Douglas Glover: Pedro the Uncanny

A Note on Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo

Journeys to the Land of the Dead usually fall under the rubric of the epic. We think of Odysseus talking with the shades of ancient heroes while they drink blood to help remember what it was like to be warm and alive, or Dante touring the punishments of Hell, or Orpheus chasing Eurydice into the Underworld. The ancients peopled the afterlife with, well, people, imagining it as a rather large and dreary retirement community.

Juan Rulfo is Mexican and as such has a foot in the ancient world of myth and epic. In writing Pedro Páramo, he is often credited with inventing Latin American Magic Realism and the novel of the cacique, the thuggish, semi-feudal autocrats of post-colonial New Spain. It’s tempting to draw a line from the Inferno to Pedro Páramo and from Pedro Páramo to Autumn of the Patriarch. Rulfo’s vision is Meso-American tinged with Medieval Catholicism. His novel is local, folkloric, and paradoxically modern—dissociated, fragmented, and unemotional. His characters are peasants, priests, cowboys and village women, but their fractured stories seem voiced in the mannered, modernist fashion of Samuel Beckett’s plays. Rulfo’s novelistic vision of death is Dante-esque, grim, grotty—endless consciousness in a cramped, damp grave.

Pedro Páramo is 125 pages long and split into 57 unnumbered subsections or fragments that range in length from a few lines to several pages. It starts out in the first person in the voice of Juan Preciado, Pedro Páramo’s son by an estranged and abandoned wife, but then develops several narrative lines and points of view. There are multiple third person point of view sections (Pedro Páramo, a priest named Father Renteria, Páramo’s wife, and various villagers) and a few italicized sections which are mostly Pedro Páramo’s thoughts about his childhood love, a girl named Susana (who later marries him, goes insane and dies). About half-way through the book, Juan Preciado’s first person narration turns into a dialogue between Juan and a village woman named Dorotea who, apparently, was buried in the same grave with him.

Like the similarly fractured chronology, the fractured point of view structure is motivated within the text by the fact that the characters are all dead. They speak as ghostly “voices” or as people who look real enough but are, in fact, moribund. Released from their bodies, no longer tethered to place or time, these spirit memories seem to float in and out of the text, not to mention triggering the occasional personal identity crises.

I could hear the dogs barking, as if I had wakened them. I saw a man cross the street.
“You!” I called.
“You!” he called back. In my own voice.

The point is that when you are dead you no longer have to follow the rules of logic: you are no longer anywhere, you are no longer anchored to a particular time and you may no longer be yourself.

Pedro Páramo starts with Juan Preciado deciding to return to the village of Comala after his mother’s death because she wanted him to go back and find his father Pedro Páramo and “Make him pay for the way he forgot us.” A couple of pages later Juan meets a burro driver named Abundio who claims also to be Páramo’s son and tells him their father is dead. Juan reaches Comala, which, as everyone he meets agrees, looks dead. And the villagers he encounters demonstrate preternatural qualities to an alarming degree. They vanish, or talk to the dead (several seem to have a direct line to his deceased mother), or hear and see events to which Juan himself is not privy.

Growing alarmed and depressed, Juan seeks refuge with a couple who are in bed naked together and turn out to be brother and sister. He sleeps with the sister, the room they inhabit becomes more and more tomb-like, and finally Juan undergoes some sort of crisis which may or may not be his own death or the realization that he is dead. For the rest of the novel, when he appears, he is in the grave talking to Dorotea and listening to voices from other graves.

Between the snippets Juan overhears in the cemetery and the fragmentary third-person point of view scenes which make up the bulk of the text, the reader manages to piece together the story of what has happened in Comala, the epic tale of the rise and fall of the eponymous Pedro Páramo, murderous haciendado, wealthy landowner, corrupt and predatory. Páramo’s story begins with scenes from his childhood, his landowner father’s murder, the moment when the young Pedro takes over the reins of his father’s flagging empire (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather), the rise of his fortunes through a cynical marriage (to Juan Preciado’s mother), murder, coercion, bribery and political manipulations.

Ruthless, sociopathic Páramo lacks for only one thing, his childhood friend Susana. Thirty years after she left Comala, she returns with her father (another incestuous something-or-other seems implied). Páramo arranges the father’s murder, marries Susana and then watches her slip into insanity and death. Shortly after he buries her, he is knifed to death by one of his own illegitimate offspring, the burro driver Abundio from the novel’s opening (at the opening, he is already dead but still walking around and talking).

This event, unlike the rest of the novel, is datable from internal evidence—Dorotea tells Juan (in their grave) that “not long before he died the Cristero’s revolted”; the Cristero Rebellion lasted from 1926 to 1929 and the diplomatic rapprochement at the end of that conflict ushered in the political system that has governed Mexico ever since. Though Pedro Páramo is about death, and all its characters are ghosts, the novel is less interested in the fact of death and its relationship to self, less metaphysical, as it were, than it is in the existential relationship of heirarchy and control in historical Mexico.

In telling Pedro Páramo’s story—and this is key to the novel’s amazing reputation—Rulfo is also telling the story of modern Mexico. Pedro Páramo is a metonym for the semi-feudal landowning class which has bedeviled Mexican politics and development from colonial times. Adept at supporting the winning side, even when the winning side set out to redistribute the land and end the haciendado system, men like Páramo managed to turn the great peasant rebellions of 1910 to 1920 to their advantage, crushing the peasants and sucking the lifeblood out of rural Mexico. The novel is then a metaphor for Mexican history.

But Pedro Páramo is also a love story, albeit a love story nailed to the grid of power relations; Pedro Páramo’s lifelong desire for Susana animates the final sequence of actions in his story, which is good because after walking to town and finding himself in a graveyard Juan Preciado, himself, fails to accomplish much. (Pedro Páramo also contains a third strong plot—amidst a range of lesser plots—which involves the priest Father Renteria whose moral struggle with his own acquiescence to Pedro Páramo’s corruption is one of the more fascinating and dramatic elements of the book.)

The dead are everywhere in Mexico just as they are in Rulfo’s novel. I googled the Cristero Rebellion out of curiosity and found archives of photographs of firing squad executions, lopped heads, telephone poles marching into the distance, bodies dangling from the cross-bars. In Mexico they have the Day of the Dead and waxy, skeletal, dead Christs in the sanctuaries of their churches, and the daily newspapers parade the daily dead in contorted, bloody splendour on their front pages. Drug cartels have replaced the warlords and caciques, Pedro Páramo redivivus, not a single man but a resilient and self-re-inventing social structure that dates back to Cortez and his ruthless captains (“ruthless” is of course a feeble epithet, their taste for gold and blood was revolting and uncanny).

