September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
Joso Donoso’s college thesis concerned “the elegance of mind” of Jane Austen — seemingly strange for a man who constructed novels as houses of horrors, peopled with grotesque witches, prostitutes, and magicians. But there may be no better analogue for this master of the darkly surreal. His novels turn on perspective and desire, just as much as Austen. Donoso was certainly a modernist architect of the macabre, but this obscures his facility with the brighter side of the sublime: in a Donoso book, emotion, time, and identity shift in ways that narratives struggles to contain, but are fundamental to the possibilities of being human. There is a certain humor, too, in Donoso that is hard to resist.
By David Auerbach
A symbol means nothing to me. What I want is that these symbols be dynamic, vague, ambiguous, opaque.
The works of the Chilean writer Jose Donoso (1924-96) evoke an excruciating balance between the realm of nightmares, the harsh social landscape of Latin America, and most of all, the experience of raw suffering. Though considered part of the Latin American “Boom” of the 1960s, Donoso remained on the periphery of the movement, little known until he produced his masterpiece The Obscene Bird of Night in 1970. Donoso’s work does share some superficial surrealist, political, and indigenous touches with the famous writers of that era (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortazar being the big four), but his achievement is considerably different from theirs, and, arguably, greater. It is rare for prose so surreal, so confusing, so experimental, to seem so wholly lived, utterly thought through in all its multiplicative chaos.
Donoso, who struggled with chronic illness and pained familial and sexual relations, must have experienced so much of the emotions and experience that come through in Obscene Bird. That much is easy to say, but the question of his narrative methods is a much more difficult one. How were they so effective? Samuel Beckett and Robert Musil managed such things, by very different means, and I think that for any work of sufficient greatness, a writer must inevitably invent his or her personal means of negotiating between emotion and language, never to be reused.
For Donoso, this negotiation begins in his dark, visceral prose, but it ends, perhaps, in his unique use of structure. Throughout his body of work, Donoso cannily creates two or more (sometimes many more) conflicting realities—cosmoses, really—and lets them generate a panoply of shifting views onto their intersection. This is fertile, surreal territory. But the danger in adopting a fundamentally unrealistic, or causally impossible narrative is that the result will be incoherent. One either must hope for some intuitive logic to trump the incoherencies—never to be relied upon—or set up a network of thematic and metaphorical connections that will sustain the novel in place of the normal devices. Neither of these is at all easy. Donoso achieved both, not in one work but in two: The Obscene Bird of Night and A House In The Country.
The Obscene Bird of Night
“I’ve always been very attracted by poverty and by what I call the underside of power. I’m interested in clochards, hobos, the servant class, in people with no means, who have nothing because they are afraid to be stripped of everything.”
The Obscene Bird of Night (named, not without resonance, after a quote of Henry James Sr. to his two sons) is the story of Jeronimo de Azcoitia, the last in a long line of aristocratic landowners, forced by his Uncle Clemente to go into politics and protect their land, their birthright. He steals an election, but in the face of an angry mob, he is seen to be shot, making him into a hero and allowing him to live out his days as an esteemed man of state. Yet he and his beautiful, pure wife Ines (his cousin, in fact) cannot conceive a child.
It is also the story of Humberto Penaloza, Jeronimo’s secretary and biographer, who actually was shot on that day, and whose blood was put onto Jeronimo’s arm. Humberto is of low origins, and his father has urged him to become someone at all costs, and so while studying to be a lawyer, he meets Jeronimo and tells him he is a writer. Jeronimo funds the publication of Humberto’s book. Humberto becomes Jeronimo’s secretary and confidante, yet still nurses the idea of writing a book about Jeronimo.
It is also the story of Jeronimo’s horribly disfigured son Boy, conceived with mysterious assistance from Ines’ nursemaid Peta Ponce, a witch who hovers menacingly over the whole story. Jeronimo shuts up Boy at his estate La Rinconada and instructs Humberto to hire freaks to populate it, so that Boy will never know that he is not normal. Humberto is the only point of contact with the outside world. He has difficulty keeping authority over the freaks, however, since he is the freak at La Rinconada, and vanishes.
And, most of all, it is the story of Mudito, a little mute who is a caretaker at the decrepit Casa, a labyrinthine Azcoitia property housing nuns, old women, and a handful of orphans. While not tending to affairs, he plots to impregnate one of the orphans, Iris, and trick Jeronimo into thinking that the child is his. When Iris falls pregnant, the old women think that it is a virgin birth, and that the baby will be a miracle who will save them all. And yet there is some question as to whether she is really pregnant, and so the old women provide Iris with a baby in the form of Mudito, whose consciousness floats freely among bodies and objects, who is also Humberto and occasionally Jeronimo and even Boy. He does not want to be Humberto, and flees from any hint of his old identity, or perhaps Humberto flees from him. Under the influence of the old women, Mudito slowly transforms into an imbunche, a troll-like being whose senses and orifices are all sealed off, created by witches to serve them.
Hurry, sew me all up, not only my parched mouth, but also my eyes, especially my eyes, so their power will be buried deep under my eyelids, so they won’t see, so never will he see them again, let my eyes burn up their own power in the darkness, in the void, yes, sew them up, old women, in that way I’ll make Don Jeronimo impotent forever.
And behind it all is the witch Peta Ponce, who confuses the plots and identities and timeframes. She is Humberto’s enemy but also his ally, and for all the havoc she causes it is not clear that she isn’t also the force of life itself. She almost never speaks for herself, and when she does, she is nothing more than a kindly old lady. Everything else is reported by others: Ines, Humberto, and Jeronimo. She is always the other, with her strong, bitter cups of mate. She is the agent of change and also the scapegoat.
