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Problems of translation

The War of the End of the World

Mario Vargas Llosa's "The War of the End of the World"

Philip Meyer pointed out in an interview that one of the main metrics he uses for gauging whether or not a book qualifies as “literature” is how well it stands up to translation. I hadn’t given much thought to translation before that comment, but I’ve come to really agree with him.

It seems that in order for books to survive not only across languages but also across generations, they need to be constructed such that the heavy lifting is done chapter-to-chapter, rather than sentence-to-sentence. Of course, that heavy lifting also has to be complex and meaningful enough (and contain enough intellectual mysteries) to warrant examination across a wide stretch of time, but literary showmanship has a tendency to lose its luster once it passes more than a decade or so past its construction.

The author who I most often think of when considering this problem of translation is Denis Johnson. He’s still one of my favorites, and Jesus’s Son still knocks my ever-loving socks off each time I read it. However, there is so much in the way of literary pyrotechnics in Johnson’s writing that I can’t see it surviving into other languages while still maintaining its effect. The same goes for Kerouac, who I feel survives so heavily on his style that once you leave the “moment” that he’s describing, it’s hard to find what in his story there is to appreciate. I have a suspicion that Murakami may suffer from a similar affliction. The Wind Up Bird chronicle survives on the strength of its ideas, but the prose comes across as clunky in English.

On the opposite end of this spectrum I’d place Mario Vargas Llosa, whose books are meticulous edifices of idea. There is nothing showy about his prose and nothing pedestrian about it either. He presents an intellectual landscape that develops itself patiently in the space provided. Ian McEwan is another good example. Although much of the aesthetic beauty of McEwan’s writing would likely be lost in translating it to another language, his books would still hold up because their strength is in the way they organize ideas across the space of an entire novel, not in their sentence-to-sentence histrionics.

The middle ground that I can’t make up my mind about is Kafka. I feel like his parables are at least somewhat accessible in English, but he is such a meticulous writer that I worry a greater-than-usual nuance is being lost by taking him out of his native German.


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Roberto Bolano and Hieronymus Bosch


Roberto Bolano's "2666"

I recently attempted to write an essay about 2666—Roberto Bolano’s sprawling, late-life masterwork—and found myself stumped. For someone with my borderline unhealthy adoration of Bolano, this was unexpected to the point of offense. A couple things to help put this in perspective: 1) I LOVE Bolano. I have consumed almost his entire oeuvre and dragged myself through the 900-page wilderness of 2666 two times over. I am hovering near the range of obsession, even if I haven’t fully committed to that plunge. 2) There is so much addressed in 2666—so many philosophies, characters, times, and circumstances—that it’s almost impossible to not have anything to say about it. It’s like not having an opinion about life. And yet, there I was.

The problem I had in talking about 2666 is one that I find in addressing other such postmodern doorstops as Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow. All these books present such a titanic edifice of thought that it feels like you’d have to have several PHDs before you were qualified to offer a worthwhile opinion on any them. And even then, is it possible to talk about such works in broad terms? One could spend a lifetime picking through the intellectual cross-hatching of Gravity’s Rainbow and to talk about it in any degree lesser than “exhaustive” feels downright lazy.

2666 presents these same conundrums. The novel touches on everything from Robert Rodriguez to the Russian Revolution and trying to fit the pieces together could cause you to question your sanity (a prospect that the novel itself cheekily proffers). But the difference between 2666 and Gravity’s Rainbow, for me in any case, is that with 2666, I feel that superhuman erudition is a welcome companion to one’s journey through the novel, rather than a price of entry. Bolano, by his own admission, created a work with so many twists and blind alleys that not even he knew where all of them led. The novel was crafted as an experience accessible on the emotional level, as well as the scholarly, and it is for that reason that I think I developed such fondness for it. There are themes and thought experiments to be extrapolated from the five books that comprise 2666, but the aesthetic pleasure of reading was so strong that it could carry me through the novel without leaving me feeling obligated to dirty its margins with a spider web of notes and obscure references.

