Friday, April third, 2009
Saramago writes today about the 1907 strike and massacre in Iquique, Chile, in which the Chilean army (under pressure from the government and from foreign mine-owners) murdered more than three thousand people, striking saltpetre miners and their families who had congregated at the school of Santa María to demand an 18¢ per day wage paid in currency rather than scrip. The event was memorialized in the 1970's when Luis Advis wrote his "Cantata de Santa María de Iquique" -- here it is performed by Quilapayun.Lyrics are transcribed here.
(a year and a half later) This massacre is quite an important reference point in Hernán Rivera Letelier's work.
Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
I bought a book last night on the strength of its cover -- The magnificent cover photo (a still from Buñuel's Simon of the Desert) made me pick it up and read the back cover, made me buy the book and start reading... It is an homage to Nícanor Parra's Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui, about a young man from Chile's Elqui Valley who discovers that he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Very dry humor and lovely prose.
Here is a bit of linguistic confusion I found entertaining -- early in the novel the narrator is talking about Christ's difficulties with his good-for-nothing apostles, who are always stuffing themselves, guzzling liquor and smoking -- he compares this with the Messiah's ascetic ways using a quick shift from third to first person, which is made more subtle and confusing by Spanish's imperfect tense.
In Spanish, the first person singular imperfect and the third person singular imperfect are usually (maybe always?) the same. So when Letelier writes
Él, por su parte, que debía ser luz para el mundo, no fumaba ni bebía. Con un vaso de vino al almuerzo, como exhortaba en sus prédicas, era suficiente. Y apenas probaba la comida, porque entre mis pecados, que también los tengo, mis hermanos, nunca figuró la gula. Tanto así que a veces, por el simple motivo de que se olvidaba de hacerlo, se pasaba días completos sin ingerir alimentos.
The first sentence is obviously the narrator speaking, because its subject is "Él". The second sentence is still referring to Christ in the third person, speaking of "sus prédicas". The beginning of the third sentence looks like it is still doing so until we get to "mis pecados" and "los tengo", and realize Christ is speaking now. Then in the fourth sentence we are back to third person as evidenced by the use of "se" instead of "me" -- I found it surprising what a small proportion of the words in this passage distinguish between the two voices.
Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
Doing a little more research about Rivera Letelier's book: I was apparently imprecise in calling it an homage to Parra's poem. It looks like both the poem and the book are based on the life of a real historical figure named Domingo Zárate Vega who preached imminent apocalypse in the Elqui Valley of the 1930's. (I am hedging a bit because I'm not finding much primary source material about Zárate Vega on the internets. But multiple pages about the book and about the poem make reference to their being based on real history. An article in the Patagonia Times states that Rivera Letelier "researched the actual existence of the Christ of Elqui for his book and includes a bibliography at the end to avoid accusations of plagiarism" -- I am not finding this bibliography in my copy, which is disappointing and confusing.)
From the same Patagonia Times article, a beautiful anecdote about how Rivera Letelier, who grew up in a lower-class family and initally worked as a miner, came to his writing career:
Rivera Letelier began to write when he was 21 years old “because of hunger.” Listening to the radio with an empty stomach, he heard the announcement of a poetry competition whose award was a dinner in a luxurious hotel. He wrote a four-page love poem and won the meal.
I'd love to read that poem, and I wonder if Rivera Letelier has written an autobiography...
Update: a little information about Zárate Vega in this post from Loruka, who lives in La Serena.
Sunday, November 14th, 2010
Reading Rivera Letelier is putting me in mind of Faulkner or Saramago. His sentences have a dense lushness, a gentle rhythm that allows the mind to wander and then pulls it back in to the flow of the syntax. (This effect is really heightened for me by the sentences being in a language I don't fully understand -- I find myself reading over several times, first to establish the rhythm, then slower, to get a fuller understanding of the meaning, then over, slowly the rhythm and the narrative come into sync for me.)
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
In all the years he had been carrying his lessons through the land, preaching his axioms, counsels and wise thoughts regarding the good of Humanity -- and declaring in passing that the Day of Judgement is at hand, repent, sinners, before it is too late -- this was the first he had ever experienced a success of such sublime profundity. And it had taken place in the dry desert of Atacama, more precisely in the wasteland of a saltpetre mining camp, the least likely setting for a miracle. And to top it off the dead man had been named Lazarus.
