26 April 2011

Seven stories by João Guimarães Rosa

The seven stories came from the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006), edited by K David Jackson. João Guimarães Rosa (1908-64) published two short story collections in his lifetime - Sagarana (1946, English version in 1966 by Harriet de Onís) and Primeiras estórias (1962, The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories, 1968 English version by Barbara Shelby). Another two were published posthumously, both still untranslated - Tutaméia: terceiras estórias (1967) and Estas estórias (1969). The two English versions, from Knopf, were now safely out of print.

It took more than 35 years after the death of Guimarães Rosa, at the turn of the millennium, before two new anthologies of his stories in English will see print again. In 2001, The Jaguar, a collection of 8 stories, came out in a translation by David Treece, a professor of Portuguese in King's College London. The Jaguar was reprinted in 2008 to commemorate the centenary of Guimarães Rosa's birth. The stories in that collection came from Primeiras estórias (6 stories) and Estas estórias (2 stories, including the titular story).

The other substantial story anthology that brought back the Brazilian novelist in print was the Oxford Anthology, which contains 72 stories by 37 Brazilian writers. The most represented writers were Machado de Assis (10 stories, 63 pages), Clarice Lispector (9 stories, 36 pages) and Guimarães Rosa (7 stories, 56 pages).

As with The Jaguar, the bulk of Rosean stories in the Oxford edition came from Primeiras estórias (5 stories, four were from Shelby's translations in The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories) and Estas estórias (2 stories). Four of the seven stories overlapped with Treece's selection. In fact, "The Jaguar" is reprinted in the same translation by Treece.

At present, The Jaguar and Oxford Anthology constitute the only available selections of a fair number of stories by Guimarães Rosa in print. Here's a brief description of each of the stories in the Oxford anthology.

1. "The Girl from Beyond" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Nhinhinha is a young girl in possession of a unique power. There's something in the composition and subject of the story that is akin to Juan Rulfo's stories, particularly in terms of the thematic exploration of folk religion, delusion, and hypocrisy.

2. "Much Ado" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Immedicable, empalmed, fantastico-inauspicious, psychiataster, circumstanding - these are only some of the unusual words in this story which make one curious how the translator came up with them. It is an amusing tale of a man of high position who climbed a place of high position (a palm tree) in the nude and declared to everyone watching that "Living is impossible!" What happens next is surreal.

3. "Soroco, His Mother, His Daughter" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Soroco accompanies the two women of his life to the railroad, for them to board the train on the way to the madhouse, apparently to stay there as mental patients. This story is quite brief and did not waste any word. It lodges in the mind, like the last song syndrome.

4. "The Third Bank of the River" (translated by William Grossman)

A man suddenly just up and went to live in a boat by the river, leaving his family behind, leaving them for good. What was wrong with him? Did he go crazy? The story is the most anthologized by Guimarães Rosa, as well as the most translated (three times). It is a succinct encapsulation of his principles, that of the dynamic interface between civilization and savagery, sanity and madness.
The story also appeared in translation in Modern Brazilian Short Stories (1967, ed. William Grossman, the version in this edition). It was anthologized at least six more times, including in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature (second volume, 1977, eds. Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie) and in The Jaguar.

5. "Treetops" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

A boy was separated from his ill mother. His uncle fetched him from home and they travelled by plane to a far away place. The boy tried to cope with his loneliness and homesickness by playing with his monkey doll. Suddenly there appeared a toucan bird flying above the forest trees. Through the toucan the boy projected his temporary happiness as he searched for peace of mind, an inner peace that can only be provided for by transient animals (the stuffed toy and the bird). Guimarães Rosa's writing about a child's consciousness and longing was very sensitive and delicate, evoking the journey of a troubled spirit.

6. "Those Lopes" (translated by Richard Zenith)

"Those Lopes" is an exploration of female psychology, a short story containing the kernel of what could be a novel about a woman who suffered domination by men (by the Lopes). The words used by Richard Zenith, the translator, are very precise and controlled. They reproduce the rhythmic anguish of a woman biding her time, waiting for the opportunity to break from her shackles. One can risk assuming that the words are faithful to the original language owing to the singular and confident voice in the story. Its "fresh" rendition makes it an easy favorite in the selection.

This translation is here published for the first time in book form. It appeared earlier in 1997 in the journal Grand Street. It is to be hoped that Zenith, if not Treece, will have the chance to put out the whole Estas estórias collection.

