Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part is a wild ride of a novel that takes on many different forms. The following excerpt comes from early in the book, and concerns two young documentary filmmakers who are working to put together a project on the novel’s nameless protagonist, a writer who recently threw himself into the Hadron Collider and merged with the God Particle.
As they piece together footage at the writer’s home, they also gather quotes and passages said by the writer in various interviews throughout his career. These are frequently hilarious and insightful, and they stretch over many pages. Presented here are just a few of the quotes collected by the filmmakers, which give the reader a sense of author Fresán’s playful approach to storytelling. Note: all bracketed ellipses are part of the novel’s text.
The Invented Part is translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden.
— Benjamin Woodard
*A recommendation of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glen Gould (his second version, almost a farewell) as “an ideal soundtrack for sitting down and remaining seated and writing. [. . .] Perfect music for trying to attain that thing Fitzgerald said, that thing about how ‘all good writing is like swimming under water and holding your breath.’” And “Big Sky” by The Kinks as “the best way to kick-start every workday. [. . .] A kind of supplication. An Our Father who is, indeed, in heaven because he is the heavens. And also a way to remember that, while a good part of the writers of my generation wanted to be U2, it’s not bad at all, better in fact, to want to be The Kinks. True, the tours would be more uncomfortable and less spectacular. And the loneliness of the backstage hallway before the instant glory of those hundred meters. But better to be like Harry Nilsson than like Bono. Do any of you have even the slightest idea who Harry Nilsson was or is? Or Warren Zevon? And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about their dissonant and clever self-destructive epics but about their constructive intimacy in the moment of composing subtle and perfect songs. The exquisite way they assemble and disassemble verses and choruses and bridges so their poetry can cross over to the other side where you’re waiting for it. So, that’s how I think about the writing of stories and novels. A particular balance of feelings and sound and phrasings and word games. And the Greek Choir holding hands and singing ‘He goes around saying he’d rather be a rocker than writer, doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do, do doo do doo, doo do, doo do . . .’ In the end . . . Where was I? Ah, yes, I’ll find an easy example: better to be like Ray Davies than like Bono, I think. And I’m repeating myself. I insist. The Kinks. The ones of ‘You Really Got Me,’ Right? But I think more about a song like ‘Big Sky.’ In ‘Big Sky’—like Harry Nilsson in ‘Good Old Desk’ singing to his divine desk; or Warren Zevon in ‘Desperados Under the Eaves,’ feeling down and listening to the sound of the air conditioner, which suddenly inspires a final and majestic crescendo—Ray Davies invokes, without getting too anxious, a sort of unknown deity who doesn’t care much about us. Bono, on the other hand, time and again desperately kneels down in intense prayer to someone he knows well—to himself [. . .]. Staying on topic—and band—I can’t think of a better song than ‘Days,’ also by The Kinks, as background music for lowering the blinds at the end of a workday. But it might be better to listen to Elvis Costello’s crepuscular version and not The Kinks’ original . . . Ray Davies. Thank you . . . All of a sudden I remember that once, a long time ago, Ray Davies rescued me from a University lost among the Iowa cornfields and made it possible for me to go to New York, to hear him sing ‘Days.’ I was there, as a sort of guest writer in an academic B-movie. And I couldn’t leave that place. I was held captive by the bureaucratic spell of a special visa that didn’t allow you to travel around the United States unless someone took responsibility for you. So I found out that Ray Davies was going to play in Manhattan. And I’d never heard or seen him live and in person. And I needed to see him and to hear him. So I tracked down the number of the hotel where he was staying, I was able to get them to put me through to his room and he answered and I explained the situation. He had to talk to the Dean so they would let me leave, so I could go to his concert. Of course at first Ray Davies thought it was a prank being played by some malicious friend, and then, to verify that I was an authentic fan, he made me sing several of his songs over the telephone. Not the easiest ones. No hits. Songs like ‘Polly’ or ‘Too Much on My Mind’ (one of my all-time favorites) or ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’ or ‘Art Lover’ or ‘Scattered.’ And I knew all of them. But pretty soon he got tired and hung up. A few days later, thanks to a message he sent to the Dean, I left heading east. Ray Davies invited me to have tea with him; he gave me a ticket, and said, ‘This is as far as we go and we’re never going to see each other again, right?’ A true gentleman, yes. An artist who merely raised an eyebrow above the Darjeeling-perfumed steam that rose from his cup and smiled somewhere between amused and sad when I mentioned, indignant, the gall with which, at that time, Blur and Oasis and Pulp stole and falsified his style and songs, reveling in money and fame and barely acknowledging his genius and tutelage and mastery. There are no writers, no writers of books like that. And if there are, I’m not aware of them. There are no fans of writers like that either. Fans of musicians are happy to know their songs and to howl them at concerts or inside rooms with doors shut tight. Fans of writers, on the other hand, are more dangerous: fans of writers want to write, to write something of their own and, with their own writing, to rewrite the other and what the other has written.”
* Something that John Banville said to him once, as they walked around the outside of Martello Tower in Sandycove, about how “style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for the style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylized plot, into the most well-plotted of styles. It was Nabokov, and he almost always agreed with Nabokov, who postulated that the best part of a writer’s biography didn’t pass through the record of his adventures, but through the history of his style. Style as an adventure and adventure as style, yes.
* Something he once told someone, while they walked around the outside of who knows where: “The gods of one religion frequently become the devils of the religion that follows it. Something similar happens with writers, with the writers of a prior generation when they are evaluated by the writers of the generation that follows them.”
* Answer: “What would I like as an epitaph on my gravestone? Easy: my name, the word ‘Reader,’ and the years 1963-1,000,000,000 and increasing. And it’s not that I want to live that long; but, warning, the code for the impossible second number passes through the word ‘Reader.’ Which is to say: more time, all time, to be able not to continue writing but to continue reading . . . When I was very young and still concerned with things like my photo on the jacket flap of my books, I once posed wearing a black T-shirt where, written in white letters, it read ‘So many books . . . so little time!’ . . . I bought it in a New York bookstore that no longer exists. The T-shirt no longer exists in my closet either. It disappeared along with those other T-shirts: one with the legend ‘Likes Like/Like Likes’ and another with a reproduction of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where a friend who designed album covers had inserted my face next to that of William S. Burroughs. But the thing from the first T-shirt—I still think that. It’s extremely unfair that, clearly, neither I, nor anyone else, has the time, all-the-time-in-the-world, to read everything you need to read first in order to write later. To write the best that anyone can write . . . Faulkner, without going any further. I have him here, all the Library of America tomes, waiting. I read him a little and poorly in my adolescence, in deficient translations (which, also, might bring me to all the time I lack to reread, which is like a glorified version of reading) and there he remains, waiting for me. To read? Or not to read? Now? In summer or winter? Is it better that the climate and temperature of the external landscape correspond to Faulkner’s South? Or just the opposite? Next year? Is my writer DNA ready to receive such an explosion and, maybe, find itself changed forever? Who knows? Faulkner is there and there Faulkner stays, howling, like one of those dangerous wolves with one foot tied to a chain whose exact length is unknown. So how close can you safely get without him jumping on you and eating your face? Or, unbeknownst to you, chewing through his own foot and lying there, waiting for you? A lone wolf. Never forget how Faulkner responded to Hemingway suggesting that writers unite and make themselves strong, like doctors and lawyers and wolves. Faulkner mistrusted writers who came together and formed groups and generations, saying they were doomed to disappear, like wolves who are only wolves in packs, but are nothing but docile and harmless dogs on their own, dogs that are all bark and no bite.”
— Rodrigo Fresán, Translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
Published with permission from Open Letter Books
Rodrigo Fresán is the author of nine novels, including Kensington Gardens, Mantra, and The Bottom of the Sky. His works incorporate many elements from science-fiction (Philip K. Dick in particular) alongside pop culture and literary references.
Will Vanderhyden received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of Rochester. He has translated fiction from Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Rodrigo Fresán, and Elvio Gandolfo.
“Caps” (originally “Chavales con gorra” or “Boys with Caps”) by Fernando Aramburu, evokes the unease and uncertainty still present, sometimes prevalent, in Spanish society more than 40 years after the transition to democracy. Despite massive tourism, new infrastructure, the allure of Madrid and Seville, the prosperity of Barcelona, and the fame of Basque gastronomy, there is an undercurrent of malaise, not only from deep economic depression in rural Spain, especially Andalucia, but from the fact that political tensions both intraregional, and more obviously between left and right, are never far from the surface. Spain is restive in part because of the tacit agreement in recent decades that in order to move forward the past must be silenced; but other voices, other people, some who survived the Civil War (now mostly their descendants) and the hard subsequent years, demand that those times not be buried, and call for a literal exhumation of what’s been covered over—bodies, records, archives, and the need to confront the grim truths of political tragedy. “Caps” dramatizes the shadowy tension of a supremely capable nation at odds with its national identity, and the quiet menace one can sometimes feel in the poor back streets and quiet plazas of Spanish, Basque, and Catalan cities, the old stones pocked and pitted from bullets and bombs.
— Brendan Riley
The morning light comes flooding into the room where he’s just thrown back the curtain. Motionless in the bed, the woman doesn’t notice a thing because, according to her habit, she’s sleeping with a mask over her eyes. They arrived last night, late. The town (eighteen thousand inhabitants, according to the pamphlet on the night table) is not such a popular tourist destination as the other cities scattered along the same coastline. That’s exactly why they picked it out on the map when they decided to get out of Malaga as fast as possible.
“If we can’t hide out here, Josemari,” the woman said as they rode up in the elevator, “then tell me some better place, unless you want to leave the country.”
The view from the hotel window embraces a landscape of white facades, rooftop terraces, television antennas, and the occasional silhouette of a palm tree. Save for a thin sliver of the sea glimmering in the distance, the houses block any view of the beach. Directly across the street is a funeral home. Two hearses sit outside, parked alongside a row of oleander bushes.
An hour earlier, he’d gone downstairs by himself to have breakfast. As he was giving his room number to the girl in the business suit in charge of writing down the guests who arrived to eat, he’d heard young voices and laughter coming from the dining room. With poorly disguised uneasiness he’d suddenly told her that he had to make an urgent telephone call and that he’d be right back, but he didn’t return.
He sits for a long time waiting for his wife’s sleeping pill to wear off. Among other things, the room’s minibar contains two small tablets of chocolate and a bag of salted almonds. These suffice for breakfast, and he washes them down with a few gulps of mineral water, not chilled quite enough by the little refrigerator. Then he drinks an airplane bottle of brandy, taking little sips; he usually doesn’t touch alcohol in the morning.
The bottle empty, he writes in the small Moleskine notebook that his son once brought back as a gift from London: My father, may he rest in peace, would be spinning in his grave if he knew that I’m planning to sell the family machine shop. It’s the end of an era, but I know full and well that at sixty-three I’m far too young to be dead and buried. But I also want someone to know all this just in case those people find me.
The day they left Alicante to try their luck in Malaga, she’d suddenly had a different idea, that they move to London for a while instead.
“Until they forget about us.”
“Those guys? Forget? I really doubt it. Besides, I don’t think our daughter-in-law would be too thrilled to have to put us up again.”
“Put us up, that’s ridiculous, Josemari. We’ve helped them out so much. They’ve had no shortage of financial benefits. And we don’t have to move in with them if they could just help us find a flat to rent.”
“Alright. But let’s first have a look at Malaga while we’re at it. It’s a big city. We might have some luck there.”
The funeral home abuts a small plaza whose surface, from the fifth floor window, seems to be hard-packed sand. In the plaza he sees an old brown-skinned man seated on a bench. Across him stretches the shadow of a palm tree whose crown is thick with bunches of dates. Near the old man, three little girls jump rope. On another bench two young women are talking, each one with her baby stroller.
He jots down in the Moleskine: Peace and quiet, for the moment.
A few minutes later, the woman wakes up. As she claws off her sleeping mask, she becomes aware of her husband sitting by the window. Smiling, she asks him:
“What do you see, another boy in a cap?”
“This place is alright. It’s got plenty of light. The seaside and palm trees. I was thinking about maybe opening some little luxury hotel like you were talking about the other day. That would keep us busy. Just twenty beds, no more. And to hell with everything else. We could put it in your name just in case. And then about half a dozen employees to look after it, only from Andalucia, and we’ll just keep out of sight, all right?”
The woman slips out of her bedclothes before stepping into the bathroom. She has a scar where she once had a breast. The worst part of her treatment is over. During her last consultation Doctor Arbulu assured her that save for some unlikely new complication she was, essentially, cured. Her husband suspects that they must have spotted her on the way home from the clinic; and that made it easy to follow them to Alicante.
Even though it’s Sunday, white smoke drifts up from the funeral home chimney.
He writes: We’ll have to do what Maite suggests. If there’s no way to settle down here then we’ll go abroad.
A boy with gypsy features comes walking along in front of the funeral home. His long hair hangs down to his shoulders, and his hands are sunk deep in his trouser pockets. He walks with long rapid steps, and never turns his gaze towards the hotel. A good sign. Also, he’s wearing leather boots. Only the locals would wear boots like that in such hot weather. The kid waves to the old man on the bench without stopping. The old man replies by gently shaking his cane.
He hears the shower running in the bathroom. He writes: All this would make Dad so very sad. You’ve got to hang on, son. You’ve got to hold on, like I did during the war and the hard years after that. It’s what he always said. But the old man lived through different times. I can’t keep the business going from six hundred miles away. If you’re not right there keeping an eye on things they’ll just ruin you. The trucks, well, I’ll sell those, and if I have to get back into shipping then I’ll buy some more and reopen the company in Seville. With a new name, of course. Well maybe it’s because of Dad that I’ve still not gone abroad. I have to write this down so someone at least will know.
An hour later they go downstairs, out into the street. She wears a special bra, with a foam rubber insert that allows her to disguise the fact she’s missing a breast. They both hide their eyes behind new sunglasses.
“Whenever we see a church,” she says, “let’s stop to see if there’s a schedule of masses.”
No sooner do they step out onto the street than he thrusts his chin towards the funeral home.
“They burn them on Sundays.”
“How do you know?”
“Shit, don’t you see the smoke?”
“Fine, Josemari, let’s change the subject. Left or right? Which way are we going?”
“The water has to be that way.”
They cross the street arm in arm. It’s a habit from when they first started going out, many years ago. Lately, they don’t do it so much anymore, not since that evening when they had to abandon their house and leave everything behind. Maybe they’re doing it now from the need to feel united in a new place filled with strange faces.
At first, Maite was convinced that her husband’s fear caused him to see a ghost on every corner. They’d be walking down the street in Alicante or Malaga, and suddenly he’d say to her:
“Turn but pretend you’re not looking. You’ll see two boys next to the stoplight. See them?”
“I see a lot of people, Josemari.”
“The ones wearing caps. I don’t know about you but they’re giving me a bad vibe.”
Maite didn’t really pay much attention to her husband’s jitters until that day in the rented flat in Alicante, when the telephone rang at three-thirty in the morning and a garbled, half-whispering voice mumbled some weird things about a dog and some shotgun shells and something about going hunting. Maite had arrived by train that afternoon. She’d showed up in a good mood because of everything that Doctor Arbulu had told her, but they must have been following her. Who else, if not one of them, would call at that time of the night with the excuse of asking about a dog?
He didn’t have the slightest doubt.
“They’ve found us.”
“C’mon, Josemari! How could they know we’re here?”
“What do you mean how could they know? I’ve got no idea. But obviously the way they pronounce their s’s is not the way people from Alicante talk. That guy on the phone was one of them. First thing tomorrow I’m saying that I’m not signing the lease. I’ll think of some excuse. We’re getting out of town as soon as possible.”
They make their way through a neighborhood of narrow streets, low houses with white walls, windows with wrought iron bars and balconies flush with geraniums. Here and there, locals sit just outside their front doors gossiping, lowering their voices as the couple strolls past. Also the children stop playing to stare at the strange pair. As they turn a corner, Josemari whispers to Maite that all these brown-skinned people must take them for aliens from outer space. Walking by, they nod their heads timidly, because they feel peculiar to be the object of so much curiosity. After all, they’ve got to do something because they surely don’t want to make anyone suspicious. Some people respond to them with customary greetings that sound strange to their ears:
Vayan ustedes con Dios, and other such expressions.
Fifteen minutes later, after following a steep, narrow street thick with the smell of frying calamari, they reach the avenue along the bay. From the open window of a high-ceilinged flat comes a woman’s musical voice. They see a grungy cat perched in a window gnawing on a fish head.
Coming in sight of the sea, Josemari suddenly feels his spirit sink again, like in Alicante, like in Malaga.
“It’s just not the same.”
“Water and waves, Josemari.”
“I don’t want to argue, but the Mediterranean is not what I call a sea. The Cantabrian has its different seasons, enormous tides and cliffs, now that’s a proper sea. Our sea. There’s no comparison.”
“So, then, what do you call this?”
“I don’t know. It’s something different. A big lake.”
And while Maite heads off to the bathrooms in the café where they’ve stopped for a drink, he writes in his Moleskine: I can get used to anything, but I’ll always miss the sea from my native land. The sea, my sea where I grew up, is fundamental in my life. I realize this now.
He chews another olive stuffed with anchovies and adds: What matters is that I don’t think like a fish.
Then he starts to carefully, slowly observe the passersby strolling past the café terrace, feeling a stab of apprehension each time some young man enters his field of vision. He thinks about how a few days ago, in Malaga, he was followed by a young couple, a boy and a girl, both of them wearing caps with visors. It might have just been a coincidence, given that when he turned up a street and slipped into a pharmacy to hide, they just walked by without a glance. Afterwards he followed them from a distance. And he really didn’t find anything strange. The next day, going for a stroll with Maite along the harbor, turning back after buying the newspaper at a kiosk, he recognized them. Or he thought that he recognized them.
“Josemari, are you sure it’s the same ones?”
“I’m not exactly sure of their faces, but it’s the same hats and I’m sure they were a boy and a girl like those two there. Maybe they work in shifts, because these kinds of people, if there’s one thing they know how to do, apart from fucking up your life, is to be organized.”
The waitress who’s served them their snacks now explains, in a strong Andalusian accent, the simplest way to get to a church situated just a few blocks away. When she understands Maite’s plan, the girl is kind enough to call her mother on her cell phone.
“No, really, it’s no trouble at all.”
So, it seems they celebrate Mass in the church at one o’clock. Now it’s just past twelve-thirty. Maite and Josemari express their thanks by leaving the girl a generous tip. Then, arm in arm again, they walk unhurriedly to the church. Five minutes later, they glimpse the church tower rising above the roofline. The bells are already ringing.
Josemari sits on a bench in the street, under a spreading lemon tree that gives him plenty of shade. Maite tries to persuade him to accompany her to Mass, saying how it will be nice and cool inside the church.
“You’ll roast out here.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Mass lasts about forty-five minutes. A little more than two dozen worshippers sit scattered throughout the pews. Maite sits down in the last row, occasionally glancing towards the door, hoping to see Josemari come inside. The priest is an old man with a raspy voice who speaks in a halting monotone. The church’s poor acoustics make it hard for her to hear his sermon. But, finally, the Mass is ended and Maite has fulfilled her obligation, which is what matters to her.
Coming out of the church she’s startled half to death to find her husband nowhere in sight. The bench where Josemari had promised to wait for her is empty. She looks all around but sees no one whom she can ask about a man in a white shirt, almost bald, who was sitting here just a short while before. In the center of her chest she feels a painful knot that makes it hard for her to breathe and makes her think about her past sufferings from her illness. The faithful who attended Mass walk off, disappearing in different directions. Soon the street is deserted. At this moment, Maite discovers Josemari’s notebook lying on the ground. She opens it and reads the last words her husband has written, and a terrible presentiment fills her with anguish: The same caps as in Malaga. She feels like she’s about to start screaming. Maite walks towards the nearest door hoping they’ll help her call the police. Then she sees Josemari come walking around the corner. Shaking with fright she runs to him and demands:
“Do you mind telling me where the hell you went?”
— Fernando Aramburu, Translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley
Fernando Aramburu was born in San Sebastián in 1959. He has a degree in Spanish Language, Literature and Linguistics from Zaragoza University. He currently lives in Germany, where he has worked as a Spanish teacher since 1985. His work has been granted, among others, the Ramón Gómez de la Serna Prize 1997, the Euskadi Prize 2001, and for his short stories Lospeces de la amargura (The Fish of Sorrow), the XI Mario Vargas Llosa NH Prize, the Dulce Chacón Prize, and the Prize of the Spanish Language Academy. The movie Bajo las estrellas (Under the Stars) based on Aramburu’s novel El trompetista del utopía (The trumpet player of the Utopia) was awarded a Goya Prize in 2008 for best adapted screenplay by the Spanish Cinematographic Academy.
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.
The following is a story of desire and memory. It comes to us from Franci Novak, a poet and story writer from Slovenia. Novak’s debut story collection, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes), was originally published in Slovene by LUD Literatura. This English translation is by Olivia Hellewell. Hellewell has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.
— Benjamin Woodard
The first thing I remember is the first bonfire and that drunk guy who came staggering out of the woods with a big log on his head, grinned, and then threw the piece of wood into the flames. It flickered fiercely, it was as if a storm was brewing over the fire, it was beautiful and magical. It was then that I summoned up the courage to go up to him, he was sat on the other side of the bonfire, on a bench, with friends, I asked him if he wanted to come and dance with me, his friends smirked and cracked jokes, the way boys usually do. I watched him all evening, I knew that it was him, that he was the right one that I had to have for myself. He was meant for me. I felt awkward, I was trembling inside myself, not that I let it show from the outside, but I knew that I had to do it. I led him away from the bonfire, away from his friends, and then the two of us danced; it wasn’t easy at first, then he yielded to me entirely, even starting to lead me over the pebbles which ground beneath our feet. We went back towards the bonfire where we talked and made jokes and stared into the flames, some girl was dancing around right in front of us, she was swaying back and forth as if making love to someone.
Whenever someone threw something onto the fire, thin red veins pulsed into the dark air, a fountain of sparks erupted again. The two of us were drinking a sweet spirit from a glass and our breath smelt strongly and intensely, but neither of us was bothered as we kissed; we had our eyes closed, as did the girl who was swaying with a glass in her hands and laughing and bending her knees.
A few of us stayed right up until morning, I remember the large warm rocks around the smouldering bonfire and the tiny lizards that darted over them.
But then I also remember those things before, even further back; it’s crazy how I return to the past so easily, how like lightning I dart back and forth, like lizards over warm rocks: I remember how I had longed for a boyfriend months before. I’d had guys, just like all girls my age, but I no longer wanted to search for anyone else, I wanted a boyfriend to just—materialise. So I took a piece of paper and described him: tall, dark-haired, slender, friendly and so on, I filled the entire piece of paper with beautiful handwriting—the best I could manage—and more, I imagined him in every detail. I pictured him vividly, how he moved, how he smiled and spoke, I really did imagine everything about him, then I jotted that image down, with all the details, on the piece of paper, even though I couldn’t jot all of it. But the image was complete, the pen and paper didn’t know how, but it would know how to see the image, how to create it out of the components I’d noted down, I thought to myself at the time. I pinned the paper to the wall, there above the table, and just beneath it made a mini altar. I wasn’t religious, not in the way others wanted me to be, but in my own way; I’d got a figurine of Mary and baby Jesus from somewhere, but any god would have been fine, it could have also been Buddha or some other god, as long as my image found a way, a passage. I stood the figurine in a corner of the table and surrounded it with flowers, and then I placed a whole armful of tea lights around and lit them, making my room quiver and prance in the flames. Then I put my hands together and prayed for my wish to come true.
If you truly wish for something, your wish comes true, for your wish affixes itself to strings of energy, that’s what’s written in books, that’s what I’ve read, a wish is like a plectrum which glides along the strings of a guitar and compels them to release a certain sound: the sound of your wish coming true. And what is written in those books is true, that is just how it happened, there I am once again, sat with my boyfriend, the drunk guy carrying a big log on his head, the dancing girl bending her knees, a fierce flickering, as if a storm is brewing above the fire, beautiful and magical. The two of us are sitting and dancing, sitting and dancing, his breath smells of strong, sweet spirits, my breath smells too, I look at him and quiver, he is here, my wish come true, we drink and we kiss and we chat long into the night, right up until morning.
And then there’s one other day I remember too, the one when the two of us went for a walk together: it was around a month after our first bonfire, it was an unusual day, the wind was blowing, storks were hovering high above in the sky and the white track that we were walking along was sunken in tall, wavy grass, like a long white tongue with small birds hopping along it. Our hair was tangled, I felt the wind on my body like a third body, we held each other’s hand and walked. A thick smoke swirled in the air, we heard the crackling of branches and leaves and noticed how smoke was coming from a bush beside the path and thought that the bush must have burnt down spontaneously like in those biblical tales; then we caught sight of people who were stood behind and setting fire to the abundant undergrowth. We laughed at their stupidity. I stroked the long, slender grass. We passed a woodpile, I placed my palms on the planks, on their skins which were warm from the afternoon sun.
“Why don’t we light a fire too,” I said. I took out a lighter and tried to light one of the planks with it. He pulled an amusingly serious face and looked around worriedly. I wanted us to play, but he was too serious for games, it seemed like he didn’t understand. I burnt my fingers from holding on to the lighter for a long time.
“I’d need petrol to light that,” I said to him with an entirely serious look on my face. “Shall we go and look for a can?”
He looked at me in astonishment, almost frightened.
“Just kidding,” I smiled, then we lit a joint behind the woodpile, it was getting dark, the clouds were piling up in the pure red sky, the wind blew and the tall grass rustled. For a moment it seemed as if he wasn’t beside me at all, so I had to take hold of his hand in order to feel him.
Then for a few months we lived together, the two of us went to lectures and worked, we never went out anywhere, only for walks nearby, or to the cinema or nearby town. He had his own flat, we cooked together and talked together and loved each other. It was nice.
But one day the fires came back, what had to happen, happened.
Tea lights were burning on the tables of the bar, in the half-light the DJ was dropping some crazy good house, we drank sweet, intoxicating drinks and danced, me and my friends, he and his friends. Before we set off to the party he said that he didn’t want to go, that he’d rather just be with me, that he was fed up of these so-called friends and useless parties and that he was already past all this. But I said that we had to go out, because people had to get together and re-establish contacts and build networks, like ants, colliding with each other all the time with those flickering, quivering feelers. So we just went, it was great, we all danced. When it came to the time that we’d all been waiting for, we ran out with glasses in hand and watched the fireworks. Shadowy figures ran across the car park in front of the bar and placed trembling rockets on the floor until blinding flames spurted out of them; the rockets shot into the sky, sparks hissed through the cold winter air and explosions rattled the window panes; the floor was illustrated with glorious patterns of light and a translucent smoke was carried away across the car park; it was like the start of some insane, new war. Light and shadows, the whistle of rockets and the smell of gunpowder settled into our bodies whilst fires bloomed in the sky.
Some guy wearing tattered gloves and a hat that was too big for him was stood in the car park, looking gloomy with a starting pistol in his hand, whilst the reflection of the fires slid along the metal of the cars like flowing magma; I felt sorry for him, but I knew that not everyone could be a wish come true and that’s the way it had to be. I looked into his eyes as I walked past, all the others looked away.
Then we returned and everyone sat around the table together, we ate, drank and talked, it was happy and noisy. Sometimes I looked at him, at my boyfriend, I saw that he couldn’t wait for the two of us to leave, but I didn’t want to go yet. The waitress came over to us and lit some sort of strong spirits with a lighter, we were drinking cold blue fire, we were drinking fire, the drink extended warmly in my body, I stood up to go and dance. I was wearing insanely good shoes, really tight light-brown boots, then I went to the bar and drank more blue fire; when I went back to the group and sat on a stool, I wanted to dance with him but he didn’t want to, as if his body was numb, he just sat and watched as if he were half-dead.
That guy with the tattered gloves and the hat that was too big came inside, he just came inside with his starting pistol in his hand; a throng of people gathered, everyone looked at him askew, because he was not anybody’s wish come true. The guy fell to the floor, the gloves came off his hands and the hat skidded across the floor. When he got back on his feet, I slipped a glove back on his hand and popped the hat back on his head, as if I were putting a new man together, while the others were laughing; then I stroked his face, his sad, angry eyes shining like tiny fires.
I went back to sit next to my boyfriend, people were still laughing at the guy, who’d left the bar with the starting pistol in his hand. Then it happened, I don’t remember too well, it was like a dream: I was gently embraced by a veil of smoke, it wrapped itself around my legs like a playful cat and crept up and tickled my skin and my shins from the inside. I felt a warmth in my boots, on my heels, burning me, it seemed as if I were burning from all the fire that I had drank; something in me was kindling, the fire was glowing, I jumped on the table and danced with burning boots, like in some film, but I only remember fragments, only still images come to mind: someone brought some water and poured it on my feet, someone else took one of my boots off, we were all laughing a lot, I remember fingers stroking my bare foot and the smell of burning, thick and intoxicating like the trains that once used to pass through my village. I cried out: “Find me the one who threw his fag end at my boots, find him, kill him”, but my voice was like the voice of another, separate and outside of my body. A glass smashed on the floor, from it slowly grew a damp star, blue flames shot out from the glass.
I took off my second boot and walked around barefoot for a while. I went back to him, my wish come true. He’d been sat at the table the whole time and he didn’t budge, he was just watching; I sat on his knee and asked him if something was wrong, he stroked me and said that nothing was wrong. He asked me if it stung at all and if everything was ok, without looking me in the eye. Then I asked him if he was ashamed, and he said he wasn’t ashamed, but I knew and I got angry, I sat on his friend’s knee and said to him that if he was ashamed of me I’d go with someone else who wasn’t ashamed of me. I then drank a whole load of other drinks and sat on his friend’s knee and danced barefoot on the tables.
He came up to me, drew me in towards him and said that I wasn’t capable of love. I stared at his talking mouth, his face turned into fire, went up like a piece of paper thrown into the flames; I didn’t tell him how big, how enormous the love inside me was, how in a moment of complete clarity, complete focus I cautiously look around, how I slowly, tenderly, lovingly let go of the burnt-out cigarette onto my boot, how I feel a slight sting, a slight ignition, a warmth down there, how I then dance, I light and extinguish my own fires, how I am my own fire myself.
When I stepped outside, everything was insanely open, winter was vast and free and thousands of fires trembled above, and a shot fired from a starting pistol burst into a single white flame in the sky.
— Franci Novak, translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell
Franci Novak is a poet, who after leaving secondary education took classes in theory and practice at Ljubljana’s School of Art. His first poetry collection, Otroštvo neba (Sky’s Childhood), was published by Mladinska knjiga in 2011. In 2010, Novak was awarded the title of Knight of Poetry for Pivec Publishing House’s Poetry Tournament, marking the best unpublished Slovene poem of the year. His first collection of short stories, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes) was published by LUD Literatura in 2014.
Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and is currently writing her PhD thesis on ‘Translation and Cultural Capital in a Small Nation: The Case of Slovenia’ at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Olivia has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.
As this section opens, the unnamed narrator is leaving the hotel in Rio de Janeiro where he has spent the night. He is anxiously embarking on some sort of necessary journey. But he is travelling without luggage and, it would seem, without a clearly defined purpose, or destination.
Atlantic Hotel is translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris.
— Joseph Schreiber
I went down the hotel steps half stooped, my legs and back were killing me. When I got to the door I put one of my hands against the wall to hold myself up, and with the other I pressed against the pain in my lower back. Maybe I should go back to my room? I wondered. Maybe I should stay, give up? Maybe I should marry the flapper from reception? Maybe I’ll be content with the company of a woman?
I’m old, I thought. Old at barely forty. Traipsing around would be madness. Legs, weak. Irregular heartbeat, I know. And my rheumatoid posture…
There, stopped in the hotel doorway, I felt vertigo. Foggy vision, out of breath…
But I needed to get going. I stepped down from the stoop and leaned against the wall of the building. Lots of people were passing along Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, just like every morning, some brushed against me, touched me inadvertently, coughed.
I felt on the verge of fainting but avoided the idea of asking for help. Resorting to another person’s assistance would be the same as staying, and I needed to go.
Then I thought about getting a taxi. So I went looking for one. I walked by moving one leg at a time, steadying myself on other people like a drunk. Until my feet stepped into the dark puddle in the gutter. I hailed a cab and it stopped.
I told the cabbie I was going to the bus station. I got in the back, curled up, lying down on the seat. The driver asked if I was sick. With what remained of my voice I said I was only tired. Bus station, I repeated. The cabbie kept talking, but I couldn’t follow.
At one point I understood he was talking about the cold. I said: Oh, the cold, as cold as the Russian steppes. He told me: The Russian steppes are cold as death. This I heard quite clearly.
I returned to my senses. The traffic. The cabbie commenting on the smog in the Rebouças tunnel. I leveraged my hands against the seat back and managed to bring myself upright. The car was emerging from the tunnel.
I was almost better, just a tremble in my hands.
“How come you’re so tired?” the cabbie asked.
“I was partying all night,” I replied.
He laughed. I showed him my hand and said, “Look how I’m trembling, it’s alcohol tremors.”
“You’re an alcoholic?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I’m going to a treatment center in Minas,” I replied.
He shook his head, gave a little snort of assent, and said, “I have a brother-in-law who drinks. He was in rehab three times.”
Suddenly, the cabbie said we’d arrived at the bus station.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Great,” I replied, almost startled.
I watched the commotion at the bus station and saw the hour of my departure had arrived, the way someone going under for surgery witnesses the anesthesiologist’s first procedure.
I took a wad of money from my pocket, opened my hand, and gave it to the cabbie. He asked if I wanted change. I inquired if he knew where to find the ticket counters for the buses to Minas. He smiled, gave me a look, and said he had no idea.
“I’m sorry.” I said it full of a sudden shame.
“Sorry for what, man?” he asked.
“Sorry for being who I am,” I replied, closing the car door softly.
I got on the escalator going up. The one coming down was jammed with people. Between the up and down escalators there was a long concrete staircase. People in a hurry were going up and down, skipping steps.
On the escalators everyone seemed totally immersed in what they were doing. Noticing this relaxed me. I too would manage: travel, take the bus, arrive somewhere else.
There were long lines at the ticket windows. A lot of people were milling around. Many others sat on benches. A man and a woman kissed shamelessly at a lunch counter. A man left the pharmacy looking at his watch.
I sat on a bench, way at the end. The rest of the bench was full. I stretched out one of my legs a bit, without letting my heel come off the floor. My leg looked a bit pitiful. Maybe it was the crumpled up unwashed sock, the fleck of mud on my shoe. A pitiful state I’d done everything I could to disguise. I brought the leg back over beside the other.
Now I was looking at nothing except the dirty floor on the upper deck of the bus station. Gazing at that dirty floor, I had nothing else to think about. Maybe a vague yearning for a child’s intimacy with the floor.
It struck me that my journey might bring me back to that intimacy. A voice inside me said, between excitement and apprehension, Who knows, maybe I’ll end up sleeping on the ground.
I took out the ball cap I always carried in the pocket of my blazer. I put it on my head in the position I liked, a little to the right side. I no longer needed a mirror to be sure the cap was placed in exactly that position.
The cap obeyed, loyal. My hands had memorized the way to execute their task. As always, when the task was completed, I gave a little tap on the cap’s brim to see if it was really on right.
I ran my hands down my body as though searching for something and felt a bulk in the blazer’s other pocket. It was a thick piece of paper folded several times—a map of Brazil I’d bought two days earlier.
I looked around, making sure there was room to open the map all the way. I put my legs over the armrest of the bench. Now, with nobody on either side, I could extend my arms.
As I opened the map I remembered what I’d said to the cabbie. That I’d be going to alcohol rehab in the Minas countryside.
On the map, the Minas countryside looked like a swarm of little towns. My gaze descended a little, crossing into São Paulo State and stopping on Paraná.
I was thirsty. I thought about getting a mineral water. I folded the map, discreetly tucked it under my butt. Then I got up and walked away.
I didn’t even make it five steps. A woman seated on the bench facing mine called out, “Hey, sir, sir, I think you forgot something there.”
I looked back, toward the spot where I’d been sitting, saw the paper folded on the bench seat, turned to the woman, and shook my head, saying, “It’s not mine.”
— João Gilberto Noll, Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris
Excerpt courtesy of Two Lines Press; translation copyright 2017 Adam Morris
João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.
Adam Morris has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines Press, 2017) and Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press, 2016), and Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.
Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was a Russian and Soviet poet who is often considered one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets,” Russian Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky once said. “Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva—and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.”
The following new translations, by Mary Jane White, are from Marina Tsvetaeva’s final published collection, AFTER RUSSIA (Paris 1926). The poems are witty and lush, and are part of White’s long project of Tsvetaeva translations. White has recently compiled her translations into a 288-page manuscript, which is awaiting publication. White’s previous Tsvetaeva translations include the collections Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).
— Benjamin Woodard
On a pleasing Atlantic
Breath of spring —
Like a stupendous butterfly
My curtain — and — I
Like a Hindu widow
Enter the gold-lipped crater,
Like a listless Naiad
Enter the sea beyond a window . . .
5 May 1923
TO HONOR TIME
for Vera Arenskaya
On the refugee-road!
It whooped — and bolted
Headlong on its wheels.
Time! I don’t have time.
Caught up in chronicles
And kisses . . . like sands
In rustling streams . . .
Time, you let me down!
Of clock-hands and wrinkles’
Furrows — of American
Innovations . . . — Empty jar! —
Time, you give me short measure!
Time, you hand me over!
Like a debauched wife — a “new toy”
You drop . . . — “One hour, but it’s ours!”
— Your train leaves on a different
Track! . . —
Since I was born past Time! To no purpose and in vain
You resist! Caliph of an hour:
Time! I will pass you by!
10 May 1923
Hell’s too small, heaven too small to contain you:
Everyone’s already at the point of dying for you.
But to follow your brother, sadly, into the fire —
Really, is that customary? It’s not a sister’s
Place, to radiate passion!
Really, is it customary to lie in his barrow . . .
With your brother? . . . ………………………………— “He was and is mine! Even if he’s rotten!”
— And that’s the order of precedence with graves!!!
11 May 1923
Time the upper reaches are laid bare,
Time you gaze into our souls — as into our eyes.
These — open sluices of blood!
These — open sluices of night!
Our blood surged, like the night
Our blood surged, — like our blood
The night surged! (Upper regions of the ear
Time: a world poured into our ears — as into our eyes!)
The screen of the visible pulled back!
On time’s distinct calm!
Time of the ear opening, like an eyelid,
No longer do we have weight, or breathe: we hear.
A world channeled into our endless ear’s
Helix: sucking down sounds,
Helix, — our endless soul! . .
(Time, you enter our souls — as you would our arms!)
12 May 1923
TO STEAL . . .
And perhaps, the finest victory
Over time and gravity —
Is to pass, without leaving a trace,
Is to pass, without leaving a shadow
On the walls . . . …………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By refusal? To erase myself from mirrors?
Like: Lermontov moving through the Caucuses
To steal, without disturbing the rock-faces.
And perhaps — the finest amusement
Given the finger of Sebastian Bach
Would be not to trouble the organ’s echo?
To collapse, leaving no dust
For the urn . . . …………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By fraud? To write myself out of the latitudes?
Like: Time moving through an ocean
To steal, without disturbing the waters . . .
14 May 1923
— Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by Mary Jane White
Marina Tsvetaeva is considered by many to be one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. Born in 1892, she published many volumes of poetry during her lifetime and was greatly admired by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. She committed suicide in 1941, and since then, her poetry has been widely translated.
Mary Jane White is a poet and translator who earned an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the recipient of NEA Fellowships in both poetry and translation. She has published numerous books of her own poetry, as well as Tsvetaeva translations, which include Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).
The following excerpt, the opening passage of Frontier, introduces the central character, Liujin. Note the the crisp, unadorned quality of Can Xue’s prose and the fine membrane between the ordinary and the surreal.
Frontier is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.
— Joseph Schreiber
IT WAS LATE. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. The ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence in the moonlight. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the rustling of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the man who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she worked up the courage to approach him. He had good eyesight: even in the dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the scene in this indoor market: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; the woman seemed to be young. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He really was a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. No one had seen him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman singing? Judging by the direction the voice came from, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to explore the nature of this emotion.
She had lived by herself in this small enclosed area for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. These impressions were mostly misty, not very reliable; she had tried hard to synthesize them, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began to feel dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night, for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound at the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. These explosions came at intervals until the wee hours. In response to this inauspicious sound, a vague notion gradually occurred to Liujin. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your choice.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she really was an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why their window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. On her way back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.
At first, Liujin wasn’t used to living alone. She sold cloth at the market. Every day when she left the noisy market and returned to the isolated little house, it was dark. For several days in a row, a tiny white wagtail strode hurriedly into her house; the little thing cried out briefly and sharply, as if looking for its companion. After quickly patrolling around inside, it left with a despondent cry. Liujin heard it fly to a tree, where it continued chirping. Had it experienced some tragedy in its life? Sitting under the lamp, she thought about the man who had recently been coming often to the market. He wore glasses, and when he picked up the cloth to look at it, his glasses almost touched the material. Liujin found this amusing. He seemed out of place in the market. He wasn’t like the other shoppers, and he didn’t bring any shopping bags, either. He was dressed like a farmer from the frontier. Of course he wasn’t a farmer; one could see that from the expression in his eyes. He always looked at cloth, but never bought any. Nor did he glance at Liujin. The way he touched the homemade cloth brought about an almost physiological response in Liujin. What kind of person was he? “I’m just looking,” he said, as if imploring Liujin. “Go ahead and look as long as you like,” she replied stiffly. All of a sudden—she didn’t know why—she felt empty inside.
One day, although it was late, the white wagtail hadn’t returned to its nest. It was circling beside a thorny rose bush, singing sadly. Acting on a hunch that something had happened, Liujin walked into the courtyard. She saw the bespectacled man from the market talking with a young woman under the streetlight. Suddenly, the woman screamed and ran away. Looking dizzy, the man leaned against a power pole, closed his eyes, and rested. The wagtail sang even more sadly, as if it were a mother who had lost her daughter. Approaching the man, Liujin said softly, “Tomorrow, I’ll take out a few more bolts of new cloth with a snow lotus pattern. It’s like . . . snow lotus, and yet it isn’t.” When the man heard her talking to him, he relaxed a little and said “Hello.” He turned and looked at her courtyard. Just then, she noticed that the wagtail had disappeared. Without saying anything else, the man left. The way he walked was funny—a little like a horse. Liujin had heard others call him “Mr. Sherman.” Maybe her encounters with him at the market weren’t accidental. Otherwise, why had he appeared in front of her house today? She also remembered the way the young woman had stamped her feet impatiently; at that time, the wagtail was chirping non-stop. Later, Liujin ran into this man in front of her house several times and greeted him properly, calling him “Mr. Sherman.” He always stood there—a little as if he were waiting for someone, for he kept looking at his watch. Liujin wondered if he was waiting for the young woman. Why had he chosen this place? How strange.
