the individual who is capable of self-examination by creating a coherent narrative about themselves. For me, not only my feelings but also my memory tended toward the erratic; sometimes I missed my country, but in general, to be honest, I didn’t miss it that much. My present didn’t allow for time to miss it, and instead I felt only a slight nostalgia. The food, the accents of my friends and lovers, reading the newspaper, song lyrics, smells on the street or those drifting in through the window, emotions connected to a particular hour, a time of day, and a precise corner of the city: I was an actor playing a part in these memories of an adolescence spent in Buenos Aires. I was an assembly of representatives from many different parties who recounted anecdotes of varied times and settings, put forth contradictory motions and argued over unrelated events; and the worst part was that sometimes an entire faction abandoned the meeting. The bewildered silence I observed deep within belied a lack of control, the absence of an commanding officer, an empty control center. Against a hazy background contrasting elements emerged: the typewriter and the computer, the large Spanish croissant and the small Argentine medialuna—member of a category of pastries called facturas—the greasy, torn seats of the number 60 bus and the cushioned cabin of a high-speed train, the Mediterranean Sea and the Luján River, a vine called Santa Rita and at the same time bougainvillea, President Menem’s sideburns and the gray heads of the Spanish Social-Democratic rulers. In my most intimate of exile narratives, if I ever had such a thing, the urge to return had lost its pull. To be clear, my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity, with the temporal and spatial millefleur that was each moment. Beckett proposed poking holes in the hopes that, maybe, after much patience, some truth would finally seep out. According to Deleuze, writing was like inventing a foreign language that blew through the writer’s language like a gust of wind to shake it up and whip it into a frenzy. And for Walter Benjamin, after Babel, after the dispersion, each language was doomed to live out its underlying defect, its incompleteness. Armed with this battery of arguments, I proceeded to carry out my daily duty as an exercise in self-annihilation and the breaking down of my constraints. Break them down! Break them down!, was my motto, just like that, said two times. Exaltation. Surrender. The illusion of ego emulsified and fused with another’s voice, et cetera. I was totally convinced of the plan. Especially when I translated contemporary authors. Such was the daily pleasure of offering up my language to the diversifying pressure of Alasdair Gray, Kathy Acker, or whoever, that I formulated the theory that fidelity in translation meant creating a new theory of translation for each book. It was a strange period in which I only cared about sentences, then paragraphs, and I made feverish safaris to the Spanish Royal Academy’s official dictionary, fact-finding missions through Quevedo, Larra, Sarmiento, Mansilla, Lezama Lima, tango lyrics, Madrileñan coplas, Onetti, Juan Benet, Arguedas, the translations of Lino Novás Calvo and Consuelo Berges. I paid great attention to the voices of others and revised my grammar to come as close as possible to parataxis. But I hadn’t learned my lesson. And, as if to corroborate it, just then my translation of La vida de Jesus by Toby Olson was reviewed in an Argentinean newspaper and according to the critic the novel was very well translated, she said, “by the ultra-Spanish Marcelo Cohen.” All aspects of the review left me enormously satisfied, from the praise to the sarcasm to the Argentinean ignorance that led the journalist to mistake my personalized blend of dialects for traditional Spanish. More or less around that time, I also translated the memoirs of Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish man who learned the saxophone in the reformatory, played with Armstrong, and ended up selling marijuana in Harlem, and nothing could have pleased me more than the observation that the conglomerate of slangs I’d contrived was hard to understand but in the end had a unique sound. What I want to say is this: the self, who we are at our core, supposedly, that blazing symbol of identity and a term some feel obligated to translate as ego, is truly obstinate in its narcissism and attachment to anything that resembles it or references it, even if it does so through the voices of others. Its deepest, most ardent desire is, of course, style. And I wanted a writing style and a translating style, and I was very ambitious: I wanted my writing to have an imperceptible Argentineness and, let’s say, a sophisticated hybridity.
