21 September 2009

The mystery in the ordinary

From a recent interview with Marilynne Robinson:
Q: In your essay on Psalm Eight in The Death of Adam you wrote, “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.” I think it’s very central to appreciating what you’ve been doing in your work.

A: Well, yes. I read things like theology, and I read about science, Scientific American and publications like that, because they stimulate again and again my sense of the almost arbitrary given-ness of experience, the fact that nothing can be taken for granted. Everything is intrinsically mysterious as a physical object, say, or as a phenomenon of culture, or as an artifact of the history that lies behind it. I’ve always been almost offended by the idea of mysticism, because it seems as if it diminishes what we know by every means that gives us access to it – it diminishes the simple spectacle of what we are and where we are, the complex spectacle, I should probably have said. I think probably one of the important things that happened to me was growing up in Idaho in the mountains, in the woods, and having a very strong presence of the wilderness around me. That never felt like emptiness. It always felt like presence. I never had the experience of banality, as it were. It always seemed as if there was something extraordinary around me, and I think that probably has done as much to form my mind as anything could have done.

Q: Lots of people have called what it is I think you’re talking about as seeing the sacramental. Is that what it is? That in everything you see there is a quality of the holy?

A: Well, yes, in the sense that I certainly think that the holy is at the origins of everything that exists, everything, and so necessarily that’s true. I mean, there’s a sense in which it’s a signature act, you know, the beauty of it, the scale of it, the intricacy of it, all that. It’s not as if holiness were something super-added to things, and that’s why I hesitate a little bit over the word “sacramental,” because there can be an implication that an unsanctified reality exists, as if there is any kind of unholy reality. I think that one of the meanings of Christianity, of the Crucifixion, is that the holy can be unvalued, abused. There’s no question about that. A great deal that you see in the world is the abuse of the sacred. But the intrinsic sacredness is invariable, is a constant.
I really think if I had to say that religion depends on one thing, putting religion categorically, you know, we have to think that people are sacred. Human beings have to be considered sacred. That’s the beginning, and then anything that, it seems to me that, really departs from that, that conditions people to part from it in their thinking, I think, is antagonistic to religious life.
(via The Literary Saloon)

15 September 2009

Juan Gabriel Vásquez in Chicago...

...this Thursday!
9/17/2009 (18:00 h)


Instituto Cervantes - Sala de Actos
31 W. Ohio St.
60654 Chicago, Illinois

09 September 2009

...and even better

Two Lines has a blog! I'll be spending a lot of time reading Two Words: The Blog of the Center for the Art of Translation over the next couple of days.

Reasons my week is getting better

  • At Three Percent, Dan Vitale reviews Anne McLean's translation of The Armies (Los ejércitos) by Evelio Rosero.
  • Rosero's new novel, Los almuerzos, comes out this month.
  • In "The Brazilian Sphinx", Lorrie Moore explores the life and work of Clarice Lispector.
  • A review of Lispector's The Hour of the Star (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) appears in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
  • I'll have to comment on their take on translation as criticism soon--Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, and others have gone back and forth on this issue for years...
  • From Scott Esposito's excellent essay, "Horacio Castellanos and the New Political Novel": "What for Ford Madox Ford was primarily a story of infidelity in inter-war England, and for Kobo Abe was about existentialist malaise in mid-century Japan, and for Walker Percy was about the alienation of the individual in a radically mediated society, and for Kazuo Ishiguro was a story of classism in contemporary England, becomes for Moya a story of the great political subconsciousness that seethes through life in 21st-century Latin America. Each of these writers shares an interest in portraying the space between objective reality and human subjectivity. Fundamentally, they are interested in what happens as the human mind attempts to piece together a reality, though it lacks the necessary information to do so. As the diversity of these writers’ output shows, the dramatization of this gap is a very malleable tool: an individual’s quest for objective truth can interrogate realities about the cultures that range from a bottom-rung operative in a Latin American state on the verge of failure to a wealthy, privileged gentleman in a European nation at the height of empire. What is most characteristic about these novels is that vital facts about the culture each is set in are bound up at the deepest levels with the narrators’ own gradual realization that there is no such a thing as an objective reality. The process of self-discovery is contingent on comprehending one’s cultural context."
  • And Suzanne Jill Levine offers an excerpt from her spectacular book (to be reissued in October), The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