Humberto and Jeronimo project onto Peta Ponce. When she draws out Ines’s childhood stomach illness and takes it on herself, she heals Ines, but she robs Ines of her procreative power, the same power that Humberto suffers in the presence of his creativity: that is, when he is around Jeronimo. Childbirth and the act of artistic creation are, as so often, analogized, but Donoso’s addition is to require impurity, the admission of a disgusting otherness, as well as the admission of the limits of one’s own self, in order to for the conception to go forward. The search for a hermetic all-powerful refuge leads to solipsism and eventually nonexistence: to the imbunche. By refusing to be trapped by the world, we eradicate ourselves.
The characters mix. Boy is not only the name for Jeronimo’s possibly fictitious disfigured son, but also the nickname Jeronimo had when he lived in Europe, for which Clemente ridiculed him. Humberto is Jeronimo’s secretary, but Clemente offered Jeronimo himself a job as his secretary. Humberto is a proxy for Jeronimo’s abdication of his own inner self (his “Boy”), but also Jeronimo’s adoption of his heritage. Jeronimo is the target of Humberto’s envy, yet also the subject of his book. Jeronimo finds himself by becoming a politician, leaving Humberto as his nameless double. Yet when Humberto is shot and Jeronimo steals his wound, Humberto is the one who remains separate from the political world, writing Jeronimo’s biography while becoming invisible himself. Humberto steals Jeronimo’s potency, in the same way that Clemente stole Jeronimo’s soul. Jeronimo in turn takes the rest of Humberto’s body and shuts Clemente up in the Casa, to which Humberto also flees. They trade and steal each other’s bodies and body parts.
They’re monstrifying me…I’ve lost my form, I have no definite contours, I’m in flux, changing, as if I were seen through moving water, I’m no longer me, I’m this vague twilight of consciousness that’s peopled by white figures that come and stick needles into my veins…how many red corpuscles…he has almost none left. Let me out, I don’t want to die of suffocation within these adobe walls with their peeling crust, you’re only damp spots on mud wall, all of you, let me out of here!…If I could only cross the imperceptible line that separates the half-light from the darkness. I’m on the brink. But no, they won’t let me cross into the darkness where there’s no anguish, they want to hold me on this side, in the half-light, where things have no outline and barely shift about.
The principle characters—Mudito, Humberto, Boy, Ines, and Jeronimo—all are trapped in a world. Mudito in the Casa, Humberto in Jeronimo’s employ, Boy in La Rinconada, Ines in her childless marriage, and Jeronimo in Chile itself, forced into a corrupt senatorial post by his uncle, forced to continue the line. Each is “normal” within their surroundings, but only by pretending: Mudito pretends to be an old woman as well as Iris’s lover, Boy pretends to be unaware of the outside world, Jeronimo wears Humberto’s wounds and takes a position he neither desires nor deserves. Humberto writes of him:
Wasn’t it true that his arrogance, which even those closest to him couldn’t ignore, had finally imprisoned him behind a wall in a place where he reigned alone, lord and master of some evidently absolute truth whose secret he’d never disclosed to anyone?
It could just as easily apply to Boy or Humberto.
Whenever a character is trapped, Peta Ponce (or the idea of Peta Ponce) offers a way out, always at a terrible cost, since it involves becoming what one is not, letting impurities into one’s self.
Old women like Peta Ponce have the power to fold time over and confuse it, they multiply and divide it, events are refracted in their gnarled hands as in the most brilliant prism, they cut the consecutive happening of things into fragments they arrange in parallel form, they bend those fragments and twist them into shapes that enable them to carry out their designs. Ines had to give Jeronimo a son.
Peta Ponce reunites what has been split, mixing inside and outside. Only in her realm can children be conceived, since children are impurities themselves. And so Jeronimo comes to love Peta’s bitter mate that first repulsed him, when he realizes that he himself is imprisoned and unable to bear a child. She blurs time, she blurs space. So it is not just one’s closed space that is the trap but realism and rationality itself. And so he flows into Humberto, who flows into Boy, who flows into the monsters, and so on and on in an expanding circle.
The associations and parallels do not remain stable. Donoso crafts the movements in scene and narrator delicately, so that the shifts do not fully upend what has already been set forth, but mutilate and mangle it so that the shape of the book is never wholly lost. At times it resembles a cross between a symbolist decadent novel and a mystery, as the suspense is generated not over how the plot will resolve, but how the symbols will come into alignment. This, too, is an impressive achievement.
The structural elements by which Donoso guides the reader are partly symbolic, but especially by use of place. Donoso works with a physical sense of place at an astonishing level, matching that of Kafka and Beckett. (He built several houses and gardens for his family, losing some to poverty.)
There are three environments around which the book is structured: the labyrinthine Casa for nuns, old women, and orphans; La Rinconada, the house of freaks where Boy is isolated from the outside world; and the narrator’s body itself, which swells and shrinks to encompass all places and eventually suffocates the narrator.
The Obscene Bird of Night depicts the limits and constraints of our lives—any and all of them—as physical spaces. These places, most represented quite viscerally, are primarily the following: a building, one’s country, the womb, the body, one’s skin (as opposed to the body), socio-economic class, one’s family, and of course the book. If they close completely, we cease to exist. If they open completely, we cease to exist.
A House in the Country
The birth of this novel was a difficult one for Donoso. He worked on it for eight years, a time he described as an imprisonment: “This novel, which took me about eight years to write, is one and the same in my memory with the experience of pain and disease.” Health problems (an acute duodenal ulcer) and doubts about his abilities plagued him. He and his wife were unable to conceive children and eventually adopted a daughter. (In a closing of the circle almost prescribed by Obscene Bird, in 2011 she published a pained memoir and biography of her father, at Donoso’s request.)
