The Path of the Ice Wolf

Translated from the Spanish by Allana C. Noyes.

I’d spend hours looking out my bedroom window at the glaciers that encircled the village where we lived. I’d lose myself, following the arc of birds migrating through the sky and wonder about the animals here before, if there really had been foxes, wild horses, other creatures.
One morning I peered through the kitchen window, and there he was, next to the bush, that great artic wolf wagging its tail. This was the fifth time this week he’d showed up, standing in front of our house. It was as if he’d come looking for me, calling to me, as if he wanted to show me something unknown.
I finished my oatmeal and placed the bowl in the dishwasher. I slipped on my jacket and went out the front door.
The sun poured down, glistening through his thick white coat, his sky-blue eyes giving off an air of self-assuredness. Spring had arrived, bringing all its kindliness to our village after an especially harsh winter, casting its renewed strength over the pines and fields of wild flowers down the valley.
The animal straightened its body, pointing its tail up which flitted back and forth, both ears rigid as two cones and began trotting down the road as if inviting me to follow. I walked behind him down the main road until the highway’s juncture. We crossed over it, trampling through a green meadow until coming to a lake recently borne from another glacier’s melting. The artic wolf approached the water’s edge, bent its muzzle down and lapped at the frigid water. Before us stretched out the towering mountain range, still working to rouse itself from yet another long winter. The wolf drank again. Then, shaking out his fur, began to walk along the lake’s shore until he arrived at the mountain’s base. He was familiar with this trail and was guided by the scents as they entered his snout. He walked sure of himself, body erect, sniffing out the obstacles that earth had placed in his path. When I stopped to rest I felt as if my lungs were folding in on themselves and the wolf fixed its piercing eyes on me, wagging his tail as if to signal that I mustn’t stop. We climbed for several more hours until we arrived at a crystalline stream and that’s where we finally stopped. We lapped up the glacial water.
As I sat in the field looking down into the valley we’d crossed, I felt a shiver run through my body, my hair standing on end. How far did we trek? Thirty, forty miles? The sun was beginning to set, and I could hear the sounds of animals coming from different points on the mountain. Foxes emerging to hunt? Wolves in search of fresh prey? It was no secret that many had lost their way in the foothills of this mountain range, and everyone knew it was prohibited to venture out on the glaciers. Bears maybe, or who knows what other animals, I thought, swallowing hard. The wolf howled. I cursed myself for following this wolf out here, it was as if he tricked me, luring me straight to a pack of starving beasts. I could almost feel the animals nestled among the rocks following me with their eyes, waiting for their moment to pounce. My heart pounded in my throat, my stomach sank. I looked out at the lonely barns on the plain. Just beyond the lake, I could make out the woods and the houses of the town lined up in three main streets, but they seemed so far away, so inaccessible from where I was seeing them. I felt the sweat coming down my back.
Something in me fell silent. Time stood still.
The water rushed down pure and diaphanous from the mountain, bestowing life upon the town. I thought of how those small and secluded houses had been accepted into the fold of this mountain range’s millennia-old life. I watched the wolf with his extra senses, the subtle sounds emanating from all around us. Without changing his rigid posture, he sat next to me. I stroked his chest with the palm of my hand and with his damp tongue he licked my wrist, assuring me that he knew the way home better than anyone.

Allana C. Noyes is a literary translator from Reno, Nevada. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and in 2015 was granted a Fulbright to Mexico. In 2018, she was awarded the World Literature Today Translation Prize in Poetry. Her translations have appeared in World Literature Today, Asymptote, Lunch Ticket, Exchanges, and are forthcoming with Catapult/Soft Skull in the Tiny Nightmares Anthology of Short Horror Fiction.

El camino del lobo de hielo

Pasaba horas enteras en la ventana de mi habitación mirando las montañas con sus glaciares que rodeaban la aldea en donde vivíamos. Me perdía mirando las aves en cielo migrar. Me preguntaba si de verdad había zorros, caballos salvajes y otros animales.
Una mañana me asomé a la ventana de la cocina. Al lado de un arbusto, vi aquel lobo ártico, moviendo la cola. Era la quinta vez en esta semana que venia, y se paraba al frente de nuestra casa. Pareciese como si hubiera venido a buscarme, como si me hablara, como si quisiera enseñarme algo importante. Me terminé mi plato de avena y dejé la vasija en el lavaplatos; me puse mi chaqueta y salí al jardín.
El sol brillaba potente sobre su pelaje abundante blanco. Sus ojos celestes se imponían con seguridad. La primavera había llegado con gran bondad a nuestra aldea tras un prolongado invierno; proyectaba su nueva fuerza en los pinos y flores silvestres del valle. El animal se posicionaba recto, su cola apuntaba hacia arriba haciendo movimientos pequeños y sus orejas se mantenían erguidas como dos conos.
Empezó a caminar calle abajo, como si me invitara a seguirlo. Empecé a caminar detrás de él por la calle principal hasta llegar a la carretera; la atravesamos; y caminamos por la pradera verde hasta llegar a una laguna que se había formado tras el derretimiento de otro glaciar; el lobo se acercó a la orilla, inclinó el hocico y empezó a beber del agua fría. Frente a nosotros se erigía aquella cordillera inmensa despertando aun del largo invierno. Volvió a beber agua. Se sacudió el pelaje, y empezó a caminar rodeando la orilla del lago hasta llegar al pie de la montana; conocía bien el camino, se guiaba oliendo cuanto encontraba frente de su hocico; avanzaba seguro de sí mismo, cuerpo recto, oliendo cuantos obstáculos la tierra o el hielo le iba interponiendo.
Cuando me detuve sintiendo como si mis pulmones se empezaran a encoger, el animal clavó sus ojos garzos a mí, movió la cola y se acercó como pidiéndome que no me detuviera. Continuamos ascendiendo por varias horas hasta llegar a un arroyo cristalino, allí nos detuvimos. Bebimos del agua glacial.
Me senté en el prado mirando el valle que habíamos recorrido. Sentí un escalofrió en todo mi cuerpo, mis pelos se pusieron de punta. ¿Cuánto habíamos avanzado? ¿Veinte, treinta, cuarenta millas? El sol empezaba a descender. Varios sonidos de animales llegaban desde diferentes puntos de la montaña. ¿Eran zorros que salían a casar? ¿Eran lobos que buscaban nuevas presas? No era un secreto que muchos se habían se habían perdido en el pie de esta cadena de montañas, era bien sabido que era prohibido caminar en los glaciares. ¿Y los osos? ¿Y cuántos animales más que no conocía? pensé, tragué saliva con dificultad. Maldije el momento en el que decidí seguir a este animal; sentí como si aquel lobo me hubiera engañado para entregarme a una jauría de animales hambrientos. El lobo aulló. Sentí como si los animales me observaran escondidos entre las rocas esperando para atacarme. Sentí el corazón en la garganta, el estómago encogido. Observé las granjas aisladas en la planicie. Mas allá del lago, podía ver el bosque; las casas del pueblo se presentaban ordenas en las tres calles principales pero lejanas e inalcanzables desde donde las observaba. Sentí las gotas de sudor bajar por mi espalda.
Todo quedó en silencio en mi interior como si el tiempo del mundo se hubiera detenido.
El agua seguía bajando pura y cristalina de la montaña abasteciendo de vida al pueblo. Sentí como si desde hacia mucho tiempo atrás aquellas casas ya hubieran sido aceptadas por la vida milenaria de la cadena de montañas. Observé al lobo que seguía con todos sus sentidos los sonidos que emanaban de desde diferentes lugares. Se acercó a mí sin perder su postura. Se sentó a mi lado. Le sobé el pecho con la palma de la mano; él me lambió la muñeca con su lengua húmeda como asegurándome de que el conocía mejor que nadie el camino de regreso a casa.




Rhythm, rapture and revolution: Carmen La Cubana at Sadler’s Wells

Carmen La Cubana deliberately disrupts the balance of classical opera by throwing Latin American dance into the picture. This disruption, however, among other novelties introduced by director Christopher Renshaw, proves an overall winning point.

Already turned into a successful Broadway musical (1943), a feature film (1954), and even a kathak-dancing production (2008), Bizet’s Carmen here becomes a Cuban heroine, and the year is 1958, in the midst of the Cuban Revolution. Keeping true to the “joyous and noisy” spirit of the people he found when visiting Cuba, Renshaw adds to Bizet’s arias the vibrant and effervescent rhythms of mambo, salsa, rumba and cha-cha-cha, arranged by Alex Licamoire.

The transposition to a Cuban setting brings with it a full translation of the libretto from French into Spanish by Norge Espinosa Mendoza. The result is startling, but compelling. On the one hand, staging Carmen in Spanish has the bold flavour of a work that deviates from the original. On the other hand, almost paradoxically, there is a sense of “bringing the opera home”.

I attended a classical production of Carmen a few years ago, and I still remember the slight sense of misplacement deriving from a Spanish setting (Bizet’s Carmen is set in 1820s Seville) acted in French. In Renshaw’s show, there is a virtual reunion between language and setting – an ultimately unifying factor rather than a disrupting one. It’s almost as if Carmen is made even more Carmen, in spite of being translated into a different language.

Photograph: Nilz Boehme

On top of this, the new libretto is not just a translation, but a bold adaptation to the new Cuban context. In the famous aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (“Love is a rebellious bird”), Mendoza’s love becomes a puñal (“dagger”). Shocking, but all things considered, in-keeping with the overall atmosphere of the production, which his imbued with a sense of uprising and fervour, passion and rebellion.

To the audience members with a basic grasp of the original opera and of Spanish, the production is though-provoking precisely in that it allows us to contemplate and ponder the choices made in the translation process. But to anyone, indistinctively, Carmen La Cubana offers a riveting story of love and revolution, whose setting most of the time feels as natural as if it had been the original one. The subtitles, if at times over-simplifying the words, provide an adequate explanation of the action – everyone is given the necessary tools to enjoy the performance.

Apart from the new setting, the second selling point of the production is dance. From Sadler’s Wells, I almost expected an all-dance performance, featuring collective dances, pas-à-deux, ballroom dance, and all possible variations in between. As the show progressed, I had to come to terms with the fact that Renshaw had gone for a more sparing usage of dance than anticipated: most of the show is actually either acted or sung (though, in both cases, brilliantly so).

My initial disappointment quickly turned into approval as the show proves a brilliant combination of the various elements of melodrama, with dance as an addition rather than a scene stealer. While not quite the star of the show, dance remains a valuable extra element, contributing to the production’s overall accomplishment. Needless to say, dance taps brilliantly into the vibrancy of the Cuban setting. It is arias (and dances) such as Las tabaqueras, Oye mi ritmo de tambor and El Gato Negro that remain the most memorable sections, with the ensemble of tireless dancers releasing palpable energy from the stage.

