Tag Archives: Mexican literature

Review: Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there. The narrative opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. Like a clanging gong announcing the event, the news reverberates throughout the village, and thus begins a kind of murder mystery. Yet to pigeon-hole Hurricane Season as “just” a murder mystery would be to do a great disservice to a narrative that is so much more than that. It’s an unsparing account of femicide, machismo, tribal terror and social destitution, and for me it was less about uncovering the “truth” of the murder and more about delving into the psyche and circumstances of the characters, to understand what led them to the pivotal moment that simultaneously connects them and creates deep divisions between them.

The premise is based on a real-life story in which a body was found floating in a river, and the justification for the murder was the victim’s alleged sorcery: Melchor takes this true story and casts it in the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa, a godforsaken place riven with violence and superstition, and on the margins in every way. We follow the events from the perspectives of different inhabitants of La Matosa: each principal character has his or her own chapter, and each story is woven with the others to form a richly grotesque tapestry of lives forgotten by the state and left to rot in their own squalor, the interconnections not always evident until the end of a chapter or a seemingly throwaway comment within it.

The Witch herself never speaks through the narrative, but pulls all the other stories together. She is constructed for us only in the minds and exaggerations of others, adding to the “small-town” patina:

“They called her The Witch, the same as her mother … If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.”

The Witch is defined by hearsay and gossip, her power feared and so expunged in the only permanent way possible (although even then, death quite literally has no dominion: “They say she never really died, because witches don’t go without a fight”). As for how she ended up floating in a canal with her throat slit, we only find out through third party reconstruction: this is a novel in which nothing is as it seems, where one person’s freeloader is another person’s saviour and the most flamboyant of characters can have the most banal of ends. We meet memorable characters in wretched circumstances: from Luismi, who “might have looked like a stupid prick (but) wasn’t one, because he always managed to give his crazy-ass cousin the slip before he went off to fumble with his butt-boys”, to Norma, compelled by society and circumstance to take her fate into her own hands with horrific results, and Brando, embroiled in a violent chain of events that he barely understands and that will ultimately destroy him. The personal tragedy wrought by universal inhumanity is almost intolerable: this is not just about Mexico and its demons, but about the monsters we make with global indifference.

There are no paragraph breaks in Hurricane Season; each chapter is one unbroken torrent of narrative wrath. In a recent feature in Publishers Weekly, Melchor explained that the first two chapters came out that way, and then she set herself the technical challenge of maintaining this style and momentum throughout the novel. She writes with undisguised and undiluted fury, raging against the lack of future for her characters and the people they represent. It’s violent but never gratuitously so, foul-mouthed but authentically so, relentless but compellingly so: you know how sometimes you wish you could unleash all your anger on a person or phenomenon that has injured you, but you know you could never come up with the flawlessly crafted surge of put-downs at the perfect moment (think Fleabag and her lambasting of her brother-in-law that is going so well until she ends it by calling him a “weakie”)? Every inch of Hurricane Season is that perfect diatribe, and not just in Melchor’s hands: Sophie Hughes translates with her trademark verve, her unparalleled sensitivity to characterisation and register, and a linguistic agility that, quite frankly, left me stunned in admiration. Sugar cane “fissles”, “glistering hot coals” fire the cauldron, we meet “skanks” and “gobshites” and people “getting their rocks off”. Hurricane Season is a broken dam of words unleashed in a deluge of profanity: it is, in every sense, a force of nature, and Hughes offers a blistering translation. She conveys all of Melchor’s brutal lyricism in a way that manages to feel effortless: all of the intense labour, the insecurity, the angst of translating such a novel vanishes in the execution. I cannot imagine a more perfect blend of authorial voice and translatorial mastery: this is the yardstick by which many other books will be measured. The threat of a hurricane swirls over La Matosa, and leaves in its wake “a searing pain that refuses to go away”: Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind, bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, to say I “read” it feels somehow inadequate to convey the way in which I was drawn into the centrifugal force of this particular narrative: I highly recommend that you too give in to its pull.

Review copy of Hurricane Season provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

Review: Loop, Brenda Lozano

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2019)

This debut novel by Brenda Lozano is a clever, innovative book, an erudite observation of the everyday, a genre-smashing static journey. It’s fair to say that I admired it rather than enjoyed it exactly; mostly, I suspect, because of the point at which I read it. Loop is a series of connected fragments, and I probably jumped into it at the wrong moment: I read it on my train journey to and from the Translating Women conference, when my mind was pitching from one thing to the next, not staying anywhere for long, and returning to the same things repeatedly. This fitfulness was exacerbated by reading a book that was doing much the same thing, and so my reaction was affected by the circumstances of my reading. Nonetheless, objectively I can see all of the things that make Loop brilliant, and those are the features I’ll focus on here.

