Month: August 2012

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Why do you hate the South? – Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

It is not without trepidation that I returned to reading Faulkner just a couple of months back. I say trepidation because I know how mad and meandering and mentally debilitating Faulknerian narrative can. And I say returned because I’d like to believe that Faulkner was one of the authors who greatly influenced my literary tastes during my early college days. Yes, I know that’s very presumptuous of me to claim for I have only read one short story (A Rose for Emily) and one novel (The Sound and the Fury) of his, but these two are enough for me to appreciate flair and style in novels.

He also instilled in me the love for one hundred commas within a one thousand word write-up. And after finishing this novel, Absalom, I approached our resident Hemingway scholar in our book club, asked him if he has ever read Faulkner, and when he answered no, I apologized and proclaimed myself to be a fan of the Faulknerian School of Narrative.

But between my proclamation and the turning of the last page, I am not even sure if I understood enough of this novel for me to love it. As I was looking back at the events and the revelations, I felt a terrible ache spreading within my chest. I was restless, and I had to keep turning this question inside my head: Why does Quentin hate the South?

“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

Absalom, Absalom! (yes, exclamation is point included) is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a squalid man who arrives in Mississippi, buys a piece of land, builds a great house he names Sutpen’s Hundred, rises in the social ladder of that town, procreates, leaves, comes and goes, comes and goes, and ends in… So Sutpen’s story is told in a series of retellings and flashbacks by Quentin Compson, a very familiar character for those who have read The Sound and the Fury, to his Harvard roommate.

This roommate, Shreve, is the one who asks the important question. As you have just read, Quentin vehemently denies it. He thinks it over and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t hate the place. But first, what made Shreve ask the question?

It is less of a question than the understanding that Quentin does hate the South. When asked to tell him about the place where he came from, everything that Quentin related to Shreve was filled with acid bitterness, violent relationships, ignoble histories, and gloomy memories that one can’t help getting the feeling that the storyteller is indeed filled with rankling rancor about what he is talking about.

And yet, how can Quentin hate the South when his roots are all anchored there? In accepting this hatred, he would also have to accept that he somehow hates himself. He is and will always have a part of the South, hence, the denial. This unnoticed self-hatred might be a major factor which contributed to his actions in The Sound and the Fury.

Aside from Quentin narrating, Rosa Coldfield contributes to this nasty job of reconstructing the past. She is Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and when her sister Ellen dies, she is promised marriage by Sutpen himself, only to be jilted. It is no wonder why her story is biased, and Quentin seeks out other narrators. His grandfather and father are other sources, so the stories of the three, plus Quentin’s, mingle with each other like vapors coalescing in the air and forming a thick, nearly impenetrable fog.

4 star - really liked itThis shifty narration is a cause of headache. The sentences can just run forever, and one’s patience can surely be daunted if he tries so hard at understanding every single phrase. My advice: just keep on reading. I believe that it was designed to be that way. The story will plant itself inside your head. Rather, it would accumulate deep within your subconscious with such terrifying strength capable of unseating and transporting you to that place and time where Sutpen’s story took place.

Sutpen’s story is scattered all over the novel, but this book is not only about him. It also depicts the white people’s attitudes toward the blacks. Have you ever heard of the word octoroon? It is what you call a person with an eighth of black blood in his ancestry. Such things mattered during the time of the novel, and the great divide between the whites and the blacks slowly dissolves as interracial marriages start to become a common thing at the end.

And upon arriving at this end, you are not sure if Sutpen is a real bad guy as Rosa firmly believes, or just confused and a little lost. As I continue to think about it, I see him in my mind’s eye, at least his ghost, standing at the charred ruins of Sutpen’s Hundred, perhaps waiting for his mixed-blood idiot grandson to conquer the South.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller

Belt, window, nut, rope – The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller

Christmas Party 2011. I wished for this book. Bookish little buddy bought this book and will give it to me if the person who picked my name for the exchange gift gives me a different title. I got it. Buddy kept her copy for herself and gave me a backup gift instead.

We read it together last May. I was a little anxious. I didn’t know how she will react to it. I myself didn’t know how I’ll react to it. It was a grope in the darkness, a leap of faith. God bless the IMPAC committee if this turns out to be a wonderful book.

It’s a little hard to get into it. The words just flow on and on, not giving us any clue on where it will lead. Objects are mentioned repeatedly. Belt, window, nut, rope. Tin sheep, wooden melons, mulberry trees, sacks of leaves, green plums. Ah, motifs. These, along with the short chapters, form the façade of this haunting novel.

Why and when and how does tightly tied love get mixed up with murder? I felt like shrieking curses beyond my command.