The exhausting gestation of The Obscene Bird of Night could not be repeated, and indeed many of his other works are on a smaller scale, including the brilliantly crafted Hell Has No Limits (a dark story about a transvestite brothel madame, extracted from an early draft of The Obscene Bird of Night) and the wry The Garden Next Door. But Donoso produced a second masterpiece in 1978, A House in the Country, nearly the equal of The Obscene Bird of Night. Though clearly related to Pinochet’s coup as well as the history of colonialization, once more the material is too rich to be tied down to a single allegorical framework.
Here, Donoso tells a strictly linear story, narrated both as fairy tale and as historical chronicle. The aristocratic adults leave their thirty-plus children in their large estate summer while they go on a day outing, but in the absence of the rulers, the children, natives, and servants all revolt in their ways, and years pass in the day the adults are away.
Without elaborating, Donoso described A House in the Country as postmodern in its construction as opposed to Obscene Bird’s modernism. Certainly there is more explicit use of genre material here, as political plots, family drama, and adventure stories come together in a recognizably epic framework. There is also a vaguely Barthian narrator who comments enigmatically on the story and its construction. The many characters (over 70) remain well-defined and mostly fixed throughout. Yet the ultimate mechanisms are not so different. The turbulence of Donoso’s imagination and associations, and their febrile proliferation, are still the primary motor of the novel.
The temporal instability remains, albeit in a different form. The narrative instability, however, is replaced by a more allegorical anti-realism. There are 35 children and over seventy characters in the book, all of them of some significance. Donoso uses their multiplicity to assign each of them strong, singular traits: there is diabolical Casilda, officious Juvenal, bookish Arabela (my favorite), the treacherous Majordomo, and victimized, brave Wenceslao.
But rather than leaving them as one-dimensional figures in a melodrama, he lets them stand for the corresponding political and social entities in the greater world. Each character draws to them the aspects of the greater world that their personality traits most reflect.
At the start, many of the cousins participate in a cruel rococo masquerade of their own invention called La Marquise Est Sortie a Cinq Heures, playing adult roles in a melodrama. By mid-novel, they have expanded their world to have formed alliances and antagonisms with the staff and servants of the estate, the oppressed natives of the surrounding wilderness, and criminal thugs in the capital city. Leaving the characters as relatively fixed archetypes, Donoso tangles their relations and associations.
This is an ingenious approach, and were it not for Donoso’s complete control over the organization and structure, it would be an utter mess, since entities and plots multiply at such a rapid rate (vastly moreso than in any other “magic realist” work that I know of).
By expanding situations in which those salient traits come into play. With the adults away, the children exert themselves both in and out of the mansion, interacting with the underclasses in ways that their parents had previously forbid, and a new “order” (however chaotic it may be) takes shape. These transitions form the backbone of the book.
Despite the similarities, A House in the Country is a less pained book than The Obscene Bird of Night, even by Donoso’s own admission. This is not to say that there is any less pain in it, but that it has moved from a more visceral, personal level to a more conceptual one: it seems to be less the product of anguish and more of sympathy. Such greater distance was not necessarily a new approach: Hell Has No Limits, while nearly histrionic in its melodrama, does not incessantly threaten to capsize as The Obscene Bird of Night does. But the wellspring of pain, emotional and social, most visible in Obscene Bird remains the catalyst for Donoso’s power to shake readers, even at his most abstract.
Donoso’s remained very ambivalent to the Latin American Boom, as he chronicled in his The Boom: A Personal History. Late to succeed, he distrusted the smooth successes of Fuentes and Vargas Llosa even as he respected their raw talent. His short novel The Garden Next Door (1981) is a brilliant bagatelle about a failed writer who has become a hanger-on in a Latin American expatriate literary scene. It may seem hard to square with the fervid imagination of his two greatest works, yet beyond the catty trappings of the literary scene, the same process is going on: the frequently excruciating translation and exchange between a private emotional world and an untrustworthy, shifting public world that torments and tortures even as it sustains the existence of that private world. All of his works, without exception, end not in a rapprochement between the worlds, but in inexorable stalemate, the worlds forever entangled.
One last puzzling thing: for all the life and love and suffering and terror in Donoso’s work, death is a shockingly small presence. Characters die and are mourned, but it is rare that it becomes a preoccupation for them. Perhaps it is that for Donoso, death is only one form, and a distant one at that, of the ever-encroaching other, the foreboding outside by which we orient ourselves in our tenuous hearth, the struggle to maintain all our positional roles and selves. Death itself is drowned out by Peta Ponce’s incessant tempest.
David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer living in New York. His essays have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, n+1, Triple Canopy, the Quarterly Conversation, and the Millions. He blogs at Waggish.
August 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
“All this is what makes them marginal. The space which they inhabit is artificial. Hence their tendency to bundle towards the edge of it. (Beyond its edges there may be real space.) In some cages the light is equally artificial. In all cases the environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity. They have nothing to act upon.”
So says John Berger about the creatures in a zoo in his influential essay, “Why Look at Animals?” 30 years after its publication, he might as well be talking about us. What happened? Stateside, Berger was — and still is — a seldom discussed intellectual. In his native England, he is known for his BBC television series “Ways of Seeing” which combined close-readings of canonical art with cultural critique. But Berger has also authored thirteen novels, among them the 1972 Booker Prize winning “G” and the 2008 Booker nominated “From A to X.” His “Into Their Labours” trilogy documents the lives of peasants in the small Alps village of Quincy, where Berger relocated after leaving Britain in 1962. Berger is a rarity, the critic who creates — well. His lefty humanism is singular: a mashup of Georg Lukacs’ theory, Emile Zola’s realism and the high-low restlessness of poet John Ashbery — and seems, to me at least, to contain some antidote to the post-modern blues. Here, in this essay, the writer Michael Powers discusses T-Mobile’s “Home for the Holidays” advertisement campaign, Cary Foulkes, Jesus toast, Jorie Graham, David Foster Wallace and the “promise of total semiotic freedom” as he searches to find a place for Berger’s fiction in the age of now. . . .
