29 May 2011

Underground (Murakami Haruki)

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
by Murakami Haruki, translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

I wanted, if at all possible, to get away from any formula; to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas—and that all these factors had a place in the drama.

The drama took place on March 20, 1995. Five men, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, released sarin poison gas inside the trains of the Tokyo subway, killed a dozen people, and injured hundreds. Nine months after the incident, the novelist Haruki Murakami began to interview the victims in order to understand what actually happened.

Underground followed the template of Murakami's fiction: the story of ordinary men and women thrust in an abnormal situation. But it was a real nightmare happening to real people in the real world, unfolding as if in real time. He did what Gabriel García Márquez did in Clandestine in Chile—compress hours of interviews into a compelling narrative.

The narrative has two self-contained parts, divided into short sections focusing on one person and his part in the gas attack. The first part, titled "Underground", was translated by Alfred Birnbaum. It recounted the event from the victims' point of view. To balance the story the second part, "The Place That Was Promised", translated by Philip Gabriel, told of the stories of members and ex-members of the Aum cult. The first part was already a brilliant exploration of the outcome of terrorism; the second part was a glimpse into the minds of individuals who renounced the world and joined the religious cult.

In the first part, the victims and their relatives narrated the story one by one. They shared their personal backgrounds, where they came from and where they were born, their current occupation, the daily itinerary of their train rides, and what happened to them in the subway on the day they were exposed to sarin gas. For most of the victims, the attack had taken a permanent toll on their health. It had adversely affected their physical and mental constitutions. Many are still burdened by the aftereffects of sarin months after inhaling it.

The individual stories fitted well into Murakami's adopted journalistic framework to convey a macroscopic view of the nightmare. The story of the attack may have been predetermined; the outcome was all over the news. But here it was told naturally, without sensationalism, and yet several moments in the book would give one the scare. While some of Murakami's fiction was permeated with elements of science fiction and magic, the true story here stuck to the "truth". Ultimately, the truth was no less unbelievable or surreal, just like any surreal event in life.

The acknowledged influences in the composition of Underground were Studs Terkel and Bob Greene, but the form and structure itself was reminiscent of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's story "In a Grove". Several witnesses were asked in a kind of deposition to recount what happened on that day. The accumulation of the stories portrayed a kind of hell, a nightmare experienced in broad daylight, underground.

(Murakami was too entrenched in his subject to completely efface himself from the narrative. His strong opinions were shared in the prefaces to the two parts, in the brief introductory sections preceding each interviewee's account, and in his summary essays at the end of the two parts. In contrast to the oblique way with which he confronted the catastrophe of the Kobe earthquake in after the quake, this work of nonfiction tackled upfront the cruelty inflicted on an unsuspecting public.)


Just how deadly was sarin gas? Classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned by the United Nations in 1993, a tiny drop of it could kill a person on the spot. Depending on the amount of exposure, sarin can lead to contraction of the eye pupils, convulsions, coma, difficulty in breathing, disturbed sleep and nightmares, extreme sensitivity to light, foaming at the mouth, high fevers, loss of consciousness, loss of memory, nausea and vomiting, paralysis, post-traumatic stress disorder, respiratory ailments, seizures, uncontrollable trembling, vision problems (temporary or permanent), and death.

(One victim suggested that increasing materialism was partly to blame as catalyst to this attack. Capitalism as a precondition to insensitivity, the loss of moral compass, leading to complacency, selfishness, and cruelty. This critique was not really too pronounced in the book although one can frame this latent argument from the way the narrative repeatedly presented the attack as an interruption of the subway passengers' travel to their work. Something of a Marxist idea about this interruption of the mode of production was similar to the way countless crimes against women in Roberto Bolaño's 2666 can be seen as an indictment of the maquiladora economy in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.)

In the first part, Murakami questioned 35 individuals and elicited from them a sense of what it felt like to be in the middle of a tragedy. It was obvious that he had copious amounts of sympathy for the victims. In interview after interview, he introduced a new face, a new victim, someone with not just a unique injury but a new perspective on what transpired on that day. The victims were telling and re-telling the terrorist act for the reader, over and over.