With Mr. Sherman showing up, Liujin had more energy. She worked hard tending her garden. Whenever she had a day off, she went into full swing. She planted many chrysanthemums and salvia along the wall—near the thorny rose bushes that were already there. There were still two poplars, one in the front and one in the back of the courtyard. Now she planted a few sandthorn trees: she liked plain trees like this. She also fertilized the grapes. On one of her days off, Mr. Sherman entered her courtyard. Liujin invited him to sit under the grape arbor. She brought out a tea table and placed a tea set on it. Just as they were about to drink tea, the wagtail appeared. It walked quickly back and forth, its tail jumping with each step. It kept chirping. Mr. Sherman paled and craned his neck like a horse and looked out. Finally, without drinking his tea, he apologized and took his leave. Liujin was very puzzled. It was this bird—perhaps it was two or three birds, all of them alike—that particularly puzzled her. Liujin realized she hadn’t seen the young woman again. What was going on between her and Mr. Sherman? Just now as he was sitting here, she had noticed that his right index finger was hurt and was wrapped in a thick bandage. He was dexterous in picking up his teacup with his left hand. Maybe he was left-handed.
By and large, Liujin’s life consisted of going from her home to the market and from the market to her home. On an impulse one night, she walked out and took the street to the riverside. The water level was low, and the small river would soon dry up. The sky was high. She walked along the river in the moonlight. There, she saw the corpses of poplars. She didn’t know if the four or five poplars had died of old age or if they had died unexpectedly. Their tall, straight trunks were ghostly. At first sight, her heart beat quickly. It was hard to muster the nerve to walk over to them. She startled a few willow warblers: their sharp cries made her legs quiver. She turned around and left, walking until she was sweating all over; then finally she looked back. How could the dead poplar trees still be right before her? A shadow emerged from the poplar grove and said, “Ah, are you here, too?” The sound startled her and almost made her faint. Luckily, she recognized her neighbor’s voice. The neighbor wasn’t alone. Behind him was another shadow. It was Mr. Sherman, and he was laughing. As he approached, Mr. Sherman said to Liujin, “When one sees dead trees like this, one shouldn’t run away. If you do, they’ll chase right after you.” The neighbor chimed in, “Mr. Sherman’s telling the truth, Liujin. You haven’t experienced this before, have you?” Even though she was standing in the shadows, Liujin felt her face turn fiery red. Had these two been hiding here long? How had she happened to come here just now? She recalled sitting at the table earlier writing her mother a letter, and being unable to go on writing because her mother’s words kept reverberating in her ears: “. . . Liujin, Liujin. There’s no way for you to come back to us. You’d better take good care of yourself.” Did Mama want her back after so long? She stood up and listened closely for a while to the wagtail’s lonely singing in the courtyard. When she had rushed out the gate, she forgot to close it. Perhaps these two men came here often to study these dead trees, but it was the first time she had ever come here.
“Look, the others are flourishing. It’s only these few trees: Did they commit collective suicide?”
When Mr. Sherman spoke again, his glasses were flashing with light. Liujin looked over at the trees and saw the moon brighten. The other poplars were so beautiful and vivacious that they seemed on the verge of speaking. Only the few dead ones were spooky. Her neighbor, old Song Feiyuan, rammed a shovel against a dead poplar trunk. Liujin noticed that the tree trunk remained absolutely still. Old Song chucked the shovel away and stood dazed in front of the trunk. Mr. Sherman laughed a little drily. Liujin suddenly recalled how wild this neighbor was when he was home. That autumn, this old man had gone crazy and dismantled the rear wall of his house. Luckily, the roof was covered with light couch grass, so the house didn’t collapse. In the winter, he warded off the cold north wind with oilcloth.
“Brother Feiyuan, what are you doing? These trees are dead,” Liujin tried to calm him down. A sound came from the river, as if a large fish had jumped up out of the water.
Liujin was three meters away from the men as she spoke to them. She wanted to get a little closer, but whenever she took a step, they backed up. When she straightened again after bending down to free a grain of sand from her shoe, they had disappeared into the woods. A gust of wind blew over her, and Liujin felt afraid. She turned around to leave, but bumped into a dead tree. After taking a few steps around the dead tree, she bumped into another one. She saw stars and shouted “Ouch!” She looked up and saw that the dead tree trunks, standing close together, were like a wall bending around her and enclosing her. Apart from the sky above, she could see only the dark wall of trees. Frustrated, she sat down on the ground, feeling that the end of the world was approaching. It was really absurd: How had she come here? Fish were still jumping in the little river, but the sound of the water was far away. She buried her head in her hands. She didn’t want to see the tree trunks. She thought it might be her neighbor Song Feiyuan playing tricks. This had to be an illusion, yet how had he and Mr. Sherman caused her to produce such an illusion? She strained to consider this question, but she was too anxious and couldn’t reach a conclusion. Suddenly aware of a strong light, she moved her hands and saw lightning—one bolt after another lit up her surroundings until they shone snow-bright. The dead trees that had closed up around her had now retreated far into the distance. The branches danced solemnly and wildly in the lightning. She stood up and ran home without stopping.
Recalling these events, Liujin felt it was quite natural that the old man had come to her small courtyard. Perhaps it was time for—for what? She wasn’t sure; she only felt vaguely that it had something to do with her parents who were far away. She remembered that the year before he left, her father had also twisted hemp. In the winter, he had sat on the bare courtyard wall: he had watched the activity on the street while twisting hemp. Not many people were on the road then, and there were even fewer vehicles. Father twisted the hemp unhurriedly, and—a hint of a smile floating on his face—gazed at the people passing by. “Dad, do you see someone you know?” Liujin asked. “Ah, no one is a stranger. This is a small town.” Liujin thought to herself, Since every person was familiar, then Father must be taking note of something. What was it? Liujin walked into the courtyard and went over to the wall where her father had often sat. Just then, she heard the sorrowful singing of a bird. The bird was in a nearby nest; perhaps it had lost its children, or perhaps it was hurt, or perhaps nothing had happened. Or was it a pessimist by nature? From its voice, she could tell that the bird was no longer young. Maybe, back then, Father had sat here in order to listen to it. This seemed to be the only spot where one could hear it. What kind of bird was it? She guessed that the nest was built in the poplar tree in back, but when she walked a few steps away, she couldn’t hear the bird. When she returned to her original spot, she could hear it again. If Father had made a companion of it in the winter, it must be a local bird. Could it be an injured goose? If a wild goose had been injured, how could it build a nest in a poplar tree? It did sound a little like a goose. Geese flying south sometimes sounded like this. Whenever Liujin heard geese at night, she couldn’t hold back her tears. It was clearly a cry of freedom, but it sounded to her like the dread that precedes execution. “The sound is directional. You can’t hear it unless you’re in just the right place,” the old man addressed her suddenly and quite distinctly. The hemp in his hands gave off soft silver-white light. “Where did you come from?” Liujin walked over to him. He lowered his head and mumbled, “I can’t remember . . . Look, I am . . .” He broke off. Liujin thought, What kind of person has no memory? Is there a category of people like this? He is . . . who is he? She wanted to move closer to him, but she felt something pull at her right foot and nearly fell down. She was greatly surprised. After regaining her balance, she thought she would try once more—but this time with her left foot. She staggered and ended up sitting on the ground. The old man sat there twisting hemp, as if he hadn’t noticed. Liujin heard herself shout at him angrily, “Who are you?!”
Though it was late at night, a column of horse-drawn carts ran past. This hadn’t happened for years. Liujin had heard that the city was growing, but she’d had no interest in looking at those places. She heard it was expanding toward the east, but the snow mountain was to the east. How could the city expand there? Had a corner of the snow mountain been chopped off? Or were houses being built halfway up the mountain? Liujin had seen snow leopards squatting on a large rock halfway up the mountain: they were graceful and mighty—like the god of the snow mountain. Later, she had dreamed several times of the snow leopards roaring, and at the time, rumbling thunder had echoed from the earth. But even now, she wasn’t sure what snow leopards sounded like. Because it was the weekend, she resolved to watch the old man all night, and find out when he left and where he went. After the sound of the horse-carts disappeared, he stood up. From behind, he looked like a brown bear. He crossed the street and headed for Meng Yu’s home. Meng Yu’s window was lit up. After the old man went in, the young woman, who was singing again, began to wail sadly and shrilly. Liujin heard loud noises coming from the house: Was something going to happen? But after a while it grew quiet and the lamp was also extinguished. After standing there a little longer, she went back to her house and fell asleep. She didn’t know when daylight came. The night seemed long, very long.
— Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
Published with permission from Open Letter Books
Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow.” She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include, The Embroidered Shoes, Five Spice Street, Vertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.
Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping.
Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers’ University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.
Agustín Fernández Mallo (Photo by Aina Lorente Solivellas)
From Joan Fontaine Odisea
A created thing is more perfect
the less it carries the mark of man,
thank you, Bar Code, for still guaranteeing silence,
the ingredient in objects alchemy was searching for.
Underneath this skin is another skin,
and under that another, and another, and another,
and thus, as many layers as you like, until n∊N→∞
antecenter of the center which is finite.
That center is the mask.
[the week has 8 Mondays. The 8th is the week]
This beach is one I don’t recognize. A bottle moves
closer in to shore with the message firstname.lastname@example.org, which
I myself wrote when I was a capsized drifter
and I didn’t throw messages into the ocean but into rivers
which [I didn’t know] goe out to the see whiche is deeth. You spread out pure,
On beaches you’ve never walked you now step upon yourself.
The ball traces a parabolic arc and
the golfer matches its arpeggio with her back.
The sky tenses and her breasts,
more mercury than ever, complete the silhouette
against the ocean of grass. ……………………………….It’s raining
against the grain.
The water’s geometry can’t overcome
the dry thwack of silence when the atmosphere gasps and the ball touches ….down.
Sphere against sphere. Your nipples
[endless and expectant] turn down, the windows
of a beach hotel in winter. ……………………[a car honks, your husband’s waiting].
No caddie could ever
pick your clubs like me.
Light at dawn undoes the knots
on bowties, cuts through the make-up,
dissolves smoke and happy new year!s
in that hollowness that lasts a few hours
when the calendar shifts a digit. ………..I surprise myself thinking one day I’ll be an ancestor.
You come in pulling on a bra strap, oblivious
to the black and white confetti stuck to brittle hair, I want you to know that tonight is my birth, you say, and I won’t be able to forget you. In that house we were all
terminal mannequins from Golpes Bajos,
material from childhood [where nothing ever happens
and you have to make it up].
Creation and Apocalypse sometimes coincide.
The point of remembering is forgetting
oneself, making the heart into
a weathered magnet that leaves
things equidistant from each other, …………………….spinning …………………….in their places,
the point is not to try to find out
where the sliver of light under
doors is coming from,
or the sliver of light between your lips.
At the end I saw my body empty out ………..[1.83 m in 64 kilos] a pencil with no lead you joked
and Antonio Vega was playing: I get a chill when I see
your young body and your soul
isn’t in its place anymore.
A suitcase with no destination
is a suspicious object.
A body with no shape ………..[1.83 m for 64 kilos]
is the axis around which
a traveler spins, awkward and pointless,
never my guest again.
I look at your smile and I think all lyric poetry expresses loss. A child doesn’t write verse,
a diet of memory still hasn’t
passed through him, they still
his local Toys Я Us.
The first light of day doesn’t stop the night,
it keeps on weary in another
more visible and secret sector. …………[grass between asphalt cracks, …………ice on the edge of a kiss, …………the implosion of planets, …………the silence of objects].
What you’re seeing isn’t morning,
but the logical opponent of night
produced by binary reasoning,
to wake up is to be reduced to photons,
center and stop-point
of that other nocturnal particle which is sleep
sectioned into petals.
And they fall.
From Ya nadie se llamará como yo
I see a forest and something more alive inside (prayer)
…………An indeterminate being wanders through the valleys, howls on the peaks, sleeps beneath the snow, its tracks take on different directions all the time. Nonetheless, it senses the Earth’s magnetic field. I know because its footsteps follow the veins of certain minerals. (Cardiology)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………The cells of the retina are the same as those of the skin because when we are embryos the retina is part of the skin. This gives us a clue as to why the literature of every civilization develops a multiplicity of analogies between the eyes, the epidermis, and that which unites them, light. (Great Migrations, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………The wolf rejects us because he knows that in his chest there is an area, no larger than the pit of a cherry, which is incredibly sweet to a palate we believe we have forgotten. (Zoophilia, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………In a big-box store I saw kids playing with balls from the display stand, pedaling around and ditching the bike wherever they felt like it, jumping rope, hitting punching bags with no rhythm; the ones who weren’t yelling were laughing. “These kids here have grown up inside, they don’t know anything else,” he said to me. (Foundational Moments, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………The hardcourt used for the game of tennis is obtained by crushing thousands of bricks taken from abandoned housing developments. (Great Migrations, 2)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………Animals pose in front of the camera lens but not because they feel they are being watched. The pose is older than their looks, even older than their bodies. The pose is blind, but it sniffs, it finds its way. (Speleology, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………In rural areas Nature is strictly separated from the human habitat: specialized physical and climactic barriers are erected between the home and open country to ensure survival. In cities, the urban landscape forms a continuum with the buildings’ interiors, the city enters its apartments in the form of colors, smells, materials, and even flora and fauna. This continuity is what ensures the survival of the inhabitants of an urban space. (Extreme Climatology, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………In me there is no body: I am a ship travelling in the same direction as Earth. (Pet, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside.
…………Regarding the ancients and their languages, now dead, we must remember that we only retain their texts, the writings they’ve left us, not the sonic record, and so we have no idea how they pronounced their words. If today we could hear a Greek from the 4th century B.C. pronounce poiesis, or a Roman say rosae, it’s possible we would hear what would, for us, be grunts or birdsong. Just thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra spouting out sounds like a dog barking, or a whale or a robot, produces a kind of shiver that could knock down a good portion of our idea of History, or even of civilization. What’s left to us is the mute materiality of that writing, and we make up a sonic landscape for ourselves, built as a fantasy. Thus, the only thing that truly brings back the past in real time is sound. That’s why voices are so important for the paranormal, for spiritualists, in live concerts, political rallies, etc. The oldest recorded human voice is a 35-second recitation of the poem, “America,” read in 1890 by its author, Walt Whitman, and recorded on a primitive wax cylinder. 35 seconds which not only seem to bring the poet to us from beyond the grave, but which also establish year zero of human speech such as we know it today. (Spring, 1)
I see a forest and something more alive inside..
—Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington
Agustín Fernández Mallo was born in La Coruña in 1967. He is a qualified physicist and since 2000 has been collaborating with various cultural publications in order to highlight the connection between art and science. His Nocilla Trilogy, published between 2006 and 2009, brought about an important shift in contemporary Spanish writing and paved the way for the birth of a new generation of authors, known as the ‘Nocilla Generation.’ He has also published a book of stories, El hacedor(de Borges), remake, and the essay Postpoesía, hacia un nuevo paradigma. His poetry is collected in the volume Yanadie se llamará como yo + Poesía reunida (1998–2012), and his latest novel, Limbo, was published in Spain in 2014.
Zachary Rockwell Ludington teaches Spanish at Emory University in Atlanta. He received an award in 2014 from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for Pixel Flesh, his version of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Carne de píxel. His creative work has appeared in Drunken Boat, PEN America, and elsewhere.
Flesh, destruction, the city at night, ash and fog—at times Ingrid Valencia’s poems hint towards some kind of apocalyptic landscape through which she wanders with a keen eye. However, throughout her prize-winning recent collection, Oscúrame, the destitution is always tempered by the presence of the sensual, the bodily, the physical. In the black city that calls her name she is not really alone. Her dark night of the soul belongs to us all, there is solace to be found. The poems collected here are translated by Jack Little. — Dylan Brennan
OF THE FALL
It is not the tremor but the wound
that sinks his eyes
under night’s water
and gives an incandescent voice
to the suburbs of the tongue.
They are the gears of time
those which polish our way
for a life full
of rivers that criss-cross.
It is the dumbness of the show
a manner of speaking,
to give to another, the days.
It is not the flesh but the destruction,
the slight sound of machines
which form circles in the plaza of the body.
We are merely eyelids
which open to the night,
to the endless noise
DE LA CAÍDA
No es el temblor sino la herida
la que hunde sus ojos
bajo el agua de la noche
y entrega una voz incandescente
a los suburbios de la lengua.
Son los engranes del tiempo
los que pulen nuestro paso
por una vida repleta
de ríos que se cruzan.
Es la mudez del espectáculo
una forma de hablar,
de entregar a otro los días.
No es la carne sino la destrucción,
el leve sonido de las máquinas
que forma círculos en la plaza del cuerpo.
No somos sino párpados
que se abren a la noche,
al ruido interminable
de la urgencia.
This is the volcano
upon a wooded canvas.
This is the same sky
which assembles the dance.
This is the fog
which encloses the forest.
These are the eyes of my parents.
The bodies of children
offered to water
like scorching stones.
This is the ascent to the mountain,
the lightness of these steps
between the highest trunks.
This is the sun appearing
between the hills.
This is the slowness
of humid earth
This is the night
an aged body.
I charge the lanes of the skin,
the fragility of its bridges,
the act of forgetting, the defeat.
This is life, one afternoon
which folds and traverses
to return, one day more,
to the alleyways of astonishment
Este es el volcán
sobre un lienzo arbolado.
Este es el mismo cielo
que recoge la danza.
Esta es la niebla
que cierra el bosque.
Estos son los ojos de mis padres.
Los cuerpos de los niños
ofrecidos al agua
como piedras ardientes.
Este es el ascenso a la montaña,
la levedad de los pasos
entre troncos altísimos.
Este es el sol asomado
entre los cerros.
Esta es la lentitud
de la tierra húmeda
que se esparce.
Esta es la noche
un cuerpo envejecido.
Cargo las veredas de la piel,
la fragilidad de sus puentes,
el olvido y la derrota.
Esta es la vida, una tarde
que se pliega y recorre
el temor, la súplica
de volver, un día más,
a los callejones del asombro
I look at the dust, the days,
the cage of the streets, the coins, the faces.
I recognise the rain
in this open city,
on this gray bridge,
on a jaunt
of those who lose
their body between ashes.
I am where the wind agitates
and I hear the distance,
the steps of the people,
childhood at the center of a town square
to the centre of a box,
a letter which names me.
I am attached to the silence
when they sway the night.
I walk between eyes
that inhabit the spectral zones
of a cradle,
the eyes light up in horror.
Eyes that forget.
Eyes that deny
the projection of shadows,
of slender trunks
to the bottom of a stage,
of a corridor,
of the prolonged years,
Eyes that stop
in the crevice, in the neck
Eyes that bury
lights, the marks
the gaps, the flesh.
I look at them in the dust,
in the days,
in the cage of the streets
and I hear the sounds,
the beginning of the journey,
the future of the city
inside mildewed fountains.
They are the eyes, they are the skins
the show, the triumph
of approaching the light,
The look that touches
even what is not,
that which disappears.
Miro el polvo, los días,
la jaula de las calles, las monedas, los rostros.
Reconozco la lluvia
en esta ciudad abierta,
en este puente gris,
en este andar
de los que pierden
el cuerpo entre cenizas.
Estoy donde se agita el viento
y escucho la distancia,
los pasos de la gente,
la infancia al centro de una plaza
al centro de una caja,
de una carta con mi nombre.
Estoy adherida al silencio
de los árboles
cuando mecen la noche.
Camino entre ojos
que se cierran,
que habitan las zonas
espectrales de una cuna,
Las imágenes brotan
Los ojos se iluminan de horror.
Ojos que olvidan.
Ojos que niegan
la proyección de sombras,
de troncos esbeltos
al fondo de un escenario,
de un pasillo,
de los años gastados
que se prolongan.
Ojos que se detienen
en la grieta, en el cuello
de las tardes.
Ojos que entierran
las luces, las marcas
los vacíos, la carne.
Yo los miro en el polvo,
en los días,
en la jaula de las calles
y escucho los sonidos,
el comienzo del recorrido,
el futuro de la ciudad
dentro de fuentes enmohecidas.
Son los ojos, son las pieles
el espectáculo, el triunfo
de aproximar la luz,
la mirada que toca
incluso lo que no está,
lo que desaparece.
They are our words
that we abandon,
ours, the stars
that bring us closer
to the mire, to the cross, to the circle,
to the chains of humans
who cry and sing.They are yesterday’s trails
those of tomorrow,
the leaves on the trees,
the wind, the mouths, the wheel,
the chair, the staircase,
the swing and the eyes.
They are our languages
which we forget, burials.
Thus we are full of objects,
of seams, of borrowed hands
towards the final day,
LA NOCHE DE TODOS
Son nuestras las palabras
nuestros los astros
que nos acercan
al lodo, a la cruz, al círculo,
a la cadena de humanos
que gritan y cantan.
Son los senderos de ayer,
los de mañana,
las hojas de los árboles,
el viento, las bocas, la rueda,
la silla, la escalera,
el columpio y los ojos.
Son nuestros los lenguajes
que olvidamos, los entierros.
Así vamos llenos de objetos,
de costuras, de manos prestadas
hacia el último día,
la noche de todos.
I am the stone hurled
several hours ago
at the street curb,
in the black city
that calls my name.
Soy la roca lanzada
hace ya varias horas
a la orilla de la calle,
de la ciudad negra
que me nombra.
I bite at daytime’s notebooks,
I tear out the letters on the clock,
I lose myself in each hand,
in the water that covers me,
in the people who remember,
in the words that open
night’s ashen petals.
Muerdo los cuadernos del día,
arranco las letras del reloj,
me pierdo en la mano,
en el agua que me cubre,
en la gente que recuerda,
en las palabras que abren
los pétalos cenizos de la noche.
— Ingrid Valencia, Translated from the Spanish by Jack Little.
Ingrid Valencia was born in Mexico City in 1983. She is a poet, editor and arts and cultural manager. She founded and ran the arts journal La Manzana, arte & psique from 2005 to 2010. For the past six years she has acted as coordinating editor for Cuicuilco, revista de ciencias antropológicas for the ENAH (National School of Anthropology and History). She has written six books of poetry including La inacabable sombra [Literalia Editores, 2008], De Nebra [La Ceibita / Conaculta, 2013], One Ticket [French trans. by Odelin Salmeron, La Grenouillère / Literalia Editores, 2015], Taxidermia [Ediciones El Humo / Conaculta, 2015], and Un círculo en otro sol [English trans. by Don Cellini, Ofi Press, 2016]. Her most recent book, Oscúrame [Diputación de Salamanca, España, 2016] won the Premio de Poesía “Pilar Fernández Labrador” prize at Salamanca in 2016.
Jack Little is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City and Palma de Mallorca. In 2015, Jack participated in the International Book Fair in Mexico City, reading his work in the Zócalo of Mexico’s capital. He is the founding editor of The Ofi Press, an online cultural journal with an international focus now in its 51st edition. Jack will publish a series of e-books of young Mexican poets in translation throughout 2016 and 2017, the first three of which are available to download for free from The Ofi Press website, one of which was written by Ingrid Valencia. His first pamphlet ‘Elsewhere’ was published by Eyewear in the summer of 2015 and his most recent work has been published in Periódico de Poesía, Otoliths, Wasafiri, Lighthouse, M56, The Human Journal and Numéro Cinq. Jack was the poet in residence at The Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island in the west of Ireland in July 2016. www.ofipress.com
They say, we write to remember and we read
to forget. Ignorant of either, I wished I could
write to grow up, especially the letter Y.
I’ve been practicing Y since I first saw it printed
on the covers of American picture books
arriving in U.N.R.A. parcels, safely tucked away
up in the attic. Y never failed to impress me,
looking both like girls’ legs pressed together
and the forked sprigs we broke off from the alder
trees to place our fishing rods onto when we were
going after the dace; and in my dizzier moments,
like the throats, slit open by broken bottlenecks,
of long coated dark men in cheery hats, who,
a few pages on, turned into corpses, floating in
booze or drowning in some other disastrous liquid,
but not, for all I could see, in Noah’s flood.
x On Returning a Book to a Public Library
I’ll make this short. Days always surprise me.
So when I’m returning a book to a library
it doesn’t mean I’ve finished it or had no
intention of reading on. It only means that
despite its renewal the library’s lease has
expired and that the times and places and
extravagant fortunes of men, with the traditions
of various schools and institutions of knowledge,
secret societies and writings of all ages,
collected and arranged into chapters
or classified according to their alphabetical
order, have found themselves locked behind
the doors of inscrutable hallways, keys flung
away as carelessly as if they were dandelion
seeds. No doubt they will go on along
the corridors of some cerebral Hades weaving
their lives quite independent of those that
time and again I capture in my glimpses
scattered or overheard in chunks of
fragmented conversation, however inadequate.
So, in the cobwebs of Saint Petersburg’s
Railway Station (in snow) Madame Karenina
still waits to throw herself under a train.
And I’ll probably never find out what Vronsky
could have done at the time, if anything.
Tatiana never finished her letter, though I presume
she had turned down the poet, who ages ago,
in his small neat hand, had been scribbling
in his notebook the names of his lovers.
And Doctor Rieux, even he – what did he,
after the danger had passed, say to a writer
whose fast traveling ladies clattered around
Bois de Boulogne in their carriages – if, indeed,
he survived the ordeal? Is this important?
I don’t know; take the book I was bringing
back this afternoon. I can’t for the sake of me
remember who wrote it; even his middle name,
a common and well-known one, evades me
completely. A tiny collection of verse, like
scenes of renaissance architecture and its triangles
and elegant stairways in precise, condensed
light, the color of salt. It was a book of
poems which now, when forgotten, seem even
better, compact in the language of vague,
unruly translation, opening new and unexpected
prospects on each of its metaphors – sharp and
twofold – like ‘pillars’ and ‘horse.’ There was an air
of something conquering, victorious in far away
places about them, like a clang of a sword drawn
from a scabbard: Vincente Cortázar Paladio.
x Remembering Hopkins
In our local Clinic stands a Tree of Health,
the branches of its richly grown crown
decorated by various inscriptions like Happiness,
Love, Good Personal Relations,
Friendship etc. Up the tree trunk
lines of multi-coloured twinkling fairy lights
lead on to them, which – in a circuit
as on big Christmas trees – then run down again
to the Tree’s mighty roots, bearing labels like
Recreation, Sleep, Nutrition and Relaxation,
Giving up Bad Habits, Healthy Sexuality, Hygiene.
Lord, send the roots rain.
x Zinnias in Bloom
Zinnias in bloom; a train
moving on, departing: maids’
work on the balcony.
An electric pole – a hedgehog
trying to climb it: a palm tree
by night. The branch of an elder
bush dressing itself up in black:
the scent of its inflorescence
quietly glowing. Among the wild
rose petals a spider hiding from
the rain. Had it not gone into
hiding it would have stayed hidden.
Night gathers; the starlings flock
onto a sign-board: in the sky
a child from the long gone past
is happily singing. Rain descends from
the heavens; fire licks the star
by the edges. One me coming down
to lie on the earth.
x Where are you?
I am sitting in the doorway
under the light; the grass is darkening,
the stream below the house
sounds clearer. I’ve been waiting
for I don’t know what, for you
to call me, for weeks. And now –
not in the house, here outside,
from over the hill, from the stream,
from the wind through the branches,
your voice sounds, soft and clear –
Where are you, what are you doing?
Moths are settling on my head.
They are drawn to what’s in there
and want to get to you.
—Marjan Strojan translated by Alasdair MacKinnon
Marjan Strojan (1949) was raised on a small farm in Slovenia. He studied philosophy and comparative literature, and he has worked at one time or another as a baggage carrier and load-sheet-man at an airport, a film critic in Ljubljana, and a journalist in London. He lives in Slovenia.
Strojan has published seven books of poetry and many translations, including Beowulf (1992); James Joyce, a selection of his poetry (2000); Lavinia Greenlaw, a selection of her poetry (2000); Robert Frost, a selection of his poetry (2001); John Milton, Paradise Lost (Izgubljeni raj, 2003, 2011); Sydney Lea, a selection of his poetry (Na votlem ledu, 2006), and Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (Canterburyjske povesti , 2012). In 1997 he published his Anthology of English Poetry (Antologija angleške poezije). His latest books are William Shakespeare, Songs from Plays (Pesmi iz iger, CZ, 2016) and Marjan Strojan, Dells and Hollows, Autumn Hill Books, 2016.
The prose poems brought together in this selection are infused with the landscape along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River in the south-west part of Montreal, adjoining the neighborhoods of Verdun, Lasalle, and Lachine. The section “Lachine Stations” makes a more explicit reference to the area of Montreal in the south-west, upstream from the rapids bearing the name “Sault Saint-Louis” at the time of New France. Until the opening of the canal in 1825, enabling one to bypass the rapids, Lachine was the departure point for the “voyageur” canoes, hired by the great companies engaged in the fur trade in the north-west. Those pages of “Lachine Stations” devoted to the fictional character, Jean Mongeau, sketch the portrait of one of those singular men who became voyageurs. They were inspired by Carolyn Podruchny’s book, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (University of Nebraska Press and University of Toronto Press, 2006), translated into French by Anne-Hélène Kerbiriou, as Les voyageurs et leur monde. Voyageurs et traiteurs de fourrure en Amérique du Nord (Presses de l’Universitè Laval, 2009) – as well as the book illustrated by Gilles Bédard, Les voyageurs d’Amérique (Éditions GID, 2012). I extend my thanks to both authors, to whom I am greatly in debt.
Notebooks of Jean Mongeau, …….summer-autumn 1803
I walked by the edge of the wood,
torn between the grain’s fervour
and the chill exhalation of ferns.
I had either to stay or to leave.
In me, life sickened
each day a bit more
and my soul was heavy with loss
God-divested and imploring
life’s grace be restored to me.
I loved you, Marie, but it was
a music unmastered, a lame plod,
my hands grasping at the void,
while voices on high called to me, fraught,
nameless, faceless voices,
and I gave heed to them in the forest, wanting
to cede them my moorings, my lodgings,
while our dog, who yapped far off
in the hay at high tide
he was no longer my vassal
and that he’d lost me..
Sometimes I see again the road leading to Lachine,
I hear the cart squeal
that carried us out of the city
weighed down with horses and tipsy sailors,
and all along the port we saw
large-skirted women whose beauty
tore at us suddenly like a farewell,
I remember having hailed one of them
with my hand, and having blushed
at the smile she tossed me,
then it was a rough forest trail
along the Sault Saint-Louis
where you felt the presence, both hidden and near,
of the humid river that would bear us,
its water luminous as a deliverance..
The eve of our departure we’d danced and drunk long into the night. Something held us to the land, drunk as we were and near to madness, like those sailors who in the end repudiate the sea, too wide, that renders alien, to the soul’s peril, the nearness of bodies and things. Then we left in the direction of Nipissing, the Big Water, and we were greeted by Algonquin women, all comely, save an old toothless one who smiled like the others but seemed the very embodiment of death.
(Inventory for loading): – twenty rifles.
– thirty boxes of gunpowder.
– thirty boxes of lead shot and balls.
– twenty wool blankets.
– two big rolls, blue cloth, red cloth.
– knives, scissors, hatchets, awls, sewing needles, lighters.
– flour, sugar, salt, dried meat.
– two boxes of jewels: necklaces, earrings, bracelets.
– a bag of red powder to color the skin.
– mirrors, magnifying glasses, decorative porcelain, glass pearls, brass and steel wire.
– Thirty shirts, thirty ceintures fléchées.
– tobacco, brandy..
I kneeled a moment
in the last church
then I feared the wind
and I shivered..
On leaving: a baptism of peace
and light to bless two lakes.
I thought myself a new man
armoured with hope and prayers
and a providence of rocks and cascades
and fierce rains to freeze the soul,
but I found prairies first,
a great sweetness of grasses
and the night with its shrillness of crickets,
the distant pounding of a drum
rising from a village beyond the fields
I miss Maskinongé already,
but I sense a fire within me
never before felt, a strength that defies
its trials as the days pass and I reach
that breaking point where my body
must sing if it’s not to sleep,
I think of you, Marie, alone under the quilt
naked and warm in the lunar room
entering a long languorous summer
a deep fever of silence and idleness,
while far up I voyage within myself,
seeking valor in exhaustion
and knowing no more the reasons for my flight.
For days La Grande River
was our only home
along with the obsessive lapping of the paddles
counting the seconds and in the process
undoing all hope of reaching shore and sleeping there,
until the sudden squawk of a bluejay
entered my ear and in a trice
I stopped feeling my arms
and my hardened backside and my bent legs
and it was like a clearing inside
as if the landscape
had at last found in me
a place to lodge its light.
After La Grande River and the hard law of rocks
that seemed to assert on earth
God’s dominion over human failings,
we encountered the ghastly La Vase Portage,
all the world’s hardness abruptly undone
all matter molten and the ground stripped away
under our boots and it seemed to me suddenly
that evil was rampant in this place
seeking to cow our courage,
as if we’d broken faith with our own desire
for a combat on equal terms,
and against all expectations tainted the assurance
of a rugged land and pure water
that would christen us one more time.
(Letter from Marie Saint-Arnaud to Jean Mongeau, October 1803)
The house is empty of you but I often pass
your shadow in the dark, I feel
your breath rush upon me,
your handsome charmer’s mouth
bite my breast,
but I’d love as much
for your voice to wrap me round and shelter me
from the hardness of the world
for you said things with wisdom
and swore love with that gentle tremble
that makes men’s voices falter
when desire undoes them,
I’d like tomorrow to be filled
with your body and your hands,
and your peaceable step when at the window
I saw you going by the fields
towards the dark edge of the wood
when all the day’s power
as if your heavy gait
enjoined it to yield,
tell me on what river do you paddle,
on what lake and if the time is long
crossing over hills with a heavy burden
and if the black water sometimes brings you fear
and if it bears off comrades
who have not kept their footing.
Early morning, scarred fire, noble bones, woodland song, men’s and women’s voices among the trees. I am the dust of ages, whirlwind of the deeps, escapee from the first caves. I tremble at being what I am, do you hear me, woman of the woods, of wool woven under the lampshade and the trellis of blood that shivers in the window? Do you know the calendar of wounds and joys that appear, at times, when night and day conspire to undo order and reason, when limbs are harnessed to other limbs to shift the weight of dread? Who are you? I founder in another river that becomes another lake that becomes a new river. Sometimes the running water no longer suffices for the needs of man and sometimes supplies must be shouldered, without horses or donkeys, to sidestep death. This business destroys us, yes, but to live is something else again, and the nightly feasts, and the dried bison and the bear fat that smears our fingers. We are beset with hunger before the rock that quakes. We are mad not to bow low before this god.
Despite the splendor of these paddler’s arms,
it’s the soul’s indigence
and human weakness
that have brought me here
to this harsh land and load-bearing water,
the treacherousness of roots
and the astonishment of animals,
me chilled to the bone,
unnerved by rains and frothings,
loving kin to whispering grasses
and thrown full force onto stoical rocks
against which at times I lean my ear
towards the far-off realm when time
laboured sedately and in darkness.
Spare me this rise to climb, these slimy stones beneath my soles, this fatigue of bodies that know only steepness and stumbling. There is anguish too great for just one man, and regrets that smother the soul, when prayer’s succor is all for naught. Give me back the ardour of forests and the burning pine needle carpet, give me back cold springs and the gentle drift in the carefree bends of rivers sheltered by the sky and the brows of rocks. I see far off the great prairie open wide, riddled with mosquitoes, and the banks of the Red River where, they say, the peoples of this land grow grain. And on the lakes at night the Northern Lights cast a spell and set even the stars to dancing. You arrive wearied at the trading posts, you gorge yourself with oily corn and draughts of rum, and unknown languages rip at your heart. You never come home, and you hear in the distance a great rush of dust and sand rise up which, out of the south, foists thirst on man and beast and makes drought a primal verity, underpinning all gifts and the glories of love. Restore to me, Lord, the blessing of this desert, spare me the hard road back.
Rock me, rock me, take
my broken body, my routed heart
for I lost my footing,
slid on a solid stone
while seeking support,
saw the water darker
than the deeps of our souls
and the time of man
shrunk to nothing,
rock me for what remains of beauty
when the foundering sun
shuts the book of wonders,
the sweet legend of a peopled world,
while the rapids far off, their froth abated,
roar on through the night
like beasts that stalk their prey.
Rock me, woman who douses the lamp,
go to sleep now alone so as to feel no pain,
I journey on under a heavy weight
and eternity is for me a deep chill,
my solitude counts for less than your own,
it vexes even the dusk
where I seek forgiveness in vain.
— Pierre Nepveu, Translated from the French by Donald Winkler
Pierre Nepveu is a poet, essayist, novelist and professor emeritus at the University of Montreal. Since 1971 he has published several collections of poetry, primarily with the Éditions du Noroît, including Romans-fleuves, Lignes aèriennes, Les verbes majeurs, and most recently, La dureté des matières et de l’eau, which appeared in 2015. In addition to his essay collections dealing with Quebec literature and the literatures of the Americas, including L’écologie du reel and Intérieurs du Nouveau Monde, his is the co-author with Laurent Mailhot of the anthology La poésie québécoise des origins à nos jours, which has appeared in several editions. He published the biography, Gaston Miron. La vie d’un homme, in 2011. Several times a winner or finalist for the Governor General’s award, he is also a member of the Royal Society and the Order of Canada.
Donald Winkler is a Montreal based documentary filmmaker, and a translator of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He is a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for French to English translation, most recently, in 2013, for his rendering of Pierre Nepveu’s collection of poetry, The Major Verbs(Les verbes majeurs). His translation of Nepveu’s most recent collection, The Hardness of Matter and Water (La dureté des matières et de l’eau), will be published by Signal Editions in 2018.
This month’s edition of Numero Cinco finds our newest addition to the NC masthead, Dylan Brennan, speaking with translator Anamaría Crowe Serrano about her work with Mexican poet Elsa Cross. They discuss Serrano’s involvement in bringing Cross’s work to an English audience, as well as the difficult decisions translators must make when doing so.
After the interview, we have a selection of poems by Cross, both translated from the Spanish by Serrano and in their original language.
— Benjamin Woodard
Dylan Brennan (DB): How did you get involved in this project?
Anamaría Crowe Serrano (ACS): I’ve been involved with Shearsman Books for several years, first with a collection of my own, and then with translations of some of Elsa’s poems that were included in a Selected Poems in 2009. The editor, Tony Frazer, publishes several titles in translation every year – as well as collections in English and the Shearsman poetry journal – and at some point he asked if I’d be interested in expanding on the original translations I had done. I didn’t have to think about it twice.
DB: How much did you know about Elsa Cross beforehand and how much did you have to learn as you went about translating?
ACS: I had met Elsa in London at the launch of her Selected Poems, so I knew a little about her. She teaches philosophy of religion and comparative mythology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and has published extensively, but I am always curious about the person behind the biographical note. It’s a bonus when I can make some connection with the poet I’m translating because I like to enter the poet’s world. In some ways translating is a little bit like method acting – for me, anyway – in that I like to absorb the poet and his/her mood if I can, in order to translate the work as faithfully as possible. It means that I adopt a slightly different persona each time I translate a different poet, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not particularly experimental with the text of the translation itself.
What struck me about Elsa during our conversation in London was that her poetry reflected her personality: gentle, contemplative, self-assured. It seemed that the mysteries and uncertainties inherent in the world around us, which philosophy constantly probes, rather than cause angst, in some paradoxical way provide a source of strength for this poet. I got a sense that she accepts that not everything can be known, and there’s comfort in that place of acceptance. The idea of immersing myself for several months in Elsa’s poetic world and worming my way through her raw material was very appealing. As I’ve said, I had already translated some of the first section of Beyond the Sea, so I was familiar with Elsa’s style as well as the setting for the poems. Her collections are often written against the backdrop of a particular locale which works as an anchor for her thoughts. In Beyond the Sea, we find ourselves in Greece. The sound of waves, cicadas in the afternoon heat, plants stirring in the breeze, wings flapping, ancient ruins, are a constant accompaniment, like a leitmotif, to the philosophical thoughts and questions posed in the poems.
DB: Did you get in contact with Elsa Cross to discuss the poems? If so, how was that? Did she have any role in the translation process?
ACS: Yes, I did. I think all translators have questions about the text, so it’s an advantage to be able to ask the poet directly. In this case Elsa was very generous with her answers, clarifying specific words or images or nuances, such as what kind of “filo” she meant in the first line of poem 5 of “Dithyrambs”. I wasn’t sure if it might be a blade, a trickle of some sort, a thread… It’s wonderful to be able to consult the author because it means that the end result is as close to the intended meaning of the original as it can be; there’s very little guess work on the translator’s part, although individual lexical choices and phrasing are ultimately subjective. In my experience, poets are always happy to collaborate with the translator if they can because a translation can seem quite alien to the poet. Poets get attached to their specific lexical choices and even to the spaces between them. Every word of the original is so charged for the poet that it can be a terrible disappointment to realise that the translator has misinterpreted something that is very meaningful to you as a poet. Having some control over the translation process goes a long way towards assuaging those concerns.
Elsa’s English is excellent, which meant she could make very useful suggestions. The draft translation that was emailed from Dublin to Mexico City and back many times is peppered with comments ranging from uses of the definite article or prepositions or possessive adjectives, to whether the translation should include footnotes for words such as “tezontle”, to what the subject of a particular verb is (given that it’s not always specified in Spanish, which can sometimes allow for ambiguity, whereas it must be specified in English, destroying the ambiguity).
Over the years I’ve come to think of a translation as the child of both the author and the translator. A translation contains the linguistic DNA of each through a process that explores language at a microscopic level. When the translator can work with the author, the symbiosis is more complete: the child resembles both its parents more closely than it might had there been no collaboration between them. In Beyond the Sea, Elsa’s input was so valuable that I suggested the cover should read “translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano with the author”, but she was too modest to want to claim any credit for the translation.
DB: Is translating poetry something you find easy or do you find it agonizing at times? What about the Greek elements of the book? Something you had to research or was it all known to you already?
