CONSEQUENCES: Four Books in Translation
reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
WAR, SO MUCH WAR
by Mercè Rodoreda, translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant
Open Letter, 185 pages
by Antonio Tabucchi, translation by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago, 192 pages
THE THINGS WE DON’T DO
by Andrés Neuman, translation by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 190 pages
A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION
by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn
Archipelago, 246 pages
Once in a while a writer speaks to me as if we are in a kind of private ecstatic embrace. That is the kind of reader I am: thirsty for intimacy, for communion. In dialogue, I answer back as best I can.
I spent much of last year with Traveler of the Century (FSG, 2012), Andrés Neuman’s lost and found allegory of the nineteenth century, bildungsroman of modernity, eyes tearing with fraternity. Here was the brother (older and wiser) of Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press), a novel I had published the year before.
Now Neuman has nudged me into a new conversation, about constructing narrative, in a series of conceptual stories and experimental situations collected in The Things We Don’t Do, in the English translation by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Neuman whispers as he writes about writing, the place of the writer in the reader’s field of vision, and holds out a hand as he wanders through the borderland of experience, writerly self-awareness, and invention. “We have become such hybrid authors that any day now we’ll make a purist revolution” (a counter-revolution probably more accurately), he writes, one of a series of “dodecalogues” of interpretation and observation that follow the stories in the new collection.
As Neuman plays with form, Caistor and Garcia, his English translators, demonstrate extraordinary range and interpretive capacity, and they must: translation as a theme runs through his work—the heroes of Traveler of the Century fall in love translating poetry. Neuman’s stories in fact speak in various tongues at once. In “Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem,” a secret poet loses his entire oeuvre in a fire. The fire—both destructive force and fuel of imagination—saves him amateur embarrassment and provides an “electric shock” of inspiration. In “Embrace,” with a scent of Poe, Neuman observes the consequences of guilt after a mugging that leaves one friend injured and the other unharmed.
In “Monologue of a Monster,” a three-paragraph allegory on precision, the killer of a child parses impulse, intent, and consequence. “You don’t decide to kill a child. At most,” he says,
you decide to clench your teeth or tense your muscles. To aim at the head or lower the barrel. To open your hand or squeeze your forefinger a little. No more than that. Afterward the consequences flood in at once.
Writer, word choice matters, elbows Neuman. Words have power and words have meaning. “Your curiosity is not the same as your decision. An impulse is not the same as a sentence. Anxiety is not the same as hatred. From not paying attention to these nuances, I did what I did.” (The delightfully playful Neuman has a killer chide writers about word choice, as if to laugh at the overseriousness of the literary enterprise.)
You, too, Reader, says Neuman, listen to the killer: we really don’t ever know the consequences of our actions, for ourselves, for others. Now this is serious:
For us to be responsible for our actions, it would be only fair to be asked for approval one by one. Reality ought to ask us: Do you accept making this movement? Very well, now do you agree that your movement causes this other one?
These questions, from the mind of a cold-blooded killer, help us consider the much broader—and yet deeply personally penetrating—consequences of mass violence and war. Three other new works of fiction in translation—José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War, and Antonio Tabucchi’s Tristano Dies—plant Neuman’s seed in epic twentieth century battle fields.
President, terrorist, commander, do you accept making this movement?
With the Syrian crisis—truly the consequence of deliberate actions stretching back at least to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—on everyone’s mind, it’s useful to think about the hand on the trigger. The consequences, as we see them spilling across our screens, as these three novels remind us, are unpredictable.
While penetrating darkness, evil, squalor, uncertainty, and disgust, these works, too, are formal literary experiments in narrative structure. Agualusa, Rodoreda, and Tabucchi each evoke wartime existential fragmentation and its interpersonal consequences (on mental health, on relationships) by punching through the traditional narrative wall.
Tabucchi, author of some two dozen novels and books of translation before his death from cancer in 2012, splits the elderly, dying Tristano, the narrator of the novel, into three: the man himself with faltering memory; “Tristano,” an objectified third person hero; and a “writer,” called to the dying man’s bedside to record his soupy memories. In her translation of the book, which was originally published in 2004, in Italian, Elizabeth Harris affects this soupiness, a consequence of Tristano’s age and illness, but also the profound confusion of the post-war mind, “the ache of the headache sea, like a blowing bellows that you’re sitting on, swaying.” Tabucchi’s prose swoons like this, with a fatal, melancholic tone, consciousness puffing and draining, puffing and draining.
