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One Day in August a Man Disappeared—A Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse Story

By Andrés Barba, Kirmen Uribe, Jeremy Tiang, and Kira Josefsson
Translated By Lisa Dillman, Elizabeth Macklin, YZ Chin, and Kristina Andersson Bicher

At PEN America’s Lit Crawl NYC 2019, Words Without Borders and SLICE Literary partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story authored by four international writers and their translators.

In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Spanish writer Andrés Barba, who was given a prompt line from Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, translated by E. Dale Saunders: “One day in August a man disappeared”). The next writer, Kirmen Uribe, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in Basque. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. Since this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Jeremy Tiang’s section, written in Chinese, was translated into English and then into Swedish so that Kira Josefsson could complete the story.

At the Lit Crawl event, hosted by WWB’s Jessie Chaffee and SLICE’s Paul Florez, the writers and translators shared the story with a large crowd in the garden of the Warby Parker store on Bergen Street in Brooklyn. Scroll down to read the full story in both English and the original languages!

Participating writers and translators Kristina Andersson Bicher, Jeremy Tiang, Lisa Dillman, Elizabeth Macklin, YZ Chin, Kirmen Uribe, Kira Josefsson, and Andrés Barba.

One Day in August a Man Disappeared

English Version

1. Andrés Barba (Spanish original), Lisa Dillman (English translation)

One August day, a man disappears. He’s an architect, forty-two years old. Three hours before disappearing, he discovers that he doesn’t love his wife. It is like a revelation, the way it happens: they’re on vacation in a small city south of Lisbon and she does something completely innocuous: they’re passing a shop window and she looks at herself in the reflection.

What, you think you look pretty? he asks.

I always look pretty, she responds jokingly.

He is surprised that she’s hurt by such a banal comment and feels a sadness that remains with him the entire walk to the beach. He decides to fall a few steps behind, to better look at her, and in those five minutes he observes her back, the gentle slope rising up to her shoulders, her neck. She does, indeed, look very pretty, but he no longer feels any desire to be with her, feels instead a sort of pity for her. Worse yet: that pity is the undeniable sign that he no longer loves her, a pity that blends in with the smell of seaweed and sand and sticks to his skin when he lies down beside her after going in the water. Then, lying there beside her, before disappearing—because he already knows he’s going to disappear—he dares for the first time to think these words: I don’t love you.

2. Kirmen Uribe (Basque original), Elizabeth Macklin (English translation)

Then, lying there beside her, before disappearing—because he already knows he’s going to disappear—he dares for the first time to think these words: I don’t love you. 

Yes, that’d be best. Not loving anymore. Or, rather, quit loving each other. Being together yet again would do nothing but ramp up the suffering. Why should she follow him into the hole? No, Ane—that was her name—deserved nothing like that. Better to quit seeing each other, better to get out of her life once and for all. Finito. He would wait all alone for the death in life he had coming to him.

Life in prison is nothing at all like life on the outside. Prison is existing outside daily life. That’s what makes for the greatest pain. Being outside the life of the people you love, outside their time. He was grateful for Ane’s trying, she wanted to follow him all the way to the end, hang on to an unbelievable loyalty. But he didn’t want to screw up her life. She was young, she’d find someone else, someone who’d make her happy. A better guy than him, a person to grow with, to go out walking with, to talk with, easygoing, uncramped. To make plans for the future, have kids, why not, but not with him, with somebody else. That judge’s sentence was going to break up both of their lives.

On the monthly conjugal visit, the two of them on the old bed some other prisoner used before, they lay staring up at the stained ceiling. I don’t love you. He had to say it soon, before the officer called time’s up he had to tell her I don’t love you, don’t come to visit again, be happy, somewhere else with somebody else. But how can you say that to someone who’s giving you everything, how to say no to the only good luck you’ve had in your life, how to say no to that kind of beauty. When he was with Ane he felt himself escape from prison, go flying off at liberty into the woods and on the way to the sea. Then all alone.

They knocked on the door. The two of them got off the bed and began to dress. Saying nothing to each other, in a hurry, as if loving each other were the most mortal sin. So fast, that everything had already been said.

3. Jeremy Tiang (Chinese original), YZ Chin (English translation)

It was over in an instant, the saying of what needed to be said.