   ... I walked up the stairs to the ticket barrier and went above ground. Suddenly I met with the most amazing sight. People were dropping like flies all over the place.
   I'd taken the third car from the back and had absolutely no idea what was happening at the front of the platform. I was just heading up above ground, swearing under my breath like everyone else, when right before my eyes I saw three people fall down and foam at the mouth, their arms and legs twitching. "What the hell's going on here?" I thought.
   Closest to me was this man whose limbs were quivering, he was trembling all over and foaming at the mouth, having some kind of seizure. I just looked at him and my jaw dropped. I knew it was serious and rushed over to ask him what had happened. I could see he needed immediate care. That's when someone who was still walking by said, "Him foaming like that is dangerous, you'd better stuff some newspaper in his mouth." So we both helped him. After that all these exhausted people kept coming up from the ticket barrier below, then dropping to the ground. I couldn't work out what had happened. Some of the people sitting down suddenly just keeled over flat out.

What would be the point of replaying for the reader the above scene in different ways, repeatedly drilling the same thing in his mind? All these individual stories, what do they say? Do they add up to something coherent, something that can be grasped?

One was struck by a variety of responses to the attack: anguish, complacency, bitterness, fear, trauma. Seen from many angles, the gas attack approached a certain magnitude of reality for the reader, just as it must have had for the novelist who personally talked and listened to the victims, shaping and re-shaping the narrative in his mind.

In the act of reading, the packets of sarin were being punctured dozens of times, the deadly liquid spreading on the floor, releasing the potent smell and downing passenger after passenger. But in the end it did not feel gratuitous or redundant to me. The stories were reliving the individual responses, reactions, and sufferings; yet collectively they were pointing to something more troubling, more arresting. We were not learning something from one tragedy, one nightmare, or one moment of hell. We were reading about many disasters, many parallel nightmares, many hells that materialized simultaneously.

"Overwhelming violence" is Murakami's description of catastrophes in Japan, which included the 1995 Kobe earthquake and may as well include the recent March earthquake and the resulting tsunami and the nuclear accidents. Hate and violence and natural calamities are being staged in an uncertain world. It is a world where one moment you're walking and standing free, and the next moment you are tipping over the train platform, the world turning upside down, literally darkening in front of you.

The blow was very hard but that doesn't mean one ought to give up. What the survivors can do is describe what memory can still describe. And what the writer can do is seek out the witnesses, listen to their stories, and set on paper testimonials of suffering. Murakami accomplished what he set out to do: describe a person's life, family, hopes and fears, contradictions, and dilemmas. In addition, "Underground" was a catalogue of crimes.

What impelled the novelist to write about the gas attack was his desire to know how this kind of event could happen in Tokyo, one of the safest cities in the world. A terrorist act by a religious group, undertaken in the name of salvation, flew in the face of everything we hold sacred. Logic and common sense broke down. In the transcribed interviews in Underground, belated words after the brutal fact, Murakami allowed the victims to assert their humanities in a dangerous world. He wrote a memorial for human fortitude, a manifesto against irrationality.

(Posted in early form in Project Dogeared; Chemical structure of sarin nerve gas from Wikipedia; Images of rabbit's eye from J Med CBR Def.)

26 May 2011

Journey Into the Past (Stefan Zweig)

Journey Into the Past is a well written novella about love tested by years of physical separation. It reminds me of Henry James in the depiction of inner passions and conflicts, but with a more fast paced and electric prose. Not to say that James is less intense, but his is a kind of cold intensity that withers a flower in a single glance. Stefan Zweig's intensity is a fever-pitch evocation of desire and disappointment.

Ludwig, a man of humble beginnings, fell in love with his employer's wife, and she with him. They recognized their strong feelings for each other on the eve of Ludwig's departure abroad. He was sent overseas, in Mexico, to oversee a mining venture, a rare chance for him to improve his lot in life. The job will cost him two years away from Germany. Before his departure the lovers came to an understanding that they will renew their relationship when he returns to Germany. After two years, when he was just about ready to come home, the first world war broke out and transport to Europe was cut off.