-- The art of resurrection
Hernán Rivera Letelier
Sunday, November 21st, 2010
In the midst of that curious crowd, the Christ of Elqui was not silent. On the contrary: with the purple taffeta of his cape broiling under the sun he stood, he turned toward the dead man. An absent, almost translucent look was on his face, like someone who is looking at a mirage in the desert. He seemed to be struggling with a deep-seated psychic dilemma. After an instant which seemed an eternity, with a histrionic wave, he looked away from the dead man; he raised both arms above his head and opened his mouth to speak, bearing infinite pain in the inflections of his voice:
El arte de la resurrección is seeming like one of the best novels I've ever read. Do I overstate? Perhaps -- translating is a different lens through which to view the reading process, it adds a certain meta-narrative tension that is not always present (or present to varying degrees) when reading my own English. But these fantastic paragraphs are chosen practically at random from the cornucopia of the first couple of chapters that I've read so far.
— I am sorry, my brothers, but I can do nothing; the sublime art of resurrection belongs exclusively to God the Father.
But the miners had not come to hear rejection, rejection wrapped up in the celophane of pretty phrases. Surrounding him, their wiry beards almost touching him, they pleaded, they demanded, they begged him in the name of God Most Holy, o Lord Christ, at least try it. That it will cost him nothing to try. That all he need do is to place his blessed hands over the body of their friend — as they have seen him do for the infirm among them, all these days — and to recite a few ave marias or a pater noster. Or whatever he might find to say. He must know better than them which things one must say to the ancient one on high, to convince him. And who knows, perhaps God in his moment will understand, and take pity on their comrade, the best among strong working men, who has left in this vale of tears a widow, still young, and a crowd of seven little kids, imagine it, o Lord, seven children, evenly spaced, all still quite young.
— This poor kid Lazarus, his body here with us — cried one of them, turning to the deceased, laying his arms in a cross over his chest — you could say he is a countryman of yours, sir, for just like you, as we have read of you, he was born in a village of Coquimbo province.
The Christ of Elqui lifted his gaze to the eastern sky. For a moment he appeared fascinated by a far-off flock of birds, flying in slow circles above the gravel plain, flying over the dusty cement of the salitrera. Pulling at his bushy beard, thinking and rethinking what he was going to say, he spoke in an apologetic tone:
— We all know where we were born, o my brothers, but not where our bones will lie buried.
The gentle, brutal good humor of the narrator's relationship with his characters and his scenes-- the switch for instance to second person when the miners address the Christ of Elqui and then quickly back to third, so there is some confusion about where the focus should lie, turns the reader's head, makes him wipe his forehead in disbelief.
Monday, November 22nd, 2010
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
-- Luke 4 (NIV, 2010)
After he had walked he knew not how many hours, thirst and weariness were defeating him. He thought to himself that his destination could not be so far away now. He felt he was lost. The only thing that he could do was to let himself fall onto the sand. He sat in a lotus position, his little paper sack between his legs. As always in such difficult emotional times he commenced to pick his nose. He looked about himself: it was as if he were in the dead center of a circle composed of the horizon on all sides, a circle as if it had been traced by some celestial hand, perfect, round, endless. The silence, the solitude were of such divine purity, they moved him, they were tangible. He removed his sandals. He wanted to take communion with the land.
The art of resurrection is reminding me a bit of reading The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (and I ought to track down Saramago's take on the temptation in the desert passage...) in the degree of sympathy each author expresses for his imperfect messiah.
He sat there, listening, for a long time.
Evening’s flame lit the horizon. Red. Impressive. Overwhelming. It made him think of dusk, of Golgotha. His surroundings swam before his eyes into a great ring of fire. “The fiery ring of a lion-tamer,” he said. He sensed suddenly, and with divine clarity, that the lion-tamer was God; he, the lion, tamed. That his master was ordering him to jump. Yes; to jump. Highest glory to the Eternal Father!
He closed his eyes and jumped.