ACS: Sometimes you come across a poem that you can translate quickly; the words just come to you and the result is satisfying. But those occasions are rare. Usually it requires many hours of thought – more than might seem apparent from the length of a poem. The end result that appears in print is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that tip lies the bit the reader never sees – the process – which for a collection could be up to a year’s work. But I absolutely love translating. (The only thing I agonize about is the inadequate pay, completely out of line with the hours and skill involved in the process.) Lines or words that are problematic might take several days – or longer – but the process is hugely enjoyable, like trying to solve a difficult brain teaser. The funny thing is that often what seems relatively easy to translate, where the language itself is simple, might turn out to be the hardest thing because you want to avoid using a particular word (if it had been used before), or you want to keep the rhythm of the line nicely balanced and the literal translation won’t work. In the second line of poem I of “Las cigarras” (Cicadas), for example, the line reads: “las cigarras empiezan sus odas lentas” (literally: the cicadas begin their slow odes). There’s nothing complicated about the language here, and “the cicadas begin their slow odes” is acceptable in English except for the fact that I didn’t like the strong vocalic assonance of “slow odes”. If you say it aloud it sounds like you’re trying to say something with an egg in your mouth. I’m conscious of the phonic effect of words, so semantic exactitude doesn’t always satisfy my ear. The problem then is that there are so many synonyms of “slow”. It took me ages to finally settle for “unhurried odes”, which also reflects the lilting, languid rhythm of the original.
There are many references to Greek mythology in the collection, some of which I was familiar with, and some not. A quick online search can clarify that a kouros is a free-standing statue of a young boy, often a representation of Apollo, and while any reading of these poems is richer if you are familiar with the Greek references, from the point of view of translation, once I could find the English equivalent, lack of detailed knowledge about artefacts or gods was not a significant problem.
DB: Any crossover with your own work, similar themes or styles?
ACS: Not really. The work I translate is quite different in theme and style from my own work. That has happened by chance, but I’m not sure I’d like to translate someone’s poetry if it reminded me a lot of my own. It’s nice to take a break from the usual preoccupations and discover other ways of writing, images that would never have occurred to you because they’re very foreign or because they come from a discipline that you don’t often engage with. The process of discovery adds to the pleasure of translating.
DB: I’d love to know of any difficult translation decisions, if there were any for you, what were they, how did you go about resolving them?
ACS: The use of idioms often poses problems for the translator, of course, resulting in the classic case of something being lost in translation. There was one instance of that in this collection with the word “cántaros”, which are clay pitchers or jugs for water or wine. It appears as the title of one section in “The Wine of Things” and is also repeated in several poems in a general way. But it’s also used in the expression “A cántaros”, which means “cats and dogs”, as in “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Clearly, when it’s used in Spanish to mean “cats and dogs”, none of the generic English translations works. It’s a shame because it means that the repetition of the word throughout the entire section is slightly lost. Not only that, “cats and dogs” has a totally different connotation in English compared to the Spanish “cántaros”. Cántaros are receptacles, for a start. The fired earth they’re made from has some echoes of antiquity and domestic labour. In comparison, “cats and dogs” sounds completely trivial at best, and if we take the origin of the phrase to be related to Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower”, where cats and dogs drown in the downpour and flow along the flooded streets, then it’s completely disgusting. Either way, it won’t work as a translation. Another option might be “pouring” or “pouring rain”, but you lose the image of the container. In the end, I opted for “Bucketing”, even though the tone is a bit colloquial.
That presented yet another problem. The cántaros of the title should ideally be the same word that is used in the poems. I had opted for “pitchers” as a generic translation, with “bucketing” when referring to rain, but I didn’t like either of these as a section title. I suppose I might have settled for pitchers and been forever dissatisfied with its ambiguity had I not mentioned the problem to Elsa. Her solution – to use the Greek word “kantharos” – seemed perfect. Not only does it encompass all versions of kantharos (jugs, pitchers, buckets), and is in keeping with the Greek setting of the entire collection, it slightly elevates the tone of the more common “cántaros”, making up to some extent for the fact that the idiom is lost in English.
The other translation difficulty that arose was in the Aeolides, Oceanides, and Nictides sections. Here, the poems are of haiku-like brevity, often beginning with a verb conjugated in the third person plural (“they”). The subject is the daughters of the wind, sea or night, depending on the section in question. The fact that Spanish does not require the subject pronoun to be stated – because it is incorporated in the verb conjugation – allows for a profusion of lexical diversity in each poem. Here’s an example from “Eolides, 7”:
Despeinan …………..al joven eucalipto
hacen caer sus resinas ……………………………..sobre los barandales
como abejorros ………………….en el hueco de las cañas
Llenan la mirada de hormigas amarillas ……………………de la avispa
English, being a language that requires the use of the subject pronoun, would transform each of the verbs (Despeinan, hacen, Zumban, Llenan) into “They uncomb”, “they make”, “They buzz”, “They fill”. Repeating the subject pronoun in each line of such a short poem creates unpoetic monotony compared to the breezy freshness of the Spanish. Avoiding the subject pronoun so often – there are many of these poems in the collection! – was probably the single greatest challenge that required various different solutions. Sometimes I use the subject pronoun once at the beginning but don’t repeat it for the second verb, in the hope that it will be understood to be implied, or I use gerunds for subsequent verbs. That’s what I did in the above example (They uncomb, making, Buzzing, Swarming):
They uncomb …………………….the young eucalyptus
making its resin drip …………………….on the handrails
like bumblebees …………………….in the hollow stalks of canes
Swarming our gaze with yellow ants
On other occasions I changed the word order and/or the grammatical function from active to passive so as not to begin a line with the subject.
Someten a su ritmo (They subject…) ………..las flores encrespadas ………..el lomo de los cerros
Todo lo vuelven piedra lisa (They turn everything…)
and hilltops ………..are subjected to their rhythm
Turned by them to smooth stone
DB: What do you think of the poems? How would you describe the book to someone down the pub? Why should people read this book?
ACS: If you don’t know Elsa Cross’s poetry, this book is as good a place to start as any. It’s a bilingual edition, which is always useful for the reader. Cross is considered one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets and has been praised by Octavio Paz for her interplay of complex thought and clarity of expression. In my opinion, this is the key element in her work. There’s a strong sense of the poet sitting still, absorbing her surroundings through the senses first of all – sound, sight and touch in particular – as if she were meditating, then very deliberately using these senses as a conduit to something deeper. Small details of nature, or of a Greek statue, have the potential to reveal something worth knowing, but the slightest sound or movement, even too much sunlight, can shatter any meaning that might be contained in the moment (“meaning becomes / an incongruous stroke, / a particle that marries with dust.” Stones, 4). The elusiveness of meaning marries with vivid imagery ever so delicately, even when the poet paradoxically finds the image devoid of meaning. Take, for example, the opening of poem 3 of “Cicadas”:
The night swings
on the call of owls hooting.
words heard in a dream ……………………………take flight
at the sound of the first cicada
now fitfully cutting ……………………the silence of dawn.
Words wanted ……………………beyond what they are—
yet when we try to grasp them
their flight is slowly undone ………………………………like ritual gestures.
They empty of image,
are no more than voice— ……………………gloomy alliterations ……………………in a lower key,
resonance, ……………………the sea’s craving for its creatures.
I love her exploration of the ambiguity of what is real and what isn’t; her allusions to Dionysian indulgence, for which the poet clearly has a preference (“The only instrument is passion”, Cicadas, 4), counter-balanced by Apollonian ideals that are harder for humans to achieve (“You light up everything, / but who sees your shadow?” Offerings, “Paean”); the mysterious absence on occasion of a figure that seems to be central to the poet (“a presence not present”), whose footsteps she follows only to find that they disappear “mid-step”.
The book itself is divided into two sections: Beyond the Sea, and The Wine of Things. In keeping with the Greek theme, the first section is a series of Odes, while The Wine of Things contains dithyrambs that read, among other things, as a contemporary homage to the gods. The multiple layers of striking images, connotation, mythology, and the contemplative quality of these poems makes them endlessly fresh and appealing against the soothing backdrop of the Aegean.
DB: Tell us about yourself and your own work, what you’re working on now and what’s next.
ACS: At the moment I’m going through literary labour, waiting for a few books to be published. A collection of poetry is due out any day with Shearsman and will probably be available by the time this article is in print. It’s called onwords andupwords, and is a collection in which I continue to tease out the technicalities and function of language, and play around with form. I want to find different modes of expression all the time, which is quite hard – for me, anyway.
There’s another collection pending publication that was written with actress and poet Nina Karacosta where we challenge each other on a phonic level, with words in Irish (for Nina) and Greek (for me) to which we have to apply some kind of meaning in poetic form. That was a fun project, partly because we worked very closely together, spending a few weeks of the year deep in discussion, bouncing ideas off each other, developing a pattern of work that suited that particular project.
I’ve had these two collections in the pipeline for a while, along with Elsa’s book, and have found that I can’t think about the next project until I have these out of the way, so I haven’t done much writing recently. But I do have an idea up my sleeve which I might try to work on if I get some time. It should be a move away from poetry, though hopefully it will have poetic elements and, at the very least, I’d like it to be uncategorizable as a genre. I might approach it differently to my usual way of working. I work freelance, so my day is not dictated too much by a routine. I can usually write whenever I feel the need. One thing, though, I hate long hand! I hate the visual mess of text scribbled out, arrows pointing to afterthoughts, not being able to make out my own handwriting the next day… The pc ensures I always have a clean text in front of me. I edit and re-edit every line as I go along so that by the time I’ve written the last line, the poem is pretty much as I want it. I rarely make changes afterwards.
With poetry, I never have an overall vision for a book when I start. I write in response to some unconscious need to address individual issues, although in the process of writing, the form can take precedence over the substance. That’s what I discovered was the unifying element in onwords andupwords – hence the title. However, for the next project, I have a better sense of where it might lead. The reason for that is that, unlike with poetry collections, I have a theme in mind for this next experiment. I’ll put a few ideas together during the summer, a general skeleton. If it has decent limbs and a backbone I might try and flesh it out.
Another project I have to tick off the to-do list is a novel I wrote many years ago. It’s called The Big e, and has been fully edited and ready for publication for a while, very frivolous and fun, and unlikely to have a sequel or to appeal to publishers, so I’ll self-publish it at some point. With that, I was pretty structured in how I wrote, trying to get something on paper every day, usually in the morning. The fact that the writing went on for about three years didn’t really appeal to me, even though it’s fun to live in the parallel universe of your characters for extended periods and see things through their eyes. Overall, I prefer brevity, even when translating. I’ve translated a few novels and have found that the process becomes a bit tedious half way through because you still have another 150 pages left and will have to spend another few months with the same characters.
For translations I have a deadline that I stick to very rigorously. With poetry it’s always a generous deadline because poets and publishers of poetry understand the need for time to allow a text to settle (not so in the case of novels where there are commercial demands that don’t apply to poetry). I work methodically, setting aside the time I will need for a first draft, followed by a few weeks where I put the translation aside and forget about it so as to come to it from a fresh perspective for a full edit. During the first draft I put together whatever queries I have for the poet, incorporating the answers when they come back so that after the full edit I can send the manuscript to the poet for an overview. There are always more queries and comments at that stage. I go through several complete edits before the manuscript is ready for the publisher, and when it comes back for proofing I make additional final changes. Even after publication I wish I could make more changes. The process is never finished for me. I’m rarely fully satisfied with the result but have come to accept that a translation can only be the result of the translator’s reading of the original text at one particular moment in time. Tomorrow, the translator’s world view and state of mind and experience of language will have shifted ever so slightly.
Selections from Beyond the Sea, by Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano.
From Beyond the Sea
Your face appears.
Sinks into milk,
like the well-begotten Lamb ………………………………………….in the Mysteries.
The fire approaches without touching us.
Blue more intense
than the elation building towards the islands.
as if behind smoke, …………………………………your face appears.
The conch mixes the sea
with wonder itself …………………………………in our ear,
waves surging ………….where the mind’s islands navigate,
flashes— ……………………Beyond the sea.
Movements of thigh and hip
tentatively outline ……………………………….a dance.
…………..The sea stretches …………………………………in unbreaking waves.
the last vowel ……………………….reverberates in the ear. …………..The sea stretches …………..beyond time …………..…………..immovable. A tremble, …………..…………..an echo of movement—
and speaks to us …………..…………..in its other tongue,
like that fire burning within,plays and spreads
until it quietens in a vertical ray.
Omnipresent, …………..…………..the language of touch without hands.
A manly sound, that language of the islands.
Strong syllables, …………..…………..honed vowels
like colours separating the sea from the crags.
Island emerging from nowhere,
place where no one is born …………..…………..…………..or dies.
Only the course of its ground is followed,
piling its broken signs …………..…………..…………..…………..on the grass—
unfold their argument on the waves, …………..hold it, …………..…………..bend it, withdraw it …………..…………..—seduce the eye— …………..…………..…………..…………..…………..repeat it.
The music of that tongue rises to the retentive ear,
and the ear stays open …………..…………..…………..in its intoxication—
maybe it translates the tumble …………..…………..of the wave rushing to die on the sands,
or the delight …………..…………..of she who is born from the spray.
Is there anything that does not come from the sea?
Names that don’t attract death …………..…………..…………..but maybe sweeten its arrival: …………..…………..She of the Delectable Voice …………..…………..She of Nascent Desire …………..…………..She Bathed in Light— …………..…………..…………..…………..She the Inevitable.
chiselled plaster on the wall …………..…………..…………..—asymmetries.
From the crest of a moon
olive trees balance …………..…………..…………..precariously
as evening declines.
Summer carts make their way up …………..…………..…………..…………..to hillside houses,
and with the setting sun
a bright snake …………..…………..—a bicycle lamp—
meanders through the vineyards.
Venus and the waning moon …………..…………..…………..…………..in conjunction
light up the waters.
copies the shape of that half-moon
bending its back …………..…………..…………..between two ridges—
remains of its body float …………..…………..…………..like charred bones.
Thus the sea of dreams joins or devours
fragments of the divided substance.
On the wing of an insect the fabrics of vision:
the city twinkles …………..…………..through veils of plumbago,
over beaches almost blurred from view.
In enclosed courtyards
the light seems to rise from a hidden well;
desires gleam— …………..…………..such is the accumulated transparency.
And the memory of a disaster.
Fragments of consciousness
emerge …………..………….. and submerge …………..like those islands.
Jellyfish lesions on skin,
as if each cicada …………..…………..were stabbing with a hairclip
or armies of ants were leaving burning trails …………..…………..…………..…………..…………..in their wake.
Pale skies as summer unfolds.
And all that light, …………..…………..the whiteness of a marriage bed,
those terraces where the night slips in
on a silver thread, …………..…………..inaudible strumming,
are all still there,
when we’ve been around
the crest of the new moon …………..…………..…………..at one end of our heart.
And the sea—
at twilight it takes on
the colour of our golden wines.
The wineskins are empty.
The hour bites our temples,
disrupts …………..the journeys;
what we gave and didn’t give each other
sparkles …………..under the sun as it moves away.
No sea as blue,
no light …………..as white,
even though that splendour
may already have held …………..…………..…………..the caress of darkness.
From The Wine of Things
They are repeated insomnia
a little sting …………..………….. the flapping
of memories not sheltered …………..…………..…………..by presence
They are a white shadow
innocence in the yellow phrases …………..…………..…………..……….of a dying man
the catastrophe of the voice
11 They are vague emotions …………..…………..…………..in the stillness of the day
mist crouching …………..…………..in your chest
like a doubt
They are transversal signs …………..…………..…………..withered tributes
fragments lifted from the debris
They are hidden diamonds
THE WINE-RED SEA (On the Dionysus Kylix)
O waves so red,
confluent streams …………..…………..where grapes and dolphins almost meet,
and the vertical mast,
now trunk and branches, …………..…………..…………..spreads its arms east and west.
And the dolphins freely swim …………..…………..…………..…………..—old sailors
guarding the vessel.
And the sail bulging white …………..…………..…………..under lavish grapes,
and the graceful ram at the prow,
what beach are they pointing at?
where will they dock …………..…………..…………..if the blissful god
neither charts the course nor guides
but merely sips
the pleasant breezes …………..…………..and the scent of the wine-red sea?
Aparece tu rostro.
Se hunde en leche,
como el Cordero bienhallado …………..…………..…………..en los Misterios.
El fuego se acerca sin tocarnos.
El azul es más intenso
que la ebriedad creciendo hacia las islas.
como detrás de humo, …………..…………..…………..aparece tu rostro.
El caracol mezcla el mar
al propio estupor …………..…………..en el oído,
oleaje donde navegan …………..islas de la conciencia,
Movimientos del muslo y la cadera
esbozan al tiento …………..…………..una danza.
…………..El mar se extiende …………..…………..en olas que no se rompen.
la última vocal …………..…………..reverbera en el oído.
…………..El mar se extiende …………..más allá del tiempo, …………..…………..…………..inamovible.
Temblor, …………..…………..eco del movimiento—
y nos habla …………..en su lengua otra,
parecida a ese incendio de adentro,
juega y se difunde
hasta aquietarse en un rayo vertical.
Omnipresente, …………….lenguaje del tacto sin manos.
Sonido varonil, ese lenguaje de las islas.
Sílabas contundentes, …………..…………..vocales definidas
como colores que separan el mar de los peñascos.
Isla salida de la nada,
lugar donde no se nace …………..…………..…………..ni se muere.
Sólo se sigue el decurso de su suelo,
que apila sobre la hierba …………..…………..…………..sus signos rotos—
despliegan en la onda su argumento, …………..…………..lo sostienen, …………..…………..…………..lo curvan, lo sustraen …………..…………..–seducen al ojo— …………..…………..…………..…………..lo repiten.
La música de esa lengua sube al oído retentivo,
y el oído queda abierto …………..…………..…….en su embriaguez–
quizá traduce el tumbo, …………..de la que corre a morir en las arenas,
o el gozo ……………de la que nace de la espuma.
¿Qué cosa no viene del mar?
Nombres que no atraen a la muerte …………..…………..…………..pero tal vez endulzan su llegada: …………..La de Voz Deleitosa …………..La que Despierta el Deseo …………..La Bañada en Luz— …………..…………..…………..…………..La Inevitable.
cinceladuras de yeso en la pared …………..…………..…………..…………..–asimetrías.
Desde una cresta de luna
los olivos se equilibran …………..…………..…………..precarios
en el declive de la tarde.
Suben las carretas del verano …………..…………..………………hacia los caseríos altos,
y al ponerse el sol
una serpiente luminosa …………..…………..…………..–fanal de bicicleta—
ondula en los viñedos.
Venus y la luna menguante …………..…………..…………..…………..en conjunción
iluminan las aguas.
copia la forma de esa media luna
quebrando su espinazo …………..…………..…………..entre dos puntas—
restos de su cuerpo flotan …………..…………..como huesos calcinados.
Así el mar del sueño junta o devora
fragmentos de la sustancia dividida.
En un ala de insecto los tejidos de la visión:
la ciudad parpadea …………..…………..en veladuras de plúmbago,
sobre playas que apenas se distinguen.
En los patios cerrados
la luz parece ascender de un pozo oculto;
brillan los deseos– …………..…………..…………..tanta la transparencia acumulada.
Y una memoria de desastre.
Fragmentos de conciencia
emergen …………..y se sumergen, ………..como esas islas.
Huellas de medusas en la piel,
como si cada cigarra …………..…………..punzara con una horquilla
o legiones de hormigas dejaran rastros quemantes …………..…………..…………..…………..…………..de su paso.
Cielos pálidos al transcurrir el verano.
Y toda esa luz, …………..…………..esa blancura de tálamo,
esas terrazas por donde entra la noche
en un filo plateado, …………..……………..rasgueo inaudible,
cuando hemos recorrido
la cresta de la nueva luna …………..…………..……….en un extremo del corazón.
Y el mar—
toma al crepúsculo
el color de nuestros vinos dorados.
Los odres están vacíos.
El vino muerde ahora la sien,
trastorna …………..las travesías;
lo que nos dimos y no nos dimos
brilla …………bajo un sol que se aleja.
Ningún mar tan azul,
ninguna luz …………..tan blanca,
aunque ese esplendor
ya llevara consigo …………..…………..la caricia de lo oscuro.
De El vino de las cosas
Son insomnio repetido
un pequeño aguijón …………..…………..………….. revoloteo
de recuerdos no amparados …………..…………..…………..…………..en la presencia
Son sombra blanca
la inocencia en las frases amarillas …………..…………..…………..…………..del moribundo
la catástrofe de la voz
Son emociones difusas …………..……….en lo inmóvil del día
niebla que se agazapa …………..…………..en el pecho
como una duda.
Son signos transversos …………..…………..…………..homenajes marchitos
trozos levantados de los escombros
Son diamantes ocultos
EL MAR COLOR DE VINO (Sobre el kílix de Exekías)
Oh mar tan rojo,
corrientes encontradas …………..…………..casi juntan racimos y delfines,
y el mástil vertical,
vuelto cepa y sarmientos, …………..………..abre brazos a oriente y a poniente.
Y van a su albedrío los delfines …………..…………..…………..………..viejos marinos
custodiando la nave.
Y la vela tan blanca que se abomba …………..…………..…………..bajo las uvas pródigas
y el espolón gracioso de la proa
¿hacia qué playa apuntan?
¿en dónde atracarán si el dios …………..…………..…………..……….dichoso
no marca ruta o guía
y solo bebe
los vientos placenteros …………..…………y el aroma del mar color de vino?
— Elsa Cross, translated from the Spanish by Anamaría Crowe Serrano
Elsa Cross was born in Mexico City in 1946. The majority of her work has been published in the volume Espirales. Poemas escogidos 1965-1999 (UNAM, 2000), but a new complete edition of her poetry appeared in 2013 from the Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City. Her book El diván de Antar (1990) was awarded the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1989), and Moira (1993) won the Premio Internacional de Poesía Jaime Sabines (1992), both in Mexico. Jaguar (2002), is inspired by different symbols and places of ancient Mexico. Her more recent books form a trilogy: Los sueños — Elegías, Ultramar — Odas, and El vino de las cosas, Ditirambos.
Her poems have been translated into twelve languages and published in magazines and more than sixty anthologies in different countries. She has also published essays. She has a M.A. and PhD in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she holds a professorship and teaches Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Mythology.
In 2008, Elsa Cross was awarded the most prestigious poetry prize in Mexico, the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, an award that she shared with Pura López-Colomé.
Anamaría Crowe Serrano is a poet, translator and teacher born in Ireland to an Irish father and a Spanish mother. She grew up bilingual, straddling cultures. Languages have always fascinated her to the extent that she has never stopped learning or improving her knowledge of them. She enjoys cross-cultural and cross-genre exchanges with artists and poets, the most recent of which is her participation in Robert Sheppard’s EUOIA project and her involvement in the Steven Fowler’s ‘Enemies’ project.
She has published extensively and her work has been widely anthologised in Ireland and abroad. Her publications include Mirabile Dictu (blurb, 2011), one columbus leap (corrupt press, 2011), and Paso Doble, written as a poetic dialogue with the Italian poet Annamaria Ferracosca (Empiria, 2006).
Anamaría has translated some fourteen books, including Elsa Cross’s Beyond the Sea for Shearsman Books.
Regardless of the common wisdom that, as Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen,” writers cannot escape being influenced by their environment, at any age. Just so with the Mexican writer Agustín Cadena, Mexican born, raised and educated, who has been living for years in Hungary, returning to México only for the three months of summer. In his recent collection of stories, Las tentaciones de la dicha, (The Temptations of Happiness) 2010, the permeating influence of Eastern Europe can be felt in at least four of the eleven stories. “Maracuyá” is one of these, set in a Black Sea resort town at the height of the season, in a vast club by that passionflower name, where one drinks Becherovka and meets people of a dozen nationalities, including an old Russian with a mysterious briefcase. What makes the story Mexican is its Spanish, the use of words like “cornudo” which fit smoothly in Spanish but seem so awkward when we write “cuckold” in English, and in this story, there’s a different twist on that characterization.
— Translator Patricia Dubrava
WE WENT TO that Black Sea resort because Dasha wanted so much to go back there. She had been once, six years ago, and said it was incredible: every summer, in August, the little fishing town transformed into the biggest tourist attraction of the Crimea. For a week, clubs, bars and restaurants stayed open 24 hours, hosting hundreds of tourists from all the Slavic countries and more distant places. Dasha fondly remembered dawns dancing on the beach among drunks singing in incomprehensible languages and couples who slept in each other’s arms on the sand after making love.
I agreed to go out of curiosity, but also because I wanted Dasha to have a rest. She was sick of working at the Peep Show, exploiting the beauty of her no longer so adolescent body and performing fellatio on fat tourists for twenty Euros.
So we pooled what money we had and, a day later, were on the train crossing the pine forests of the Carpathians, toward the Ukraine lowlands. To save money, we hadn’t wanted to pay for a sleeper, so made the whole trip in a coach compartment; during the day we talked, read, looked at the countryside, had brief conversations with passengers who accompanied us for an hour or two, on their way to some intermediate town. And at night we took turns: one watched so no one stole our backpacks while the other tried to get some sleep in spite of the cold, with our shoes on and wearing all our clothes. If we wanted something to eat, we had crackers.
We arrived tired and hungry, with barely enough energy to put up the tent in a more or less quiet section of the beach. But there was the sea, at last. The sea: a longing to live intensely and forever, escape to a timeless space where one could be eternally young, where love was imperishable. We sat contemplating it a long time, without talking.
We left stuff in the tent and went to town to look for something to eat. It was much as Dasha had described it: an idyllic place full of light, as if from a book of ancient poems. One high, winding street of old houses and shops full of shadows climbed a hill at whose peak stood a church, its twin towers topped with golden onion domes. The glow of polished metal, the sounds, the smells…it seemed as if we were seeing everything through the glass pane that separates reality from dreams.
We were starving, but didn’t want to go to a restaurant; we’d agreed that alcohol and entertainment were top priorities for our money, and we’d keep the minimum for secondary things. We bought four slices of bread, a quarter pound of bologna, another quarter of cheese, some pickles, and ate on a bench from which, in the distance below, the sea was visible.
We drank sweet wine in a small tavern, then went down to the beach to wade in the surf, watch the sunset and as it was getting dark, bathed in a public bathroom. An hour later, we arrived at the biggest nightclub: Maracuyá. They sold admissions for a day, for three days or for the whole week. Dasha wanted to buy the last even though it would take half our money.
“It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “And besides, I don’t intend to miss even one evening.”
The place was decorated as if it were on the Caribbean instead of the Black Sea: hammocks, fishnets, barrels half buried in the sand and live palm trees growing beneath large crystal domes.
We worked our way through the crowd, found a free table and looked over the menu: there was an incredible quantity of liquors, beers and wines from exotic places.
“What is this?” I asked Dasha, almost shouting because of the loud music. At the end of the wine list there was a question mark with a price; below that, two question marks, also with a price; then three, then four, five…
“Those are drugs,” she responded, also shouting. “One question mark is marijuana, two is hashish, three is cocaine; the others, I don’t know. Do you want something?”
“No,” I told her. “Pretty pricey. And you?”
“Get me a Becherovka.”
I went to the bar for the drinks. The place was a zoo. There were strange people of all ages, races and nationalities: old lechers, nymphs, aging women in search of adventure, young men with bare torsos covered in tattoos, Japanese, Scandinavians, Arabs…In the walk from our table to the bar, I overheard random words in unrecognizable languages; my sense of smell was saturated with a mix of sweaty skin, salt water, expensive perfumes, common deodorants…there was a line at the bar; I had to wait until the bartender took care of a six-foot blond and then a gay guy in a pink suit who didn’t know how to ask for silk stockings.
Finally, I returned to my table.
“Thanks, baby,” Dasha said, dancing in her seat to the music.
She took a sip of her drink, smiled at a guy who was giving her the eye from a nearby table and went to dance with him. I thought dancing a primitive display, so we had an understanding: she was free to dance with whomever. And “dance” meant whatever else also. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary: poor Dasha, it was only right that at least once in a while she could sleep with someone she liked. And in reality, she almost never exercised that option.
She didn’t exercise it with that guy. She danced with him a while, then changed partners, then sat to drank a glass with me, danced some more, sat some more…Near dawn, already a little drunk, I left her enjoying herself and went to walk on the beach. With each stride I took, the music of the various discos faded and mixed with the hiss of the waves that came in to break near my feet. Like weary fireflies, the lights of the little town floated in the distance.
We went to sleep in the tent at seven, woke around noon and after polishing off another package of crackers, swam in the sea. Dasha seemed happy: she smiled and hummed a song. She asked me every little while if this wasn’t a marvelous place, if I wasn’t enchanted, if I wouldn’t remember these days forever when we were no longer together.
In town we ate at McDonald’s, the cheapest alternative after bologna sandwiches, and walked through the streets, visited the Orthodox church. In the souvenir booth at its exit we stole a small fake icon. Then we returned to the tent to sleep at least a few hours before the new round of drinking and dancing in Maracuyá.
That night was very like the previous one, with the difference that a gang of 30 or 40 bikers dressed all in leather arrived, and set about making more noise than there already was. Before dawn I saw them on the beach, doing acrobatics with their motorcycles, the moon casting glints of light on the chrome of those enormous machines.
Leo appeared the third night. Dasha and I were sitting in the disco drinking Becherovka.
“Look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed. Near our table a man in his sixties, dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, danced alone. But what was even more odd was that he was dancing without letting go of his briefcase; he had it hugged to his chest as if he was afraid someone would steal it.
“Perhaps it’s full of money?” I asked Dasha.
“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.
We continued watching him. He didn’t tire of dancing nor of having his arms in that uncomfortable position, because no matter how little the briefcase weighed, anyone would be tired. But he, on the contrary, seemed to be enjoying himself enormously; he danced clumsily and it didn’t matter to him; nor did it bother him not to have a partner. A smile of satisfaction, of an old man realizing a long cherished dream, illuminated his face.
“What a marvel of a man,” Dasha declared. She downed in one swallow what was left in her glass and got up to dance with him.
After a few minutes she came back to the table. “Either he’s dancing with his eyes closed or he’s blind,” she told me, taking a drink from my glass. “He didn’t even notice me.”
“Why don’t you talk to him?”
And that’s exactly what she did, when she saw that he was going to the bar to get a drink. She approached him in English. The man answered her amiably, and by his accent, Dasha understood that he was Russian. She then changed to that language, which was also her mother tongue, and that’s how everything started: his name was Leonid and he was from Novosibirsk. Dasha brought him over and introduced me. The three of us had a drink together and then they went to dance. All this happened without Leo letting go of his briefcase.
At some point he disappeared. He didn’t say goodbye to us; we simply didn’t see him anymore. Dasha was upset.
“Do you think he thought I was an idiot and got bored?” She had that complex; it surfaced every once in a while.
“No. I think he liked you.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Didn’t you see how he looked at you? He even stopped dancing with his eyes closed.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. Why don’t you have a fling with him? He seems like an interesting person. It would make you feel better.”
Dasha stared at me.
“But he’s gone,” and she twisted her mouth into that bad girl look the Peep Show clients liked so much.
“He’ll be back tomorrow.”
And in fact, the next night, Leo returned to Maracuyá. With his briefcase. Dasha avoided looking at him. If he’d left without saying goodbye, she said, he ought to make the first move now and apologize. “Men always scorn what’s easy,” she explained. That night she was especially seductive, with a black sleeveless dress—the best that she’d put in her backpack—that contrasted in a harmonious way with her tanned skin; a black choker around her long neck and a gold-plated chain on her left ankle.
Confirming the correctness of her theory, Leo came to sit at our table as soon as he saw us and apologized for having left like he did.
“The strange food,” he explained in English out of courtesy to me, without for a moment letting go of his briefcase. “It set off a revolution in my stomach. I was barely able to reach the hotel.”
More relaxed than at our first encounter, he mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, bought us a drink and began chatting about how difficult it was to prepare well an apparently simple dish from his country: Shuba, potato salad, carrots and peas with mayonnaise, anchovies and beets.
“Of course, it doesn’t go all mixed together,” he said. “The salad goes inside, like a filling. The beets and the anchovies smother it. That’s why it’s called shuba, which in Russian means “overcoat,” and he continued talking about that and a pasta dish with mushroom sauce that didn’t matter much to us. What we wanted was to ask him about the briefcase, but we didn’t find the right opportunity. Finally he took Dasha out to dance.
It soon became obvious that he wanted to seduce her. And she began plying him with all the tactics learned in her not very long life. “Old men like you to make them believe you’re innocent,” her philosophy went. “Only young men are capable of valuing experience.” But Leonid didn’t look like an idiot: he couldn’t really believe that an inexperienced young woman would be vacationing with her boyfriend at an amoral beach resort, drinking Becherovka in a disco where anything and everything was for sale. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy Dasha’s company.
The night passed, along with her plan and desires. At three a.m. when Leo seemed more lively than ever, the young innocent said goodnight. She wasn’t used to staying up so late, she said, and was already very sleepy.
The next day we spent resting on the beach, walking around town and speculating about the mysterious briefcase.
“I tell you, it has to be money. It has to be the lump sum of his retirement, or pension, or liquidation of his assets or whatever, and he came to spend it here.”
“What if he’s a terrorist? From Chechnya? He doesn’t look like it, but he could be. He could be carrying a bomb, one of those that you make explode with a cell phone.”
Dasha was disposed to uncover the mystery and with that objective, employed the rest of her many charms that evening, with the result that she disappeared with Leo and I didn’t see her until the following morning. About eight, she appeared in the tent. She lay down by me without saying anything and also without saying anything, began to make love to me. It was her custom when she’d had an adventure. She said that was how she rid herself of the other skin.
We woke after eleven.
“O.K.,” I said. “What’s in the briefcase?”
“A book,” she told me, without the slightest sign of disappointment.
“Yes, a manuscript. He wrote it. It took him twenty years to finish it.”
“But, why did he bring it here?”
“Because he came here to throw it into the sea,” Dasha explained with a surprising naturalness, as if she were talking about the most normal thing in the world. “Only before doing it he wants to have a good time. It’s his double farewell.”
“Leo’s saying goodbye to his book and to his literary career.”
Dasha shrugged her shoulders.
“I didn’t understand his reasons at first either. But after he told me the whole story I began to get it. He spent twenty years working on that mountain of papers. And you know what for? For nothing. He’s taken it to more publishers than he can remember and all of them told him to go to hell with his book. Some—the least stupid—simply told him no. The others suggested that he change things, cut this or that. But Leo doesn’t want to change anything and I understand that. Why let a bookseller tell him how he ought to write? He got sick of it. If his book is trash, he told me, well then it will go to the trash.”
I didn’t ask her anything else and didn’t want to keep thinking about Leonid and his story. I was hungry. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“Leo invited us to dine at his hotel. He asked me if you would want to and I told him yes.”
“Good,” I said, “but let’s go. I guess we don’t have to take the backpacks?”
“No, leave them here. Only let me get my wallet and cell.”
The lunch was very pleasant. When he wasn’t talking about food, the old Russian was an excellent conversationalist. And the whole time he comported himself with Dasha in a respectfully paternal manner, as if there’d been nothing between them nor would there be. He told us that the next day he was going home.
“Would you read me something from your book before throwing it into the sea?” Dasha asked.
“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.
“Of course I am. And I would love to hear it in your voice. That way I’d remember it forever.”
“Well, if you want…” He responded in the tone of a grandfather resigned to complying with the whim of a favorite granddaughter. “We can read something this afternoon.”
After a few minutes, he clarified, looking at me. “The book is in Russian.”
“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”
It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.
I spent the remainder of the day on the beach and when I got bored, went to play soccer with the bikers who had arrived two days ago. I made friends with one of the girls—a platinum blonde, thin as a stick—and that night accompanied her to Maracuyá. After a while we went to walk on the beach. We arrived at the end of the jetty, where the music from the discos could barely be heard and sat to look at the moon. Although it wasn’t full, it still looked enormous and orange, hanging quietly over the sea.
In the morning, Dasha arrived to wake us at the tent. She couldn’t even wait until I introduced my friend. “Come on, “ she said. “I want to show you something.” She looked very happy.
“What?” I asked, opening one eye, groggy with sleep.
“I’m going,” said the blonde, who perhaps didn’t want to be an inconvenient presence. And in fact, she dressed rapidly, gave me a kiss and left.
It was very early and somewhat chilly. The tide was still high and the last stars appeared and disappeared as if winking. From somewhere came a scent of roses and gladiolas.
Seeing that the territory had been vacated, Dasha crawled into the tent. “Look,” she was carrying Leonid’s briefcase. “He gave it to me. He gave me his book!”
I’d never seen her so happy, so satisfied.
“Did you read it? Is it a good book?” I asked.
“What does that matter? It took him twenty years to write it, do you realize that? As long as I’ve been alive he’s spent working on it. Something like this is a treasure regardless of what some critic or editor might say.”
She took out the manuscript, bound together with cardboard covers and put it in my hands with great respect.
“He’s gone,” she sighed. His train has to leaving right now.”
Dasha had never been sentimental, but at that moment she seemed on the point of tears. She turned to put the book back in its briefcase, took off her clothes and squeezed herself into the sleeping bag with me.
“What nasty perfume that woman left here,” was all the comment she made before embracing me and falling asleep.
At noon we went to eat in town. Bologna and pickle sandwiches. We told each other everything we’d done. We hugged. We promised that, come what may, we’d always be together.
We walked along the beach holding hands, talking again about Leo. We were happy—even more—we were deliriously happy. Stupidly happy.
When we reached the tent, our joy vanished: someone had robbed us. The backpacks were there, but the briefcase had disappeared. “Money or drugs,” the thief must have thought, who surely had seen it when it was still in Leo’s hands.
— Agustín Cadena, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava.
Agustín Cadena was born in the desert region of Valle del Mezquital, México, 1963 and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, reviewer, poet and translator, he has published over 20 books. His awards include the University of Veracruz Prize for short fiction and essays, in 1992; the National Prize for Children’s Literature, in 1998; the San Luis Potosi National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2004; and the José Agustín National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2005. His works have been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian, and adapted for radio and TV broadcasting. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com.
Patricia Dubrava was born in New York and chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts. She has published two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She is an essayist, poet and translator whose recent translation publications include a dozen Cadena stories, most recently in Fiction Attic, Exchanges and Mexico City Lit. A Cadena story was included in NewBorder: An Anthology, in 2013. Dubrava blogs and has more information on her publications at www.patriciadubrava.com.
In this passage the unnamed narrator is staying in Connemara in Galway County, Ireland. He rides a bicycle down to the seashore and reflects on death and the journey of Famine refugees across the ocean. His attention then turns to an outing in the same region with Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who acts as his occasional driver and tour guide. Gjini talks of his own experiences as a refugee. —Joseph Schreiber
. Like a mirage at the end of the road, without reflection or gleam, dark and grey, a geometric plane shadowed in pencil on a yellowed sheet of drawing paper – that’s what the sea looked like – shallow, motionless, monastery beer spilled into eternity on to a black stone floor, but mainly trapped in a wide, ever wider, nearly limitless landscape; the nearer I was to the shore, the greater, the more impressive was the bay, in the middle of which stood a black lighthouse on sharp rocks, no bigger than a wizard’s ring, hovering on the motionless surface, while the master’s pale hand, still wearing it proudly, had long ago sunk beneath the sea. Without braking, I went down off the asphalt road on to a wide, neatly mowed grassy area in front of the boathouse and rode up to the sea. I leaned the bicycle against a low breakwater that was protecting the lawn from the high tide and slowly made my way over the grey sand, between the slippery rocks, the black pebbles and the rotting seaweed, into the oneness, the residue and abandonment, the world that remained when that sunken, dead arm last unclenched its hand and released the silt on which I now stepped, I thought as the smell washed over me, as if I was standing in an old, abandoned, invisible maritime cemetery, eerily beautiful none the less, like the romantic landscapes of the Old Masters. Death comes here to rest, the thought ran through me, after guiding the wandering, lost souls every day on their final journey, taking them far across the sea, to invisible islands chiselled from soft white light and overgrown with tall, dark silences, like a lyric nocturne in the middle of the sea; and after traversing the width and breadth of Europe, this is where she lays down her cold, sharp work tool, on this remote and hidden shore, and maybe for the first time in her eternal deathly life she lets slip from her shoulders the foggy shroud that shields her dark and hollow radiance, which pulses like a lighthouse from another world. Now I was hearing death with every cautious step I took in the black sand, sensing it in the swell, the gleam of the motionless waters, in every story, every marker along the road; I saw it on the threshold of every lonely deserted house standing open to the sky, roofless, without window or door, without a crucifix or the Book, which the fugitives
had taken with them, in good faith perhaps or in mortal terror, on their uncertain voyage across the sea that lay in front of me, and which, if not for ever lost or at the bottom of the sea, are now holy relics safely stored again in a drawer, in a new home across the Atlantic, as a memory of forebears, of a lineage with a forgotten name, and with a consciousness of ancestry, the dark trace of identity that still rings in the soul like a terrible wind in a dream; standing by the shore, I heard it, I saw it everywhere then – death, resting here. The scene, a stirring ritual of farewell, which apart from love is the single most deeply binding gesture that lies in a person’s heart (as the poet Boris A. Novak described it), was repeated, was literally doubled, as if I was hearing the echo of my inner voice, the first time I stood in front of the painting An Island Funeral, then on display at the Galway City Museum, which I visited one afternoon after my return to the city – but first I went with Gjini to the place he had told me about on the drive to Clifden, when we had first met.