Like James, class distinction between characters hangs like an oppressive weight. Early in the book the narrator Ludwig contemplates his new opulent surroundings, the house of his employer where he was asked to live:

All he had brought with him, even he himself in his own clothes, shrank to miserable proportions in this spacious, well-lit room. His one coat, ridiculously occupying the big, wide wardrobe, looked like a hanged man; his few washing things and his shabby shaving kit lay on the roomy, marble-tiled wash-stand like something he had coughed up or a tool carelessly left there by a workman; and instinctively he threw a shawl over the hard, ugly wooden trunk, envying it for its ability to lie in hiding here, while he himself stood inside these four walls like a burglar caught in the act. In vain he tried to counter his ashamed, angry sense of being nothing by reminding himself that he had been specifically asked for, pressingly invited to come. But the comfortable solidity of the items around him kept demolishing his arguments. He felt small again, insignificant, of no account in the face of this ostentatious, magnificent world of money, servants, flunkeys and other hangers-on, human furniture that had been bought and could be lent out. It was as if his own nature had been stolen from him. [12-13]

Being a member of the lower class ("His one coat ... looked like a hanged man"), in Ludwig's own mind, is like being a criminal ("like a burglar, caught in the act") and at the same like a victim ("his own nature had been stolen from him"). The book is characterized by this kind of inner speech, where the protagonist blurts out his emotional and mental angsts.

Ludwig's stream of feelings is in constant flux, undergoing metamorphosis. His self-awareness is fueled by suddenness, by uninhibited epiphanies.

   ... She shone down from another sphere, beyond desire, pure and inviolable, and even in his most passionate dreams he did not venture so far as to undress her. In boyish confusion, he loved the fragrance of her presence, appreciating all her movements as if they were music, glad of her confidence in him and always fearing to show her any of the overwhelming emotion that stirred within him, an emotion still without a name but long since fully formed and glowing in its place of concealment.

   But love truly becomes only love when, no longer an embryo developing painfully in the darkness of the body, it ventures to confess itself with lips and breath. However hard it tries to remain a chrysalis, a time comes when the intricate tissue of the cocoon tears, and out it falls, dropping from the heights to the farthest depths, falling with redoubled force into the startled heart. [19-20]

This is part of a longer passage sketching Ludwig's acknowledgment, at first, of a chaste love. The chrysalis in his mind is getting more desperate to get out and express its wings. He is conscious of his desiring yet its unfolding yields surprise.

And yet love is not only the kind of feeling that arouses Ludwig. It is but part and parcel of his strong sensitivities, his always startled recognitions. This passage comes right after his employer (the Councillor) offered him a new lucrative job, the job that will improve his station in life.

Then he had left the Councillor's study, still heated by the swirl of figures, reeling at the idea of the possibilities that had been conjured up, and once outside the door he stood staring wildly around him for a moment, wondering if the entire conversation could have been a phantasmagoria conjured up by wishful thinking. The space of a wingbeat had raised him from the depths into the sparkling sphere of fulfillment; his blood was still in such turmoil after so stormy an ascent that he had to be in control again, sensing his inner being more powerfully and as if separated from himself. [24]

This is reminiscent of a passage in The Wings of the Dove: "One had only to admit that her complaint was in fact but the excess of the joy of life, and everything did then fit. She couldn’t stop for the joy, but she could go on for it, and with the sense of going on she floated again, was restored to her great spaces."

Ludwig couldn't stop for the joy, he could go on and on, floating, but suddenly his eyes "fell as if by chance on a picture hanging over a large chest, and lingered there. It was her portrait." It was the portrait of his beloved, and realizing the implication of accepting his new job abroad, he once again underwent an extended epileptic-like seizure, a state of possession ("a blow struck through his whole body from the top of his skull to the bottom of his heart, a lightning bolt tearing across the night sky and illuminating everything"). The lightning singed his wings.

This is a pretty intense book, and what makes it intense is the fluid flow of the prose. The book is to be read aloud so as to savor the sentences, the lyricism, and the sentiments. Anthea Bell's translation captured the live-wire intensity of Zweig's poetry and the Jamesian lucidity of perception.

The second half of the book is where the "journey into the past" takes place, though every bittersweet journey here is already some kind of journey into the past. The present is always filtered by what happened in the past. Very aptly, the novella is in the past tense. The intimations of a new war in real time is in the past continuous. And even Ludwig's present thoughts are referred to in relation to the past: "The past always comes between us, the time that has gone by."

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig, translated and with an afterword by Anthea Bell, introduction by André Aciman, New York Review Books, 2010. Copy from BookMooch.

23 May 2011

"Ang Dinosawro" (Augusto Monterroso)

Ang Dinosawro
ni Augusto Monterroso

Pagkagising nya, naroon pa rin ang dinosawro.