Photograph: Johan Persson

Balancing this dancing brilliance are the main characters of the all-Cuban cast as they sing and act, displaying a wide range of skills. Sexy and assertive Carmen (Luna Manzanares Nardo), the hilarious couple Paquita and Cuqui (Rachel Pastor Pérez and Laritza Pulido García), strong and pompous boxer El Niño (Joaquín García Mejías) are just some of the personalities we encounter on stage. There’s something to be said about Manzanares’ portrayal of Carmen, which embraces the role with impressively seductive and charismatic charm, once again bringing out Carmen’s very own soul by deviating from the original.

Explosive, sizzling, and with contagious moves, Carmen La Cubana is a mix of all things unchained. From the rhythms to the lead role, everything about this show speaks volumes of the energy of Cuba.

Carmen la Cubana will play until 18 August at Sadler’s Wells.




The 10 Best Untranslated Spanish Novels

Four hundred years after the death of Miguel de Cervantes, Spanish literature is in rude health. Novelists such as Javier Marías, Javier Cercas and Enrique Vila-Matas enjoy a respectable profile in the Anglosphere, while publishers such as the excellent Hispabooks help to introduce the country’s novelists to a wider international audience. However, while in 2001 Spanish ranked as the third most popular language in the UK for translated fiction, it has since lost ground to Italian, Japanese, Swedish and German – and those Spanish-language authors who do sell well in English tend to come from Latin American countries (Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Roberto Bolaño). It’s time that the birthplace of the novel truly received its due among English-speaking readers. Here to recommend some of the best untranslated Spanish novels is Marta Pérez-Carbonell, professor at Colgate University and author of the just-published The Fictional World of Javier Marías.

 


La hija del caníbal (The Cannibal’s Daughter)
Rosa Montero

Rosa Montero is one of the best writers in contemporary Spain. She has been producing remarkable novels since the 1970s, so it is amazing that only two or three of them exist in translation. Her stories are compelling, perceptive and beautifully written and address some of the essential themes of the Spanish nation during and after Franco’s dictatorship: oppression, identity, the struggles of women, memory, Spain’s past). La hija del caníbal is a sensational novel that starts with a woman who goes on holiday with her husband. While they wait to board the plane at Madrid airport, he goes to the toilet and never comes out. The beginning is thrilling and it leads to an absorbing and insightful story that explores the core of the protagonist’s identity as it revisits passages of the Spanish Civil War, shaking presumed knowledge about both.

 

 

 


Plenilunio (Plenilune)
Antonio Muñoz Molina

As with Montero, choosing a particular novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina is challenge in itself. Plenilunio could be defined ostensibly as a noir novel in which a detective investigates the murder of a child. However, tags such as “detective fiction” or “noir novel” may deter certain readers, who may not associate them with the type of meticulous and polished prose that characterises Muñoz Molina, who has frequently described writers as craftsmen. This is a story of a man’s obsession to find out the truth about a story that ends up consuming him entirely. The most bewildering and unexpected ending made me throw this beautiful book on the floor— a reaction I have only had once before, upon finishing J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. 

 

 

 


Noches sin dormir
Elvira Lindo

This is not quite a novel; Elvira Lindo spent several years in New York City while her husband (writer Antonio Muñoz Molina: see above) served as Director of the Instituto Cervantes and taught at different American universities. During this time, she wrote wonderful accounts of her experiences in the city. In her latest, Noches sin dormir, she opens up like never before, admitting to her fears, sharing her thoughts and her sleepless nights with the reader. Like a true flâneuse, she makes all her wanderings and wonderings matter, telling the story of the images she sees and what they evoke, as well as the music she listens to while she undresses both herself and an icy New York – a city which, through her observant, perceptive writing, she makes seem all new.

 

 

 


El tango de la guardia vieja (What We Became)
Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Many English readers will know Arturo Pérez-Reverte for being the author of the swashbuckling series of Capitán Alatriste, which have been widely translated. His bestselling novels – with their fast-paced prose and entertaining plots – have sometimes been taken as minor literature, but he is also an extremely talented writer, whose skills are obvious in this “old-school” tale about love, tango, chess and life’s twists and turns: a rollicking, globetrotting tour around the 20th century, this novel is pure joy and escapism. (NB: Just three days after I finished this article, this novel was published in English translation. However, I shall keep it in here as such an enjoyable read remains worthy of attention.)

 

 

 

 


Desde la sombra (From the Shadows)
Juan José Millás

Juan José Millás has been referred to as the master of the unusual, a genius at portraying rare intimacy. Always attracted to what seems bizarre or inexplicable, there is something slightly odd and unnerving about his characters, who are often obsessed with the esoteric and physically hide away under the bed or in dark corners. The protagonist of Desde la sombra is no exception: he ends up living in a cupboard, helping the woman of the house while renouncing his own existence. As well as exploring the boundaries of insanity, Desde la sombra is a fiercely contemporary novel: it often alludes to trending topics, YouTube videos and the opinions of well-known Spanish journalist Iñaki Gabilondo, who appears frequently in the mind of the protagonist.

 

 

 

 


Últimas tardes con Teresa (Last Evenings with Teresa)
Juan Marsé

This one is incredibly surprising. While some of Marsé’s other novels can be found in English, Últimas tardes con Teresa, arguably his milestone, is not. Published in 1966, the Barcelona-set book is about a forbidden love affair between a young woman from a well-to-do family and an immigrant from southern Spain; it is the Catalan bourgeois versus the proletariat, and its male protagonist, the “Pijoaparte” (from Murcia), has become an archetype of marginalized individuals among the affluent. This year marks its 50th anniversary and Spanish publishers have celebrated it with commemorative editions, some including previously censored passages. A charming, pertinent story, I do hope that Marsé’s wonderful translator, Nick Caistor, gets the chance to render it into English soon.

 

 

 


Castillos de cartón (Cardboard Castles)
Almudena Grandes

This is a novel about artistic aspirations, youthful passions and sexual stamina. This may sound like a cliché, but since her first novel, Almudena Grandes has been brilliant and fearless when it comes to portraying intimacy. A shocking phone call from an old lover takes the protagonist down memory lane while she uncovers the real story behind the death of a now-famous painter. She remembers a part of her life during which everything was yet to happen for her and her peers: she was a young painter at the Facultad de Bellas Artes in Madrid who used to drive an old car and succumbed to an intense and unusual romance that changed her outlook on relationships. But don’t fret: the story is not built on the usual romantic formulae; it is something much more intimate and true.

 

 

 


La habitación oscura (The Dark Room)
Isaac Rosa

Isaac Rosa is the youngest of the authors in this list but his work has already been critically acclaimed for his introspective style and his commitment to social issues. In La habitación oscura, a collective omniscient narrator tells the story of a group of thirtysomething friends who lock themselves periodically in a dark room after a power cut. This darkness liberates them, allowing them to set their own behavioural and sexual rules. There’s a clear socioeconomic undercurrent to the book: these friends are people left behind by Spain’s economic crisis. However, none of this is discussed overtly among the characters of the novel. Instead, there is a brilliant psychological tension as they sit silently in each other’s company.

 

 

 

 


Compañeras de viaje (Female Travel Companions)
Soledad Puértolas

This is not a novel but a collection of short stories – and Soledad Puértolas is a master of the form. Her compilation Compañeras de viaje oozes sensitivity and charm and features a number of stories that deal with women travellers. Some are married and find themselves living in a Nordic country where the only link to a new world is their husband; some are in Seoul, where they explore the city with a driver while their husband does business; some are young au pairs in the UK or recent orphans who travel to an island to find a new lover. Some journeys begin and end in front of the mirror and others are dominated by the music that was playing at the time. These women differ greatly from each other but they all attempt to understand their place in the world by looking both inwards and outwards.

 

 

 


Mala índole. Cuentos aceptados y aceptables (Bad Nature. Accepted and Acceptable Short Stories)
Javier Marías

This one’s a bit cheeky. While this compilation does not exist in English, one can find While the Women are Sleeping and When I Was Mortal in translation, which, combined, contain the majority (but not all) of the short stories in Mala índole. However, surely no list of the ten best anything in modern Spanish literature is complete without Marías. Mala índole itself is one of the longest stories in the compilation: a hilarious, original account of what befell the film crew that accompanied Elvis Presley to Mexico while they filmed Fun in Acapulco. The sheer variety of the stories – which involve ghosts, doppelgängers, a self-doubting hitman and disturbing confessions between strangers at a wedding – testifies to Marías’s creative imagination.




Opera and Translation: Verdi’s La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre

Opera Up Close's production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.
Opera Up Close’s production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre.

I would urge anyone reflecting on the question of translation to read George Szirtes’ beautiful piece on translating poetry in last December’s issue of The White Review. It has stayed with me for the eloquence with which Szirtes (translator of the International Man Booker Prize-winning Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s work) describes the frequently messy business of translation. He approaches it with the precision of a surgeon (a metaphor he employs in describing the process), and the lyricism of a poet. A snippet will give you a taste of the meticulousness of translation, as well as its need for sensitivity:

First locate the skeleton, said the translator. I want bones. Give me the bones. I want the jiggling bones.

The skeleton of the original must be the same as the skeleton of the model, said the translator. A skull is a skull is a skull…

Now let’s begin to flesh it out, said the translator. Look at the model, how it swells, flexes and sags. Shall we eliminate the sagging?

I am not a translator, but I’m deeply interested in the business of translation. Many of my favourite books have been translated – I’m thinking particularly of the work of Marquez, which I have long adored – and several of my most beloved authors have themselves (to borrow Rushdie’s understanding of the term) been “translated”. They are “borne across”, carried from homelands to foreign countries, and their writing reflects this feeling of displacement, of transposition. The act of translation shifts the focus of their work. It is changed – they are changed – by the journey over.

Nowhere is the act of translating so very changing – or so difficult – as in the translation of opera libretti. Here, the difficulty lies not only in concerns of loyalty to the original, nor in problems of foreign rhymes, of forcing stubborn syllables into appropriate places. Deeper difficulties reside here.

Difficulties, for example, of sound: higher notes require open sounds to be reached properly, a necessity which will have been accounted for in the original libretto. The “singability” – to coin an ugly word – of the sentences is a practical requirement, therefore. The fixed nature of the score is a further tax on the translator, who must match the music with corresponding stresses in his or her words. Should the text be modernized? The flowery, more Latinate language of the past seems better suited to the multi-syllabled music of opera. And should rhyme be done away with completely as a twee extra constraint?

It feels best, given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing a translator of opera libretti, to leave the words in their original language, and this has been the favoured approach since the Second World War; prior to this the translation of opera was met with more ambivalence, perhaps due to the lack of international movement by singers and the reliance on solely home-grown stars. A natural prioritizing of music over the libretto ensued (Richard Strauss would dramatize this debate of the relative power of music and words in his opera Capriccio, through the courtship of a countess by a poet and a composer). The creation of surtitles in the 1980s alleviated this emphasis on the music somewhat, allowing electronic translations – functional, rarely poetic – to keep the audience abreast of the plot. Meanwhile, many bold souls began undertaking the bloody business of translating libretti, which leads me to OperaUpClose’s current production of La Traviata at the Tricycle Theatre, returning to London after a run at the Soho Theatre last September.