Ways of Singing: Belonging to No Place. Voice and Context in John Berger’s “Into Their Labours” Trilogy.
By Michael Powers
In a recent television commercial for T-Mobile, pegged to the 2011 holiday shopping season, a young woman, blonde, very pretty in one of the conventional ways, rides up an escalator in a suburban shopping mall. She is wearing a satin or satin-esque dress—short, sleeveless, seasonally out-of-place—the specific pink of which is the only clue thus far as to what is being sold here. She is singing—softly, contemplatively, as if to herself—Robert Allen and Al Stillman’s secular Christmas classic, “Home for the Holidays.” In a moment she is passed by a cluster of four more women on the down escalator, all of the same approximate age, wearing the same dress, all very pretty in other conventional ways, singing harmony.
At this point the game is up. We know—as do the mall shoppers, whose delighted, anticipatory faces the camera keeps showing us—that some highly orchestrated spectacle has been prepared for us, and is about to unfold. When girl number one reaches the top of the escalator, she is suddenly joined by dozens of women running in double rows from side alleys. They are of all sizes and colors, some of them not pretty in any of the conventional ways. They are all wearing the same vaguely luminescent pink dress, and they are all singing, so that what began with one slightly melancholy voice has swelled to a rousing and joyful chorus. Now the camera pans up to the mall’s top level, where a large black woman begins to belt out a gospel solo that both transcends and transforms the familiar song. She is very good. Her voice is a force totally separate from everything else that’s happened here. It rises to the height of the mall’s glass ceiling, and now everyone is clapping and swaying, most of all the astonished shoppers, who, until the song is over and a slim and conventionally pretty woman on the ground level—Cary Foulkes, T-Mobile’s current spokesperson—calls out a triumphant “Happy Holidays from T-Mobile!” must believe that they are witnessing some internet-generated flash-mob, some outpouring of pure goodwill and fellow-feeling. Even now, re-watching this thing in May, I find myself working to fight the lifting of my spirits. Though I feel strongly that the holy spirit does not care about my choice of cellular service providers, and maybe even that the holy spirit does not like this shopping mall, or shopping malls in general, I feel the holy spirit descending on my shoulders anyway. Like any other art form, this music, this way of singing is first and foremost a technology, and it produces the same reliable effect in the service of anything at all.
In an essay titled “The Storyteller,” John Berger describes the life and social function of an old man in the French mountain village that has become the writer’s adopted home. The man is a de facto keeper of the village’s oral history, and the essay begins with his voice, used in another way:
Now that he has gone down, I can hear his voice in the silence. It carries from one side of the valley to the other. He produces it effortlessly, and, like a yodel, it travels like a lasso. It turns to come back after it has attached the hearer to the shouter. It places the shouter at the centre. His cows respond to it as well as his dog.
As in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the human voice here transforms the natural landscape and situates the shouter or singer within that landscape, as the center from which its meaning emanates. This center is temporary, provisional, tied to the moment in which the shouter is shouting. Unlike the woman singing on the beach in Stevens’ poem, the shouter in Berger’s essay will not in a moment go back to his hotel room, to a scene that has nothing to do with the landscape in which he is shouting. As much as it is his voice that transforms and gives order to the landscape, it is the landscape that produces his voice—it is his having always lived here and worked here that makes it possible for him to shout in just this way, a way learned in part from an older generation, developed over a lifetime of shifting habit, recognized by his animals as belonging to their master and not to anyone else. Berger presumably could not shout in the same way, nor could you or I.
The poet Jorie Graham, in trying to describe her own poetic practice, says “I would say I try, in my acts of composition, to experience subjectivity and objectivity at their most frayed and fruitful and morally freighted juncture. I try to do so as ‘honestly’ as I can—as I believe that accurate representation of this juncture is possible, and that character is involved in approaching that border.” This seems to me as good a description as we’re likely to get of the reality that “realist” art aims at. We can’t ask art to be faithful to the world as it is. We can’t get there. We can, Graham insists, be faithful to the encounter between the self and what-is-not-the-self, and to the ways in which both self and world, subject and object, are transfigured in this encounter. Language is both the means of representing this encounter, and the medium through which the encounter takes place.
Berger, now eighty-six, has lived in the French Alps, in a small farming village in the Haute-Savoie region, since the late seventies. His Into Their Labours trilogy, beginning with Pig Earth in 1979, followed by Once in Europa in 1987 and Lilac and Flag in 1992, is set in this terrain, combining fiction with poetry and essay and functioning, among other things, to document the end of a way of life. Again and again, the narrative focus in these books returns to voice and the response to voice. What in writing would be pure sign must be mingled, in speech, with the work—habitual and careful—of the fragile and defiant body. Sometimes it is possible to hear both the fragility and the defiance. In “The Time of the Cosmonauts,” one of the stories that make up Once in Europa, a young woman from the village, Danielle, begins an untenable affair with an elderly shepherd, Marius. Marius has been remarkably self-sufficient for many years, but his ability to do his demanding work is in decline. Later, when she has begun to fall in love with someone closer to her own age, Danielle hears him calling across the valley, as if to his sheep, but speaking to the mountain itself—and speaking, through the metaphor of the mountain, to her:
For your peak I have eyes!
He covered his eyes with his hands as if weeping.
The echo of each word made the silence which followed more terrible.
For your trees I have arms!…
For your trees, my faithful arms!
What is most heartbreaking about these lines is how palpably they carry the sense that they are becoming untrue. The speech is a gesture of protest against the decline of the body, and what the protest conveys most clearly is its own futility.
