José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine

The Translator Martin Chalmers

I met the translator Martin Chalmers in the fall of 2013 in Berlin. I had written him in advance of my coming, in case he might have time for a coffee; I had left my previous employment only a few months before, with the possibly quixotic but at least up to this point practicable notion of translating professionally, and I was eager for whatever counsel I might glean from more seasoned practitioners. Martin had translated one of my favorite short stories, Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? by Thomas Bernhard, as well as several novels by Elfriede Jelinek, a writer I pretend to like, because there does seem to be something meritorious in her project, though in fact her books exasperate me. That said, I have never forgotten the part in Women as Lovers, Martin’s translation of Die Liebhaberinnen:

they sew. they sew foundations, brassieres, sometimes corsets and panties too. often these women marry or they are ruined some other way.

I had a certain curiosity to ask Martin about an unkind review of Greed, his translation of Jelinek’s novel Gier, by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books. Toward the end of what is actually one of the better essays on her work in English, the author devotes a paragraph to lambasting Chalmers’s version:

With its constant shifts of tone and register, the slippery sideways movement of thought through wordplay and punning, the frequent allusions to other German texts, the idiom of Greed poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation. Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

When we touched on the topic, though, Martin said he would have liked more time to work on the book. He did not seem uncomfortable with the topic, but I saw no point in pursuing it. I have the translation open on my desktop now; I do not see what is so contemptible about it, though I am not comparing it to the original. In any case, six years after the essay in the London Review of Books, it seems clear the book did no damage whatsoever to Jelinek’s standing, which is more secure in the Anglophone world now than in the opprobrious aftermath of her reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.

(In passing: how often, in reviews of translation, does cursory allusion to the original text or to some often trifling solecism serve mainly as a surreptitious allusion to the writer’s own linguistic facility? And is not such dysphemism over allegedly bad translations perhaps misplaced? It is fashionable now to kick the corpses of Constance Garnett, Helen Lowe-Porter, and C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but I would not care to imagine the impoverished state of twentieth-century English-language letters, let alone my own intellectual development, had their work not existed. Even a less than ideal translation is often a bridge to the original. No translation of Dante renders the complex sonority of the end of Canto V, “E caddi come corpo morto cade.” And yet I knew no Italian when I first noticed this line in the bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy translated by John D. Sinclair. Because it was an en-face version, I could manage a fumbling approximation to the original. Probably many are spurred to learn a language by the insight into such discrepancies afforded by what are often decried as inferior translations.)

When I first wrote Martin, he replied he was in Oregon visiting his daughter, and I answered something about the wine there –– a perennial point of interest for me. He said he had just read the curiously titled Die Realität, so sagen, als ob sie nicht wäre, oder die Wutausbrüche der Engel. We met in Berlin shortly after he had left the hospital. He lived near the Hermannstraße metro stop. Like most Americans, I have a poor sense of geography, in the abstract sense of locating Tajikistan on a map and the concrete one of finding a destination and then finding my way back from it. From the days when our cities were founded as grids of numbered avenues and streets marking off blocks of uniform size to the present, where an application guides us between two points and we navigate by looking into the palm of our hand rather than at our surroundings, the American relationship to space has consisted rather of imposition than of interrelation, and European cities, with their curving roads responding not to the needs of the incoming stranger but to historical circumstances of which I am normally quite ignorant, always leave me perplexed; particularly Berlin, where the avenues are so long and their curves so gentle that they often delude you into thinking they run straight. As soon as I left the station I got lost and I arrived to Martin’s building several minutes late

His apartment had a bohemian aspect that reminded me of the communal houses where a close friend of mine had lived in West Philadelphia. His office had a large television beside which was a box of DVDs for a television series –– The Wire? –– and floor-to-ceiling shelves. He explained he had been in the hospital and wasn’t feeling well, although his doctor had advised him to move around. He mentioned how much he paid for his health insurance –– it seemed staggeringly costly; I believed the cliché, widespread among Americans that residents of Europe enjoy unlimited free healthcare.