On a certain level (when speaking of great novels it is always necessary to specify levels), Pedro Páramo is utterly realistic, its fractured structure merely reflecting a culture in which life is always being interrupted by death, where the originary personal consciousness is constantly canceled by the bullet (where poor souls are sealed in drums of acid or buried in mass graves to erase their memories). Pedro Páramo is an historical novel written out of a country absent a strong central government, without a core of structural continuity, where a kind of demonic violence trumps the personal and the national, a country continually restarting itself and betraying itself.

Only an anti-novel could emerge from such spiritual miasma. There is no history and no novel, just the endless retrospective present of the grave and a structure that reflects Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of aesthetic strangeness (content contorted in the artificial symmetries of form) and Freud’s concept of the uncanny (the dread-haunted familiar). The form of Pedro Páramo is stressed or forced, unconventional in the modernist mode, but not modernist in inspiration, as I say, completely original and realistic on a certain level, that is from the point of view of the dead (and Mexican culture), and uncanny in the sense that characters seem alive when they are not, they walk and talk and even make love but are dead.

The structure of death, the thematic forcing of diction and repetition, is evident from the beginning. On the first short page of Pedro Páramo, we have “dying,” “died” and “dead.” Moving forward, the town of Comala looks “dead”, it’s deserted, the air is “dead” and Juan Preciado describes it as a “dead village.” Juan’s mother is dead on the first page, his father Pedro Páramo is dead, it turns out that Abundio, the burro driver he talked to on his way to the village, is dead. A woman disappears then suddenly appears and crosses the street in front of him, he hears voices. “Especially voices. And here where the air was so dead, they sounded even louder.”

The word “dream” also recurs, as do “voices” and “murmurs”—apparently Rulfo thought, for a while, of calling the novel Murmurs. “It was the voices that killed me,” Juan says, when he finally realizes he’s dead. “The voices killed me.”

And those murmurs seemed to come from the walls, to seep out of the cracks and broken spots. They were the peoples’ voices but they weren’t clear, they were almost secret, as if they were whispering something to me as I passed. . . .

All of Rulfo’s characters react with deadpan (sorry) acceptance, passive in the face of their own morbidity. The effect is uncanny, zombie-like, they are the living dead, strange mirror images of the living. But an immediate consequence of relentless repetition, verbal and structural, is the creation of a fictionally plausible Land of the Dead, a graveyard faux epic composed of whispers and gossip.

Note how skillfully Rulfo leads the reader by degrees into a metaphysical complacency. At the start of Pedro Páramo, Juan Preciado, like the reader, depends for an explanation of the premises of the new world of the novel on the characters he meets along the way. (This is true of all novels but particularly so in a novel that outs its fictional nature from the first words.) From a distance the town looks dead and deserted; Abundio, the burro driver, tells him, “That isn’t how it looks. It is. Nobody lives there anymore.” This a pun. There are people in the town, but they are dead.

The first person Juan sees in the village disappears “as if she didn’t even exist.” Trying to find a room for the night, he hunts up a woman named Dona Eduviges who seems to be expecting him. It turns out she is somehow in touch with Juan’s mother. When he tells her his mother is dead, Dona Eduviges’ only reaction is to say, “. . . then that’s why her voice sounded so weak.”

A few pages later, he tells her about meeting Abundio and his burros on the way to the village. Dona Eduviges says, “. . . Abundio’s dead. I’m sure he must be dead. Didn’t he tell you?” Death is reduced to the level of an everyday fact in the tone of her words. Juan Preciado observes: “I thought the woman must be crazy. Then I didn’t think anything at all, except that I must be in some other world. My body seemed to be floating . . .”. At which point, the reader thinks: Uh-oh! Other world, other rules.

And a few pages after that, Juan, beginning to know the new world, asks a woman who has befriended him, “Are you alive, Damiana? Tell me, Damiana?” Suddenly, she vanishes. And still a few more pages along, given shelter by a couple, he asks outright, “Are you dead?” At this point, he has learned to ask the right questions. Soon he realizes he’s dead himself and a few pages after that Damiana explains how she was buried in his grave with his arms around her and how the voices he hears come from nearby graves. Thus, by easy but clearly defined steps or stages, Rulfo has told us we’re in another world (Land of the Dead) and the basic mechanisms of that world.

Rulfo packs his little novel with action, but every plot leads to death or through death. The images of death are shatteringly present and macabre but strangely hollowed out; they produce horror and anxiety (the uncanny) without emotional release. First, of course, there is the necessary death scene of the dead hero, or at least Juan Preciado’s realization (anagnorisis) of his own death, a moment that is figurative and dream-like, an absolutely uncanny reversal (peripeteia) in which the zombie realizes it’s a zombie—and the reader feels like a sweater turning itself inside out.

The moment arrives in two discrete segments, the one subjective (Juan) and the other an objective report (Dorotea). This is how Juan Preciado experiences his death:

. . . I got up, but the woman went on sleeping. Her mouth was open and a bubbling sound came out of it, like the death-rattle.
I went out into the street for a little air, but the heat followed me out and wouldn’t go away. There wasn’t any air. Only the silent, stupefied night, scorched by the August dog days.
There wasn’t any air. I had to swallow the same air I breathed out, holding it back with my hands so it wouldn’t escape. I could feel it coming and going, and each time it was less and less, until it got so thin it slipped through my fingers forever.
I remember seeing something like a cloud of foam, and washing myself in the foam, and losing myself in the cloud. That was the last thing I saw.

And this is Dorotea’s report of the same event.

“. . . I found you in the plaza, a long way from Donis’s house, and he was right there with me, telling me you were dying. We dragged you into the shadow of the arcade, and you were having convulsions, the way people die of fright. If there wasn’t any air on the night you talk about, how did we have the strength to bring you out here and bury you? And you can see that we buried you.”

The two versions conflict. Juan Preciado thinks he died of suffocation. Dorotea thinks he died of fright. Subsequently, Juan agrees that it was the voices that killed him, the voices of the dead. The effect is to evoke denial and assimilation by degrees—the anagnorisis itself mimes the slow-motion consciousness of the living dead.