A long, narrow road through a gorge, next to the dark, still shores of lakes encircled by mountain peaks, which I couldn’t distinguish from the great veiled white clouds, grey on the edges, that were gathering and rolling through the damp green vapours of the morning air and without accent or nuance in their description settling on
the muted orange wasteland, the damp and stifling, heavy, crumbling earth, which was hardly breathing, was gasping like tired, smoke-filled lungs, all this dripping damp and piles of mouldering, scorched grass lying on the earth were like a moist fuel, a black fire, burning earth – peat they call it here – which once warmed the walls of houses now a century deserted, which are scattered like lonely lost lambs across the entire country, bleating their harsh and gloomy, mysterious and mournful, but also beautiful and inaccessible, even cruel, Irish poem for human destiny, in an elusive tonality between the pathos of Gothic narrative and elemental folk balladry, or, maybe better, in the style of the romantic landscape painting that I was only now discovering here. That’s how I remember my first trip with the study group to this gloomy, hidden landscape, godforsaken you might say, which is how it seemed to me at the time. I remember that we stopped a few times on the way for no good reason, which from my student experience in my old homeland I found almost unthinkable; I mean that students would simply go trotting off when they had obligations or, worse, would forge friendships, be both drinking partners and academic colleagues, with the professors, Gjini said; so, as I said, whenever the sun came out for a moment and lit up the black surface of the lakes and the murmur of the mountain streams, we would run off far from the cars, away from the road, deep into the peatlands, hiding from the wind and the damp morning fog, which rolled down from the bare reddish peaks that wouldn’t be green for a while still, since winter had not yet breathed its last, and we would lie down between the tall, evenly cut, carefully stacked piles of black, decomposing earth, the peat, which was drying in the meagre sun. There, sheltered by earth, as if we were just now being born, we smoked cigarettes and drained bottles of black beer, and then moved on, a ragtag band of scholars, a brotherhood of professors and students. Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skilfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in the new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me (my first degree I had received long before in Tirana, in political science and journalism) – that’s when I realized we were in some way alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this. I still grab every available moment I can to get in the car and escape here, to this magical, deserted, dark and inhospitable landscape, and for at least an hour or so I put on the mud boots I keep in the car and go for a walk over the damp ground, even when rain is pouring down on me or fog is hiding me; under its protection, in its sheer, shimmering whiteness, as if I was floating high above the waters, in the rediscovered memory of the landscape of my childhood, when I was similarly always getting lost in hollows and pastures, where no foreign word could reach me – my only world, our only world, was built solely of names, with no questions asked about meaning or significance – there, under the protection of silence and always the same faces, which accompanied me from my birth to my emigration and will in a sense be with me until I die, which I feel more and more each year, there I remembered and named things with a mere glance, I lived in an endless, silent and humble presence, there was nothing I missed or needed, and my whole reality, even the imagination in which I lived my childhood freedom, is still somewhere deep inside me, and from it, from this eternal source, I learn again every day unknown words, search for the deeper, the deceitful meaning of my second life, my immigrant life, Gjini said and was silent for a moment, as if he’d forgotten his point, or maybe we had missed a turn again, I thought. I didn’t see any sign or road marker, I said tentatively, and, in the awkwardness of the moment and just enough to let me wade through the silence, I started assiduously wiping the misted windscreen with my sleeve. When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving. That’s why I come here, he said and looked off into the distance, to relearn the only language left from my childhood, the language of silence, of looking. I walk in silence and observe the landscape, the earth, I lose myself in the fog and soon I can’t make out anything any more; I don’t know who I am or even where I come from, I don’t even remember what language I’m thinking in, what language I name the world in. Then I write a poem. Totally wet, totally sweaty or totally cold, I drag myself back to the car and take a notebook out of the glove compartment,one that Jane gave me, and for a few minutes or until it gets dark, which is when, no matter what, I go home for supper since my family always expects me on the dot, so before I go home, I write. And I always try to translate every word, from one language to the other, so the poem from which I am made doesn’t burn up like earth, like black fire, peat, as they say here. At home, of course, we all speak Albanian around the table, not just my wife and older boy, but even our little girl, who was born here. Enough so she doesn’t forget where we come from, Gjini said and, taking a long bend in the road, he silently and with unusual concentration slowed the car, as if he was getting ready to make an important announcement; I could feel the tension and weight of his silence; then came a rumbling sound and a moment later the grey and weary road was flooded, the surface heaving with water; the storm, which came down into the gorge like an avalanche from the surrounding peaks, poured on to the road and the car was carried as if in the middle of a turbulent ocean. All I could see through the misted windscreen, which I was now wiping frantically with my sweater sleeve, were long translucent ribbons of water pouring down faster and faster, harder and harder from the low clouds, like a densely woven curtain; despite the gusting wind, which was constantly shifting the direction of the waves on the road, the heavy drops were falling to the earth in perfectly parallel lines, as in some ideal garden of pure Euclidean forms, and the very next moment, even before we had completed the bend in the road, even before I had made another desperate sweep of my arm to open a tiny slit for my eye, which searched for a view of the sky, as if seeking an answer or making a request – that’s when Gjini, with a curse on his lips and a curse in the corner of his eye, slammed on the brakes. There was pounding and popping, like stones hailing down on us, and when the roar of the rushing waters beneath the wheels had subsided a little, all we could do was gather our strength. Gjini, without a word of warning or any indication, hastily shoved open the door and I saw not a river but a turbulent sea racing past, and then this man, my guide, the only creature I knew in
the middle of this deluge, stepped knee-high into the raging waters, in his shirtsleeves, with just a linen hat on his head, and vanished in the diagonal rain. His blurry shadow, which I tried to catch through the mist on the foggy windscreen, evaporated like a soul cut from its body, even before I could wipe the glass with my hand.
—Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau
Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012).
Rawley Grau holds a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of Toronto. His translations from Slovene include a book of essays by Aleš Debeljak (The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, 2004), a collection of short stories by Boris Pintar (Family Parables, 2009), and a novel by Vlado Žabot (The Succubus, 2010).
THE SIGHT OF you in the bustle of the late winter street paralyses me. I had better turn tail and flee, I think: my words squeeze me out of my apathy, seeing you I am embarrassed as though I had inadvertently opened the bathroom door and found you standing naked in front of the mirror, I am startled and would like to back out. What strangers would settle with one phrase I embellish with a lengthy explanation and over-emphatic apologies until my patience runs out and I turn on you because you don’t answer. But how come this imaginary bathroom scene occurs to me? We met on the street by accident, mother and daughter. I recognize myself in you, I find this intrusive and despair at once: how dare I appropriate what is yours, your beauty, as if it were my merit in the least, how dare I presuppose that you inherited it from me, that you resemble me. You fear my love as I do yours, I ratiocinate to myself, and despair at once. If you are weary and the premature, erroneous shadow of age shows on your young face, my heart shrinks, for I cannot help thinking that if one morning you should see yourself as I have just seen you, you will be hurt. Still, I don’t want to rush time: may you stay young yet, I wish, a cruel teenager; I have already burrowed myself in my hole, but please don’t demand explanations from me.
You were around eleven; through the window the light of the full moon illuminated our home: the stage. I tidied up your room while you two were fast asleep; I picked up your scattered things from the floor: a book, one sock, paper tissue, a ballpoint pen and lastly, the half-gnawed apple fallen on the rug, and went out into the bathroom to wash your white blouse for the school festivity the next day. I spotted my careworn face in the misted-over mirror. I was washing your blouse as romantic heroines wash their child’s linen shirt in the rippling creek. Self-commiseration brought tears to my eyes, they flew over, into the water foaming with the washing powder, into the world, into the thick steam, I don’t know why I consumed so much water to wash one single blouse. I tried to cool my swollen eyelids in the cave-like bathroom but my tears continued flowing, I kept wiping my eyes, that is, I was lacerating myself in the usual way. How do you see me, I asked myself and answered my own question: A shadow, a body no longer living, a black contour chased by the routine activities. I jotted down my words on an envelope at hand—for what we write down we manage to distance from ourselves: a mute slave, an hour hand—so I phrased my complaint—that unprotestingly walks the clock face of days, nights and years for you. I hung up your blouse above the bathtub to dry, then sat on your bed and watched you sleeping, taking in your beauty, relishing your free-flowing tresses, my lovely terrorist: as if you were permanently running away from your hunters. A few years later—you were no longer living with us—you showed up on the street all of a sudden, with your cascading gold-chestnut hair: a strange girl in a black shawl, a strange woman was walking uphill on the other side of Török Street. At her sight my heart jumped, but she pretended she didn’t recognize me, she didn’t even greet me. Had you really not noticed me, or did you merely not want to see me? I haven’t dared to ask you ever since, for you always tell the truth and would say, Yes, I had seen you and avoided you.
Quite understandably this time I am overcome by the desire to flee, to disappear in the opposite direction before you see or don’t see me, to be spared the disappointment: you are not happy to see me. I immediately recall that the year before, during the first term you were coming to my university to attend English classes—by that time you had been living apart from us for seven years—we finished at the same hour, we could at least have walked together to the subway station, but you chose to walk with your girlfriend instead, only sparing the time to say hello. So I get off the bus like one drawn on a string, I hasten my steps towards you. I often feel as though I were pulled on a string by a foreign will, for I wouldn’t otherwise stir an inch by myself. I will not put on it the label: on such occasions I get a whiff of the cellar breath of depression. You are approaching with arms wide open, quickening your pace. We wear identical jackets. I had bought you, your little sister and myself identical jackets in America—for financial reasons, it had been a rational decision. They were available in one colour only, this fashionable off green, I risked wearing the same jacket as yours. I rejoiced at the thought of us wearing identical clothes and I thought you wouldn’t mind. On that despondent winter, far from each other on the overcrowded city’s streets, three women would go on their shadowy errands, unaware of one another’s itineraries. But why should winter be despondent? From now on we would embrace each other when we met, for from now on you would come towards me with arms wide open, and I hardly dare believe my eyes.
I would have liked so much to finally tell you—we have always liked to discuss men—that not long ago, on an empty Sunday when your little sister was baby-sitting in England and I, slowly recovering from an unreal love, was going to the swimming pool on a tight schedule, on one of my swimming sessions I suddenly halted in the middle of the pool as if an engine had stopped in me. (The engine had tired of the tight schedule, strength ebbed from it, the water reached up to its mouth.) I made my way to the lane rope and gripped it. I had known the man who was swimming on the next lane for years, our paths often crossed at noon when the others would be eating their lunch, napping or whatever, when there were few people in the pool. He swam to the lane rope in his strange, funny swimming cap (I had anticipated this) and said hello. What a pretty cap you have, I smiled at him (I often smile in self-defence). He took advantage of the situation and proposed that we walk together for the length of a few bus stops after swimming. I said yes. I had indeed wanted to walk, bored by the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon (as if I were kicking an empty barrel upwards on a ramp), I longed to hear a man’s voice next to me. I was of course not a bit embarrassed because of the ambiguity of the situation, for I had no plans with him, I merely wanted him to talk to me in his deep voice—as though social mores did not apply to me (and they did not, indeed). He was well-proportioned, a bit younger than me. At that time I, too, was still considered beautiful or, more precisely, one that’s got the look. On the same summer a short, pig-faced professor who was to become the rector of the Technical University shortly, and whose twin daughters had been your groupmates in kindergarten about twenty years ago if I’m not wrong, came up puffing after me on the roof terrace, stopped above my chaise-longue and renewed his boorish proposal, familiar from the years before, but, as he pointed out, for the last time. My refusal had been unequivocal, but it seems he hadn’t learnt his lesson (neither have I ever learnt how to shame those who make loutish proposals. In addition, the pig-faced man happened to be my colleague.) Next year you won’t be so attractive any more, he warned me, huffing. He stayed some more by my bedside, expecting his sincerity to make me think twice. Even if his offer fell on deaf ears, his prophesy proved to be astute.
I could hardly recognize the man with the swimming cap who was waiting for me at the entrance according to our agreement. He wore a check shirt, jeans and worn trainers. Dressed like that, he looked penniless, which made me feel embarrassed and moved at the same time. We walked in the heavy smog along Mártírok Street (or was it already Margit Körút?), we could hardly hear each other in the traffic noise. The ambiguous situation irritated me and I was sorry for wasting the day. He stopped in front of a restaurant whose name sounded familiar, I couldn’t recall from where. I invoked some non-existent appointment for family lunch to get rid of him; at this he asked if I would like to have a glass of wine with him. I felt ashamed for my fib that he must have seen through, for up to that moment I hadn’t appeared to be in a hurry. Against my better will I ended up saying yes, for the second time already. We entered the dining hall redolent of kitchen smell, sat down at a table with soiled table cloth; with princely nonchalance he ordered a bottle of white wine. The restaurant and the bad wine made him more self-assured. I asked about his profession but, lest he might take my question for a cross-examination, I added that I taught literature at the Faculty of Arts. This was another lie (of course I wanted to cover up the traces beforehand). He asked me if I knew Shakespeare. Well, I’ve heard his name in conversation, I laughed. Do you also know Richard III?, he inquired further. “My life would be incomplete without him”—and this was even true. But he made a remark that suggested strong skills of observation. “You tend to exaggerate. Or are you just doing it for my sake?”
Ever since I bought these three olive-green jackets in America I have often toyed with the idea that if somebody observed us from high above and placed us next to one another on account of the identity of our outfit, then we three do belong together. You look at me with tenderness, it is perhaps the first time you notice that the lines around my eyes show not only when I’m laughing: they stand at attention, ready to grow deeper, even when I’m watching something with my face going stiff. “What’s up with the two of you,” you ask, “how’s life?” Well-behaved, I answer your question as though it were a stranger’s, quickly going over the tissue of my days and weeks, but can’t find anything worth mentioning, anything your eyes should linger on, or in which your palpating fingers should get caught. Still, I cannot whole-heartedly say I feel this way because of my forsakenness. I myself cannot tell what was first, the thousand small signs of your love withdrawn from me, or this even more unbearable, even more telling feeling of forsakenness in me. (I feel that everybody is happy with their grown-up children, except for me with you.) So I bravely drag forth some promising topic, academic success, travel, I don’t remember what. I can obviously not speak about what preoccupies me most, what I phrase to myself, alluding to its unbearableness, as “I live wounded to death,” and that “I ought to see a doctor before it’s too late.” Not only because of you but also because of the fresh break-up that put an end to our seven-year affair with K. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I answer, but immediately start wavering, perhaps you will find me indifferent and would say good-bye rightaway and then the magic will dissipate. My sharp-eyed swimming-pool acquaintance might be right in the smelly, smoky restaurant: I exaggerate when I talk about myself. Although I might bring up an excuse: it is not only my words but also my feelings that are so passionate. Throughout my teens I was convinced that everybody was like me. I couldn’t understand where the indifference on the faces of others came from, their sheepish patience in front of injustice, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t rebel. Later, in my arrogance, I arrived at the conclusion that the others saw halfway and dimly, while I saw far and clearly. I was already a grown-up, the two of you were born, when I realized that the ability of too sharp phrasing was at once my strength and my weakness.
“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. / Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, / Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, / Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, / Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.” My acquaintance in a poor man’s apparel halted for a moment in the middle of his recitation, I thought his number was over but I was wrong. He gave me a searching look to see if I was with him. I could see the unuttered question in his eyes, so I named the play. Like an award-winning student I added: first act, opening scene, but it seems I misunderstood his question, for he waved his raised finger at me to be patient and continued quoting Gloucester, the future Richard III: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasure of these days. / Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other. / And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle false and treacherous…” At this verse he halted and gave a laugh with a mysterious expression. My face was all amazement. “So you are an actor?” I didn’t quite believe it, I was trying to acknowledge his stunt rather. “You missed it narrowly,” he said in a mystifying tone, but I could see on his face that my guess flattered him. “Then let me ask something else, do you have a regular day job or are you a freelance?” “I am unemployed.” I tried to avoid the dangerous high waters. “And where did you get your swimming cap?” His answer was no less surprising than his performance: “I had sewn it myself,” he said. “So you are the one with the sewing, while your wife goes to work,” I was trying to joke, although I would have liked to steer clear of discussing our family situation by all means. I felt like biting my tongue, but fortunately he didn’t take up the issue, he merely answered that he was not married and lived with his mother. In the meantime he was diligently pouring himself one glass after another, his eyes were shining already, while I barely touched the sour wine and, although thirsty, didn’t dare to order water for fear I’d offend him, as a short while ago I warded off his invitation saying I was not drinking of the wine because I was not thirsty. So I returned to the play: “Do you really love Shakespeare so much?” “I needed him. I can quote whole acts by heart.” I liked the past tense, and the arbitrary, lordly “I needed him” suggested an adventurous life or else, serious professional dedication.
You will of course have your own stories of me, memories that I perhaps don’t remember at all, or at the very least remember differently, out of self-defence. Not for absolving myself but rather, in order to be able to lull myself into the conviction: basically everything was all right between us. For I love you, and the birth of the two of you has been the best decision of my life. And you love me too, it is only our temperaments that are not suited. The realization that one’s treatment of one’s children can be tackled as a methodological issue, and that the books on parenting give outstanding recipes for coping with conflicts with teenage children, came like a cold shower—to stick to the imagery of the bathroom memory. I found the awareness that we ourselves could be characters in a case study, and that the positive or negative outcome of our conflict depends on my skillfulness, humiliating. I refused to believe that the first child, if a daughter, is a rival of her mother and if a son, a rival of his father. My shelves were laden with psychology handbooks, I fooled around with ha’penny horoscopes you could pick up everywhere on the street, with cheap booklets about famous people born in different zodiac signs, I bought everything to persuade myself that it was not my fault and perhaps not yours either, to doom our lives was maybe the unfavourable constellation only. It was chance that helped me learn the lesson “at the dawn of our love” with K. (to use his phrase). His presence changed our relationship. I simply had no courage to burden this relationship with my despair over the latest evidence of your inability to love me. At fourteen for instance, one Friday afternoon you announced that on Tuesday you would move out. K., as my sympathetic witness, said that I should be glad, for this way the situation would be solved in the most peaceful manner possible, and that I shouldn’t be brooding over the fact that you told me in the last moment. It was the last possible moment anyway, it would have been too late to fight for you, something that I would never have done to your detriment or against your will, by the way. We were invited for a dinner that evening, so there was no time to get engrossed in my failure or inquire about the practicalities. (I knew so much that instead of your mother’s, from then on you would be under a father’s supervision.) I can remember well the moment when you chose to communicate your decision, I was just putting on my thinnest coffee-coloured tights. “I have already arranged about moving my things out on Tuesday,” you said. I answered only that I was sorry I would not be at home and therefore unable to help with carrying your things, because I had classes that afternoon. You were so taken aback by my calm that on the day after your moving out you unexpectedly came over for a visit. We were just celebrating K’s birthday—alone for the first time. Perhaps you felt that you were losing me, that day you stayed with us late. Your little sister was away on a school trip.
“Do you need the Shakespeare quotes for your work?” I inquired. I would have been glad to hear that my interlocutor sought an outlet for his intellectual energies, or that he had learnt lengthy scenes for emotional reasons, but he said nothing of the kind, just continued to play mysterious. “Indeed. And not just in general but in the most concrete way possible.” I suspected that he wanted to test my inventiveness and that it would please him if I guessed sooner or later, even if slowly and with some help, what he did for a living before becoming unemployed. But nothing came to my mind apart from the theatrical professions, because the thought that he was getting drunk and I couldn’t get rid of him paralyzed me. Much help it will be to me, I joked to myself, if he turns out to be a prompter who is a dipsomaniac. I also remembered why the restaurant’s name rang familiar: the waitress living in our house worked here, where I was sitting at a table decked with a soiled tablecloth, in an intimate tete-a-tete with the stranger of doubtful circumstances. If she spots me, she would spread rumours in the house that I led a double life, I panicked. I hastily removed my elbow from the table, knocking over the wrought iron ashtray. At the loud clatter that startled everybody on the premises the waiter came to our table; I apologized but he didn’t grace me with an answer. With a commandeering gesture he replaced it, as if I had pushed it off the table deliberately. “Are you a theatre prompter?” I risked the question I came up with a moment ago. “You’re getting closer and closer,” he laughed complacently, with satisfaction, as if he had hidden an object from me that I was supposed to find. “I give up!” I answered impatiently, at which he said: “There is a time for everything.” And added that he wanted to see me open up entirely, whereas I was very reserved. As though I had been at a police interrogation, his unmasking observations uttered in a tone of superiority rained down on me. On top of it, every time the waiter passed through the swing-door, the light of a naked electric bulb pierced my eyeballs. “I loathe it when they analyze my soul,” I answered, closing my eyes. “How typical!” he commented without apparent rancour. “But allow me, how do you know that there is such a thing as a soul?” “I feel I have one.” I immediately realized the stupidity of my reaction. How can I be debating this issue, with this wretch? So I suggested that we talk about him rather. “Ask me, and I will answer,” he offered. “What do you live on if you have no job?” “I hold a few shares.” Once again I was surprised. “I had always imagined shareholders differently.” “You don’t live in this world, do you?” He fixed his velvety eyes on me.
I don’t even know for how long I’ve been living not in this world. I would have liked to tell you this when to your question, what was up with us, I answered, nothing special, I was just busying myself with my dream of the Last Judgement. It must have been about ten years after the death of my mother, your grandmother. In my dream we were all together in the garden expanding into an infinite square, of our last common home: not only the family, but all the living and the dead. The people came stepping on one another’s heels, in a controlled vortex. Trams pulled in with passengers hanging in clusters around the open doors; taxis came; crowds of pedestrians. The air filled with the excitement of apprehension. People were walking to and fro on the road, on the pavement, along the garden paths strewn with pebbles, their mouths moving mutely as if they were memorizing something, or trying to remember some important event by reciting their story. I heard the flutter of angels’ wings approaching and, now and then, a clash imitating the striking of a clock. All through, a dull, repetitive popping, as in the houses, through the wide open larder windows the souls of preserves tore open the cellophane and broke free from their jars and, crossing the airspace above the square, the erstwhile fruits flew back on the branches of surrounding trees. In my dream I felt the beatific state of belonging together; the boundaries separating me from the others dissolved, my senses were sharpened as if I had taken drugs. But I knew that if I started relating my unrelatable dream I would phrase it wrongly and you would correct me at once, saying: rather than beatific, my vision seemed downright terrifying.
Do you remember the Christmas Eve we spent with your grandmother, when she was no longer let out of the hospital? We brought in the plates, the cutlery, the Christmas dinner. We laid the table on the corridor, dressed the Christmas tree—it would be undressed in an hour and a half—and started eating. Unexpectedly the doctor on night duty stopped by our table—he bore a serious grudge about the fact that every Monday mother’s one-week pension would go to the ward doctor, never to him. “Are you at least aware that you have become a drug addict from taking so many painkillers?” he unleashed himself on mother. Never has the worn-out cliché sounded more truthful: “food turned bitter in my mouth.” We were eating the dessert, the Gerbeaud cake, its taste instantly turned to gall; I spat it out into my napkin and mother, too, pushed the plate with the cakes away from herself, we all put our forks down and started packing. I don’t even know why you came home with us after dinner at all? Probably for the books you got as present, in order not to offend me by leaving them there, or for your lovely leather gloves that you left in a taxi that very night. When you said good-bye I was arranging your shawl; you pulled out violently and shouted at me: Take your hands off me! At this I smashed a cracked Meissen plate on the floor. I can’t even say I grabbed it up in an irate moment: I knew exactly that I had placed it on the edge of a library shelf because I decided it was ready to be thrown out. So I dashed it on the floor and it broke to pieces. I have often heard that the best way of releasing built-up tension is to smash plates. I followed the advice like a half-hearted reveler, and it brought little relief. But my clownish role hurt me to the quick. As though the stage-prop wooden rifle had gone off, shooting the one who was brandishing it. I gasped for air, my heart stopped, I collapsed into an armchair. From that time I stopped sharing my dreams with you. Just as I don’t tell you that at Christmas time the Child is not born for me. Even though not from that day—for there had been signs before that I was on the doorstep of peril. I even phrased it for myself: “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” I had believed myself to be strong enough to drink the bitter cup and stand without a scratch, for I had sufficient routine in unhappiness. At most I would sleep more, or sit listlessly in the armchair mentioned above. But, however concise my phrasing, later it proved to be too self-indulgent. I had smashed a cracked plate. I had not denied the world but merely the circumstances I lived in. I chose another place for my home: music. For weeks I would listen to the same pieces of chamber music. But instead of sounding ever clearer, the trios or quintets repeated to the point of madness became increasingly fragmented; the possibility of continuous reading between the lines was lost, the weighty beats were punctuated by overlong pauses, the musical phrases rapped like so many clots of earth on an (imagined) coffin lid. My workplace, too, became a stage, although it was at exactly that time that I was appointed chair and so could travel all over Europe. I couldn’t have imagined earlier how many things you can do by being half present, without anyone taking notice of my half-absence. I was overcome by a strange feeling: it was as if I were invisible and anybody could stick their hands or walk right through me. At times, riding tram 4 or 6 to work, I fell out of time; at the sight of a Gypsy girl’s beautiful, bare shoulders my eyes filled with tears and I forgot I was going to the exams. In short, the ever thinning sentence, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” losing its complements (or concessions), was soon reduced to five words, not reducible any further, and my wish—which by that time appeared far too compromising—became “I don’t want to live.” As soon as I found this brief negation I felt relieved. Soon I resigned from my position at the university, thereby losing the severance pay, the condition of which would have been common assent, but I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t want to profit from my behaviour. My dream of the Last Judgement seemed to justify, retroactively, my rash decision.
So for the moment my swimming pool acquaintance observed that I was not living in this world, although his observation was meant to refer to the world of shares and dividends. “I remember a poster of a fat capitalist with a top hat and cigar,” I answered lightly, “with a gold signet ring on his sausage-like fingers. And you forgot to put on your signet ring!” I joked, gazing at his shapely hand and suddenly a clever idea about his profession struck me. “Are you a psychologist by chance?” “As you could have seen, I have studied psychology,” he answered, placing his fingers on the bottom of his glass. And—” He stopped suddenly. I looked at him: “And?” “And I have known lots of people like you.” “You have no idea how consoling it is to know that there are many people like me,” I continued joking, “so I’m not such a strikingly pathological case after all.” “At least not among my former acquaintances,” he nodded approvingly at his own words, “there are many similar ones.” He leaned back in his chair. The light of the naked lightbulb glared in my eye, I saw our waiter, holding the swinging door open with his foot, exchanging a few words with the receptionist. After your births I would have loved to have a third child, but had to realize that our marriage would not last another trial. Then I kept daydreaming about adopting an abandoned newborn from the nearby orphanage, before it became “manageable,” that is, before it got used to the lack of love. As a result, our walks took a turn towards the home on Lóczi Street, perhaps you remember the terrace, sunny even in winter. According to the strict rules, the nurses weren’t allowed to form closer bonds with the babies, for it would have made it even more difficult for these to cope with the fact that at one year old, then at three, and then at regular intervals throughout their school years, they were taken out of the community imitating a family where they may have taken roots. With my hopes connected to you and then with their repeated dissolution, I myself became distorted into your easily manageable, abandoned child. Don’t worry for me, but don’t try to love me either, I wished for later, for my eyes got used to the dark and your love would blind me.
“When the Company was dissolved,” my swimming-pool acquaintance revealed his cards suddenly, pulling the ashtray in front of him while his dark brown eyes pastured on my face, “they gave us a few shares.” It was the first time I heard the code name Company, but I knew at once what he was talking about. Perhaps I had already solved the riddle when I phrased my experience, inwardly, it is as though I were at an interrogation. So, I was having a conversation with a member of the dissolved Legion in the third-rate restaurant. I knew exactly what kind of shares he was talking about, because on one of our organized trips the driver informed the passengers about them when he stopped at a certain gas station. I must have become stand-offish. “Does this rule out our meetings from now on?”, my acquaintance asked. “Does the truth disturb you?” “It does.” I couldn’t tell anything else. Slowly we got up, he fished an one-thousand banknote, the only one, from his seedy purse, I protested in vain to share the bill at least, he insisted to pay.
The third yes. She was lying on the fresh bedsheet bleached from overwashing, covered with a blanket. She was numb, she remembered her negation, “I don’t want to live!” She was surprised that she had believed it to be irreducible any further, but now she knew one sentence that was shorter even. “I don’t live”: this was her conclusion. The ticking of an alarm clock was chasing the dust on the shelves decked with lace coverlets. The lace hung over the edge of the shelves. She could never understand why someone who is not good with plants would keep greenery in pots, if not for wanting to test the endurance of agonizing with leaves turned yellowish-brown. “Since my mother was taken to hospital”, the man apologized when they entered the flat, “everything’s been untidy.” She took a good look at the room. In fact everything was tidy. Tidy and dusty. She started dressing before becoming herself a stage prop, she rushed through the mechanical gestures, wanting them to be over the soonest possible, just as she wanted the ones to which she had lent herself a short while ago in the bed to be over. She picked up her blouse from the chair, disturbing the daytime sleep of a moth. She remembered her first love, the overwhelming bliss of thirty years ago, that barely let her sleep at night. Back then the flutter of a moth’s wings would wake her up at night, or at least she would have liked to believe so, as her senses got so sharpened that even noises inaudible to the human ear could startle her. In those days she was sorry for the time spent sleeping. Probably it was not the moth but the sense of her happiness that shook sleep from her eyes. She had read somewhere that in the empty hours, while waiting for a bus, queuing in a shop or bank, the thoughts of ninety percent of grown-ups revolve around love. It is curious, although perhaps understandable, that in this very situation she should remember this word, so out of place. She glanced at the door: the key which the man had turned at the moment of their entrance, probably mechanically, was no longer there. She tried to open the door but couldn’t. “How will I escape from here?” she asked, aghast. In the meantime they must have been talking about some thing or other with the man, because she could remember his pleasant voice coming in from the kitchen now and then, but had no inkling what the subject was. Did he want to hold her captive? Or was he merely warning her that she had walked into a trap?
To this day I can’t understand how it could happen. For a month my parents took care of you while I was in Madrid with a research scholarship—almost fifteen years ago now. I worked from the morning into the afternoon in the Cervantes Library. I lived in a depressing hostel where a lone 40-Watt lightbulb spread its sickly light in the windowless room, in utter solitude, without friends or company, dividing up the two-week grant to last a month. I lived like a hermit, even if not on berries and roots but on the two-course menus of cheap restaurants; rising early and going to bed early in the narrow iron bed; forever warding off the insistencies of the postman who would knock on my door on his free Sunday afternoons, put his foot in the gap when I opened the door, and whom I had to push out into the corridor. I toyed with the idea that I was all alone in the world, I didn’t even have you. I was always hungry, eating or carnal desire was forever on my mind. Often I dreamt of my father who had been dead for six years already. He had had a beautiful death, as they say, a heart attack took him away very quickly. It often occurred to me that, had he been alive, I could have asked him for advice. I didn’t see him die; perhaps he was still alive in some intermediary state, I codded myself. I would have liked to tell him that in my dreams I got letters from him, as thin as gossamer, they were handed to me by our dipsomaniac postwoman from back home. Leaning over the railings of the stairs I could barely reach her held-out hand, I would have complained; the sheets of the letter, sticking to one another, became unreadable and were torn in my hands. But, to return to my story: I had agreed with you that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel I would call you. I had reckoned that it would happen halfway through my stay, so I had asked you to be at home on the 17th, on a Thursday afternoon at 6 o’clock. Back then it took twelve days for a letter to reach me from Budapest, and ten for one from me to travel home, so I didn’t have any fresh news from you, or you of me. From your little sister’s doodles I gathered that she missed me very much. In my happier days there I recognized her in all the black-haired little girls in long skirts. Once a little girl of about seven even greeted me: “¡Buenos días, seňora!” and I answered happily, to be ashamed in the next instant when she corrected me with the self-confidence of a proper young lady: “It wasn’t you I greeted, Madam!” Howeer absurd it sounds, her rejection made me very despondent. Her greeting was answered by the woman walking behind me. Your plump, trusting letters I interpreted now as a promise of the return of our lost happiness, now as its refutation. When I imagined how good it would feel to hear your voices, I immediately became insecure: you might be dismissive. I conjured up the possibility that they organize a school-wide ping-pong championship on that day, or that you would want to enroll in an orienteering competition but either have to drop out or leave earlier because of me. I feared that my mother might over-emphasize my importance and this would fuel your resentment. I tried to ward off my depressing thoughts with diligent note-taking and museum visits at luxury entrance fees. Then one morning on my way to the library I saw a poster announcing the screening of Bardem’s film, Calle Mayor, at a reasonably priced downtown cinema.
I had a season ticket for ten single journeys, I had to be tight with money, so I only took a bus or trolley-bus for long distances. That afternoon, too, I started out on foot on the Princesa to the cinema, leaving myself sufficient time. I had already bought the ticket and still had about half an hour to spend, so I walked on for a few streets’ length when I noticed a large glass office building or emporium on the corner; according to the billboard, a “Sala de Conferencias”, a “Conference Hall”. There were rather many people waiting inside, I thought I would take a look around the hall flooded in light, to see with whom you could have a conversation in there, and on what. I would like to ask my father, I toyed with the idea, if I was allowed to have cheap adventures. I craved the velvety skin of men and the touch of their long fingers, exactly as he used to crave women. As if my yearning had no further aim beyond aesthetic pleasure, and as if one step did not engender the next one, my desires appeared in lamb skins. As if I could stop this side of the instant of complete abandon and could be satisfied by running my fingers along the line of their mouths, or rest my head on their naked chests. Can I keep my name secret from them, and—as soon as I step out the door—become a stranger to them, just as they would remain strangers to me? I would have liked to hear his approval to such questions. But he kept silent until the night of our return from America. He only spoke to me in the mist of the night separating All Souls Day from All Saints Day, when I said good-bye to K. with whom I met for the first time after my long absence in an acquaintance’s flat. When I was groping in my handbag for my key to open the gate, at that moment he addressed me: “You live rightly.” But perhaps you have already guessed what the glass office building or emporium was in reality? The post office headquarters for long-distance telephone calls. The day of my cinema outing fell on April 17th, the Thursday of our agreement, and the hexagonal clock on the wall showed exactly a quarter to six. So I called you exactly at the time when you expected it. Your sister picked up the receiver, then my mother followed, and in the end you arrived (you had a ping-pong championship at school). There must be a rational explanation, to do with the working of the unconscious, for the fact that I didn’t forget about the call, although I had well-nigh forgotten about you. I was filled with gratitude towards providence that you were not disappointed in me, that I could keep my word.
The secret police agent soon reappeared in the shabby room with a flowery majolica plate full of sandwiches. On the one hand she was hungry, on the other hand she thought she couldn’t offend her one-time partner, provided he would let her out at all, so she took a bite. The bread with pork grease and Lajta cheese wrinkled up around her teeth. The grease reminded her of the most tortuous period of her childhood, the months she spent on a farmhouse without her parents; fortunately she couldn’t detect in the taste that smell of the pigsty, the swill and of the boar, which always made her stomach turn; it was its consistency rather that disgusted her. She watched the man’s boyish upper body, familiar from the pool. She didn’t even feel a passing tenderness towards him, her head would not rest on his smooth chest, although she had believed that in her dejection she was ready for this betrayal even.
Thus we started out together with my swimming-pool acquaintance from the restaurant to the bus stop. I wore his company like a thistle sticking to my coat after a walk through the thicket, all the way to Moszkva Square and from there on tram 59 for a few more stops, until the thistle finally detached itself from my coat and got off, for, as he said a short while ago, he lived around there. I imagined his apartment (his mother had been in hospital for some time). Perhaps women go up to his place and help with the cleaning up, perhaps they even cook for him, I mused. Provided he kills his time with women. His neighbours hardly knew anything about him, he told me when we were still in the restaurant, because his apartment opens on a closed corridor, so they can’t check. He must have a secret cabinet with drawers from which he takes out his documents, starts a strategy game, lays out photographs. With me too he proved to be a sharp observer, so at home he would open a new file and put down accurate notes on my behavior. “She has two grown-up daughters. Teaches literature at the Faculty of Arts. She is easy-going and open by temperament but is cautious and backs out before the decisive step. Has a bit of intellectual arrogance. Makes hostile statements on the past regime, doesn’t like to talk about herself, her behavior is tense. The one surveiling her should expect her to lose her nerve at any moment, or to simply turn round and leave. She has her weak spots through which she can be easily approached, these are to be specified, provided the relationship with her continues.” I had already got used to the fact that you would ridicule me. That my feeling of isolation would culminate this evening and I would drown in its high waters, but tomorrow morning, eternal survivor, I would surface again. It is not entirely bad to be a stranger—even to our own child—if we dive into the depths. By giving a shape to my story I tried to gain your sympathy, but I am not trying to get anything, for I’m afraid of change. That you should send me into exile among the happy, and be born to me again? It caught me unprepared that you embrace me, that two identical jackets embrace each other—this makes me lose my bearings. Once the daughter of a well-off family left off her university studies and went to work in the Renault factory: from that time whenever somebody spoke to her kindly she thought their kindness was merely an effect of a misunderstanding. For a long time to come I will live with the faith that you are mistaken, and that your error will shortly become obvious to you, too. Yet out of weakness, for a moment I rest my head on your shoulder.
— translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature Online. She lives in Budapest.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.
IT WASN’T LIKE they’d been invited, but when they saw that house in the distance, they left the highway and took the dirt road that led to it. Nor were they accustomed to dropping in at strangers’ homes, but the fact was the long trek from Belize to Guatemala, the hours it’d taken to cross the border—as if the young couple traveling in a camper with the young man’s father were suspicious—had left them hungry and thirsty. If they drove up to the house it was to ask where they could eat. As they neared the structure of amber wood, evidence of the occupants’ life comforted them: a bicycle tossed on the grass, a tire swing hanging from the branch of a tree, sheets hung on a line. The sound of their motor attracted the attention of the inhabitants. First the children, then two small blond women and then a man with a long beard came onto the porch and smiled as if they had been expecting the visit. The couple and the boy’s father got out of the cab and the latter took the lead, greeted them in a mix of English and Spanish and quickly discovered English was the language to communicate with that friendly family. Rose, Wendy and Bob introduced themselves and gestured at the children, indicating that they were Wayne and Stephanie. The man and the young people also introduced themselves and then explained that they were looking for a place to eat, if they could give them directions, but Rose, Wendy and Bob immediately insisted that they were their guests, they were making lunch and would be delighted to share it with them. They emphasized the words “share it” and among the three exchanged glances as when a husband and wife consent to a decision taken on the fly, without consultation. Rose, who was wearing an overall which exposed her shoulders crossed by the turquoise straps of a bikini, directed the children, by way of giving them the news: we have guests, set three more places at the table. The children, without copying the welcoming smiles of their parents, said, yes, Mamá, and with looks of annoyance went into the house. Wash your hands, Wendy ordered, lost within a shimmering red dress. Yes, Mamá, the children answered without enthusiasm. The young couple exchanged a fleeting look, trying to disguise their discovery without being able to say a word; only confirming their suspicions by squeezing each other’s hands. They’d heard about communes, different ways of living together, thought they knew all about it, thought they owned the word “freedom” (maybe this trip derived from such a conviction) but now they were witnessing a lifestyle that embodied that word. When they were seated at the table, a bowl of salad was passed around, accompanied by rice with carrots, squash, sprouts, beans and eggs, the main course. They were vegetarians, they said, smiling; they were sorry not to be able to offer anything else, but the eggs supplied protein, Wendy said, and the legumes, the lentils and beans they mixed with the rice. The boy’s father, who traveled with a plethora of vitamins and minerals lined up each morning like beads on a string, endorsed Wendy’s nutritional knowledge and said that in addition these were foods rich in lecithin and nobody took lecithin into account.
During the meal, while Wayne and Stephanie opened their mouths and showed the guests their chewed balls of vegetable protein when their three parents weren’t looking, the young pair and the boy’s father learned their hosts had moved to Orange, Belize five years ago. Before the children were born, the three took a trip to Tikal and were convinced that Central America was the place to start a new life, far from the conventions of capitalism and hypocrisy, with the mystic force of the native cultures. They found a bit of land they rented from a British relative of Rose’s stepmother, and as it was very complicated to explain that, they summed it all up. Here they were, they had chickens, they made soy cheese, ground wheat and corn to make bread, grew fruit trees because vegetables were difficult; the climate didn’t permit tomatoes, for example. They said it rained a lot. We have beehives, Rose informed them when she served the dessert, and it was she who took care of the bees; the guests had to try the mango blossom honey. And she passed the pot with its dense aroma so the guests could pour the divine product over the mangos of their orchard.
The young couple kept exchanging glances; they had arrived in a place as sweet and yellow as the flesh of the mango that they lifted to their mouths in juicy bites. They were eighteen and on the point of deciding what to do with their lives. In the light of that golden well-being, their world seemed made of asphalt and motor noise, too much clothing and too many school exams: insipid routine. The boy’s father talked enthusiastically, asking about methods of cultivation, how they made compost, collected water. He’d just sold his automobile wheel factory and had bought the camper to explore his new life. He’d invited the couple to come along on this journey of recovered freedom, if indeed he ever had freedom, he told them when he spoke of his plans. Wanting to be together and on the road, they readily joined the father’s curiosity and imagination, felt an astonished and joyful complicity with that man twenty-five years their senior. They supposed it was his attitude about the trip and adventure that excited them. They didn’t realize that they shared the same question—what was happiness?
When Rose, Wendy and Bob invited them to see the water reservoir which supplied the house, and which they drank after boiling, the three were elated by the goodness of the paradise their hosts had built. One could live isolated, eat well, laugh and love each other, create a home. The young couple walked slowly in the tropical heat, seeking refuge in the shade of trees on the path. The children got on their bikes and sped by, splattering them with mud from the puddles. But all that was fine. Much more than taking the camper through the middle of the city, much more than the parties where they danced and drank, much more even than going to La Marquesa and climbing to Cruz Blanca at nearly 13,000 feet. Here they were more together. The boy said his friend Aldo would be happy to go with them. She understood his meaning: the three of them could be hand in hand and sleep curled up in the same bed of the camper if need be.
As if to demonstrate he was versed in engineering issues, Bob explained how the water drained down the sides of the pond and how it was fed into another lower reservoir from which it was piped into the house. The gradual slope and quantity of rain were ideal. If the reservoir overflowed, the canals they’d designed carried the water as far as the orchard and then the river below. Under that high sun, the children took off their rubber boots and stripped rapidly to throw themselves into the pond. Bob watched them with satisfaction: the water’s fresh and irresistible, he informed the guests as if he were the narrator of an ad. And he also sat on a stone to take off his shoes. Wendy and Rose joined forces to advise the guests to swim: they had to refresh themselves before getting back on the road. The young couple looked at each other again because they’d left bathing suits in the camper, but their hostesses had already taken off the red dress, the overall and blue bikini, and Bob his pants and t-shirt. He didn’t wear boxers. How annoying they are, he said, when he saw that the boy’s father lingered in his briefs before exposing himself completely. The girl looked at her boyfriend, hesitating. They were still protected in their pants and tee shirts, and even worse, lacked the skill to undress quickly and fling themselves into the coolness with the naturalness of their hosts. The boy began: took off his tennies and shirt, and she, without looking at the boy’s father out of modesty, rushed to take off her playera, bra and finally her pants and socks. When she saw the boy going ahead to jump into the water, she tossed her clothing carelessly on the grass. Alone and naked on the shore she felt destitute. Running after him more as a chore than for pleasure, she submerged herself in the water that revealed their bodies. She looked for the boy because she needed his protection, but it was Bob and Wendy who swam to her side and bragged about the benefits of bathing in their crystalline water. Rose emerged naked and round on the shore, the sparse down of her sex dripping, her breasts pink and large, while the boy and the girl, separated, avoided looking at each other. The women shouted to Wayne not to urinate, which he was doing in a sumptuous arc, on the water where everyone was swimming. And Wayne took off running after his sister.