My problem in writing my essay was that I found it difficult to reconcile my desire to make sense of 2666’s details while also paying credence to its whole. To focus on the book’s affective qualities would mean neglecting its library of intellectual detail, and to focus exclusively on that detail would be to obfuscate why I was so interested in it in the first place. There was, of course, a model for such a critical balance, and I eventually happened upon it, the point of entry being the paintings of the sixteenth century Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

Little is known about Bosch’s life, other than that it began in the latter half of the fifteenth century and ended in the earlier days of the sixteenth. His themes were clear and remained consistent throughout his career—torture, temptation, suffering, and Christian salvation. Bosch took to this well-trod thematic ground with an unmistakable style. The painter’s horrific triptychs offer, at the same time, sweeping visions of pangeic agony and isolated capsules of metaphor, allusion, and, I think it’s more than likely, jest. All in all, his paintings engage an effect similar to Bolano’s novels.

Both Bolano and Bosch offer visions of outsized suffering, overstuffed with minute detail. In Bolano, this predilection manifests itself in the histories of fictional revolutions and desultory artistic movements; with Bosch, the artist’s imagination is set to work creating bird-beaked devils and revelers subjected to unique torments such as fit their particular sins. The organization of these encyclopedic grotesqueries is an impressive feat for both artists, as it is here where they form a cohesive whole from the sum of their great many parts. Again, there are parallels to be found in the work of both artists.

2666 is an inversion of Bosch’s most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Whereas with Bosch, Hell’s wasteland occupies the far side of the frame, in Bolano it is the center. “The Part About the Crimes”, the centerpiece of 2666, is comprised of a methodical recounting of systematic rape and murder so unflinching that it makes Beelzebub’s quests for human punishment seem quaint. The bleakness of these themes is balanced, both in Bosch and Bolano, by competing forces that at least attenuate such suffering, even if they fail to negate it.

Bosch’s cosmology is one in which Earth is a mixture of the divine and the profane, both balancing in a shaky middle ground. Bolano posits that such violence, grotesque for its inversion of rationality, is the centerpiece around which the world pivots. His instances of beauty exist in precarious flux about the edges of this violence. Bolano’s great anxiety is that goodness is simply untrue. As a character remarks in The Savage Detectives, “the question is whether evil is a force, for if it is a force, then it can be fought against, but if it is not, then all is hopeless.” In both Bosch and Bolano, the grandest schemes are revealed via the compilation of seemingly infinite minutia.

The Temptation of St. Anthony

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Temptation of St. Anthony"

Both Bosch and Bolano focus in a manner that is almost obsessive on the dark, the melancholy, the horrific. But in both cases, this subject matter is turned into aesthetic experience via its treatment. Bosch’s Hell and Bolano’s Mexico are similar places in that they reveal the torrid minutia of their creators’ subconsciouses, and rather than fighting this collection of demons (in Bolano’s case intellectual, in Bosch’s case literal) they give them free reign, resulting in works of striking detail that are, for all their varied grotesquery, beautiful.

Just as Bosch labors over the details of his duck-like demons and their ironic tortures, Bolano populates 2666 with every manner of well-crafted phantasm. There are wanderers, warriors, critics, madmen, solopsists, and supernumeraries. What unites Bolano’s wandering cavalcade is literature. Whereas Bosch’s Christianity provided the mythic patina for his work, Bolano’s obsessive, lifelong immersion in literature endows him with the characters and ideas that populate his masterpiece. All the great variety of ghosts that show up on the pages of 2666 are united by their pursuit of Art. There are the critics, the writers (both failed and adored), and the journalists, scrabbling morosely at their trade. What to make of this garden of deformities? In both cases, the answer is hidden.

Critical analysis of 2666 is possible, but it’s a doomed enterprise, for only through fallacy could one force the pieces of the novel into systematic cohesion. While Bosch’s tortures look uniform from afar, on closer inspection they show conflicting flashes of irony, pagan folklore, and oblique import; Bolano’s paean to literary ambition squandered in senseless violence has a shape discernable from telescopic ranges, but zoom to any of its finer details and there is revealed a fresh terrain in which to become lost.

The Conjurer

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Conjurer"

In the cases of both Bolano and Bosch, there is a critical contingent that argues that the artists’ encyclopedic catalogues of the horrific have no greater import than in their value as curiosities. This is a hard argument to refute. Despite critics that would paint him as a satirist, Bosch’s paintings seem very much in keeping with an orthodox, Christian view of the Middle Ages, and looking for a moral force beyond Christianity in his work is a strained enterprise at best. Bolano’s great novel presents similar frustrations, even if they arrive from a different set of problems. 2666 is an unfinished masterpiece and its constituent ideas propagate themselves without the restraint that marks Bolano’s shorter books. But my enjoyment of both Bolano and Bosch stems from a willingness to appreciate the aesthetic form, while making allowances for the possibility that the content might not contain the starkest of revelations.