Rulfo is especially good at metonymic detail. Rather than supply the reader with full-on clinical realism, Rulfo implicates the act of dying in a series of carefully selected images (thus saving himself a lot of space—the novel is written like a telegram). Locked in a bare bedroom the first night by Dona Eduviges, Juan Preciado hears someone shout, “The hell with life anyway!” and then again, “Let me kick! You can hang me, but let me kick!” And then we learn that this is where Páramo’s henchman hanged the farmer Toribio Aldrete and the death screams conjure the horrid images of the hanging body and its spasmodic death throes.

Dona Eduviges’ death sneaks up on the reader, replicating Juan Preciado’s own staggered realizations and the uncanny quality of the book as a whole. An early description has her “so pale, you would think there wasn’t any blood in her body.” A little later we find out she committed suicide. “That’s how she died, with the blood choking her. I can still see her expressions. They were the most pitiful expressions a human being ever made.”

Juan Preciado’s friend-lover-grave partner Dorotea dies by simply giving up. “I opened my mouth so it [her soul] could leave, and it left. I felt something fall into my hands. It was a little thread of blood that had tied it to my heart.” Juan Preciado’s mother dies of sorrow. Don Fulgor Sedano, Páramo’s fat foreman, is slaughtered by rebels, forced to run while they shoot him down “with one foot on the ground and one foot in the air.”

Some of the deaths are elided. We never see Pedro Páramo’s son Miguel die, tossed from his horse going over a jump. But Dona Eduviges hears the horse’s hooves on the road (over and over, as I say, Rulfo seeks to pin a specific concrete metonymic image to a death) and when Miguel comes to the door, confused because he can’t find the village he was riding towards, she tells him, “You’re not crazy, Miguel. You’re dead.”

Pedro Páramo orders Susana’s father Don Bartolome murdered at a mine far from town. We never see the murder, but some ghostly presence appears to Susana that night (and she dreams or seems to dream about a cat that gets into her room and curls up between her legs, some eerie sexual reference).

“Your father’s dead, Susana. He died the night before last, and they came here today to tell us they’ve already buried him. They couldn’t bring him here because it’s too far. You’re all alone now, Susana.”
“So it was my father.” She smiled. “He came here to say good-bye to me,” she said, and smiled.

One image of death that is not physical but moral develops out of the Catholicism represented by the character named Father Renteria. Called to Susana’s bedside to get her to repent and receive communion, the priest is taken for her dead lover Florencio. Renteria cruelly sows her addled brain with horrific death images to persuade her to take the sacrament, forcing her to repeat his words, his macabre litany of death.

“I swallow the froth of my saliva. I eat clods of earth. They are crawling with worms. They choke my throat and rasp against my palate . . . My lips loosen, grimacing, and my teeth rend and devour them. My face dissolves, my eyes melt to slime, my hair goes up in flames . . .”.

This lovely man is actually, so far as I can tell, the only one in the book to get out alive. He runs off to the mountains to join the revolution, probably the Cristero movement mentioned above. But before that he pronounces himself dead, spiritually dead. “I died. I’m the corpse.”

Rulfo distributes the structures of time distortion throughout his novel, as I have said, forcing the thematics of death conceptually onto the fragmented narrative. He uses abrupt narrative breaks and leaps to distort the reader’s experience of time. Meanwhile he avoids most conventional time-switch devices, the sort of bread-and-butter narrative guides that tell the reader when events occur relative to other events.

For example, right at the beginning of the novel he uses a distinctive shadowing technique in which he gives scene and scene set-up in reversed order. On the second page, we find this fragment of dialogue inserted without preamble or context. Rulfo doesn’t even give the usual dialogue attributions to let the reader know who is talking.

“What’s the name of that village down there?”
“Comala, senor.”
“You’re sure it’s Comala?”
“Yes, senor.”
“Why does it look so dead?”

This dialogue is between Juan Preciado and Abundio, the burro driver, although the reader doesn’t figure this out until later. The scene continues for about a page at which point Juan mentions that his father is Pedro Páramo. His companion (Abundio) gasps and then, abruptly, we get the introduction to the scene oddly inserted at the climactic moment of the scene itself (my italics for clarity).

But the way he said it, it was almost like a gasp. I said, “At least that’s what they told me his name was.”
I heard him say, “Oh,” again.
I met him in Los Encuentros, where three or four roads come together. I was just waiting there, and finally he came by with his burros.
“Where are you going?” I asked him.
“That way, senor,” he said, pointing.
“Do you know where Comala is?”
“That’s where I’m going.”
So I followed him. I walked along behind, keeping up with his steps, until he understood I was following him and slowed down a little. After that we walked side by side, almost touching shoulders.

He said, “Pedro Páramo is my father too.”

Note how Rulfo, when he inserts the set-back in time, deliberately avoids the grammatically correct tense change. “I had met him in Los Encuentro . . .”. Note also how he elides any transition back into the scene in progress. It’s as if he simply lifted the beginning of the sequence with Abundio and stuck it in somewhere else to create this dreamy, disjointed effect. Lest the reader think he made a mistake, Rulfo nails his authorial intention by repeating the technique a couple of pages later—another instance of thematic encoding or forcing at the structural level.

Rulfo also employs a kind of narrative syncopation: he mentions or alludes to an incident without expanding on it, then fills in the whole scene later in the text. For example, Dorotea mentions to Juan Preciado that Father Renteria told her she would never get to Heaven for her sins; fourteen pages later Rulfo gives us the full scene—Dorotea coming to confession and Renteria’s cruel refusal. On another occasion, Dorotea tells Juan how, after Susana’s death, Pedro Páramo “spent the rest of his life hunched over in a chair, looking at the road where they took her out to bury her.” Then 38 pages later we are given the more or less continuous narrative of Susana’s death, Páramo’s grief and his murder in the chair by the side of the road.

And sometimes Rulfo uses a rather lovely temporal weaving. Near the middle of the novel there is a sequence that begins with a group of local Indians coming to Comala to market their goods, staying most of the day, then packing and leaving in the rain.

The Indians packed up their wares at dusk, and stepped out into the rain with their heavy bundles on their shoulders. They went into the church to pray to the Virgin, and left her a bunch of thyme as an offering. Then they set out for Apango.

Without a line break, the narrative shifts to a scene between Susana and her nurse-caretaker Justina.

Justina Diaz went into Susana San Juan’s bedroom and put a bunch of rosemary on the wall bracket.