The young couple began to feel comfortable in the water, in front of the others. As Wendy went over to Bob and embraced him sweetly, as Rose hugged Wendy, as Bob kissed them each tenderly, and then gave them a pat on the butt when they moved away, kicking toward the boy’s father, the shame of nudity seemed to abandon them. It was a thing of the past, of the shore minutes earlier. Submerged near the shore the boy’s father needed a little push, Wendy and Rose said, challenging him to a race. Then he, without saying a word, left his reserve and set out swimming, leaving them far behind while the young people looked at his white rear emerging from time to time. The two women revenged his triumph by splashing him, and then warmly embracing him. Rose kissed him on the lips and swam across to Bob, who laughed while Wendy boldly kissed the guest. The young couple got closer together, there in that water, whose muddy bottom they dipped toes in. They didn’t go near the others, although Bob called them to where he and Rose were playing. He cupped water in his hands and let it fall over her breasts. The young couple weren’t prepared to share their nudity with others; it was enough to feel their submerged bodies beating with a pulse that hadn’t ever manifested like this before: in the midst of a liberty without restrictions, a naturalness like mango flesh. They kissed their wet mouths and his erection brushed her thighs. They’d made love before the trip and during it had dared to while the boy’s father slept in the upper bunk, and also when she stretched out in the back bed, because the tight curves had made her carsick.
This time, with the laughter and nearness of the others, they discovered secret, prohibited sex. There was something public and private in that rubbing under the water; their nakedness, no different than that of the others, excited them. They didn’t talk to each other nor let Bob coax them over; there was enough mystery between them to add something new. The children came back asking that one of the parents peel them a green mango and fix it with lime and salt. Rose moved away from Bob, Wendy from the boy’s father, and Bob stopped calling the young couple and started getting out of the water to take care of the kids. No help for it, he said, and invited the others to eat green mango. He’d wait for them on the porch. He walked his naked, hairy body in front of them all and only the girl looked at it openly. The nakedness of men was something recently added to her experience, and she compared the sex of the boy with that of Bob, who had not been circumcised. The pubes of Wendy and Rose, whose rosy bodies passed near them to get dressed and help with the green mango ritual, didn’t provoke the same curiosity in her.
They didn’t notice when the boy’s father got out to get dressed. Now that only they remained, they wanted to stay, oppose themselves to the rest and the children, kiss each other rabidly because they had participated in a definition of happiness they hadn’t known before. They didn’t know if they wanted it for themselves or if the boy’s father would adopt it.
They said goodbye to Bob, Wendy and Rose, and the children Wayne and Stephanie, who ran next to the camper along the dusty stretch of road, throwing dried mango pits, irritated by that world of smiles and living in harmony, of rice with vegetables and pond water, of nakedness and shared bodies, of Papá and Mamá and Mamá and we love you very much, of that way of being happy. The couple looked at the approaching highway. They paid no attention to the sound of pits striking metal, had their hands interlaced as if to protect them from the need to find answers. When they reached the asphalt and the camper slid along smoothly, the boy’s father broke the silence: good people those Dutch. They didn’t respond, only abandoned themselves to the serpentine road in the midst of the luminous green of the countryside.
The Textbook Case ……..for Emilia
HAVE YOU EVER dialed a wrong number? I’m talking about when you’re stressed because you’re not going to get to an appointment on time and then in the car, at a red light, trying to keep the traffic cop from seeing you, you open your day minder, quickly punch in the number of the person you’re going to meet? Since he doesn’t answer, she leaves a message on his cell: “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, wait for me.” Relieved, she drives to the meeting and there he is with the documents that have to be reviewed so that her paper can be considered for the conference, the first in her anthropology career: “Single mothers in middle class neighborhoods of the city.”
Has it happened that you don’t even realize you’d left a message on a wrong number because the person you had the appointment with doesn’t mention the call and has simply waited the fifteen minutes imposed by familiarity with city traffic? She parks and apologizes before sitting down, but he has no complaints because after all, he’s been comfortably waiting in a café while she’s been the one driving and dodging through traffic, her mind racing like the motor of the car. They begin immediately to review the objectives she had posed for the research: he’s a member of the committee that selects presenters and had been her professor besides. He knows she’s brilliant. During the discussion, her cell vibrates within her jacket pocket; she feels it because she didn’t take the jacket off. She wouldn’t have answered it anyway, because she doesn’t like to be interrupted. She knows when she should take a call and when not to. This isn’t the time. Warming up by her second coffee, she sheds the jacket, so doesn’t feel the insistent vibration–like a dentist’s drill—demanding an answer.
She’s back home before she realizes that she has five calls from the same number. The number hasn’t been registered under a name—it would have shown on her screen. There’s a message. “What do you want? Stop bothering me.” The number appears to be similar to her professor’s, which she’d called when she was going to be late. She checks the call and confirms it. But it isn’t her professor’s voice. It’s someone else who answered her call while she was in the café. The voice is unpleasant; she listens to it again. The “what do you want” is loaded with irritation. While she searches for the professor’s number to see what the error was, someone leaves another message. She listens to it: “I told you not to call me.” It’s the same irritated male voice. The insistence angers her and she thinks how absurd it is that an attempted apology set off this series of calls. When she gets a call from someone she doesn’t know, she simply doesn’t bother to answer it. To do this, someone must be very lonely. At best, it’s a message in a bottle washed up from the sea, like in the story she read by some Bernardo Ruiz, where a girl calls numbers at random from prison to see if someone sometime will answer from the outside. And someone does.
She fixes dinner: a sincronizada, grilled tortilla sandwich with lots of salsa and beans. She’s happy with the professor’s comments: it’s likely that she’ll be chosen to read her paper at the conference. She feels good, like when she made paper boats with her father and blew on them so they’d sail in the fountain at the park and the boat didn’t fall on its side, but kept going straight. As she sits to eat, the cell phone buzzes. She’d put it on vibrate, and on the table the sound resembles a compulsive cicada. That’s what her mother says: “Answer your compulsive cicada already.” She’d never seen a cicada. Her mother said they were big, ugly, nocturnal insects. That their looks match the disagreeable sound they make. She answers without thinking, and the voice at the other end scolds her: “I told you to never leave me messages.” She thinks about the cicada’s appearance; suspects this man has a wart on his big nose. “Look, mister, I don’t know who you are. I called a wrong number,” she says, liberated and looking at the sincronizada on her plate. “I made a mistake,” she mutters in an exasperated tone after a silence. The cicada seems to have realized he doesn’t know her voice. Another silence; she’s on the point of hanging up but he finishes with: “Then don’t go around making mistakes, stupid,” and hangs up. She returns to her lukewarm dinner. Now on top of feeling guilty for arriving late to her appointment, she’s supposed to feel bad for having dialed a wrong number. She has the urge to call the imbecile back and tell him that surely he’s never made a mistake. He’s never confused a two with a seven, which is what happened to her.
Has it ever happened that the mistake you made kept coming back? That once you’ve sighed the relief of confusion clarified and begun to forget the voice of the bothersome, disconcerting cicada, and are in bed reading the novel that lulls you to sleep, the phone rings again and you find that at such an hour (when normally only family or your partying friends would dare to call) the wrong number is calling again? She doesn’t even consider answering. If it wasn’t clear enough and he can’t stand getting an erroneous message, then he should see a shrink, give that a shot, just stop bothering her. She mutes the phone and sleeps. The next morning its red blinking makes her realize there’s a message. She sighs, reluctant to listen to this intrusion. She thinks the word and it seems curious to qualify someone who calls that way, because actually she was the one who inserted herself into a stranger’s life, by bungling a simple courtesy call.
While drinking her coffee on the edge of the bed she listens to the message. “Slutty woman, leave my husband alone. Damned whore.” The strange voice is fraught with aggression. It’s astonishing that her misdialing has resulted in all this. She supposes that it’s the old, where there’s smoke…or she fit like a glove in the wrong place at the right time, someone’s tail has been stepped on…She’s upset, making explanations in proverbs like her grandmother. She wants to call the woman and shout at her that she’s done nothing, that they need to leave her alone, that their fights are their problems and if her husband is despicable, they have to deal with it themselves. She clears herself with those words with which she would like to pierce the idiot’s ear. Then she starts thinking about how absurd the situation is and how laughable. What if she calls and says to the man: Look, I already told you I called your number by mistake, straighten things out with your wife but don’t put me in the middle of it? She imagines him explaining: “Sweetheart, honestly, the girl called by mistake. She can tell you herself.” He hands over the phone. She says: “I’m Elsa, an anthropology student, you’ve mistaken me, ma’am, and I’m neither a whore nor do I get mixed up with repulsive cicadas, and even less married ones. If you are not disgusted by your husband I am.” And the wife replying: “Ah, you know him? Don’t think that I’m going to believe you, dead mosquito. It doesn’t matter to me whether you study seals or whistles, don’t students fuck? Or do books inhibit sex?” She wasn’t going to bare her breast for the other woman to unload on. She didn’t want to begin her day that way, fed up to here, or better yet, up to her ass, in the middle of the bed of Mr. & Mrs. X.
Haven’t you done the same out of sheer exhaustion? On the tenth message from the wife infuriated by the infidelity of her husband, by her jealousy justified or not, after receiving insult after insult each time more obscene, more grotesque, wouldn’t you opt to put an end to the situation? Of course, she could have shut off the cell, asked for a change of number. But she thought she shouldn’t have to be made the victim of the game and suffer the consequences: having to advise everyone that her number’s changed, especially the professor who should call her in the next few hours. And no way he ought to get that “the number you called is no longer in service” routine. The messages have intensified so drastically that she thinks only confronting the gross, obscene woman will resolve things. So she answers the tenth call in the afternoon and tells the woman they can meet in the Vips on Revolution. Sufficiently far from her house. She will explain who she is and why the woman should leave her in peace. Perhaps the two of them can get a load off their minds.
She sits at the table nearest the entrance, as they’d agreed, and orders a coffee. She doesn’t like the coffee in that place but only wants to pass the time and calm her nerves. She doesn’t know how she’ll react when she sees the enemy: what’s the woman like, with her shrieky voice and beside herself? Short? Curly hair? Does she have a big nose? Doesn’t wax her moustache? Dresses in loud colors? By the jealousy, she supposes the wife’s neither very young nor very old. Forty-something, she thinks. Typical case of the husband who betrays her with young women because her fading looks and domestic preoccupations have killed his appetite. Typical case. She, young, nice-looking, tall, a bit plump but acceptable, fell into the middle of a textbook case (so says the professor). If the jealous wife sees her, she won’t doubt that her husband has been having an affair. The thought floors her. She looks at her watch: the fifteen minutes have lapsed. The woman ought to be there already. She looks around: tables with couples, groups of women, two men, a family, various young people. She realizes that she’s the only woman by herself in the place. The cell rings. She recognizes the number and answers cautiously. Nobody speaks on the other end. She looks around thinking that a cell at the ear would allow her to discover the accuser. She feels afraid. Better to go.
Wouldn’t you have done the same? Now she doesn’t want to face the person who has not appeared. She’s been naive. The textbook case doesn’t end like this. Go. She leaves quickly after paying and stamping the parking ticket, looking around as if she were guilty of something. Not wanting to run into the woman who was perhaps just calling to say she was late. But the voice didn’t speak. Would she repeat the situation that started this distasteful appointment in the first place? She gets in her car and goes down Revolution, takes Rio Mixcoac to her house: she’ll get home and throw the cell in the trash. She’ll send her professor an email, trying to make sure he doesn’t think it’s just a way of trying to find out the committee’s decision; she’ll say her cell’s not working, that she missed anything if he called or texted her. If there was anything, of course; and then she’d tell him what happened as a result of her appointment, the textbook case…
The last two blocks seem interminable; she turns, parks in front of the house and when she starts to get out of the car it hits her. Noticing a car parking behind her, she’s struck by an urgent need for safety. Instead of walking away, she runs to the front door of the house. She goes in and, without lighting the lights, closes herself in her room. Then the cell rings again. She knows that if she looks out the window, a woman will be standing on the sidewalk with a phone to her ear. She moves the curtain and peeks out. The woman’s a tall redhead. And determined. The cell continues to ring. She has no reason to get rid of it now.
— Mónica Lavín, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava
Mónica Lavín is the prolific author of short stories and story collections, including Manual para enamorarse, 2012. Her novels include Yo, la peor, about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which won the Elena Poniatowska Prize, 2010. Lavín has also won the Gilberto Owen National Prize for Literature among other awards. www.monicalavin.com.
Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose translations from Spanish include stories by Mónica Lavín in Metamorphoses, Reunion: The Dallas Review, K1N, Lunch Ticket, and Norton’s Flash Fiction International, 2015. Most recently, in 2016, Lavín stories have appeared in Aldus Journal of Translation and Mexico City Lit. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com
The setting is rural Catalonia in the early years following the Spanish Civil War, and the young narrator of Black Bread has been sent to stay with relatives on his paternal grandmother’s farm. His father has been jailed and his mother is too busy to care for him. In this excerpt, Andreu and his cousins, Quinze and “Cry-Baby,” enjoy that last days before school resumes playing in the orchard and spying on the TB patients in the monastery garden. They have, however, the clear sense that the adults in their lives are not entirely truthful about what is really going on during this troubled time.
Black Bread was originally published at Pa negre in 2003, and is translated from the Catalan by the great Peter Bush.
— Joseph Schreiber
WE LIVED UP the plum tree until autumn came.
When the days began to shorten, nighttime sometimes caught us in the tree and Ció had to shout to us to climb down.
“Blessed kids!” she’d gripe after she’d stopped bawling, when we were standing in front of her. “You spend too much time playing for the age you are. One of these days a branch will break and you’ll crack your skulls open.”
“They’re all up to no good, they run riot,” said Grandmother, keeping her eyes glued to the knitting needles her fingers moved over her ample bosom, while she kept her arms still.
The Novíssima didn’t start until early October, and for the early weeks of school when we three chased back to the farmhouse, the first thing we did was put our cardboard satchels on the stone bench in the entrance, go into the kitchen and grab the slices of bread spread with oil and sugar or wine and sugar Ció or Grandmother had prepared for us on a dish in the middle of the table, then we’d run with our snacks to the plum tree so we could climb up and eat them lounging back on our branches.
Now and then, when a colder breeze blew and the reddish sun didn’t linger as it did in summer, when evenings were like the inside walls of a bread oven that retained the heat from the flames of logs burnt moments before, we took blankets up the tree to wrap around us and fought off as best we could the cold and early nighttime damp coming out of the woods. The damp, stifling heat, treacherous cold or gusting wind all emerged from the forest that was like an immense belly or huge pantry full of small compartments that hoarded all the good and bad luck that existed in the world. Up in our plum tree we often thought we’d be able to catch the moment when the leaves changed colour, but the change in the leaves, like moulting feathers, always happened from one day to the next; overnight an area of wood turned a dazzling saffron yellow, and a few days later the beech trees had turned wine-red, soon to be followed by the silvery white of the poplars, the dark brown of the chestnut trees, the humid greens… We looked at each other in dismay, as if someone was making fun of our wait and one year Cry-Baby suggested we stay there the whole night to catch the precise moment of change.
“You’re such an idiot!” laughed Quirze. “How would we ever see anything? It’s pitch black at night and we won’t see the new colours until the following morning, when it will all be over and done with!”
However, Cry-Baby was stubborn and ignored him. She’d say nothing and I could tell from her determination, from her staring eyes, firm lips and jutting chin that she wouldn’t give up until she got a proper answer.
From the tree we used to gaze at the mysterious little lights in the cells in the Saint Camillus monastery as they lit up one after another, indicating that the friars, brothers and novices were getting ready to go out to care for the moribund souls in the neighbouring farmhouses or village.
Until someone howled from the gallery: “Where have those little blighters got to?”
“I want to see them here breaking up the sweetcorn. Or fetching buckets of water for the troughs or the sink.”
Cry-Baby was such a ninny nobody ever included her in their summons.
“They’re back up the plum tree!” shouted an astonished Dad Quirze or a farmhand, usually Jan, the oldest hand, who was like a piece of the furniture.
“Where did you get those blankets?” raged Ció, as she watched us walking towards her, shamefaced, with our blankets. “No corner of this house is safe with you drones buzzing around. I’ve told you a thousand times not to touch the things I keep in the two big baskets in the doorway, whatever they might be. These blankets don’t belong to us! Put them back where you found them right away.”
And when we were just about to return them to the big basket, before removing the lid, Ció snatched them from us, looking alarmed: “Leave them on the floor! Don’t ever touch them again. Nobody must touch them. They are all infected. Go and wash your hands at once, you naughty devils! You’re disgusting!”
We three didn’t know what to do next. We knew Ció was contradicting herself and we put that down to her being so upset by our mischief-making. We didn’t understand why the easygoing Ció was getting worked up by what we thought was a worthless pile of cloth no doubt destined to be used by the livestock, the mule, the mares, the horses or the colt, that was small and frisky like a toy and the one we liked best.
“They are the blankets the Saint Camillus friars threw out because they stank to high heaven. Ugh! They used them to cover their ill patients until they breathed their last. Most were draped over the ones with TB who sun themselves in the heartsease garden. Ugh! I wasn’t very keen to take them, and I only did so as a favour, and I didn’t touch a single one with my hands, I stuffed them in the big basket using tongs and a pitchfork.”
However, whenever we spied on the heartsease garden from the top of the plum tree, or, especially when we’d stood by the wall separating the land around the farmhouse near the pond and hazelnut spinney from the monastery gardens and orchards, we were horrified to see a row of naked, skeletal bodies stretched out, all young men, sunning themselves in a meadow full of yellow daisies, pale pink carnations, bright red poppies and purple, almost lilac or mauve heartsease, the colour of the habits the Saint Camillus order reserved for Holy Week. All those boys, or rather, young men, lay on the whitest of sheets, some clutching a corner to cover their nether parts, the area that most drew our attention, the bit that fascinated us infinitely more than their emaciated faces, sunken eyes, the small beads of sweat on their temples, their chests striped by protruding ribs, bellies, collapsed in some cases, swollen in others, and their off-white or yellow rancid butter skin…, those blackened, shrunken genitals and a crop of lank hair like an obscene black bloodstain…, monsters in our eyes, phantoms from a forbidden world, sickly, worn down and consumed by a horrible microbe, victims of a contagious, suppurating disease like the rabies dogs spread or sheep’s foot-and-mouth, that can be caught simply by breathing the air or drinking from the same glass a TB sufferer has used, an accursed disease, contracted as a result of an errant life of vice, sick men condemned in life, proof of the deity’s pitiless punishment of sin, swaddled in white sheets like premature cadavers in dazzling white shrouds… Yet we’d never seen one under a blanket.
A black umbrella was planted next to the sheets of just three or four TB sufferers, so the shade protected their heads. The presence of those faceless bodies, some shamelessly displaying their sexes, were shocking in our eyes and beyond words. A mystery and a secret no one could fathom. And a friar sat next to the little gate from the vegetable plots to the monastery garden, reading his breviary and never looking up, as if to have sight of the infirm was to behold evil, physical evil, a palpable sign of invisible spiritual evil, a repugnant manifestation of sin.
We didn’t touch another blanket that autumn. But the two baskets, especially the big one, were inexplicably marked out as things only adults could handle. Why did they keep those dangerous blankets in that place of transit, within everyone’s reach and what should the movers and shakers in the house—Dad Quirze and Aunt Ció—the delegates of our invisible masters, do about them? Why didn’t the friars destroy them in the monastery if they were worthless? What deal had they done over those ignominious bits of cloth?
“They should be washed back and front, boiled, scrubbed, scraped, dusted and dried and then we’ll see if they are any use,” said Ció on that occasion, after she’d calmed down. “On Saturday when we go to the market in Vic, we’ll leave them with the wenches who launder the lovely linen from the Poor Hospital, and let’s see what they can do. The Town Hall allows those nuns to use the communal wash-house all night, when nobody else washes and the water is filthy from all the daytime washing. On Sunday, when the sisters have finished, they change the water. And even then the wretched Saint Camillus folk won’t make anything from them.”
However, one day, surely another autumn, when we were looking for clothes to keep us warm, when the weather drove us from our tree, when we’d all forgotten her little rant, Aunt Ció mentioned those blankets again.
“Don’t touch the blankets!” she said this time. “God knows where those damned friars found them! I expect they collected them up after the war, when they returned to the monastery the lice-ridden militia had occupied like a barracks, and the church was full of shit, with hens running round the altar and sheep penned up in the Chapel of the Most Holy Spirit as if it were a stable… I bet they found them on the floor abandoned by the Republican soldiers who’d had to beat it hell-for-leather when the fascist troops, led by the Moors, entered Vic. And now they don’t know what to do with them, they can’t use them, not even to wrap up the sick, and they want us to sell them in the market: I wonder what we’ll get for rags that are so old and filthy not even the novices in the monastery want them, ugh, and so full of bugs they need washing at least ten times.”
We never saw anyone take the blankets to Vic market on that Saturday or any other.
Adults think children have the same poor powers of recall they have. They forget we children have no memories of anything, that words and acts are all new to us and every little detail remains automatically etched on our brains.
— Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Excerpt from the novel Black Bread, translated into English by Peter Bush, and published by Biblioasis.
Born in 1933, Emili Teixidor‘s first novel, Retrato de un asesino de pájaros, was published to tremendous acclaim in 1988, followed by several more which established him as one of Spain’s greatest contemporary authors. Teixidor died in 2012.
Peter Bush is a prize-winning English literary translator. He has translated works from Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese to English, including the work of Josep Pla, Joan Sales and Merce Rodoreda.
The line-by-line process I learned in poetry translation workshop mimics the molecular genetics mechanism of DNA into RNA into protein into living energy, but writing these translations, I’ll admit, felt a little more like using organic chemistry glassware to make hard candy. One evening, late in the workshop session when I had been feeling somewhat misunderstood and far from the main thread, I departed from my usual non-Roman alphabets (Tamil and Arabic) to work on Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. I didn’t think of it as a temper-tantrum at the time, but yes, there I went, twisting rhymes up against the poems’ glass tubes and then adding a few microns of imagery to enshrine my favorite women from history in the “flowers of evil.” As subversion it failed—no one took offense at my riff on “La Beauté.” But I became curious: subversion of a subversive collection yields… what exactly?
A little background on Les Fleurs du Mal… first published in 1857, Charles Baudelaire’s first poetry collection was not well received: “the book was publicly denounced as offending public morality, which led to the prosecution of Baudelaire and Poulet-Malassis. Author and publisher were dragged to court, convicted, fined heavily, and six of the poems were banned from the book.” The 1861 edition, which included 35 new poems, lifted Baudelaire’s prospects temporarily, but never raised his career as poet to anything like success during his lifetime. His poetry stemmed from influences like Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, an early instance of prose poetry, and it blossomed prolifically in influencing the French symbolists and those who followed them. Baudelaire’s brilliance fits a description by Phong Nguyen in the introduction to the latest issue of Pleiades: “writers…can always go for shock because scorning the prevailing moral consensus fills us with the cathartic joy of breaking taboo. But the ones who do it really well challenge the fixed morality of their day in order to further collective moral understanding, not actually to subvert or replace it.”
In my line-by-line translation of “La Beauté,” I added a reference to radium, an element that my workshop peers pointed out would have been known only after Baudelaire’s time. Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898 and much later founded the Radium Institute in Paris, propelling its fame. Eve Curie, in her biography of her famous mother, described something so close to the inverse of the poem: “[she] bent over the apparatus where the ‘numeration’ of atoms took place, and admired the sudden irradiation of a willemite ore by the action of radium. Before these familiar miracles a supreme happiness was set alight in her ash-gray eyes… ‘Ah, what a pretty phenomenon!’ she would murmur.” Describing Mme. Curie on her deathbed, “All in white, her white hair laying bare the immense forehead, the face at peace, as grave and valiant as a knight in armor, she was, at this moment, the noblest and most beautiful thing on earth. Her rough hands, calloused, hardened, deeply burned by radium, had lost their familiar nervous movement. They were stretched out on the sheet, stiff and fearfully motionless—those hands which had worked so much.”
I chose other poems from Les Fleurs du Mal by consciously searching for connections with my fiercest heroines. In “Rise,” the biography of Margaret Fuller came to my mind, because of the poem’s quiet insistence on a transcendental mood. In “Je n’ai pas oublie, voisine de la ville…” the last three lines especially evoked scenes from Edith Wharton’s and Elizabeth Bowen’s novels, where the narrative sets us up to spy on the characters, almost to glare at them, and usually to set them apart from the opulence that enshrouds them. “La Vie antérieure” and “L’Aube spirituelle” point to the recurrence of social diseases, over and over in human history, which brought me to a few powerful promoters of change: Dorothy Day, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
My departures from the original poems are slight, but these experiment-translations are not meant to reproduce an exact copy of Baudelaire’s intentions. My device was more like a titration experiment: adding a substance of known pH to the unknown solution, in this case adding my personal goddesses to the poems. In the introduction to Shapiro’s translation, Willis Barnstone explains that these poems were a type of experiment for Baudelaire himself: “he was obsessed with the notion of evil, and to accept or reject it he had first to express it….the poems speak of beauty and escape, love and death, and an overriding metaphysic. And the mood of melancholy morality may at once be infused with an ecstasy of otherness and joy when the poet, for a moment, climbs high or descends so low as to find light. In poems where corruption and beauty seem inseparable, the poems give off both light and darkness.” Translation, as an active investigation, rather than a pursuit of perfected products, can yield, in my metaphor, the excellent peppermints and extra clean lab glassware that make all the difference in understanding the poet’s genius.
“Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville…”
(Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen)
I haven’t forgotten our white cottage,
small and quiet, beyond the town’s edge,
where plaster goddesses stood hidden,
Pomona and Venus, naked in the sickly garden.
The sun in the evening, flowing and vain,
scattered his rays across every pane
and loomed, an enormous staring eye in the strange sky,
to meditate on our long, silent dinners and to spy,
glaring, like candlelight spilling across our table, until
finally gilding each drapery cord twist and curtains’ twill.
Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville,
Notre blanche maison, petite mais tranquille;
Sa Pomone de plâtre et sa vieille Vénus
Dans un bosquet chétif cachant leurs membres nus,
Et le soleil, le soir, ruisselant et superbe,
Qui, derrière la vitre où se brisait sa gerbe
Semblait, grand oeil ouvert dans le ciel curieux,
Contempler nos dîners longs et silencieux,
Répandant largement ses beaux reflets de cierge
Sur la nappe frugale et les rideaux de serge.
La Vie antérieure / My Past Life
(Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman)
I had a long life, under vast porticoes
stained by marine sunlight’s thousand-fold flame
and framed by grand pillars, of upright and royal fame,
which, in evening light, reflect everything basalt knows.
Sea-swells scroll the reflection of the skies,
shuffling the solemn and the mystics
with the powerful, by harmonizing their rich music
with the colors of sunset, on the surfaces of my eyes.
I lived there in tranquil, voluptuous
deep blue, in the waves, in splendors
with nude slaves, all pricked with odors
and fanning my forehead with palm branches,
whose true role was the deep answer
to the grievous secret that made me shiver.
J’ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques
Que les soleils marins teignaient de mille feux,
Et que leurs grands piliers, droits et majestueux,
Rendaient pareils, le soir, aux grottes basaltiques.
Les houles, en roulant les images des cieux,
Mêlaient d’une façon solennelle et mystique
Les tout-puissants accords de leur riche musique
Aux couleurs du couchant reflété par mes yeux.
C’est là que j’ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes,
Au milieu de l’azur, des vagues, des splendeurs
Et des esclaves nus, tout imprégnés d’odeurs,
Qui me rafraîchissaient le front avec des palmes,
Et dont l’unique soin était d’approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.
La Beauté / Beauty
(Marie Curie, H.D.)
Dear mortals, I am lovely, like a dream made of stone,
and my breast, upon which all are bruised in their turn,
inspires in poets especially a love that burns
solid, eternal and mute as radium, pure matter alone.
I sit enthroned, a mysterious sphinx in the blue sky–
my heart of snow, like the whiteness of swans,
despises any movement that displaces the lines,
and never do I laugh and never do I cry.
The poets, prostrate before my grand nudes,
which I pretend to have lent the masterworks of art,
consume their days in studies, their minds occlude;
because I have, for hypnotizing those open hearts,
pure mirrors that amplify my spell:
my eyes, my large eyes, an eternal well!
Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s’est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.
Je trône dans l’azur comme un sphinx incompris;
J’unis un coeur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes;
Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes,
Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris.
Les poètes, devant mes grandes attitudes,
Que j’ai l’air d’emprunter aux plus fiers monuments,
Consumeront leurs jours en d’austères études;
Car j’ai, pour fasciner ces dociles amants,
De purs miroirs qui font toutes choses plus belles:
Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!
L’Aube spirituelle / Spiritual dawn
(Florence Nightingale, Dorothy Day)
When dawn’s pink light enters the house of sin,
like the meeting of the Pure with her congregation of river rats,
a mysterious operation begins, piercing vengeance in the ersatz
profligate, numbly sleeping while an angel awakens within.
The blue sky of spirit is impossible
for the man struck down again and again by dreams
and for whom the abyss beckons and beams.
And just so, dear Goddess, pure and bright Apple,
over the charred remains of mindless orgies
your memory grows ever more clear, rosy, charming,
turning cartwheels in my eyes, which dilate to apertures alarming.
The sun blackens the flames of candles;
and just so, your vanquishing spirit in whole
equals the immortal sun, dear blazing soul!
Quand chez les débauchés l’aube blanche et vermeille
Entre en société de l’Idéal rongeur,
Par l’opération d’un mystère vengeur
Dans la brute assoupie un ange se réveille.
Des Cieux Spirituels l’inaccessible azur,
Pour l’homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S’ouvre et s’enfonce avec l’attirance du gouffre.
Ainsi, chère Déesse, Etre lucide et pur,
Sur les débris fumeux des stupides orgies
Ton souvenir plus clair, plus rose, plus charmant,
À mes yeux agrandis voltige incessamment.
Le soleil a noirci la flamme des bougies;
Ainsi, toujours vainqueur, ton fantôme est pareil,
Ame resplendissante, à l’immortel soleil!
Élévation / Rise
Above the valleys, above the ponds,
the mountains, woods, clouds, and seas,
well past the sun and ether’s breeze,
and past the limits of sphered stars beyond,
my soul, you move with ease,
and like the swimmer who leaps into waves
you cheerfully cross an unsoundable gulf, brave
and with a mute and masculine tease.
Stay away from these miasmas of death.
Transparent orb, take to the high, pure air,
and make a fine and divine elixir,
like flames in space, of your breath.
Leaving behind all the ennui and sorrows
of daily dread, heavy as fog upon the countryside,
the blissful can dial their wings wide
and dart toward bright and serene furrows.
With minds like morning songbirds
gliding near the skies in rising liberty—
they soar through life and know every subtlety
of lectures by flowers and of all without words!
Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,
Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.
Envole-toi bien loin de ces miasmes morbides;
Va te purifier dans l’air supérieur,
Et bois, comme une pure et divine liqueur,
Le feu clair qui remplit les espaces limpides.
Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureuse
S’élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins;
Celui dont les pensers, comme des alouettes,
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor,
— Qui plane sur la vie, et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes!
—Charles Baudelaire translated by A. Anupama
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.
Throughout the first three novels in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s tetralogy, the unnamed narrator and his love interest Marie have been on the verge of break-up and broken up. Yet, in some ways, they’ve never really been apart. In this passage from the fourth and final novel Naked, after returning from a trip where the couple rekindled their love, the narrator sits alone in his apartment thinking of Marie, waiting for a sign that she’s thinking of him too.
Naked was originally published in 2013, and is translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.
— Jason Lucarelli
IDIDN’T DARE admit it to myself outright, but what I was waiting for now at the window was—already—a phone call from Marie. I even hoped to get her call before stepping away from the window, before I had time to do anything in the apartment, go through my mail or unpack my bags, so that when I picked up I could say, the amused modesty in my voice perhaps tinged with a zest of triumph, “Already?” and the endless half-hour I spent in front of the window waiting in vain for Marie’s call was like an abridged version of the two expectant months I was about to spend waiting for any sign from her at all. In the first few moments, fervor and impatience still held sway, feelings of love the days spent together on Elba had rekindled, the intact desire to hear her voice on the phone—perhaps intimidated, tender, light-hearted, suggesting we see each other that very night—and then, as the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon even the whole month of September went by without so much as a word from Marie, my initial impatience gradually gave way to fatalism and resignation. My feelings toward Marie went progressively from the impatient affection of those first few moments to a kind of annoyance I was still trying to get under control. After a while, I no longer held anything back and gave free rein to my resentment. Marie’s final act of fickleness, inviting me to spend two weeks with her on Elba just to ignore me and not make so much as a peep afterward, was but the ultimate demonstration of her radical nonchalance.
But now a new element, perhaps, since our return from Elba, was that Marie managed the feat of annoying me even when she wasn’t around. For up till now, whenever Marie hadn’t been around, I’d missed her immediately, nothing whetted my love for her more than distance—what to say, then, about her absence? This new annoyance, this more deeply ingrained irritation, taking shape right there at the window as I waited for her call, was perhaps the sign that I was readying myself for our separation and imperceptibly beginning to resign myself to it—except that, and here the nuance is vital, it might very well be the case that if Marie annoyed me so much when she wasn’t around, it was perhaps quite simply because she wasn’t around. There was also an odd, abiding element in my love for Marie, which was that as soon as anyone, even me, took it in mind to criticize her, and quite justifiably, with the best intentions in the world, I couldn’t keep myself from dashing to her rescue straightaway, as in certain couples where the one defending his or her partner tooth and nail is in the best position to know the extent of that partner’s shortcomings. In fact, I needed no outside detractors to come up with all the ill that could be said of Marie, I quite sufficed. I knew very well that Marie was exasperating. I knew perfectly well indeed, along with her detractors, who didn’t even know the quarter of it, that she was superficial, fickle, frivolous, and careless (and that she never shut drawers), but no sooner did I alight on this litany of deprecating qualifiers than I saw the other side to these complaints, their secret underside, concealed from view, like the precious hidden lining of too-flashy finery. For though glittering sequins sometimes kept one from seeing Marie clearly at first, to reduce her to the frothy society gossip abubble in her wake would be to underestimate her. A more substantial wave, timeless, ineluctable, carried her through life. What characterized Marie above all else was her way of being in tune with the world, those moments when she felt flooded by a feeling of pure joy: then tears would start rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks, as if she were melting with rapture. I don’t know if Marie was aware she contained, deep within, this unusual kind of exaltation, but everything in her bearing bore witness to her capacity for intimate harmony with the world. For just as there exists such a thing as oceanic feeling, so we may speak, where Marie is concerned, of oceanic affinities. Marie had a gift, that singular ability, that miraculous faculty, for being at one with the world in the moment, of knowing harmony between herself and the universe, in an utter dissolving of her own consciousness. Everything else about her personality—Marie the businesswoman and Marie the CEO, who signed contracts and closed real estate deals in Paris and China, who knew the dollar’s daily exchange rate and followed the latest market fluctuations, Marie the fashion designer who worked with dozens of assistants and collaborators the world over, Marie the woman of her time, active, overworked, and urbane, who lived in luxury hotels and dashed through airports in cream-colored trench coats, belt trailing on the floor, pushing two or three carts over owing with luggage, suitcases, clutches, portfolios, poster tubes, not to mention—dear God, I can picture it still—parakeet cages (fortunately empty, for she rarely transported living animals, apart from a thoroughbred—a trifle—as it happens, on her last trip back from Tokyo)—also characterized her, but only superficially, including her without defining her, encircling her without grasping her, nothing in the end but mist and spray beside the fundamental affinity that alone characterized her completely, the oceanic affinity. Intuitively, Marie always knew how to be in spontaneous tune with natural elements: with the sea, into which she melted with delight, naked in the salt water surrounding her body, with the earth, whose touch she loved, primitive and crude, dry or slightly slimy in her palms. Marie instinctively attained a cosmic dimension of existence, even if she sometimes seemed to spurn its social dimension entirely, and treated her every acquaintance with the same natural simplicity, ignoring age and formalities, seniority and etiquette, showing each the same considerate kindness, the same graces of sensitivity and benevolence, the charms of her smile and her figure, whether it was an ambassador having her over to dinner at his residence during a show, the cleaning lady she’d befriended, or the latest intern at the fashion house Let’s Go Daddy-O, seeing only the human being in each of them without a care in the world for rank, as if, beneath all the finery of the adult she’d become and her standing as a world-renowned artist, it was the child in her that had survived, with that child’s bottomless well of innocent generosity. There was something in her like a radical abstraction, an abrasion, a stripping-away of the social reality of things, such that she always seemed to be wandering around naked on the surface of the world, the “seemed” even being redundant with her, so often did she actually walk around naked in real life, at home or in the yard of the house on Elba, to the astonishment of creatures that watched her rapturously, a butterfly coming upon its alter ego in nature or the tiny, exhilarated fish quivering behind her in the sea, when I myself wasn’t the privileged witness to her innocent fancy for walking around nude at the drop of a hat, which was almost like her signature, her soul number, the proof of her integral harmony with the world, with what has been most permanent and essential about it for hundreds of thousands of years.
As we had just come back from Elba, these were the sunlit images of Marie that now came to mind as I stood before the window: Marie half naked under an old blue shirt of her father’s in the yard on Elba. I stared at the gray, rainy Paris street before me, and it was Marie who raced irresistibly through my mind without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I don’t know if Marie knew just how alive she was in my thoughts at that moment, as if, beside the real Marie who must have reached her apartment on Rue de La Vrillière by now, where the taxi had dropped her off, was another Marie, free, autonomous, separate from herself, existing only in my mind, where I let her come to life and move about my thoughts as she went swimming naked in my memories or took shape in the yard of her father’s house. I saw her again, then, in the little yard on Elba, that double, my personal Marie, wearing a basic swimsuit she’d pulled down and rolled around her waist because it was too hot (or even with no swimsuit at all, I kid you not). Cautiously, I drew closer to her in my mind, and through the tree branches in the little yard shivering in a light breeze made out her bare silhouette, the skin on her shoulder dappled with sun-shimmer, crouching by an earthenware jar, kneading the potting soil with both hands and tamping it down, evening out the earth around young shoots she’d just replanted and watered, watching the meager trickle from the hose intently, with a kind of meditative steadiness that seemed to wholly absorb her. I skimmed her shoulder as I joined her in the yard and told her in passing that for lack of a swimsuit, she could maybe put on a hat—people do that when they’re naked, you know (and she shrugged, didn’t dignify that with a reply). Marie, who always managed to surprise me, throw me for a loop, unpredictable Marie who, a few weeks earlier on Elba, had filched an apricot from the display at a fruit stand in Portoferraio’s old town, and kept the pit in her mouth for a long time, sucking on it dreamily in the sun, before suddenly pinning me to the wall in a shady alley near the port to press her lips abruptly against mine and dispose of the pit in my mouth.
And then I realized that I was chewing over these same happy visions time and again, the same summer images of Marie kept coming back to me, as if filtered by my mind, purified of any unpleasant elements and made more endearing still as they began to grow distant in time with my return. But since, I told myself, any true love and, more broadly speaking, any project, any undertaking, from the flowering of a bud to the growth of a tree to the realization of a work of art, has but one aim and intent, to persevere in being, doesn’t it always, inevitably, come down to chewing the same thing over? And a few weeks later, taking up this idea again of love as rumination or continual reprise, I would further refine my phrasing, asking Marie if the secret to lasting love was never to swallow.
I don’t know how much time had passed since I got back, but day was beginning to wane in Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and I still hadn’t budged from the window. The street had gotten a bit livelier, a few signs were now lighted near the Bourse. One of the houses across from me was being renovated. On the fourth floor, an apartment had been laid utterly bare, the façade gone, leaving the entrails of the building exposed, as if after a hurricane or an earthquake. Under the arc lights, a few workers in helmets passed to and fro over plastic tarps covering the floorboards of what must once have been the living room. The scene had something, if not hallucinatory, then at least not very Parisian about it (or I’m no Parisian), and seemed instead to be taking place in a major Asian metropolis, by neon light and the glare of welding torches. I contemplated the building under construction across from me, and thought back to the trip Marie and I had made to Japan at the beginning of the year. That was where everything had started, or rather everything had ended for us, for that was where we’d broken up, that was where we’d made love for the last time, in the room of a luxury hotel in Shinjuku. We’d left for Japan together, and come home separately two weeks later, each to our own lives, no longer speaking, no longer bothering to stay in touch. When I got back to Paris, I finalized our breakup, in a way, by moving to Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, and we had barely seen each other at all till late summer, when she’d suggested I join her on Elba. But what Marie didn’t know—and still doesn’t—is that I, too, was there the night her show opened at the Contemporary Art Space in Shinagawa.
— Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
Excerpt from Naked appears by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie, which is available from Dalkey Archive Press. His writing has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and even Charlie Chaplin.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Edward Gauvin was a 2007 fellow at the American Literary Translators Association conference and received a residency from the Ban International Literary Translation Centre. His translation of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Urgency and Patience was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.
In 1974 I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson. I was twenty and had just begun my first real attempts at writing poetry. I was insecure and hesitant about my own work. What if I couldn’t write? What if my idea of becoming a poet was a sham? I was encouraged by these lines in the Fourth Elegy:
….Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.
Or I can always read. So I decided to read as much poetry as I could. I searched out North and South American, European, Chinese, and Japanese poets to see if I could develop a voice that could carry the kinds of images and insights that I found in Rilke’s work.
During the fall of 1975, the Canadian poet John Thompson and I had several long discussions about Rilke. He encouraged me to write English versions of some of Rilke’s shorter poems to see what they looked like. I tried two or three and took them back to Thompson. He liked some of the lines, made several suggestions, and the exercise slowly helped me with my own poems. But for years Rilke haunted me, especially the Duino Elegies. At times, reading various translations was like looking down into roiled ocean water and seeing something moving beneath, but nothing was clear.
It seems to me that the Elegies were something entirely new in the canon of literature, as Tom Thomson’s paintings of Algonquin Park were new to visual art, or Pablo Casals’ interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites were new and astonishing in the canon of musical performance. One of the great risks of translating Rilke, especially the Elegies, is that it’s tempting to bring in the “ohs” and “ahs” and embellishments of the original, but we don’t speak that way anymore. One question that dogged me was what Rilke would sound like if he were writing now. So I began translating Rilke with a contemporary English voice in mind.