He who loves and leaves
shall feel the wrath of God
God shall punish him
with the pinching beetle
the howling wind
the dust of the earth.

Shrieking curses, but in whose ear?

Today the grass listens when I speak of love. It seems to me that this word isn’t honest even with itself.

The Land of Green Plums is certainly no basket of green plums. It is ripe with talent and heavy with the feeling of something significant. One is almost forced to read it very slowly for fear of missing the novel’s theme and for dealing it injustice just because one has sped through it. Besides, it’s injustice enough to breeze through it because there are so many beautiful sentences that one can’t help basking in.

Words are formed slowly to create a bleak landscape of Romania’s totalitarian times. These words do not require a wordsmith for them to be understood. Individually, they are simple words that you will learn in elementary and master in high school, but the way they are stringed together makes them so blurred that one is sure to get lost in trying to comprehend the thoughts after the periods.

But one is sure to get this enigmatic and fearful mood, which is the main point of the novel and which puts aside the action, if any, that is going on. We read the unnamed narrator’s remembrance of her friends and the silently turbulent times that they went through as students and young professionals. There are also stories about her childhood and her family that are sporadically inserted here and there. And oh, did I forget to mention that this novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her younger times?

The reader should always keep in mind that first-person narratives are unreliable. This applies to this novel, and although facts are not suppressed, the grief that the narrator holds can’t help from bursting at some points of the novel. But wait, why the grief? Why the fear and remembrance? Why the general melancholy?

So again, I forgot to give a background. A group of young and promising students set off from their respective impoverished provinces to the city to bring some comfort in their lives. Remember, the students live under a totalitarian regime, Ceausescu’s, specifically, and one has ideas about what happens to the intelligent and unconventional youth in such a government, no?

4 star - really liked itIf not, let me just say that everyone should watch what he says very carefully and associate himself with the “right” people. Heck, the latter is not even an assurance for survival. Just watch what you say and what you do. The slightest flick of a finger can betray you for the the friends are incessantly followed and interrogated by those who are in power. This routine becomes a part of their consciousness that they are driven mad with destructive paranoia and fear.

And what happens to Edgar, Georg, Kurt, Lola, Tereza, and our narrator?

Chicken-torture. Run a Google image search of “pecking chicken toy.” Just to make sure, you should see images of a ping-pong paddle with a number of chickens on top and a ball hanging with strings below it. Try to figure it out.

And then if you are able to do so, you might be able to figure out the main theme of the novel. Added bonus for you if you got belt, window, nut, rope. But by all means, read it. And read this: bookish little buddy’s review.

Thirteen Translations

Quarterly Rhapsody: Translated Books

Quarterly RhapsodyI almost forgot my quarterly feature, which is a post where I ramble about book-related stuff. Previous topics that I discussed in Quarterly Rhapsody, if you are interested, are:

So for the third quarter of the year, let’s talk about books translated into other languages. This topic has been bothering me for the past couple of weeks, and we have two books to blame: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. For the first book, I have this unquenchable desire to immediately read the translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy. As for the second book, I was going to start reading Ralph Manheim’s translation when by some accident, I found out that he made some omissions from the original text.

I put it back on my shelf and asked the local book stores if they have the Breon Mitchell translation available. I’m luckier with this one; I am currently reading it and I am not making a lot of progress because I often find myself comparing it with the older translation that propelled Grass to worldwide fame and ultimately, to the Nobel.

With my minor comparisons (really, I just picked some notorious paragraphs and winding sentences), I found out that the meaning is not lost. The thought is still there, although one could discern the style of the translator with his diction. Let’s take the opening paragraph of each translation.

From Manheim:

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole  in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed like me.

From Mitchell:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

Not a lot of difference, right? Yes, but for the reader who’s sensitive to style, there’s something to consider. Disclaimer: I am no literary person. I didn’t major in the letters, I don’t work in the publishing industry. I am merely a reader who appreciates some style.

So please check out that second semi-colon in Manheim’s version; it is dropped in Mitchell’s version. The first translation sounds a little terse to me because of the repeated punctuation mark; the other one is more fluid, which is, according to Grass himself, the narrator’s manner of speaking. This is may be something only for the finicky reader, but if we consider the cumulative effect of trying to make the two languages as parallel as possible, it is worth obsessing which translation to read.

The rest of the first page consists mostly of differences in word choice. Everything seems to be present. I wonder what’s omitted from the older translation?

Two Tin Drums

Two Tin Drums

I jumped to the afterword and found out that there weren’t more than five whole sentences omitted. One of them is about a comparison of a smell with that of a condom, and another one is about the splattering of semen somewhere. Others are hard to translate German dialogues that play with sound and style, and these were either dropped or translated into readable English.