7. "The Jaguar" (translated by David Treece)

The same story that is the centerpiece in the anthology by David Treece, "The Jaguar" is a work of high craftsmanship, possibly representative of the Rosean stream of consciousness in the watershed novel Grande Sertão: Veredas. It's an intricate tale that traced its own ruthless monologic direction and produced its own taxonomy of several wildcat species for the purpose. The story was also published in Giovanni Pontiero's version, as "My Uncle, the Jaguar," in Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas (1997, ed. Cass Canfield Jr).

Consummate plotting and poetic language are the best qualities of a Guimarães Rosa story. His sentence constructions are founded in a polyphonic range of styles and registers. His sense of language, of what words can convey in various combinations (phonetic, linguistic), demonstrates a writer's complete freedom to experiment, invent, and craft a story. He was most certainly a savant, given his spoken command of at least seven languages (fluent in most of them) and an aptitude of reading and understanding in several more. His "neglected" status was probably due in part to his reputation as a "difficult" writer (now contradicted by the most recent translations by Treece and Zenith), and in part to the unfounded fear of major English publishers to take risk with an experimental writer, an "avant-garde," despite his already prominent status in his homeland Brazil.

Until such time that Guimarães Rosa's major works were given their due and proper recognition by the readership in English, by being translated or re-translated, or at least reprinted - by being made widely available - a large proportion of readers remains in the dark about his standing in world literature. Fortunately, his literary presence, still undimmed 65 years after the publication of his first book, was detectable in the two latest available anthologies. Those who were able to read and appreciate his works in the now-rare English editions (or in any language for that matter) are lucky for getting an exclusive glimpse of what one story called the "other-place". Those who will be acquainted with his outputs through the selections by Treece and David Jackson, in The Jaguar and in this Oxford edition, will have the same rare privilege.

17 April 2011

Marxism and Literary Criticism (Terry Eagleton)

Here is a concise introduction to the subject of reading socio-political "relevance" in books. Terry Eagleton surveyed the rise of Marxist literary critics and their ideas and philosophies. It began with a definition of basic concepts of Marxist lit theory (base and superstructure) and then proceeded toward a critique of early interpretations of the theory. The approach is academic and somehow lacking some specific examples. The presentation of arguments was interesting even though it mentioned a lot of critics and books I'm not familiar with. The book will be most appreciated by those who have a background on the subject and its writers, from its originators Marx and Engels, to its modern interpreters Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Eagleton specifically approved of the types of response and criticism produced by the latter two: Brecht for his plays which were meant to be performed with complete improvisation, and Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – at least Eagleton convinced me to look out for these books. There are some good passages worth quoting but alas the book was mooched and I mailed it before I got the chance to type some passages I underlined. In any case, what I remember of the basic precepts and conclusions of the book range from the obvious (a text should not be overtly political) to the ingenious (texts are valued as much for their content as for the behind-the-scenes modes of production that went toward their publication; and also, history is an active arbiter of the relevance of literary texts, a book can be hailed as a success or failure depending on its place – or on the timing of its publication – in history).

Terry Eagleton is a critic best known for Literary Theory, another guidebook whose chapter one was a good background on the value judgements attributed to literary works, but whose succeeding chapters were written in one of those academic, scholarly, elegant, learned style. Hence, boring. I never did finish it.

His latest publication, Why Marx Was Right, is a return to the theory of Marxism. If the excerpt is any indicator, the book has a more philosophical (over academic) bent.

Because the working-class movement had been so battered and bloodied, and the political Left so robustly rolled back, the future seemed to have vanished without trace. For some on the left, the fall of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s served to deepen the disenchantment. It did not help that the most successful radical current of the modern age—revolutionary nationalism—was by this time pretty well exhausted. What bred the culture of postmodernism, with its dismissal of so-called grand narratives and triumphal announcement of the End of History, was above all the conviction that the future would now be simply more of the present.

. . .

Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists. In this respect, being a Marxist is nothing like being a Buddhist or a billionaire. It is more like being a medic. Medics are perverse, self-thwarting creatures who do themselves out of a job by curing patients who then no longer need them. The task of political radicals, similarly, is to get to the point where they would no longer be necessary because their goals would have been accomplished. They would then be free to bow out, burn their Guevara posters, take up that long-neglected cello again, and talk about something more intriguing than the Asiatic mode of production. Marxism is meant to be a strictly provisional affair, which is why anyone who invests his whole identity in it has missed the point. That there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism.