The unnamed narrator of Loop is waiting. Her boyfriend Jonás has travelled to Spain after his mother’s death; the narrator awaits his return, journeying in her mind while sitting in her armchair waiting for Jonás. As she waits she vocalises their usual routine, alternating between longing for his return and resenting his absence. She is also waiting in an airport for a delayed flight: this is the ambiguity of the literary form, as the narrator reminds us that it doesn’t matter how long passes between her notebook entries, because it will be read as if no time has passed between them: “Part of the magic of the ideal notebook is that hours, days and weeks can go by from one paragraph to the next, but because the paragraphs live side by side like neighbours, it’s as if only a few minutes have passed. Amazing – something that takes years to write could be read by someone else in a couple of hours.” Time is suspended, just as the narrator herself is suspended in her vigil, awaiting the return of Jonás. In this sense, she says, “my notebook is my waiting room” – the notebook becomes the loop, the contracted space where time expands.

The (mildly but endearingly obsessive) narrator has had some kind of accident in the recent past, though we are not given details beyond her waking up on a hospital gurney with a Shakira song playing in the background (thus alerting her to the fact that she is not, after all, now inhabiting the afterlife). This patchy detail is consistent with the “diary” narrative – in a diary, why would you painstakingly write out details of something you already know? Rather, this is an exploration of the narrator’s inner world and thoughts. Many references recur repeatedly: the Shakira song is an intermittent soundtrack, as is David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” (this one features as a choice on the narrator’s part, rather than as an intrusion), and a Shakespeare quote spotted on a fridge magnet becomes the narrator’s refrain to describe herself: “Welcome. A hundred thousand welcomes! I could weep, and I could laugh; I am light, and heavy. Welcome!” This becomes an invitation to us to enter her world of weeping, laughter, lightness and weight, all encapsulated within the pages of her “ideal notebook”. In this notebook she performs a kind of taxonomy of the everyday, chronicling experiences and observing objects, but she also identifies herself as a modern-day Penelope: “I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again. Will the day ever come when the waiting stops? Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” “I wish. I weave. I unravel.”

It is not just The Odyssey that features as a literary reference – these are broad-ranging, from Fernando Pessoa to Marcel Proust via Oscar Wilde, and many more besides (there is a handy index of references at the back of the book). These can’t have been easy to spot and incorporate into the translation, but Lozano is in safe hands with Annie McDermott: there was not a single word, reference or turn of phrase that jarred in my reading of Loop. I had already admired McDermott’s work as editor on Ariana Harwciz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) and as co-translator with Orloff on Harwicz’s Feebleminded, and am very excited for her forthcoming translation of Selva Almada’s next book with Charco Press later this year. Her choice of title for Loop is intelligent and sensitive: it is more ambiguous than the original title, Cuaderno ideal (“ideal notebook”), which would mean very little in English. It’s a play on words in Mexican Spanish: not only is this the ideal form, but also a reference to the near-obsolete brand of notebook that the narrator uses to write down her thoughts. Lozano’s narrator describes her text as “an infinite queue”, and this is reflected in the English title: a loop has no defined beginning and end, it goes over on itself, turns around on itself, repeats itself – the refrains that punctate the narrative are played as if on a loop; the fragments of narrative loop back and return to where they started; by reading the narrator’s intimate thoughts we are in the loop, and her verbal acrobatics – energetically but unobtrusively rendered by McDermott – loop the loop.

There were some observations that made me laugh out loud, such as this from the very first page: “As a girl I thought that the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life.” But Loop is also shot through with pain (the narrator knows intimately “those depths where only pain can take you”), and some profound observations seem almost carelessly tossed in (except in Lozano, as I came to realise, nothing is careless). As well as the repeated refrain “Change. Unknowing yourself is more important than knowing yourself,” she makes delicate proclamations such as “we make the world to the measure of our hands” and “the way we relate to everything, especially when it comes to love, changes after we hit rock bottom,” as well as a list resembling a modern-day secular Beatitudes, in which she observes that “those who talk too much reject themselves; those who listen carefully accept themselves.”

When I went back to my notes to write this review, I felt far more drawn into Loop than when I actually read it, which makes me think that I should revisit it to experience it at a less stressful moment. But for now I’ll leave you with this meditative remark, which epitomises our mordantly observant narrator and her writing project: “I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words.”

Review copy of Loop provided by Charco Press

“An elegant surpassing of the truth”: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2015)

I’m delighted to welcome another guest contributor to the blog today: Katie Brown has been a great supporter of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project since its launch (and was the one who urged me to read Umami!), so you can imagine my joy when she recently accepted a job in the Modern Languages department here at Exeter. Today she’s writing about a fascinating author-translator collaboration that offers new perspectives on the creativity of translation acts and which is, I hope, the first of many collaborations with Katie. You can find out more about her on the Guest Contributor page, and on her blog.

*NB: there will be a 3-week break from the blog after this post, as I am taking my summer holiday. We’ll be back mid-August!*

How do the stories we tell influence the value of objects? Are authors’ and artists’ names any more valuable than other people’s? These are just some of the questions addressed by Valeria Luiselli’s third book, The Story of my Teeth, both through its content and its collaborative creation.

