Tag Archives: Christina MacSweeney

Review: HAVANA YEAR ZERO by Karla Suárez

Translated from Spanish (Cuba) by Christina MacSweeney (Charco Press, 2021)

I’m always excited to receive a new book from Charco Press, and they kick off 2021 with a Cuban detective story brimming with lost fame, plot twists, basic mathematics and romantic entanglements.

Havana, 1993: Cuba’s Year Zero. It is “the year of interminable power cuts, when bicycles filled the streets and the shops were empty”, and our narrator (who gives herself the pseudonym Julia) describes her life and the narrative intrigue as follows: “I was thirty and had thousands of problems. That’s why I got involved, although in the beginning I didn’t even suspect that for the others things had started much earlier, in April 1989, when the newspaper Granma published an article about an Italian man called Antonio Meucci under the headline ‘The Telephone Was Invented in Cuba’.” Julia is enlisted by her former professor (and former lover) Euclid to help track down an original document that will prove Meucci, and not Alexander Graham Bell, to have been the inventor of the telephone. The catch: everyone who knows about the document has a vested interest in concealing its whereabouts, and each person suspects another of foul play. Thus begins a science- and rum-fuelled bounty hunt, in which friends will turn out to be foes and rivals might just be allies. Julia’s allegiance shifts variously between Euclid, her lover Ángel (whose true connection to Euclid will be revealed later in the narrative), and a garage-dwelling author named Leonardo – but each of these decidedly unreliable men also has a weakness for both Barbara, the overly friendly Italian researcher and Margarita, the spectre who haunts Julia’s happiness “like a hand moving things around beneath the Ouija board”.

Confused? Don’t be. Suárez will guide you through this labyrinth with mathematical precision and a whole lot of heart. The novel is instructive and meticulously researched, yet the sections in which we learn about Meucci’s life, his ambitions and his ignominy, never feel shoe-horned in; rather, his story is woven into Julia’s, as she gets closer to the man each time the elusive document is pulled from her reach. There is also a lot to learn here about Cuba’s “special period” and the daily deprivations that became commonplace, as well as the black hole of global aid (“the friends from overseas, the Soviet Union and almost the whole socialist bloc, had disappeared off the map, leaving us practically alone, floating in mid-ocean, and with the United States just ninety miles away”). But most of all this is the story of a woman fighting to survive, and of the people who elevate and devastate her along the way.

The style is interesting and engaging: Julia combines her scientific obsession with her social observation (“There’s a mathematical rule: your students’ stupidity is directly proportional to your mood; the worse you feel, the denser they become”; “like fractals, we reproduce the worst of ourselves and aren’t even aware of it”) and frequently uses second-person address, including regular direct questions that create intimacy (“without warning, everything had changed. Absolutely everything. Get it?”; “We were living in chaos. Right?”). There were a couple of details that interrupted the narrative flow a little, whether a syntactical slip (“Why was I at there?”) or a section of switching between formal and informal second-person address that I found confusing on first read, but overall MacSweeney’s translation is a patient and humorous rendering of Suárez’s precise yet emotional style. Character descriptions are amusingly succinct (“Leonardo was one of those people who need no encouragement to talk; in fact his words seemed to be permanently stationed just outside the door, waiting for a moment of carelessness to barge in”), and Julia’s comments on her own lifestyle are as wry as her observations of Cuba, men, her students, and human nature more generally (“I make it a rule never to go to bed with two men on the same day. Unless it’s at the same time, but that’s another matter. The thing is that I hadn’t planned for the night to end that way. It’s infuriating.”)

As usual I’ll avoid spoilers, but I must just say this: the ending of Havana Year Zero is GENIUS. It makes the frustration of all the twists and turns entirely worthwhile, and gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction as I turned the final page. This is an interesting and innovative debut novel, combining scientific research and detective fiction with a generous dose of humour and warmth.

Review copy of Havana Year Zero 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.