To illustrate that, here’s another example, and with this, we will truly appreciate the insurmountable effort that translators put in their craft.

From the original text:

Auch fiel mir auf, das Tätigkeiten wie: Daumendrehen, Stirnrunzeln, Köpfchensenken, Händeschütteln, Kindermachen, Falschgeldprägen, Lichtausknipsen, Zähneputzen, Totschießen und Trockenlegen überall, wenn auch nicht gleichmäßig geschickt, geübt wurden.

From Manheim:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill.

From Mitchell:

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill.

Whoa! I don’t understand German, but looking at those German words mostly ending in -en (an assonance or consonance?), there’s a rhythmic pattern produced. And that took some time to type; I had to be loyal to the diacritical marks.

The same issue of being loyal to stylistic sound effects pervades the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Take this short sentence: Kápli kápali. Obviously an alliteration, but older translations dropped the effect and turned it instead into “The branches dripped,” or “The trees were dripping.” The duo, which are my favorite translators, went with “Drops dripped.”

Also, the duo kept the French dialogues unchanged. That made reading the novel a little tougher since I had to refer to the footnotes for the English translations. Other translations, such as Constance Garnett’s, translated everything into English. Nothing wrong, but it felt that everyone was speaking the some tongue, which I think isn’t the effect intended by Tolstoy.

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

We barely have a clue on how translators work their magic and how they go about their translations. Should they be loyal to the text or should they make the text more readable? Should they preserve the feel and culture of the text or should they make the text fit the feel and culture of the language where it is being translated?

I can’t help pondering these questions because I love world literature. I want to read novels from as many countries as possible. I guess it’s my way of traveling and learning about the world. There’s so little time and we can only do so much. Not all of us can travel everywhere in this lifetime or learn the languages of lofty literature, so we have to thank these translators who do the dirty tasks for us.

In the photo below are shown some books which are not originally written in English and which I rated with either 4 or 5 stars. Below are their original titles and the translators I am indebted to:

  • 2666 – ditto (translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
  • Atomised (UK); The Elementary Particles (US) – Les Particules Élémentaires (translated from French by Frank Wynne)
  • Fatelessness – Sorstalanság (translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)
  • The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero)
  • Hunger – Sult (translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly)
  • Independent People – Sjálfstætt Fólk (translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson)
  • The Land of Green Plums – Herztier (translated from German by Michael Hofmann)
  • My Name Is Red – Benim Adım Kırmızı (translated from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar)
  • Noli Me Tangere – ditto (translated from Spanish by Soledad Lacson-Locsin)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude – Cien Años de Soledad (translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa)
  • The Piano Teacher – Die Klavierspielerin (translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel)
  • The Tin Drum – Die Blechtrommel (translated from German by Breon Mitchell)
  • War and Peace – Война и миръ (translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Thirteen Translations

Thirteen Translations

Some notes on this list: I guess I’d have to hunt for other translations of my favorite book, Hunger. There are two more by George Egerton and Sverre Lyngstad. And look! That’s nine languages of great literature!

And oh, I made it seem here that Breon Mitchell is butchering Ralph Manheim’s work. That is not the case. The former is actually very grateful to the latter. He just had the great opportunity to work with Gunter Grass himself in coming up with a 50th anniversary edition of his first novel. He also mentioned that new translations for great works of literature are necessary for they do not endure as long as the original text. In addition, new translations of any work do not seek to be a better edition. Rather, they present different reading experiences that are totally separate from each other.

So if I get the translation that I don’t dig, I shouldn’t worry too much, right? I guess I should just do some more research when it comes to this matter. And good thing that I learned early on that the Fahnestock-MacAfee translation of Les Miserables is the one that I might enjoy. The book is just too damn long for me to read another translation of it.

Nobel laureates, again

Adopting books, again

My only bookish friend outside our book club is moving back to the province. He has trouble transporting all his books so he asked me to take care some of them for a while. I couldn’t say no because first, I love his books (we have similar tastes) and second, I want to help him out.

I don’t know how long his books will stay with me but he mentioned that he’ll take some of them home a bunch at a time. I placed all of them at the top of my book shelf. You see, I cannot mix them with my books because I am so near to having shelving problems. I guess I would need another book shelf next year unless stacking the books higher will not cause so much trouble. A ladder would be what I’ll need instead then.

