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We poets will write a thousand words to get at a single one.

Roberto Bolaño


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Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Scales

Saramago posts today about writing. Interesting, this is the first I have noticed him blogging about blogging. The usual qualifiers about me not being a great translator apply; he says roughly:

Has it been worth the struggle? Have these commentaries, these opinions, these critiques been worth the struggle? Is the world better than before? And me, what about me? Is this what I hoped for? Am I satisfied with the work? To answer "yes" to all these questions, even only to some, would demonstrate clearly an inexcusable mental blindness. And to respond with a "no" without exceptions -- what could that be? Excessive modesty? Resignation? Or perhaps the consciousness that some human labors are nothing more than a pale shadow of the labors we dream of? It is told how Michelangelo, when he finished the Moses which we see in Rome, in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, tapped the statue on the knee with his hammer and cried: "Speak!" One needn't say that Moses did not speak. Moses never speaks. In the same way he who has written in this place at length these last few months has not been more wordy nor more eloquent than that which could possibly be written, precisely that which the author would like to ask for, murmuring, "Talk, please, tell me what you are, what you have served for, if it was for anything." They are quiet, they don't respond. What to do, then? Interrogating words is the destiny of one who writes. An article? A column? A book? It will be done, but already we know that Moses will not respond.
(This is a step forward for me; rather than using Google translator and massaging the output as I've been doing, I worked directly from the Spanish text.)

posted evening of January 4th, 2009: 3 responses
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Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Atheist

Nice: I am thinking about Sister Bridget's speech on humanistic and divine learning, and I happen on a new blog entry from Saramago:

Let us face facts. Years ago (many years already), the famous German theologian Hans Küng wrote this truth: "religions have never served to bring human beings closer to one another." Truer words have never been spoken. Here is not denied (and it would be absurd to think so) the right that everyone has, to adopt the religion most to his liking, from the most accustomed one to the least heard of, according to its precepts or dogmas (such as they may be), not even called into question the recourse to faith as supreme justification and, by definition (as we know all too well), the most definitive shutting off of reason. It is possible that faith moves mountains, there is no evidence that such a thing has ever occurred, but this proves nothing, given that God has never been disposed to engage his powers in this type of geological operation. What we know is that religions not only do not bring human beings closer, but rather they live, these religions, in a permanent state of mutual emnity, in all the falsely ecumenical harangues which this one or that one finds advantageous for passing, temporary tactical reasons. Things are this way, the world is the world, it is not an indication that anything is going to change. Except for the obvious idea that the planet would be much more peaceful if everybody were an atheist. Clear that, human nature being what it is, we would not be lacking in other motives for every dischord possible and imaginable, but we would be free of this ridiculous, infantile idea that our god is greater than the rest of the gods walking around, that the paradise which we hope for is a five-star hotel. And more, I believe that we could reinvent philosophy.
Anybody know which work of Küng's is being referenced here?

posted evening of February 10th, 2009: Respond
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Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Sigifredo López

Saramago's blog entry today quotes one of my favorite passages from The Cave.

We say to the confused, Know thyself, as if knowing yourself was not the fifth and most difficult of human arithmetical operations, we say to the apathetic, Where there's a will, there's a way, as if the brute realities of the world did not amuse themselves each day by turning that phrase on its head, we say to the indecisive, Begin at the beginning, as if beginning were the clearly visible point of a loosely wound thread and all we had to do was to keep pulling until we reached the other end, and as if, between the former and the latter, we had held in our hands a smooth, continuous thread with no knots to untie, no snarls to untangle, a complete impossibility in the life of a skein, or indeed, if we may be permitted one more stock phrase, in the skein of life.
I just love to read this sentence! It is the Alpha and the Omega of Saramago's beautiful voice.... Anyway I was meaning to post a translation of this entry of Saramago's, from a few days ago, because I found it touching:
Sigifredo López is the name of a Colombian lawmaker held captive for seven years by the FARC and who managed to recover his liberty thanks, among others, to the valor and persistence of senator Piedad Córdoba, principal director of the social and humanitarian movement, "Colombians for peace". Thanks to a set of circumstances which seemed impossible, Sigifredo López, who formed part of a group of eleven hostage lawmakers, of whom ten were not long ago assassinated by the terrorists, was able to escape the massacre. He is now free. In the press conference held in Cali after his escape, he believed he needed to express his gratitude to Piedad Córdoba in terms which would shake the world. Here we come to these words and these frightful images. I have never been able to brag of emotional fastness. I cry easily, and not because I am old. But this time I was obliged to break out in sobs when Sigifredo, to express his infinite gratitude to Piedad Córdoba, compared her to the doctor's wife in Blindness. Put yourself in my place, thousands of kilometers separate me from these images and these words, and poor me, melting away in tears, I had no other remedy but to take refuge in Pilar's shoulder and to let them run. My entire existence, as a person and as a writer, has been justified by this moment. Thank you, Sigifredo.
There is video of López' press conference at the link. The AP carried a brief story about his release. Democracy Now! has an interview (from last summer) with Piedad Córdoba, where she discusses negotiations with FARC.