This production is set in America in the 1920s, bringing Verdi’s original forward seventy years and transplanting it across the Atlantic Ocean. The opera responds well to these changes: it is, after all, an incredibly adaptable story, borrowed from Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, and incarnated endlessly in different guises across the world. The beauty of the music endures despite being diluted to a hard-working trio of piano, cello and clarinet. And it is supported by delightful performances from the singers – Prudence Sanders especially as an impressive Violetta. This production is in English, in a version translated from Francesco Maria Piave’s Italian original by OperaUpClose’s Artistic Director, Robin Norton-Hale (and the singers should be commended for the clarity of their diction in this respect; not unimportant in a performance without surtitles). The translation is clear, delivering the narrative unambiguously.

Yet occasionally I mourned the loss of poetry. Gone were Piave’s beautiful words, the refrain to which Alfredo and Violetta return to admit their love: “…amore misterioso, altero, croce e delizia al cor.” I can’t help but feel that something significant is lost in replacing “croce e delizia al cor” (“croce”, as in “cross” – burden, or torture, carrying with it attendant ideas of predeterminism; “delizia al cor”– delight, or ecstasy, of the heart) with Alfredo’s corresponding lines in Norton-Hale’s version: “You understand me, something has passed between us, surely you understand me and understanding is close to love.” The change is pragmatic, of course. “Croce e delizia” is replaced, syllable for syllable, with “you understand me”. But the oxymoronic horror-joy of the experience of love is numbed in the English version. Alfredo and Violetta understand each other completely, it seems; there is no need for mystery, or for fear.

There’s a beautiful aria a little later on, which Germont sings to comfort Alfredo after Violetta leaves. “Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?”, it begins. He is singing of the sea and the soil of Provence, asking who has taken them from Alfredo’s heart. As a result, the aria becomes something of a lament, a look to the past. Yet, in Norton-Hale’s hands, the aria takes a decidedly forward-looking stand: “You are young, time’s on your side… In a year from now this pain will feel very far away.” The desperate nostalgia of the former is replaced with a more constructive emotion. This is, perhaps, better parenting from Germont, but the poignant sense of loss evoked in “il mar, il suol” of the past is notably absent.

What use is all this nit-picking? I suppose it serves to ask two questions. Firstly, should opera be translated at all? And secondly, when translated, should we mind diversions from the intended lines? In other words: how sacred is the original? “In translation proper there is an implicit law,” Umberto Eco writes in Mouse or Rat?, “that is, the ethical obligation to respect what the author has written.” He continues: “It has been said that translation is a disguised indirect discourse (‘The author so and so said in his/her language so and so’). Obviously, to establish exactly what ‘the author said’ is an interesting problem not only from a semantic point of view but also in terms of jurisprudence…”

Does what “the author said” exist in the movement of the story, or in certain idiosyncrasies of tone which a translator can only hope to replicate (a seemingly impossible task, perhaps; but Andrew Porter’s translation of the Ring cycle, celebrated for its simultaneous feeling of naturalness and loyalty to the Wagnerian original, proves that it can be done)? Are details such as the hills of Provence, or the torturous delight of love merely part of Szirtes’ sagging – to be snipped at as the translator chooses? These are difficult questions, problematized by the indisputable good of allowing opera to be made more accessible through the language of its audience. The ENO – who translate all of their productions – has this to say about translating opera:

We believe that singers performing in their native tongue, to people listening to their native tongue creates a subtler, deeper connection between audience and stage than you could ever achieve with a foreign language.

It is a compelling argument. But – to return to the Italian and English translations of Alfredo’s words – perhaps in the straightforwardness of our understanding, something of the wonderful “croce e delizia” is lost.

La Traviata continues at the Tricycle Theatre until July 4.




The Crab’s Back

Photo by Heather (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Heather (copied from Flickr)

A possum crosses my house’s sky

His hands smell of sandals,

Describe a nocturnal gladiator

That touches and smells women’s sex.

In my dream, someone on the right side

Throws silver coins into a pristine bucket

Oh! Childhood’s sounds.

You will dream of shit and your ancestors

Will say it is good fortune,

Keep that hand on your left pocket

Music on the wrong side;

I was born with two aspects: the written word

And Zapotec’s melody, in order to love

I’ve always used my two hemispheres.

I miss you and all you know

Are the dark woods of ephemeralness,

The click of an eye that opens to take away a piece of something

Just to close again immediately,

Like a shell closes down on feelings;

A hot coin on your back

Or laughing astride

Mockery’s culture

A free animal, or not,

Animals oblige to their fate

Repetition without a reason,

The moon with its milk drawings

With its rabbit looking upon disgraces

Right there, where gaze at a distance seems to unite.

A thorny monkey,

Like taking away thorns after bumping into a cactus,

By taking away spikes you get more splinters.

Was I ever happy?

Yes, when it rained and a dark hand served me

Bean soup on a plate from the crops outside

The golden bowls’ town,

When someone named mirror stayed by my side,

When I flew a kite and lost sight of it,

It’s true, whatever goes up comes down in your face;

When I escaped Uncle shoe-maker’s belt,

When the sun raised and the only thing I had

Was a pig’s yell, previously seen, legs tied,

Next to death’s funny gorge

Stand in line to be sacrificed?

Lightness for paper,

A tyre passes marking your shoes for ever.

I know about spells:

I know how to get rid of sadness,

How to get rid of obsession, of fear:

If I bury myself next to a river

And someone rubs up his testicles against my head,

If I sit looking at the sea

And they find my lost pulse: lylyly, pé, pépé,*

If they spit anisette into my face

If wind takes away sand from my eyes

If they fill me up with toads,

If I lie belly down on the earth while it trembles.

If I read my dreams as predicted by the old lady

Who used to sing to me in childhood: name your sadness,

There’s nothing like knowing what you long for,

To talk about melancholy you need to hold

History and stories on your hand,

You need, amongst other things, a hammock

And loose hours like a pendulum,

What is time?

A dying mother

A wretched father

Destitution turned into stone,

A mountain prayer,

Make love to the one that doesn’t peel you.

I looked at your cat eyes

Savouring an unbuilt possibility,

I just wanted to run away,

Just wanted to run away.

Because my exodus started at eight years old

And where I lived wasn’t barren,

There was a community, fireworks and their shuddering,

There was freedom and mutual trust.

I quarrelled with my tradition

Didn’t allowed it to deflower my hand full of alcohol

Didn’t want to show nothing:

I was never a virgin,

I was always inhabited by ghosts

That assaulted my jute cot,

I never wanted my blood to be pure.

I know about Conquest and its promises

I fought chocolate and mole,

To get rid of the sewing closing my eyelids

I had to hold a torch born from my guts,

I burnt my body so that I could believe in justice

And bumped into ignorance instead,

The news I was eager to embrace showed me their glitz

And my back gave me back the crab’s rear.

Leave in order to always come back

What happens if one sticks to one’s ignorance?

Isn’t it better to suffer one’s inventory?

Now, without haven, nor boat, nor dwelling

I took refuge in silence:

A comatose state.

What does my happiness look like?

I am a fly,

A dot on an almond’s leaf

About to depart, about to deliver,

I’m a buzz in memory’s ear

I tattooed memory too.

A crack through which levity shall not enter

Through which innocence shall not walk

What does it mean to be indigenous?

Firewood ingenuity,

A bet, sails of grown beards

Cliff

Never again a place,

A spider looking leather sandal attached to my feet,

A little accumulated salt,

What’s world history?

An eye crying for its neglect.

Flowers know it, as well as peoples

The day happier stories were told

That day we left behind our sufficiency

To give ourselves to a never ending repetition,

Now I know

It is too late.

 

*Lylyly, pé, pépé.
Sixteenth Century Zapotec onomatopoeia equivalent to the sound made by pain when it walks inside the body.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




The Nest

Photo by  Steve Jurvetson (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Steve Jurvetson (copied from Flickr)

In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.

The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.

My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.

My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.

We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.

I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.

I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.

Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.

Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.

We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.

The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.

Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.

They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.

Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.

Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.

We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.

Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.

He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.

I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.

I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.

Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.

I don’t want to.

Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.

I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.

What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.

I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?

We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.

What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?

My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.

They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.

I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.

We followed them towards the study.

My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.

I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.

I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?

Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.

What are you going to do? I asked them.

My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.

The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.

Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.

The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.

By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.

My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.

The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.

I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.

When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.

I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.

Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.

Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.

I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.

I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.

Translation by Lawrence Schimel




The Street Seller’s Song

Photo by Mr. Theklan (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Mr. Theklan (copied from Flickr)

Forget the shameless clocks

Return the contortionist fish to the sea

Romp on a mattress of wild leaves

Inhale with the mind in an indigo zero

Deposit silence in a ballot box

Congregate a circle of holy water

Step on the grapes of your wine

 

Accustom yourself to fly with crutches

To cover the rough weather of her eyes

To descend a mineshaft

 

Become friends with a panther in heat

Awaken as a witch on the weekend

Create a moneybox for sleep

Donate your fingers to domestic fire

Fast on language in the middle of a fast

Dance barefoot in the dark

Spell out your sins aloud

Translation by Jennifer Clement




Every House Learnt How to Burn

Photo by Jeff Kramer (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Jeff Kramer (copied from Flickr)

One: Is it possible that I once..? That I? That before?

Two: Yes, it is possible that your name.

One:

Two: It is possible the bodies.

One:

Two: It is possible that your name and the bodies. That you once. That before.

One: And the isles? The conversations? The delay?

Two:

One: The houses we abandoned? All those patios?

Two:

One: Did we leave the lights on? Did we leave the doors unlocked?

Two:

One: Were we the ones that on escaping..?

Two: Yes, it’s possible we were the ones. It’s possible; all the patios and all the doors, and all those abandoned houses with the lights on. The delay and the conversations; but not the isles. Those belong to fiction and asylum.

One: Let’s say, was there ever an isle bearing your name? Was there a before? Was there an I?

Two: Yes, there was a name and there were the bodies; a before and an us.

One: There was an I, then. Isles.

Two: It’s also possible that I was lying and that the isles, and the I, and the could have.

One:

Two: It’s also possible that I wasn’t lying and that in present tense there are no hurries and no escapes. No nothing.

One:

Two:

One: Is the isle of us possible?

Two: Yes, it is possible. The journey and the delay. Yes.

One:

Two:

One:

Two:

One:

Two:

One: But, is it also possible you are lying?

Two: Yes, it is possible; the name, the I, the isles.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Constantinople’s Jacket

Photo by Christian Senger (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Christian Senger (copied from Flickr)

It’s the type of business where those with a PhD are the unprepared ones; they had to go to school and waste their time while the rest embraced universal culture without aides and from an early age. Frankly, there are assistants who are quite simple and accountants with mental retardation but overall employees have a terrific intellectual calibre.