There is only one problem with this otherwise alluring vision. Marxism is a critique of capitalism—the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive critique of its kind ever to be launched. It follows, then, that as long as capitalism is still in business, Marxism must be as well. Only by superannuating its opponent can it superannuate itself. And on the last sighting, capitalism appeared as feisty as ever.

The new book – in sketching a new reading of the present based on an old model – appears to be not only a continuation but an extension, an amplification, of his Marxism and Literary Criticism. His introduced theme painted some very broad brushstrokes about why the contemporary global landscape is not very accommodating to Marxism. In the subsequent chapters of the book, his supposedly impassioned defense of Marxism from its detractors promises to be a hardening of his thesis about the continuing robustness of Marxism to describe the techno-capitalist society.

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans (Luis Fernando Verissimo)

The book in question is a very funny, very entertaining and refreshing whodunit, with more than passing references to Borges (a major character here), Poe, and Lovecraft. Vogelstein is a 50-year old translator and English teacher who adored Borges with the same fanatical zeal as the narrator of the Borges story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." His first "encounter" with the master was not agreeable: Vogelstein translated one of Borges's stories for a Portuguese magazine but he changed some aspects of the story to fit his own preference for how the story should proceed. Of course, Borges, upon learning of the travesty, was furious. They eventually exchanged letters, which was the start of Vogelstein's literary hero worship.

Their second encounter was face to face, in a conference about Edgar Allan Poe held in Buenos Aires. But even before the conference was to start, a murder of one of the speakers took place. The murder victim was found, in true Borgesian fashion, in front of a mirror – his body's position was such that it formed a letter from the alphabet, a clue that could point to the solution of the crime. Borges and Vogelstein were enlisted to help uncover the identity of the killer. The ensuing investigation was a riot of literary speculations, invoking the mystery stories of Poe, the Kabbalah, Necronomicon book of the dead, et cetera. This novel was criminally funny. I'm sure there were some in-jokes (Borgian, Poetic, Lovecrafty) that went past me but it was altogether a solid detective work, if a bit too neat the way it all tied up, in a postmodern postmortem, in the end. Verissimo was nonetheless guilty of leading the reader into a maze of intertextual pleasures. There's a chance that a fan of Borges or Poe or Lovecraft will revel in the games and gimmickry of the Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo.

The short novel was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who was probably in top form the way she came up with words to describe the murder weapon:

You mentioned that Palermo, the part of Buenos Aires where you were brought up, had been a violent place full of bohemians and bandits. There they had two names for the knife, "the blade" and "the slicer". The two names described the same object, but "the blade" was the thing itself, and "the slicer" its function. "The blade" could fit in the hand even of a sickly child shut up in his father's library, "the blade" could be any of the superannuated daggers and swords belonging to his warrior grandfather or great-grandfather and displayed on the walls of his house, but "the slicer", the knife in the hand slicing back and forth, in and out, existed only in his imagination, in a fascinating world of rapid settlings of accounts and duels over honour, an insult or a woman, in dark streets where you never went, where no writer went, except in the literature he wrote.

Whether it's "the knife" (instrument) or "the blade" (form) or "the slicer" (function), the essence of light and dark comedy here cuts through like any sharp object.

01 April 2011


Books I finished in the first quarter of the year:

1. Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki, translated by Philip Gabriel

2. Emotero by Mark Angeles

3. A Heart So White by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

4. The Return by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews

5. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Mirra Ginsburg

6. Don Quixote, translated by John Rutherford [posts]

7. The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami Haruki, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

8. after the quake by Murakami Haruki, translated by Jay Rubin

9. Drown by Junot Díaz

10. Caravaggio by Francine Prose

11. Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

12. Seashells of Southeast Asia by R. Tucker Abbott

13. Translation in Practice, edited by Gill Paul

14. Chronicle of My Mother by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Jean Oda Moy

I wasn't able to review everything here though I wrote about or discussed most of these in my reading groups in Shelfari and LibraryThing.

As to which books I heartily recommend: Don Quixote and A Heart So White were ahead of the pack. I loved posting about Don Quixote. I may write one more post to wrap up the whole experience.

Which books to try at your own risk: Kafka on the Shore and after the quake were a pair of duds. And a few stories in The Elephant Vanishes didn't make positive impressions. No, I'm not giving up on Murakami (just look at the title of my post). I will read all his books. I'm already just about halfway there.

Translation in Practice is a practical and short guidebook on translating and editing translations. It could be downloaded for free in the Dalkey Archive Press site (here).

Seashells of Southeast Asia is a field guide to the identification of mollusc shells that I brought to the beach two weeks ago. Time willing, I may post something on it.