On 2666

Here’s a small factoid. “Hyle”, the Greek for matter, is also the Greek for wood. It should be translated into Latin as materia. However, Calcidius, whose translation of Plato into Latin was what the medievals read when they read Plato, translated hyle as “sylva” – woods, or forest. So that if, say, Thomas Acquinas wanted to read the Timaeus, every time Plato uses the word matter, Acquinas would have read the word “forest”. Imagine the metaphysics of that.

Translation matters. It also forests – as every translator knows, the words in the text in one language branch out and root differently in another language. I’m pleased that the New York Times, with its dogged, lagging sense of fashion, recognized that Bolano is cult and cool, and hired Jonathan Lethem to review Natasha Wimmer’s translation of 2666. However, the review, while glowing, glowed around no central fire – for it wasn’t the burning novel to which the reader’s attention was drawn so much as the unceasing flurry of names in Contemporary World Literature. And, frankly, I felt the acknowledgment of Wimmer “(by Natasha Wimmer, the indefatigable translator of “The Savage Detectives”)” was unworthy.

Slate’s Adam Kirsch produced a more thoughtful review, and the gracenote about the translation is not such a toss-off: “That is one reason why the book is so hard to summarize—and why Natasha Wimmer's lucid, versatile translation is so triumphant.” The versatile is reviewer speak – as the reviewer of at least 1500 books, I have the intonations grooved into my brain. If you begin with one adjective, like lucid, you have to throw in another one – and if you are feeling particularly puff-y, you throw in a third. Still, I don't want to dismiss the versatile, here, entirely. It means something. Wimmer had to come to grips with very difficult matters, here. A lesser translator could easily have gotten lost in the woods.

In fact, the two Bolano novels are a translator’s triumph. Wimmer (I say this through gritted teeth, and with envy aforethought - why couldn't it have been me, God?) is the only person I know, personally, who I am confident will be read in one hundred years. I have read a number of her translations – for instance, her translation of Vargas Llosa’s Gauguin novel, of which I can only say, read Somerset Maugham’s Gauguin novel. I’ve read her translation of Rodrigo Fresan’s Kensington Gardens. Both were more than competent (and really, we Americans are living in the age not only of a scandalous lack of translations, but translation scandals as well – Orhan Pamuk’s novels seem to have been translated by the first person the publisher met who could speak Turkish and a sort of English, for instance), but the Bolano novels are brilliant. She has shapeshifted those novels into English. I think the best comparison for this feat is Ralph Mannheim’s translations of Celine.

I think Lethem goes astray with his references, but he is certainly on the right track about Bolano as a very writerly writer. By this, I don’t mean an avant garde writer, or a writer whose technical inventions should be studied by other writers – I mean a man who has a burning belief in literature in the world. Bolano had an overwhelming and overwhelmed sense of how literature has failed the world, which can only be held by someone whose belief in literature is bonedeep. This cosmic failure is his starting point: he is the anti-Paul, for whom lack of the letter killeth. Hell is the degree zero of literature – its disappearance from the world. Hell, in fact is depicted in the fourth book of 2666. It is a factory for raping, torturing, killing and dumping women. It is the city of Santa Theresa.

2666 does not remind me of any contemporary writer’s work – rather, it reminds me of the Chroniclers of the wars of religion. Or of their closest modern spiritual kin, the writer Johann Hebel (1760-1826), whose stories, put out as Kalendargeschichte in almanacs and collected in the “Little Treasure Chest of the Rhenish Family Friend”, were admired by Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, among others. Benjamin and Bloch singled out the “Unexpected (Unverhoffte – Unhoped for) Meeting” as one of the greatest of short stories. It is a story about a woman whose husband to be, a miner in Falun, Sweden, dies in an accident before they get married. And it contains this famous passage, which I’ll translate:

