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To the Farthest Reaches: On Translating Sergio Kokis

By Hugh Hazelton

Hugh Hazelton’s translation of Sergio Kokis’s “Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse” appears in the October 2017 feature: Multicultural Quebec.

Sergio Kokis is a unique figure in Quebec literature, a wanderer who spans nations and languages, multiple forms of artistic expression and style, and eclectic literary and psychological points of view. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1944 into a multiethnic family: his mother was a seamstress from São Paulo, and his father—a Latvian immigrant—was an electrician and sometime inventor. After the coup d’état of 1964 and the political repression that followed, he received a scholarship to study psychology at the Université de Strasbourg and then immigrated to Quebec, where he worked at a psychiatric hospital in the Gaspé and later finished a doctorate in clinical psychology at the Université de Montréal. He went on to teach at the Université du Québec at Montreal and worked as a psychologist at the Sainte-Justine children’s hospital. At the same time, Kokis also studied art at the Musée des beaux-arts and became a painter. It was twenty years later, in the mid-1990s, that he began to write, and he eventually left his post at the hospital in order to concentrate solely on his fiction and artwork. Since that time he has published almost a book a year: nineteen novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poems and paintings, and a travel journal of treks in Europe, including the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela.           

Kokis’s first novel, Le pavillon des miroirs (translated by David Homel and Fred Reed as Funhouse in 1999), won four awards in Quebec. It is partially autobiographical and describes his childhood excursions around Rio with his father, whose fascination with the people, images, and objects of the city, its combination of beauty and misery, and his immigrant feeling of being an outsider all influence his son. Kokis enjoys taking his time to tell a story: his sentences are long, well structured, and filled with contrasting visual images and descriptive detail. They often resemble paintings made of words. There is an emphasis on the grotesque, the emotional, and the ambivalent, as well as on the omnipresence of death in the midst of life. The scenes of Kokis’s adolescence in Brazil—interspersed with reflections on identity from his artist’s studio in Quebec and his underlying anguish at his isolation—effectively give the novel a dual axis of culture, time, and place.

Like many artists who work with both words and color, Kokis’s aesthetic is also reflected in his painting, which is an integral part of his expression and is almost always of the human form. He has illustrated all the covers of his books with paintings specific to each work that in themselves are comments or reflections upon the text. His artwork combines elements of the apocalyptic tradition in Flemish and Dutch painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—with its images of the fantastical and the folly of human obsessions—and the twisting forms of twentieth-century Expressionism, recalling elements of Bosch and Brueghel, Tchelitchew and Orozco. The facing poetry and paintings of La danse macabre du Québec (1999) are equal aspects of a single creation, each complementing the other.

Kokis’s work has one of the broadest geographical and cultural canvases of any contemporary Quebec author. His novels focus on characters from a vast number of countries and walks of life who crisscross the Americas and Europe in search of redemption—a Russian literature professor in the 1930s, a Lithuanian religious fanatic who convinces his disciples to follow him to Brazil, a schizophrenic librarian in Montreal who is obsessed with Bosch, a Quebec art forger in Belgium, a drug dealer and his prostitute lover in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a betrayed soldier avenging himself upon the Argentine military after the return of democracy in the 1980s, a Brazilian refugee in East Berlin who returns to his homeland, and a young boy in Montreal who’s placed in a foster home and takes refuge in catatonia. His story lines vary from love and death in Lisbon to the fall of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay. Often his novels include tales told within tales, a struggle between the will and determinism, philosophical dialogues, ethical discussions, and a Dostoyevskian ring of inescapable suffering. Above all, there is detailed observation of human psychology and interaction when characters are dealing with situations of extreme, even overwhelming stress.

Like his novels, Kokis’s short stories vary in location and plot, yet all reach out to the boundaries of human experience and, in the case of “Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse,” human habitation. In effect, the Evangelista Lighthouse actually exists, built in 1895 on the largest of four rocky outcrops that constitute the farthest extension of land on the southwest coast of South America, just north of Desolation Island, at the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan. As in the story, the lighthouse is maintained and manned by the Chilean navy, and its position at the extreme edge of Patagonia amid the unopposed winds of the Roaring Forties gives it some of the roughest seas in the world—with waves known to spray the foundation of the building, 160 feet above the sea—as well as torrential rains all year round (there is a dramatic view of the lighthouse here). I myself took the old Chilean state ferry (now defunct) through the Chilean Archipelago from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas in the austral fall of 1976, and I remember that as we entered the Strait of Magellan early on an eerily sunny and windless morning, all the trees on the windward shore were growing at a forty-five-degree angle. It reminded me of the title that E. Lucas Bridges chose for his memoir of growing up in Tierra del Fuego in the late 1800s: Uttermost Part of the Earth. Upon reading Kokis’s remarkable story, I felt an immediate affinity with it and wanted to translate it, so as to revisit those stark and distant places.

Kokis’s work has received a number of awards, and Cul de sac, the collection of short stories from which “Incidents” is taken, was a finalist for the Governor General’s award for literature in 2013. Several of his works have been translated into English and Spanish, and one into Portuguese. Curiously, despite the fact that a number of his novels take place partially in the land of his birth, Brazilians themselves seem to view Kokis as a Canadian or Québécois author, rather than as a Brazilian who lives abroad. The Brazilian critic Renato Venâncio Henriques de Sousa has commented on how there is often a “Portuguese presence” in Kokis’s French, “a sound, a muted music, that undercuts the literary language,” and Euridice Figueiredo notes the techniques that Kokis uses to deterritorialize (and in some cases reterritorialize) Brazilian references for his francophone audience. However, in “Incidents” the language is quite straightforward and flows well in French, though the phrasing is occasionally unusual (the freshness of two languages interacting) and Corporal Liberio has a distinctly Portuguese-sounding name. There is something appealing in the fact that such a tale about Chilean sailors is being told by a Brazilian author writing in French in Montreal, as is certainly fitting for a story set in the remotest reaches of the Americas.

Published Oct 26, 2017   Copyright 2017 Hugh Hazelton

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