We met twice: once we went for an ice cream and a coffee, and another time for a beer and a retsina. I cannot separate the meetings clearly in my mind, though I believe one was in the early afternoon and one a bit later. He talked to me about the resort town in the Crimea where he’d been, I believe because his partner, a translator, was to attend a conference there; about a house the two of them either had owned or continued to own in Hungary, possibly his partner’s country of origin. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of life in continental Europe and the differences between Spain, where my wife is from, and Germany. He went to a market to buy some cheeses; it took an inordinately long time before we were served, and I was bothered by the everpresent yellowjackets. He pointed to a long series of elegant homes, which he explained had belonged to the managers of the railways in the early twentieth century, and he talked about the many buildings that had housed both workshops and the workers employed there. We went to a wine shop where he bought a Riesling and something else, one of the lesser German varieties, a Sylvaner or Kerner maybe –– he found white wines more agreeable, he said –– and I decided against a good but expensive bottle, a Ribera del Duero, Bodegas Alión, I think, either for reasons of economy or not to appear extravagant.

He had little advice to offer, beyond the inducement to demand fair payment. I have heard the same numerous times. It is a delicate matter: established translators are no doubt correct in fearing that a crop of eager upstarts, willing to work for little or nothing, is likely to chip away at their income in the long term; if, however, an inexperienced translator demands the same sort of contract terms as a highly sought-after one, publishers have little incentive to take a gamble on the former. There has to be some flexibility. A translator cannot hope to succeed without attracting some sort of notice, and this is often impossible without a period of working for free or for a pittance; however, many publishers, particularly certain small ones who consider the nobility of their artistic mission to exempt them from the responsibility of establishing themselves as a fair and viable enterprise, are more than happy to let idealistic writers and translators work for nothing or for royalties that never actually materialize.

We talked a bit about Sebald, Chalmers said he had tried to convince Serpent’s Tail to publish Sebald in the early nineties, he said he admired Sebald but that Sebald’s borrowings were far more obvious in German than in English, and that prejudiced his reception in the German-speaking world; he also felt he had been unnecessarily cruel in his essay on Alfred Andersch.

He expressed great enthusiasm for cinema, but I could not follow much of what he said, I don’t have my own opinion about films, which I almost never see, I depend on those of my wife, who watches everything.

Edmund White says it is always the minor writers who matter to us most. I think of this as I read the incidental pieces collected on Martin’s webpage. In tone, they remind me a great deal of Michael Hamburger’s little-known but quite beautiful memoirs, String of Beginnings, which in their turn have about them something of the economical clarity of the first chapter of another minor classic, Harold Nicolson’s Some People. They say nothing, and that is what is so striking about them: their irreducibility. Shklovsky says that a machine has no place in art, because it takes shortcuts. When I think if Knausgaard, who has become famous and whom I have been reading these past three weeks, it occurs to me that so capacious a work allows for a great deal of error, the shortcomings are lost in the work’s magnitude. It cannot be like this for a translator; every translator is of necessity a miniaturist, no matter how long the original text in question, the work succeeds or fails on the basis of the fine details and the harmony they establish; and this feeling for fine detail and the slowness Shklovsky deems necessary for art are evident in Martin’s casual writing.

In the era of hashtag activism translation has become much more prominent, there is the #namethetranslator campaign, and  many advocate for translators to receive what is said to be their due recognition. This is not something I can complain about, because it is to my benefit as well, and yet what attracted me to translating early on was the humility of the office, its relationship to craft in the old sense. The precedence taken by listening over speaking.

Through tortuous channels I heard that Martin was unwell and I wanted to devote a few words to him here in thanks and admiration.

Julien Green, Diaries

It is so hard to know how complicated life is or is not, or whether its complexity is an abstraction outside of time or depends upon the vicissitudes of self-presentation. Often I have felt that only the jarring, the unassimilable, can rouse one from the spiritual torpor on which the poetic sense of life probably feeds, and present a more just account of how things really are; but then, particularly when I am exhausted or in need of consolation, so-called simple thoughts, elegantly phrased, seduce me with their meditative tenor. 