“He never came back out of the mine, and she vainly hemmed a red border on his black neck-cloth for him that very morning for the wedding, be as he never came, she laid it away, and cried for him and never forgot him. In the mean time the city of Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed through an earthquake, and the seven years war went by, and King Franz the first died, and the Jesuit order was dissolved and Poland was divided, and the Empress Maria Theresia died, and Count Struensee was executed, America became independent, and the united power of France and Spain could not conquer Gibraltar. The Turks bottled up General Stein at Verteraner Cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph also died. King Gustav of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the long war began, and Emperor Leopold the second also went down into his grave. Napoleon conquered Prussia, and the English bombed Kopenhagen, and the peasants sowed and reaped. The miller milled, and the smith hammered, and the miners dug for veins of metal in their underground workshop. But as the miners in Falun in the year 1809 somewhat before or after St. John’s day between two battles attempted to open another tunnel, a good three hundred ells deep under the ground, they uncovered out of the rubble and sulfuric acid the corpse of a youth, who was completely saturated in copperas, but otherwise undecayed and unchanged. Thus, one could see his facial features and his age completely, as if he had just died an hour ago, or was taking a little nap, at work.”

The interweaving of public and private time here partakes of both the Chronicler’s vision – a vision fed by the Bible’s histories, where kings could be brought down by the commonest of sins – coveting a man’s vineyard, or a man’s wife – and prophets could arise seemingly randomly out of the population – and by the ironic modern sense that, on the one hand, political organization should not be like this, should be radically changed, and on the other hand, that no change abolishes the central, sweeping inevitabilities – work, desire, death, mourning.

Bolano, like the Chroniclers, and like Hebel (witness to the Napoleonic wars), lived in an age marked by massacres and internecine struggles animated by what were essentially mysteries – the mystery of socialism, the mystery of the drug wars, the mystery of the universal, media drenched numbness. The 4th book contains accounts of what seems to be about three hundred murders. But the 4th book also contains the entangled stories of an American freelance detective, of a Geman man named Haas, imprisoned for all the murders (and obviously not guilty of most of them, or perhaps all), a television prophet, etc., etc. Here’s a bit from the 4th section. Tell me if this doesn’t remind you of Hebel:

"In the middle of November, Andrea Pacheco Martinez, thirteen, was kidnapped on her way out of Vocational School 16. Although the street was far from deserted, there were no witnesses, except for two of Andrea’s classmates who saw her head toward a black car, probably a Peregrino or a Spirit, where a person in sunglasses was waiting for her. There may have been other people in the car, but Andrea’s classmates didn’t get a look at them, partly because the car windows were tinted. That afternoon Andrea didn’t come home and her parents filed a police report a few hours later, after they had called some of her friends. The city police and the judicial police took charge of the case. When she was found two days later, her body showed unmistakable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced that her feet had also been tied. A Salvadorean immigrant found the body behind the Fracisco I School, on Madero, near Colonia Alamos. It was fully dressed, and the clothes, except for the shirt, which was missing several buttons, were intact. The Salvadorean was accused of the homicide and spent two weeks in the cells of Polcie Precinct #3, at the end of which he was released. When he got out he was a broken man. A little later he crossed the border with a pollero. In Arizona he got lost in the desert and after walking for three days, he made it to Patagonia, badly dehydrated, where a rancher beat him up for vomiting on his land. He was picked up by the sheriff and spent a day in jail and then he was sent to the hospital, where the only thing left for him was die in peace, which he did."


Anonymous said…
I really do regret not being able to keep up with LI these days. I didn't know much about Bolano till you mentioned him a while ago when Natasha Wimmer translated the Savage Detectives. I got the book but never got around to reading it. As you probably know, Bolano has been translated into French a lot and not just recently. But I would like to read her translations. For what happens and passes between languages, borders (literature, drugs, sex...) in a certain "proximity" between American and Spanish.
You know the famous Kafka phrase about writing being an axe to break the ice within. I was reminded of it while reading your quote that just cuts to the...
"It was fully dressed, and the clothes, except for the shirt, which was missing several buttons, were intact. " It.

roger said…
Amie! I was thinking of mailing you this post, cause I thought you'd enjoy the Hebel quote. As you know, I experienced 2666 like a heart attack. The Savage Detectives, which please please please read, was dark in a way that I could live with, in fact prefer to live with, in fact I can't take the normal world outside of the Savage Detectives at all! 2666 is for when you are feeling very bold - to shift metaphors to the boxing between book and reader, it foxes you into a corner, uses its weight on you, slams you around, is infinitely cunning in the combinations and clinches, and you have to be willing to endure some punishment, some drubbing, there, even though as it is happening you are thinking my god, I've never seen a fighter like this, this book is gonna kill me.