posted evening of February 11th, 2009: Respond

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Chinese Feathers

Interesting, so now I'm reading Elizabeth Costello and I'm seeing arguments about morality and animal rights everywhere I look. Today Saramago is writing about lobsters and geese:

Putting a living lobster in boiling water and cooking it is an old culinary practice in the western world. It seems that if the lobster were dead in the bath, its final flavor would be different, for the worse. There are furthermore those who say that the rosy color with which the crustacean leaves the pot is due precisely to the high temperature of the water. I don't know it, I'm saying what I've been told, I am incapable of properly frying an egg. One day I saw in a documentary how to prepare chickens, how to kill and butcher them, and I was very close to throwing up. And the other day, if I am remembering right, I read a magazine article about the use of rabbits in the manufacture of cosmetics, and there I found out that the tests to prevent any possible irritation caused by the ingredients of shampoos involve applying them directly to the eyes of these animals, after the fashion of the dreadful Dr. Death, who injected petroleum into the hearts of his victims. Now, a brief notice appears in the periodicals informing me of how, in China, the birds' feathers which are destined to be stuffing for pillows are plucked out the same way, while living, after which they are cleaned, disinfected, and exported for the enjoyment of civilized societies which find it proper and fashionable. I will not comment, it is not worth the trouble, these feathers are enough.

posted evening of February 12th, 2009: Respond
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Monday, February 16th, 2009

Death by the house doors

Some of the most moving writing at Saramago's blog has been about the plight of immigrants attempting to reach Europe (or the Canaries) from Africa. Today he writes about a group whose boat capsized almost within reach of safety:

At the door in Lanzarote, at the house door which, if fortune helps, maybe will come to be the door of the new house. Twenty meters from the coast, on the Teguise Coast, when certainly laughter and words of happiness have already been exchanged at having succeeded in reaching the good port, the boat has tipped. They have crossed the hundred kilometers which separate the island from the coast of Africa, and end up dying twenty meters from salvation. Of the more than thirty immigrants whom extreme necessity obliged to confront the dangers of the sea, for the most part young men and teenagers, twenty-four were drowned, among them a pregnant woman and some children of few years. Six were saved thanks to the valor and selflessness of two surfers who hurled themselves into the water and freed them from a death which, without their intervention, would have been inevitable.

This is, in the most simple and direct words I have been able to find, the square story [?] of what has happened here. I do not know what more I could possibly say. Today words fail me and only emotion remains. Until when?

Here is a recommendation: watch the video I've linked to. It attempts a style which others have used on YouTube, that of a magnificent program about the drama of immigration, which Marisa Márquez has directed on Spanish TV. The fragment which is circulating on the Internet is owing to the intervention of Pilar, who sympathized with the victims and pointed out those responsible.

Video is at the link. CNN reports the story here; they say 19 were drowned rather than 24. I am unsure about some of this translation -- the first sentence is a little shaky and "the square story of what has happened here" is a total guess. But I think it is sufficient to get the idea of the post across.

posted evening of February 16th, 2009: Respond
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Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Nos queda la palabra

Saramago writes today about Paco Ibáñez, and links to his web site --

Tomorrow, Saturday, Paco Ibáñez will sing at Argelès-sur-mer, on the coast of Provence, in homage to the memory of the Spanish republicans, among others his father, who there suffered torments, humiliations, evil treatment of all kinds, in the concentration camp erected by the French authorities.
Argelès-sur-mer is a village very close to the Pyrenees (about 10 miles north of Cerbère); in the final years of the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of republicans were interned there.

posted evening of February 19th, 2009: Respond

Sunday, March first, 2009

Portuguese Lit

Saramago recommends as "one of the most skilled and original" of Portugal's new generation of novelists, Gonçalo M. Tavares. Doesn't look like Sr. Tavares has any works published in English yet (this might be wrong -- his translations page lists rights for most of his works having already been bought for "English in India only" -- but it's not clear that those translations have been published) but definitely someone to keep an eye out for. When he received the Saramago Prize in 2005, Saramago said "Jerusalém is a great book, and truly deserves a place among the great works of Western literature. Gonçalo M. Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him!"

posted evening of March first, 2009: 5 responses

Tuesday, March third, 2009

Si puedes mirar, ve

Saramago is looking back on writing the epigraph for Blindness:

Si puedes mirar, ve.
Si puedes ver, repara.