The best are those who didn’t even finished High School. As an example there is this one who wanted to become a professional football player. He had some success at a youngster’s league team but his father, an engineer, prevented him going further. He then read every book, admired every painting and listened to every record he bumped into; just to contravene his dad. He ended up incapable of joining any other sort of industry. There is this other one, who retired yesterday in a hurry, who is able to translate in six different languages; she’s invented two perfumes and during her free time she writes advisory papers for the development of Brazilian aerospace programs. There is a Chilean who sees series of figures in action where for the rest of us there’s only a bicycle, for example. He asks: what is the basic ingredient in your bike’s alienation; titanium or aluminium? One responds: Aluminium, why? He looks up, closing his left eye, and adds: 28.3 kilometres an hour without considering slopes; not bad. He’s spent his life turning cultural entrepreneurs into millionaires; by visiting their shops and studying the relevant yellow pages he is able to advise on investments since he already knows how much will be sold during their first year. However his true speciality, in which he never fails, is Thomism; he discusses Councils as if discussing restaurants and he’s a Jew. There’s a physicist who invents motors at his own place. He can distinguish errata just by looking at a document and left the movie industry at 20 after concluding Godard, for whom he worked doing research, was Maoist not out of conviction but stupidity.

It was on all those people’s computer screens that the decisive email inviting the entire personnel to attend the Second Evaluation Meeting on ISO 9000 advancements appeared. In the company all of us understood the partners’ upsetting fixation with our way of getting things done and the sad confusion of the Director General, recently arrived from his MBA and Milky Way’s rotation; so we were polite but condescending and foolish at the same time. Nobody spoke on time to stop the Certification process, maybe it was never possible to do so since the Director had learnt through his private university ministerial teachers those communication strategies of the revolutionary General type that sometimes are mixed up with political ability. When we realized it, the several thousand dollar contract was a reality; a deal with the most unlikely basic group of hustlers on Earth. We had nurtured the monster with a funny attendance at the Total Quality workshops and when we were called to attend the First Evaluation Meeting many amongst us had something else to do. Only the accountants, the secretaries, the janitors and the Director General attended; hence the scarcely veiled ferocity of the Second Meeting invitation. We thought of our kids, of our medical insurance, of the gas coupons, and ran to them en masse.

As usual, there were coffee and nibbles at the entrance. Apparently that’s part of every hustler’s manual: you don’t have to be a charmer just badly pretend to be one and offer coffee and nibbles. We ate them happily chatting in the auditorium’s hall while waiting for the Director General to arrive, always behind his tie which he would wear tomorrow to Wall Street and the one he wore yesterday to the City of London, we proved that scientifically. None of us conceived entering the auditorium before the Meeting started, busy as we were eating the hustlers’ nibbles. Had we done that the smartest amongst us might had given an alarm signal and we would have escaped in order to form an ironic resistance, this time around voluntarily speaking. The tornado Director passed in front of us ten minutes late for the Meeting, cooling our coffees, and we entered the auditorium behind him.

Seats were displayed by Project or Management Offices. There were groups of seats labelled under handmade banners: a broom stick with a paper note announcing Humanities, Sciences, Cutting edge Research, Philosophy and Arts; or Maintenance, Finance, Purchases. Each banner included a crowning, ferocious animal. In our case it was a wolf, we envied the Humanities team, the favourite ones, who had the jaguar. You were to sit under your banner next to the rest of the team of your office, which in our case included a secretary, an errand boy, two assistants and a sizeable group of doctors and people way too illustrated to deserve a PhD.

It started with an extravagant speech, apparently inspirational, by one of the hustlers, who showed very weird images on his computer. Cartoons of Americans, or people of the sort; all were either blonde or black; measuring graphics or working in front of their desks next to what seemed like a ventilator at top speed. What the speech really inspired was laughs, but all of us restrained ourselves because we are quite polite and because the previous afternoon we thought of our kids, our gas coupons and our medical insurance. We were invited to commit to Top Quality as if it was really hot or cooked great. At the climax of the speech, the General Director looked at the sky – or at the ceiling since we were inside an auditorium – and asked who were we tied to. Tradition? noted someone from the Arts Office timidly. An uncomfortable silence followed. Surely it was one of the seven people that failed the anonymous ISO exam the previous week. No, he said, we are tied to our client. Then I remembered one of the workshop sessions where we were told there were internal and external clients. For over forty minutes we discussed who was whose client within the company. At a certain point someone gave the example, if I go for lunch to my house at the end of the month and bring along my monthly salary who is the client? Me or my wife? The hustler said it was the wife; someone from the Human Resources Office thought it was the husband; a somewhat naïve and disoriented girl from the Cutting Edge Research Office said it was actually the children. What if there are no children? insisted the sensitive one. The Chilean intervened to calm the waters, and ask us to continue – the hustlers, like parking lots, charged on an hourly basis – and answer the following question as homework: how may clients fit onto a pin’s head?

After the Director’s speech we listened to those of the managers, quite funny frankly; it was obvious none of them had a clue except for the sales manager who was always clear about who was whose client. Later on, they organized an award ceremony in which the guy next to me got a pen without really knowing the reason for it. We applauded vigorously.

It was then that we learnt how to stand on our own feet; we who thought so highly of ourselves. We were buttoning our jackets and getting ready to go back to our cubicles to share ironies when they turn off the lights. There was confusion, a feeling we were getting used to. Then there was fear, not because of the dark but because of our medical insurance and the gas coupons of the technicians in charge of the event. The screen lit up with the company’s logo, Wagner was coming out of the sound system and we watched images of ourselves in our desks mixed with images of athletes breaking world records and climbers dominating mountains. Jesus! came out of the mouths of the most agnostic Philosophy fundamentalists. A spotlight set on the centre of the podium illuminating the hustlers’ leader, the only interesting one of them because of his obvious hypocrisy. He asked us for a war cry; he asked it of us, who thought heaven looks like a library. The downside of it is we thought again of our cars without gas and of our kids deprived of insurance and then we gave in. Once more, he said, and we followed suit. Once again, another one, once more. Now close your eyes and hold hands with each other. No, one of the oldest ones yelled. Yes, he said; feel the power of music, feel the power of music, feel the power of music. And we did. After three or four minutes of this nightmare during which the only thing we felt was the sweaty hands of the secretary and the errand boy, he screamed: synergy has been done. Lights came back. Those who believed in the miracle applauded.

The rest of us lined up and left the auditorium in pain, following our banners. We were prisoners of war. What we had always been and never noticed for thinking so high of ourselves, immersed in our books. Or maybe what everyone knew but no one dared to tell us: the radiant loot of a secular faction.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Crab

Photo by Tom Hall (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Tom Hall (copied from Flickr)

When the crab advances towards the moon

The sea of love crashes into mirrors

And there are readers filled with fortune.

 

Filled with fortune, the readers

Arrive at the love of mirrors

When the moon falls towards the crab.

 

The moon falls. The sea crashes. Mirrors

Are dying of love for the crab

That risks its life for the moon.

 

Then the moon fills up. Readers,

Before the moon, are like the crab:

They fall, they rise, towards mirror love.

 

May you have crab, readers, and moon.

May you find yourselves in the sea of mirrors;

May you be filled with the sea and with fortune.

 

May you crash into new seas, may you be crabs

In mirrors of moon and readings.

And love in excess, filled with mirrors.

 

Let’s fall towards the sea of crabs:

There the seas overflow with love,

There begins the reading of the moon.

Translation by Kathleen Snodgrass




Fedra and Other Greeks

Photo by Daniel Krieg (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Daniel Krieg (copied from Flickr)

NAXOS’ BAR. A FASHIONABLE BAR IN TOWN.

 

CHARACTERS

ARIADNA
MAN

 

MAN: Hello

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Do you smoke?

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Do you come here very often?

ARIADNA: …

MAN: Don’t you speak?

ARIADNA: What do you want?

MAN: I can make you happy, you know.

ARIADNA: You?

MAN: Yes, come with me.

ARIADNA: To your bed…

MAN: …Well… If you put it that way…

ARIADNA: How am I supposed to put it?

MAN: You look lonely. I can keep you company.

ARIADNA: Between the sheets.

MAN: …I love the way you say it… Yes, I can make you have a wonderful night.

ARIADNA: I hate nights.

MAN: Let’s wait for sunrise.

ARIADNA: I hate sunrises.

MAN: Why don’t we have a drink, we laugh and have fun?

ARIADNA: Your way of conceiving fun bores me.

MAN: What’s your name?

ARIADNA: I couldn’t care less about all names in this world.

MAN: Yours must be beautiful, just like you: (HE CARESSES HER LEG)

ARIADNA: And yours disgusting, just like you: (SHE PUSHES AWAY HIS HAND)

MAN: I’m only trying to be nice to you.

ARIADNA: I don’t like your pleasantries.

MAN: That’s because you don’t know them well: (HE TOUCHES HER BREASTS)

ARIADNA: (PUSHING AWAY HIS HAND) They repel me anyhow.

MAN: Wow! I love your temperament. (HE KISSES HER)

ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM)

MAN: (HE KISSES HER AGAIN)

ARIADNA: (SHE SLAPS HIM AGAIN)

MAN: How funny! I’m mad about you… I want to get to know you better…

ARIADNA: Get to know me better? Look at me: this is me. This is my head; you know what a head is? It’s an organ that makes a constant hideous noise. You must believe it’s used for thinking but no, don’t believe so. It’s not used for thinking but for making noise. This is the heart; you know what the heart is? Do you know it’s a beating organ? Its constant ta-ta-ta-ta-ta reminds me I’m alive because sometimes I forget. Does it happen to you too? It’s horrible to have noisy and beating organs inside the body. These are my hands. Look at them closely. Notice how they suffer from amnesia, they don’t know what to do. This is my chest, divided in two. It doesn’t work. I don’t even know why I have it. The stomach is destroyed. It was pushed so hard that it burst. Kidneys, liver, bladder and all those things inside; they are there, waiting for the time to pass by. This is my sex. I assume you know quite well how uncomfortable it could be. Sometimes it betrays me. And, well the legs and the feet are the basis of all the rest. My tongue is acid, look at it. And that’s it, there’s no more. I am useless; useless because on top of everything else I carry with me an unbearable suffering. Does it hurt to you? Have you ever experienced the feeling of feeling? If you think it is something that comes and goes you are mistaken, because it isn’t. Suffering doesn’t come and go it remains, always. You are born with it, it’s innate. You might think you suffer because of a loss, or you might think you suffer for abandonment, or even think you suffer for not being capable of changing things, for being incapable of cutting into pieces your disgrace. But that is not the case. Once you suffer reasons stop mattering; you can feel it, name it the way you want, but suffering is suffering and that’s it.

MAN: …mmh…are you a poet? How thrilling! Really, listen…what was your name again? Let’s go together. That way you can keep on reciting your poetry to me… keep on talking about your body…

ARIADNA: For how long?

MAN: What do you mean how long?