(Note the elegant anadiplosis—“bunch of thyme” “bunch of rosemary”—which links the two distinct passages.)

What follows is a strange, eerie scene, a mix of ghosts and madness, heralding the murder of Susana’s father far away. There’s a scream, he seems to appear as a ghost and tries to send Justina away, a cat sleeps between Susana’s legs (a delicate sexual innuendo, unsettling, bizarre). After a line break, Rulfo inserts a mysterious flashback scene in which Susana’s father lowers her into an abandoned mineshaft into a heap of human bones. Flickering in and out, the rain repeats.

The rain was turning to hail, muffling all sounds except its own.

The rain pattered on the banana leaves. It sounded as if the raindrops were boiling in the water that stood on the earth.
The sheets were cold and damp. The drains gushed and foamed, working all day, all night, all day. The water ran and ran, hissing with a million bubbles.

And again at the close of the sequence.

It was still raining. The Indians had gone. It was Monday, and the Comala valley was still drowned in rain.

In Pedro Páramo the way to the Land of the Dead is through a fissure (like Dante’s cave) in the text—“the gap I had come through,” recalls Juan Preciado, “like an open wound in the blackness of the mountains.” I am reminded of the opening of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”—Aschenbach walking to the North Cemetery, “the neighborhood quite empty” and the stonemason’s yard opposite creating “a supernumerary and untenanted graveyard opposite the real one” and the mortuary chapel with its portico and staircase guarded by “two apocalyptic beasts” and the motto “They are entering into the House of the Lord.” Equally, I am reminded of the opening of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and a similar entryway into the phantasmal universe: Marlow travels to Brussels to secure an appointment, the Company offices are situated in a house “as still as a house in the city of the dead.” He walks through an outer room past two enigmatic women knitting (Norns, Fates), “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a pall.”

I cite these parallels in part to show that Rulfo is fairly in line with traditional literary motifs, that there is a kind of conventionality to his unconventionality (not to diminish his originality, but to recognize the existence of traditions within traditions). It is a convention that heroes go off the path, squeeze through gates, pass through magic doors, fall asleep, or travel to the Land of the Dead—anything to get them metaphorically out of the ordinary and into a place of meaning (secrets, Being, the Unconscious, the ineffable and unknowable). Getting beyond (whatever beyond is), motivates insight (anagnorisis) but it also motivates formal variation (intensity, riot, verbal play).

In the ancient epics, the Land of the Dead really was the home of the shades whereas modern writers tend to make it a metaphor, an allegory, or a device of rhetorical context. Rulfo’s fantastic structural and technical pyrotechnics are doubly or triply motivated. First, there is a political and cultural focus—Mexico’s obsession with the dead, its horrific past, its failure to create a political identity against the centrifugal forces of demonic violence. No ordinary language can paint this picture; conventional structure would force a conventional narrative arc and a false totality on what remains a dark mystery.

Form reflects ideology. There is a common sense way of speaking that eventuates, more or less, in the conventional realistic novel, which is (really) just as formally committed as a modernist experiment but pretends to a comforting verisimilitude that amounts to a spiritual complacency. I am who I think I am, the world is intelligible, my adventures have a predictable arc of development. Another sort of novel reflects a more complicated vision of existence and a different history (or version of history). Just as in German-speaking countries where the language itself became suspect after the atrocities of the Second World War, Mexican authors like Rulfo attempt to incorporate in the language of their texts their country’s horrendous history of genocide and constant revolution. In Pedro Páramo the dead have a voice; in fact, only the dead get to speak; every word is uttered in the Land of the Dead.

To go one step further, a novel like Pedro Páramo subverts the entire Enlightenment project, the belief in an autonomous thinking subject, in reason, and in human progress (perhaps America is now the only country in the world that still pays lip service to that bit of 18th century flim-flam). By projecting an uncanny, cracked mirror image of the quotidian onto the pages of his book, Rulfo lets loose the demons and ghosts that haunt all our histories. He escapes the anaesthetic faux humanism of contemporary market-driven fiction and establishes his work of art as something close to an eruption of the thing we cannot talk about but which insists on its presence nonetheless. He brings it close, close enough to touch, and the novel smells of the fresh-dug soil of the grave.

Pedro, the Uncanny appears in Douglas Glovers new collections on writing Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing (Biblioasis 2012).

Love Poems: An Interview with Colin Carberry

When did you first come across the work of Jaime Sabines?

In 2001, I moved to Linares, a small, northern Mexican city, and had been living there for about six months when I first heard of Jaime Sabines. I had begun to meet for coffee with a young teacher from the private school where we both worked. One rainy, August afternoon Verónica read me the following, opening lines of a prose poem:

I HOPE TO BE CURED OF YOU one of these days. I have to stop smoking you, drinking you, thinking you. It’s possible, following the moral guidelines of our times. I prescribe time, abstinence, solitude.

And immediately I knew in my bones that I had stumbled upon a major poet. From then on I felt compelled, destined even, to translate him.

What, do you think, accounts for his overwhelming popularity in Mexico?

I believe his enormous popular appeal in Mexico derives, in large part, from his ability to communicate universal truths in an original and accessible, authentically Mexican colloquial diction utterly without pretensions. His work is autobiographical to the point where the reader senses instinctively that Sabines the poet and the man are in fact one and the same person. There is no emotional or psychological distance between the poet and his audience. Ordinary Mexicans recognize him as one of their own. According to Mario Benedetti, “His contradictions are not pretences but vital paradoxes, junctions where he confronts heart and soul. This is why they affect us so deeply, why they call to us and give rise to doubts, why they become intersections and perplexities that we feel as our own.”
He has been called, among other things, 'the sniper of literature.' What, exactly, is meant by this?

His verse is direct, sometimes brutally so, and the effect on the reader is that of a sudden, intensely pleasant shock of illumination. Philip Levine writes: “His best poems are revelations of truths, odd truths, truths we immediately accept, which we long suspected as truth but have never before heard articulated.” This co-relates precisely to my feelings and thoughts the first time I read Sabines. W. S Merwin describes Sabine’s poetry as “shockingly powerful”.

What made you decide to take on the task of translating him, in order to bring him to wider attention in English?