Salin mula sa Ingles ni Edith Grossman

Related posts:

"The Dinosaur" (Augusto Monterroso)

An elegant proof

16 May 2011

My Kind of Girl (Buddhadeva Bose)


Four men, complete strangers to each other, were stranded on a night train. They met a young couple ("clearly newlyweds") who appeared very much in love. This sight of the couple triggered memories for each of them. They began reflecting about love. They decided to pass the time sharing stories with each other. Each of the four stories that followed was rendered in very simple yet beautiful prose. They were all simple tales but together they form a subtle whole.

Romantic love is the subject of  My Kind of Girl (1951, English 2010) by Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974), a prolific Bengali writer. Though primarily known as a poet, Bose wrote in various genres, including novel, short fiction, drama, and essay. He was often considered in the same breath as the Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.

The novel is a slim one, 138 pages, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, who is said to be presently at work on Bose's magnum opus Tithidore (1949), a family saga. Bose himself was an accomplished translator of European poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Charles Baudelaire.

Anyway, romantic love. If being in love is a natural subject for poets, then Bose was one of its purest practitioners. He explored the theme in a very likeable way, even if the stories did not have fairy tale-like endings. There are no special pyrotechnics in his writing, but sometimes the sentences will stop one in his tracks

In the ashen first light of dawn we saw his lips move. We were so still as we watched, and it was so silent all around, that we seemed to see his words, not hear them.

There's something oddly fantastic about that seeming ability to see words in complete silence. There it was. Utterly compelling.

The descriptions of characters can be cartoonish but the unusual circumstances they found themselves in allowed them to easily surpass their cartoonish-ness. There's a sense of humor, hesitant, poker-faced. Here is a striking passage, a handsome parody of Austen's "truth universally acknowledged":

   ... Theirs was an affluent household, and a bride would only make their cup of joy brim over. And the boy wasn't one of those typical, bespectacled midgets – just see how handsome he was.
   Yes, he was indeed handsome – there was no denying this. I know – knew – Makhanlal very well; at twenty-one he was a burly, powerful giant who looked thirty-two. Large and ungainly, he had prominent teeth, a manly, hair-covered chest, enormous shoes that caused great consternation when they were sighted lying around. Seeing as he could easily pass for a father of three, it didn't seem suitable for him not to be married.

The stories may be sharing the same topic and setting, yet their diverse viewpoints formed individual portraits of the social and cultural contexts of India in the early period of 20th century. The stories formed a whole because they seemed to spring from the same source of feeling. Being in love was mixed in different states of being: disillusion, loss of idealism, pride, kindness, compassion. The simple telling was an assurance that the novel was devoid of mawkish chick-litry.

The stories build on each other. They enlarge. Like love, they can be beautiful and in that sense, inspiring and life-affirming. Also, they can be cruel and heartbreaking and yet still enlarge the heart, by a few millimeters at least.

"The more I heard about love, the more I wanted it," a dejected character cried out at one point in the story he was telling. For love can be addictive. The four voices in My Kind of Girl, spun in a kind of addictive prose, somehow tells of it.

The novel reminded me of another book set in the region. Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra is also structured as a book of independent love stories, seemingly linked by the writer's fine sensibility and poetry. It also reminded me of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. For the characters are in search of a suitable boy or girl to spend the rest of their lives with. Marriage and matchmaking were the book's provinces.

The two wonderful books by the two Vikrams can be traced to the same (romantic) tradition as Bose's. It was a tradition that was not blind to historical and cultural shifts in Indian society – to a time when attitudes by, and toward, women were starting to change. These attitudes are increasing liberality and independence. The passing references to them in Bose's stories are constructing a map and milieu of this new understanding.

The book brings in a flux of strong feelings, some empathy, personal and social revolutions. Possibly more. Acquaintanceship with an excellent writer.

I read an advanced reading copy of this book which I received through BookMooch.


14 May 2011

Beowulf (translation by Seamus Heaney)

Spoiler. Alert.

So. In the midst of this fiendish fun-book,
monsters flit to and fro, the hungry blokes.
Heaney's translation exhales and breathes.
It brooks no comparison mayhaps.
Old English’s boon is drinking in its words,
delivering blow by blow as swords clash
bilingually. The movie grays beyond
compare to the verses that believe
in the breast where the chain-mail protects
our hero’s blood, and flesh. The chain-mail cloth
is everything to the brave wolf’s safety net.
To the adventuring prince Beowulf, it brings
the bad bad wolf into the epic
big big.