All we could do then was to stand around awkwardly while we awaited Her Honor’s reply. Every tick of the clock went by especially slowly. Under the unusually hot sun, a muggy humidity enveloped us. The director’s face was entirely motionless, and I couldn’t make out her thoughts at all. I tried my best to empty my mind, hoping that my expression, too, reflected calmness.

I snuck a glance at little Snow. Her cracked lips were trembling slightly. A drop of sweat trickled down her neck, staining her collar. Being after all still so young, she might be having trouble reining in her emotions. Just hold on a little longer, I silently urged her.

I told myself: It wouldn’t be a big deal even if anything were to go awry today. At worst, after our heroic martyrdom, the organization would send someone new, one after another, until the mission was finally completed. What did my puny little life matter?

A single ant crawled across my foot. I closed my eyes.

Her Honor summoned Miss Cheng over and whispered a few sentences to her. The girl turned her head and addressed me with honorifics, her voice sweet as pie: Elder sister Lotus, don’t be scared, this is all for Your own good. As she padded over on soft feet, she slipped a handgun out from its holster.

4. Kira Josefsson (Swedish original), Kristina Andersson Bicher (English translation)

As she padded over on soft feet, she slipped a handgun out from its holster. The silk stocking catches on the rough floorboard and nearly trips her. She straightens, tries to get her breathing under control. But still, he lies motionless in bed, twisted up in the sheets and comforter, snoring with foul breath. Their bedroom is small. The bed is in the corner, the door directly behind her, and the room’s only window is shut. They live on the seventh floor. If he wakes and tries to escape, the result will be the same as what she is about to do. The weapon is heavy in her hand. She had thought it would be cold, maybe because that’s how it’s described in crime novels. But the pistol is just as hot as her pulsating body, intoxicated with a power she’s never had over him before. For a second, she wishes he’d wake up so that he would experience the terror she’s lived with every day since the first time he hit her. Then she shakes her head, she doesn’t trust herself. She’s had the gun in her possession for several weeks and it’s not like in his country where you can go into any megastore and come out an hour later with a submachine gun. Despite all the effort required to get it, she’d left it lying in her underwear drawer where he could easily have found it. He moans in his sleep and she stiffens. Does she really want to do this? She raises her free hand and feels those sore marks around her neck, those grotesque ornaments. One of the first rules she learned in the screenwriting class that he made her drop out of was that a weapon shown in the opening scene must be fired before the film is over. Then she snorts: what unimaginative dramaturgy. But tonight, she thinks, this is the rule that will set her free.

Paul Florez, Andrés Barba, Elizabeth Macklin, Jessie Chaffee, Kirmen Uribe, YZ Chin, Kristina Andersson Bicher, Kira Josefsson, and Jeremy Tiang. Photo by Susannah Greenblatt.

One Day in August a Man Disappeared

Multilingual Version

1. Andrés Barba (Spanish)

Un día de agosto, un hombre desaparece. Es arquitecto, tiene cuarenta y dos años. Tres horas antes de desaparecer descubre que no quiere a su mujer. Sucede como una revelación, están de vacaciones en una pequeña ciudad al sur de Lisboa y ella hace un gesto completamente inocuo: pasan junto a un escaparate y se mira en el reflejo.

Qué, ¿te ves guapa? pregunta.

Yo siempre estoy guapa, responde ella, bromeando.

A él le sorprende que le haga daño ese comentario tan banal y siente una tristeza que le acompaña durante todo el trayecto a pie hasta la playa. Decide retrasarse unos pasos para verla mejor y durante esos cinco minutos observa su espalda, el dibujo suave y ascendente hasta el hombro, el cuello. Está muy guapa, efectivamente, pero ya no siente deseos de acompañarla, más bien siente una especie de piedad por ella. Peor aún: la piedad es el signo indudable de que ya no la quiere, esa piedad que se mezcla con el olor de las algas y la arena y se queda pegada a la piel cuando se tumba a su lado después del baño. Luego, tumbado a su lado, antes de desparecer—porque ya sabe que va a desaparecer—se anima por primera vez a pensar esas palabras: no te quiero.