This isn’t to say that my interest in either artist is diminished. I am more than capable of assuming transcendence in Bosch’s devils, just as I am willing to believe in meaning in Bolano’s mess. In both cases, these artists have forged a pure aesthetic by sheer force of will. It’s the sort of feat that makes transcendence seem possible, despite life’s horrors, despite the mind’s calamity.

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True confessions #579

Despite venturing two hundred and fifty pages into the thing, I have never actually finished reading “The Red and the Black”.

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Artists in fiction

At the behest of a cousin, I have started reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I didn’t know a whole lot about this book before the past month, and what I did known had mostly to do with the fact that Nicole Kidman, at one point in time, wore a funny nasal prosthetic.

The book is a tri-part narrative, centered around the thematic lines of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, suicide, and yellow flowers. There are three narratives that Cunningham follows, one dealing with a housewife in the late 1940s, the other dealing with a publisher in the late ’90s, and the foremost dealing with Virginia Woolf herself, as she constructs Mrs. Dalloway. Reading the book has created an interesting question, which is this:

What’s the verdict on portraying artists in fictional settings? I know that Peter Schaffer’s portrayal of Mozart has seen its share of harsh criticism. Shakespeare in Love, while charming, provides what I feel is an extreme simplification of its subject.

I’m not enough of an authority on Woolf to cast aspersions on Cunningham’s portrayal, but I’m sure that purists will approach The Hours with hackles raised. Artists are so personal to us that I think any kind of a fictional portrayal that doesn’t match our personal interpretation runs the risk of seeming treasonous.

The Hours is a good book (artfully deployed themes, engaging characters, innovative structure), but it seems inevitable that it must have riled Woolf enthusiasts.

So what do you think? Portraying artists in fiction—necessary evil or oft-broken taboo?


Michael Cunningham has the most ludicrously handsome jacket photo I have ever seen.

Michael Cunningham

The dashing Mr. Cunningham

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For your consideration: Maurice Pons

Maurice Pons

French author Maurice Pons

I just read “The Baker’s Son” by French author Maurice Pons in the latest issue of Tin House. Check this guy out; he’s worth it. According to Edward Gauvin’s introduction to the author (in that same issue of Tin House), Pons is somewhat of a cult figure in France, splitting his time between writing, acting, and filmmaking.

So far I have only been able to get my hands on an English translation of “The Baker’s Son”, but if I can find any more of Pons’s work I’m going to be sure to snatch it up. The guy is good. “The Baker’s Son” is somewhat of a supernatural mystery, though its paranoia is very subtle and the story never makes it clear where conventional reality ends and the fantastic begins. Pons never overplays his hand, in terms of both plot and style. His writing is spare, and avoids resorting to flash in situations where patience is more appropriate.

Check out the story in Tin House if you’re interested. If anyone knows where I can find more of Pons’s books they should send that information my way.


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“At the Mountains of Madness” – Part 3

In which Mr. Lovecraft and I come to the end of our journey and amicably part ways.


Artist's rendering of Dyer's flight over the City of the Old Ones

Since I’m feeling clever today (shut up, it happens) I am happy to report that I have “summited” At the Mountains of Madness. What a strange, needlessly expansive trip it has been.

When I first started the book I was intrigued by Lovecraft’s mythology and somewhat put off by his never-ending descriptions that don’t really describe anything. At the novella’s end I find that…well, I find that my attitude is more or less the same. But still, it was very interesting meandering down this road. While I find Lovecraft to be a frustrating storyteller, I can’t help but become all giddy over his abilities as a lover of all things strange, and it is with this in mind that I attended to the final quarter of At the Mountains of Madness.

I left off as Mssrs. Danforth and Dyer were heading down into the subterranean city that once housed the Old Ones. They had just finished consuming a surprisingly detailed history of the race from a series of paintings found in the Old Ones’ aboveground city, and now, spurned by curiosity, they are going to see what lies beneath.

