Sunday, April 20, 2014

Politics and Translations

You won’t find the word “colonialism” anywhere in the New York Times’ appreciation by Michiko Kakutani of Gabriel Garcia Márquez.  You will find the word “febrile,” however, because Kakutani dearly loves to throw in at least one word per review that people haven’t spoken aloud since Samuel Johnson was editing Shakespeare.  (Febrile means feverish, by the way; and—coincidence?--Kakutani used it in her 1988 review of Love In The Time Of Cholera.)   

Another word you won’t find is “translations” or “translators.”  Seriously—if you didn’t know any better, you’d have to assume from this article that English was Garcia Márquez’s natural language.  To praise an author for “a voice with the sinuous rhythms of Faulkner and Joyce, the metaphorical reach of Kafka, the dreamlike imagery of Borges,” and yet not once mentioning that this voice is being spoken by an interpreter?  To me, that’s (well) kind of colonial, isn’t it?

Plus I think she gets it wrong. I have no idea what Garcia Márquez’s voice sounds like in its native tongue, but in translation, he has the best poker face in fiction. And to me there are only three modern writers at that particular table: Garcia Márquez, Kurt Vonnegut, and Haruki Murakami. With maybe Borges sitting in every now and then for the odd hand, but he’s a miniaturist a heart, while the other three do murals.   And the fact that three out of those four need to be translated into English for people like me to read them deserves, I think, some kind of acknowledgement when you’re talking about an author whose Spanish has been translated into thirty-seven different languages.

Speaking of Vonnegut, there’s a case to be made for comparing Hundred Years of Solitude to Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut uses science fiction the way Garcia Márquez uses magic and the fantastic—as a prism to shine an unexpected light on history, as a distancing device that offers a potentially forgiving point of view on a completely unforgivable event, and as the soothing sugar to sweeten his subversive pill.  And what is that pill?  In both authors, I think, it's nothing less than a call for a revolution in the way we live.  If that isn't political, I don't know what is.

So yeah, this whole "appreciation" peeved me on a number of levels.  Not the least of which was all that admiring talk about magic realism, as if it’s actually the substance of Garcia Márquez, and not the style which he used. To me, magic realism is not the drug; it’s the delivery method. To get that wrong? Well, to paraphrase Garcia Márquez’s Nobel address, this is the kind of review that insists on measuring an author with the yardstick that a reviewer uses for herself. And to paraphrase me, that yardstick's missing about a foot and a half.

Two more quotes from this article that annoyed me.  First, this lovely sentence about what might be called the Márqueziverse: 

“It is, at once, a state of mind, a mythologized version of Latin America and a reimagining of the author’s boyhood town through the prism of memory and nostalgia.”

Take out the word "Latin" and it could be a description of Mark Twain’s Mississippi.  And if you keep in mind that "nostalgia" is remembering the snake but not its fangs, then it's not an accurate description either.

And then there’s this:

"In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of Mr. García Márquez’s work."

Sorry, Michiko. They all stand side by side—and if anything, in this man's work, time and memory and love all stand under the shadow of politics, and are doing their magical and realistic damnedest to shed their own light, so they can make that shadow vanish, even for just a moment.  That's why Garcia Márquez is not just a great writer, but a revolutionary one.

(For an article on Garcia Márquez’s two English translators, go here.)

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