Once in Europa is a collection of linked short stories, set in the same village but told by and about different people. In the title story, an old woman, Odile, glides with her grown son in a hang-glider over the valley where she was born and has lived her life. Surprised at how little she is frightened, she says, “The wind is holding us up and I feel safe, I feel—I feel like a word in the breath of a voice.” Odile has seen her village robbed of its economic life and of most of its young people by a steel mill that sits in the center of the valley, polluting the river, and by the lure of industrial jobs in the cities. She has planned to leave, has nearly left, and yet has found herself unable to do so. Here as elsewhere, it is the voice that binds language to the world it describes, and that makes us real to ourselves and to each other. That world—always changing, demanding of attention and work in the moment, tied by narrative and tradition deeply into the past—is the location of meaning.
As an art critic in the early 1970s, Berger co-wrote and produced a BBC documentary series called Ways of Seeing. For most of the first episode he stands in front of a camera in London’s National Gallery, speaking with increasing intensity, his shaggy seventies mullet gradually rearranging itself into something with a center part and bangs, more Betty Draper than Mick Jagger. Echoing Walter Benjamin, he talks about how radically the experience of looking at art has changed since photography and film dislodged the eye from its fixed position in space, and since these and other means of reproduction dislodged the painting from its fixed location on the wall of the gallery, or the museum, or the cathedral. Speaking of the position of paintings on the walls and ceilings of Renaissance churches, Berger says:
Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning. The extreme example is the icon. Worshippers converge upon it. Behind its image is God. Before it, believers close their eyes. They do not need to go on looking at it; they know that it marks the place of meaning.
Of the three to four million people who crowd annually into Mecca’s al-Haram mosque, under stadium lights and under the eerie green glow of the new Royal Mecca Clock Tower with its luxury shopping opportunities, many have their smartphones in one hand, ready to beam to the world images of the other hand touching the Kaaba. Whatever else they are doing, such worshippers are first of all performing their allegiance to a vanished world, one in which meaning was fixed to place. The weeping Brooklyn grandmother who finds the face of John the Baptist in a piece of toast—this is the religious believer truly at home in the modern world:
Now, [the icon] belongs to no place, and you can see such an icon in your home. The images come to you—you do not go to them. The days of pilgrimage are over.
Whatever the holy visage in the piece of toast is to this grandmother, it is not information. She can’t use it. It gives her no clue as to how to orient herself in response to the material culture around her. Even if the piece of toast began as a slice of Sunbeam bread, it is no longer Sunbeam bread, or even bread at all for that matter, and she gives the people at Sunbeam no credit for what’s happened. It comes to her as pure meaning, and it orders her world reassuringly, placing her and her humble kitchen at the center.
For this woman, the miraculous occurs within and becomes part of the context of her personal, private life. About this, there is something undeniably modern. But by the time such a miracle reaches me, or you, it has become information. Its context is the public and placeless context of the internet. The grandmother, weeping, shows the toast to her teenage granddaughter, who takes a picture with her phone and sends it, via Twitpic, to several of her friends, who retweet, repost, reblog, until eventually the thing finds its way into information channels broad enough to reach me, another minor news item, amusing for once, telling me something about the touching innocence of Brooklyn grandmothers, or about the ongoing capacity of the world for wonder, in spite of the crushing weight of material culture.
The accelerating proliferation of information technology in the last twenty years has meant, among other things, the rapid expansion of what George W.S. Trow called “the context of no context.” Even to fret about the decoupling of signs from the cultural and sub-cultural locations in which they once signified is to risk seeming quaint, or daft. This is the post-modern world, and the big utopian promise of post-modernism is the promise of total semiotic freedom. Everything is a sign, and all signs are available equally to all people at all times. The bearded, twenty-five-year-old New Yorker in overalls, playing the banjo on the High Line, has picked up these signs presumably from the internet, and he uses them in something like good faith. He’s not trying to pass himself off as a West Virginia hillbilly—people in West Virginia, after all, don’t really look like that anymore—he’s trying to capture some of the hillbilly’s vanished essence. He’s referring to a mythical America, now lost. His crime is aesthetic, not ethical—he’s guilty only of being too literal, too earnest.
For the peasants in Berger’s fiction, context is absolute. In “Once in Europa,” the man who becomes the father of Odile’s first child is a Russian, Stepan, who works in the steel mill. The men who work in the steel mill are generally not from the village, and the village women, as a rule, don’t get involved with them. When, early in their relationship, Stepan asks Odile where she would like to live, dreamily listing foreign cities—London, Milan, Rotterdam, Oslo—she is amazed: “It had never occurred to me before that somebody could choose where to live. It seemed unnatural.” When Stepan holds up his large hands before her face, telling her that his hands allow him to work anywhere in the world, she runs from him. “You’re a Bohemian!” she says. “I never want to see you again!”
The village draws its life and its human significance from the stories it tells about itself. In the village, you live within the context of these stories, which are never over. “What distinguishes the life of a village,” Berger says in “The Storyteller,” “is that it is also a living portrait of itself [emphasis his]; a communal portrait, in that everybody is portrayed and everybody portrays; and this is only possible if everybody knows everybody. As with the carvings on the capitals of a Romanesque church, there is an identity of spirit between what is shown and how it is shown—as if the portrayed were also the carvers… And it is a continuous portrait; work on it never stops.” In this way, the events of each day are brought into an ongoing narrative, one that reaches back generations into the past at the same time that it reaches forward into the future, already defining whatever is going to happen in the context of what has happened before.