Ho! The villain comes to town
to slay a lot of warriors, to orphan boys
and girls. Beowulf to the rescue, fasten
your seats. The ride’s rough but blood
is plentiful. Holy smack! The brutal
arm-of-monster is ripped-torn from
the sharp shoulder blade. It demands big-eyed
wonderment: the hero’s bare-hand handiwork,
He was unarmed, yes, yet he prevailed, leaving
a one-armed monster with a big wound
to lick. Thus ended the evil ambushing,
the terror-monger's terrible monstering.
The ligaments were showing, the wire of nerves.
Blood drip-dripped, the bad monster’s life’s snatched
as the arm was un-armed. While our insouciant hero
Beowulf was unharmed! Hurrah!

The death-den is inviting men to the death.
God-Messiah we pray for the strength of one man:
the macho muscles of the brawn Beowulf.
He was the stoic power of the people. He must
have crunched up to the bone, built strength
to the marrow, exercised fastidiously, lifted
weights, then aghast, his enemies
must cower and declare their sincere cowardice
else their heads fall to the side, leaving
headless necks atop headless bodies.
Heeded, less and more, the call of poetry -
Heaney was bold to use words that build
realism of battle scenes and gruesome gore.

Act Two was the jolly vengeance of angry ma.
Grendel was grand yet his mother was grander.
Monsters extraordinaire, the twosome trolls
haunted the lands of Denmark, mark it.
The battleground was ever wet, the sea.
Beowulf brought his diving gear and
dived to the bottom of the muck where
the ugly wicked momma sat femme fatally.
Nothing was as risky as that, cannibally,
a truesome truth that grew out of some
pure greed and gluttony, an evil hue.
The underwater skirmish would make
the non-swimmer squirm in his skin.
Beowulf emerged from the water victorious,
the aqua-monster was victimized,
drowned by her own amphibious lungs.

Years passed.

Ha! Enter the dragon breathing fire
in each cranny and nook. The cave of treasure
was thieved and dragon went berserk.
The gold must be returned by hook
or by crooked ways. The reader on edge, at the precipice’s
edge, suspense suspended, hanging by threads.
Spiderman’s finally defeated, crawling on all fours
after inflicting the draconian wound to his enemy.
Testosterone’s elevated to the throne,
Pure energy, pure pyre and fireworks.
The visual effects eye-popped and thrown
the reader out of balance watching
with bated breath, as the hero bathed in sweat.
The ring-leader was un-ringed, the hero
was un-kinged, escaped his final escapade,
delivered his final feeble speech. The people
were aggrieved by this smashing turn of events.
Exeunt knifed dragon and slain dragon-slayer.

Before the blogger forgets, via dismembered
memory, the rating is waiting: five out of five
stars. And may it shine as it brings
a shiner, a result of a hardline punch.
The hard lines of poetry were not by an epigone.
The poet had versed-translated them epically
with the spirit, mayhaps, of nobility,
of Anglo-Saxon succession of virtues
and vices that continue to this day.
Contemporary reader wasn't held at bay.
The interest waxed and did not wane.
It was bloody and disarming.

(Image: Gerard Butler as Beowulf)

07 May 2011

Don Q, via Cervantes


In which the blogger posts his final thoughts on the novel, with a nod to its real author.

The pleasures, the comedies, the verisimilitude of Don Quixote are bottomless, unrelenting, imaginative, that the reader, both the open and close ones, will be relishing its tricks and treats. A reader open to the unforgiving comedy will forgive the author for concocting all kinds of humor, from the slapstick to pitch black. The close reader, if by close we mean the closeness to the spirit of adventure, the willingness to be subjected to quixotic winks and, can I say, sanchic-panzic wit, in other words to be "in on the joke", will be rewarded with plenty of amusement. To be laughed about or lapped up. Or, being laughable, simply lopped off.

   '... If you do not believe me, Sancho, I beg you to do something that will correct your mistake and make you see that I am telling you the truth: mount your ass and stalk them [flocks of sheep], and you will soon see how, once they have gone a little way, they turn back into what they were at first and, ceasing to be sheep, become real men again, just as I described them to you. But do not go yet, because I have need of your assistance: come here and see how many of my teeth are missing, for it seems to me that there is not one left in my mouth.'
   Sancho came so close that his eyes were nearly inside his master's mouth ... [Part I, Chapter XVIII, Rutherford translation]

We are inside the mind of the author of the Quixote, who at this point is reading the translator's writing from the manuscript by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli. What happens next inside the mouth of our knight errant, where Sancho's eyes peered as close as any close reader of a text, is so gross it could turn one's stomach upside down and spew all the hibernating contents. For that was precisely what happened.

