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What word will be spoken that will give meaning to all this?

José Saramago

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Sunday, November 18th, 2007

It has happened to all of us: one day, one ordinary day when we imagine we're making our routine rounds in the world with ticket stubs and tobacco shreds in our pockets, our heads full of news items, traffic noise, troublesome monologues, we suddenly realize we are already someplace else, that we are not actually where our feet have taken us.
        -- The New Life

My reaction to this line is sort of characteristic of how I've been reading The New Life -- I'm reading along sort of lacksadaisically, thinking about different things without focus,* and then I stumble on something like this that just blows me away.

What I take away from this reading may be a disjointed collection of beautiful quotes.

*I'm trying to reconcile this with my reaction to the opening passage and have not quite figured out how to yet... The whole opening couple of pages was a moment of genius but I haven't quite figured out how to read the book as a whole yet.

posted afternoon of November 18th, 2007: Respond
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Saturday, March 8th, 2008

The Black Book

Never use epigraphs -- they kill the mystery in the work!
        -- Adli
If that's how it has to die, go ahead and kill it; then kill the false prophets who sold you on the mystery in the first place!
        -- Bahti

This morning I started reading The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk -- and as I read the first pages I had the immediate sensation of having come home. Now the context for this is having felt really strongly drawn into the writing in Snow and My Name is Red, and digging Other Colors to the point of identifying the speaker of the words as myself; and then being less impressed by The New Life and The White Castle. Now this book is definitely holding out promise of having been written by the mature Pamuk, the one who entrances me utterly. (It was written before The New Life, which surprises me a little.)

What really struck me was the intensity of my reaction -- the palpable shock of recognition I felt starting from the very first sentence. ("Rüya* was lying facedown on the bed, lost to the sweet warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt.") I've only even known who this guy is for less than a year but I've apparently given him lease on a substantial portion of my cerebral cortex.

Not too much organized yet to say about this particular book, I'm just starting it; but it does seem worth noting that the switching back and forth between first person and third person narration is so smooth and natural, it took me a few paragraphs to even figure out it had happened, the first couple of times he did it. Subtly beautiful. It took longer to figure out what was going on with Chapter Two, which is a column written by the narrator's cousin, but once I had gotten that it was good. Pamuk seems to be anticipating me -- when I have a question about some detail of the plot it seems to be getting answered within 2 or 3 pages of where it arises.

It's just really hard to resist giving a long quote. Here is a bit from the first page:

Languid with sleep, Galip gazed at his wife's head: Rüya's chin was nestling in the down pillow. The wondrous sights playing in her mind gave her an unearthly glow that pulled him toward her even as it suffused him with fear. Memory, Celâl had once written in a column, is a garden. Rüya's gardens, Rüya's gardens... Galip thought. Don't think, don't think, it will make you jealous! But as he gazed at his wife's forehead, he still let himself think.

He longed to stroll among the willows, acacias, and sun-drenched climbing roses of the walled garden where Rüya had taken refuge, shutting the doors behind her. But he was indecently afraid of the faces he might find there: Well, hello! So you're a regular here too, are you? It was not the already identified apparitions he most dreaded but the insinuating male shadows he could never have anticipated: Excuse me, brother, when exactly did you run into my wife, or were you introduced?...

And it goes on from there -- this seductive prose (in Maureen Freely's translation, and hooray! for Maureen Freely, say I) won't let me go.

Freely has also written an afterword to the novel, which gives some historical context to the events of the story, and talks about her process of translating Turkish.

*Rüya is the name of Pamuk's daughter, in addition to this character's name; when Sylvia was looking over my shoulder this morning she said "Rüya, like in 'off the floor'!" "Off the floor" is a game Pamuk and his daughter play in the essay "When Rüya is Sad", and which Sylvia has appropriated for her own.

posted evening of March 8th, 2008: Respond
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Sunday, March 16th, 2008


That fantastic epigraph I quoted, that Pamuk uses for the head of Chapter 1 of The Black Book, turns out to come from inside the book, from a column of Celâl's (specifically, Chapter 8, "The Three Musketeers"). Oops -- now I feel a little embarrassed about searching for the source of this marvelous line. Pamuk has been playing tricks on me again! I don't think I have seen this from any other author, the way he uses epigraphs and even dedications that are internal to the book. Kind of makes my head spin.

posted evening of March 16th, 2008: Respond
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Monday, September 15th, 2008

Saramago is my favorite living author

Guess what the mailman just dropped through the hole in my front door? It is José Saramago's newly* translated Death with Interruptions. Happy!