Berger’s stories take place in and grow out of this point of contact—the “frayed, and fruitful, and morally freighted juncture” at which the human subject, absorbed in symbol and language, encounters the world, and at which each is transformed by the other. In “The Wind Howls Too,” one of the stories in Pig Earth, the narrator remembers the death of his father, which occurred when he was a young boy. One of the last events of his father’s life is a feast. At the table, the father, very old, dreams aloud of being a crow in a tree, immune to the passage of time, watching the human culture of the region develop over thousands of years. “Nature,” he says, “resists change. If something changes, nature waits to see whether the change can continue, and if it can’t, it crushes it with all its weight!” He wants to know how his people came by their most basic knowledge, the knowledge that extends back farther than their stories reach:
Take a chevreton. It’s simple. Milk the goat, heat the milk, separate it and press the curds. Well, we saw it all being done before we could walk. But how did they once discover that the best way of separating the milk was to take a kid’s stomach, blow it up like a balloon, dry it, soak it in acid, powder it and drop a few grains of this powder into the heated milk? I would like to know how the women discovered that!”
The schoolteacher, who comes from elsewhere, from one of the large towns or cities, believes that in a few generations there will be no more peasants. “All farms,” he says, “will be on flat plains.” Worked, that is to say, by machinery. But the old man does not believe this. He believes in the continuity of his culture and its hard-won, precariously preserved knowledge, “The thread of knowledge which nature doesn’t crush,” he says, “like a thread of gold in the rock!” The story ends just after the father’s death, with a voice that may be the opposite of the father’s voice at the feast, one stuck in the present, stripped of language and even, for the moment, of recognizable humanity:
During the night more snow fell, and in the morning, on top of the pile in the courtyard, I saw an unexpected shape, draped in white. I had forgotten the pig’s head. Once more I ran full tilt up the side to the top. I brushed off the snow. The eyes were shut and the skin was as cold as ice. It was then that I started to howl. I do not know for how long I sat there, on top of the snow pile, howling.
The story’s title now seems vital to its meaning, as if the voice of the wind—as meaningless, as empty of moral or emotional significance as the voice of the surf in “The Idea of Order at Key West”—were raised in response (perhaps sympathetic, perhaps not) to the human voice, stretched now to the breaking point of meaning. What is crucial is that it is this wind, howling through these trees, signifying as it always has the deepening of winter and the coming of another set of familiar tasks and difficulties. The new event, loss, occurs within the context of these familiar meanings, and alters them.
I don’t know how Berger feels, at eighty-six, about the entropic universe of placeless and competing pseudo-contexts in which we now frame our lives and our relations to each other. In 1972, on the set of Ways of Seeing, he was more optimistic and more hopeful than I’ve made him sound. He believed that technologies of reproduction would make it possible—were already making it possible—for people without special access or specialized education to relate their experience of art directly to their experience of the world. Released from the closed institutions—churches, governments, universities—that once determined and limited its meaning, the work of art was free to signify differently in an endless variety of contexts. It could become personal, changeable, idiosyncratic, ready at last to fit comfortably into a genuinely democratic culture.
By now this should sound like the hard-to-place refrain of a once familiar song—the old post-modern dream, not quite forgotten, capable still of rising into focus sharply enough to seem on the verge of coming true. To Berger in 1972, television looked like the age of mechanical reproduction approaching its zenith. As much as it is a series of televised lectures on art, Ways of Seeing is also a plea for the future of television. Speaking over the BBC’s channels, Berger expresses the hope that control of the medium can be wrested from the hands of governments and the oligopoly of pre-cable networks, and delivered to the people, who might, presumably, transform it into an ever wider, ever more open forum for the free exchange of ideas. If this sounds slightly naïve now, it also sounds tantalizingly close to prophetic. What is the internet, if not the realization of this hope: that everyone might become her own broadcaster?
If, as it happens, I don’t feel especially liberated, well, certainly many other people do, and have said so. My own feeling of—what, disliberation?—is only a feeling, and a private one, for which I may have any number of perfectly illegitimate reasons. Such as: 1.) I was born in 1981, and am therefore not really part of the generation that grew up assuming their lives would be processed and mediated endlessly through other people’s systems, and 2.) I’m a pessimist. I’ve adopted bedrock pessimism as a defense against my even more fundamental liberal-progressive gullibility, and at this point I tend to approach even the changes I like and support in terms of how, ultimately, they’ll probably just make things worse. But also this: by the time Facebook reached one hundred million users, in 2008, we’d been watching TV for sixty years. It turns out that, given control of the means of reproduction, we’re mostly interested in reproducing ourselves, and that the most visible feature of ourselves is our endless, long-thwarted need to be seen, admired, envied by the million anonymous others. It’s impossible in this context not to mention David Foster Wallace’s gigantic 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and anyone looking for a disquisition on TV’s effects on contemporary subjectivity should look there. In this space, let me just say that if I’m suggesting that TV has done this to us—has sunk our imaginations in a deeply unequal economy of gazes, has sold us consumer products as components of self and in so doing has taught us to see ourselves as products to be consumed—I don’t mean that TV is bad, or that shows on TV are not sometimes serious art. But notice that even, for example, AMC’s Mad Men, a show by all accounts rigorously committed to serious art goals—most notably its big, carefully realist picture of a consumer society as viewed through the lens of its all-important marketing—nonetheless lends itself inexhaustibly to marketing tie-ins. And, notice that these marketing tie-ins are predicated on the idea that you too can capture some of the aura of Don Draper or Roger Sterling—their glamour, their prestige, their secure and knowable social role, in short, their watchability—by buying Draper’s suit (from Banana Republic’s Mad Men Collection) or Sterling’s car (that is, the purported 21st century equivalent, from Buick). The promise marketing makes, here as elsewhere—that social aura is distilled and stored in purchasable objects, that you can become whatever you want to be in the eyes of others simply by acquiring the appropriate signs—is the promise of language’s power over reality.