03 September 2009

Volpi on literature in Latin America

Jorge Volpi affirms that there is no "Latin American literature". He explains:
No hay nada que ligue, directamente, a escritores de una parte del continente con escritores de otra. O sería una unión tan arbitraria como hablar de escritores del mediterráneo, del Medio Oriente, del África Subsahariana, en donde solo por razones de clasificación académica sirven, pero ya no dice mucho de lo que verdaderamente está pasando. Creo que hasta Roberto Bolaño, que es un ejemplo claro, había la intención en esta generación de escritores de referirse a una tradición latinoamericana. De conocerla, de apreciarla y de revelarse frente a ella. Pero me parece que, prácticamente, eso ha desaparecido en los escritores de mi generación y los más jóvenes. Los modelos ya no son, necesariamente, latinoamericanos. Ya ni siquiera la lengua española es motivo de unión, como se vio aquí en Bogotá 39. Hubo invitados dos escritores, que consideramos latinoamericanos, pero que escriben en inglés. Entonces no es tanto decir como que no tiene futuro la literatura latinoamericana, como decir que esta literatura ya no existe. Pero existen escritores valiosísimos también en estos países y hay que también dejarlo claro y espero que quede patente en el libro.
("There is nothing that directly links writers from one part of the continent with writers of another. Or it would be a connection as arbitrary as talking about writers from the Mediterranean or the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa, where it works for reasons of academic classification, but it doesn't really say much about what's truly happening now. I think that even Roberto Bolaño, who is a clear example, and writers of that generation, had the intention of speaking of a Latin American tradition. To know, appreciate, and show themselves as being a part of it. But it seems to me that this has practically disappeared in writers of my generation and in the younger one. The models are no longer Latin American, necessarily. Now the Spanish language isn't even a reason for union, as we saw with the Bogotá 39. Two writers were invited, who we consider Latin American, who write in English [Junot Díaz and Daniel Alarcón]. So it's not like saying that Latin American literature has no future, but that this kind of literature no longer exists. Yet there do exist incredibly valuable writers in these countries, which must be made clear, and which I hope is evident in my book" [El insomnio de Bolívar].)

You'll be hearing more about him soon from Three Percent:
We’re also kicking off the next Reading the World Conversation Series season in October with a visit from Jorge Volpi, who is one of the founding members of the Crack group (“crack” as in “break” with derivative magical realism) and author of Season of Ash.
M.A. Orthofer already has it under review.

UPDATE: Fellow Bogotá 39 author Iván Thays comments on this same interview and concurs with Volpi's take on Bolaño.

02 September 2009


It was with much delight that I read Katherine Silver's translation of an excerpt from Antonio Ungar's most recent novel, Las orejas del lobo (Ears of the Wolf) in the new issue of Words Without Borders.

Last fall I translated the first two pages from his 2004 novel Zanahorias voladoras as an exercise for a tutorial. The original is a gorgeous piece of writing, ethereal and bewitching, which flowed very well in English. I should've known that it was only a matter of time before someone else got to his work first...

But many congratulations are in order to Katherine Silver for winning this year's national award for literary translation from Colombia's Ministry of Culture. Until today, I didn't even know that this award existed! Now I've got a bright, shiny new goal to strive for. And I'm very happy that Ungar's work is finally being made available in English.

New poetry

The Latin American Review of Books has new content up for September, including a review of Maurice Kilwein Guevara's Poema by Francisco Aragón:
It’s work, then, that engages history and politics through art. “The Sound of Glass is Unmistakable” (p. 54), another emblematic piece in this vein, reads like a metaphorical micro history of South America, where Bolívar’s dream of a united continent ends, shattered:

Sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, even my mother who normally avoids the atomic sunlight like a movie star, scurry out of a hundred holes to witness the splintered cart and mangled horses, the twin condors circling, the shards of blue sky everywhere.

The range of artists and eras Guevara engages is admirably ample, and the sensibility throughout—its engagement with what I’ll call more avant-garde techniques in that they resist facile narrative, and the allusions to various events in the history of the region—places the collection, in my view, within a tradition that is arguably as Latin American as it is American. Put another way, Poema establishes the Colombian-born Guevara as the most “Latin American” of Latino poets in the United States, if not simply one of our most cosmopolitan poets, period.

And yet: if the city of Pittsburgh was a more predominant presence in Guevara’s earlier volumes, the city of steel and bridges, where Guevara was raised, continues to hold an indelible place in his imagination. “Bright Pittsburgh Morning” (p. 17) begins:

This must happen just after I die: At sunrise
I bend over my grandparents’ empty house in Hazelwood
And pull it out of the soft cindered earth by the Mon River.

Even here, though, his method insists on a narrative logic of its own—divorced from a more conventional reality.