31 January 2008

Lost in New York

One of the (many) reasons I love living here is all I'm learning about Colombian literature and film. Ever since seeing Rosario Tijeras, Jorge Franco has been on my TBR list and I've finally been able to read both Don Quijote de la Mancha in Medellín and Paraíso Travel. Although I had been aware of this latter work, it wasn't until I read Scott's interview with translator Katherine Silver that I bought the novel (in its original Spanish). (Of course, hearing that a film adaptation was in the works helped too.)

I finished reading it on the road to Cartagena (with A. striving valiantly to not tell me too much--he considers the last spoken line to be one of the best he's ever read) and we went straight to Teatro Heredia in the old city (after checking in) for the first event we were able to attend at this year's Hay Festival.

In the novel, Marlon and Reina are a young couple that immigrate illegally from Colombia to the U.S. and get separated in New York City, lost to each other among the millions. Marlon’s narrative alternates between three different parts of the story, which dissolve into a single strand once the reader realizes where Marlon is going and to whom he’s actually speaking. (I was reminded of Laura Restrepo’s more complicated structure in Delirio.)

As I got further into the book, I remembered what Katherine Silver had to say about Marlon, “whose subtly idiosyncratic voice—part idiot savant, part idiotic innocent—gives the novel unity and depth.” She’s certainly right about the “unity and depth,” but I was a little surprised to find my perception of Marlon to be so different from her own. He is young, scared, slightly superstitious, and in love—for the first time in his life. He is also helplessly (and illegally) lost in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t realize that tossing a cigarette on a sidewalk could, say, get you unwanted attention from a couple of nearby cops. He wanders the streets for days without food or shelter; the fear and utter exhaustion cause a nervous breakdown, which will fill him with self-doubt later on (“Le eché la culpa al cansancio, hasta pensé que los días en que no fui yo me habían causado un daño cerebral, o que definitivamente era imposible entenderse en Nueva York.”).

As Junot Díaz says, there is nothing to compare it to: the immigrant experience (particularly the illegal immigrant experience) is so far removed from the typical frame of reference that the only thing that can really even come close is science fiction. But Franco isn’t writing science fiction, simply the thoughts and experiences of a bewildered young man, lost in a foreign country. (As Marlon’s friend Giovanny tells him, “Aquí lo que funciona es la observación: tenés que mirar y seguir, mirar y luego imitar, y obedecer, así creás que no te están vigilando, porque siempre están mirando.”) It isn’t even until much later in the novel that he is finally able to articulate his fear and confront himself and truth of his situation.

Yet he is innocent (in a sense), filled with idealism, blind faith, and, yes, obsession when it comes to Reina. As far as he's concerned, she's alive, lost, and waiting for him to find her. Perhaps saying he is “idiotic” is really just something he’d say of himself:
Ahora estoy seguro de todo lo que uno tiene que ver con su propia suerte. Si de algo he de lamentarme no es de mi mala estrella sino de mi estupidez: seguir a alguien por enamorado tiene más de torpeza que de honestidad o de ceguera.
But idiotic or not, he expresses the tragedy of the immigrant/exile (self-imposed or otherwise) and the misapprehensions of the homeland that can lead to a devastating confusion:
Cargaban en su expresión la desesperanza y el cansancio de haber agotado todas sus posibilidades en este país. Este país, así lo llamamos todos, con una pronunciación despectiva que acompañamos siempre de una mueca desagradable. Como si este país fuera un trapo sucio, ajeno, y no lo que todos hicimos de él. [...]

Se van mermando las esperanzas, se va uno acostumbrando a la prisa, uno comienza a ser desleal con sus sueños, se deja de llorar pero también de reír y finalmente termina uno padeciendo la maldición del emigrante: uno no se quiere quedar pero tampoco quiere volver.
His insight into his own plight extends into an awareness of wider issues:
También hubiera querido decirle que la infamia no era una exclusividad de los colombianos, que todos los seres humanos, sin excepción, somos infames y que por eso es que estamos irremediablemente perdidos.
Ultimately, he goes from glimmers of understanding (“Reina, Monterrey, Reynosa, todo tan monárquico”) to knowing what it is to “mortgage [one's] existence to another’s will.” He learns what identity and patria really mean, summing it up in a beautiful passage (whose impact I won't spoil by posting here) that will leave you wanting to pass this book on to someone else.