The voice in which the internet speaks in its most supposedly personal and democratic spaces—Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook—often, to me, sounds uncannily like the voice of marketing. In becoming our own broadcasters, we have mostly become our own marketing specialists and brand managers. After sixty years of TV marketing, this should maybe not surprise us. The voice in which we speak in this capacity is the opposite of the voice of Berger’s shepherd calling across the valley to his sheep, a voice that takes in the world, and is informed (given form) by, and informs that world. That speaking voice does not comprehend or control the world except contingently: this world, this moment, with acknowledgment even then of the possibility and indeed the presence of failure. From our various web platforms, we encounter the world differently, as an apparently endless field of signs to be absorbed, recombined, reconfigured. Everything is comprehensible. All signs point to the self and the self’s supreme knowingness, the self’s wonderfully individual, idiosyncratic sensibility, which must also be comprehensible, readily absorbed and assimilated by others who, for us, exist only to ratify and reinforce our own success, which amounts to our watchability. Or, rather than watchable, we are now, in our most urgent dreams, followable. All of this takes place, meanwhile, within structures designed and owned by other people. In mostly invisible ways, we are encouraged to reshape ourselves and our interactions with the world so that we become comprehensible within, and usable by, those structures. “What do you like?” Facebook asks us plaintively, from every corner of the web, “Do you like this?”
At the end of the T-Mobile commercial, as is more or less standard practice, we are directed to a Youtube channel, where we can see outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, and where we learn that the shopping mall in which the performance takes place is Chicago’s Woodfield Mall. This piece of information in particular is presented as important. It appeals both regionally and universally. It is necessary both that this mall appears as if it could be any affluent, thriving shopping mall anywhere, and that it belongs to and represents the good people of Chicago, happy finally to get their chance to stand for all of America. The location is not the performance’s setting—it is another piece of the network of information that makes up the performance and extends outward from it: the gospel style, transplanted from the Southern black church, the familiar face of Cary Foulkes, kept carefully hidden until the end of the spot. The performance belongs to no place; like the icon, it is wherever you are.
In this light, it may be possible to see Berger’s work and life in the mountains as a gesture of allegiance similar to—and perhaps as futile as—the one made by religious pilgrims. On the other hand it might just as easily be the expression of a hoped for future. If we’ve carried the late-twentieth century curse of marketing and brand forward into twenty-first century technologies, this was not inevitable. The problem is not communication technologies but the ways in which we’ve used them. More than anything else, the stories in Into Their Labours dwell on the ways in which meaning arises out of the point of contact between language and the world, and the ways in which both world and self remain unknowable to each other. In “The Accordion Player,” the first story in Once in Europa, Felix, at forty, has lost his mother. In grief, weeks after her death, he goes out to the barn to play the accordion among his animals:
The air, hot with the heat of the animals who had spent the day in the sun, smelt strongly of garlic, for wild garlic grows in the field by the old road to St. Denis where they had been grazing. The instrument breathed in this air and its two voices smelt of it. He played a gavotte in quadruple time. Gavotte, which comes from gavot, meaning mountain dweller, meaning goitre, meaning throat, meaning cry.
 Graham, Jorie. “At the Border.” American Women Poets in the Twenty-first Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Ed. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Wesleyan UP, 2002. 146-147. Print.
 Peer, Basharat. “Modern Mecca.” The New Yorker 16 April 2003: 74-87. Print.
Michael Powers lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches in the Writing Center at ASA College. He received an MFA from the University of Houston in 2008. His fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse and Hayden’s Ferry Review.
May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
What follows is the inaugural essay for Rear View Mirror, a new column that aims to reintroduce neglected and undervalued authors to a new audience. Under the aegis of HOW magazine, the editors encourage you to explore these works, to find them in your libraries, to pass them to friends, to add your voice to the comments section, and, most importantly, to keep these precious books alive. . . .
Rear View Mirror #1
João Guimarães Rosa was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In a language of puns and invention, with winding narratives of love and adventure, and characters larger than life, he created an entire cosmology out of the primitive Brazilian hinterlands. His masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas—or as it is seen in the USA, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—is an epic love story as gritty as a Sergio Leone flick, but as vertiginously modernist as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The publishing house Knopf has held onto the rights of this novel since 1962: long out of print, copies go on the marketplace for hundreds of dollars. The World Library agrees with the marketplace’s valuation, placing the book on its top 100 novels of all time, putting it on a shelf with like-minded relatives such as Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Absalom, Absalom! Here, the writer Felipe W.Martinez discusses Rosa’s work, laments the state of translation in the United States and shines the light on this almost forgotten, great author. . . .
The Higher The Level Of A Work, The More Does It Remain Translatable Even If Its Meaning Is Touched Upon Only Fleetingly, Or: João Guimarães Rosa, The Whole Wild Word
There must be innumerable authors we’ve never heard of before. Whose work is long out of print, or was written in another language and never translated, or never happened to fall into our line of sight. Writers who didn’t succeed, or never had much to offer, or who had brilliant ideas and stories to tell, but who failed to be noticed. There are countless reasons why we readers may be ignorant of any given writer. In the United States, when it comes to foreign literature, I’m certain this is largely due to the fact that only a tiny fraction of our literature is translated from other languages. I won’t go into statistics. But what I wish to assert here is that we must acknowledge that our knowledge of foreign literatures has, in large part, depended upon the decisions made by publishers who are, especially in the case of large publishing houses, businesses with bottom lines.
Now, whether a lack of monetary gain or secret conspiracy (as many have joked) is to blame for the dearth of material available by the Brazilian writer, João Guimarães Rosa, no one can be sure. What is certain however is that, in the United States, Guimarães Rosa continues to be one of the most unduly neglected Latin American writers of the twentieth century.
João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) is renowned in his native Brazil as the preeminent literary figure of post-world war II modernity, and yet, he’s virtually unknown in America. You can’t buy his books unless you’re willing to search diligently, and, on top of this, they are egregiously expensive. Further, three of the four extant translations are of debatable quality.1
Between 1963 and 1968, English translations of three of Guimarães Rosa’s works were published in the United States by the prominent publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Not a single volume was reprinted after its initial run, resulting in the works’ virtual disappearance from the book market.