ARIADNA: Minutes, you can only give me a few minutes. You know what you are? You are a cheap guy, you are not willing to give, to share nothing other than a few minutes. Minutes are nothing, they come and go. Watch, listen how they go away. Minutes are nothing, and that is what you want to give me: nothing. In that case you’d better leave.

MAN: Hey, you know what? You are sort of… I don’t know, you are making me nervous. (HE COUGHS). Why do you say those things about me? What did I do to you? It affects me you know. I feel bad you see? (HE COUGHS). You made me feel really bad… You are sick, really. There’s some people that… What’s wrong with you? (HE COUGHS AND LEAVES)

ARIADNA: …Good bye…

DARK.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Theatre In Translation: The Night at the Southwark Playhouse

The dramatised reading of The Night marked the first performance of José Luis Acosta's work in the UK.
The dramatised reading of The Night marked the first performance of José Luis Acosta’s work in the UK.

In the Hispanosphere, José Luis Acosta is one of the most acclaimed writer-directors for the screen. In the Anglosphere, his name barely registers.  This dramatised reading of his play The Night – translated by Professor Catherine Boyle of Out of the Wings – sought to arrest this state of affairs. Spanish learners and film enthusiasts may well have seen Acosta’s short Historia de un búho (2003), not least because it boasts over 35 national and international awards, but also because it is often used in Spanish syllabi. His background in film and television made for an interesting showcasing of an experimental transition into theatre. Jorde de Juan García, the play’s director and artistic director of the Spanish Theatre Company, emphasises that this reading was the culmination of just three days rehearsals and the first step in realising an intended future full production in London.

The Night is a highly charged, confrontational affair, the fallout of a bourgeois family’s fall from wealth. As Acosta explained in the post-show discussion, it is very easy to maintain a dysfunctional relationship so long you are surrounded by beautiful things. This play explores what happens when this buffer is brutally removed, and the subsequent revelation of the true nature of this family’s relationship with one another. Especially disturbing was the falling apart of the social façade of family roles, and with it the inversion of the natural protective role of a mother for her daughter. By the end it is painfully clear that “there is no redemption” as the culmination of an empty vacuum of a marriage leads to disastrous outcomes.

The post-show discussion also offered a unique insight into the creative process of both writer and translator. Accompanied onstage by executive producer Andy Dickson, Acosta described his play primarily in experimental terms, in which The Night was in part an exercise in adapting his film and TV writing to the theatre. For Acosta, film provided more visual options for telling a story, while theatre represented a challenging stripped space where writers could not “fool” their audiences.

Boyle in turn suggested that the translator, while maintaining the foundations of the original play, was also rewriting it for the new culture and context – so that essentially “in every translation for the theatre you’re writing a new play”. Central to Boyle’s theory of translating for the theatre is precisely this corporeality of words, and of the translator proving the actors with the adequate instructions for them to embody the characters.  For Boyle, this is precisely why the rehearsal process is crucial in determining that the translation is “robust” enough to be carried into its new context. There is therefore an ethical question of the inherent importance of translating, rather than interpreting, characters. One of the major challenges of translating The Night, she noted, was precisely the question of how to translate the cruelty of a set of characters with whom the audience is never brought into any sense of real empathy.

It takes approximately seven drafts, said Boyle, for the text to become “actorly” – but the impulse of the first translation must also be maintained. Likewise, Acosta described his own tendency to endlessly rewrite drafts of scripts, and the bitter sweetluxury and agony of “airing” a text before returning to it again (and again and again). By the end, the discussion had suggested a number of parallels between the creative process of the writer and the translator. In both disciplines, there is always the temptation to keep making alterations – meaning that the work is never complete and never satisfactory.




Hades’ Ferryman: How a Translator Assists Meaning’s Perilous Journey

'Charon, the Ferryman' by Gustave Dore
‘Charon, the Ferryman’ by Gustave Dore

Meaning’s journey between different languages can be perilous. When switching languages, meaning enters an area that is like the floodable airlock in a submarine. A translator conveys meaning through the airlock of his or her mind, allowing it to leave one medium, the source language, and enter another, the target language. The author doesn’t delve there – unless he or she has a very good knowledge of the target language. The reading public can be blissfully unaware of this passage. But translators know how crucial that airlock is. And how difficult it can be for meaning to travel through it and emerge unscathed, totally transformed and yet exactly the same in a new, alien medium.

Meaning enters the airlock of a translator’s mind in one form – the word vache, for example – and needs to come out exactly the same, yet wholly different.

Well, a cow is a cow is a vache, so the danger for meaning is a limited one.

Sometimes, this isn’t so. Fabriqué en Dinde, read the unfortunate label someone (some machine?) had ploddingly produced, translating ‘Made in Turkey’ from English into French. Unaware that in French the English word ‘Turkey’ translates into both Turquie (the country) and dinde (the bird). Incidentally, the issue may have been avoided by translating from Turkish into French directly. Translation2 can compound problems.

Going back to our vache, the issue, even in the case of translation1, is made more complicated by context. This is where meaning is skating on thin ice. Did the French author mean just any vache, merely a mother of calves, or a particular type of vache? Did he or she avoid the word génisse (heifer) because of sound or rhythm considerations, which may not apply in English, or because the animal in question had indeed mothered calves? If in the original text the vache was imaginatively, ironically described as vaillante, wouldn’t a heifer be more appropriately, alliteratively ‘hale and hearty’ than a cow? Of course, a conscientious translator can query the editor or ask the author. About context, and about meaning and its equerries, tone and register. But the world isn’t always perfect and time, in translation too, is of the essence.

Like Charon, the ferryman of Hades, a translator ferries meaning from one shore to another. For the short time the translator has meaning sitting in his or her mind’s little skiff, sailing from the source to the target shore, he or she has to decide in what fashion meaning should land on the other side: cow or heifer?

An ideal, conscientious translator is aware of the consequences of an inappropriate decision. He or she has a greater responsibility than Charon, who merely had to make sure a newly-deceased soul got across the river Styx. Whatever fate awaited the soul in Hades, it had nothing to do with the ferryman. Translators’ choices count: the meaning that will land on the other side of the journey inside their mind will have a shape chosen by them, and that shape will determine how meaning will fare.

One of the holy grails of literary translation is ‘translating the untranslatable’. Meaning encrusted with layers of idiosyncratic history. Take dialectal expressions, for example.

‘Fom din-don cadena’ is an idiomatic expression from the dialect of the Lombardy province of Brescia, in Italy. Specifically, from the northern parts of this province, the Val Trompia and Val Gobbia valleys. Linguistically it is fairly straightforward, and can be translated literally as ‘let’s make ding-dong with a chain’. The words aren’t etymologically unusual, nor hard to decipher if you have a decent knowledge of Italian or Latin: fom is ‘facciamo’ (‘we do’ or ‘let us do’, from the verb ‘fare’, to do; in other Italian dialects it becomes femo, famo, facissimu) and cadena is straight from the Latin and Italian ‘catena’ (chain). But you have to dig deep into local lore to know that the reference is to using a large vat to cook polenta, suspended over a fire by a chain to hold the weight (which can be considerable, if you are cooking for a large family) and to allow the cauldron to swing, thereby facilitating the job of the cook, who has to vigorously stir the thickening, porridge-like mix, until it reaches the right consistency.

Nothing is ultimately untranslatable, it is simply a matter of how many words you need to use to do it. But the risks for meaning multiply when instead of one pithy word you resort to a periphrasis.

Once you found your way through the linguistic maze within which the expression hides, you could simply translate ‘fom din-don cadena’ with ‘let’s make polenta’. And maybe add a footnote about polenta, or rely on the text around it to make the reader imagine the swirly, tasty, yellow polenta, delicious with molten cheese, as well as the gruelling effort involved in preparing it (these days there are electrical-powered polenta makers, akin to a small mortar mixer). And indeed this translation may be all that is required. But translators are conscious of the richness meaning has, of their responsibility to ferry it safely into its new landscape, and to convey it as creatively as the original author would wish to.

A demiurgic transformation. This is what translators do with words, to preserve meaning. This is why there is so much to love in this profession, even though it is plied somewhere between the borders of different languages and cultures. A tiny area yet one which is highly fertile. I feel sorry for Charon, having to shuttle between the barren landscapes either side of the Styx. The fields beyond the shores of a translator’s journey are – more often than not – blooming with life. It is a joy to handle the kernel of such fertility, to have an insight into the seeds of literary abundance. To hold meaning, the most precious product of our intelligence, in our hands/heads, as a midwife would do with a newborn infant, and deliver it onto another fertile meadow, for other readers to be blessed by enjoying it.




Book Review: In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez

gonzNewly translated into English for Pushkin Press, Tomas Gonzalez’s debut novel arrives thirty years after its initial publication in Columbia, offering a new generation an opportunity to engage with this exciting work. The novel begins with the glamour of a sea that seduces — the sea that presents an escape, an exotic getaway in the newfound paradise of Columbia’s Atlantic coast. Soon, however, the sun begins to burn, the insects bite, and the shiny, inevitably shallow, surface of appearances rubs off in the heat. A couple who seek out the sea to escape and build a life together are instead torn apart. The lucid, dreamlike quality of the novel is expertly rendered by Frank Wynne’s translation — everyday observations are enhanced with an intense beauty, from waves breaking “like maracas” to the haunting image of a bruise “blossoming” on the skin. Imagery rests calmly upon the surface, rippling gently throughout this short but profound tale.

It’s a story that chimes as much with our world today as it did with Gonzalez’s contemporary Columbia in the 1970s, deeply conscious of the price that luxury bohemian lifestyles often cost for the working lives of the poor. The intensity and verisimilitude of the tale inevitably stems from its roots in reality: Gonzales’s own brother Juan, like the fictional J, abandoned the intellectual elite of the city to meet a tragic end in the remote idyll of the countryside. Speaking on this symmetry, Gonzalez assures us that he remains detached:

I studied it coldly… as a craftsman might study a fallen tree and calculate the size and shape of the canoe that might be made from it.

Such cool composure, however, is rarely achievable. Part of what makes Gonzalez’s book so interesting is the intense and painful observation of personal experience. When a tree falls in the novel, it is not studied in the distanced manner to which Gonzalez aspires. Instead, it represents a microcosm of existence — an entire world collapses among the branches. In the tragedy and intensity of a single felled tree, an entire universe comes crashing down:

Its fall — like the Apocalypse — brought down a whole world of parasites, birds’ nests, shrubs, vines and saplings. When all was still, the loggers hacked the fallen tree to pieces, dismembering it like a pack of ravening dogs.

Similarly, a large mango tree J spies on the land becomes a biblical totem: “exactly how I pictured the tree in the Garden of Eden”. The financial strain of his farming ambitions and his reproach for the squalid lives of the locals, however, leads to an end that’s more Cain and Abel than Adam and Eve. As so often in art and life, Gonzalez’s poor are those that remain invisible. They sink eerily into the background, blending into the surrounding landscape. At the same time, they remain threatening, their eyes “stealing” looks at Elena’s body. Eventually, she erects  a notched wire fence as protection against voyeurs.