Tristano, like Neuman’s murderer, finds himself as a young man with a finger on the trigger. An Italian soldier in Athens, ally of Germany occupiers, he watches a young boy “bundled in an enormous military coat that dragged along the ground” pushing a bicycle across a square, defiantly whistling a resistance song. A German soldier loads his submachine gun and kills the boy and then a woman dressed in black, who has stepped into the square, releasing a scream of damnation. Tristano raises his “regulation musket” and kills the German. “And like magic,” recalls the dying man, “Plaka came to life, and men appeared out of nowhere, because some unforeseen stagehand like Tristano had decided it was time…”
…through death, life had resumed at an uncontrollable pace, because that’s how life is, and history’s what follows, you ever think of it that way, writer?…
Now a traitor, Tristano is saved by a woman named Daphne, who hides him. Daphne’s friends help him escape to the Peleponnese Mountains to join the partisan resistance. Later, after southern Italy is liberated September 8, 1943, he returns home. “He imagined his entire life, until it became memory.” As time goes by, in memory, Tristano and Daphne are lovers and Tristano a hero of the resistance.
In memory, Tristano abandons Daphne after lovemaking, promising to return. “Sometimes someone does something all the same and he doesn’t know why,” says the dying man, “…and then he spends the rest of his life with it gnawing away at his conscious.” He has a son, who may or may not be his, with a Spanish woman, Rosamundo, who he also calls Marilyn. He rejects the boy; he balls up in consequences.
Adrià Guinart is about fourteen when he joins the fighting in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, in Rodoreda’s War, So Much War, originally published in Catalan in 1980 and now in English for the first time. Rodoreda’s life and work are tied up in that conflict. During the war, as a prominent republican intellectual, she was exiled to other parts of Europe and stopped writing. She came out with Time of the Doves, the most beloved Catalan novel, in 1960.
Open Letter has previously produced new English translations of Rodoreda’s Selected Stories and Death in Spring; these and War, So Much War have been translated by Martha Tennent, American-born resident of Barcelona, the setting for Time of the Doves. That novel’s denouement—the primal scream of war-tortured Natalia—is memorialized by a sculpture in the Plaça del Diamant, in the neighborhood of Gràcia.
Not far into the novel, Adrià’s regiment is told to withdraw. It isn’t ever clear, according to the narrative, which side he is on—only hints at religious belief may indicate that the boy is on the Fascist side. Ideology as a reason for the war is never apparent, possibly because Adrià, who tends his family’s carnation fields on the outskirts of Barcelona, is too young to have formulated political sentiment. “The locked houses,” he says of home, “the dead windows, the balconies with the shadows of hanging flowers, the cool nocturnal water of a fountain in a square, a stone bench at the entrance to a house: They were my companions.” He has joined the war because an older boy, Rossend, “the junkman’s son,” wouldn’t stop talking about it.
Like Tristano, Adrià encounters a woman, Eva, who becomes his Daphne, an impossible dream, an apparition (among the countless ghosts of the war landscape). Eva, who “had never liked people who loved her. To Love her was to shackle her, it didn’t allow her to move.” He finds her and loses her—each successive time loosening his grip on certain reality. This is the reader’s feeling. Rodoreda’s prose, in the soft whisper of the internal facing the external, is often hypnotic and here she is at her best, producing a feeling, not unlike the Provencal writer of the same era, Jean Giono, of silent ecstasy. “The night was glassy,” says Adrià,
littered with dead stars; the moon was high, bluer than the icy snow of the celestial cemetery. The grass was damp. The mountain—black silhouette against the black gleam of night—beckoned.
Adrià follows the sky; he steals eggs; he gets beaten, as if a spy; people find him: the jealous, suicidal Isabella, the man imprisoned in the castle, the old man without teeth, “uvula red as fire,” the woman carrying her dead son, the farmer beating the dog, the sadistic woman of the forest. War, So Much War laps at the reader, but without much plot-driven propulsive energy. And yet it hasn’t any of Time of the Dove’s almost catatonic passivity. Adrià, however, loses himself. “A great sadness like an iron hand clutched my heart,” he says near the end, unsure why he has been put through the war.