Another aspect of the work that I enjoyed were small, revealing details that Franco included. Marlon is hopelessly besotted with Reina, but even though there’s plenty of mention of his attraction to her and the physical aspect of their relationship, it isn’t until page 180 that a particular phrase is used...
Yo no sabía si agradecerle o reprocharle que me hiciera contarle mi historia. Me sentía cansado y liviano a la vez, como si acabara de hacer el amor.
...and he isn’t talking about Reina.

Something else I loved was his inclusion of a character whose loss of identity is mirrored in the letters lost from his name—from Rogelio Peña to Roger Pena:
—¿Usted no se llama así? —le pregunté.

—Primero perdí la eñe. Aquí esa letra no existe.

Hubiera querido preguntarle cómo se podía hablar sin una letra en el abecedario y cómo se decía coño en inglés, pero él estaba decidido a contarme sólo cinco segundos de su historia.
What Marlon doesn’t mention is that “pena” is also a word for shame, sorrow, and hardship in Spanish. Could this have something to do with Roger’s past?

Roger was also a pretty steady source of amusement:
—¿Y para dónde nos vamos? —le pregunté mientras trataba de recoger lo mío.

—I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street with my hair down, so.

—¿Qué está diciendo, Roger?

—Yo, nada. El que lo dijo fue Eliot.
Back in Cartagena, we stood in line outside the theatre, the wind off the sea chilling us (or at least me) on this festive night. Although the film had opened in theatres the week before, it felt like a premiere—especially with the perambulating newspaper boys announcing it and the aproned (theme-appropriate) women pretending to mop the floor in and around the line of people. (We joked with one of them that it was all part of the experience, and she agreed.)

In the Q&A session after the screening, Jorge Franco and Juan Rendón took questions from the audience. Franco explained how he became attracted to the immigrant story and how a “what if” idea led him to imagine certain scenarios and explore different types of people and the reasons behind their choice to leave one country for another.

Most of the questions were pretty dull or obvious (“by people who haven’t read the book,” as A. observed), but I liked the last one. Someone asked why he tends to have such strong female characters (referencing both Rosario Tijeras and Paraíso Travel) set against weaker male counterparts. He acknowledged the trend, but thought that things changed considerably with Marlon. He sees him as a more developed character who “emancipates” himself throughout the novel.

I plan on seeing the movie again, but I was a little disappointed with how sure of himself Marlon was in the film. It was a tougher read of the character than I was expecting. One of the questions asked about certain differences between how the characters were written and how they were portrayed onscreen. Franco said it was true that some actors changed certain aspects of their characters, but added that this was their art and their contribution to the form.

The film itself is an excellent production. Some of the changes were improvements (emphasis on the tragedies of the border crossing) and others diluted the experience (the absence of Marlon’s mental breakdown and extreme suffering—he doesn’t even have beard by the time he finds shelter at Mi Tierra Colombiana). The three narrative threads are pared down to two, two characters are conflated into one, and the ending doesn’t have the emotional depth and clarity of the original. But the actors did excellent jobs and (just barely) kept John Leguizamo from stealing the show (his Spanish has improved considerably as well!). I can now forgive him for Lorenza Daza (almost).

I also really liked the depth the filmmakers added to the character of “La caleña” and how they emphasized the differences between herself and Reina.

Just today I thought of the question I should’ve asked. Orlando is a character in Franco’s novel that reminded me exactly of the character of Don Fernando in María Full of Grace. Turns out that Orlando Tobón who plays Don Fernando is the associate producer of María and is also "known as 'The Mayor of Little Colombia' in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York." Although another actor portrays him in the Paraíso Travel film, I found it moving that Franco uses his actual name in the novel. It would’ve been interesting to hear if he’s met Orlando Tobón and how he came to put him into his novel.

Thus ends the account of Friday night at the Hay Festival. On Saturday morning, A. went in search of parts for his electric guitar and I spent two hours in one bookstore (hence my lovely finds). Our next event was Saturday afternoon with Anne Enright. (The Irish were definitely well represented in the audience—we were surrounded!) My notes may be slow in coming, but I am determined to post on each event throughout the coming week. And if you’ve made it this far, my sincere congratulations!

29 January 2008

...and more books

While I finish up my little essay on Paraíso Travel (the novel) and share the photos from the first Hay Festival event we were able to attend (the film adaptation), here's a list of the books I was able to find while in Cartagena:
Everyone was sold out of Enrique Vila-Matas, so El mal de Montano will have to wait for another day...but I am quite pleased with myself for finding these.