For some years now I have had the idea that I should read the diaries of Julien Green, but other things always seemed more pressing. It is only because I was so taken with the beautiful cover and shape of this recently published selection, which I could not forget about once I had seen it in LA Central close to the MACBA in Barcelona, which is my favorite bookstore, and bought it the next time I was there, that I finally got around to them. There is a quality of restraint in his writing that recalls the humility of finely crafted instruments or furnishings the beauty of which lies in an absence of excess and an appropriateness to their

8 September 1933

I ask myself often what the sense of life might be, if it does in fact have one, and above all, to what degree the external world exists. What is the meaning, for example, of the disquiet in the Europe of the present moment, the fever in Germany, the anguish of so many men and women who see tomorrow so black and so rife with threats? It is evident that no one can answer this question, but frequently, I have the fleeting impression of glimpsing a world that doesn’t exist, or that doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine. Perhaps the material world has only a symbolic value. This is an idea that has been familiar to me since I was fifteen. Thus it may be that the universal disquiet is the imaginary representation of your own disquiet. The “crisis” is, first of all, inside you. The disorder of the world corresponds to an inner disorder that you rediscover in yourself.


The liberty of dreams cannot be reconstructed in a state of wakefulness.

In Tui, in the Province of Pontevedra


I was brought to the city of Tui because I had asked to see Portugal, which lay on the other side of the Miño river, although, to tell the truth, the meaning of the phrase to see Portugal and the moral significance of this desire were not at all clear to me. In Tui, a city of 15,000 people, there is a stone ornamental tablet affixed to the outer wall of an artfully constructed but very dingy building commemorating the birthplace of the famous fascist Calvo Sotelo, whose murder marked an important flashpoint in the escalation of enmities that culminated in the Spanish Civil war. We had a coffee there and ate a Spanish omelette laced with long strands of golden potato like the flat, rectangular pencils carpenters use. In a pattern repeated incomprehensibly throughout the world, the people of Tui, who are in general quite poor, choose to be governed by a conservative party that would gladly see them ground into dust. Our guide was a man who, although an atheist and a Marxist, had special rights of entry to the cathedral, and we were therefore able to see the cloister, the orange trees, the stone lions with bronze tongues that flanked the rear egress, and the tomb of the cathedral’s builder, who bore the last name Torquemada, but was of no relation to the Grand Inquisitor and Hammer of the Heretics. Tui was among the last redoubts of antifascist forces in the northeast of the peninsula during the Spanish Civil War, and as a consequence suffered brutal repressive measures on being overtaken. There, against that wall, said our guide, pointing to the church of Saint Dominic, is where not only the insurgents themselves, but often their wives and children were brought to be shot.