I have been reading a couple of posts over the last few days where people name D.F. Wallace as their favorite (sadly no longer) living author, which sort of thing always makes me wonder whether I have an identifiable favorite; and I think right at the moment, the answer is clearly yes, and that my favorite living author is Saramago. My tastes change of course; I had never even read any Saramago before last winter, so he is a recently acquired favorite. Perhaps this time next year I will have found a new fad. But for the moment I feel pretty strongly about specifying him as the living writer who speaks most directly to me.

Before I even open the covers: this is a beautiful volume. Love the black field, the ghostly moth.

The epigraph is from Wittgenstein; I don't know where it is taken from and Google is not helping me, presumably because of translation issues:

If, for example, you were to think more deeply about death, it would be truly strange if, in so doing, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.
This is making me flash on the discussion of Wallace over the past few days, but possibly just because I've got Wallace on the brain...

There is another epigraph, from the Book of Predictions: "We will know less and less what it means to be human." I'm not sure if this is a reference to The Book of Predictions published in 1980 (which I've never heard of before just now), or something else, perhaps something internal to the story. In any case it sounds like a valid prediction.

Well it's getting to be a long post about a book which I have not even started reading. I will close with the opening sentence of the story:

The following day, no one died.

*I actually think it was translated about 6 months ago and published in the UK, under the title Death at Intervals; but it is just this week available in the US. I'm assuming the two editions must be pretty similar outside the titles.

posted evening of September 15th, 2008: 3 responses
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Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Language as sound

Coincident with my interest in learning to read and understand Spanish, I find that I'm reading a little differently these past few weeks, more sensually and in a less plot-directed way. (This may also have a lot to do with What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?, which in its strangeness has sort of knocked me for a loop...) This is nice because it makes me able to listen to recordings of spoken and sung Spanish which I understand only in a very limited sense, and get the cadences and flow without knocking myself out about the meaning. And I'm finding that I can get a similar thing going with English, of course I understand the meaning of it much better, but I can focus on the sound of the text and the visual/sensual qualities of the scene, rather than on characters and plot, which have been my main focus over the last few years.

Today I started rereading Garcia Marquez' Of Love and Other Demons (tr. Edith Grossman), and this is a fantastic book for sensual reading. I'm taking it slow, reading it like poetry -- glad I picked it up. Take a look at the first paragraph for a sense of the story's lushness:

An ash-gray dog with a white blaze on its forehead burst onto the rough terrain of the market on the first Sunday in December, knocked down tables of fried food, overturned Indians' stalls and lottery kiosks, and bit four people who happened to cross its path. Three of them were black slaves. The fourth, Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, the only child of the Marquis de Casalduero, had come there with a mulatta servant to buy a string of bells for the celebration of her twelfth birthday.

A few notes about it: The epigraph is from the supplement to Part III of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Question 80: Article 2, which addresses whether hair and fingernails will be resurrected along with the rest of the human body. Huh, I thought as I read this, that's a strange subject -- Garcia Marquez explains in a note at the front of the text, how this book got started. In 1949, as a reporter for El Universal in Cartagena, he covered the destruction of the historic Convent of Santa Clara and the disinterment of the bodies in its graveyard. One of the bodies was a young girl's, and yards of red hair were growing from its skull -- the grave marker said "Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles," and he associated this name with a folk tale he had heard from his grandmother about a girl who died of rabies and was credited with miracles. So 45 years later, in 1994, Garcia Marquez wrote a novel about a red-haired girl of that name dying of rabies.

This is an interesting take on historical fiction -- mixing history and myth/folklore freely and without apology.

(Note that the author's note is part of the fiction, like the dedication of The White Castle -- I wonder though what part of it is true. I'm assuming with no proof that it is true except for the detail about the red hair.)

posted afternoon of January 17th, 2009: 2 responses
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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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Friday, March 6th, 2009

Giovanni Pontiero's Epigraph

I got in touch with the friend to whom I loaned Blindness; she sent me the authorized translation of the epigraph I've been wondering about for the past few days.