The history sometimes displays humor through puns so sprightly they could make one jump up and down:

   'I didn't cut any capers in the blanket.' Sancho retorted. 'I cut them in the air, and more of them than I'd have chosen to.'
   'I suppose,' added Don Quixote, 'that every history that has ever been written has its ups and downs ...' [Part II, Chapter III]

Somehow the comedy also paints a most disturbing picture of the times. Spain in the time of Cervantes being a time of inquisitive struggles.

   ... Sancho stood up and took himself a good way off, and as he went to lean against another tree he felt something touching his head; he raised his hands and they came into contact with two feet in their shoes and stockings. He shuddered with fear and went to another tree, and the same thing happened there. He screamed to Don Quixote for help. Don Quixote came and when he asked Sancho what had happened and what he was frightened of, Sancho replied that all those trees were full of human feet and legs. Don Quixote felt them, and immediately realized what the cause might be, and said:
   'There's no need to be afraid, these legs and feet that you can feel and cannot see must belong to outlaws and bandits who have been hanged from these trees; in these parts the authorities hang them twenty or thirty at a time when they catch them, from which I deduce that we must be near Barcelona.'
   And he was quite right, too. As they were leaving, they raised their eyes and saw the fruit that was hanging from those trees: bandits' corpses. [Part II, Chapter LX]

There's no need to be afraid. Yeah, right. Can anything be more surreal than some booted pairs of feet dangling lifeless from trees. Indeed, it could be an influence of a scene happening in the night. A powerful, disconcerting image in any context that it will give one pause (there's a striking passage, for example, in Laforet's Nada referring to a hanged man on a tree, quoted in Caravana de recuerdos.) What a strange and black sense of humor the historian must have had to include this unsolicited lesson on the death penalty. Poor Sancho. The comedy is not funny at all when you just plain jump in fright and it's your heart that goes up and down.
The translated "true history" was so grounded in the historical and the real that it contained some details that speak of events, conflicts and religious policies in the 16th/17th century. There was also, for example, the prejudice against races, particularly the Morisco people (converts from Muslim) who were forcibly driven out of Spain because of their race.

There was no respite to humor in the novel. Comedy was so well integrated into the history's base and superstructure that it functioned as a conduit for its telling. Humor and history closely accompanied each other.

In addition to poking fun of knightly misadventures and verisimilar historical events, the true history floated certain questions of authorship, translation, plagiarism, and the self-determination of characters. Humor also brought these questions to their feet.

Don Quixote, it turned out, had such a poor regard of translation that he inadvertently belittled his own true history, which was in the first place a purported text translated from the Arabic. In fact, the Quixote is not so much an early instance of metafiction as the progenitor of what could be termed as a meta-translation. That is, a written text that (i) is being put forward as a translation and (ii) is well-aware of the fact.

Here is our knight on the subject of translation (a passage used as epigraph in translator John Rutherford's introduction to the book):

And yet it seems to me that translating from one language into another, except from those queens of languages, Greek and Latin, is like viewing Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, when, although one can make out the figures, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and one cannot appreciate the smooth finish of the right side; and translating from easy languages is no indication of talent or literary ability, any more than transcribing or copying a document on to another piece of paper is. [Part II, Chapter LXII]

Arabic being one of these "easy languages" instantly made the present written history of our knight already suspect, presumably because it has hidden the smooth finish of the fabric. (Of course, the English translation stitched from the Spanish doubly concealed the lining. So we didn't really stand a chance.) For although Don Quixote extols the virtues of his historian for his supposed accuracy in laying down his adventures, his idea of the inadequacy of translation to deliver the nuances of the whole pattern of the tapestry, humbled the entire enterprise of the paid translator. This seeming inconsistency was yet another manifestation of the pragmatic attitude of the storyteller toward his own tale that harks back to the very first sentences of the novel, where the narrator confessed that the idea for the book (likened to a "son") was conceived while he was in prison.