The themes of the Elegies are immense and often personal. There are passages in the Elegies either addressed to or about his mother and father that are as moving as anything I have read. He praises the things of the world, cathedrals, children, heroes, young women, animals, catkins, mountain springs, and that list in the Ninth Elegy:
…perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?
Rilke’s friend, the pianist Magda Von Hattingberg, said she felt there was a certain dislike of simple joys in the Elegies, but I don’t believe this is the case. In the Ninth Elegy he says we’re here to praise, to transform, to be alive in this world:
Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said….
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them…
Or this the passage from the Seventh Elegy:
To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.
I don’t pretend to understand everything that Rilke says in the Duino Elegies, but working on the poems daily for many months has given me new insights. They feel like long letters to us, letters about what it’s like to live and love and die on this planet. I think of them now as letters to the universe.
The Fourth Elegy
Living trees, when do you sense the coming of winter?
We’re not in touch; we don’t have that instinct
the birds feel in autumn. Late, at the last minute
we coax ourselves onto the wind
and fall abruptly into a cold, indifferent pond.
We’re conscious of the blossoming and the withering
at the same time. And somewhere lions are roaming,
unaware of any weakness in them.
And we, who try to focus on one thing,
already feel the lure of another. That conflict
is part of who we are. Don’t lovers
always find the limits of each other?–
although they promised
a certain space, to pursue bliss, to find a sense of home?
They prepare a quick sketch of the other side,
a sort of background of pain
to help us see them, to make
themselves clear. And we don’t even understand
the contours of our own feelings,
only what forms them from outside.
Who hasn’t stood at the curtains of their own heart, shaking?
And when they rose, it was the landscape of goodbye.
That’s easy enough to understand. A familiar garden,
moving slightly in wind. And then a dancer stepped forward.
It wasn’t the beloved. No matter how lightly he danced
he was someone else, a carpenter coming home through the kitchen.
No, a puppet is better. At least it’s complete. I can stand
the limp body, the wires, the face
that’s almost expressionless. Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.
Am I right? Father, didn’t your life
taste bitter after you’d tasted mine,
the first distillation of what I had to do,
and you kept tasting as I kept growing,
and you, troubled by the aftertaste
of such a strange destiny, tested my lofty vision.
And you, my father, who since you died
I’ve held so often inside me, in my wishes and dreams,
you, concerned and afraid for me,
traded some of the tranquility the dead own,
their kingdoms, for my grain of destiny,
am I right? And all of you
who loved me from the beginning
of my love for you, a love I turned away from,
because when I loved you, the distance in your face
turned into something infinite,
and you were gone… When I’m moved by it
I stand in front of the puppet stage,
or stare at it so intensely an angel appears
to counter-balance my seeing
and make those limp bodies come alive.
An angel and a puppet: now we have a play.
Then the separation created simply by our presence
can come together again. And at last, out of the seasons
of our lives the cycle of everything is transformed. Above us
and beyond us an angel is playing. If no one else feels it,
at least the dying must sense how pretentious
our accomplishments are here.
We won’t let anything be what it is. What I wouldn’t give
for those hours of childhood, when everything was more
than a memory, and what opened out in front of us wasn’t the future.
Our bodies were changing–we felt that–and sometimes
we were in a hurry to grow up, just to please those
who had nothing to show for having grown up.
And yet when we played alone, we were delighted
by what never changed, and we stood in that place
between the world and our toys,
a place where a pure event had been waiting to happen
from the very beginning.
Who can show a child exactly as she is?
Who will place her like a star, and put the yardstick
of immense distances in her hand? Who will make a child’s death
from grey bread, which grows hard, or leave it
inside her round mouth like the core
of a shining apple? What moves a man to murder
is easy to understand. But death,
all of it, completely, even before
our lives have really begun, to hold it gently and not be bitter–
we don’t have the words to describe this yet.
The Seventh Elegy
This wooing, this courtship won’t be part of your nature anymore,
for your voice has outgrown it. Now your cry is as pure as a warbler’s song
when the abundance of spring lifts him up, and he almost forgets
he’s a small, fretful, anxious thing, not this complete heart
thrown into the clear light of a deep and limitless sky. Like him
you would court the silent one you love,
and she’d begin to feel you, still invisible to her,
and some reply would wake inside her, almost a kind of inner listening.
Even the spring understands this–there’s no place
that wouldn’t carry the sound of your announcement. The first
short questioning notes, and the day, pure, affirms it
and shelters it with more and more silence.
Then the song goes higher and higher, up a stairway of notes
to that dream temple of the future; a trill, a warble, a fountain of notes
that in their rising already know they will fall,
for this is a play of promises… And the summer still to come.
Not only those summer mornings, and the first light breaking,
but the way the light changes and opens up the day;
not only the day, gentle around blossoms,
and the shapes of trees, so solid and strong;
not only the intensity of this unfolding power,
light touching the forest paths, the dusky meadows;
not only the rolling thunder at night, and the air clearing;
then near sleep, and some premonition you finally understood…
But the nights themselves, high summer nights,
and the stars of this earth.
And when you die, to understand that those stars are infinite:
this is something you will never forget.
Look, I’ve called out to the one I love. But she wouldn’t be the only one
who would come. Young women would rise from their insubstantial graves
and stand here. For once you call out, how can you put a limit
on the depth of your cry? The dead are always longing
for the earth again. When children feel something completely
it’s enough to last them for the rest of their lives.
For our destiny is nothing more than the closeness we felt as children.
How often you outdistanced the one you loved
as you ran blissfully, breathing quickly, into the open spaces.
To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of the city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.
Beloved one, the world only exists inside us.
We spend our lives transforming it, and the world outside us
slowly disappears. And where a house once stood
we create an image of that house inside us, board
by board, as if it were still there, complete, in the imagination.
The spirit of our age has built immense reservoirs of power, shapeless
as the intense emotions it draws from everything.
Temples and all sacred places mean nothing. And where one
remains, where we worshipped, and kneeled and prayed,
it lives on in the invisible world.
We can’t see them yet, we
can’t find them inside us, those pillars and columns
that could be so much greater now.
Each hollow change in the world has its forgotten ones,
who don’t belong to the past and aren’t a part of the future.
For even what is closest to them seems distant.
This shouldn’t confuse us, but make us stronger
in our labour to preserve those forms we still recognize.
Once they stood among us, in the middle of a destiny
that slowly destroys things, in the middle
of what we don’t understand; endured there, and made the stars
bow down from the protective heavens. Angel,
this is what I have to show you: it’s in your gaze,
saved at last, rescued, standing there,
those columns, sacred gateways, the sphinx,
the grey domes of cathedrals thrusting up from a strange city.
Angel, wasn’t it a miracle? Be astonished, great one, for this
is what we are. Tell them what we accomplished here; my breath
is too short to praise it. So in the end we didn’t neglect
our abundant allotment, this world space
which is ours alone. (And how terrifyingly immense
that space must be, which hasn’t overflowed
with our feelings after thousands and thousands of years.)
Wasn’t a tower magnificent,
even compared to you? And Chartres was immense, and the music
reached even higher and transcended us. But even
a young woman in love, alone at night by her window,
didn’t she reach almost to your knee?
Angel, don’t think
I’m wooing you, and even if I were, you wouldn’t appear. For my
call is always filled with leaving, and you couldn’t move against
the strength of that current. My call is like an arm stretched out
to hold you back. And my open hand, as if reaching up
to grasp something, defending and warning
at the same time, is something
you will never understand.
The Ninth Elegy
Why, if the rest of our lives could be spent as quietly
as the laurel tree, a darker green than all
the other trees, with small curves on the edges
of every leaf (like a wind’s smile)–why do we
try to escape our human fate,
and yet long for it…
Oh not because of happiness,
that quick profit we take just before the coming loss.
Not out of curiosity, or to give the heart practice,
which the laurel tree already feels as well…
But because being truly alive is difficult: because the fleeting
things of the world need us, and in a strange way
call out to us. And we’re the most fleeting of all.
Each living thing is here once, that’s it. And we
live once. But to have been here
once, completely alive here–
to have been a part of this world–nothing can take that away.
And so we’re driven to achieve it.
We try to hold it in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded seeing, in our heart which is speechless.
We try to become the world. But who would we give it to? We’d
hold onto it forever…But then what could we take with us
to the other side? Not our seeing, that we learned so slowly,
and nothing that happened here. Not one thing.
Perhaps pain then, and the heaviness of life,
and love that lasted a long time;
and what can’t be said. But later, beneath the stars,
what would we say? There are things better left unspoken.
The wanderer doesn’t bring a handful of earth from the mountain
to the valley, or what can’t be said, but the pure word, the intense blue
gentian. Perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on,
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?
How much a threshold means
to two lovers, who wear down their own
threshold, like those who came before them,
and those who are yet to come…light as can be.
This is the hour to say things, and this is its home.
Say it now. For now more than ever
the things of this world are falling away from us,
and in their place there are acts without images,
acts like shells that crack open
as soon as what is inside outgrows it and takes on a new form.
Despite the hammering of our heart,
the heart lives on; and though our tongue is clenched
between our teeth, it continues to praise.
Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said.
You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the universe
he feels more and more, and you are just a beginner. Show him
some simple thing which, passed down over generations,
lives on in our hands and our eyes.
Tell him about things. He’ll be astonished, as you were
standing by the rope maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them;
transients, they want us to preserve them, and we’re the most transient
of all. They want us to take them inside our invisible hearts
and transform them into ourselves–whatever it is we finally are.
Earth, in the end, isn’t this what you want: to rise inside us
invisibly? Isn’t your dream
to be completely invisible one day? The earth, invisible!
Isn’t your urgent message to be transformed?
Earth, dearest one, I’ll do it. You don’t need to show me
anymore spring times to win me over; just one
is more than my blood can take.
I’ve belonged to you from the beginning, without saying a word.
You’ve always been right, and your inspiration has always been death,
that friend, that companion.
Look, I’m alive, but what feeds me? Neither my childhood
nor the future grows any less… an infinite presence
rises from my heart.
—Rainer Maria Rilke introduced & translated by Allan Cooper
. Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.
The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into Moya’s wonderful novel, where we find Vega, Revulsion‘s narrator, describing his relationship with his brother, Ivo, to the author. Vega has spent fifteen days living at his brother’s home while trying to sell their dead mother’s house, and he has had enough of the noise made by Ivo’s family.
This passage works as an excellent example of Moya’s commitment to writing in the style of Thomas Bernhard. You’ll notice many of the Austrian writer’s techniques on display, from long, run-on sentences to a fantastic sequence of repetition when Vega describes soccer players as “undernourished.”
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador was originally published in 1997 in Spanish as El asco, Thomas Bernhard en El Salvador, and has been translated into English by Lee Klein.
— Benjamin Woodard
MY BROTHER Ivo and I are the most different people you can imagine, Moya, we don’t resemble each other in any way, we have not a single thing in common, no one would believe we’re from the same mother, we’re so different we never even became friends, only a few acquaintances know we share the same parents, the same last name, the same house, said Vega. We haven’t seen each other for eighteen years. We never write each other. The half dozen times my mother would call me and he’d be with her, Moya, we’d hardly exchange hellos or commonplaces; we never called each other because we didn’t have anything to say, each of us lived without having to think about the other, because we’re complete strangers, we’re total opposites, living proof that blood doesn’t mean a thing, it’s random, something perfectly worthless, said Vega. I just turned thirty-eight years old, Moya, same as you, I am four years older than my brother, and if my mother hadn’t died I would have been able to live my entire life without returning to see my brother Ivo; that said, Moya, we don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, without anything to say, with nothing to share, no similar tastes, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte, nothing more, said Vega. I have nothing in common with a guy who dedicates his life to making keys, a guy who has dedicated his life to making copies of keys, whose only concern is that his business produces more and more copies of keys, Moya, someone whose life revolves around a business called “Millions of Keys.” His friends gave him the inevitable nickname “Key Ring,” his total universe, his most vital worries, fail to exceed the dimensions of a key, said Vega. My brother is possessed, Moya, it causes me true sorrow that someone could live a life like that, it causes me profound sadness to think about someone dedicating his life to making the most possible copies of keys, said Vega. My brother is worse than someone possessed, Moya, he’s the typical middle-class businessman who trains to accumulate the money he needs to buy more cars, houses, and women than he needs; for my brother, the ideal world would be an immense locksmith operation, and he would be the only owner, an immense locksmith operation where they would only talk about keys, locks, doorknobs, latchkeys. And it’s not going badly for him, Moya, on the contrary, it’s going very well for my brother, every day he sells more keys, every day he opens another branch of “Millions of Keys,” every day he accumulates more money thanks to his key business, my brother is a true success, Moya, he’s found his goldmine, I doubt there exists another country where people have the same obsession for keys and locks, I don’t think there exists another country where people so obsessively lock themselves in, which is why my brother is a success, because people need tons of keys and locks for the walled houses they live in, said Vega. For fifteen days I haven’t had a conversation that’s been worth it, Moya, for fifteen days these two have talked to me only about keys, locks, and doorknobs, and about the papers I should sign to make the sale of my mother’s house possible, it’s horrible, Moya, I have absolutely nothing to say to my brother, there isn’t a single minimally decent topic we could address with intelligence, said Vega. The principal intellectual preoccupation of my brother is soccer, Moya, he can talk for hours and hours about teams and players, especially about his favorite team, called the Alliance, for my brother the Alliance is the finest manifestation of humanity, he doesn’t miss a single game, he’d commit the most heinous sin if it meant the Alliance would win all its matches, said Vega. My brother’s fanaticism for the Alliance is so high, after a few days it actually occurred to him to invite me to the stadium, can you imagine, Moya, he invited me to the stadium to support the Alliance in a difficult match against their long-time rivals, that’s how he proposed it to me, as if he didn’t know that I detest huge crowds, that concentrations of humanity produce in me an indescribable affliction. There’s nothing more detestable to me than sports, Moya, nothing seems more boring and stupid than sports, most of all the National Soccer League, I don’t understand how my brother could give a damn about twenty-two undernourished morons running after a ball, only someone like my brother could almost have a heart attack about the stumbling of twenty-two undernourished men running after a ball and making a show of their mental deficiency, only someone like my brother could have passionate ideas about locksmithing and a team of undernourished morons that calls itself the Alliance, said Vega. At first my brother thought he would be able to convince me that we shouldn’t sell my mother’s house, that it was best to rent it instead, according to him the real estate market improves every day, my brother said he had no desire to sell my mother’s house, but I was emphatic from the start, I had no doubt that the best decision was to sell her house, it’s what suits me best, so I never have to return to this country, so I can break all ties with this place, with the past, with my brother and his family, so I don’t have to hear anything more about them, which, to be blunt, is why I was emphatic from the start, I didn’t even let my brother make his case against the sale of the house, I said I only wanted my half, if he could pay me the forty- five thousand dollars right then, he could keep the house, that’s what I told him, Moya, because I saw his intention to blackmail me with idiotic sentimentalities, with ideas natural to a guy whose life is limited to keys and locks, idiotic sentimentalities like saying my mother’s house represents the family heritage, like saying we were raised there and similarly the house is associated with the best moments of our youth, I didn’t let him continue with that nonsense, Moya, I told him that for me the family was coincidental, without any importance, proof of this was that the two of us had been able to pass eighteen years without a single conversation, proof was that if this house hadn’t existed we surely wouldn’t have decided to meet again, that’s what I told him, Moya, and I explained that I wanted to forget everything that has to do with my youth spent in this country, my youth lived in this walled house that now I must sell, there is nothing so abominable as the years I spent here, nothing more repulsive than the first twenty years of my life, said Vega, they were years committed only to idiocies, Moya, horrible years, associated with the Marist Brothers, with anxiety about getting away from here, the uneasiness caused by the inevitability of having to live my life in the middle of this rottenness.
— Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein
Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras and grew up in El Salvador. The author of eleven novels (including Senselessness, The She-Devil in the Mirror, Tyrant Memory, and The Dream of My Return), he is now living in the U.S.
LeeKlein‘s fiction, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Harper’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is also the author of The Shimmering Go-Between, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox, and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. He lives in South Philadelphia.
Zazil Alaíde Collins (Mexico City, 1984) has written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (a first collection structured around Jarocho musicicans and the well-known Mexican lotería card game), No todas las islas (her prize-winning book that charts the history of her family myths by way of a sort of nautical cartography in verse), El corazón, tan cerca a la boca (in which she weaves together ekphrastic prose and poetry inspired by the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann) and, most recently, Sipofene. Sipofene, maybe her finest book to date, represents a sort of tabula rasa upon which Collins can construct a fragmented vision of the problems of our times. In the words of Javier Taboada: ‘Zazil Alaíde Collins’s Sipofene does not spring from any myth. By way of a journey back to an original state, the poetic voice strips bare the world of our times “los días más oscuros”. The geography of desertion: the pain that stretches out to the four cardinal points.’
In a world of shortening attention spans and click-bait journalism, it is refreshing to find a poet who still believes in the integrity of the poetry collection. Each of Collins’s books to possess their own unique focus and structure. Perhaps it is not surprising that Collins, also a broadcaster with a wide range of musical interests (her co-edited bilingual volume Músicos en la Ciudad de México/Musicians in Mexico City will be launched this August), is drawn to this kind of project: each of her books feels like a concept album in verse.
This interview, in which Collins discusses her wide range of influences and literary obsessions, was carried out via a series of emails between Zazil Alaíde Collins and Dylan Brennan. Included also is a videopoem featuring the opening verses of Sipofene, click CC for subtitles in English. Translations of poems to English by Cody Copeland.
DB: Tell us about your early life, where you were born, grew up, studied… and when and how you first came into contact with poetry.
ZC: I was born in the Roma neighbourhood of the Federal District, now officially known as Mexico City, on Saturday, September 1st, 1984. One year later, after the earthquake of September 19th I moved to La Paz, Baja California Sur, with my paternal family; a desert in which I learned to walk and observe. It’s an essential part of the imagery of my written work, and the place to which I return any time I need to touch base. When the city was reconstructed, I returned to the Roma area and studied my whole life in Mexico City. My university days were spent between political sciences, literature and anthropology.
My introduction to poetry was aural, before any kind of formal reading. There was never any lack of poetry books in my parents’ house, so poetry was always close. My parents even partially named me after a poet, the Guatemalan Alaíde Foppa, who, to this day, remains disappeared…
The first books of poetry that I can remember were popular cancioneros and two collections by Cuban poets (when I was a child my father lived in Cuba and his gifts were books from there): Mundo mondo by Francisco de Oraá, and Con un garabato by José Antonio Gutiérrez Caballero. In my adolescence, I was struck by “Tarumba,” by Jaime Sabines, and I discovered poetry by James Joyce, George Bataille and, by accident, the Mexican poet Mariana Bernárdez—by my reckoning, one of our most outstanding contemporary poets. I became obsessed with the work of Artaud… And I continued discovering authors in our family library, like Nicolás Guillén and César Vallejo. A short time before entering university I bought, also by chance, a facsimile edition of Muerte sin fin, by José Gorostiza, which changed something for me (I can’t say what it changed, but reading it still excites me, just like “Tarumba”).
Although I could go on naming other authors, the aforementioned ones opened up channels of perception for me, and are part of my initiatory journey, along with the internalised expressions of music and dance. When I was a girl, I studied contemporary dance for a few years and one of my ways of registering the choreography was to write down words that, little by little, began to take the form of verses; I would say that these were my first poems, without me knowing they were poems at the time.
DB: Which poets do you read these days? Which ones have influenced you? Which do you dislike?
ZC: Right now I’m reading the recently published books by Ernesto Miranda Trigueros and Javier Peñalosa. A few years ago I realised that I only read work by dead authors and, since then, decided to force myself to read work by my contemporary colleagues; amongst them, ones I definitely try not to lose track of include Mariana Bernárdez, Camila Krauss, Javier Taboada, Jair Cortés, Alejandro Tarrab, Daniel Bencomo, Ingrid Valencia, Daniela Camacho, Tere Avedoy, Fabio Morábito… I’m also reading a book by Coral Bracho, another by Guadalupe Galván, and I’m re-reading Heather Thomas, who I met a few months ago at a poetry reading in Egypt and whose work I enjoy greatly.
I think that I’ve been influenced by reading work by Oliverio Girondo, Wislawa Swymborza, Octavio Paz, Haroldo de Campos, Miguel Hernández, Jorge Guillén, García Lorca, Ángel González, Anne Waldman, Ferlinghetti and Gertrude Stein. While not poets, António Lobo Antunes and Roberto Bazlen have become something magical for me. At least they are texts that I admire and re-reading them continues to provoke questions. I believe that poetry should consist of a constant questioning, perennial. I also believe that music exerts a permanent influence over me (even more so than poetry); I cannot disassociate from the poetic endeavour the lyrics of composers, from Henry Purcell to Chico Buarque, from Son jarocho to Canto cardenche (a kind of Mexican a cappella form).
I do not like poetry that tires after the first reading; that feels like something tepid. While we all develop our own obsessive metaphors (words, recurring images), I am not attracted to writers who seem to be writing a monopoem. There are poetics that seem overvalued to me, but it’s not for me to mention them. I will limit myself to saying that the poets that I dislike are those who have abandoned a feel for their own body, who have lost the musicality, the spontaneity. I also dislike poetry with the tone of a saviour, of an illuminator.
DB: Forgive if I’m mistaken but I sense more of a gender balance in contemporary Mexican poetry than in prose. Is this true? Do more women write poetry than prose these days or am I wrong?
ZC: It’s strange. I agree. However, in the professional practice, I mean, from so many anthologisers, teachers, editors or editorial committees, it seems to me that female poets remain relegated, while, in the case of female prose writers, things seem a bit different. Female prose writers seem, somehow, “freer” to me, more at ease, less worried about forming part of a power base, which is something healthier, from my point of view. Maybe I’m wrong. I feel that female poets are more protective of their own space, distrustful even with other female poets. In this way, sometimes there is not a gender balance when they act in the same way as those who violate communal liberties and achievements. In other words, there is not always a sense of sorority between female poets; at least not when it comes to my own experience in central Mexico.
DB: I suppose we could talk a great deal about female poets. I still hear people using the word “poetisa” (“poetess”); can you say something about that? Also, is it more difficult for female poets to get published these days? I know it certainly used to be that way.
ZC: I’m amazed that the word poetisa is still used, among poets. I have never liked this mark of differentiation; I subscribe to Anne Waldman’s “Feminafesto”: “I propose a utopian creative field where we are defined by our energy, not by gender.” I believe that it is difficult for women to get published (nowadays I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult than it is for male poets) because we are not taken as seriously; “Could it be that we don’t go out boozing with the right editors?,” I often ask myself (in an ironic tone, of course). There exists a professional and emotional dialogue that continues to be “restricted” between genders. I have never understood why, but the act of publishing tends to be sectarian in nature, due to a series of factors of public relations, which sometimes spring from motives of class, gender and even sexual orientation. Of course, when I read phrases like “We badly need more Mexican women to write literature of the highest level like the work of Elena Garro, we urgently need them to stop wanting to earn a fortnightly wage and to get down to the business of writing,” though it may just be nothing more than marketing, it is clear to me that the rift still exists. It seems to me that some colleagues have not understood that the problem is not talent, but the conditions and access to certain spaces. For starters, while women earn less than men for carrying out the same job (any job) we cannot begin to start talking about equality. In Mexico people complain about the PRI but many intellectuals (who work in publishing) possess that same PRI mentality, where cronyism and favouritism take precedence over merit, and they are often the people who make decisions about who gets published and who doesn’t. At the publishing houses there also exists a kind of false democratisation: they often don’t even read manuscripts seriously. But, the more autonomous work that is produced, the more this schizophrenia can be challenged.
DB: Is poetry changing nowadays? Is it reinventing itself or is it the same as it ever was? What about the Sipofene videopoem? How did you come up with this idea? Tell us about the process, the director, those who took part, etc.
ZC: New media has caused changes with regard to the way in which readers approach literature, and authors have adapted too; it’s something reciprocal. It’s not that new, really, either; since the avant-gardists there have been textual and discursive explorations, and those who believe that these experimentations, between literature, dance and visual arts, for example, have existed since the beginnings of civilization. My undergraduate thesis dealt with the textual borders of video-poetry, so you can see that I’ve studied the theme for quite a while. However, though I fantasize about directing my own video-poems, my own weaknesses are clear to me: “the cobbler sticks to shoes,” as the saying goes. The reinvention within poetic languages stems from an integral approach to text, audio-visual elements, collective work with photographers, videographers, editors, actors… Literary work can also be viewed as a kind of laboratory. The idea of collectivisation includes working in many fields; at least attempting to initiate dialogues; in this way, creating small mobilisations (this is my idea of activism).
I had already seen photographs and videos made by Adrea Grain Hayton for musical groups, and as she studies literature, I decided to propose that we did something together, without any pretensions, so I just suggested that she could do anything she liked with a few of my poems. She liked the idea and chose just a few sections, as Sipofene is a long poem. She asked me a few questions about the meaning and intention of certain lines, but it was she who visualised and directed the material. For me, poems liven when the readers (not the poets themselves, as authors) perceive them, recreate them, taste them, and, so, I’ve always preferred the readings that others can give to my texts, even when they don’t coincide with my own original ideas. I wanted to know how someone with a visual imagination like Andrea could understand the poem. And in a spirit of making community I decided to invite people who I admire, either because they are friends or because they are poets that I both admire and read (only one poet couldn’t make it).* We met one afternoon at my house, every participant read in front of a camera the complete verses of the first section of Sipofene, called “Bóreas,” and then Andrea cut everything, extracting fragments of each collaborator and combining them. I know that she absolutely associates the visual part with the Greek myth of Boreas and the horses.
*DB: That was me, so sorry I couldn’t be involved.
DB: Tell us, what books have you written? Tell us a little about each one? What about the process and the reception that your books have received from readers?
ZC: I’ve written four books of poetry: Junkie de nada (Lenguaraz, 2009), No todas las islas (ISC-Conaculta, 2012, City of La Paz State Prize winner in 2011), El corazón, tan cerca de la boca (Abismos-Mantarraya, 2014) and Sipofene (La tinta del silencio, 2016); and, independently I’ve adopted my thesis on video-poetry as a free e-book: Videopoesía, poíesis fronteriza: hacia una reinterpretación del signo poético. I’ve also participated in some anthologies of essays and, also, poetry, as co-author: Deniz a manzalva (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2008), La conciencia imprescindible. Ensayos sobre Carlos Monsiváis (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2009) and the major anthology Antología General de la Poesía Mexicana: poesía del México actual. De la segunda mitad del siglo XX nuestros días (Océano, 2014). I’ve uploaded nearly all my books to Google Books so that they can be looked up online.
Junkie de nada is a sort of compendium of my first poems; I completed it in less than a month with poems that I’d written over a period of five or six years, approximately, and I tried, of course, to give them a sense of unity. At that time I had to hand a set of lotería jarocha (a variation on the Mexican card game resembling bingo, this one featuring figures from Veracruz folklore), from the Canadian printmaker Alec Dempster, and, in a sort of eureka moment I got the idea that I could play around with the idea of a collection of poems that revolve around the cards of a lotería set. It was fun to throw down the cards and to group the poems together, according to a character or emotion. Some friends from university ran an independent publishing house; they liked the material and decided to publish it. I showed them the poems after they’d been rejected by an official publisher (the federal government). A huge plus for me was that they allowed me to suggest authors for an epilogue, and, of course, I thought of the poet that I admire: Mariana Bernárdez. The editors got in touch with her and she accepted their proposal to read my work and to write something. The book deals with metapoetical anxieties; all part of exploring the meaning of life. I was 25…
No todas las islas was conceived as a sort of cartography of my family’s history (and myths); I threw it, like a message in a bottle to the sea, into a competition and I won the Baja California Sur state poetry prize, and so I got to have it published. This made me very happy because, apart from all the rest, I wrote that book thinking of my seniors (my grandparents, mainly), who live there and whose parents were involved in the foundation of that state. During the editorial process, I suggested to the state government the idea of producing a special edition, different from their normal collections. In reality, all I wanted was permission, for them to allow me to print a special limited edition on my own, one in which two friends would help me, one that would include colour and playful typography; but the publishing section of the Instituto Sudcaliforniano de Cultura liked what they saw and decided to take the chance and change their collection style from that book onwards. While Efrén Calleja, a friend and, now, neighbour of mine, was in charge of the edition, and Benito López was the designer, for almost a year the three of used to meet on a weekly basis to discuss colours, typography, meaning, size, corrections, etc. In this way it has been the book with which I’ve been most involved and the one that has caused me most professional delight. That level of communication with an editor and designer is something I’ve yet to replicate. The book is structured like a travelogue, an imaginary journey, but one which can be followed on Google Earth through the suggested coordinates.
El corazón, tan cerca de la boca is an exercise in which I decided to try to write just one poem, one that would weave together strands of poetry and prose, by way of ekphrasis and the photographs of Nora Nava Heymann. Ideally, this book was conceived in conjunction with the images, but the publishers (Abismos) decided not to include the images—they don’t do that kind of publication—so that, in the end, only the text remained. At the same time, I suggested that a jazz singer work with the material and musicalise some poems in free form; in that way, the texts which gave rise to songs were also translated. The music is online and can be downloaded and/or listened to. The book plays with the word “Bardo,” as a concept and state: the poet bard and the Buddhist “bardo” which represents the intermediary state, a state of transition (another one of my obsessions). Many of the metaphors stem from a journey to Ireland, peyote, meditation and nephelomancy (a form of divination based on observation of clouds).
Sipofene is a long poem that I wrote in 2015, which stems from images of a trip to the desert and the feeling of political discontent, after interiorising these lines from Ferlinghetti: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.” When I thought of the text, I visualised it as a performance, and from there came the desire to make the video, which is free to be seen by the public.
Even today, I still find reviews and new readers of my first book, because, who knows why, they still can be found in some bookstores in outside Mexico City. I think that’s the book that has been reviewed the most, both in print, radio and television. Each of my books, though, has found a distinct audience, I think, because of the playful approach I’ve tried to establish, from the visual to the musical.
DB: What about practical things. When do you write? How often do you write? Where? Any particular process?
ZC: My methodology involves writing a dream diary as soon as I wake up (many of my poems stem from dreams), and keeping notebooks under my pillows, in the bathroom, dining room, in my bag, etc. You never know exactly when that powerful line that can guide a poem or book can appear. I don’t think I have any particular process, but I usually write in the small hours of the night (that is what I most enjoy: the silence), and then closing myself off at home (it doesn’t suit me to be out in the open air); I’m a bit of a hermit but I don’t like to force myself. There’s an intuition which beats in a peculiar manner when I need to sit myself down to write; I try to yield to it.
DB: What is Sipofene?
ZC: Sipofene is a place where death doesn’t exist, from the conception of the indigenous Americans, the netherworld. I knew this a long time after the word had resonated in my head, when the first verse arrived: “When the bones burn, Sipofene,” which motivated me to start the poem. I’ve tried to remember how that word made its way into my imagination, and the surest clue is that I probably heard it in one of the films of the Twilight saga (yes, it’s true, I consume almost anything related to werewolves and vampires)… Or some kind of trick of the subconscious after a reading towards which I was indifferent, what do I know… As the poem advanced, it flowed for two intense weeks, and I found that this world (the world of Sipofene) was an intermediary state, a theme that I had dealt with before in El corazón, tan cerca a la boca. It’s possible that my age is accentuating this anxiety, but this third state that flitters between past, present and future, this third way of being is, for me, the current social, political and human condition. We are living at a time of confrontation between opposing systems, radicalisation, fanaticism, and we need to reconstruct from another perspective, comprehensive and able to accept dissent and diversity. I tried to write while eliminating genre distinction, thinking of a somewhat personified Sipofene that could be something like a muxe (a third gender) that would speak of the search for identity of those who are exiled, for a variety of reasons. There’s an underlying tone of lament, musical, I hope, revolving around our dead and battle-wounded. Sipofene is the others. And the others are all of us who search for, hopeful or resigned, a new world: “another world is possible.”
DB: The published version of Sipofene is something special, tangible, very pretty. Tell us a little about the editorial process. Did the publishers approach you or how did it work?
ZC: I wrote the poem and decided to put it up online, via Amazon, with the idea that some publisher or editor might be interested in it, but, really, so that it could be read online by anyone. I also decided to give away free copies of a paper-bound PDF via social networks and, among my contacts, a former colleague from my master’s program at UNAM read it and told me that she had set up a publishing house and wanted to talk to me. I’m referring to Ana Cruz, editor of La tinta del silencio. And that’s how it all started. I got to know the publisher’s work and I was convinced by her idea to manufacture books by hand, numbered copies, in personalised editions, that suit the text and the author. The publishers were very meticulous with regard to communication and editing. The idea of a prologue and the cover image were left wide open, and so I decided to invite an illustrator that I admire, Alejandra Espino, with whom I’d been wanting to collaborate for a long time, and she agreed to draw the cover image and to make a serigraph. For the prologue I turned to Javer Taboada, a colleague who I also admire for his astute readings and, also is someone who knows my work well since we’ve been reading each other since we were very young. My ideas of publishing involve bringing together talents and disciplines. This is something I’ve been able to accomplish with this book.
DB: To finish up, tell us about contemporary Mexican poetry. Do you like it? Is it in a healthy state? What do you think?
ZC: I like it because I feel that it’s regenerating, like every fabric. Little by little it finds its connections and now it’s difficult to judge it but the debate about whether or not a regeneration exists is growing. We are many voices; for me it’s a restless choir that still hasn’t decided what it’s singing about or, indeed, who is doing the singing. I suppose it’s fairly normal, as it matures. I think of poets such as Homer Aridjis, Ramón Rodríguez and Dolores Castro as completely contemporary voices as well, with solid trajectories free from the false bureaucratic quarrels, with a restless and pointed poetry. I feel the same about, although he has died, Gerardo Deniz. It may be that Mexico still hasn’t stopped revisiting its modernity and, for that reason, authors such as Los Contemporáneos and Octavio Paz still seem to beat so closely. Poetry prevails thanks to its sincerity; if that continues, as far as I’m concerned, it will never cease to be current.
—Zazil Alaíde Collins & Dylan Brennan
From No todas las islas
Words are crabs
Buried in the deep.
The wind sings its syllables
of whispered names.
The Giant Women
They came from the north,
but no one knows when they were wiped out.
From the cave of music
they made their rounds,
raising their pentagram arms;
they all croaked under lock and key.
The old men claim to have seen them
devoured by the sea.
THE DAY LABORERS howl with the sound
of war in the poppy fields,
music for bull calves,
train whistle that carries the breath
of the soldier suckled by Chernobyl.
There’s so much slackening the thread, Sipofene,
such fire in the crotch, …………humiliated boots, …………metallic hands, …………headquarters’ silences.
What will the dust bring,
if we’re always dead in the presence
of the violet stockings’ nudity?
It is a field of iron, Sipofene, …….a keloid field.
THE WORLD SHOULD BE A BETTER PLACE,
with more poems and tulips;
no resection of the migrant
who flees in order to survive
the harassment of offices
that are after his right thumb.
Tell us what emporium has robbed you?
How many prisons have you trod?
Who knew the truth of your sandstone?
The cherry and blue meeting houses
were part of the eclipse.
We speculated up until the year of your birth.
NO ONE CLAIMS THE ASHES
of an angel of clay
in the jaws of the common grave,
no one asks for his minimum wage
at the sides of Cadmus’ ships,
and no one deserves to die by stone
on a high tension cliff,
but there go the 50 thousand orphans
who have lost their hunger
walling in the cattle.
IT IS CALLED RAGE, Sipofene,
the substance that undermines us
the exhausted gaze of serfs;
it’s called weariness, Sipofene,
this solitude without a capital
these lead hillsides,
paradise of the dissidents.
—Translations by Cody Copeland
Cody Copeland teaches English and writes poetry. His work has appeared in Mexico City Lit, The Ofi Press, and The Bogman’s Cannon. He is currently based in Mexico City.
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan . .
The following excerpt opens as the narrator and his sister arrive on the Gaspé Peninsula. Eric’s father and step-mother, otherwise known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, are expecting a child together and have decided to uproot the family from Rivière-du-Loup, mobile home and all, to relocate 300 kilometres to the east. The move to the town of Matane will effectively put an abrupt end to the children’s weekly visits with their beloved mother whom they refer to as either Catherine of Aragon or “Micheline Raymond, professional cook.” The year is 1977 and separatist sentiments are rising in Québéc. The king and queen are staunch Sovereigntists and want to solidify their influence by introducing a series of rules to define the protocols of “court life” in their new setting.
Life in the Court of Matane was originally published in 2008 in French as Bestiaire. The English translation is by Peter McCambridge.
EVEN TODAY, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.
At Sainte-Flavie, they told us we had arrived in Gaspésie. The invisible line separating the Lower Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula is much more than an arbitrary border drawn up by geographers with nothing better to do. People live quite differently to the east and west of the dividing line: The people of the Lower Saint Lawrence expect things will pick up, while those on the Gaspé Peninsula know they’ll only get worse. Both sides are sometimes disappointed. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn told us with a smile that we had just entered the Gaspé Peninsula and the north shore of the St. Lawrence was nothing more than a thin strip of blue land, I became a Gaspé man once and for all.
At the end of that day, I stood before Matane like Attila before Rome. Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear. When I awoke after my first night there, I waited in vain for the TV people to come pack up the miserable set. Truth be told, the main problem with Matane was that it wasn’t Rivière-du-Loup. Ironically enough, my father seemed to like Matane for the very same reason. And yet of all Quebecers, the good people of Matane are probably among the friendliest of the lot. Their cheeks have turned rosy from the wind that blows over the town three hundred and sixty-two days of the year. There, the supports below our trailer drew back, and on a cliff overlooking the sea the house fell down in a puff of smoke. We didn’t stay there very long. A year or two, I think. I was seven when we moved to Matane. I had already had six addresses. In the decade I was to spend in my new town, I would have six others. Henry VIII wasn’t the type to sit still. In Matane the rules of censorship were repeated even more firmly than the first time. We were given a helpful list of ins and outs:
In:………..Quebec (and all its symbols) …………….Anne Boleyn …………….Jacques Brel …………….Cod in all its forms
Out:………Canada (and all its symbols) …………….Catherine of Aragon …………….Elvis Presley …………….Drives in the Renault 5
They couldn’t have been clearer with us. In the same tone used to shout “Die, you pig, I’m gonna come spit on your grave!” the new rules of memory were presented to us. Over the years, a series of inexorable royal edicts were added. Edict 101: It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Edict 102: The eating of Cadbury products is forbidden. Edict 103: The telephone is not a toy. It is strictly prohibited to call anyone without permission. All conversations shall be supervised by the queen. Get used to it. Edict 104: The word of the Lord is outlawed in the royal court. The king and queen shall hear no talk of catechisms, nuns, the new or old testaments, or resurrection. The dead shall not rise again. Edict 105: It is forbidden to make any allusions to the past in front of the soon-to-be-born little brother. He will have to work out how we got here by himself. Edict 106: You shall lend your unfailing support to the sovereignty movement, on pain of being disowned. The fleur-de-lys is your emblem, and Quebec is your country. Edict 107: This home is no place for halfwits. It is therefore forbidden to watch television for more than one hour per day. All programs must be approved by the queen. All TVA programs are outlawed. Since we will have no truck with cable, you shall have to make do with Radio-Québec and Radio-Canada. You will thank us later. Edict 108: You shall do the dishes thrice daily, after each meal. Even when visiting. The queen shall inspect the plates. Edict 109: Saturdays are devoted to cleaning. The girl shall scour the palace bathrooms, and the boy shall ensure the floors are spotless. Everyone shall do his or her bit in the kingdom of Anne Boleyn. And even then, the queen shall not let you out of her sight as you go about your work. Edict 110: You shall respect and obey your queen, whom you shall address by her first name. The queen’s jurisdiction extends to justice, stewardship of the palace, financial management, culture, and telecommunications. You no longer have a mother. The king shall from time to time take it upon himself to remind you where you come from. For all questions about the matter, see Edict 101.
Oppression breeds revolution. The crushers will be crushed. Or at least that’s what we like to believe. Anne Boleyn was a boycotter. Her strategy was a means of survival. She forbade. Castrated. First came the boycott of our mother. There then followed a series of lesser bans that made everyday life tough. One of them involved Cadbury, the chocolate makers. In 1976, after the Parti québécois had been elected in Quebec, a number of English companies had seized the occasion to move their head offices to Toronto, preferring the comfort of boredom to the tribulations of Quebec politics. Outraged separatists launched a boycott of Cadbury (and Sun Life Insurance, among others). Chanting “Let’s bar Cadbury” as their slogan, they waged war against the English manufacturer of the sweet candy. Their movement would have left me completely indifferent at the age of seven had Anne Boleyn and the king not decided to buy into it. It was thereafter forbidden to purchase or consume any Cadbury products in the presence of the king or Anne Boleyn. The same glacial tones reserved for my mother were used to proclaim the banning of Cadbury.
There was just one problem: Cadbury was—and still is—the maker of the Caramilk bar, a chocolate bar with a soft caramel centre that at the time was high on my list of favourite things to eat. My mother would pass them to me in her Renault 5 as I sang Gérard Lenorman to her. “Caramilk” had become a hammer word. Whenever I managed to scrape together thirty cents, I would slip off to a store where no one knew me to buy a Caramilk. I had to bike for kilometres to make sure word didn’t get out. Anything not to get caught. Once we were in the depths of the countryside, beyond the village of Saint-Ulric near Matane, I settled on an old general store run by two senile biddies. It belonged to a different era, an old-fashioned general store that smelled of before the war. In the deserted store, you had to wait for one of the old witches to limp her way out of the storeroom. Children in the village used to say that they had both been dead for years and we were being served by ghosts. Their memory was so shaky that I could walk into the store four times in the same day without them remembering a thing about my earlier visits. Alzheimer’s guaranteed my anonymity. Even under the harshest interrogation, at best they would have been able to confirm I had been to the store. They would never have been able to betray the nature of my purchases.