2. Kirmen Uribe (Basque)

Bai, onena izango zen hori. Ez maitatzea gehiago. Edo, hobeto esan, elkar maitatzeari uztea. Elkarrengana berriro biltzeak sufrimendua areagotu baino ez zuen egingo. Zertarako jarraituko zion zulora? Ez, Anek, horrelaxe deitzen baitzen emakumea, ez zuen hori merezi. Hobe elkar ikusteari uztea, hobe bere bizitzatik behin eta betiko ateratzen bazen. Akabo. Bakarrik itxarongo zion zetorkion bizi heriotzari.

Kartzelako bizitzak ez du zerikusirik kanpokoarekin. Kartzela da eguneroko bizitzatik kanpo egotea. Horrek sortzen du minik handiena. Maite duzun jendearen bizitzetatik kanpo egotea, beraien denboratik. Eskertzen zuen Aneren ahalegina, jarraitu egin nai zion bukaera arte, leialtasun sinestezin bati eutsi. Baina ez zion bizitza izorratu nahi. Gaztea zen, aurkituko zuen besteren bat, zorioneko egingo zuen norbait. Bera baino mutil hobea, pertsona bat norekin hazi, norekin paseatu, norekin hitz egin, lasai, estuasunik gabe. Planak egin etorkizunaz, umeak izan, zergatik ez, baina berarekin ez, beste batekin. Kondena hark bien bizitzak hautsiko zituen.

Hilean behingo hitzordu intimoan, aurretik beste preso batek erabilitako ohe zaharrean etzanik biak, orbanez beteriko sapaiari begira zeuden. Ez zaitut maite. Esan behar zion berandu baino lehen, funtzionarioak atera deitu baino lehen esan behar zion ez zaitut maite, ez etorri gehiago bisitan, izan zoriontsu, beste nonbait beste norbaitekin. Baina nola esan hori dena ematen dizunari, nola esan ezetz bizian izan duzun zorte on bakarrari, nola esan ezetz tamainako edertasunari. Anerekin zegoenean bere buruak ihes egiten zuen kartzelatik, libre hegaldatzen zen basoetan barrena eta itsasora bidean. Orduan bakarrik.

Atea jo zuten. Ohetik jaiki ziren eta jazten hasi. Elkarri ezer esan gabe, presaz, elkar maitatzea bekaturik latzena balitz bezala. Hain azkar ezen, dena esanda baitzegoen.

3. Jeremy Tiang (Chinese)








4. Kira Josefsson (Swedish)

Hon vaggade ditåt på mjuka fötter medan hon lät en pistol glida ur sitt hölster. Silkesstrumpan fastnar i en fnasig träplanka och får henne nästan att snubbla. Hon stannar upp, försöker få andningen under kontroll. Men han ligger orörlig i sängen, insnodd i lakan och täcken, snarkandes med stinkande andedräkt. Deras sovrum är litet, sängen står i hörnet, dörren är rakt bakom henne och det enda fönstret är stängt. De bor sju trappor upp. Om han vaknar och försöker fly den vägen får det samma resultat som det hon nu är på väg att göra. Vapnet är tungt i hennes hand. Hon hade trott att det skulle vara kallt, kanske för att det är så det beskrivs i kriminalromaner, men pistolen är het precis som hennes pulserande kropp, rusig av en makt hon aldrig tidigare haft över honom. För en sekund önskar hon att han skulle vakna så att han fick känna på skräcken hon levt med varje dag sedan första gången han slog henne. Sedan skakar hon på huvudet, hon litar inte på sig själv. Hon har haft pistolen i sin ägo i flera veckor och det här är inte som i hans hemland där man kan gå in på ett storköp och komma ut med en k-pist någon timme senare. Trots ansträngningarna som krävdes att få tag på den har hon låtit den ligga i underklädeslådan där han lätt kunnat hitta den. Han gnyr i sömnen och hon stelnar till. Vill hon verkligen göra det? Hon lyfter sin fria hand och känner på de ömma märkena kring halsen, ett groteskt smycke. En av de första reglerna hon lärde sig på scenförfattarutbildningen han fick henne att hoppa av var att ett vapen som visas i den första scenen måste fyras av innan filmen är slut. Då fnös hon: vilken fantasilös dramaturgi. Men i natt, tänker hon, är det den regeln som befriar henne.

Published Nov 13, 2019   Copyright 2019 Andrés Barba, Kirmen Uribe, Jeremy Tiang, and Kira Josefsson

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