And yes, he gave me a couple of books. Here they are:

  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – just in time! This our book club’s pick for November. My bookish little buddy Atty. Monique offered to give me her copy, but I decided to take this instead. Don’t you just love friends who give away their books?
  • The Immoralist by Andre Gide – my friend hated this so much, but I’m taking it. This is my third Gide book, and yes, I haven’t tried him yet.
  • Rabbit at Rest by John Updike – I already have a copy of this, but my friend’s copy is so much neater than mine.
  • The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog by Doris Lessing – what a title! This is my also my third Lessing book, and yes, I haven’t tried her yet as well.

Other books that I got over the weekend:

  • Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell – This is the second book of the Alexandria Quartet. I have finally completed these white mass market editions! And yes, I bought it last Friday at Book Sale – Walter Mart Munoz for only Php 17.00!
  • The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling – given to me yesterday by Miss Louize! She saw it on my Goodreads wish list shelf. I better update that shelf soon!

So here’s how the top of my book shelf looks like. It’s a little dark; we have an incandescent light bulb for the living room. I hope you all had a great weekend!

Foster parenting, again

Foster parenting, again

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Will the real murdering miniaturist please stand up? – My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

A surprise gift from my bookish little buddy last Christmas, My Name Is Red took me by surprise as much as it did when it landed on my hands. I had no idea then what it’s about (of course; you should know by now that I immediately buy and wish for books that have the Nobel badge on them), so it was a real thrill to read a beautifully rendered mesh of history, art, philosophy, romance, suspense, and mystery. Jam-packed, right?

To push it a little to the edge, each chapter is written in the perspective of the character or object dedicated to it. The first chapter, “I Am a Corpse”, is the voice of the recently disembodied spirit of a miniaturist talking about his manner of death. He slyly withholds the identity of his murderer, which will provide the reader with much guessing as the suspects Butterfly, Olive, and Stork speak their parts.

And who is in charge of solving this murder mystery? He is called Black, which at first I found funny because of the novel’s title. But yes, I hear you: who is Red?

I hear the question upon your lips: What is it to be a color?

Color is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness. Because I’ve listened to souls whispering–like the susurrus of the wind–from book to book and object to object for tens of thousands of years, allow me to say that my touch resembles the touch of angels. Part of me, the serious half, calls out to your vision while the mirthful half soars through the air with your glances.

I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted.

Red is that: a color. Other nonhuman narrators that speak here are dogs, trees, gold coins, and horses. Death and Satan are also given their own parts, so it’s not too hard to believe for the color red to speak. Besides, the novel is largely about art; artistic theories and techniques are discussed here and there, so why not let Red talk?

Elegant (the murdered), Butterfly, Olive, and Stork are a group of 16th century artists who are commissioned by the sultan to secretly work on Westernized paintings that are deemed blasphemous by the Islams. The time that they live in is that period when art was used merely to support any text that it accompanies. If the text says that two lovers meet by the lake, no dogs or any inconsequential details should be drawn. Art cannot be done for itself alone because it is seen by the fundamentalist as a glorification of objects, therefore a spit in the face of the Creator, therefore a form of blasphemy.

The murder of Elegant is a metaphor for the murdering of the old traditions to usher in the new Western customs that started to dominate Europe. The Turkish setting is perfect for this because it is at the point where East meets West, so the clash of two cultures is more obvious and imminent than somewhere else.

From the novel’s trunk branches ideas upon ideas that can fascinate the not too artsy person like me. The question of imprinting a signature, the persistence of paintings over time, the mastery that leads to blindness, and other topics that deal with art, life, death, love, and religion are presented in every chapter, and these can be either integrated in the novel as plot-builders or philosophical lectures.

Sometimes the reader might feel that he’s already reading nonfiction, but the shift is too subtle to be detected. The philosophical musings is one of the novel’s strengths, so one doesn’t really mind. Coupled with the murder mystery, the novel is made more riveting.

4 star - really liked itWe are also given a treat with early Persian literature, and an offshoot would be the tragedy of Husrev and Shirin. I bet that every reader of this novel would be forced to run a Google search of their paintings to satisfy the curiosity roused from reading. The literary Husrev and Shirin parallels, albeit not directly, our main characters Black and his wife, Shekure.

So yes, as I’ve mentioned earlier, there’s a treat for any type of reader out there. And the truth is, I find it hard to come up with something solid and coherent about this. It’s a real blow in the head. You start this novel without a lot of expectations and then you find yourself with a blow in the head, spinning out of control and little dazed, perhaps.

I will no longer detain you with this crazy attempt to capture what I feel for the book. I have so many formless thoughts on it, and before I end up with an extended mashing of praises for the novel’s brilliant handling of a wide array of subjects, I’d like to announce that this wouldn’t be my last Pamuk read.