28 January 2008

Still glowing

We got in from Cartagena last night--what a wonderful, wonderful time! Lots of photos and many pages of notes to share. Alice Walker couldn't make it due to a medical issue (which we were told wasn't anything to be too worried about) but we heard Jorge Franco, Anne Enright, David Crystal, Kiran Desai, Aminatta Forna, Monica Ali, Cristina García, Andrew Ruhemann, Antony Beevor, Ana María Moix, Piedad Bonnett, Enrique de Hériz, José Ovejero, and Juan Gossaín.

In the meantime, check out the fantastic Cartagena Hay Festival 2008 blog. It'll make you wish you had been there--and might inspire you to attend next year's.

22 January 2008

Another one for future reference

Imani discusses the Summer 2000 issue of the Paris Review and shares Massimo Bacigalupo's solution to the whole "translating poetry" quandary:
Italian, of course, is a language that has long words, so if you’re translating poetry, as I have done with The Prelude, you have to choose whether to break up Wordsworth’s pentameters to keep the lines short or, as I do, maintain a roughly line-to-line correspondence.

In Italy (unlike France) it always has been customary, with poetry, to print the original facing the translation. So a translator should modestly seek to perform a service (we call it “traduzione di servizio“), offering a “guide” to the original rather than “poetry.” At least, I find that the more unambitious the approach the better. Quasi-poets should not use translation as a means of expressing their poetic souls. The closer you look into an original the more poetry you find — even in a translation. When I tackled The Prelude, it took me several years to do. I published some of the sections as I went along in little magazines, and it was amazing how readers were fascinated by what was to them a new poem. This is one of the possibilities of translation — you can reveal a great unknown quantity to a readership that was unaware of it. Quite a responsibility.
It has a eureka quality to it that makes me wonder why I hadn't read much on this (sensibly obvious) approach before. (Of course, come September, I will have no excuse...)

If this back issue hadn't already been sold out, I would have ordered it right away. It's a shame for this stuff to go out of print and not be reproduced online. (Perhaps it's something they're slowly moving towards?)

21 January 2008

Complicated lives

Since reading The Silent Woman and her defence of Franny and Zooey, I've had a great respect for Janet Malcolm, as controversial and imperfect as some her work may be perceived. Aside from her brilliant penchant for asking the questions behind the questions, her sensible, down-to-earth honesty is always refreshing to read. In her recent Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, she's completely open about her shortcomings as a reader:
All three [scholars] prefer Stein's "real" writing to the "audience" writing, and when I confessed--as I am often obliged to--that the "real" writing is not congenial to me, they looked at me pityingly. "Well, you're honest," [Ulla] Dydo said kindly on one of these occasions. On another, while talking about the Thornton Wilder-Gertrude Stein book, I said in passing that I liked Our Town, and Dydo gave me a dark look. "Is it too sentimental for you?" I asked. "Ugh," she said, and shuddered. At these times I feel like someone who has ordered a cheeseburger at Lutèce.
I was thrilled to finally get my hands on a copy. (The fact that it's designed to look like a book published ca. 1940 only added to my glee.) Despite the rigorous questioning that goes on regarding how Stein and Toklas survived WWII, she seems to have (for the lay reader, at least) a wonderful grasp of Stein's writerly intentions ("She refuses to see things clearly that can only be seen darkly. She would rather groan and beat her breast than impose a false order on disorderly complexity."). She also does a good job of demonstrating why Stein's work is especially relevant now (while dicussing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas):
For forty years Stein has been working as a twentieth-century modernist innovator. But now she is obliged to consider the possibility that the nineteenth century did not end when she and everyone else thought it did, but is only ending now, with the arrival of barbarism. "Realism was the last thing the nineteenth century did completely. Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now . . . it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter." And yet, paradoxically, something tells Stein that there is great point in being realistic now, that life is indeed real and earnest and that she must try to rouse herself. "The horrors the fears everybody's fears the helplessness of everybody's fears, so different from other wars makes this war like Shakespeare's plays." Stein knows better than to try to write like Shakespeare, but she also senses that the occasion demands that she not try to write like herself, either. Modernist experimentalism will not express what she wants (and doesn't want) to express.
I believe the allusion to Longfellow is intentional (with the unspoken hint that perhaps the grave is its goal), and that life necessitates a both/and approach to art, as opposed to an either/or. I would think that "modernist experimentalism" would be the perfectly precise mode of expression for the times, but it seems that one thing shouldn't always be excluded at the expense of the other.