There I was then, caught once again in flagrante. The Spanish would say discovered, not caught. My discomfort with contemporary Spanish, the language of the househusband, castrator of understanding, had incited a political liberation. But with all my River Plate genealogy and my Joycean desires for a sexual anarchy of words, I’d fallen victim to the desire for distinction, one of the vices that can lead the exile, like a lamb, to an intolerance equal to the intolerance that marginalizes them. If the self’s greatest desire is style, and the creation of objects as symbols of understanding is a means of control, the self is the bourgeois object par excellence. The self is a fallacy a posteriori; exactly like commodity fetishism. “The self is the landlord’s salary and savings.” This Carl Einstein tells us. And that’s why Einstein thought that the “destruction of the object” practiced by the cubist painters and by Malévich was not a purely formal issue but implied destruction of the social and systemic order, the bourgeois order rooted in possession, individualism, and the fiction of the permanence of objects and subjects. This wasn’t my case. Instead of letting communication flow out through the wounds of exile, I allowed them to scar over and form armor, as if I could somehow capitalize on the long quarrel between my adopted country and my country of origin, as if exile weren’t forever. No good for translation, as you might imagine.
Everything was out of my control, it was nothing more than a chain of causes that led to the present. The laborious task of understanding this, even halfway, began as I took a step toward opening up, caught a glimpse of freedom. Just a glimpse.
But some people never learn. I returned to Argentina and once again fell victim to the spontaneous whims of my linguistic motor which entertained itself by asking for Argentine zapatillas at the shoe store or Spanish calabacines at the greengrocer; I cultivated eccentric insults, such as the antiquated Argentinean Go boil yourself or the charming Andalusian Get fucked by a fish. I’d lack a degree of discernment in my translations, but because I conceived of them as transitory spaces I could host a great quantity of nuances and accents. Of course, I immediately noticed that the pleasure of using Argentine localisms, Lunfardo, eventually the voseo, was obscured by the fact that often the best solution, and even the most enjoyable, was a Spanishism; and this dialectical schizophrenia destroyed any illusion I held of fully belonging. If it’s true that you can never go home, the excess of expressive possibilities that I’d acquired only served to underscore the fact that I was out of step, this time with my own country. I didn’t take long to become embroiled in new misunderstandings. It goes without saying that the language of Argentina today is not the language of Mansilla, not even the language of Walsh. It’s an index of samplings from journalism, advertising, political commentary, psychoanalysis, and the scraps of street slang “ironed out” by the middle class, where Spanish translations and Central American subtitles and voiceovers play not even a minor role. Today Argentines swim in Spanish piscinas instead of Argentine piletas, in a restaurant we don’t call the mozo but the camarero, who will utter buen apetito instead of buen provecho, receptionists and concierges say aguarde instead of espere (because they think it sounds more refined), but the general vocabulary is distressingly limited. There are comparatively few who can handle subordinate clauses. Literary professionals who are fairly good writers are oblivious to certain rules of temporal sequence, such as the preterite indefinite and the past perfect, resulting in strained memories and a cramped present. And while I might try to accept the idiosyncrasy of these usages, adopt them with a grudging respect, I’m sure that my translations don’t sound less strange than they did in Spain. I do it on purpose, of course. It’s not merely a whim. It’s once again an attempt to turn translation into a place, a synthetic space where the self might become lost among the multitude of possibilities, the understanding of identity as an aggregate. But this place should not be isolated, protected, preserved; because if there’s anything I’ve learned from so many scuffles, it’s that this hypothetical space must provide an atmosphere of community, of feasting; it must generate fresh tissue in the huge body to which we all belong. I believe that in a place like this, a translation or fiction that is more or less unique is also a convergence of voices, of multiple voices, and a gathering place, local but always provisional, shaking up the language of stereotype, now increasingly international, more tolerant of polymorphic expression.