“Can anyone tell me why we are fighting?” asks a laborer Adrià encounters. This question vexes Adrià as he imagines returning to the carnation field as someone not himself. It badgers Tabucchi’s Tristano. Rodoreda cuts off her narrative at the end of the war, but Tabucchi has to face the product of the freedom Tristano had fought for: soulless modern commercial culture, what Tabucchi’s colleague Italo Calvino calls “the inferno of the living.” Tristano calls it “pippopippi, with the solemn goal of obliterating from the mind…any sign of meaning.”
Andrés Neuman’s stories take place in Argentina, where he is from, and Europe (he lives in Spain). In “Man Shot,” the man, Moyano, is blindfolded in front of an Argentinian firing squad, “the most logical thing to happen in Argentina.” Moyano hears the gunfire: “That ought to have been the last sound, but he heard something more.”
Moyano’s survival is mirrored in a scene early in José Eduardo Agualusa’s 2013 novel A General Theory of Oblivion, released this month in the bright English translation by Daniel Hahn. Jeremias Carrasco, a Portuguese mercenary fighting on the colonialist’s side during the prolonged and particularly bloody 1970s Angolan War for Independence, has been caught by the communist-nationalist operator, Monte, who points out that Carrasco, ironically, means executioner. Monte turns away as a single soldier lackadaisically opens fire on Jeremias. He misses. Jeremias opens his eyes to read, in graffiti on the wall: “The struggle continues.”
As Agualusa hints, the Portuguese struggle for Angola, the most recent intensive colonization of an African republic by a European power, endures, at least in Portuguese literature and film. Agualusa’s book joins António Lobo Antunes’s magisterial The Splendor of Portugal (Dalkey Archive Press), and the 2012 film Tabu, by director Miguel Gomes. In all three cases, an elderly Portuguese woman carries the burden of colonization.
A General Theory of Oblivion’s elderly lady is a real person, Ludovica Fernandes Mano, who at the start of the Angolan war shut herself in her apartment, writing on her walls in charcoal, and stayed there for twenty-eight years. She died in 2010.
Agualusa was asked to turn Ludovica’s story into a screenplay for a film. This project fell through, but the book that he produced instead carries with it the intricacy of a thriller plot. Like the other writers here, Agualusa plays with the novel form, adapting Ludovica’s diaries and punctuating the narrative with fictional versions of her poetry.
Even the light seems strange to me.
Too much light.
Certain colors ought not to occur in a healthy sky.
Ludovica’s madness is the dark heart of the novel. She kills an intruder and buries him on the terrace, eats Che Guevara, the monkey she befriends and feeds, burns the books for heat, and writes on the walls because she’s burned all the paper. “Death circles around me, shows its teeth, snarls,” writes Ludovica. “I kneel down and offer it my bare throat.”
She is ground down, as Tristano and Adrià, but in the dust of her, and blindness, is some kind of incipient enduring humanity, brought out eventually by a Luandan street urchin who climbs scaffolding to break into the apartment. He is the first in decades to see Ludovica—and he saves her after a fall.
Ludovica’s self-imprisonment is a consequence, in part, of the spiral of war that leaps from resistance to colonialism to ideological confrontation—with Cubans supplementing Angolans fighters—dictatorship, corruption, and exploitation. The only hero, aside from the boy, Sabalu, who saves Ludovica, is a nurse, Madalena. “You and your friends fill your mouths with big words,” the woman says,
“Social Justice, Freedom, Revolution—and meanwhile people waste away, they fall ill, many of them die. Speeches don’t feed people. What the people need are fresh vegetables and a good fish broth, at least once a week. I’m only interested in the kinds of revolution that start off by getting people to the table.”
Agualusa’s potent skill as a storyteller is in circling each of the characters as they adapt to war and instability. Everyone is victim. Everyone is aggressor. Everyone rots in a rat filled jail and everyone, eventually, finds their way to an upscale apartment block. During war and its aftermath, when all that was is demolished, people come together and split apart primordially. Return to rabid nature might be the immediate consequence of war. Humans adapt to the scars. In that moment, they make literature.
“I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book,” writes Ludovica in charcoal on the wall of her apartment as Luanda tears itself apart and reforms around her. “After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.”
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.