The Story of my Teeth is a genre-defying book. Critics have referred to it variously as a novel, an essay, autofiction and biofiction, or a mixture of them all. The book begins as the relatively straight-forward life story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway”, a picaresque old man whose talents include impersonating Janis Joplin and interpreting fortune cookies. In the first of seven chapters, titled The Story (Beginning, Middle and End), Highway recounts his life from childhood, his work at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City, his failed relationships, how he became an auctioneer, and his quest to replace his malformed teeth. Then through a series of chapters referred to as hyperbolics, parabolics, and allegorics, we see Highway firstly purport to sell the teeth of famous essayists throughout history and later auction a collection of objects stolen from an art gallery through tangentially related stories. The Elliptics then retells Highway’s story from an outsider’s point of view, making us view the first story in a new, much more poignant light.

An unusual protagonist, Highway brings charm and heart to questions about art and literature which might otherwise risk being seen as “too clever.” He explains his “hyperbolic” auctioneering model in this way:

“As the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.”

Luiselli implies that the methods of cheeky auctioneer – inspired in part by Luiselli’s uncle who worked in the giant street market in Mexico City – are not that different from those of international art dealers, only Highway is more honest about it. The Story of my Teeth began life when Luiselli was approached by Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, curators of the exhibition “El cazador y la fábrica” (The Hunter and the Factory) at the Jumex Gallery, to write a story for their exhibition catalogue. The gallery houses the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America and is funded by the profits of the juice factory. The curators reportedly planned the exhibition as a response to questions about urban isolation and the separation of the gallery from its surrounding area, although the exhibition itself gave few clues to this. Luiselli agreed to write a piece for the exhibition catalogue on the agreement that the workers of the juice factory could be involved in its creation. A group of workers met regularly in the factory to read chapters sent to them by Luiselli, discuss them and give feedback based on their own experiences, which was recorded and sent back to Luiselli in New York, who would then incorporate this into new drafts. Luiselli insists that the story is as much theirs as it is hers, in what Aaron Brady in the LA Review of Books calls “an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius.”

The idea of the artistic genius is questioned throughout The Story of my Teeth, as we see everyday characters given the names of Latin American writers, such as newspaper seller Rubén Darío or policeman Yuri Herrera. Luiselli even makes an appearance herself as a mediocre high school student whose parents send her to elocution classes. At the same time, Luiselli makes canonical thinkers part of Highway’s family, such as Miguel Sánchez Foucault or Marcelo Sánchez Proust. This caused uproar among literary critics in Mexico, who claimed that writers’ names are somehow sacred. I find this use of names as “readymades” in the style of avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp quite ambiguous: on the one hand, it breaks down class barriers, asking readers why a writer would deserve any more respect than a factory worker; but on the other hand, it only really appeals to those who keep up-to-date with the Latin American literary scene, as this is necessary to get the joke. While I really enjoyed spotting names of writers whose work I love, when I teach the book to my undergrads, it went over their heads.

“The story behind The Story of my Teeth encourages us to question terms like ‘original’ and ‘fidelity,’ and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation.”

So, more than for its thought-provoking subject material, I love to teach The Story of my Teeth as an example of the collaboration between the author and the translator. Valeria Luiselli speaks fluent English, but prefers to work closely with a translator, not to translate, but to rewrite the text with help from fresh eyes. Luiselli and Christina MacSweeney spent time together in New York working on the new text, and while MacSweeney was translating, she even listened to the same music Luiselli had been listening to as she wrote. The Story of my Teeth was the very deserving winner of the prestigious Valle Inclán Prize for translations from Spanish in 2016, whose judges, as well as many reviewers, were particularly impressed by how MacSweeney challenges the traditional invisibility of the translator. Most notably, she has added a new chapter, called “The Chronologics,” to the end of the book, a timeline which places Highway’s life within Mexican and Latin American history and makes it clear to English readers that the names which appear through the text are those of contemporary Latin American authors. MacSweeney told me that she didn’t want “dry as dust translator’s notes”, so instead set out to provide information which could help orient foreign readers in a creative way.

Beyond this most visible change, comparison with the Spanish reveals a whole series of edits to the book, which substantially alter its interpretation. The Spanish epigraphs, for example, are an anonymous quote about death and teeth and a line from Johnny Cash, whereas the English has a series of epigraphs from semioticians placed before each chapter, making it clear to readers that this book is about meaning making and the significance of words. Similarly, the English version makes the link between Highway’s auction of random objects (a stuffed toy, a false leg) and the art gallery much more explicit. New scenes are added in which Highway and his accomplice steal these objects from the gallery, and whereas the Spanish simply gives the stories inspired by the objects, the English gives the artists’ names – slightly altered of course (Doug Sánchez Aitken, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson) – as well as an exorbitant listing price for each, which is mocked when Highway sells the whole lot to a junkyard for 100 pesos.

Such changes have already been included in translations into other languages, and are expected to be included in the second Spanish edition of the book. The story behind The Story of my Teeth – from its collaborative inception to its continuing evolution in translation – encourages us to question terms like ”original” and ”fidelity,” and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation. Like Highway’s stories, each new version is an “elegant surpassing” of the former.

 

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.