The first time I did it, I remember I was wracked by guilt and high on the sweet smell of dissidence. I stood before one of the two old crones and asked for a Caramilk bar. A few seconds went by in silence. A clock struck three. Slowly, she asked me to repeat my order, tapping away at a small device lodged in her ear. “A Caramilk! I want a Caramilk!” I repeated, pointing at the coveted candy. She turned around. I heard her bones protest. Three short steps toward a counter in disarray. From there, she looked at me to make sure she had understood, pointing to a bottle of bleach. Patience was paramount. My finger tried to guide her shaking hand toward the Caramilk. Sometimes, she would break off to ask me if I was Armand’s son, a man who had probably been dead and buried for over seventy years. Then, a glimmer of reason flashed across her eyes, and her hand at last grasped the Caramilk. Her memory had also forgotten inflation. Thinking she was still in 1970, she asked me for twenty cents. Not that I was going to contradict her. I fled so that she wouldn’t have to denounce me if ever the king raided the store. Then I went to the beach, the place of all outlawed activities, where Anne Boleyn never set foot because it was too windy. Hiding behind a rock, I devoured my Caramilk while looking out to sea. I had to be careful not to leave the orange and brown wrapper at the bottom of my pocket. It would have been giving myself away too cheaply. I dug a hole half a metre wide and buried it there. Today I sometimes still buy a Caramilk, eat it in secret, and burn the wrapper to destroy the evidence. I am the only Montrealer for whom eating a Caramilk is a subversive, revolutionary act.
Back home, some first-rate lying covered my tracks. Always have an alibi. In the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, the sovereignty-association debate had plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies. Some of their most memorable mini-boycotts included religious education, the TVA television network, my sister wearing makeup, anything made by non-unionized workers, and visits to relatives Anne Boleyn didn’t like. Boycotts invariably lead to other boycotts, until everybody ends up boycotting everything. After boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, the tables were turned on the Americans when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984. What goes up must come down, apart from Cadbury, that is. Since 1976, the company has more than doubled in size, in spite of the separatist boycott. It just goes to show that sugar always wins in the end.
— Eric Dupont, Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge
Reproduced with permission from QC Fiction, a new imprint featuring the very best of a new generation of Quebec storytellers. qcfiction.com
Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 4 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. His fourth novel, La fiancée américaine, has sold over 60,000 copies in Quebec alone.
Originally from Ireland, Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction. Life in the Court of Matane was the first novel he chose for this collection and the book that made him want to become a literary translator in the first place. His translation of the first chapter won the 2012 John Dryden Translation Prize.
Dissection of four reminiscences on Rue Casimir Delavigne
Spirit is revealing itself through the exultant image of a prodigal.
And through another one.
Even though there is nothing more normal than the end;
Find other subjects to relinquish.
Over an undetectable point
Comes the time when words surrender to their masters.
I was never in despair.
And beauty is no more what people thought about her.
I stumble on the ship
That Ranajit Jana shakes;
The printer of my new book
I go to the National Library.
That’s a nice line as it is.
Inside they discuss the latest Nobel quietly.
The employee, a former drug addict now
Even worse with this ponytail
And a jackal glower.
I say, where can I find this one and
I would certainly like to take a look at that.
She says, both are out of the question,
Since the institution is under renovation.
But if you want
You can sign your latest book for me
(She recognized me).
My pen stops writing and
Only half of my name is scribed.
I push the pen point but she says, it’s good enough
As it is.
The trafficking of readers
It is a proof
Of all the dubious elements of the abyss
The boomerang ideas
I most appreciate,
Which return dazzling
To their one and only locus.
Turns of cordial words
With particular interest
Limit the dimensions.
Most I admire Praxiteles
Until night becomes a virgin.
So that being means to write.
I guess I will survive consubstantial
Very recently I stated the problems
Of experience as strongly as the bagatelles
Assume expatiating that they find us
Fatalists when once they considered us adaptive
To whatever concerned us.
I imagine that will survive all alone
Consubstantial with the imperfect
I am reviewing out
Of the blue.
This swollen face is a wreath
This swollen face is a wreath.
Many of those who exhibit the unseen arrangement
Of death are not visible.
In contrast to the unscathed delirium of life.
So, don’t bother.
Interiority equals cowardice.
Conceptually some delve into fears.
Not here though.
Those over there are resuming
Based on the peacefulness of the testicular balls.
Such hours you have to rejoice
That the spirit is man
And with just a weather forecast
Is getting ready for
Yannis Livadas is a Greek poet, born in 1969. His work constitutes the idea of experimentalism based on «organic antimetathesis» — the scaling indeterminacy of meaning, of syntactic comparisons and structural contradistinction. He is also an editor; essayist, translator, of more than fifty books of American poetry and prose; an independent scholar with specialization on American modern and postmodernism literature plus haiku. He contributes to various literary magazines, both in Greece and other countries. His poems and essays have been translated in eight languages. He lives in Paris, France.
Poetry: Austerity Measures/The New Greek Poetry [is included with six poems] (Penguin Books 2016) Modart (Alloglotta Editions, Athens 2015) Strictly Two (Sea Urchin Editions, Rotterdam, Holland, 2015) The fat of the fly (Kedros, Athens 2015) Au comptoir de La Manne au 90 rue Claude-Bernard (Édition privée, Paris 2014) Sound Bones (Iolkos, Athens 2014) At the stand of La Manne, 90 rue Claude Bernard (Private edition, Paris 2013) La Chope Daguerre + Ηusk Poems (Kedros, Athens 2013) Bezumljie (Peti Talas, Serbia 2012) Ravaged By The Hand Of Beauty (Cold Turkey Press, France 2012) Kelifus (Cold Turkey Press, France 2011) Ati – Scattered Poems 2001-2009 (Kedros, Athens 2011) The Margins Of A Central Man (Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010) The Star Electric Space/An International Anthology Of Indie Writers [is included with 4 poems](Graffiti Kolkata, India 2010) 40a (Private edition, Athens 2009) John Coltrane & 15 Poems for Jazz (C.C. Marimbo, San Francisco 2008) Apteral Nike/Business/Sphinx (Heridanos, Athens 2008) John Coltrane and 12 Poems for Jazz (Apopeira, Athens 2007) The Hanging Verses Of Babylon (Melani, Athens 2007) Annex of Temperate Emotion (Indiktos, Athens 2003) Receipt of Retail Poetry (Akron, Athens 2002) Expressionistic Feedback (Akron, Athens 2000)
Essays: Anaptygma/Essays and notes on poetry (Koukoutsi, Athens 2015)
Prose: The Laocoon Complex (Logeion Books, Athens 2012)
You sit me down. Make my bed. For me. For you.
For her. The way she swings around. Sways. Bows.
Let’s say: I’ll tell you. Let’s say: You’ll listen.
How should I use you?
I’m sitting right here and murmur.
I am sweet, you are sweet.
It was beautiful. Congregated. Used.
I should have done something to him.
There were many other
things. Things? Many?
It was winter. Hard. Un-
There was a woman. A man. Insignifican’
We didn’t choose each other.
We were locked together.
Watching his ugly face.
He looks back: I see myself.
Who is in which end of the cable
who is that places me at his will?
This isn’t a game between the two of us,
this tug of war.
Someone’s pulling my strings from above:
once he pulls me, next he leaves me.
Smells the blood. Nosing around me.
The heat of the body. Steaming.
Can’t take it anymore. This distillate is too raw to me.
The beast wins out of beauty.
The scale goes off balance.
Two derelict puppets. Deteriorated.
Event in the greenhouse: behold.
The heart’s been stubbed.
Seasons jam up.
Drill through the spring.
Winter, summer start attacking.
The flood makes a run.
Surging again and again
stalls and then throngs ahead.
Under the sea, the land is shaking.
(The unhoped front comes with such commotion.
While the other is dragging a heatwave.)
The shipwrecks of the lips: pilling of syllables.
Slurs and stutters.
Breaks and floods the words with anger.
It hits. Or gets hit by a syllable
culminating above it.
Gives no time to get resentful.
There is its double if it bales out.
None holds a grudge against none.
It hits. Or let others beat it.
The client is the same man.
Hiding in my shadow.
Matters not what I say or do.
There is no love: Spring’s been postponed.
It might be hiding in my shadow.
Snip. I’ll cut you up, you false thread.
(An iceberg broke off in Greenland.
The woods are on fire around Moscow.
The air is poisonous above Moscow.)
I’m not a city
I’m not a city: I have neither light, nor
window display. I look good.
I feel good. You didn’t
invite me though. How
did I get here?
You’d do anything for me; right?
Let’s do it! An attack.
A simple toy—
wife? I dress, dress, dress
The dressing remains.
I operate, because I’m operated.
All I can do is operate.
(I don’t mean anything to anyone.)
What is missing then?
Yet both are men separately.
Ongoing magic. Broad topsyturviness.
A new one is coming: almost perfect.
I swallow it.
I swallow him too.
He is too precious to
waste himself such ways.
I’d choose him: if he knew,
that I’d choose him.
But he doesn’t. My dearest is lunatic.
In vain he is full: He is useless
without the Moon, he can’t change,
he won’t change,
the way the steel bullets spin: drifting,
the blue is drifting.
He tolerates violence on himself, I was afraid
he’d pull himself together and
asks for violence.
I watched myself
born anew with indifference:
(if I melt him!)
stubborn, dense, yowls. They worked on him well.
Right now he is in transition.
He is a lake: looking for its shore.
You are free, said the stranger.
Before I arrived there.
Costume. I had a costume on though.
I was curious: what his reaction might be?
He closed his other eyes.
I’ll send an ego instead of you.
Getting softer, I feel it, he feels it too. Hardly moves. He chokes himself inside me.
Now I must live with another dead man.
It’s not even hopeless.
Serves the absence.
Delivers the unnecessary.
x Kinga Fabó is a Hungarian poet, linguist, and essayist. She is the author of eight books. Her latest, a bilingual Indonesian-English poetry collection titled Racun (Poison), was published in 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Fabó’s poetry has been included in various international journals and zines, as well as in anthologies. Some of her individual poems have been translated into Persian, Esperanto or Tamil. One of her poems, “The Ears,” has six different Indonesian translations by six different authors. She has also written an essay on Sylvia Plath. In everything she’s done, Fabó has always been between the verges, on the verge, and in the extreme.
Gabor G. Gyukics is a Hungarian poet and literary translator.
The following excerpt appears early in Vaseline Buddha (translated by Jung Yewon) yet contains all of the important themes and patterns, including the narrator’s interest in writing non-traditional narratives, his illness, and his reflections on death. It also contains crucial metafictional commentary on how the novel is constructed sentence-for-sentence, with its repeating use of “thought,” the book’s most important word. —Jason DeYoung
I’m somewhat curious as to what kind of a distorted story will result overall when you devote yourself to the details with no thought to the overall structure. One of the reasons why I don’t write stories with a clear structure or theme is because there’s something about such stories, in and of themselves, that make me shudder with their boredom, and another, because just one look at our reality will show you how far removed such stories are from our reality—or my own life, at least—and how different the truth of our reality is from what’s depicted in them
What I can write is a story that’s not quite a narrative, and is much too obscure and unstable. Not being obsessed with a completed story will create an opening into different territories in novels. A story with gaps and cracks and leaps and loopholes, a story that’s incomplete somehow, may more faithfully reflect real life. What exerts the greatest influence on my life is things without substance, and I’m turning my life into something without substance, and as I regard the struggle against things without substance, or tangible substance, as the only genuine struggle—this problem of mine seems to be a fundamental problem of the world as well—I have no choice but to clumsily write something without substance.
Make it a story, if possible, that’s not full of the power of narrative, a story seeking to break away from narratives whose naivety makes you smile, narratives that are dull because of their inherent tendency to seek power, and because their dull ideas are generally audacious, and their audacious aim to enlighten is inevitably dull. The persistent tendency in me to prevent the unfolding of a story, and the belief that there’s no narrative to life, could perhaps make that possible. There are, of course, people who believe that there’s a narrative to life, some of whom seek to turn their own lives into something with a narrative, through whatever means possible, and some of them do so with ambition, and some write narrative texts, and some reveal their ambition without hiding it, for it’s difficult to hide such an ambition when you have it, but among such people, there are probably some who come to realize that in the end, their lives can’t be a narrative, and that a narrative is not a principle that penetrates life, and turn their attention to something that’s not narrative. What I want to write is something that depicts the fragmentary aspects of life, which are like a tangled skein, in a fragmentary manner, something that reflects my own life, which in itself is a great chaos, by creating and maintaining chaos, the greatest constituent of life.
Perhaps I seek to write something that’s fit to be read on a rock in a forest you come to while on a daily walk, or in a café on a street where you’re traveling. I would bring into my story fragmentary stories whose pages, turned by the wind, can be read at random, stories that allow you to close your eyes while reading and dwell for a moment on a scene that can be taken out from the book and savored, stories that are far from being narrative. Even when I talk about the anecdotes, they will be stories that are not quite narratives, stories that cannot be narratives. Perhaps even as I talk about the anecdotes, I could talk about my impressions on the anecdotes and the thoughts created by those impressions, preventing the anecdotes from developing into narratives.
What I seek to emphasize as I write this story, which perhaps says nothing, and in which something becomes nothing when the standards are changed, or whose meaning or importance changes (Some of the stories I tell could end up being told somehow even though I had no intention of telling them, or tried not to tell them. And there will be almost no difference between some of them, even if there’s a difference between those that are told and those that are not told), is not the story itself, but ways in which stories are told (The ways would include saying something that doesn’t seem to make sense at one glance in a clever way so that it does make sense), and ideas that prevent something from degenerating into a story—ideas that prevent a story, even as it is told, from developing into a story in the end, or at least into a complete story—or, since many ideas come from things, something that is developing into ideas on things, or thoughts on thoughts I’m thinking, or on the pleasure or the difficulty of thinking, or thoughts on pleasure or difficulty itself.
And I’d have to subdue the various voices within myself that raise themselves or speak simultaneously—some of the voices seem to plead some kind of a difficulty, and some of them are on their way to understanding a cruel, merciless heart—or give weight to one of the voices. I’d have to close my ears to the end to the nastiest of them all, and press and suppress it, the voice that comes from the part deepest within me, the voice that denies everything, the voice that is used to silence or has learned to be silent.
Perhaps that is the result of a certain conflict between a figure I have designated as the first person narrator of the story I’m writing and myself, for it could be difficult for a narrator, who feels uncomfortable that the author’s voice slips in, and that his autonomy is violated, and the author, who sticks his head out while hiding behind the narrator, to speak in one voice. I already sense that the figure I have designated as the narrator would spoil the fun of the figure identified as the author, and dash cold water on the thoughts that the author has, possibly leading the author to stand up to him even more for fun, and the person actually writing this story could find himself in an awkward position between the narrator and the author, and have a difficult time arbitrating between the two and side with one of them at times, but find himself in an ambiguous position at times (Perhaps this story will be written by at least three people), and I’d have to write so that a calm tone and a cheerful tone cross and collide like dissonance, so that the unity of tone is broken, and tell the darkest story in the most cheerful way, or vice versa.
Anyway, there are other thoughts I’m obsessed with now, thoughts about death. Thoughts about death, of course, have always followed me around, and I’m as familiar with death as I am with the spots on my body I’ve had since I was born.
In light of the fact that although many things in life seem predetermined, nothing, in fact, is predetermined, and that you yourself can decide everything at every moment, and if you think carefully, very carefully on that fact, there come moments in which suicide, the best choice you can make, becomes very alluring, and such moments come to me far too often.
What I think about mostly, however, is death in general, not suicide through which I would murder myself, and not actual death, but something abstract, like the memory of a day when you shivered terribly in the cold, or a feeling you had upon seeing an abstract painting, or a sudden thought you have when looking at a dead fish, still intact, on your plate in a restaurant.
It’s summer now, and in full bloom by my bedroom window are trumpet creepers, which are known to be toxic, or which I somehow came to believe are toxic, though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, and which I could touch by reaching out a hand, over the wall of my neighboring house, and looking at them, I think of death once again. For some time, I had indulged in the idea that the toxin in the showy flower could make me die slowly, or at least go insane, and felt a strong desire to eat a trumpet creeper, and at one time had to realize that desire in another way, by coming up with the sentence, When a trumpet creeper dressed in the wrong clothes is going round and round many horses, you need to make an effort to row and go to the bottom of the lake.
Summer was always the most difficult season for me to endure; in any case, it was difficult for me to feel that way about any other season besides summer. It was difficult, at least, for me to do so as I did about summer. And that was because I thought summer was a difficult season for me, that it was inevitably a difficult season for me, but there really were aspects about summer that gave me a difficult time. For several years when summer came around, I felt that the summer would be difficult to endure, and each time, summer came to me as a season that would take me to a point of no return. Thus, summer seemed to be a season I had to stand up to, and I thought I could write something about an exhausting struggle and tragic loss of a summer, with the title, “The Record of a Summer’s Struggle,” or “The Record of a Summer’s Loss.” And I considered using one of them as the title of what I’m writing, but concluded that they were more fitting as the titles of certain periods you went through.
Nevertheless, I managed, barely, to endure through several summers that came to me, and was faced with another summer. And yet, although I didn’t know the exact cause—for I didn’t try to find out the exact cause—my condition was steadily growing worse, and so for a long time, I had a sort of a belief, the belief that I, or my condition, wouldn’t improve, that it would never improve, that it could go terribly wrong at one point, and the belief seemed excessive in a way.
But when this summer came around, I passed out in my house, as if through a miracle that comes to someone who has unshaken faith and clings to it, as if through the realization of a long-held belief, and the incident was something that had been foreseen through dizziness that had been growing worse for a long time, and I’d prepared for it in my own way, that is, by not doing anything. My terrible negligence of everything made that possible for me.
The physical ailment that I’d imagined would come to me, however, was seizure or leg trouble or something of the sort. I’d also thought at one time that if one of my legs became impaired, I could procure a nice cane, and with three legs, now that one had been added, take more complicated, rhythmic steps, which wouldn’t be possible with two legs (I actually took a very careful look at an old woman with bad legs at the park one day, taking modest steps, relying on a cane, submitting to a certain rhythm, and afterwards when I saw normal people walking, they seemed somewhat stupid and awkward. And if I carried around a cane, I could raise it and politely scare off a dog on a walk with its master, delighted to see me and about to come running even though we didn’t know each other, and prevent it from coming toward me, or use the cane to make the dog come closer as it changed its mind while coming toward me and refused to come any closer, feeling threatened by the cane I was holding or by me, holding the cane, or, before all this happened, I wouldn’t have to chase away the tiresome dogs one by one, for the dogs could lose their nerve early on, seeing the cane, and not come close. And as occasion demanded, I could scare someone off, acting as if I would beat him if necessary, even if I didn’t actually beat him with the cane, or I could, using the cane, pluck a ripe apple or a rose, hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, at a height I couldn’t reach with my hand. I’m of the opinion that anyone passing by should be allowed to pluck an apple or a rose hanging from a branch or a vine reaching outside the wall of someone’s house, but once, I was caught by the owner while plucking a rose, and was somewhat humiliated. The owner of the house was a philosopher, well known to the public, and he was furious at me, as if quite upset that one of his roses had been stolen. The aged philosopher seemed to be of the philosophy that nothing that belonged to him should be taken away from him by anyone. But it was my philosophy, if I had any philosophy at all, that something so small as taking an apple or a rose without the owner’s permission should be allowed on this earth, still the only planet among the countless planets in the universe known to have life forms. A world in which you couldn’t pilfer a luscious fruit or a rose while taking a walk on a bright afternoon or in the middle of the night would indeed be a world without hope. After that, I saw the philosopher in front of his house, severely scolding a dog, though I’m not sure if it was his dog or someone else’s, or what it had done, and he was scolding it as menacingly as he did when I plucked one of his roses. In other words, I was scolded by him just as the hapless dog was scolded. Mercy was possibly the ultimate sentiment that a human could have toward other humans and living things, but it seemed that he had no mercy. He always seemed fraught with anger, and it was possible that he became angry even with his desk or dishes from time to time).
Nevertheless, the culmination of the persisting poor condition of my body in the form of dizziness seemed to be something that suited me as the final outcome, although I hadn’t secretly anticipated it, and it felt a little like a miracle when it actually happened because I’d been hoping in my heart that something would throw my life, which was much too tranquil in a way, and almost unrealistic—I had an earnest desire to disturb a stable condition, even as I sought stability—into confusion, albeit slightly.
When I was severely dizzy, I felt as if I were suffering from seasickness on land, and I accepted dizziness as my natural state of being by thinking that I knew that I was on a rotating earth because of my dizziness, and that dizziness was something quite natural you could feel on the earth, in this dizzy world, and sometimes, even when I kept still, I felt as if I were standing on a slab of ice floating down the river, or as if I were falling slowly, while at the same time soaring with an infinite lightness, into a seemingly bottomless space devoid of gravity, but also as if I were sinking, like some kind of a sediment, deep into the ocean where enormous pressure weighed down upon me, and at the same time, I felt as if my entire body were a building that was collapsing, unable to endure its own weight after many years.
But the dizziness I felt was something that could not be described properly through any color, shape, texture, figure of speech, or anything at all (One day, it seemed as if the floor of my room were slowly tilting this way and that—one of the symptoms of dizziness I felt could be described in this way—and it seemed that if there were balls on the floor, they would roll around here and there, but the problem seemed to lie in that I couldn’t free myself of the thought that my dizziness wouldn’t cease so long as it felt as if the nonexistent balls were rolling around on the floor and I failed to make the balls come to a stop), and I was frustrated, while at the same time fascinated, by the impossibility of describing the dizziness—I felt a bit of joy that I couldn’t describe the dizziness, which was purely because I was thinking about how easily the modifier “indescribable” was accompanied by the word “joy”—and thought that the only adjective that could describe it, inadequate as it was, was “uncontrollable (But is this an adjective?),” and that the dizziness some people felt was something that separated them from others, and would be as distinct and diverse as their personalities or appearances.
The moment I lost consciousness, I felt as if I were clutching the hem of a woman’s long skirt, that I was grasping it with more strength in my hand than was necessary, but I thought that in reality, the strength in my hand that was grasping it was leaving, and when I woke up after being unconscious for I don’t know how long, I was, in fact, loosely clutching the hem of the curtain on my kitchen window, made of thick velvet.
But what I couldn’t understand, above all, was how I’d woken up by the window, which was several steps away from the living room, when it seemed that I was in the living room when I collapsed. Perhaps I walked slowly toward the window the moment I collapsed, losing consciousness, or crawled quickly, when it wasn’t necessary, like some animal that
The sudden swooning brought me a peculiar sort of pleasure, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I could think that I was clutching a woman’s skirt hem, even as I lost consciousness and collapsed—I wasn’t sure, however, if this very Kafkaesque experience was an experience of Kafka’s, penned in one of his works, or my own—or if there was an inherent pleasure that could be found in the loss of consciousness, a pleasure that could be found if you sought to find it. The moment I lost consciousness, I actually thought that I was pulling and taking off a woman’s skirt, a daring yet rude thing to do, but one that was delightful in a way, and also thought that I couldn’t help laughing, though it wasn’t something to laugh about, but I don’t think I actually laughed.
The swooning also brought a peculiar sort of satisfaction, for there seemed to be an infinite space within the dizziness of swooning through which I could spread out infinitely, after being sucked up into the whirlpool of dizziness because of dizziness. And the incident gave me a sense of anticipation, a great sense of anticipation, for more to come in the future (Anticipation is a very strange thing, making you anticipate such things, and making you, at times, anticipate your own fall and decline above all).
Having woken up by the window, I felt as if I could lose consciousness again at any moment, and everything seemed like a lie, and I thought somewhat clearly that everything seemed like a lie, in a way that was different from the way in which life itself seemed like a lie, but that there was nothing strange about it. In the end, I felt an acute pain in my knee joint, which had been bad for some time, and while trying to focus on it, wondered, This pain, where’s its origin, and when was its origin? but it occurred to me that these expressions weren’t correct, so I wondered again, What is the origin of this pain? and wondered if this expression was correct, as I lost consciousness again, and this time, I woke up in the bathroom. I couldn’t remember how I’d made my way from the window to the bathroom, and why there, of all places, either.
Sitting crumpled on the bathroom floor, and feeling great sorrow this time, I thought that I’d never be able to regain my consciousness if I lost it again, and agonized over whether I should stay where I was, hoping to get better, or go to the emergency room, and if I were to go to the emergency room, how I’d get there, and thought that I’d never gone to the emergency room in an ambulance and felt an urge to do so, but in the end, I called a taxi, and while being taken away in a taxi, I clenched my hand tightly, as if I holding onto a string of consciousness which I’d lose forever if I let go, and thought that it wouldn’t matter that much even if I did lose consciousness, as if falling asleep, on my way to the hospital, and again thought, somewhat playfully, that if I swooned again, I should make sure to grab the hem of a woman’s skirt.
I got to the emergency room, and lay on a bed without being able to properly explain my symptoms to the doctor, and as he took certain measures, I wondered whether or not I should let go of the string of consciousness, and felt a strong desire to do so, even while fighting against it, and saw the curtains flapping in the open window, and remembered that it was while I was staying cooped up in a hotel in New York that I thought, looking at the curtains that were flapping in the same way, that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window, and the memory brought me a strange, almost unbearable pleasure.
—Jung Young Moon translated by Jung Yewon
Jung Young Moon is the author of numerous works of fiction including Vaseline Buddha, A Contrived World, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung has also translated more than forty books from English into Korean. In 2005 Jung participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Jung Yewon is the translator of One Hundred Shadows, by Hwang Jung-eun. She is also the translator of No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and one of the co-translators of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young Moon, both published by Dalkey Archive as part of their Library of Korean Literature series.
I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
The sign juts up suddenly in the sky above the beltway. It’s a hazy deep green, rectangular and rusting away. Sitting shotgun, with my notebook in hand, it takes me a few moments to understand and write down the words. Fevers bring on this sort of sluggish lucidity. I want to laugh but the purple bolt of pain that slashes from my jaw to my ear is so bright that I find myself curled up into a ball in the seat. Without slowing her Mazda the least bit (the bitch has a Mazda; three years ago she was barely surviving by turning tricks, picking up paying pricks at El Diablito Tun Tun to the sound of reggaeton rhythms), Lisandra looks at me and says:
“You want an aspirin, baby?”
It’s neither a question nor a statement. It’s just polite auto-babble. A salicylic silk handkerchief to dull the razor blades of varying thickness slicing my face, the face of nothing. I answer no with a shiver: that was the babble I used to sputter out when I was a kid and thought about murdering Mom.
My mom made a living as cold mill laminator in the AHMSA Steel Plant No. 1. Every day she returned home from work encrusted from head to toe in metal shavings, and white from saltpeter, the soles of her feet cracking, her knees tight and creaking like knots, her calves hard as a cutting board. She made me massage her with Stanhome Foot Repair the whole afternoon while we watched reruns of tacky soap operas: “A Girl Named Miracle,” “Rina,” and “The Strange Return of Diana Salazar.” Once in a while we could hear Papa shouting as he played marbles out in the garden with the little kids. It made me really angry that he had permission to go out and play while I stayed inside.
“It’s you I love the most,” she said if I argued, her face taking on an expression she meant to look sweet but which always struck me as obscene.
Sometimes when I gave her massages I daydreamed, imagining Mom toppling into an enormous blast furnace, her body vaporized in the boiling pig iron (in school I’d seen some crude sketches of those gigantic ladles used to hold molten steel). It was a nightmarish vision and it made me feel enormously sad, almost bad enough to want to die too, but I consoled myself by playing marbles with Dad and the kids next door.
Sometimes Mom complained of a headache.
“Do you want an aspirin?” I’d ask her, imagining that maybe the pharmacist had accidentally dropped a few sleeping pills into the bottle of aspirin. Or better yet, a cyanide capsule like secret agents used in spy movies.
It wasn’t quite dark yet but she gave me my late afternoon snack and sent me off to bed.
“You’re the best boy in the world,” she would say, bending over me, before switching off the light. “Some day God will reward you so much, because there’s nothing holier in this world than someone who looks after their mother.”
Then she’d leave me there in my dark room. I’d lay awake for a long time. I’d listen to the television through the wall, trying to imagine a face and a situation for each character. I’d listen to the voices of the neighbors’ kids in the street, making fun of Dad’s stupidities. I’d review my plans for how to kill her until I was finally overcome by sadness or sleep.
“C’mon now, stop that,” says Lisandra. “You can’t go on like that, baby. Really.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel until she remembers the prescription. “You’ve got to take a shot of that stupid Cetri-. . . .”
“Stop writing in your notebook, man, and listen to me. You’ve got to take your medicine and give it to your wife, too. Because, look, with that scrawny, flea-bitten body of hers, Cecilia isn’t gonna be able to put up with your little joke until you decide you’ve got the balls to tell her the truth, ok? You inject her or she dies, and then let’s see how you get rid of her body.
We cut across the edge of the city by a side street before hitting the bottleneck from the construction on the new bridge. Lisandra stops to get my prescription filled in a Guadalajara pharmacy. I stay in the car with my head leaning against the glass, reading over my notes. My hands are throbbing. I feel a spiral of pressure in my chest and my head, a spiral of pressure sliding out of my mouth like a vaporous boa constrictor. My fever must have risen to more than 102˚. They can all go to hell: I’m not taking any pills or injections. And Cecilia isn’t either.
Lisandra is just scornful of Cecilia’s body; the last vestige of the fact that she was once my wife.
I’d gone to Havana to play a show as the bassist in Daddy Dada. We performed in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the same bill as Elvis Manuel and Gente de Zona, playing on stage with our backs to the office of foreign affairs. There were about fifty or two hundred or two hundred thousand black flags with a white star in the middle (the number varies according to the level of patriotism of the Cuban who tells you about them), waving over our heads and making one hell of a racket throughout our whole set. I felt that I’d landed on a Caribbean island of heartless but well-intentioned pirates. Pirates with short-term collective amnesia: every so often they hoisted their corsair flag, as if that would stop the merciless English commandants from raping their mothers the way Blackbeard did.
The moment the show was over all of us musicians in Daddy Dada, like good little Mexican boys, immediately took off to scour the town for whores. (A Mexican is easy to spot in Havana, the taxi driver explained to us: he’s got a big belly, he’s demanding, he’s stingy, he dresses well, he sports his bling, and he asks where to find the blonde whores with the lightest skin.) They took us in a Chinese van to the legendary Diablito Tun Tun, the whole club throbbing with the sound of yet more reggaeton. I’d almost jump out a second-story window to get away from that hellish music, and the fans even clamor for autographs. It drives me fucking nuts: I was once an aspiring artist but a couple of rappers already have everything I ever dreamed of.
Lisandra was standing there at the door of the club, with her almost transparent eyes and her lightly freckled breasts, swaying more gracefully than a Las Vegas table dancer (collectivist and affable: “You’re not a penny pincher, I can tell you like to share.”) and asking for some Cuban pesos so she could get through the door. I paid her way in, treated her to a Red Bull, and fifteen minutes later we were back outside. Her “cousin” gave us a lift in his broken-down Ford to the half-dead entrance into central Havana where her “aunt” loaned her a room (with a TV with an antenna that could pick up the channels out of Miami) so she could spend some time alone with “her friends.”
I paid in advance.
Lisandra handed me a condom. I told her that first I wanted to give her head. She stripped naked without a word. She lay on her back, looking at the ceiling, spread her legs and let me sink my face between them. As I was stroking her soft hairy mound, I felt how she was getting excited little by little. There was a moment––the most intense one we’ve ever experienced together––when her back arched and her fingers very softly brushed the hair on my head. It barely lasted a second. Then she sat up all of a sudden, grabbed the condom from where I’d placed it on the bureau, and said to me:
“Alright: now put it on and get it over with.”
“Because you’re a tourist; you can’t touch me that way.”
“Because tourists make me wanna puke.”
I was so offended that I immediately had the idea that I wanted to marry her. I wanted to drag her back to Mexico, chain her to the wall of some shadeless, sun-bleached patio, force her to scrub the floors, wrapped tight in a pair of denim short-shorts that would allow me to comfortably appreciate (from the imaginary recliner of a postmodern creole slave driver) her legs and her ass.
“OK,” I told her.
I slipped on the rubber and came inside her as fast as I could.
Courting her was the easiest thing of all: three short days later we were already engaged. She gave me only two conditions: first, that her “cousin” not find out yet, and, second, that I let her keep going to the Diablito Tun Tun the same as always while we waited for her visa to be approved. It seemed reasonable to me. The afternoon that I had to catch the plane back to Mexico, Lisandra took me home to ask for her hand. Her father cried.
We got married. I got her out of Cuba and, for a few months, we lived together in my old apartment. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was going to be impossible to humiliate her, hate her, or fall in love with her: Lisandra is the sweetest person I know. She’s also as greasy as a pig and as hard as a hammer: everything slides right off her, and she puts a dent in everything. On the other hand, the sexual aura she so strongly exuded when I met her disappeared completely as soon as she stepped foot off the island. It was as if her body just suddenly powered down or got old or was suddenly drained of life.
One day she found a job (whoring didn’t spoil her schooling: she’s a certified nutritionist from the University of Havana and she speaks four languages). Placing her open palm on my crotch as a sign of peace, she told me: “Listen, darling, you and I have got nothing left to do together.” She packed her bags and moved in with a woman I know.
Lisandra returns to the car with the little bag of medicines. I ask her:
“How much do I owe you?”
“Quit fucking around. You just better take the prescribed dose and stop driving me crazy with all these trips to the doctor. Any day now my patience is going to come to an end.”
I sell sheepskins. Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
Acetaminophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication used to reduce symptoms of pain. Occasionally it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. People who take it in place of aspirin run a greater risk of heart attacks or cerebrovascular accidents.
Ceftriaxone is a third-generation cephalosporin for parenteral use against serious gram-negative bacteria. It penetrates the blood-brain barrier, which makes it useful in the treatment of meningitis. Its spectrum is not effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It must not be physically mixed with other medications. It can produce neurotoxicity if administered simultaneously with aminoglycosides.
Acetylsalicylic acid, the chemical name for aspirin, inhibits the activity of the cyclooxygenase enzyme, which diminishes the formation of precursors of prostaglandins and thromboxanes. It can induce bronchial spasms in patients with asthma. Children and adolescents with viral symptoms must not consume it owing to the risk of it causing Reye’s syndrome, which is usually fatal.
“Do you want an aspirin?” is a poisonous question.
One day Mom and Dad were arguing about the which way they needed to set a new beam in the house. “Like this,” she said. “No, this way,” said Dad, his voice shrill, about ready to throw a fit, and he turned it around. I was sitting on the floor, very close to them, monkeying around with the tools. The beam slipped out of their hands and landed on my head. They slapped a bandage on me, filled me up with pills, and bought me a carton of vanilla ice cream. Then Mom beat Dad with her belt and sent him off to sleep in the doghouse.
Lisandra turns the car onto Calle Pedro Aranda and we roll into the neighborhood of Colonia Bellavista, the uppermost district in the city. Below us lies the flooded quarry, a hard reddish pool, where they extracted the stone used to build the cathedral of Santiago Mataindios––St. James the Indian Slayer––constructed between 1745 and 1800 with the meagre funds of the rich people in the valley of Zapalinamé.
I am both the son and heir of a legendary man: Santiago el Cavernícola––the “caveman”––the hippie guitar hero, the mestizo twin of Robert Plant who sold his Chevy Nova to pay for a coyote to lead him up the stairway to heaven, to the land of stars and bars, to the house of the rising sun, and the dark side of the moon: I am son and heir of a handsome Mexican who became a wetback to get to California. Not to pick tomatoes but to become a rock star.
Santiago el Cavernícola left the barrio of Alacrán––a place whose name means “scorpion”–– long before I was born. He packed only a double change of clothes and the second-hand Takamine twelve-string he had bought at a flea market. Among the flock of teenage girls sighing and pining away in his absence was my mom.
There is a drop of blood trembling in the white of my left eye. I don’t see it: I feel it. I tried to turn my pupil inwards. I know perfectly well it can’t be done. I try. My fever must be close to 104˚. I need a cold shower to bring it down without any pills.
For years, nobody in our town heard anything about my dad. Not until a bus driver on a company shuttle for metalworkers ran into him trying to thumb a ride on Highway 40, near Cuatro Ciénegas. They say it was pretty difficult to recognize him: he’d shaved off all his long hair and his eyebrows with a straight razor. He was carrying a woman’s purse with a big wad of money: twenty thousand dollars. He spoke confusedly about Saint Francis of Assisi, and he hid from trees because, he said, they were trying to recruit him for the war.
Perfect for people who practice transcendental meditation.
Everyone realized that he was flying high on a permanent acid trip and nevertheless, for some months, he once again became one of the most popular young people on the scene. Partly because, as his hair started to grow back, the scars on his scalp became less noticeable and his brown face was as handsome as always. Partly because, by Alacrán standards, twenty thousand dollars was a fortune.
“Step on it,” I tell Lisandra. “I’ve got to get under the shower.”
“Again?” And she feels my forehead with the same hand that she uses to shift gears. “You’re going to take that fucking Acetaminophen.
It was thanks to my father’s acid madness that my mother, a shy and ugly woman, managed to seduce Santiago el Cavernícola. They got married. I was born. By the time my earliest memories begin, my dad’s mind had come down from its hellish time warp but he was now stuck somewhere between eight and ten years old, and maintained that emotional age until the day he died. We were great friends. He showed me a number of tricks for how to copy on exams. He was my biggest rival on the Atari console. And he became a true thug at playing marbles.
My mother, however, could never forgive the fact that he had destroyed his mind before letting her make love with him.
The car stops. My house. Black iron gate. The garden destroyed, kicked to pieces in a sudden attack of gastric infection. Cecilia is standing in the doorway. In pajamas. I think: if she continues trying to follow me in my experiments with feverish illnesses, she’s gonna kill herself. And Lisandra, again:
“You’ve got to take this fucking Acetaminophen. You’ve got to inject it right now.”
I’m slipping into the nirvana of fever: that sea of tranquility where thermometers burst and the blood swirls slowly behind the eyelids, and the fleshy matter (that well-congealed gelatin) begins to fall silent.
I sell sheepskins.
A surge of explosions or rustling leaves tearing me a part as if I were a saint.
— Julián Herbert, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.
Tirukkural encodes the cultural intelligence of the Tamil people in its 1,330 couplets (called kurals), written sometime between the third and first centuries BCE in south India by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises on right living, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama). (More about Tirukkural can be found in my earlier essay, here on NC.)
Though ancient in origin, these verses are still alive in Tamil culture. My mother tells me that the local Indian cultural association where she lives in rural Ohio has just started a kural-memorization competition for the kids. Each participant has to start from the beginning of Tirukkural, the very first couplet, and recite as much as he or she can remember. The prizes are awarded to the top memorizers, one dollar per kural. I laughed, thinking of how much money a kid could make if she made it all the way to the section on wealth (that’s $380 for getting there).
The following couplets are from the first and third sections (virtue and love).
Chapter 8: On possessing love
In love, what lock? Heartache
gleams on the tear tracks left in its wake.
The loveless take all for themselves, but those who love own
not even their bones.
Love unites thought and action in pure life—
a consummation to the very marrow.
Love’s thrill leads to
Love’s possessors manufacture this world’s joy,
and, by possessing joy, win glory.
Pure virtue is love’s sole fruit according to the ignorant, oblivious
that pure valor ripens alongside.
Boneless worms in sunlight burn,
as do loveless people in moral virtue.
Loveless hearts bloom in an arid waste
on parched trees, withering.
What use are the outer limbs of the body
without the inner limb?
A love-filled path is the soul,
without which the body is only bones covered over with skin.
Chapter 122: On night visions
My love’s messenger came to me: a dream.
What feast of thanks can I offer it?
Of my eyes, shaped like darting fish, I beg sleep. Then for my love
truth will pour from my suffering heart.
Awake, he never came to me, but, asleep,
seeing him preserves my life.
In dreams, I seek that fierce pleasure, which in my waking life
avoids me: I find him.
Awake, my vision and its dream
met in one sweet moment.
If waking life would cease and only sleep persist
my love would never leave my mind.
Awake, he never came near. What cruelty takes, in my sleep,
its right to torture me?
I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.
In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes.
Every day they will gossip about us and my forsakenness. But my dream
they didn’t glimpse, thankfully, these villagers.
from Chapter 123: An evening lament
Budding in early morning and unfurling all day,
the evening blooms, like this ache.
—Translated by A. Anupama
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org) and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.
I can see she’s unhinged the moment she gets in. She sits for long seconds on the back seat with eyes closed, pressing her head against the headrest. Breathing hard, with long sighs like one short of oxygen. She’s going to be sick in a second. The thought makes me panic a bit, not here of all places, in my cab.
Where can I take you?
I don’t care. Away from here, quick.
But is it Buda, or Pest?
Pest. That’s on the other side, isn’t it? The farther the better.
This is of course an invitation to dance, after two years of taxi driving I can tell that much. That is, that I should ask questions. “You had a bad day?”, “Did something upset you?” and the like. She’s expecting sanctimonious sentences, questions that should mean, “Come, sweetie, have a good hearty sob on my broad shoulder.” I’m not sure I want it. I’m not sure I want to hear the details of her emotional disaster. For that’s what it’s all about for certain. No, I’m not going to become a self-styled confessor or psychotherapist again. I’m tired of the vain, petty, endlessly repeating stories. I’d much rather touch her nape, which is reflected for an instant in the rear window, where her unruly black hair is severely cropped. This makes her look vulnerable and helpless. You could cut off her head smoothly with a guillotine any time. Her silky, surprisingly large and fleshy earlobes are curving strangely outward and upward, in a shape slightly reminiscent of a V. Perhaps she’s in the habit of twisting them when she’s nervous. Some fidget with their hair, some drum with their fingers, and there are some who keep twisting their earlobes. Sweet girl, stop twisting them, for you’ll end up with them twisted. If I bit them, a drop of her ruby-red blood would gush out at once. A gift of earrings. No, I’m really not saying anything. Her presence fills the car cabin like some strange material obtained through long experimentation, for NASA let’s say, it has the capacity to fill even the smallest and most hidden cavities, seeps in everywhere, into the trunk, ashtray, outer ear, bronchia, pores, Mari of course, at the Déli station at last the penny drops where this familiar feeling comes from, making those butterflies go off immediately in my stomach (when she got in they went off at once), it was Mari who could fill everything with her presence so, at the end I could hardly breathe, because her existence oozed into the nostrils and the mouth cavity and blocked the way of the air, making me breathe hard and staccatoed like this one in the back, I look into the mirror and she immediately looks back at me, looking for eye contact, looking for the thread of the conversation, she is clinging to my gaze like one drowning, begging me to throw her a rope, a word, anything that keeps her from sinking into the swamp of her trauma. No, sweetheart, I’m not going to be your Bruce Willis, your Stallone, you can safely sink in the back seat like the Titanic as far as I’m concerned, you are exactly what I needed in the night, exactly this convulsion of the stomach that is all Mari, I’m sure Mari has sent it just to remind me how useless to cod myself that, with a bit of cab-driving and white nights, I can wash her out of my system, that I shouldn’t believe I can atone so easily, although that chick didn’t mean anything, the whole affair barely lasted for two seconds, after five years I was simply curious what another skin smelled like, it was nowhere near Mari’s, I only wanted to try out for a second what it felt to be free, because Mari clutched me with her arms like a beautiful, fleshy octopus, a rare specimen, the likes of which you only meet in fairy tales. Seemingly fragile, frail, in need of protection, but once you’ve yielded she will crush you with her embrace sooner or later, and this one is splayed there on the back seat exactly like that, like one about to fall apart to atoms unless somebody helps her, she gives another well-audible sigh, hoping I will take pity on her at last, why me, why do these little monsters always pick me, why don’t they just leave me well alone to drive about in the night, so that in a suitably beaten moment I can feel I might manage to sleep again, because there is this strange physiological phenomenon, whenever somebody is released too abruptly from a too-tight embrace, they will not sleep for long, just keep shifting their body’s weight from one leg to another like a dog suddenly untied, looking around unsure, not knowing what to do with all this unexpected freedom, and it is not rare that they end up looking for someone else they might serve, rather than roaming together with the other discarded dogs.