Today, at the Mercado San Miguel…

Today, at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, I nearly paid thirty-five euros for a glass of Vega Sicilia Único. Not long afterward, as we were walking through a nearby plaza, a man whose topaz skin and French accent led me to believe he had immigrated from Mali or Burkina Faso, touched my arm and asked me for change so that he could buy a coffee with milk. Though it is possible to say that I looked at him, because I recollect his shape and expression and the tattered green jacket he wore, it is equally correct that I did not look at him in the sense that, while he was obviously a human being and therefore, as Kant asserts, an end in himself, and though my perceptions in theory exist in part to help me in forming an idea of what are the proper ends of life and of the nature of my responsibilities and obligations, I allowed the act of perception to be disjoined from its proper ends, so that it was impersonal, like the gazing of a camera. It was only after we began to walk away, and I thought again of the comparative prices of the glass of Único and of the coffee with milk that the man had begged me to buy him, that I began to feel the enormity of my negligence. When I spoke of this, my wife suggested that we turn around to find the man, but when we did so, he had left, either someone kinder than I had given him the money he needed or, more likely, he had despaired of meeting with a sympathetic soul in that part of the city and had tried his luck somewhere else. I thought of how often we are allowed only one chance to do the proper thing. More particularly, I thought of my father, who had chosen precisely the moment when the having of a father might have mattered to me to absent himself from my life, and with whom my relations, as a consequence, have been distorted ever since. I will be allowed to perform other acts of kindness in my life, but I will never again be able to show kindness to the man from Mali or Burkina Faso. Although in fact the condition of poverty would justify someone in seizing forcefully a passerby’s arm, perhaps with the thought of shaking them from the frigid-hearted lull into which the initiate into consumer societies is driven by his sense that life consists fundamentally of the exercise of shrewdness through a long series of acts of accumulation and outlay that are only brought to a close by death, and making them realize that each of these acts has not only a consequence for themselves and those close to them, but also for the millions of people who are ejected from these consumer societies and who can find no means of ingress back into them, the touch of this man from Western Africa, a region with which I have a certain degree of acquaintance because my wife writes on its literature and films, was very gentle, and it occurred to me that where he was from, it was probably not unusual to touch a stranger, and that in fact the proscription of physical contact between strangers in the countries I was best acquainted with was a kind of perversion. Not long after this, I walked past a bar called Provenzal that advertised The Cheapest Beer in Spain and offered draft beers for forty European cents. For the price of the glass of Único, I could have purchased eighty-seven of these beers and given them to the countless people like the man from Mali who roam the streets of Madrid asking for change. The beers would not have been very large or of an especially high quality, but I believe these people would have enjoyed them. I recalled the assertion by Fernand Braudel that there is no form of communal life, however impoverished or degraded, that is unacquainted with the notion of luxury, and believed that in consequence, this hypothetical gift, which I suppose I will never actually give, might have a significance as great, from a moral perspective, as another, apparently more useful donation. I thought of how the man from Mali or Burkina Faso had asked for a coffee with milk and not a coffee alone, and how this word, milk, by expressing a preference and hence an individuality of spirit, was an assertion of dignity. And I thought also of how he had tried coffee before, both with a without milk, and wondered what precisely was the character of his nostalgia as he remembered this beverage, more or less sweet, suffusing his esophagus and stomach. Already, in my mind, I had begun to consider how the words I am now writing would take shape. I considered that this entire act of writing in which I am now engaged would consist of the public exposure of my guilty conscience. Many of the writers we esteem most highly make great hay of their guilty conscience. As every week, I recalled these lines of Paul Celan’s: Welches der Worte du sprichst, du dankst dem Verderben. The spoilage or ruin Celan speaks of may be another’s or my own, but in any case, the attitude of literature, at least in my case, at least as regards my manner of writing thusfar — and at least at present, I do not have a better idea of what writing might be — one directed, not toward the eradication of suffering, but rather toward tergiversation in the face of doing so. Writing relates intimately to insecurity as to what should be done, or to an impulse toward symbolic redemption that arises when the possibility of a more concrete form thereof is occluded. I have the sense that writing should not reduce itself to moralistic exhortations. And yet writing must serve for something more than the generation of surrogate selves who live out an ethics for which we are insufficiently brave.

In the Small Towns of the Sierra de Francia

In the small towns of the Sierra de Francia in the province of Salamanca, the rustic architecture of which reminds one of Alsace, from whence the ancestors of the present-day townspeople came to take the place of the Jews and Muslims slain or expelled during the Reconquest, a pig runs free in the town, following a centuries-old tradition. The neighbors feed it from their scraps or let it sleep in the empty ground floors of their homes, where livestock were kept in earlier times. In the spring festival, the pig is slaughtered, cooked, and devoured. In the days of the Inquisition, which in Spain did not end until the early nineteenth century, converted Jews and Muslims were made to dine on the pig’s flesh as a sign that they had forsaken their heretical beliefs, though in any case, as what was desired was more often their property than their faith, reason might yet be found to question their commitment to Christ. When this happened, they would be taken to a shrine, cursed at and spit on, tied to a stone cross in the center of the village and burned alive. If they showed penitence, a merciful citizen would strangle them with a garrote before setting them alight. The women in my company, most from Latin American countries in which defenders of the Catholic faith murdered untold numbers of inhabitants, and who spoke their mother tongue as a consequence of this crime, lined up to have their picture taken with the stone cross, to post it on Facebook to the amusement of their friends and husbands, who were in turn sitting at home in Bristol or New Hope contemplating the fate of a man who had been absolved of the crime of murdering a black teenager who had been walking home to watch a basketball game with his younger brother. There was great disappointment that the pig in La Alberca was nowhere to be found. Its counterpart we saw twice in Miranda del Castañar, first lying, with a bored countenance, at the feet of two old men seated on a stone bench smoking, and then later eating lettuce and tomato scraps from a basin, surrounded by children. More than the seven-hundred-year-old ashlar stonework of the city walls, more than the public building with the gargoyle at the corner on which the pregnancies of wayward young women were blamed, what interested my companions and even myself was the pig, which we longed to lay eyes on, and perhaps to stroke its sparse, rough coat of black hair.