However this action remains futile in the face of class divisions. Rather than establishing a physical divide between the “peace” of a romantic idyll and the outside world, the fence instead highlights the traumas of the relationship now caged within the wired enclosure. The fence itself is ignored, bent, eventually broken. Elena seeks desperately and cruelly to dissociate herself from the locals, but she merely exacerbates the use of her body as a spectacle: her flesh caged within the selective confines of walls she builds herself.

In many ways, the fence serves as a central image to the tale: in the beginning was the sea; a place of no borders; an expanse of restlessly moving and un-confinable life. In squalid modernity, attempts to reconnect to this ancient freedom are clouded in tanning sessions and pseudo aspirations, drinking addictions and sexual frustrations.

As J and Elena strive to “find themselves” and free themselves from the “burden” of their academic lives they fail to recognise the greater and more fundamental freedom lost by those around them. It’s a first-world-problems set up, but one that touches poignantly on the dilemmas of mental trauma and physical abandonment. Their struggle comes from an attempt to escape not merely the world they have come from in Medellin, but the identities that they have sculpted from this upbringing. Attempting to shed this identity, Elena instead sheds her clothes, whereas J stews in his own hypocrisy — criticising the faults of others which he fails to identify within himself.

This novella brings to mind Ian McEwan’s recent remark that few longer novels “earn their length” — Gonzalez’s sharp and succinct delivery, combined with his crisp and startling imagery, leaves an impression upon a reader that takes time to fade.




Books in Review: Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.
– George Gershwin

Imagine trying to describe a colour. Orange. What mix of words could give a blind man an idea of what orange looks like? Now take music. Yeah you could say it’s a bunch of sounds that feel good to hear, but that’s a cop-out, to put it mildly.

Boris Vian’s not alone in having tried to pin the feel of jazz music down on the page. F. Scott Fitzergerald’s got Tales of the Jazz Age and Toni Morrison had Jazz, but Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (translated: Froth on the Daydream) — reckoned to be his masterpiece and recognized as one of France’s greatest 20th century novels — does something special by both being all about jazz and nothing about it at the same time.

For a start, this is not story about music at all really. There’s a thousand and one references to jazz in the book, with characters obsessed with it and dancing to it all the way through, but strictly speaking it’s about two pairs of couples, how they fall in love and how things go wrong in them and around them. The book’s main character, Colin, has a deceptively simple story to tell: he wants to be in love, falls in love and then has to fight to keep his love alive when she falls ill.

But even writing that down, there’s so much of the book that’s being missed. The style here is light, warm and violent. Think Tom and Jerry, where frothy conversations about dating are interrupted by ice skaters slamming into the nearby walls, and it’s typical to lay the table with knife, spoon, fork and catapult. It’s full of completely irrelevant detail, such as step-by-step descriptions of recipes or technical explanations of dancing styles, and a lot of the dialogue toes the line between innocence (no one has sex, they just blushingly share a bad) and knowing. Like when Colin describes Isis,

She was pretty. But Colin knew her parents very well.

The friendly onslaught of distracting little details is oddly fitting. One of the things that makes jazz jazz is that it’s always feels fresh and improvised, even when the sound’s been machine-tooled tireless. How can you keep that improvised, scatty and warm feeling alive on the page? Words don’t improvise.

Vian’s tack here is both to keep the reader constantly caught off guard. You’re not meant to get all the jokes or all the descriptions or all the detail, in the same way that you shouldn’t be picking out each note a saxophonist is playing. If you stop to notice on your first read that all of the women at one time or another wear the same clothes (yellow skirt, white top), you’ll have lost the rhythm.

But at the same time, the writing wants to be noticed, with many description beats, like on the first page where Colin combs his hair: “his amber hairbrush divided the silky bulk into long orange lines, like the farrows that the happy worker draws with a fork in apricot jam”. A mix of pushing forward without needing to stop to take it all in, just enjoy what you immediately enjoy, and slowing down into well written beauty.

On top of this, the universe itself is a world of happy and unhappy coincidence rather than following some masterplan. As Colin goes from stoned happy in the first half of the book to desperate and depressed in the second, everything changes. His luxurious and spacious flat becomes an ever-shrinking maze of corridors, sunlight can no longer get in and the tiles are covered in black soot. Emotions are everything here: cook Nicola literally ages 10 years in 6 months just because Colin is unhappy, in a way that’s both naive and hard. In L’Écume, emotions and tone are all consuming, much like the state you’re in when listening to music: when you’re in you’re never in halfway.

And it’s this line that L’Écume treads so well – the same line jazz runs along: deep melancholy and who-cares frivolity. The love story itself is made fun of, Colin falls in love with Chloé after deciding he wants to fall in love and after being taught some new dance moves to music “in the style of Chloé as arranged by Duke Ellington”. The characters aren’t meant to be real. But it’s also devastating when the novel central tragedy strikes – that all too real feeling of an unjust world that takes away as easily as it gives, and of people trying as hard as they can to be happy despite it.

One of Vian’s best inventions in L’Écume is the pianocktail: a piano that creates cocktails based on the song you play. As Colin’s friend Chick plays “Loveless Love”, a blues song by W.C. Handy, their exchange neatly captures the spirit of the age:

“I was worried,” said Colin, “at one point you played a false note, luckily it fitted the harmony.”

“It takes the harmony into account?” said Chick.

“Not at all,” replied Colin. “That would be too complicated. It’s just there are a few constraints. Drink and come eat.”




Book Review: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

philofwalkA bestseller in France since its publication in 2009, Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking has recently been released as an English translation by Verso, billed as an “insightful manifesto” on walking. The book charts Gros’ reflections on walking, but also considers walking as a practice in the lives of great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Rimbaud. Following on the coat tails of the recent renaissance in walking as a critical and literary subject, it steps into the growing “genre” of literary walking, represented by the writings of Rebecca Solnit, Merlin Coverley, Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald, which have been very well received by readers over the past few decades.

Publishers know the popularity of this type of writing, but the reasons behind this genre as a cultural phenomenon have been given very little serious consideration. It is perhaps to give credence to a critical examination of walking as a literary trope, and philosophic mode, that I turned to Gros’ book, hoping to find in it both the rambling poetics of W.G. Sebald, but also an analytical framework which would illuminate why discussing the act of walking is important. But, while titled “a philosophy”, I found the book more a dawdle than a march. Its prose limp and saccharine, often repetitive, and overall a waste of time. This might sound overly harsh, but the tautological style of this book often makes it exasperating to read. To give a good example, Gros writes,

 The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life. So we are a moving two-legged beast, just a pure force among big trees, just a cry…

Need I continue? This may be a harsh perspective, from my cynical British eyes. Possibly in French the book has that lackadaisical aimlessness, so loved in the Proustian form of French novel and in French cinema. Perhaps even, the book is merely the victim of a rough and badly considered translation? At one point, the translator Richard Howe, makes Epicitetus proclaim that the “ground is my couch”, in a truly banal Americanisation of the stoic philosopher. But, even if we consider this translation as accurate, the book is pallid to the extent of parody. It feels more a weak vehicle for biographical detail, than rich philosophical curiosity. The selection of writers which Gros has chosen to focus on is evidently French; with Rousseau, and Rimbaud, heavily dwelling on the French literary canon. But also Nietzsche and Kant equally part of that European male oeuvre. Even with his description of Thoreau, there is a distinctly European reading of this thinking and relationship to nature in Waldon.

The book draws on considerable documentary evidence for the walking practice of these historic figures. However, at times there is desperation in the way Gros picks up on every detail of how and when these writers walked. The weakness of this biographical detail is especially conspicuous with the focus on Kant, whom even Gros agrees only took a brief daily walk, moved very slowly and desperately hated to perspire. From all accounts Kant should not really be considered a serious walker but Gros places him alongside the wild and indomitable Nietzsche, who went mad with exhaustion from his walking, and Rimbaud, whose prolific walks and writings on walking, are of course legendary. Indeed, I found that despite the obvious differences of all these writers, reading the book and viewing these thinkers from this same perspective of walking, forced them into similitude, often merging into one globulous entity of “walker”, which was both repetitive and monotonous. In Gros’ hands there is a methodic attention to their lives, their backgrounds, and the accounts of their walks, without very much consideration of what this actually means to our understanding of their work or even to the importance of these walks.

What Gros’ book very much picks up on is the passive, reflective mode of walking. Walking as a non-competitive act, which puts one foot in front of the other. An act which both internalises one’s thoughts, but also, for the writer, breaks them from the introversion of the internal world, to observe the wider world and their small place within it. But so much of this has already been said before, often by the very writers he cites. Nietzsche proclaimed that we do not belong to those who have ideas only among books […] it is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the seas where even the trails become thoughtful”. Perhaps this book would have been better if he had just published a selection of quotations from these very writers on the spirit of walking which he is trying to mine?

No doubt, in the great liberation exalted by the beat generation of Ginsberg and Burroughs, in that debauch of energy that was meant to tear up our lives and blow sky-high the dens of the submissive, walking in the mountains was just one means amongst others: others that included the drugs, the booze and the orgies through which we hoped to attain innocence.

What I found particularly guiling, (with full transparency as woman and a feminist), was the lack of women even considered in this discussion. That is, disregarding his small paragraph on the “sweetie-pie”,”working-class good time girls” who strolled the Tuileries Gardens in Paris during the Belle Epoque. While Gros makes a surreptitious nod towards William Wordsworth, where are the women included in this, like his sister Dorothy, Virginia Woolf or even Doris Lessing? In this criticism is an implicit frustration with the lack of ingenuity and contemporaneity to this account of walking. Writers like Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Thoreau have been scrapped over endlessly. Others to, like John Clare, Charles Dickens and James Joyce too have had a lot of attention, but perhaps were not popular enough with his original French audience. But what about more recent entrants to this history like the traveller Patrick Leigh Fermour, or Guy Debord, even the “London” tradition of psychogeography with Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair and Will Self? What of Werner Herzog, who famous suggested to  Bruce Chatwin that “walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin”. What about more recent adventurers and escapists, like Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless. What if one broadened the genre and also concentrated on walking in the practice of visual art, in the work of Richard Long for example, or further into film, with Agnes Varda’s wonderful Vagabond?

Perhaps then, the problem here is that to broaden out this “philosophical” perspective on walking, to include wider genres of contemporary examples, would make this book far too diffused and diffuse. It is only when looking back at these key, sparse accounts of walking as a philosophical practice, that any clear conclusions on “a philosophy” of walking can be drawn. But these are conclusions which don’t resonate with contemporary life. The problem with this book, as with the genre of walking as a whole, is the generality of walking. While used in literature as a sublime expression of escape, of simplicity, and as a response to Modernity; walking is also in itself something so mundane and everyday. Indeed,  to a “general public”, these books are often (rightly) derided for effectively teaching a grandmother to suck eggs. They seek to elevate these activities which were often simple to something much more complex and intentional. While Gros rallies around the importance of walking as an escape for the writers from the narrowing internalisations of reading, one should perhaps question his motives in communicating this message through the medium of the book. You feel Nietzsche would not have sat down long enough to read it. Instead, Gros should perhaps have merely written: “Get up from you chair. Go. Do not read the next 216 pages. Go outside and experience your world by walking for yourself.”  But that would perhaps leave him, and his publisher, unemployed.