Yes, the descriptions of the victims are... well, as they go on and on, as they never stop, they break you down. This is another way Bolano is like the Chronicles - he is as patient as the last judgment.
Anonymous said…
LI, please feel free to send me any of your posts as I am not following the blogorama these days. I do love the Hebel quote. Hey, do you remember that I quoted the exact same passage from Hebel some time ago on LI, though maybe not in such a good translation.
Anyway, when I get back to NYC, I will pick up some of my books read and unread including the Bolano translation of the Savage Detectives by JW. I like your boxing metaphor. I sort of think in terms of dancing - dancing with an absent partner over an open tomb.
I want to say something about your earlier post re Werther, but just a question for the time being about that quote from Lessing. I might be wrong but doesn't Lessing underline "girl" in his phrase "even a girl...".
And the passage you quote from Lessing continues " So, dear Goethe, give us another chapter as a brief conclusion, and the more cynical the better."
Supplement and gift, conclusion and cynicism...

roger said…
So it was you who planted that seed in my head!
I'll definitely wrap up some posts and send them to you every week. And you send me your stuff about soundtracks. It will be a deal.
F said…
el bosque de la traduccion es peligroso y complejo pero tambien fascinante.

no he leido aun 2666 en ingles (pero sí mas de una vez en español)
aunque sí leí la traduccion de los detectives salvages (savages detectives) y me pareció que se cuidó mucho de guardar aquello que hace a roberto bolaño interesante, novedoso e imprescindible..

por lo que creo que no será distinto con 2666, prueba de ello es tu comentario que relaciona su estilo de escritura con la de los cronistas del siglo XVIII y XIX un comentario que me parece bastante interesante y que me lleva a pensar que la traducción pudo rescatar más de lo que pudiera pensarse.

te dejo el texto que explica en parte el origen del titulo 2666

" “Y los seguí. Los vi caminar a paso ligero por Bucareli hasta Reforma y luego los vi cruzar Reforma sin esperar la luz verde, ambos con el pelo largo y arremolinado porque a esa hora por Reforma corre el viento nocturno que le sobra a la noche, la avenida Reforma se transforma en un tubo transparente, en un pulmón de forma cuneiforme por donde pasan las exhalaciones imaginarias de la ciudad, y luego empezamos a caminar por la avenida Guerrero, ellos un poco más despacio que antes, yo un poco más deprisa que antes, la Guerrero , a esa hora, se parece sobre todas las cosas a un cementerio, pero no a un cementerio de 1974, ni a un cementerio de 1968, ni a un cementerio de 1975, sino a un cementerio de 2666, un cementerio olvidado debajo de un párpado muerto o nonato, las acuosidades desapasionadas de un ojo que por querer olvidar algo ha terminado por olvidarlo todo”

Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto, 1999


translate (sorry it isn`t very good, you know.. the forest and a bad english):

The forest of the translation is dangerous and complex but also fascinating.

I have not read 2666 in english (but several times in Spanish)
although I read the translation of Los Detectives Salvajes (Savages detectives) and I thought It was careful to keep much of what makes Roberto Bolaño interesting, innovative and indispensable ..

so I think it will not be different with 2666, proof of that is your comment that relates his writing style with the style of the chroniclers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a comment that I find quite interesting (and original) and that leads me to think that the translation was rescuing more than I might think.

The final text belongs to one of the Bolaño books and explains the origin of the title of 2666,

but of course I don`t dare to translate it.. :)
roger said…
Anonymous, you tease. I've looked up Amulet in English, and can't find this passage. But I'm going to! Someone asked me about 2666 at lunch today. And I noticed, through our correspondent, Mr. T. in New York City, that Natasha was interviewed in New York Magazine about Bolano and asked about 2666 too.
roger said…
ps - hey, I did find it! in Amulet.