It’s surprising how easily we’ve accepted that hate and violence contribute more than love and peace to the structuring of social relationships. But more surprising still is the widespread denial that the climate of stress, terror, and threat that enshrouds our world relates directly to the closed-minded defense of identity, of the individual or the group, and the disproportionate exaltation of memory. Identity, erroneously considered an innate component and not a chosen one, determines the direction of one’s life and must be defended from anything that might erode it, hamper it, unsettle or modify it, consume and digest it, or stamp it out. Identity as ethnicity, tradition, nationality, religion, or exclusive political affiliation, for starters. Because at present you don’t see any major groups or too many individuals who have accepted that deep down, they are—as is said of the dead—nothing. Some of the wiser voices the planet listens to, for example the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, suggest we accept that the identity of any human or group, far from being singular and inescapable, is always an aggregate—some would say a construct—and that many of its components are born of random choices or affiliations. Identity can change over time, against a person’s will, and without his or her knowledge, and it changes as a result of premeditated decisions; the composition becomes more diverse. In the merely social plane, for example, we carry a portfolio of identities that we draw upon depending on the context (gender, class, profession, job, race, political opinions, among others), and the weight that we give to one over another determines our behavior. Sen maintains that the refusal to accept the internal diversity of our identities is an error shared by experts on the clash of civilizations, communitarians, religious fundamentalists and cultural theorists, and that the illusion of a unique identity, which gives birth to the sensation of destiny, fatality, and impotence, feeds rage and violence toward “the Other.”
I don’t cite Sen because I want to get into an issue that has been dealt with at length by many artists and academics, namely that translation allows for the comparison and rejuvenation of our own ideas through the language of the other. But the observation that I and the Other are each in reality a miniature multitude strikes at the heart of translation, the work of the translator, and I think that, while the notion magnifies some problems, responsibilities, and complications, it also offers a glimpse of freedom.
Let’s take the much-discussed quandary between translation as hypothetically neutral and a localist translation—idiosyncratic, or, to put it another way, extreme. Argentine readers’ regular displays of contempt for Spanish translations, the angry accusations of clumsiness and colonialization through the stubborn and, some say, malevolent use of Iberian words or peninsular expressions which impede their enjoyment of a text, reflect the ignorant and longstanding refusal of Spanish book professionals to accept the inherent diversity of their language. But these angry Argentine readers overlook the fact that the invasion of our bookstores by leftovers from the prolific Spanish publishing industry is an issue of capitalism and geopolitics, caused by a decline in local publishing houses for which some measure of blame, dictatorship and economics aside, must go to the publishers. In addition to all this, these complaints ignore a point that, if it’s worth getting into, could be a political aesthetic of translation for these times.
Within the despotic global prose of the State that continuously produces advertising and political slogans as well as myths perpetuated by the entertainment industry, and the fictions that, passed off as information to condition us, our society of spectacle has incorporated, with unbridled enthusiasm and as a way to deal with human themes such as pain, beauty, death, et cetera, what critics call “international literature,” the basic condition of these works being that they are eminently translatable. I think that as a reaction to this attempt at subjugation, today the naturally resistant writer makes an effort to create independent literature, which is to say just literature, rejecting texts created with translation in mind. The poetics of the untranslatable lead to acknowledgment of the fact that very local expressions and slang, very personalized styles, demand localized equivalences.
So as not to get tangled up, I’ll present the problem using two examples.
First, let’s suppose that a group of my neighbors, sick with atavistic racism, are infuriated by a family of Nigerian immigrants, the Ababós, because they raise in their little yard some bushes bearing a nourishing but stinky fruit. The family is from a culture in their country that has historically lived off the cultivation of this plant and they were mistreated by a local mafia, etc. Let’s say that I know of a moving Nigerian novel that tells a story similar to the Ababós’ and allows us to understand them. I think that it will help my neighbors change their minds. But the translation of the novel is from Spain and the translator chose to use the Madrileñan Spanish of the Lavapiés neighborhood for the language of the Ababós and the Nigerian mafiosos. What should I do? Hope that my neighbors can see through the veil of a dialect that is foreign to them? Risk the chance that their interior social demons will take advantage of the confusion to accuse the Ababós of being Spanish bastards? Propose that some humble but valiant independent publishing house apply for a subsidy from UNESCO to buy the rights and translate the book using the local Buenos Aires dialect?
