Finding the Unsayable in Translation
On Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, and a Double Dose of Defamiliarization
I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.
So opens Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. Any first sentence in Spanish with multiple time slots and a gun alludes to the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Battles play out before us now and then in García Márquez’s novel, but in Marías’s fiction violence is usually an aftershock of past political upheavals. A Heart So White‘s long, turning lines mimic the convolutions of national and family history, much of it hidden until the narrator, Juan, finds ways of discovering it. Juan is an interpreter by profession and inclination, a reader of words and gestures, translatable texts and subtexts. He expects us to read as well as he does, with a talent for sensing pressure points in language, how one word or sound leans on another, how one memory enfolds or brushes against or circumscribes another as if to hold or center it.
I’ve become interested lately in the disquieting tensions formed when something unsayable builds inside long sentences and paragraphs. Certain novels in Spanish seem to play these tensions especially well, and the fact that I read them in translation intensifies my sense of meanings being conveyed and withheld at the same time. They create a synthesis of effect through sustained sentences and paragraphs. It isn’t that the lines necessarily accumulate a strong through-force the way, say, paratactic lines can when joining ideas or actions without subordination. Rather, in these novels, dramatic action can stand together with reflection, momentary impression, contradicting truths, prolonged memories, in a way that seems something like the condition of a lived moment. Certain moments never end.
In A Heart So White the sentences with their crowded frames, many joined as run-ons, allow Marías to move in the narrator’s thoughts and memories without having to grade and measure each digression according to the pace of conventional realist scene presentation. If at times this style feels a little too loose or too easy, it’s also a generous form for opening a full expressive potential. A mark of this style is repetition, or repetition with variation, a kind of echoing, in which whole lines of speech or description appear at intervals, in new contexts. One of these is Juan’s description of his mother’s dead sister as “the person who would have been and yet never could have been my Aunt Teresa.” The syntax of the sentence is sound; the history it springs from is not.
The gun in Marías’s opening is fired, and the shock runs forward and backward in time as Juan narrates a period of his life while at the same time moving, discovery by discovery, into his father’s past. Like the high drama, involving secrets and killings, the pliant sentences are given the gravity of political and moral dimensions.
In the work of certain writers, the prose first conceals, then opens these moral dimensions, or opens and then suspends them across long lines. In the second part of Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Amalfitano,” a Spaniard living in a Mexican border city begins to lose his bearings, fearing for his daughter as young women are murdered in the city daily. At one point he hangs a geometry textbook from a clothesline in his backyard. The paragraph below follows upon a memory of his father complaining about boxers from various countries, telling him that Italians were brave individually but “in large numbers . . . were hopeless”:
By which you might guess, thought Amalfitano, as he went out the front door and paused on the porch with his whiskey and then looked out into the street where a few cars were parked, cars that had been left there for hours and smelled, or so it seemed to him, of scrap metal and blood, before he turned and headed around the side of the house to the backyard where the Testamento geométrico was waiting for him in the stillness and the dark, by which you might guess that he himself, deep down, very deep down, was still a hopeful person, since he was Italian by blood, as well as an individualist and a civilized person. And it was even possible that he wasn’t a coward. Although he didn’t like boxing. But then Dieste’s book fluttered and the black handkerchief of the breeze dried the sweat beading on his forehead and Amalfitano closed his eyes, and tried to conjure up any image of his father, in vain. When he went back inside, not through the back door but through the front door, he peered over the gate and looked both ways down the street. Some nights he had the feeling he was being spied on.
The multiple time slots here are produced by conditional guessing, a waiting book, hopefulness, and a genealogy. A sentence that literally contains a suspended text has itself a suspended syntax. “By which you might guess” what? We wait for Amalfitano to leave his house, pause on the porch, smell the air, and go around the house into his backyard, a duration that opens ever more distance between one side of the sentence and the other, and puts ever more weight on the actions described. Eventually the sentence completes itself, but the paragraph elicits other questions, not all of them answered. Because Bolaño is committed ultimately to the unresolved, much of what else the passage contains there are no words for, but we see it waving to us in “the black handkerchief of the breeze” that will undo the neat geometries of civilized thought.