Yet there was one unaddressed issue that left me deeply curious. Stein sympathized with Franco, but was friends with Picasso ("she loved the Republican Party, she hated Roosevelt, and she actually supported Franco."). Picasso doesn't figure into Malcolm's book very much--I supposed that if he did, it would be a whole other book. It just left me wondering how that relationship worked. (How did they discuss Guernica? What could she have even said?)

As it is--all historical and biographical musings aside--Malcolm's thoughts on Stein's writing was the part I enjoyed the most (like this bit on The Making of Americans):
Stein's vocabulary is small and monotonous. When she uses a new word it is like the entrance of a new character. It is thrilling. "Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being," she writes. "Using a word I have not yet been using in my writing is to me very difficult and a peculiar feeling. . . . There are only a few words and with these mostly always I am writing that have for me completely entirely existing being, in talking I use many more of them of words I am not living but talking is another thing, in talking one can be saying mostly anything, often then I am using many words I never could be using in writing."

Stein seems to be transcribing rather than transforming thought as she writes, making a kind of literal translation of what is going on in her mind. The alacrity with which she catches her thoughts before they turn into stale standard expressions may be the most singular of her accomplishments. Her influence on twentieth-century writing is nebulous. No school of Stein ever came into being. But every writer who lingers over Stein's sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.
Related items:

For future reference

Natasha Wimmer answers a few questions and gives some excellent tips:
How much time - if any - do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?

Way, way too much time, mostly on food blogs, which definitely count as a distraction - to the extent that I had my husband set up a complicated system that cuts off my access from 9 to 5 every workday. But when I use it for legitimate purposes, it’s incredibly helpful. I do lots of research on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and I use the Real Academia Spanish dictionary. Urbandictionary.com is a godsend for slang assistance. And when I’m not sure whether a phrase is colloquial or not, I’ll Google it - a 21st-century translator’s trick.
(via Counterbalance)

18 January 2008

To burn or not to burn?

According to Inside Higher Ed,
The son of Vladimir Nabokov is weighing whether to carry out the late novelist’s request that his final, unpublished work — currently in a Swiss bank — be destroyed. An article in Slate reviews the issues involved and how they relate to the question of who really owns literary work.
Ron Rosenbaum explains,
What I'd like to do is convey to Dmitri the best of your responses to this (literally) burning question, since he deserves to know the sentiments of the intelligent reading public as well as those of the close-knit coterie of Nabokovians greedy to view the body of [The Original of] Laura's text.
Maud points to reactions by Laila Lalami and Stephany Aulenback. Bookninja has something to say (as well as many thoughtful commenters). Michael Orthofer discusses a troubling point.

I'm reminded of the controversy that swirled around Alice Quinn's publication of Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Many thought Quinn should've left well-enough alone--especially Helen Vendler:
It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one's writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified "No."
I suppose I could resign myself to the destruction of those infamous index cards if Dmitri were to answer Rosenbaum's plea and tell us a little bit more about it:
Tell us what you want to tell us about Laura (including the "real" name of the original). Tell us why you think it's the "distillation of [your] father's art." Tell us, please, what that can mean. Or explain why Laura is such a "radical" departure from his previous work.
I guess we won't have too long to wait.

UPDATE: Scott at Conversational Reading and Dan of The Reading Experience also discuss the issue.

17 January 2008

Social suffocation

Thanks to the wonder of online library catalogs (and the trusty library card I always carry with me), a lovely stack of books was waiting for me at my parents' house this Christmas. Natsuo Kirino's chilly Grotesque (translated by Rebecca Copeland) was the first one I dove into: an unreliable narrator pile-up filled with social suffocation and what it feels like to be trapped in the mind of a thwarted woman-child.

Each version of events lends itself to reinterpretation and further distrust of the principal narrator’s account. The supplementary material the narrator adds to her story (Yuriko’s diary, Kazue’s diary, Zhang’s deposition and account of his past) flatly contradict her own perceptions. Although what occurs at the end should serve to lend more sympathy to the narrator, the very fact that she’s allowed other voices in undermines her tale, leaving this reader merely annoyed with her pathetic posturing. But whose telling is really “true”? Isn’t it simply a matter of both/and rather than either/or? And given the social context in which she finds herself, could the narrator have chosen any other way?

Kirino elegantly exhibits the difference between truth and fact, while making it clear that compassion is needed for both.

UPDATE: I decided to use the handy litblog search engine over at MetaxuCafé to see what others had to say about it.

16 January 2008

Notes to self