-- The art of resurrection ch. 4
Update: ...And also SFAM is getting in on the Messianic action.
Thursday, November 25th, 2010
An example of the kind of sentence I was mentioning loving in Arte de la resurrección is near the beginning of Chapter 6, a description the people of Providencia (not, as I initially thought, a village in Elqui Valley, but a mining company town, a "salitrera," in the Atacama -- and referred to throughout the story as La Piojo, which I am understanding as Lousy*) gathering to await the Christ of Elqui. Listen:
The women came, their heads covered in dark bandannas, rosaries in their hands, a prayerful, focused halo softening the faces of these strong women, dutiful, capable of any sacrifice for their families. The children were running with their wire hoops, their tin wagons, with the rambunctious happiness of seeing something novel in the endless tedium which was the pampa, all the world they knew of; while those few men who were idling, who were spending the siesta on the hot stones by their front doors -- for most of them were together in the union hall, or keeping watch on the factory gate for strike-breakers -- came following the women and the children to see this novelty, ganchito, a Chilean Christ preaching in the desert. Even the most skeptical, the least credulous of them -- and the mine-workers were the most skeptical, the least credulous of anyone in the pampa -- those who could not believe that this layabout, this beggar could be Christ the King, that he was divine, could perform miracles -- "This Christ of the slums has never even healed a sleepy little girl, paisita" -- even these came to look away from his footprints with the disdainful grimace of the suspicious macho tattooed on their oblong faces.
In the original the whole first paragraph is a single sentence, I could not avoid dividing it into a couple. You can spend a lot of time in front of that sentence as if it were a Bruegel, it repays multiple readings with new layers of imagery.
At this hallucinatory siesta hour on the pampa, the sun was a burning stone at the center of heaven.
* Or also, I see piojo is slang in the Andes for "gambling den" -- so maybe the nickname means something like "Dive".
I wonder a lot about how much weight I should give to cognates, to preferring English words which sound like the Spanish term they are translating, where it is feasible. This may end up statistically twisting the meaning of the text a bit as I read it. A similar caveat applies to the matter of using Spanish words in the translated text, this may need to change in a later draft... ("ganchito" in particular is a cheat; and I'm fairly sure the "look away from his footprints" passage is a mistranslation, that I don't understand the sentence as written.)
Friday, November 26th, 2010
One key distinction to be made between El arte de la resurrección and a Bruegel painting, of course, is the direction, the cinematic quality of the former. If I stand looking at "The Battle between Carnival and Lent" it keeps me engaged, keeps my gaze shifting; but I am "directing" the movie by moving my gaze. Whereas here, there is clearly a cameraman showing us where to focus and what to move to the periphery. Check out this beautiful pan from the plaza to in front of the union hall, from chapter 7 -- reminds me a little of the opening shot from Heimat. The striking workers in La Piojo are waiting for their lunch, in front of the union hall:
Even from a distance one could see that chaos reigned, everything in a rambunctious disarray: a few kids, stick in hand, trying to keep at a distance the group of stray dogs that had assembled, attracted by the aroma of food, while a few well-built gaucho types were greasy with sweat, gathering and splitting wood for the fire; the group of women inside was sweating too, in their aprons cut from canvas flour sacks, their cheeks smudged with soot, they were ladling out dishes of the hot, steaming stew to the tight line of men, women, children who held out their chipped dishes, their faces long with hunger. The menu, like every day's, was a generous helping of chili beans -- one day with crushed maize, one day with peppers, which cooked on the other fire, smoking under a black skillet, seasoned with a colorful bloom of paprika.
The camera starts out away from the action, across the plaza; gradually it zooms in on the kids keeping away the stray dogs, then pans to men cutting wood (in my mental picture of this scene, the men are sort of behind the kids (vis-a-vis the pov) and a bit toward the union hall, the camera is moving across the plaza and a bit to the right) and then (continuing to the right, and swinging around) to the women cooking and to the people waiting; and the last word of the sentence is "hunger"! Then we linger lovingly on the food that's cooking, the centerpiece of this scene. (This and a passage a little later on when Christ is eating are beautiful food writing I must say -- this Rivera Letelier is extremely versatile.)