Fiction plays the said against the unexpressed. In spare, declarative prose, the unsaid often seems to hang beneath the words themselves, the weight below the lettered surface. We might think of Hemingway’s iceberg analogy or, in Spanish-language fiction, novels such as Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo or, more recently, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. In fuller prose the lines can feel closer not to the unsaid but to the unsayable, as each urgent phrase and clause follows another in a building need never satisfied. Such prose is close to dream, with the same fluidity of movement through time and no concern for unities of space and pacing. The narrators seem to possess a thing they’re trying and failing to expend through language. Sartre once said, “Comprehension of a dream occurs when a man can express it in a language which is itself dreamt.” He said that Flaubert used the word “unsayable” to mean the “kind of comprehension of oneself which cannot be named and which perpetually escapes one.” The distinction is between knowledge, which can form and set into language, and comprehension, which prompts but escapes language. Sartre said all this in an interview, having just spoken about being in the Resistance and the fear of being imprisoned or tortured.
The same gun goes off differently in a 1990s Spanish novel and a 21st century Salvadoran one. A small dramatic prop in one story can be an object of existential sundering in another. I mean to say that the same gun, sitting on a table in one fiction, and on a similar table in another, is also a different gun, and sensing this sameness-and-difference not just in guns but in everything is essential to a reader’s feeling that a given fiction is not only about the world, but of the world. To recognize something wholly familiar is, in some senses, not to see it, but to encounter the strange or half-familiar is to experience at least a fugitive moment of vivid perception.
This is as true of the words in a novel as it is of the characters. As a reader, I never want to find, say, a familiar adjective-noun combination (never a “majestic bird” or “national treasure” or “animated discussion” or “local establishment”). Neither do I want characters to be known before I’ve met them. There must be some power in a reader’s feeling of identification with characters, given how much it’s spoken of in book clubs and casual commentaries (there might be no lazier critical word than “relatable”), and the value is legitimate for young readers or groups of readers otherwise left out of narrative records. But I think of greater importance than a sense of commonality is one of understood difference. Fiction that respects us says, “I know you because I have not had your life.” That literary fiction writers and readers can meet in language at all is the more moving because of this respect.
That they can meet in translated language might suggest that part of what comes across was never directly expressed in language to begin with. Translated prose can reproduce something of the movements and durations of the original sentences and paragraphs, but in any novel worth reading there’s something irreducible to words, something present in the shadings and colorations peculiar to someone else’s beautifully unspeakable life.
The violence in Marías’s and Bolaño’s novels is both historical and pointedly personal. Their long paragraphs allow for these categories to be of the same fabric, one continuous enough to admit paradox and the involutions and flutings of thought. Writers sometimes make language itself a subject in these fictions—not because they’re stuck in their medium, but because language is what we use, what anyone uses, to try to organize a psyche in chaos.
The opening of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness:
I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentences I read the first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erik so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.
The highlighted, copied sentence was spoken by a Guatemalan indigenous man who has witnessed his family’s murder during a military massacre of civilians. But we don’t know that when we come across it. The narrator asserts that the dumbfounding statement is of a sentence, not a man, as if he himself can’t quite connect the atrocity to the living and dying reality that gives it rise. Page by page in Senselessness we come to realize that the narrator doesn’t entirely know his own mind, and that in place of self-awareness may be paranoia, usually a kind of overreading. In the reaches of power, paranoia produces brutal histories, but the earned paranoia of lone souls can be indistinguishable from a terrible sanity.
Human event defies reason, defies sense, and the serious novelist has no choice but to stage an encounter with senselessness. In these translated novels the staging is in a language slightly canted because something in its ordered system has broken down. To read such prose in translation is only to meet a strangeness through one more layer of defamiliarization: senseless history made strange through language, language made strange through the local employments of a style, and all of it made strange through translation. Somehow these displacements seem to present things as they are. How they are is unsayable, except in the ways certain writers find not to say them.