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."