Idle reader: I don't have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should like this book, since it is the son of my brain, to be the most beautiful, elegant and intelligent book imaginable. But I couldn't go against the order of nature, according to which like gives birth to like. And to what can my barren and ill-cultivated mind give birth except the history of a dry, shrivelled child, whimsical and full of extravagant fancies that nobody has ever imagined – a child born, after all, in prison, where every discomfort has its seat and every dismal sound its habitation? [Prologue]

Ah, truth in storytelling is never as slippery as when one tries to efface the traces of active authorship by electing to be humble before one's own creation. How could something living and vital be willed to be born if the mind that constructed it was, from the start, dry and barren, hence infertile?

One last note. Going back to the idea of translation as the reverse side of the tapestry, this novel metaphor yet proved original thinking on the part of the speaker.

Or not.

It may be possible that this fabric thing was fabricated from another source, in the same way that several lyrics and verses in the novel were filched from other writers and appropriated by Don Quixote as his own. A similar idea on translation was alluded to in The Book of Tea (1906) by Kakuzo Okakura:

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade—all threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?

The idea of translation as the reverse of tapestry [PDF] was attributed to an author of the Ming dynasty, whose reign at least overlapped with the lifetime of Cervantes. Who was this Ming author and what exactly did he say, in what book or scroll? Whether the brocade/tapestry idea was independently formulated by Cervantes or whether he absorbed it from the Ming directly or indirectly, is still an open question. In the meantime, those threads were indeed obscuring the design, preventing us from admiring the full frontal beauty of the original.

But why does a viewer choose to look from behind? One can always turn the carpet around and look for the embroidery. An imaginative translation of a meta-translation, from any language, king or queen or subject, has the capacity to reveal the intricate colors by approximating the loops the threads make in the original, using different kinds of fibers. If it is any good, it could even weave another textile of its own, one whose subtlety and smoothness can approach the original patterning. The workmanship preserved regardless of how the translator has woven the materials or operated the loom.

Do not believe the blogger when he said this will be his final post on the subject. He has mooched another adaptation that promises to explore some catholic ideas about the nature of truth, or that will probably tackle faithfulness to the source text, if not the author's faith to his brainchild. "Don Q, via Greene" goes like this:

[T]he author continues to explore moral and theological dilemmas through psychologically astute character studies and exciting drama on an international stage. The title character of Monsignor Quixote is a village priest, elevated to the rank of monsignor through a clerical error, who travels to Madrid accompanied by his best friend, Sancho, the Communist ex-mayor of the village ...

Doesn't that sound the least bit heretical?

(Image source: Rank badge [China] (1988.154.1) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

06 May 2011

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Murakami Haruki)

The story, a love story, is simple. A boy fell in love with a girl. Many years later, when the man was already married, they met again.

I usually hate Haruki Murakami's fiction. The flatness of his characters, the cheesy self-help quotes, the repetitions of these cheesy self-help quotes, the poor execution of surrealism. These are some of my gripes about his works, particularly in most short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, all the stories in after the quake, and in Kafka on the Shore. The latter novel is simply an ambitious mess of puzzle fragments whose seams show at the edges. So I'm a bit surprised with the depth of characterization in South of the Border, West of the Sun. Murakami's mannerisms were still present but they were tempered by the voice of its narrator. The things that don't work well with the other books found their way here in concentrated form but somehow this book resisted the tendency to be mediocre. Perhaps it was because of the straight diction of the book, which can be detected in translator Philip Gabriel's careful words. For some reason, I liked this book as much as I liked Norwegian Wood. The simple writing style evoked authentic feelings of pain and loss. The characters were ordinary (ordinary guy, ordinary person) as the characters themselves are wont to describe themselves, here as well as in Norwegian Wood. Their very ordinariness questioning the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in, the unusual relationships forged and broken. The narrator's emotional journey progressed through a fair amount of self-examination, an all too honest self-examination that was despairing and yet never totally depressing, never completely succumbing to the blows of life and hate, to the vision of the abyss. The main characters foundered and were lost. But a touch of hope lingered at the end, a generous glimpse of the miracle of existence. The ordinary characters were trying to be brave for the coming of "a brand-new day", here in this novel and in others.

This love story had certain moments of darkness, certain ominous moments. Yet in certain places, it had lightness and buoyancy, the fleeting clarity of an insight. Perhaps an inner truth, perhaps what goes on in the heart.

It's a good story. As clear and transparent as good wine.