Language and Power: Hamlyn by Juan Mayorga at The Space in the Isle of Dogs

Hamlyn by Juan Mayorga at E14's The Space
Juan Mayorga’s Hamlyn, at E14’s The Space, is a scorching interrogation of the narratives we take for granted.

Juan Mayorga’s Hamlyn is a play about language and power – the slippery ambiguity of language; the sorry manipulation of meaning. Mayorga is one of Spain’s foremost playwrights: the original Spanish version, Hamelin, was first staged in Madrid in 2005 to much critical acclaim. Now, the vigorous new writing crucible that is E14’s The Space has staged a new translation, courtesy Queen’s University Belfast’s David Johnston, a man with supreme command of Hispanophone theatre – from Lope to Lorca.

The play is loosely based on the fable The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Here as there, a city bubbles with corruption: “A beautiful city glitters during the day. But at night, the rats emerge.” The plot centres on the wealthy Pablo Rivas who is accused of buying sexual favours from a young boy, Josemari, from a disadvantaged family. Montero, the investigating judge, is in charge of examining the allegations. As the plot unravels it becomes increasingly difficult to locate the “truth” of the story: whether Rivas is guilty of abuse or whether he is a kindly benefactor whose  interest in the boy has been misinterpreted. By the end, the “rat” of the play becomes increasingly difficult to locate as Josemari’s narrative is taken out of his hands by the other more powerful characters. Is Rivas to blame? Or is Montero?  (“The origin of the monster is in your head.”)

In this play there is a cross-examination, not only of Rivas and his suspected abuse, but also of the distortion of the real “truth” of what happened to Josemari. The more the characters talk, the less clearly the audience is able to judge the true narrative of the incident. Likewise, the more the characters talk, the more silent the child becomes – until he is left with no voice whatsoever, because “to listen to a child is the hardest thing to do in the world”.  What is clear by the end is that Josemari and his family have very little, if any, control over their narrative. Why? Because they have no voice; in other words, they are poor. Time and time again their voices are subsumed by those that are more powerful than them.

Indeed, Hamlyn is, in many ways, a play of voices. There is the voice of the media, which transforms the story into a sensationalist headline about a child abuse ring. There is the voice of the law, symbolised by Montero, who himself declaims the journalists use of “literature” instead of “hard facts”, and yet whose own seeking of an empirical truth is exposed as  subjective and unreliable. There is the dominating voice of the state, with its Orwellian tone of unequivocal reason: “The city is facing difficult times; we are looking out for public interest as we always do.” Finally, there is the voice of the child psychologist who, in a well-intentioned but misguided gesture, separates Josemari from his family and puts him in care: “When the family fails to protect, the state intervenes.” The psychologist is exposed as being as guilty as the journalists of creating another false narrative, borne out of Freudian theory and suffocated by bureaucracy. Though the family are poverty stricken with six children, have they failed to protect their son? And does the state have such an unequivocal “right” to take a child away from its family?

The dominant narratives of the “truth” becomes less credible and more threatening as the play goes on, and in using such dogmatic language Mayorga highlights the frailty of the  individual voice (Josemari) and how it is vulnerable to being dwarfed and ultimately annihilated by the multiple voices of power. The “truth” that is sought by those in power is meant to prove who is “right” and what is “wrong”, though this is in turn exposed as a fallacy as each character clearly has their own agenda for doing so. Mayorga forces the audience to interrogate the unequivocal veracity of these powerful voices – the media, the law and the state – that shape an individual’s narrative. This provokes another question: do we interrogate these voices enough?

The production design gives a visual amplification to these ideas. The misé-en-scene is stark: a bare stage painted as a huge chalk board. The characters draw their narratives on the walls creating a kind of story board, which becomes a powerful dramatic tool for telling the story. As language constantly fails, what becomes increasingly important are the images of the stories scribbled in multi-coloured chalk onto these walls. These drawings are not only fundamental to telling the story but they also visually indicate the multiple layers of the narrative; the words take on different meanings as they are drawn. Similarly, the pauses and silences – read out loud by the “C0mmentator”, the internal narrator – also highlights the gap between language and meaning. The Commentator often breaks the audience’s catharsis by making direct observations: “As the audience knows, it is the spectator who imagines the lights, sets and costumes. Perhaps you can imagine that.” His relentless reading of stage directions and the movement between the competing narratives of the characters encourages a more self-reflexive audience, who are at all times aware of the artifice of their spectatorial position. The audience are similarly invited to interrogate their position in the play, as merely a passive observer or as one integral to the telling of the story itself.

By the end of the play, the harrowing words “deliver us from evil” has been scrawled on the stage; we’re told that Montero goes to bed every night “with the feeling I’m just flailing in the dark”. One can’t help but feel the implication of Hamlyn, a play that writhes in the underbelly of a corrupt metropolis, being staged in Canary Wharf – and as debates about welfare, poverty and press regulation continue to feed the punditariat, the decision to revive Mayorga is especially timely. What I think Mayorga suggests, and what the actors powerfully convey, is that we lack a shared language of empathy where society, state and press mutually listen to one another. Instead, the power imbalance is too great – which means that, even in 2014, “to listen to a child is the hardest thing to do in the world”.
Hamlyn continues at The Space until May 9. For more information, see the theatre website – and also read about the Out of the Wings project on Spanish-language theatre.




Excerpt from Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Licenza

This excerpt from one of D’Annunzio’s war diaries is inserted in the Licenza (pp. 164 ff.) as a memorial to the war days. Text from the “La Leda senza cigno/Licenza” edition, published by Oscar Mondadori, Milano, 1976; translated by Nicola Mira.

G. D'Annunzio with the crew of the Caproni Ca. 3 bomber he flew during World War One
G. D’Annunzio with the crew of the Caproni Ca. 3 bomber he flew during World War One

My General – from whose virile goodwill I received yesterday a gift of thorny laurel sprig, eradicated from the banks of the bleeding Podgora[i] and transplanted in a red clay vase – my General tells me that this morning the military chaplain will speak to the Caltanissetta Brigade encamped at Versa.

I travel to Versa. It’s a limpid October morning, tempered and forged like a new weapon. The roads are dry already, they’re becoming dusty again. Lines of soldiers, lines of mules, lines of military carriages. My little car, grey, slender, vibrating like a small destroyer, cleaves the battalions that open up for its passage. An unusual amount of movement everywhere. You can feel there is something in the air, that something vast is afoot. You can smell the scent of blood, like must fumes on the eve of the grape harvest. I reach the field. I look for the altar. It has been raised amidst yellowed poplars, swathed with those dark wool blankets that envelop the trench soldiers’ sleep. Some of the blankets are so old they have holes. You can see the sun shine through them.

The soldiers troop up on either side, carrying their bayoneted rifles. Their countenance is vigorous and it yearns for the thrust. They belong to the Sicilian Brigade, the bronze Brigade. Some of them are dark like the Emperor Frederick’s Saracens. Their chief bellows his commands harshly. He looks like a veteran from Eritrea or Libya, who has just hung the hippo skin crop on his saddle.

The Duke[ii] arrives, with that look of his, grave and rather distant, but plain, calm.

The mass begins. It’s officiated by a priest swarthy as a sapper, who speaks forth the sacred rites with a burning mouth issuing within a tawny beard.

The chief shouts: “Kneel down!” and the soldiers kneel, leaning on their rifles. If in churches prayers are supported by spires and pinnacles, here today they’re impaled on bayonet tips. Keen, sharp prayers. Reclining faces of beardless youth, of mature men, some of them as beautiful as the fairest from Hellas and Latium. Sensual mouths, sad mouths. Dark or reddish fuzz growing on resentful jaws, on bony chins. The whole skull shows through in some of them: and I think of the skeleton waiting within the flesh, imitating its gestures and attitudes, a prisoner. Heads that have already been touched by death, by the unremitting Labourer. A mass of cannon fodder, a well-stocked charnel house.

A gun booms towards the San Michele summit. An enemy aeroplane appears at the edge of the blue, among the gun bursts. Eyes look up towards the torn sky. You can see the whites, but not the whites of fear. A savage grin gleams in them.

The sacred rite of the mass is interrupted for the Chaplain to speak. He climbs on a vat, dominating the altar swathed in rough wool. With an unceasing patter he talks about courage. And courage listens, armed and silent.

The sky is sublimely pure, curving over the Alps, white-capped by the early snow.  A slow warmth oozes from the prayers, above the naked, vertical bayonets. The wilting poplar leaves tremble continuously, gold on gold. The Carso[iii] is out there, a labyrinth of trenches, a barb-wired fort, as I have seen it from above. For sure tomorrow that warm river that forms beneath the rocks will flow.

G. D'Annunzio wearing the Italian Air Force uniform
G. D’Annunzio wearing the Italian Air Force uniform

I can’t hear the Chaplain’s words any more, his mouth has filled with saliva already. I can hear the earth’s chant, I can hear the hearts’ relentless pulse pumping the blood of sacrifice; I can hear the silence from beneath the earth and the one that waits beyond the blue.

It’s a huge hour. The greatest hour since we crossed the border and planted our flags in the redeemed land. I know that tomorrow at noon the attack will begin, the tremendous symphony will start, much grander than that of last July.

In a kind of daze I see soldiers’ faces, already lying on the funereal grass. The soul bows down to them. The sky blazes with love. I see my face in theirs, likened to that beauty. Someone bends down, recognizes me, shuts my eyes. The tide beneath withdraws, going to my head. Two men pick my body up and lay it on a stretcher.

Why am I thinking of a rock I once lifted up in a sombre wood, and let fall astonished, having glimpsed beneath it a teeming, fleeting life?

The Barnabite stops talking. The sacrifice of the mass is resumed again by the officiating priest, with a low murmur, barely a movement of lips, to allow everyone to hear the words nestled deep in their hearts.

“Be makers of the Word, not mere listeners”, is written upon the pulpit in Grado, in the Patriarchs’ Basilica.

I watch the nails on the priest’s thick boots gleam as he kneels by the altar: nails that trod mud, the damp earth, blades of grass and dead leaves.

The soldiers are kneeling again. Heads are bowed beneath the shining thicket of bayonets. You can hear a soft croaking of ravens among the yellow leaves. The Duke stands still, thoughtful, his masculine pallor furrowed by the force of a melancholia, which seems to come from the century-old depths of his ancestry of warriors and saints. He turns and looks heavenwards. The vermilion wine shines in the cup, upon the altar; and its reflection beats upon Emanuele Filiberto’s right shoulder, drawing a bright mark on the rough military cloth of his greatcoat, ample like a cinch-less tunic.