Another way of approaching the dilemma:
A few years ago the Argentine poet Leónidas Lamborghini published the narrative poem Look to Domsaar. An old man who was lecherous and perhaps powerful named Pigj lay dying on a scorched plain where nothing grew. He’s lying in a bed on wheels and accompanied by two women and a few others, and the poem narrates the bed’s laborious journey, facilitated by its very practical wheels, sometimes traveling in a straight line, sometimes zigzagging on its way to who knows where: like our country, like the progress of civilization. Burial of Pampan lyricism and sarcastic disregard for common usage, shadowy Beckettian skill and sacramental Peronist sketch comedy, monstrosity, lewd vaudeville act and highbrow commentary, story in verse, also serious drama on death, this superlative poem should not have implied any more risk than what Lamborghini had assumed from the outset, when he decided to employ a unique tone to express his vision. Lamborghini needn’t have had any goal in mind save that of projecting his voice, freeing, let’s say, his vision and shaping it. The search for answers or conclusions is abandoned in the face of needing to write well what is written, risk fades away and what remains is the poem’s best interest; for us, a kind of pain that is relieved, that is to say: aesthetics. He doesn’t know what kind of reach it will have. Lamborghini probably wasn’t worried about foreign distribution. Translating this text would be very tricky, overflowing as it is with localness. And if I choose this example it’s because it seems to me indicative, but I could just as easily have chosen something by Russell Hoban, an American who settled in England and wrote the masterpiece Riddley Walker. Hoban’s is a coming-of-age story set in a postnuclear world, written in a delightful neo-primitive style, and Hoban refuses to sell translation rights for other languages (as if he were afraid of denaturalization). Faithful to its extremist impulse, stubbornly rooted in its world of reductive circulation, literature employs the local dialect and enriches it; is renewed through diaspora, destroys the synthetic language which separates us by way of what is supposed to connect us. Not a few think that if literature has a future, it will be thanks to a large stock of untranslatable books, or of course for us translators, seemingly untranslatable.
Even in less extreme cases, it’s hard to imagine that a neutral language like the one dreamed up by the Spanish version of Life magazine could increase the translator’s commitment to his or her work. Equal opportunity among various groups of readers is a fantasy, because there are very few works that the publishing industry is going to translate for any given country, and because identity exercises an insane power of reduction: from the nation down to the region, state, county, race, city, neighborhood, family, self. Apart from the fact that the alleged “Argentine” language already incorporates expressions from the entire Spanish-speaking world, and from other worlds, an inevitable consequence of the global extravaganza. We’ve adopted the Spanishisms porro, cachondo, piscina, the erroneous and disgraceful use of the vosotros, the Mexicanism lucir and even the Brazilian todo bien, and make easy use of pinches bueyes, quiubos, pantaletas, and cabrones, all terms that have made their inflexible Lunfardo predecessors bray but haven’t weakened the undeniable legacy of Argentine vernacular accomplishments such as che, viste, mina, or many others. This is just one example. The same thing is happening with the national dialects in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, everywhere, and, with the approval of the Royal Spanish Academy, it’s begun to happen in Spain.
In this climate, the enduring battle between the translation of a work to a language that is believable for the particular reader or a language that causes estrangement could be resolved by a new alternative. It would be a provisional solution, and would announce that from here on out all solutions will be provisional. In reality, my hope is that it foretells of a future in which every book will demand of the translator, as writing demands, not only a partial solution, but an ad hoc theory, as if translation could become a branch of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. The translator, when not yoked to his or her daily pages, dreams of an ocean filled with plankton of dissolved identities. Let’s not forget that an ocean is a medium. Instead of creating twenty localized versions of an original, each translation will make use of all the language’s dialects and slangs, taking, for starters, the ones that best facilitate imitation or interpretative execution. It would be a rebellious usage: maximum strangeness obtained through the artifice of global familiarity. I don’t ask myself if this dream is contradictory or even harmful. In the seventeenth century, the version of El Quijote in English caused a literary earthquake from which rose mountains such as Tristram Shandy. The novels of Onetti would not exist without the versions of Faulkner translated in the forties in Havana and Buenos Aires. Some might say that commerce revives languages and that at each step a literature must decide, if it wishes to survive, which branch of its tradition is still vital and which it would be better to prune. Of course, if the decision is left to the industry—which loves the public, which in turn loves to be deceived—the only thing generated is profit, as they trample the world under the pretense of aesthetics. But this should be what we mean when we say we’re worried about language: not that we’re concerned about the beauty of its attire, but about usage, about its power to burst in on our consciousness and whip it into a frenzy.
"Nuevas batallas por la propiedad de la lengua" © Marcelo Cohen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.