1963 saw the translation and publication of Guimarães Rosa’s magnum opus, Grande Sertão: Veredas, translated: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Initial sales are reported to have been made primarily to scholars, writers, translators, and university libraries; after which, demand, and therefore sales, declined rapidly, until, presumably, the publisher recognized no further motivation to warrant a second printing. This English translation, of what had been deemed a seminal novel in the history of both Brazilian and world literature, was, in the opinion of lusophone scholars, a travesty. What in Portuguese was a mercurial treasure trove of language and thought, had been reduced in English to a simple “spaghetti western.” Translation is a very dangerous business.
The plot of Grande Sertão: Veredas is both simple and complex: a 600-page monologue, in the original Portuguese, pared down to 500 pages in English, relates the single history of a single man, the narrator and protagonist, Riobaldo, to a silent and unidentified interlocutor, a doctor and visitor to Riobaldo’s ranch. Riobaldo is a retired Jagunço, a hired gunman of the Brazilian Northeast, and his history is one ripe with undertones of Zen and Faust. Peopled with characters on the margins of society, Riobaldo’s story is one filled with interrogation, engaging the reader via its proxy, the doctor, in an experiential cacophony of stories and narrative lines weaving poetically through the Northeastern Brazilian backlands, otherwise known as the Sertão: a region historically regarded as primitive, backwards, and isolated from modernity. The Sertão was rejected by early explorers, missionaries, governments and commerce as a vast and fruitless expanse of semi-arid desert wasteland. Guimarães Rosa, like his predecessor, Euclides Da Cunha, envisions and labors to approximate the mythopoetic character of this long-neglected and rejected landscape, with its vibrant and volatile history and geography.
Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s Macondo, the Sertão in Guimarães Rosa’s work is both a physical and psychological reality riddled with mysteries and inconsistencies–just like the history of Brazil and its memories. Grande Sertão: Veredas mirrors and reinvents the struggle of the Sertão to survive and thrive in the face of an absolutely morphological existence. Just as the fictional landscapes of Faulkner and Garcia Márquez are a microcosm of the world, the Sertão in Guimarães Rosa’s fiction is as much about the backlands of Brazil as it is the whole of the world. And like all great literature he uses the Sertão and its inhabitants to explore the themes of life and death, the capaciousness of language, the meaning of names and social mores; the good that is inseparable from evil; and the lies found deep in certain truths.
Along with the winding ways of the novel’s multivalent narratives is the intricate and singular nature of Guimarães Rosa’s language. From a very early age, Guimarães Rosa exhibited a strong interest in the languages of the world, and by the time he was an adult, he was fluent or semi-fluent in seven of them, and read in several more with the aid of a dictionary. So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Portuguese of Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas is a Portuguese, in many ways, all its own, and that at times it is less Portuguese than a fusion of two or more languages. Guimarães Rosa wished to create, what he called, a pre-Babel language – one that was primordial and intuitive, even if strange at superficial glance. He is famous for his invention and employment of the carefully placed yet surprising portmanteau, which might entail anything from the archaic to the colloquial to the all together invented. So singular and calculated is Guimarães Rosa’s prose that it is, still today, a challenge even to the practiced Brazilian reader–much in the same way James Joyce’s work is to the English speaker.
The North American translator of 1963, Harriet De Onís, was a tried and proven translator of Spanish and Portuguese, however, her approach to translating the work was by most definitions insufficient.2 Rather than grappling with the unique stylizations of Guimarães Rosa’s prose and enduring to bring them into the English language in new form, De Onís opted to take a safe, approach: to translate the novel so that English readers could read and comprehend with little trouble. This decision would prove detrimental to the reception of the work. Where Guimarães Rosa, in Portuguese, had created a work filled with twists and turns (in language, plot, character, and environment), De Onís’s translation flattened out practically all the linguistic wrinkles: at times all together eliminating prose she was not confident the English reader would be able or willing to digest. Harriet De Onís’s translation, by many accounts, resulted in a translation of action without motivation. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was never reprinted.
In the face of such seemingly insurmountable challenges posed by Grande Sertão: Veredas, it should appall no one that English’s first foray into the translation of Guimarães Rosa’s masterwork was not a perfect hole-in-one. Yet, since 1963, the dominating discourse in English concerning the translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas has taken refuge in one word: impossible. In an effort to agitate this stagnate attitude, I defer here to the twentieth century literary critic and translator, Walter Benjamin, and his ever-important essay, “The Task of the Translator”, when he writes: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. [ . . . ] The important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.”
We can argue that an English translation is possible, only the decision to take up the task has not yet been made. And it is in the light of this brilliant idea that I revisit the history, life and afterlife of Joao Guimarães Rosa’s work, with the hope that new generations of readers will expand their reading, thoughts and work beyond the political, geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders set by the narrow belief that we can learn only from that which falls within the scope of our own language.
I submit to the English reader that we should read João Guimarães Rosa now, especially now, when we live during a time in which we tout such words as globalization, hybridization, hyperconnectivity, and experimentalism . . . our goal: to ensure these terms are deeply reflected, through translation, in our new culture, which is, just as was Rosa’s world, constantly changing.
1 In reference to the three North American translations published in the 1960s. In 2001, the British translator, David Treece, published The Jaguar & Other Stories, which is laudable!
2 With later assistance by James L. Taylor
—Felipe W.Martinez, 2012
FELIPE W.MARTINEZ studied Literature & Writing at UC San Diego. He is the creator of AMISSINGBOOK.COM, an online literary project that aims to investigate the absence of Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa from English literary discourse. He lives in San Diego, California, where he works in public education.