I had been long familiar with the work of Borges, Julio Cortázar, Roque Dalton, Paz and Lorca, among many other Spanish-American authors, in English translation, so how could it be that a poet of Sabines’s caliber had escaped my attention? It was only when I began to learn Spanish in Mexico that I stumbled upon him, but the Mexicans with whom I shared daily contact, even those who didn’t read anything beyond the sports section of the daily newspaper, knew who he was and were aware, however vaguely, of his significance in Mexican literature. I purchased some previous translations of his work into English, and it quickly dawned on why Sabines hadn’t made the impact he should have in the English-speaking world. I made a private vow there and then that I would do my level best to do him justice.

What proved to be most difficult about the process? Most rewarding?
The most difficult part of the process was, firstly, being absolutely sure I properly understood what it was he was saying, and then, finding the appropriate equivalent for the idiomatic phrasing of the original in English. The most rewarding part is the sudden shock of knowing that you have adequately rendered a poem’s essence, when the poem “has been, so to speak, undressed of Spanish and dressed up in French” (in my case, English), as Canadian author and fellow Sabines translator Émile Martel put it in an email exchange.
Which poem in Love Poems do you think comes closest to capturing the magic of the original?

I like to think that there are a number of poems in Love Poems that came close to capturing the magic of the original, but the one that I am quite partial to is “In the open eyes of the dead…” (“En los ojos abiertos de los muertos…”), taken from Sabine’s second book, La señal (1951):

there is a strange, lustrous sheen!
Film of air in the motionless pupil,
shadowy veil, tender light.
Love keeps vigil in the open eyes
of dead lovers.
The eyes are like a coveted,
impenetrable, half-open door.
Why does death defer lovers, entomb
them in a place of silence like the earth?
What is it about the weeping light
in the water of the eye—in that wasting
meniscus of trembling glass?
Guardian angels took them to their breasts;
in their gaze, they breathed their last,
died of their own veins.
Those eyes are like stones
left by a blind hand on the face.
Mystery spirits them away.
Ah, the beguiling sweetness
in the casket of the air that entombs them!

This poem underwent an almost natural rebirth into English; it seemed to come out whole, with comparatively little effort on my part, perhaps because I had read it so many times.

What role has translation played in your own development as a poet?

Because to translate is to sing in another’s skin, an awesome, almost sacred responsibility to faithfully and accurately render the work of a poet I purport to represent, this has caused me to be sharper, more cautious, focused, critical, patient, and less trusting of my ego when writing my own poems. In the broader sense, I’d estimate that a good forty percent of the books on my shelves are translations, many of them from languages that I cannot understand, and so translated works continue to edify me, and to enrich and inform my poetry.

Which project are you working on now?

I am working on a collection of poems, new and old, tentatively titled Sonnets and Cantos, which I hope to publish with Biblioasis upon completion. I would also like to translate a selection of the poems of Mario Benedetti, if I can get permission to do so.

Mike Barnes: A Real Spaceship From Across

Thoughts on Translation

4 Post-Its in Search of an Intro

1. Certain delicate features of literature are easily shattered by translation, while other hardier features will stand up under even casual handling. (Rough analogy? In a drawing class, certain extreme faces – hawk-nosed, great-eyed, bald or lushly-maned – will assert themselves faithfully through all manner of renderings.)

2. When I told Dan Wells I wasn’t sure I couldwrite on translation since my foreign language skills, once modestly athletic, had atrophied with the years; plus, though some of my favourite authors are foreign, I wasn’t sure if that mattered to my reading of them in English, he said, “Try.”

3. Le mot juste. Is the belief in it more a necessary artistic credo than an aesthetic fact? A carver has to believe in the perfect stroke if he is to have any chance of finding the many excellent strokes he will need. Joyce said somewhere that he could defend every word in Ulysses. His requirement to do so – for how could he complete it otherwise? – need not convince the reader that numerous substitutions and excisions might not improve the novel. Usually it does convince, though, even a reader who quits the book in boredom. Why?

4. Quality is an existential bully; it radiates enough authority that the alternatives that might have replaced it fade to faint apparitions. If they disappear entirely we are apt to call the work a masterpiece.

. . . circa 1970, several pimply philosophers

perambulate the halls of Westmount Secondary,
discoursing upon Philip K. Dick

Cool ideas were what we were after. Science fiction was the river we hunted in. Swarming at least one novel, or its equivalent in stories, per night, we behaved as reading piranhas, ravening little squirts with razor buck teeth, able to quickly strip a living carcass of words, however gaunt or obese, healthy or diseased, down to a gleaming white string of disarticulated notions. Cool idea! Unlike piranhas, our interest lay in what-was-left, the glittering inventions, and also in the sharing of them. We traded them like the marbles of two years previous, and the drug-and-sex tips of two years hence. You gotta hear this . . . then there’s this other . . . cool idea.

(Often the first sign that a brain-fish had met a girl, or hoped to, was the appearance in his locker of Kahlil Gibran. Warm feeling!)

This was not at all unliterary. It was merely a hypertrophied taste for one of the important elements of literature: ideas. Strong, stimulating thought-fare. Not necessarily true ideas, obviously, but baseline plausible (that is, capable of fulfilling wishes without insulting them). And not necessarily unsubtle, though subtlety will always present transmission problems – author to reader, reader to reader – just as the delicately shaded drawing botches in the copying worse than the bold silhouette. And nor, twerpish though we mostly were, did we have completely tin ears. If someone could think up really cool stuff and convey it in really cool ways – well, such a two-fer would soon be shredded with lending . . . but that’s always been the tallest order, hasn’t it? And if we judged the idea-master with the mealy prose no more harshly than we would a chef who floated delectable morsels in a workaday sauce – is that leniency any more perverse than the modern high-literary preference for rumps of average sentiment, thinly sliced and soothed with a team-stirred reduction garnished with sprigs of local/historical colour?

Here’s an idea: an alien in another galaxy has a message to send you. A thought-picture. A cool thing. Something so cool you’ve never dreamed of it before, though you’ve sort of, almost, glimpsed it maybe (the alien is a bit of an interstellar flirt). Providing he delivers the goods, will you begrudge him his unwieldy spaceship of prose, with its stale recirculated air, its confusing bare corridors, boringly visible pumps and rivets and whatnot, and its frequently hibernating captain and crew?

Though we were boys when we believed in it implicitly, I don’t think the notion of all literature as translation, absurdly epic attempts to cross interpsychic space, was at all boyish – or childlike in any but the best sense of the word.