Tenuisti manum dexteram meam, et in voluntate tua deduxisti me… (Thou hast held me by my right hand, and have brought me to thine will).

A young captain, lean, tall, slender, leans towards me and tells me in a soft voice: “Allow me, Lieutenant.” Then he puts his fingers to my neck and plucks from it a wasp that was about to sting me. He holds the wasp, alive, between thumb and forefinger. He shows it to me, smiling. I smile too, remembering a wasp that buzzed on my mother’s balcony and stung me on the wrist as I was bidding farewell. A poet’s wound! Vulnus hyblaeum.[iv]

The ravens’ soft croaking among the golden leaves accompanies the end of the blood mass. Ite, missa est. The sacrifice is done. The soldiers stand up, some soft earth clinging to their knees. They present their weapons while the Duke moves, followed by his officers, to reach the place where he will wait for all the troops to muster in front of him, the curate of Glory.

The sun climbs above the meridian. Shadows are short. In the vast light, human bodies appear fleeting, ethereal. A mass of mortal flesh flows along the meadow, no heavier than a flight of clouds. Measured steps sound like dull thuds; but it seems as though, from the knees up, the men are enveloped in silence, a remote silence like the one that curves aloft on the Alpine peak, white with the early snow.

Speed placates me. Above the engine roar I hear every now and then the mortar booming on the hill. I drive to the Medea hill, to visit the observatory from which the Third Army’s general staff will view the coming attack.  We manage to climb along the new road by car, risking the tires against the spiky gravel. We reach the telephone post. The soldiers are sheltering under a canopy to avoid being hit by spent shells, while our air defence guns are shooting at an obstinate Austrian flyer. I give the duty officer instructions to shield the windows that shine and would betray the post to the enemy observer. We enter a sort of redoubt, dark corridors like the Catacombs. We pass a wood-panelled room, which an ambitious painter is adorning with festoons, garlands, cartouches, as if for an augural banquet. All these workers are filled with devotion, ardour, throb. Are they building and decorating the Victory Belvedere?

From the hill’s summit, what a sight! The plain is sweet as a welcome, the hamlets dove grey, the towns shining white, condemned Gorizia, the mountains and hills flowing with Italian blood and rich in bones as much as in rocks. Everything is autumn gold and distant blue. Around the aeroplane there’s a crown of white cloudlets, seraphic almost. Medea’s flanks are robed in acacias, poplars, brush. I feel like lying on the bonnet and going to sleep.

But if I lay down, I would not sleep. Restlessness is hunting me. It comes back to my sanctuary on the Ausa, to my two low-ceilinged rooms that a hunter’s or a local ornithologist’s mania has filled with stuffed birds. My eyes flee the palmipedes to take comfort in the Nike of Samothrace, in Brescia’s Victory[v]. What shall I do until tomorrow? A dispatch arrives. The sailors of the Morosina island naval battery trust that the Sea Lancer will be with them tomorrow at noon. I see anew the blondish beach, the gangways on the mud, the wooden towers hidden in an oak’s foliage, the blue Sdobba, a patch of the Capucine wood, Ronchi, Doberdò, the Monfalcone wilderness, the Rocca and Duino on the rocky precipice, and the red landslide at Sistiana, and beyond that Barcola, and further on Trieste and indigo-tinted Istria. The voices of sailors and ravens among the trees. A seagull shines occasionally through the air, like an aeroplane. Two cavalrymen look at the telephone lines, their small shaggy horses beneath the foliage. Inside the observatory hidden within the oak tree, the commander makes calculations on a notebook, between a protractor and binoculars. The sun shines on the polished wood trestles. The loudspeaker, a large metal bugle, green-stained, hangs on a branch. They are waiting for the first salvo. “Gun number one, set! Shrapnel, fire!”

Visions, apparitions and dreams kidnap my spirit ceaselessly, if I linger, if I sit down, if I rest.


[i] A plateau in Friuli, theatre of the Isonzo battles from June 1915 to March 1916.
[ii] Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia – Aosta, of the Savoy ruling house, “the Unvanquished Duke”, general of the Italian 3rd Army in World War One.
[iii] A large plateau in north-eastern Friuli, a major theatre of war operations.
[iv] A wound from Hybla, a Sicilian mountain famous for its bees.
[v] A bronze statue celebrating the liberation of Brescia from the Austro-Hungarians in 1849.



Litro #129: Brazil – Portuguese Translation




The Rude Awakening of a Sleeping Giant: New Plays From Chile at the Royal Court Theatre

New Plays From Chile
The Chilean playwrights arriving at the Royal Court Theatre. Pictured from left to right: Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez, Claudia Hidalgo, Camila Le-Bert, David Arancibia Urzua and Florencia Martínez Echeverría. Photo courtesy of Elyse Dodgson.

Two vivid images remain with me from my series of visits to the Royal Court:  a slumbering giant awakening from a coma and a grandfather explaining to his grandson the impossibility of apologising to a man he met “at work” in 1976. The scenes address two fundamental tenets of this run of New Plays From Chile: contemporary Chile working through the violence of the past; and the difficulty of finding a vocabulary capable of addressing this past today. These five plays were read during the week marking the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s military coup on the 11th September 1973, the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government and its replacement by the regime of Augusto Pinochet – a regime that brought in its wake thousands of murdered, tortured, desaparecidos (disappeared) and exiled, particularly for the persecuted mapuche (indigenous inhabitants of the Southern Cone). The context of sustained injustice and the scale of the atrocity of human rights, when compared with the few hundred members of the Pinochet government convicted and imprisoned, is palpable. This backdrop of injustice, collective memory and confrontation of the violence of the inherited past lurks behind all of these plays written by a generation born after the coup.

In total the Royal Court Theatre staged five readings of five playwrights selected from an initial twelve, whose work had been developed over the last year in Santiago with UK playwrights Leo Butler, Nick Payne and the Royal Court’s International Director Elyse Dodgson. Of the five readings between 10 and 14th September, this review discusses three: Red Set (Tiempos Mejores) by Florencia Martínez Echeverría translated by Simon Scardifield, directed by Caitlin McLeod; Negra, The General’s Nurse (Negra, la enfermera del General) by Bosco Israel Cayo Álverez, directed by Richard Twyman & That Thing I Never Shared With You (Ese Algo Que Nunca Compartí Contigo) by Claudia Hidalgo, directed by Mark Ravenhill – both translated by William Gregory.

Florencia Martínez Echeverria’s The Red Set (Tiempos Mejores) highlights the uncomfortable and at times darkly comic contradiction between Chile’s past and present. The play ensues in the private hospital room of “Tuta”, a woman who has been in a coma for some years and follows the conversations of her children at her bedside. Tuta was a left-wing revolutionary during the 1970s with close political ties to Allende and an example constantly compared with her socialist, left wing and economically comfortable offspring. Her children are archetypes of their generation: an activist; a politician; an intellectual and a musician. It is as though they too have fallen into a coma, as their conversations often repeat themselves, and their incessant talk exposes their stasis and disconnection from today’s reality. There are uncomfortable reminders of the outside world, symbolized in the frequent car crashes and violence reported on the streets. From the sanitised confines of the hospital, much like Lady Macbeth’s spotted handkerchief, the spectre of blood keeps returning, even as the authorities wash the streets. The disjunction is clear between this protected class congregated in the private hospital and the random and recurrent violence experienced on a daily basis by civilians being mowed down by cars on the streets. With the second car crash the tragic has become absurd, reminiscent of Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Cristina’s dream-vision of Tuta awakening from the coma seems to be an allegory for Chile, as Martínez Echeverria stated in the post-show discussion: “Chile is a country that was asleep and that needs to wake up.” However, even this apparently hopeful vision of awakening is simultaneously tainted by a suicide and a toast to their collective “failure”.

Negra, The General’s Nurse (Negra, la enfermera del General) by Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez follows the return of Pinochet’s nurse after 32 years – a decade of which were spent in hiding – to her family home in the mountains. The story unravels simultaneously in a landscape of contemporary mundanity – of TV interviews; conversations on buses – in a haunted unreality featuring a dreamscape of mountains, deserts and nightmares. The inevitable infiltration of the past with the present is shown in the impossibility for the nurse to “forget what you didn’t do”, and the spectre of her guilt follows her into the remote mountain village. Yet the violence of the past becomes a doppelgänger of the present through graphic flashbacks to her work as Pinochet’s nurse, and the lead poisoning of her father and sister by the end. As the miner states, “justice will be done” – and the justice we see enacted through an inverted love story is a powerful one: she is condemned to lose the only person she loves. This justice seems to emanate not only from the people, but from the very bowels of nature itself. The ominous figure of the nurse, a malevolent, grotesque mother figure, is skilfully drawn out by the playwright and delicately translated by Gregory who successfully brings the Andean desert to London. The question on which the play ends draws resonance with Martínez Echeverria’s, which asks: “Is this death or is it life? No difference. Same unhappiness […] I can’t forget.”

That Thing I Never Shared With You (Ese Algo Que Nunca Compartí Contigo) by Claudia Hidalgo was a fitting close to the run. It raises issues pertinent to Chile today: the absence of men, particularly father figures, and how to begin the process of formulating questions about the past that need to be asked on both sides. In their leading roles, Justine Mitchell and Tim Piggott-Smith were evocative and complemented the play’s intimate analysis of a relationship between a father and a daughter, and the destructive effect of the regime’s legacy upon this family.  Though it begins as a thriller—a man following a mother and her son—the play ultimately becomes a tragedy when it exposes this woman’s father to be a “dog”, a murderer from the Pinochet regime, and the follower his victim.  The victim and the torturer are oppressed by the past, and live their lives by both haunting and running from it. The impossibility of the father apologising to his victim, and his inability to deal with the past, are shown as he states: “I don’t know how to fix it. I’ve been hiding since the ’90s.”  It would be interesting to see an Act Two of this play and a further unpicking of these difficult questions.

Certainly, Dr. Victor Figueroa Clark’s (LSE) opening comment on the 11th September – that “the Chilean people are a sleeping giant awakening, and when they do I am sure that 1970 [the year of Allende’s election] will be their reference point” – came full circle in the playwrights post-show discussion after the final play. What began with the impossibility of the past and finding a vocabulary with which to confront it became a possibility of asking questions, translated into a different language and articulated in a different country. As Bosco Israel Cayo Álvarez commented, fiction is used to both “escape reality, but also to get closer to it”.  In all three of these plays there were moments where the originality and vividness of the writing transcended the ties of the past, to become powerful moments of drama: universal to all languages and contexts. This in turn highlights the strong tradition of playwriting that has and continues to emerge from Chile.

New Plays from Chile ran at the Royal Court Theatre in partnership with the British Council, the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, Chile and the Teatro a Mil Foundation. It is now finished, but those interested in Latin American theatre can still catch the CASA Latin America Festival at various venues across London from Sep 27 to Oct 6 at the Barbican, Rich Mix and the Institute for Latin American Studies.