Shortly after heading underground, D & D come across the remains of their lost colleague, tied gruesomely to a sled. Near this discovery, they happen upon a cavern where someone (or something) has been prodding around with the camp’s stolen scientific equipment, apparently trying to see how it works. Next to this discovery, Dyer also comes across a map of the underground caverns, rendered in “the artistic style of the Old Ones.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dyer’s disregard for caution in these situations has seemed odd at best, and it’s at this point that Lovecraft apparently starts to feel the sting of implausibility as well. Our fearless narrator is now in a situation where it is pretty clear that the Old Ones have come back alive (somehow) and that they are wandering about in this underground city. But Dyer does not turn back from his quest. Oh no, instead he plows right on ahead, trailing behind him a list of excuses that don’t really add up. Lovecraft chalks Dyer’s continued exploration up to “inquisitiveness”, “scientific curiosity” and “I don’t know why we didn’t turn back.”

At the Mountains of Madness

Hey, it could happen.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it seems at this point like Lovecraft realized the implausibility of his narrative and had to backpedal a little. Dyer’s continued journey into the Lost City of the Old Ones is, at this juncture, clinically insane. I’m pretty that Dyer himself is the only one who, by this point, has still not figured out that the Old Ones are alive and well in some form, and that it would be better to leave them the hell alone. But he doesn’t figure this out. Instead, we get lame excuses and giant penguins.

In one of the novella’s better sight gags (and a scene that better make it into the movie, if the movie does wind up getting made) Danforth and Dyer mistake a lumbering, subterranean penguin for a murderous, inhuman monster. They are working their way down a poorly lit corridor and see something mysterious at the far end. They panic, but the creature turns out to be an albino penguin—blind and six feet tall. According to Dyer’s speculation, this animal must have been living down here for thousands of years, thus relinquishing use of its eyes. Over the remainder of the novel, the mega-penguins make regular appearances, serving as kind of a Greek chorus. It’s an appreciably weird facet of the novella’s final act.

From here Danforth and Dyer continue downward until they finally, at long last, run into one of the Old Ones. This creature, however, is far from the world of the living. It has been recently murdered, its star-shaped head torn off and its body covered in an odd slime. Again, Lovecraft releases the scene at such an agonizingly slow crawl that it’s hard to feel its full effect, but here, at long last, we encounter the Old Ones in person, as well as the dreaded Shoggoths.

No sooner do D & D attempt to examine the corpse of the slain Old One than they are chased from the tunnel by a living member of that same species, a creature that they assume wants to kill them, but that actually winds up showing a display of distress at its lost comrade. While Danforth and Dyer are running from this Old One, hoping that it doesn’t notice them, a Shoggoth appears, thus explaining the demise of the first Old One, and the more general demise of the Old Ones’ Earthly civilization.

This blob-monster doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but in the time it is allowed, Dyer is able to give us a thorough description of how disgusting, loathsome and foul-smelling the beasty winds up being. Lovecraft kind of kills his chase scene by stopping in the middle to provide for several paragraphs of description, but by the time our heroes are escaping once more to the surface, we’ve at least gotten a decent “look” at these Shoggoths—the loathsome undoers of the mighty race of the Old Ones. If you’re not interested in reading that extended passage, then I provide this précis: they look like big circular blobs that can shape shift.

Once on the surface, Dyer and Danforth flee. They return to the cushy seat of academia where “young” Danforth goes incurably mad and Dyer goes on to warn the world of the perils of Antarctic exploration, though not before ruminating at length on his experience at “the mountains of madness.”

At its best, I thought At the Mountains of Madness read like really good fan fiction. It didn’t have the sophistication of story that you usually see in most “mainstream” science fiction, but there was a loving commitment to its mythology and an enthusiasm for the narrative world it constructs.

Having reached the novella’s end, I have to report that I will probably not be returning to Mr. H.P. Lovecraft for future sci-fi fixes. There is a lot to like about him, but, as we learned from the ill-fated Star Wars prequels, good mythology can only be allowed after the establishment of good characters, never in lieu of. Lovecraft, while eager to provide us with a detailed five-million year history of the Old Ones, is patently unable to establish any of Mountain of Madness’ human characters to any degree beyond a rudimentary description of what they’re wearing.