And if Stanislaw Lem had to route his vision of an ocean-sized consciousness capable of incarnating human memories – cool idea! – through Polish to French to English to us – well, what’s an extra couple of parsecs between friends?
1979. One philosophe, recently lunatic, transcribes Louis-Ferdinand Céline
When I think back to my first reading of Journey to the End of the Night (John Marks’s 1934 translation2 of Voyage au bout de la nuit, published two years before), I imagine its author cackling in eternity. His scabrous-poetic spiel (which, having carried him around the world, through two world wars, through adulation – Leon Trotsky: “Céline walked into great literature the way a man walks into his front room.” – and vilification: he was sentenced in absentia for Nazi collaboration), up until the moment, on July 1, 1961, the same day Hemingway killed himself, he slumped over the last page of his last novel, one doesn’t imagine stopping for longer than a pause at mere death starts right in again: “finding a brand new echo-chamber . . . scribe for your scribblings . . . it doesn’t happen every day . . . even in eternity.”

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a reader better primed for first-time immersion in Céline. I’d just come out of a mental ward after an eighteen-month stay. As I roamed the streets of Hamilton, I kept bumping into other ex-patients, loitering, panhandling, and, in a couple of cases, prostituting themselves. It was as if the Ward, a big mangy dog, had shaken off a few of its fleas. After a few hops, perhaps landing on a host for a lucky blood-suck, we’d jump back into the main fur. “Outside” and “inside” were not sharply distinguished, though the former offered all-important extensions of our “privileges”: longer corridors, better food, more colours (less beige!). A far wider range of OT activities. We had black senses of humour, charred: a common bet for coins, for instance, was who would land back soonest in the Shock Shop or Bubble Room. My three-hundred-pound former roommate, Shock 2 (I was Shock 1, honorifics we’d earned imaginably), who, with his copperish hair and beard, ruddy face, cherry shirt, scarlet pants and cinammon boots contrived an effect of maximum redness, an immense flame of flesh, bellowing from street corners like a demented Father Christmas, would disappear for days or weeks at a time, owing to his “brilliant scheme,” as the nights got colder, of booting in a shop window at dusk and waiting calmly, huge arms folded, until the squad car arrived to take him for another stretch of “three squares and a bed.”

I walked, drank coffee, and read. I’d found several places within a radius of a few miles that had a never-empty cup and waitresses who would let me ride that for three or four hours. I had a library card. When I hit a phrase or passage that was just too good, I copied it into the thick journal I’d bought. My own brilliant scheme, quieter than Shock 2’s (whose given name I’ve never been able to recall, I’m sorry), was to collect this essence of the best, distilling my own portable mini-library between hospitalizations, then reviewing, savouring, memorizing – consolidating – its pages during the times inside.

But I had strict standards. The project demanded them. A line had, like Shock 2, to plant itself in front of me and bellow, barring my way until I recorded it. If I detected the slightest “give” in the verbal presence, I moved on. Bons mots, of every kind, I enjoyed like any reader; holy writ I transcribed.

Céline and his Journey just about undid me. My already febrile and flayed – in other words, prepared – sensibilities were shocked, staggered and stupefied, they were KO’d, sent reeling and belted sideways through the ropes by the torrential brilliance of the medico-literary maelstrom that called itself Céline. I couldn’t get through a page without scribbling something down. Sometimes a single page forced me to flip open the journal three, four, five times. Often one fantastic image cascaded into the next, then the next, and then . . . it might be two thirds of the page before I could legally lift my pen. When it wasn’t tumultuously exhilarating, it was dismaying, tiring, annoying. Aggravating. Who wants to stop reading every three sentences? You don’t know whether to kiss or kick the author.

There was something so familiar, so intimate and almost-cosy, in those first post-ward days, about this Jouney to the End of the Night, everybody’s dark-enraptured ride to the end of the line encoded in its incomparable title, but elaborated and transposed, transported, unforgettably. Infinitely, I would even say. (“Infinite” and “eternity,” in various permutations, are words Céline used constantly, naturally; something, one of many things, that perplexes his rancid guttermouth Jew-baiter persona. He loved dancers, married one finally, and his language, even, or especially, when moling through the blackest of composts, is prone to “leap,” “pirouette,” “spin,” going aerial to perform dogfights, ethereal glides, sunrise banks, flame-outs and death spirals.) “It is not reality which Céline paints but the hallucinations which reality provokes,” said André Gide on the novel’s reception, adding, “I find here the accents of a remarkable sensibility.” It is the sensibility of a translator, I would venture, an author who never for a moment loses the sense of putting his shoulder to the door of a room which will never open more than a crack but whose contents he is determined, however meagrely, with a hopelessly hopeful faith, to display. Such ardors of transcription lead to doggedness, resourcefulness, and strangenesses of the kind that might be called dislocations to suggest an unpinpointable location (because it is everywhere and nowhere?).3

For I never lost the sense, even in the most hectic moments, that angels of translation – clamorous, flappy ones in this boisterous heaven – were the particular spirits attending this sacred copywork in the eye-dimming coffee houses. From Céline’s vast ecology of fantasy, I was stocking an ark with specimens for replanting and breeding attempts on the other side. And the already considerable journey this Journey had made, from a French vernacular slang reputedly a tough stretch even for modern French speakers, was as nothing to the distance Céline had had to cross to incarnate the creatures of his hothouse phantasmagoria in any language whatsoever.

No doubt about it. Céline was Shock 1. The rest of us, echoes, later emanations, laudable in just the proportion with which we honoured the source, limping mimics of that inimitable rap, would have to fit ourselves inside some fractional nomenclature:

1/8, 2/8 . . . 1/16 . . . 1/32 . . . .

A beloved book reread without profit.

The profitlessness considered via extract specimens.

And then, a few years after my first reading, I came across Ralph Manheim’s new translation4 of Céline’s masterwork. A translation, so the reviews claimed, that updated and improved Marks’s version in every way. I began reading excitedly. I finished it dutifully and doggedly.

Guiltily and fearfully, too. Was I such a dull jerk now that genius bounced off me like nerf balls? Had I become, inside a decade, Catullus’s “fit dolt for the treadmill”?

Or – just as bad, or worse – Could my earlier exultation have been deluded? Adoration of Céline . . . a symptom?

Obviously, both lines of thought were too discouraging to pursue and I must have let them down a drain of some kind.

Twenty years passed.

Dan Wells asked me to consider works in translation, and I took – with due trepidation – Marks-Céline and Manheim-Céline from their dust on my bookshelves.