Sunday, November 28th, 2010
I am falling into a pattern with reading/translating/revising The art of resurrection -- I think the best way to carry out these activities is in parallel, they strengthen and enhance one another. So far every chapter I read in full and translate a few pages of, the translation and revision process sends me off to read some more or to re-read and get a better grip on the story and on the author's voice, which in turn sends me back to revise and expand my translations of earlier chapters, and to forge outposts of translation in later chapters. (And of course blogging about is another activity in relation to the text, one which weaves in and out among and distracts from and contributes to these three.)
Chapter 8 introduces Magalena Mercado, the prostitute whom Christ has been searching for.
Dark, her hair was brown and her eyelids drooped over deep pupils. This was Magalena Mercado, her soft curves moved languidly and in the air behind her, fleeting, trailed the sensation of a wounded dove. And this sensation was strengthened by her gestures as it was by the falling cadence of her voice. ...
Like everything else about her, her age was a mystery. The men's guesses ranged from twenty-five, or a little more, to thirty-five, or a little less. Besides believing in God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, she was a devoted follower of the Virgen del Carmen. In her house, in the room where she slept was an almost life-size icon, made from wood, always a candle was in front of it and little flowers made of paper hung from it.
The narrator goes on to discuss whether Magalena Mercado came to the north of Chile during a transfer of mental patients -- a "de-institutionalizing" I suppose it would be called. I need to get a better handle on the historical background here -- did that happen once in Chile during the twenties or thirties, or was it a common thing to have happen, or is it a fiction?*
What is certain is that her customers were generally surprised, disconcerted by the altar which was installed in a corner of the room where she plied her trade, so much so that some, the most devout among them, were inhibited, left without consummating the transaction. You see, the icon of the Virgin, about a meter 20 cm high, carved by hand, was of an overwhelming, breathtaking beauty. So Magalena Mercado took care: every evening before beginning to wait on her "parishioners," as she termed her regular customers, she would kneel before the Virgin, cross herself vigorously, and cover the icon's head with a square of blue velvet.
"See you soon, little lady," she would whisper.
And look at how these paragraphs -- immediately following the above -- could be a short story in themselves --
Although many had heard her say that she could not stand priests, and even less the priest at La Piojo, whom she claimed to know from the village where they had grown up, Magalena Mercado was scrupulous in attending every mass. She would arrive a few moments after the beginning of the service; stealthily, ghostly, walking on tiptoes, she would take a seat in the final row of pews, on the left.
The priest, for his part, a fat, rubicund man, the shy expression on his face disturbed by nervous tics, he became so furious he had a coughing fit -- frothing at the corners of his mouth -- when they told him that the devout prostitute claimed to know him. Generally, when he saw her entering the church, he would make as if he did not notice, would continue to say his mass as if he had not noticed her presence. But on some occasions, particularly on Sundays, when the flock was larger, his Bible in hand, his stole flapping, he would imprecate against her from his pulpit, reading the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel, picking out two or three of the most severe verses. On the days when his bile was blackest, filled with rage, he would read straight through all of the verses, like a brutal, biblical artillery attack: Wherefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord... I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock and shed blood are judged... therefore I will gather all thy lovers, with whom thou hast taken pleasure... And I will also give thee into their hand... and they shall break down thy high places: they shall strip thee also of thy clothes, and shall take thy fair jewels, and leave thee naked and bare. They shall also bring up a company against thee, and they shall stone thee with stones, and thrust thee through with their swords. And they shall burn thine houses with fire, and execute judgments upon thee in the sight of many women: and I will cause thee to cease from playing the harlot, and thou also shalt give no hire any more.
(There is a very mildly interesting question to be raised about translating a passage which is quoting a third work, e.g. the Bible, which has been translated elsewhere and in many versions, which English version to use: what I did here and what I think works best in this case is to use the KJV translation, which fits very closely with the Spanish lines quoted in the book.)
*This is discussed at greater length a few chapters later. I was misunderstanding the meaning of enganche, it means "recruitment" and has a special meaning in the context of nitrate mining. The mental patients in question here were brought north by an enganchador, a headhunter who recruits workers for the salitreras from the south.
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