Short Stories, Writers, Translation, Question Marks, Etc.

This is a very long post that could probably be much more precise and concise, but this is my blog so I just let it roll.

Short stories. They’re difficult to describe. In his column on the form in The Rumpus, Peter Orner explains the problem:

Because the thing about stories, and this might be the exact reason they so often fly under the radar is that few things are harder to talk about than why a particular story is great. It’s like trying to explain love and not love. It goes back to that pang.

The ones I’ve been putting in the most time with are from Zoetrope: All-Story’s Spring 2009 Latin American Issue, edited by Daniel Alarcón and Diego Trelles-Paz, and The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, a bilingual anthology put out by Dalkey Archive and edited by Álvaro Uribe. A few stories from each have stood out for me (Have you read any Alejandro Zambra? If not, go here.), but especially the late Aura Estrada’s “An Open Secret” from All-Story and Álvaro Enrigue’s “Sobre la muerte del autor” from The Best of…*

Both stories are about writers and the writing process. Both are by Mexicans. Their last names also both begin with ‘E,’ but we don’t need to get carried away. I’m compelled to connect them, but I’m not sure they have much more than these basic facts in common.

Estrada’s story (translated by her husband, fellow writer Francisco Goldman) reminds me of Bolaño, though I’d rather not say it. I considered ways to say it without saying it, but they fell short. It’s about a writer, Borgini, who is in the process of writing a piece for the New New Writers’ Congress. On his way to the location of the congress, referred to only as M., he is hopeful, jotting down notes. When he arrives, though, he begins to encounter problems that only a writer could so exquisitely depict: the screen “stared back at him like a luminous eye revealing nothing” and later glows “like a sign of desperation or hope.” At the slightest provocation, he’s convinced to leave his desk to go out with someone he usually wouldn’t associate with because “he’d never been anthologized” and his one novel fell into obscurity. After we learn of an old ill-conceived romantic relationship of Borgini’s, days have passed. As he is about to go onstage it is revealed that he will be reading with the former love and his story is only one word long. He reads it to roaring applause that sends him spiraling into hysterical laughter.

It is about pretentiousness. You don’t like Borgini because he’s a pompous ass, wholly convinced of the importance of arbitrary “new New” and “old New” groups of writers. Regardless, you can empathize with his relations to the screen and his ultimate meltdown. Through a dream sequence and subsequent displays of vulnerability, Borgini is established as someone overwhelmed by the demands of both creation and keeping up the required façade. He’s a slave to his ambition, yet able to recognize undue praise. Perhaps the true open secret is that the world he’s so desperate to be accepted into is a sham, its importance self-created?

With “Sobre la muerte del autor,” Enrigue simply kills it. This story (which you can read in translation here) has me tracking down his novels in Spanish and spending too much money on them so that I can read them at half the speed I read English and still love every second of it. He writes two stories on top of each other: one is that of Ishi, the last living member of a Native American tribe who lived out his final years in a museum, and the other is the narrator’s experience attempting to write Ishi’s story, mixed with illuminating personal anecdotes. All roads lead back to the idea that that which is literal cannot be literary.

When I saw Enrigue read this piece at the panel on the collection during the PEN World Voices Festival, he said that it is about extinction. Clearly Ishi, as the last of his kind, represents the horrifying extinction of his indigenous tribe; however, one must dig deeper for precisely where the “death of the author” occurs. Like “An Open Secret,” this story recognizes the phony components of the literary life and the humor that extends from them—like when he brings poems of Ferlinghetti on a road trip to look cool, and his ex-wife’s grandmother enjoys them.

Not so self-deprecating are the parts that address the writing process directly, noting that making Ishi’s story literary shouldn’t be difficult for someone skilled at “saying one thing while meaning another.” The story—the literal version of which we do get to read in its entirety—“wants to say what it wants to say,” not what the author wants it to say. The transitions between Ishi’s story and the narrator’s are impeccably smooth, and he illustrates the literary vs. literal fight through the examples of a redhead who wears a t-shirt that says “Redhead” contrasted with a forest in Mexico City named “Desert of the Lions.” What the narrator seeks is “a lack that transforms into mythology.” The trouble with Ishi’s story is that its significance is obvious, to labor too much over it makes the story political and dull.

He concludes with the part of Ishi’s story that does lend itself to myth, and with a statement on the life of the author. It (like the story) needs to be read in full:

Sometimes writing is a job: to obliquely trace the path of certain ideas that seem essential to put on the table. But other times, it’s to grant what’s left, to accept the museum and contemplate the sum while waiting for death, to ask forgiveness of the sea for all the fuck-ups. To put our little boxes on the table and know that what ended was also an entire universe.

Is the author, the narrator dead—extinct—because he writes his stories, and whether they become myth or not, they are no longer his? Because a story cannot be owned? Ishi has saved his money, but he will die and his tribe goes with him—we can’t hold on to things, only contemplate them in the end? Thus, we’re all going to become extinct against our will, whether members of our tribe or our myths are left behind?

These stories suggest that author is a pawn, subject to the whims of the literary establishment and life itself. I’ve ended these brief “reviews” with questions, because these stories are still demanding more readings. Short stories are like a persistent bug bite, if they’re good. If not, I’m rolling my eyes within a few paragraphs and chucking them. I appreciate the instant visceral feedback, which is probably why I’ve been so fervently seeking them out. With novels, I get sucked in no matter how hard my eyes try to escape into my head (maybe I’ll tell you all about A.M. Homes’ Music for Torching one day!) Estrada’s and Enrigue’s are majorly itchy bites. I’m going to go through each in both languages again and work through that experience.

Calling one by its translated title and the other by its original isn’t bad editing on my part, but a product of the structural differences between these two publications. All-Story printed the English translations in the front of the book and kind of ghettoized the original Spanish and Portuguese on blue pages in the back, so I naturally read through the translations. The Best of, though, printed them side by side, making the Spanish version more accessible. Now for me to go to either the original Spanish of Estrada or C.M. Mayo’s translation of the Enrigue feels awkward—to me, whichever I encountered first is the story.

This is an admittedly self-indulgent way of addressing the complexities of literary translation, but it’s been interesting to consider as I’ve attempted to re-read each more closely. Though I’m not inclined to read Mayo’s translation, I’m convinced I’m losing out by not reading Estrada’s original. Obviously, in translation liberties must be taken, sentence structures shifted, punctuation either added or removed, and so it’s always preferable to read the author’s work itself. If I couldn’t read Spanish at all I might not feel this guilt for having read the English, or wouldn’t be so cross about the editors’ choice to make such a distinction between the pieces. It is what it is, though, and I’m moving into the future aware of the fact that if I nonchalantly choose to read a translation over an original again, I won’t be able to go to the Spanish in the same way I would have in the first place. I’m going to expound upon all my neurotic issues with translation soon.


1 Response to “Short Stories, Writers, Translation, Question Marks, Etc.”

  1. 1 Real Posts Coming Soon « the alicia dk reader Trackback on September 5, 2009 at 10:57 am

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