A thousand compared pages later, the two texts read in tandem, warped and porcupined from several hundred yellow Post-It notes (Céline as exhaustive and exhausting as ever), two general conclusions were obvious to me. The two translations are so different, line by line, word by word, that it is obviously extremely difficult, requiring much ingenuity, judgement and (presumably) compromise, to render Céline’s language into English. More interestingly, though, the distinctive lineaments of Céline’s creation emerge so unmistakably from both translations that, though made of words, they seem impervious to words. The ideas are too cool not to make it across. (Within limits, obviously; they are immune to the fluctuations of skilled translators doing their level best by the work.) This, and not premature senility or recollected mania, was why I’d felt such ennui reading Manheim’s new translation: I was expecting a revelation, but I’d already had it. Manheim’s new version was more smoothly readable while more sharply particular, grittier, earthier, an improvement in most (not all) ways over Marks’s fifty-year-old, and now a little fusty and clunky by comparison, original. But –

– what might be an appropriate analogy? You’re walking through a gallery of rather staid and accomplished artworks, more or less pleasing, more or less equivalent. You round a corner and – WHAM! you’re struck by, slammed by a work of radiant gusto, a giant fresco seething with form and colour, so wholesome and rich in its depraved audacity . . . naturally your tour is over. You ogle until they kick you out. Decades later you hear they’ve made improvements, removal of films and dust, some censored bits, that were occluding it. You go back. The renovations are as claimed. But appreciation is a poor relation, an eighth or ninth line cousin, of awe.

First, though, to the improvements. (Which would, I enviously acknowledge, give the virgin reader now an even purer hit of what floored me.)

Marks, in 1934, was sometimes a bit prudish, where Manheim runs right at things:

Upstairs the woman’s ass was still bleeding. (259)

 The day when those motherfucking wagons would be shattered to the axles . . . (27)
  . . . the unforgettable depth of her fucking, her way of coming like a continent! (225)
 “Oh, Julien, I love you so much, I could eat your shit, even if you made turds this big . . . ” [a woman to her husband after they have excited themselves by beating their ten-year-old daughter] (230)

This casual profanity sounds like Céline, meaning it hangs together better with the rest of the sensibility encountered, whereas Marks’s genteel decorum sometimes makes it seem that a Mormon has walked into the bar:

The woman on the third floor was still bleeding profusely. (300)

 The day those swine and their waggons were smashed to splinters . . . (31)
  . . . her gift for tremendous delights, for enjoyment to her innermost depths. (260)
 “Oh, I adore you, Jules, you complete beast! The filthier you were, the more I should love you.” (265)

And yet, even this seemingly undeniable improvement is not crystal clear. Nothing ever is with Céline. He’s like a big dark sun you’re trying to wrap your arms around. Marks’s reticence may capture a drawing-back from certain matters, a delicacy, even a prudery, that is authentically Céline. Céline said somewhere that a novelist should have a sense of shame, and a repeated motif involves the prose drawing the curtains over a scene that won’t stand any more scrutiny. After parading the grisly horrors of trench warfare near the start of the novel, Céline’s narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, backs away with a discretion that underlines the carnage terribly, assuring us it’s only a peek:

Each of us returned to his own war. And things happened, a whole host of things went on happening, which it isn’t easy to talk about now, because nowadays people wouldn’t understand them any more. (Marks 43) [Manheim’s version is very similar]

The novel concludes with Bardamu’s obliterating vision, sparked by a tugboat’s hooting call, of the whole world being summoned to disappear. Marks conveys it like this:

It was calling to itself every boat on the river, every one, the whole town, and the sky and the country and us, all of it being called away, and the Seine too, everything, – let’s hear no more of all this. (Marks 509)

The abruptness of this, the yanking shut of theater curtains on an intolerable scene, jibes with Bardamu’s frequent assertions that, though a journey to the end of the night really has no end, there are repeated limits to a voyager’s ability to take (or tell) what he finds. Manheim ends the summons to dissolution with: “ – and that would be the end of us.” (435) It is noteworthy that the two translators would have recourse to such different formulations for words in such an exposed position, the very last in the novel. Each uses the dash and a phrase of abrupt dismissal, but in Manheim the dismissal is of existence itself – a reiteration of nullity that at the end of the voyage is too familiar and too blandly assured – while in Marks the dismissal is of the telling, which has been shocked into (what will prove, with the publication of Mort á credit four years later, temporary) silence.

For the Célinian narrator is, above all, exposed. His nerve endings assault him with jagged illuminations; he sheathes them in dark broodings and digressive ruminations. Which doesn’t mean the tough talk is unreal; it is as real as any hard, clenched muscle. As one reads the novel, one gets used to this rhythm of astonished contact – usually signalled by a startling metaphor – followed by cynical flight. It is the dominant rhythm of the narrator’s contacts with others, especially his contacts with women. As frank and explicit as he is about the body and most of its functions, Céline is more reserved about sex. He seems to have mystical notions about sex, which he acknowledges sometimes, but which he perhaps intuited would vitiate his novel, or just embarrass him, if he voiced them too often or too fully:

[Musyne] has a gift for locating her fantasies in a dramatic faraway setting that gave everything a lasting glow. . . . Her medium was eternity . . . that unfathomable realm (Manheim 66-67) . . . those dreams which blossom out of fact and are man’s only love. (Marks 77) [I’ll combine Marks and Manheim in this way if their different registers blend in a Célinian harmony.]

 Toward Molly, one of the lovely girls there [a brothel], I soon developed an uncommon feeling of trust, which in frightened people takes the place of love. . . . She was so nice that I finally told her about the mania that drove me to clear out of wherever I happened to be. She listened for days and days while I held forth, laying myself disgustingly bare, fighting with phantasms and points of pride . . . Molly was gifted with angelic patience . . . a really unbounded heart, containing something sublime . . . (Manheim 196-198)

But I can feel myself straying here from translation; Céline is sucking me into his world-blender, seducing me as he always did. If I want to convey those essences of Céline that Marks and Manheim transmit so faithfully, while wording them so differently, I’ve got to be brutally programmatic. First, though, a remark in passing to correct an impression I may have given. One doesn’t have to believe, as I obviously do, that some of the most translatable literary elements also represent some of the highest literary values. One only has to concede that they are durably transmissible. Some works travel better than others. Why? It’s no counsel of carelessness to admit that some imaginative ecosystems are bigger than others, so richly teeming that they can lose numerous organisms without threatening their major life forms. It’s the marginal systems that keep you counting ticks and fleas. But that image can be taken to imply a simplified equation, Great = Translatable, which is not true (especially not in reverse). It depends on the qualities, not the quality, of the original. Average bottles of artificial vanilla extract give a pretty fair flavour of natural vanilla. With lemon, on the other hand, even the more expensive brands go wide of the real lemon mark. But not because vanilla is a better flavour than lemon. Something, some chemical constituents in lemon, must be more elusive or fragile.