I wrote this for Blindness, already a good couple of years ago. Now, when the film based on this novel is making its debut in Spain, I've encountered the phrase printed on the bags of the 8½ bookstore and on the inside front cover of Fernando Meirelles' making-of book, which this same bookstore's publishing arm has edited with skill. At times I have said that by reading the epigraph of any of my novels, one will already know the whole thing. Today, I don't know why, seeing this, I too felt a sudden impulse, felt the urgency of repairing, of fighting against the blindness. [links are my additions -- J]

I'm curious about how to translate that epigraph. (And surprised that I don't remember this epigraph from when I read Blindness, and annoyed that I cannot go check how Pontiero translated it, because I lent it to a friend...) The sense of it is, "If you can see, see. If you can see, repair." -- Obviously this does not sound good in English because the distinction between mirar and ver is missing, and the transitive structure is lost. The literal translation of the first sentence would be "If you can look, see" -- but I'm guessing the sense of Si puedes mirar is something more like "if you are able to see", i.e. if you are not blind. It seems like ve has a more transitive sense, "see something, some injustice" (although the object is omitted, as it is with repara) -- where mirar is intransitive.

(There is an important misreading in this post, as regards the verb reparar -- see later post for the correction.)

posted evening of March third, 2009: 4 responses
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Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Once again, "Observe"

Saramago takes another look at the epigraph, and makes me understand that I had been misreading it in a key way:

In a conversation yesterday with Luis Vázquez, closest of friends and healer of my ailments, we're talking about the film by Fernando Meirelles, just premiered in Madrid, even though we could not be in attendance, Pilar and I, as we intended to be, for a sudden bout of chills obligated me to retire to my chamber, or confined me to bed, in the elegant phrasing in use not so long ago. The conversation soon turned to the public's reactions during the exhibition and afterwards, highly positive according to Luis and to other trustworthy witnesses... We moved from there, naturally, to talking about the book and Luis asked me if we could look over the epigraph which opens it ("Si puedes mirar, ve, si puedes ver, repara"), for in his opinion, the action of seeing [ver] encompasses the action of looking [mirar], and therefore, the reference to looking could be omitted without bias to the meaning of the phrase. I could not come up with a reason to give him, but I thought that I should have other reasons to consider, for example, the fact that the process of vision occurs three stages, successive but in some manner autonomous, which can be stepped through as follows: one can look and not see, one can see and not observe, according to the degree of attention which we pay to each of these actions. We know the reaction of a person who, having just checked his wristwatch, returns to check it when, at that moment, somebody asks him the time. That was when light flooded into my head concerning the origin of the famous epigraph. When I was small, the word "observe", always supposing I already knew it, was not for me an object of primary importance until one day an uncle of mine (I believe that it is Francisco Dinis of whom I am speaking in this brief memoir) called my attention to a certain way of looking that bulls have, which almost always, he then demonstrated, is accompanied by a certain way of raising the head. My uncle said: "He has looked at you, when he looked at you, he saw you, and now it is different, he is something else, he is observing." This is what I told Luis, which immediately won the argument for me, not so much, I suppose, because it convinced him, but because the memory made him remember a similar situation. A bull looked at him as well, and again this movement of the head, again this looking which was not simply seeing, but observation. We were at last in agreement.
So, reparar is not "fix" as I had been thinking, but "observe" or "contemplate". The dictionary entry confirms that the word can be used in this sense. I'm still (like Luis) a bit dissatisfied with the relationship between mirar and ver in the first part of the epigraph.

posted evening of March 5th, 2009: 1 response
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Sunday, March 8th, 2009

The Eighth of March

Saramago posts today about International Women's Day:

I've just been watching the TV news, demonstrations by women all over the world, and I'm asking myself one more time what disgraceful world this is, where half the population still has to take to the streets to demand what should be obvious to everyone...

They say that my greatest characters are women, and I believe this is correct. At times I think the women whom I've described are suggestions which I myself would like to follow. Perhaps they are just models, perhaps they do not exist, but one thing I am sure of: with them, chaos could never have established itself in this world, because they have always known the scale of the human being.

I'm not completely sure about the translation in that last paragraph; it sounds pretty stilted the way I have written it. Possibly this is true of the original as well -- "chaos could never have established itself in this world" strikes me as a very strange thing to say, when the world is fundamentally chaotic -- and I don't see Saramago's women as imposers of order on natural chaos. This may be a clue into Saramago's understanding of the universe; I could see a reading of The Stone Raft in which the world is understood as an inherently ordered structure, and the characters (male and female, but particularly Joana) are keyed in to this natural order in opposition to humanity's chaos. Alternately I could be mistranslating, always a possibility.

posted evening of March 8th, 2009: Respond
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