If you can see, look.
If you can look, observe.

This is just right -- "If you can see" makes much better sense as an opening phrase than "If you can look"; and then on the second line, "If you can look" reads alright because you already have the structure set up to understand it in.

Saramago attributes this line to the "Book of Exhortations", which if I'm understanding right is Deuteronomy. It would be interesting to find out where it is in that book and see how e.g. the King James translation renders it. ...Looking further, it seems like "Book of Exhortations" is a pretty generic term -- it can refer to a lot of different prophetic writings. I wonder what Saramago's source for this line is.

Update: Further investigation of the source here.

posted morning of March 6th, 2009: 2 responses
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Saturday, June 20th, 2009

I am falling, he thought.

I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say. The anxiety that belonged to the time on the road began to leave him. Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep. He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity (though by what right he was not sure); he wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet. Perhaps if one flew high enough, he thought, one would be able to see.

Two aircraft streaked across the sky from south to north leaving vapour trails that slowly faded, and a noise like waves.

This passage -- like many others in this book -- is beautiful for the way it combines impressionistic rendering of the scene with terse, probing investigation of what is happening behind the scene. "Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep" communicates a mood that I know, puts me right in Michael's head, and does it with optimal efficiency, not a word wasted. Michael's meditation about silence and vastness is interrupted by his wondering by what right the owner's of the land possess this silence -- and the narrator moves outside him, above him, into the broader scene.

Coetzee's epigraph for the book sounds oddly familiar, I'm sure I've heard it quoted elsewhere: "War is the father of all and king of all. Some he shows as gods, others as men. Some he makes slaves, and others free." -- Or possibly I am thinking of some other similar quotation; I think this aphorism is composed in the style of some classical writer, but I'm not sure who...

Update: the epigraph is from a fragmentary writing of Heraclitus, quoted by Hippolytus in Refutatio Ⅸ.

posted afternoon of June 20th, 2009: Respond
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Wednesday, July first, 2009


I get home from the Spanish-language meetup this evening -- I mostly listened, talked a little bit -- and find a new post up on Saramago's blog, starting out "To write is to translate. It will always be, even when we're writing in our own language." The rest of it's a little beyond my meagre translating abilities, but interesting stuff.

Reading The History of the Siege of Lisbon tonight, I found another reference to the Blindness epigraph --

... Nonsense, I've simply done a little reading, I've amused or educated myself little by little, discovering the difference between looking and seeing, between seeing and observing, ...

posted evening of July first, 2009: Respond
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Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Opening the door of the museum

I am happy: The Museum of Innocence was published at long last today, the first novel Orhan Pamuk has published since I fell in love with his voice back in 2007. I have been anticipating this since last August when I saw it mentioned in McGaha's Autobiographies of Orhan Pamuk...

I'm wondering idly -- only read a few pages this evening, they are nice -- they have the same beguiling prose quality I remember from the opening of The Black Book -- how well the metaphor of strolling through a museum will work for the experience of reading this book. Will I linger over certain images, walk briskly past others which are not as engaging? Will I want to stay past closing time or will I find myself wanting to go home early, when I have not even gotten to see the exhibit on the third floor?... I'm usually a bit intimidated by museums, I have not yet felt even a bit intimidated by Pamuk's prose* -- its inviting affect is the thing I love most about it. Well; we'll see.

Here are the epigraphs to this book:

These were innocent people, so innocent that they thought poverty a crime that wealth would allow them to forget. (from the notebooks of Celâl Salik)

[Celâl Salik? Is that Celâl from The Black Book? I sort of think so but not sure. Did the Black Book character have a last name? ...and, yes! the columnist in The Black Book is named Celâl Salik.]

If a man could pass thro' Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke -- Aye? and what then? (from the notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

[This is very nice, and definitely calls to mind the opening of The Black Book.]

First I surveyed the little trinkets on the table, her lotions and her perfumes. I picked them up and examined them one by one. I turned her little watch over in my hand. Then I looked at her wardrobe. All those dresses and accessories piled one on top of the other. These things that every woman used to complete herself -- they induced in me a painful and desparate loneliness; I felt myself hers, I longed to be hers. (from the notebooks of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar)

*Oh wait, sorry, I am forgetting about The New Life. So make that "have not in most cases".

posted evening of October 20th, 2009: 1 response
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