What I would actually be eager to see is some fiction based in Lovecraft’s universe that maybe takes his pre-established phantasms in different directions. The idea of Cthlulu is more fascinating to me than its reality and, as I mentioned earlier, the most engaging parts of Mountains of Madness were those wherein we were treated to the epic background of the Old Ones and the adventures that that race had undergone.

As to the actual human drama of the story, and the tension arising therefrom, it falls pretty flat. But were it to be treated by someone who had a better concept of both the human and the alien, it could make for a science fiction classic.

I am excited by the fact that Guillermo Del Toro has exactly those chops. He certainly has the monster movie experience, and Pan’s Labyrinth proved his ability for constructing character as well.

I’m excited for this movie. C’mon Universal, let’s see a green light.

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“At the Mountains of Madness” – Part 2

In which we are treated to the history of the star-headed, alien squid people.

At the Mountains of MadnessSo, we’re back, and things are continuing apace. When I last left off, kindly but otherwise besotted geologist William Dyer had just found his colleague, Professor Lake, murdered, along with his crew. Notably missing from this slaughter were three things: a member of the expedition, a dog and the mysterious corpses that Lake had been going on about in Chapter III.

At least one of these mysterious disappearances is solved almost immediately. Near the sight of this slaughter, Dyer finds several star-shaped “grave mounds” and in light of this revelation we are treated to the first of what are to be several of Dyers’s curious implementations of his reasoning faculties.

While I would assume that most people, having just been informed by their colleague that a menacing-looking race of super creatures was at least in very close vicinity, would proceed with some caution when pondering the nature of these creatures, and especially any odd occurrences that might be a result thereof, Dyer does not do any of this. No, he thinks that a member of Lake’s expedition must have “gone mad,” then slaughtered his fellow explorers and dug the suspicious grave mounds in a moment of manic inspiration.

Maybe I’m over-indulging in my perspective as a reader, but this seems a little far-fetched.  Anyway, I paid it little mind because, once again, Lovecraft was able to distract me with a deftly employed slow reveal.

Having investigated the wreck of the second camp, Dyer sets out with a fellow explorer—“young” Danforth—to take a look at the mysterious city, as reported by Lake. And what a city they find.

It might be simply because standards of design have changed, but for all the description that Lovecraft ladles carefully onto the abandoned city of the Old Ones, it sounds like kind of a hokey place. Of course, it doesn’t help that Lovecraft’s love of description sometimes runs away with itself. There are “pyramidal,” “triangular” and “ovoid” architectural features in this lost city; the place is replete with bas-relief, cartouches, chambers, archways and catacombs.

It is in his city’s loving description that you receive a glimpse, I think, of Lovecraft’s real passion. Like the passages describing the Old Ones themselves, it seems like Lovecraft is just trying so damned hard to describe his creations accurately that he’s almost tripping over himself in the effort. It is a situation where less, perhaps, would have been more, but “less” was definitely not in the cards.

For me, the best parts of At the Mountains of Madness have been when Lovecraft’s obsessions overlap somewhat with my own and we both bask for a moment in our mutual fetishes for the imagined. The description of the city didn’t quite do this for me; the description of its history did.

After discovering the lost city of the Old Ones, Dyer and Danforth set out on foot to explore it. They find a series of frescoes and sculptures that tell (in surprising detail) the history of the Old Ones and their civilization on Earth.

Apparently the Old ones, able to withstand interstellar travel, came to Earth and originally colonized the oceans, where they built vast, underwater cities. They then repeated this trick on land, bioengineering Earth’s flora and fauna in order to provide themselves with food and entertainment. (There’s a fun aside where Lovecraft implies that humans evolved from the Old Ones’ resident jester.) The Old Ones then underwent an extensive war with several different species, the most interesting of which were the “Cthulu Spawn”—tentacled creatures that feature heavily in Lovecraft’s mythology.

There is a lot of mythology in The Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft is constantly making references to the “Necronomicon,” amongst other of his universe’s apocrypha. As I continue reading this book, it strikes me that this is really the appeal of Lovecraft’s universe: it’s so complete. It’s obvious that Lovecraft had a blast filling in the odd corners of his fictional world, and it’s fun to see what wound up in that space.

Too bad his talents as an architect of fiction didn’t have quite the same pickiness…

Next: Giant penguins, blob monsters and the true reason behind the demise of the Old Ones.


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