We are on Chain Bridge already when she speaks again.
I’ve never traveled with a woman cab driver before. Aren’t you afraid?
Just like this. Aren’t you afraid, driver? Aren’t you afraid, woman? They’re going to kill you or worse, they’re going to fuck you.
And you? Aren’t you afraid to get in a stranger’s car, just like this?
I look into the rear mirror. I see she smiles faintly.
Well, there’s some truth in it.
We are stuck at the red light, József Attila street, an uncommonly balmy April night, silence. If she shut up now and would just stay put in the back until I drop her off somewhere, I could even enjoy this sudden spring.
But in all truth a stranger is better than someone you know. At least you don’t imagine you know him. With someone you know, you’ll always discover in the end that they are complete strangers. I’m being so fucking profound, sorry. I don’t want to burden you with my pearls of wisdom.
Well to this you just can’t say no. I have a heart too, even if a bit stony. Come now, here’s this stony, loving, cabby’s heart of mine. Take it. Shred it to pieces.
Worse. I found out she has a husband.
Her look in the rear mirror is hard, provocative, she’s waiting for the effect. For the bafflement. She is preparing some grand statement to fling into my face. Sweet mother of mine. You have to get up earlier, darling. A cab driver who is not able to size up the client in half a second should go breed monchichis. My radar beeped in the first second, as it should. Hers is not yet functioning, as I see. After all, I’m sitting with my back to her, I have to grant her this. Some say though that you could tell from my nape alone. Anyway. Tears must obviously be blurring her vision. Do I have to say that by now they are rolling down in big fat drops on her freckled and strikingly white face. The turned-up collar of her black leather jacket surrounds it like an obituary announcement. I half turn around. Not without a touch of rancour, I must admit.
So, she screwed you.
For a moment she looks me in the eye, surprised. Then goes on relieved, like one who has unexpectedly gained absolution for a sin not committed.
Not only me. Her husband too. Her children. Everybody. The whole fucking world.
And how did you find out?
I can’t believe I’m asking this. Who the hell cares how she found out, who said what, who lied, how this or that one was caught, and what they said at that, and how she reacted to it, who cares about this pathetic little story, this scrap opera.
You won’t guess of course: Dad went off on a business trip, but Dad returned earlier than he should have, the airport workers were on strike, ha ha. I will never forgive her though for laying me in their marital bed. Only men would do such crap.
And, now you see, sometimes women too. Which is harder to recover from. This shows how nasty prejudice is. At least you’ve learnt something today.
This turned out lighter and harsher than necessary. That is, it turned out like this out of necessity. I just had to keep her at a distance. I had to try and wipe off her sad eyes’ burning, tattooing look from my skin. I had to air the sea, algae and seaweed smell of her breath out of my nose, I had to try to surface from the deep sea water and not let myself be caught by this stifling underwater garden; I had to try to erase her from my mind, I’m standing on the runway like Humphrey Bogart and don’t have to say anything, because the woman (who is also me) doesn’t get on the plane, but turns round slowly, comes up to me and takes my arm; I had to erase from my memory Mari standing in the corridor and shrieking into my face that she hopes someone will some day really break my heart into chips and smithereens, so it can never be put together again, and then I will learn what I did to her, because she can see I have no idea, callous brat that I am, I had to forget her thick lashes in the long first moment she closed them, her preternaturally dark eyes, the likes of which can only be seen in inner Congo, Tshad or Zambia, small wonder Dr Livingstone vanished for years on end because he set eyes on exactly such a pair of eyes, to his perdition, and this caught him so unprepared and off guard that it took Stanley, who went on an expedition, to drag him out of there. My goodness I thought, who on earth will ever start an expedition for me, who will ever find me and save me when everybody has long given up hope I am still alive, who will search this grimy urban jungle for me, who will be that fearless detective who decides to give the matter one last try, defying the explicit orders of his superior, and inspects that disused factory destined to be demolished, where he finally finds me, half dead. I obviously have to erase from my brain, like from a hard disk by pushing a single button, everything that passed my mind the moment I spotted her on the street corner where she got in; that this is like, this is precisely like when I watched the transit of Venus in front of the Sun two years ago and thought this was what people keep waiting for all their life, such a perfect constellation, which of course then slowly moves apart but as long as it lasts it is nothing but prolonged, perfect bliss.
Wouldn’t you like to have a drink after the fright you got?
I hear this sentence coming out of my mouth. It is my mouth, there’s no doubt about that, but I couldn’t tell who is speaking. I can see she is at least as much taken by surprise by the question as I am. Her face first shows the signs of surprise, then of recognition. At last her radar turned on, however late. I change gear, let the engine run out a bit, there is nobody on the streets, we are sweeping across the city like two survivors come from a different planet.
Why not, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to wash off this filth.
It’s only the street lamps’ light gliding past that gives some emphasis to her dull words.
But let’s not go to the Reflection. I don’t want to meet anyone.
Of course not there, I’m not in the habit of going to such fancy places. I switch off the taxi meter. By now the car must be going on the lead in the air, because the dashboard red light is on, showing there’s hardly any fuel. It feels like having been on the road for days, without food or drink, and now with our last strength we are reaching the oasis. Or rather, its mirage. We go next to Klauzál square, to Fater’s pub. That’s home territory, there I feel safe and there no one will know her, for sure. I take the corner on two wheels almost, a late dog-walker looks at us startled, what is this, not a chase scene again? Yes, a chase. I pull the hand brake and look into the mirror.
Shall we go?
I think I just felt a cool draught of air brush past my nape. In the mirror I can immediately see where it came from.
I’m sorry. I think I changed my mind.
A precise, professional blow to the heart, delivered with an iron bullet. I turn around to see her face, not only its reflection. She should shoot me face to face, properly.
What should we do now?
I’d like to… I’d like you to take me back.
She pulls her black leather collar closer around her neck. Her face is as small now as a shrunken Indian head.
Are you sure it’s a good idea?
I’m already sorry for saying it. I turn back and start the taxi meter again. I’ll have at least this satisfaction, of offering her to them on a plate. I can hear from the back:
No, but I must.
I switch on the radio and turn up the volume. Green wave all the way to Moszkva Square.
—Zsófia Bán, translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
x Zsófia Bán was born in Rio de Janeiro and grew up in Brazil and Hungary. Her writing often addresses topics related to visuality, visual arts, photography, personal and cultural memory, historical trauma, as well as gender. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and translated to a number of languages, including German, English, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian and Slovenian. Besides her volumes of essays, she has published two books of fiction. This story is from her book Amikor még csak az állatok éltek (When There Were Only Animals), 2012. She lives and works in Budapest, where she teaches American Studies, and is currently DAAD writer-in-residence in Berlin.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.
I first came across Óscar Oliva’s work a couple of years ago when Keith Payne came to visit me at my house in Cholula. He spoke of Óscar’s poetry with such enthusiasm that, as soon as he and his partner (the wonderful singer, Su Garrido Pombo—listen to her perform one of the poems below) left, I pulled out the massive anthology of Mexican 20th century poetry that sat guiltily on my shelf and went directly to the entry on Oliva. The first two poems intrigued me—El artista (The Artist) and El sufrimiento armado (The Armed Suffering). El artista takes its cue from the famous Velazquez painting Las meninas, in which the artist chooses to place himself within the painting. The speaker of the poem states that his intention is similar to that of the Spanish painter, to become one with his art: ‘How to make myself and this book indivisible?/How to make this poem break free from the yoke of paper?’ In El sufrimiento armado Oliva visits the tomb of Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, a Guatemalan guerrillero killed by Mexican armed forces near the border with Chiapas. In the second half of the poem the speaker returns to his home in Mexico City to read about the event in the local papers. He notes how the minister for defense claims that the Guatemalan guerrilleros had fired first and that: ‘In these conditions…our soldiers will not reply with flowers and embraces.’ Oliva would reply with poetry, with music. From these two initial encounters it was clear to me this was a poet who gave equal importance to social matters as he did to ars poetica, singing for the sake of music. It was also clear that I would read more.
Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and also one of the states with the highest portion of indigenous groups, is an important element of Oliva’s poetry, his love for his native land is palpable. In Keith’s excellent article for the Irish Times (Rebel Hearts Beat with the ‘Poetry of Vitality’) he charts the circumstances that brought Oliva back to Chiapas in the mid nineties: “In 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had asked Oliva and (Juan) Bañuelos to join its delegation for peace talks with the Mexican government …Hearing the declaration, Oliva returned to his native Chiapas.” But Chiapas, with its stunning natural beauty, armed struggles and social injustices, though a recurring presence, is not the sole location of Oliva’s work. As likely to reference Q’uq’umatz as Juvenal, his wide range of references weave a vast and varied tapestry. Oliva is a troubadour who travels far and wide, crossing spatial and temporal boundaries with ease, though always carrying with him the stones and soil of Chiapas. These four poems are testament to the variety, vitality and integrity of his work. Long may he continue.
— Dylan Brennan
. Óscar Oliva comments on “Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico”
Writing poetry always constitutes a journey that starts upon the arrival of the first line, which contains within itself the impulse to keep going. Sometimes we travel down these roads in the dark, like St. John of the Cross, and sometimes at great speed like Rimbaud, all in order to remember or imagine we are remembering, different aspects of situations. We were taught all this by the classic Chinese and Japanese poets. Also by Fernando Pessoa and the Provençal troubadours. I have never stopped making that journey, a journey into knowledge, an initiatory journey, one that is never the same—the landscapes change, the towns and cities also change. I and everyone else continue along this wheel that also changes.
Behind the wheel of an automobile on the Pan-American Highway from Tuxtla to the City of Mexico
for Enrique González Rojo
From Tuxtla to the city of Mexico
is more than a thousand kilometres
more than a million metres
more than a hundred million centimetres
and so many more stones,
so many more trees that
I can neither measure nor count
what I’ve done so many times,
at so many kilometres an hour,
with the hot breath of wind blowing down the Isthmus,
torrential rains barrelling down the Veracruz stretch
that threaten to jack the car and drop it in a ditch,
I’ve picked up the names of all the bridges,
of all the throttled villages
buried in the curves and straights of the road
that I’ve driven down all the days and all the months of the year,
first light, late at night, and at that moment
when the evening is a cicada turning back
into its primitive shell, spinning back to larva,
the exhaustion hooks the mouth,
twists the shoulder and down
into the back of the foot,
and burrows with a spoon
deep into the head;
I still feel when I’m on the go
from one place to another
in this dread between life and death,
when language and anger pushes you on,
and I’m making my way with a pick and a trowel
or when I’m sat in a chair
or laid between the legs of the one I love,
this gearshift, the pulse of the engine
pulling up the mountain, heading up into
the knotty heart of it all
the gentle giddiness on the way back down
and the speed that makes us swallow the landscape
and our words;
the first time I came to Mexico city
I didn’t know which way to turn
which corner to round,
it was like beginning to write,
sat to the white sheet elbows on the table
alone, shoulders hunched forward
waiting for the pistol and the engine rev,
the race to be won
but you’re the only driver,
the page that burned in my hands
like the rubbish tips that burned in Santa Cruz Meyehualco,
and the trucks and trams that burned in the risings,
that screamed hunger,
I came down from the attic to campus,
books under my arm
rolling up spit balls and firing them
out of the bus window
polluting the city with Kant and Antonio Caso,
I dumped my books on the bus and jumped
into one of the greasy spoons on Academía St. ………….or a pub
then dancing all night in La Perla,
later on I’d feel the heat of the woman
who had brought me home,
a moisture spreading like an expanding universe
in a few square metres,
in a few cubic metres of air;
and I wrote across the city roofs,
I spread my reach, my turf
I wandered the hideous streets
where the people crawled
out of work with nothing to eat
gougers or thieves
who raised their eyes to my shirt
and it was like stepping back into the movies
back into Buñuel’s The Forgotten, and on those ulcerated streets I saw for the first time
carfulls of police, mounted police
pick-ups of riot police
who closed the streets;
the power of the State
who charged full tilt
booting the rubbish bins,
shaking up the neighbourhood
shooting point blank
a blitzkrieg down on our heads,
then the silence of Chaplin’s Easy Street
and I wake up on the path
my eye cut, babbling
like a groggy boxer and they’ve stopped the fight in the third on a technical
and the howls of the crowd not there,
I gathered what was left of my books
without a cent in my pockets,
and back to my room
whistling the tune from The Graduate,
to write the poem I lost
like so many things you lose;
I.D. and women
strikes and chewing gum
faith and socks;
It gets cold in the mountains around Puebla
you have to roll the windows up,
turn on the heat and slow right down
to a regular speed, and later on the sunlight
through my bedroom window,
she’s coming in to wake me
taking off her school uniform
lying down on top of me sliding over me
kissing each other like something out of the movies,
caresses straight out the The tower of lust Gone with the Wind’s big house,
it’s late, it’s late the sunlight tells us,
they’ve turned up the lights in the cinema,
It was time for a sup and head out across the Zócalo,
kiss her goodbye at the door
then up Guatemala St.,
two blocks take a right,
back into the new poem
back into the dream jaunt,
grab some stuff for the street again
to listen to the jangle and bounce of the trucks …………loading and unloading,
the travelling salesmen’s banter,
hop up on a bus
in with the workers
the driver has the radio full blast,
it’s hard to get to the door, I ring the bell,
a red light flashes on the dash,
I take a wander up by San Lazaro station,
watch a train pass
as it pulls itself across the face of the earth
a letter on each of the six cars
that form the word STRIKE,
I measure these things in my pocket
against what’s on the street,
at the stand I grab an orange juice, the passing
railwaymen lift a finger in salute,
I salute them too, it’s as if we’re saying
reality is in those fingers
the orange juice lights up my whole body,
and the five poets are sat around a table
someone reads a poem, I watch them: they’re the same age I was when I first met them, ………….I think;
they haven’t moved, still as a photograph
hands in mid air,
pen in the hand,
a glass at their elbows,
they’re as old as our children are now,
it has all passed so fast
just like coming down out of the mountains in Oaxaca,
where it seems that the road breeds another road
where the slightest slip could send me over the edge,
where the brakes don’t seem to work,
where I’ve lost control of the car,
I come back to the photograph and hang it …………on one of the walls at home,
I arrive for the first time in Mexico City,
I am just one more shoulder in the crowd marching through,
teargas fumes me,
derailed trains burnt out at the terminal
ripped up tracks and the attack
of the police, of the army, of the riot squad
all in battle formation,
the Zócalo is a rifle butt in the face,
there’ll be more battles
José Revueltas tells us,
the railway workers pass by and lift their fists …………in salute
they walk out of one cell straight into another,
back down to the underworld, into their nooks,
take note, write all this down,
I’m nothing more than a chronicler
who has seen his friends fall,
who has buried his dead,
who has washed in the wind,
full of ghosts and contradictions,
demands and manifestos,
who has patched his back so many times
falling in love again and again, watching the future
so it’s hard to keep an eye on the telescope lens,
denying the future, hating it again,
starting over again, in the end
starting the journey, setting out from the same place,
going the same way,
coming down the highway, braking,
tooting the horn, the lights change,
gearshift, watch the tyres,
flick on the wipers,
and keep an eye on the gas,
barrelling down again till finally I pull in
and here I am writing this
at the end of the journey,
hitting the brakes
so I don’t run over everything I’ve written
So I can keep on rising and falling.
—Translation by Keith Payne/Audio reading by Ophelia Ellen McCabe
Al volante de un automóvil por la carretera panamericana de Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
A Enrique González Rojo
De Tuxtla a la ciudad de México
hay más de mil kilómetros de distancia
más de un millón de metros
más de cien millones de centímetros
mas las piedras,
mas los árboles,
que no se pueden medir, ni contar,
que he recorrido tantas veces,
a tantos kilómetros por hora,
con mucho calor y viento por el Istmo,
con lluvias torrenciales por el tramo de Veracruz
que tratan de detener el carro, derribarlo en un barranco,
que he aprendido los nombres de los puentes,
de los pueblos asfixiados, hundidos
en las curvas y rectas de la carretera;
que he recorrido por distintos días y meses del año,
en la madrugada, en la noche, en el momento
en que la tarde es una cigarra volviendo a su funda
primitiva, saltando al revés, a su condición de ninfa,
sintiendo ese cansancio que nos prende de la boca ………con un anzuelo,
que continúa en un hombro,
baja hasta el calcañar de los pies,
y escarba con una cuchara
todavía siento, cuando voy caminando
de un lugar a otro, en esa trepidación de vida y muerte
a la que nos empuja la gramática o la cólera,
de regreso a casa, abriéndome paso
con un pico y una pala, o cuando
estoy sentado en una silla
o cuando acostado entre las piernas de la que amo,
ese cambio de velocidades, el esfuerzo del automóvil
al subir una montaña, entrar a ese nudo de raíces,
el leve mareo al descender
y la velocidad que nos hace tragar el paisaje
o nuestras palabras;
la primera vez que llegué a la ciudad de México
no sabía a dónde dirigirme,
qué esquina cruzar,
era como comenzar un escrito,
estar acodado en una mesa frente a un hoja en blanco,
solo, con los hombros colgados hacia adelante
esperando el disparo que inicia el arranque,
la carrera que hay que ganar
y donde se es el único competidor,
una hoja que ardía en mis manos
como a veces arden los tiraderos de basura de Santa Cruz ………Meyehualco,
o como los camiones y tranvías en tiempos de rebelión,
que aullaba, que tenía hambre,
iba de un cuarto de azotea a la ciudad universitaria,
con libros bajo el brazo,
haciéndolos pedacitos y tirándolos
por la ventanilla del camión,
contaminando más la ciudad con Kant y Antonio Caso,
y ya sin ellos me bajaba a la mitad del camino,
entraba en una cocina económica de las calles de Academia,
o a una cervecería
y en la noche a bailar a La Perla,
más tarde sentía la humedad de la muchacha
que se había acostado conmigo,
una humedad que iba creciendo
como un universo en expansión
en unos cuantos metros cuadrados,
en unos cuantos metros cúbicos de aire;
y yo escribía en las bardas de la ciudad,
ampliaba mi territorio, mi radio de acción,
entraba a calles espantosas
donde la gente se arrastraba,
desempleados que no tenías para comer,
rateros, tal vez criminales
que alargaban sus ojos hasta mi camisa,
y era como entrar de nuevo al cine
a ver Los Olvidados de Luis Buñuel,
y en esas calles ulcerosas vi por primera vez
carros llenos de policías, y también policías a caballo,
granaderos en camiones
que cerraban esas calles,
parte del poder del Estado,
que entraban empujando,
entraban a paso de carga
y arremetían contra todos,
tirando los botes de basura,
despertando al vecindario,
disparando a quemarropa,
acometiendo como en un juego de futbol americano
y después era el silencio de La Calle de la Paz de Chaplin
y yo despertaba tirado en la banqueta,
macaneado, con las cejas cortadas,
como un boxeador groggy que le han parado la pelea
por knock out técnico en el tercer asalto,
con la rechifla de un público que no existe,
levantaba los pedazos de libros que me habían quedado,
sin un quinto en los bolsillos,
y regresaba a mi cuarto
silbando el mambo de El Estudiante
a escribir el poema
que se perdió
como se pierden tantas cosas,
credenciales y mujeres,
huelgas y chicles,
buena fe y calcetines;
con mucho frío por la sierra de Puebla,
hay que subir los cristales de las ventanillas,
poner la calefacción, descender a una velocidad regular,
y luego la claridad entrando por la ventada de mi cuarto,
entrando ella a despertarme,
quitándose su uniforme de colegiala,
echándoseme encima, moviéndose,
besándonos como se besan el actor y la actriz en los filmes,
acariciándonos en La Torre de Nesle,
en la mansión de Lo que el Viento se llevó, ya es tarde, ya es tarde, nos decía la claridad,
se hacía la luz en la sala de cine,
había que ir a cenar y atravesar de nuevo el zócalo,
despedir a la amiga en la puerta de su casa,
después subir a la calle de Guatemala,
a dos cuadras dar vuelta a la derecha,
llegar de nuevo al poema recién comenzando,
entrar de nuevo a la expedición del sueño,
ir recogiendo muestras de distintos materiales,
para bajar de nuevo a la calle
al escuchar el ruido de los camiones
de carga y descarga, las voces de los vendedores ambulantes,
de los recogedores de basura,
de los niños que van a la escuela,
subir a un camión de pasajeros
junto a obreros y obreras,
el chofer lleva el radio encendido a todo volumen,
es difícil llegar hasta la puerta de bajada del camión,
se toca el timbre, se prende un foco rojo al lado del volante,
caminar sin rumbo fijo por la estación San Lázaro,
ver pasar un tren
que a la tierra arrancara su estructura
en seis de sus vagones una letra
que conforman la palabra H U E L G A
esos materiales que llevo en el bolsillo
los comparo con los que voy viendo en la calle,
llego hasta un puesto de jugos y pido uno de naranja,
los ferrocarrileros al pasar levantan el puño y saludan,
yo los saludo,
la realidad son estos puños,
el jugo de naranja ilumina todo mi cuerpo,
llego al sitio de reunión,
los cinco poetas están sentados alrededor de una mesa
alguien lee un poema, yo los observo:
“tienen la edad que yo tenía cuando los conocí”, pienso;
se han quedado inmóviles fijos como en una fotografía
en actitud de golpear la mesa,
con el lápiz en las manos,
con una copa al lado de cada uno,
tienen la edad de nuestros hijos,
edad que ha pasado vertiginosamente,
tal como el descenso por las montañas de Oaxaca,
donde parece que la carretera engendra otra carretera,
donde el menor descuido puede llevarme al precipicio,
donde parece que los frenos no responden,
se ha perdido el control del auto,
llego hasta la fotografía y la cuelgo en una de las paredes ………de mi casa,
llego por primera vez a la ciudad de México,
soy un hombro más de la multitud al dar un paso,
gases lacrimógenos me hacen rabiar,
trenes descarrilados o incendiados en las terminales,
las vías levantadas, y el ataque
del ejército, policías y granaderos
en formación a paso de batalla,
el zócalo reducido a un culatazo en la frente,
vendrán otras batallas, nos decía José Revueltas,
los ferrocarrileros pasan frente a mí levantan el puño y saludan,
salen de una cárcel para entrar en otra,
pasan a la ilegalidad, a sus escondrijos,
tomo nota, apunto todo esto,
no soy más que un cronista
que ha visto caer a sus amigos,
que ha enterrado a sus muertos,
que se ha bañado de viento,
lleno de contradicciones y fantasmas,
de asperezas y afirmaciones,
con la espalda remendada tantas veces,
de nuevo amando, avizorando el futuro
que es tan difícil retener en el lente del telescopio,
negando ese futuro, de nuevo odiando,
de nuevo comenzando, en fin
iniciando el viaje, partiendo del mismo lugar,
dirigiéndome al mismo lugar,
descendiendo por la carretera, frenando
tocando el claxon, haciendo cambio de luces,
cambiando de velocidades, atento
al deslizamiento de las llantas, poniendo
en acción los limpiadores del parabrisas,
vigilando la aguja que marca el contenido del tanque de gasolina,
bajando a gran velocidad, en fin
hasta llegar al lugar donde estoy sentado escribiendo,
al final de todo,
para no atropellar todo lo que llevo escrito
y a mí mismo.
Óscar Oliva comments on “For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez”
It is a poem of circumstance, one in which I once again proclaim my love for Tuxtla, my hometown. I like to walk around Tuxtla because for walls it has mountains that have hardly moved since I was born. It is also a poem in which I speak of the evil machinations of the State and the Church, how they transform religious faith, with the 30 golden coins from the spotlights of mercenary publicity.
For Pope John Paul II on his arrival in Tuxtla Gutiérrez
In the water’s flow lies its fall
voices, faces beloved for having
survived rivers upon rivers: ………………………………..Tuxtla
is like amber under pooled waters;
so now, you’ll make it to my hometown,
Pontifex Maximus, and I would have
liked to have seen you with my 1947 eyes.
You will see that sky of almost solid light that there begins,
that continues in Guatemala like a wild boar’s head, …………………………………carried on a shoulder,
that can be weighed by hands in all of Central America,
so battered by North American imperialism ………………………………..(that’s what we called it),
and on resting your workman’s hands upon my hometown,
you’ll hear the fluttering thoughts of Q’uq’umatz.
I don’t really know what your visit will bring,
under a sky with no eyelids; it will be astonishing,
tongues will mingle, you will stumble,
heads will bash against each other,
and your word will disseminate, your soul torn to shreds,
thousands will photograph you, shoot you in video and film,
and I will watch you so far away so close on the telly.
I would have liked to have been there in my doorway ……………………………….to have seen you pass by,
but, since many years ago,
a child that came running from the backyard,
not yet having received the Eucharist,
upon opening the door to the street, fell down in a faint.
My grandparents, parents, siblings, and I myself, all dead,
buried; all together, all shouting ……………………..Goodbye Holy Father! God Bless You!
Now then, I am writing these words down before ……………………..you arrive in Mexico, from where
news of your visit breaks ……………………………………………from the TV stations,
which we watch between adverts, which dirty …………your robes upon which they play dice,
between political slogans from George Bush to the world ………………………………from the White House;
before you leave Rome, Sir John, Sir Paul,
before you open one of the gates of the Vatican Palace;
before I can establish that Rome really exists, the Vatican
because you know very well that all that I’m saying ………………………………………………………………..is possible,
especially between two poets who will not see each other, not now, not ever.
Upon arrival, you will see the trees, that cannot grow ………………………………………………………………..any longer.
You will not see the idols—nobody has seen them—that the Indians …………hide behind the Catholic images.
You will see, just beside the arroyo, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas,
and you will kneel before him; the bishop of Chiapas ……………………………….will not know who you are.
I beg you not to lift the stone that trips you up ………………………………..on your way to Tuxtla, ………………………………..I do not want the wound to open.
In the place from which you’ll speak,
you will be able to see the Cañon del Sumidero
and the Río Grijalva which carries another river in its depths,
and you will feel there are more leaves under the breeze,
more amber under the light.
What word will be gathered by those poor
who will listen to you, who have survived so many stonings …………………………………………and prisons?
I don’t know. What I do know is that Christ has not died with them,
that he’ll listen to their words, and when you are through,
He will return with them to where they live, and upon opening ……………………………….the door of one of those houses, will fall down in a faint.
……………………………………………………Safe journey home.
—Translation by Dylan Brennan
Al Papa Juan Pablo II para cuando llegue a Tuxtla Gutiérrez
En el manar del agua está la caída,
algunas voces, rostros amados porque
han sobrevivido ríos sobre ríos: …………………………………………………..Tuxtla
es como el ámbar bajo el agua empozada;
en fin, llegará usted a mi pueblo,
Sumo Pontífice, y me hubiera
gustado verlo con mis ojos de 1947.
Verá el cielo de luz casi sólida que ahí comienza,
que continúa en Guatemala como una cabeza de jabalí ………………………………….colgada al hombro,
que es una sola pisada de tapir en El Salvador,
que puede sopesarse con las manos en toda Centroamérica
ahora tan golpeada por el imperialismo norteamericano ………………………………….(así se decía antes),
y al posar sus manos de obrero en mi pueblo,
escuchará el aleteo y el pensamiento de Gucumatz.
No sé bien cómo será su visita,
bajo el sol sin párpados; será impresionante,
las lenguas se confundirán, se trastabillará,
las cabezas chocarán unas con otras,
y su voz será propagada, y su espíritu hecho girones.
Miles lo fotografiarán, le tomarán videos y películas.
Yo lo veré tan lejos, tan cerca, desde la TV.
Me hubiera gustado estar en la puerta de mi casa ………………………………..para verlo pasar,
pero desde muchos años atrás,
un niño que llega corriendo desde el traspatio,
que no ha recibido la eucaristía,
y al abrir la puerta de la calle, cae desmayado.
Mis abuelos, padres y hermanos, yo mismo, todos muertos,
enterrados; todos juntos, gritando: …………………………“¡adiós, Santo Padre!” “¡Dios lo bendiga!”
Ahora bien, estas palabras las estoy escribiendo antes ………………..de que llegue usted a México, de que se desate ………………………………………….por los canales de televisión ………………..información sobre su visita,
de que lo veamos entre anuncios comerciales, de que ensucien ………su túnica y de que jueguen sobre ella a los dados,
entre consignas políticas de George Bush al mundo ……………….desde la Casa Blanca;
antes de que parta de Roma, don Juan, don Pablo,
de que abra una de las puertas del Palacio del Vaticano;
antes de que yo pueda constatar que existe Roma, el Palacio
del Vaticano, Tuxtla,
porque bien sabe usted que así como lo estoy diciendo ……………………………………………………………………es posible,
más entre dos poetas que no se verán ahora, ni nunca.
Al llegar, verá usted los árboles que ya no podrán ………………………..crecer más.
No verá los ídolos —nadie los ha visto— que los indios ………..esconden detrás de las imágenes católicas.
Verá, junto al arroyo, a Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas,
y se arrodillará ante él; el obispo de Chiapas …………………………………no sabrá quién es usted.
Le ruego no levante la piedra con la que tropezará ……………………….en su camino a Tuxtla, ……………………….no quiero que se le abra la herida.
Desde el lugar donde va a hablar,
podrá ver el Cañón del Sumidero
y al río Grijalva que lleva en sus profundidades a otro río,
y sentirá que hay más hojas bajo el aire,
más ámbar debajo de la luz.
¿Qué palabra será recogida por esos pobres
que lo escucharán, que han sobrevivido a tantas pedradas …………………………………y cárceles?
No sé. Lo que sé es que Cristo no ha muerto con ellos,
que estará atento a sus palabras, y cuando usted termine,
Él regresará con ellos por donde vinieron, y al abrir ……………………la puerta de cualquier casa, caerá desmayado. …………………………………………Buen viaje de regreso.
Óscar Oliva comments on “Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys”
No, I cannot explain what this is about. A warning cry is nothing more than an open throat. Everyone knows about this atrocious crime, I am nothing more than a troubadour in a land where crime reigns supreme. Nobody is obliged to respond with poetry to these nameless occurrences. Poetry must fly with a freedom that is absolute and when it sounds must do so with a beauty with which, and, for which, we breathe. I do not like so-called political poetry, it too has been corrupted by ideologies. I do believe in rage in poetry. Poetry changes nothing, nor is change its function. It is only to be written and, from time to time, sung. For this reason I like for my poems to be sung, in other languages, other intonations, by popular artists.
Ballad for the Ayotzinapa Boys
There are no limits for this country of crime.
There is no name for this country of crime.
There is no country with names for this crime.
There are no crimes for this country of crime.
Tell me, in what faraway land will they be found?
To Juvenal I’ll add François Villon
to compose this ballad, I’ll ask other troubadours
to lend an interrogative refrain: where, in which
crimeless country are those boys who only just ………….stripped naked for love?
Help me run along a river
that runs with so much strength.
Where are they? Encapsulated in which black house?
You won’t find them in the white house, nobody lives there anymore.
The time of new Sirens will come, of new sorcery,
and the lily whiteness will become a yellow shine
or a black lily at the whims of a new owner, a new Circe
of deceit, amongst lions and wolves of the same woods.
…………Our Lady of the Sorrows, where are they?
Where are the 43 tears of yesterday afternoon?
We won’t find out tomorrow where they are,
nor in the coming mornings or afternoons where they are,
nor in a whole year, in which we cannot but return ………………………………………….right back to this refrain:
Where again are the Ayotzinapa boys!?
There are no limits.
There are no names.
There is no country.
There are no crimes.
They run with so much strength.
………………………………Tuxtla, November, 2014.
—Translation by Dylan Brennan
Balada por los muchachos de Ayotzinapa
No hay límites para el país del crimen.
No hay nombre para el país del crimen.
No hay país con nombres del crimen.
No hay crímenes para el país del crimen.
¿Díganme, en qué país lejano hallarlos?
A Décimo Junio Juvenal agrego a François Villon
para componer esta balada, y pido a otros cantores
añadan otro estribillo interrogativo: ¿dónde, en qué
país sin crímenes están los muchachos que apenas ……….se habían desnudado al amor?
Ayúdenme a correr junto a un río
que corre con demasiada fuerza.
¿En dónde están, en qué casa negra, encapsulados?
En la casa blanca no están, ahí ya no habita nadie.
Llegará el tiempo de otras sirenas, de otros sortilegios,
y la blancura como lirio será un resplandor amarillo
o un lirio negro al capricho de otra dueña, otra Circe
de engaño, entre leones y lobos del mismo bosque.
………¿Dónde están, Madre Dolorosa?
¿Dónde están las 43 lágrimas de ayer por la tarde?
No vamos a averiguar en esta mañana dónde están,
ni en las siguientes mañanas y tardes dónde están,
ni en todo el año, que a este estribillo no nos lleve:
¡Mas dónde están los muchachos de Ayotzinapa!
No hay límites.
No hay nombres.
No hay país.
No hay crímenes.
Corren con demasiada fuerza. …………………………………..Noviembre/ 2014
Óscar Oliva comments on “A Ballad for François Hollande”
I did send this poem to Hollande. However, the carrier pigeon never made it to his window. Either that or it was devoured by the waters over which it crossed. Certainly Hollande forgot about Boris Vian’s song, one that he would have listened to with excitement in his youth. That was my reason for paraphrasing him, to remember the poet and his long trek along the paths of the Provençal troubadours.
A Ballad for François Hollande
Monsieur le président
take this ballad
as I awaken ‘The Deserter’ ………….by Boris Vian
don’t be surprised if a messenger
pigeon arrives at your window
– there’s all sorts falling from the Cloud
I see you’re busy making war
was I born to the world
for no more than this?
as down the French avenues sings Boris Vian
don’t go to war, we didn’t come here to kill
my mother suffered when I left
when they strafed the bus I was on
I was reading Guillaume de Poitiers’ poem ……………………..about I don’t know what about nothing
you and the terrorists you and the terror ………………………………………….let us
dream the three dreams of Decartes
go into the cafes
the football stadiums
I’m no member of either
sleeping or active cell
I’m better off in Agnes’ dream
like Guillaume who dreams
as he sleeps ………….on his horse
don’t make war
don’t make war
I’m a deserter
sings Boris Vian ………….don’t obey them
don’t go to war
tell your police
that I am unarmed
on the road to peace
I’ve slipped off
my electronic tag
Boris Vian recorded ‘The Deserter’
the same day as his country’s
defeat at Diem-Bien-Phu
all down the Aquitaine roads
about I don’t know what about nothing
but early and almost unseen
I slip this ballad through your window.
–Translation by Keith Payne
Balada para François Hollande
Monsieur le président
le mando esta balada
paráfrasis de “El desertor” ………….de Boris Vian
no tendría nada de extraño que
una paloma mensajera llegara a su ventana
la nube cibernética da sorpresas
lo veo tan ocupado
en hacer la guerra
¿vino a este mundo
nada más para eso?
por los caminos de Francia Boris Vian canta
no vayan a la guerra no venimos a la vida para matar
mi madre sufrió tanto cuando me fui a otro país
cuando ametrallaron el autobús donde viajaba
leía el poema de Guillermo de Poitiers sobre no …………………………sé qué sobre nada
usted y los terroristas usted y el terror …………………………………….déjennos
tener los tres sueños de Descartes
entrar a las cafeterías
a las salas de conciertos
a los estadios de futbol
no pertenezco a ninguna
célula dormida o activa
mejor entro al sueño de Agnes
como Guillermo que la
sueña porque duerme ………sobre su caballo
no haga la guerra
en casa ajena ni
en su propia casa
soy un desertor
Boris Vian canta ……….no obedezcan
no vayan a la guerra
dígale a sus policías
que no llevo armas
me quito el dispositivo
electrónico el brazalete
Boris Vian grabó “El desertor”
el mismo día de la derrota
de su país en Diem-Bien-Phu
por los caminos de Aquitania
sobre no sé qué sobre nada
muy temprano casi invisible
dejo esta balada en su ventana
Óscar Oliva: Final words
I have not stopped writing. I no longer can stop. I have finished a new book, LASCAS, which is the continuation of this long race in which we all take part. It is also a journey through the mountains of Chiapas, alongside my grandparents and great-grandparents, alongside Li-Po, Rubén Darío, Juan de la Encina and others who have gazed upon the changing skies. Sturdy horsemen under torrential rains.
— Óscar Oliva, Dylan Brennan, & Keith Payne
. Óscar Oliva was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, on 5 January 1937. He belonged to the group of poets known as La Espiga Amotinada, encouraged by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. He has published extensively since the appearance of La Voz Desbocada in 1960 and has been widely recognized for his work as a cultural promoter. He has been honoured repeatedly for his work, winning an array of prizes including the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes (1971), Premio de Poesía Ciudad de México (1981), Medalla Rosario Castellanos (1990) and the Premio Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde (2013). In addition to his literary work, Óscar was also a member of the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI), between the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the Mexican government, eventually leading to the establishment of autonomous, indigenous communities in his home state of Chiapas.
Keith Payne is the Ireland Chair of Poety Bursary Award winner 2015-2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications, 2015) will be followed by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) in 2016.
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan
Present in this excerpt from A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, are some of the recurring themes of the novel: rescue, rebirth, metaphysics, and an example of unexpected kindness alongside violence involving individuals, factions, and nations, as well as the hint of remorse, perhaps on the way to redemption. The language is relaxed and the details vivid. In the last lines those who engage in brutality are said to acknowledge the power of words. Put another way, Agualusa shows that civilization is held in regard even as vengeance, chaos, and an eternal thirst for more, threaten to swallow his country. —Jeff Bursey
Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin. Jeremias Carrasco had something very like this happen to him. He awoke, after facing a careless firing squad, in a bed that was too short for his six feet, and so narrow that were he to uncross his arms they would both hang down with their fingers touching the cement floor, one on each side. He had a lot of pain in his mouth, neck, and chest, and terrible trouble breathing. He saw, on opening his eyes, a low ceiling that was discolored and cracked. A small gecko, hanging directly above him, was studying him curiously. The morning was coming in, wavy and scented, through a tiny window high up on the facing wall, just below the ceiling.
“I’ve died,” thought Jeremias. “I’ve died, and that gecko is God.”
Even supposing that the gecko was indeed God, he would appear to be hesitating about what fate to assign to him. To Jeremias this indecision was even stranger than finding himself face-to-face with the Creator and the fact that He had taken on the form of a reptile. Jeremias knew, and had known for quite some time, that he was destined to burn for all eternity in the flames of Hell. He had killed, he had tortured. And if he’d started off doing those things out of duty, obeying orders, he had later acquired a taste for it. He only felt awake, whole, when he was racing through the night, in pursuit of other men.
“Make your mind up,” said Jeremias to the gecko. Or rather, he tried to say, but all that came out of his mouth was a dull, tangled thread of sounds. He made a second attempt, and, as in a nightmare, the dark rush of noise came again.
“Don’t try to talk. Actually, you’re not going to talk ever again.” Jeremias believed, for some moments, that it was God who was condemning him to eternal silence. Then he turned his eyes toward the right and saw a hugely fat woman leaning against the door. Her hands, with tiny, fragile fingers, danced before her as she spoke:
“Yesterday they announced your death in the newspapers. They published a photograph, it was quite an old one, I almost didn’t recognize you. They said you were a devil. You died, you were reborn, and you have another chance. Make the most of it.”
Madalena had been working at the Maria Pia Hospital for five years. Before that she had been a nun. A neighbor had witnessed the shooting of the mercenaries at a distance and had notified her. The nurse drove to the site on her own. One of the men was still alive. A bullet had passed through his chest, on a miraculous, perfect course that hadn’t hit a single vital organ. A second projectile had gone into his mouth, shattering his two upper incisors, then perforating his throat.
“I don’t understand what happened. Were you trying to catch the bullet in your teeth?” She laughed, her body shaking. The light seemed to laugh with her. “Yes, sir, those are some good reflexes. And it wasn’t even such a bad idea, either. If the bullet hadn’t found your teeth, it would have taken a different direction. It would have killed you or left you paralyzed. I thought it best not to take you to the hospital. They would take care of you and then when you were recovered they’d only shoot you again. So be patient, and I’ll look after you myself with what little resources there are. I just have to get you out of Luanda. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hide you. If the comrades find you, they’ll shoot me, too. As soon as possible we’ll travel south.”
She hid him for nearly five months. By listening to the radio, Jeremias was able to follow the difficult progress of the government troops, supported by the Cubans, against the improvised, unstable alliance between the UNITA party, the National Front, the South African army, and mercenaries from Portugal, England, and North America.
Jeremias was dancing on the beach, in Cascais, with a platinum blonde, and he had never been in a war, never killed, never tortured anyone, when Madalena shook him:
“Come on, Captain! We go today or never.”
The mercenary sat up in bed, with some effort. The rain was crackling in the darkness, muffling the noise of what sparse traffic there was at that time. They were to travel in a little old van, a Citroën 2CV, its yellow bodywork badly worn, eaten away by rust, but with its engine in perfect working order. Jeremias was stretched out on the backseat, hidden by various crates of books.
“Books instill respect,” explained the nurse. “If you carry crates full of beer bottles, the soldiers will search every inch of the vehicle. Besides which, you’ll get to Moçâmedes without a single bottle left.”