What, then, are the extracts of Céline’s Journey that come across so unmistakably from the very different laboratories of Marks and Manheim?

Strong characters, for one. The world-wandering Bardamu is an unforgettable mixture of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, sneering philosopher, lust-crazed low-life, rhapsodic visionary and persevering slum doctor . . . to name just a few of his shifting attributes. He is a protean derelict, musing from the heights, bitching from the swamps. Robinson, the degenerate (and unregenerate) coward he keeps running into – in “the muddy fricasee of heroism” (Manheim 41) of Flanders, in Africa, in America, and in France; he is the minotaur waiting around every corner in a dream labyrinth – is Bardamu’s alter-ego, heights and heavens removed, pure swamp-survivor. So faithful is Robinson to his own base instincts, that at the novel’s climax he actually dies, is shot for his disdain for Madelon’s declaration of love for him and her demand that he return it:

But I don’t want to be loved anymore . . . It disgusts me! . . . I think it’s like making love in the crapper! [Marks says “lavatory”] (Manheim 424-425) . . . You don’t mind eating rotten meat? Helping it down with that Love sauce of yours? That’s good enough, is it? Not for me, it isn’t. (Marks 498)

And she shoots him in the belly three times. There’s no mistaking characters this raw and startling. And they take prime place in a drama filled with dozens of minor characters just as originally conceived and minutely particularized. This particularization is one of the features of his writing that bedevils Céline’s characterization as a hopeless misanthrope. (No less misguided, as an oversimplification, is the counter-assertion of his heroic compassion in chronicling naked human misery. His imagination was capacious, and his literary judgement astute: paradoxes ramble and collide in his great first novel, but always within the parameters of a finely tuned tone and trajectory.) The true literary misanthrope is more likely to pen a good book club selection, a socio-historical Theme Park in which embodied attitudes jostle toward a conclusion of dogged hopefulness unencumbered by a living person. The casually judging author, whether sunny or sour, trades in broad-brush types; when the Célinian narrator flees to jeering derision, as he does constantly, it is at least partly for respite from the constant threat of his engulfment by obsessively particularized others:

. . . he had the most beautiful eyes you ever saw, supernatural velvet . . . (Manheim 71)

  . . . Lieutenant Grappa, whose body was bulky and ramshackle, his hands short, purple, and terrifying. (130)
 Something lifeless, an incurable graynesss blunted our image of [ten-year-old] Aimée, as though unhealthy little clouds were always passing over her face. (358)
 [The messenger] stood there on the road, stiff and swaying, with the sweat running down his throat, and his jaws were working so hard that he uttered little grunting cries like a puppy dreaming. (Marks 12)
  . . . you could see the veins of his temples in the lamplight; they meandered about like the Seine at the outskirts of Paris. (22)
 He was sweating such large drops of sweat that it was as if the whole of his face had wept. (500)

Nature, too, is always trapping the narrator’s eye with minatory revelations:

. . . those ungainly, caparisoned caterpillars which, quivering and foaming at the mouth, kept assailing our forest cabin. . . . God help you if you are clumsy enough to crush one. You’ll be punished with an entire week of intense stench, which rises slowly from that unforgettable mash. (Manheim 144)

 The bloated vegetation in the gardens could barely be kept at bay within their palisades. Untamed, fierce sprouts flared up like nightmare lettuces round each house containing, like the solid great wrinkled white of an egg, the yolk of a slowly rotting, jaundiced European. (Marks 142)
 Sun there was . . . always there, as if a great furnace were forever being opened right in your face; and below that more sun, and rows and rows of those fantastic trees, sort of bursting lettuces the size of oaks, and a kind of dandelion, three or four of which would make a perfectly good chestnut tree back at home. Throw in as well a toad or two, as fat as spaniels, waddling desperately from one thicket to the next. (Marks 180)
 On pavements sticky with the small rain of dawn the daylight glistened blue. (Manheim 200)

Both translators, though Manheim better than Marks, capture the novel’s endlessly inventive and addicting rhythms: joltingly pell-mell, spiky and panicked, then suddenly relaxed, chatting and blackly joking, the forward propulsion harried with sudden reverses and digressions, but always compulsively readable. Harrowing and, just as often, hilarious. (Baradmu, who has become by default the director of a mental asylum, tells how “At Easter time our patients became rather agitated, women in light-colored dresses had taken to strolling back and forth outside the garden. Harbingers of spring. I gave them bromides.”) (Manheim 396) It is miraculous that a novel so rich in internal reflection should also be so rich in external event, the audaciously extravagant escapades that entrammel Bardamu – and which he usually just escapes by fleeing – in World War I, the Congo, New York, the Ford factory in Detroit, Toulouse and Paris. One rich episode among many has Robinson paid by the Henrouilles to kill the wife’s detested mother by wiring her rabbit hutches with explosives. But the bomb explodes in Robinson’s face instead, blinding him. As Bardamu, the doctor, nurses him back to partial sight, Robinson confides that a new scheme is afoot: he and the old lady, his former intended victim, are going to Toulouse together to open a business displaying mummies in a church basement to tourists. Bardamu visits them there, casually cuckolds Robinson in stolen trysts with Madelon, but flees when Robinson finally kills his partner by pushing the old lady down the stairs of the crypt.

A translator can’t miss with material like that. Or with Bardamu getting out of Africa only when, raving with tropical fever, he is sold by a priest to a slave galley bound for New York. Or with the spectacular envisioning, over several pages (beginning with “The dead began” in both versions), of vast multitudes of spirits convening in the skies over Paris; ghosts of every description and provenance, some known to the narrator, float and mingle in vast airborne shoals and turbulent clouds, armies of them charging and skirmishing, “centuries against centuries” in an “abominable mêlée,” until they drift out of sight, difficult to see because “You have to get outside of Time” (Manheim 318), toward the foggy coasts of England where, it is said, a giant female presides, eternally trying to make a cup of tea. How much Xanax would it take to muffle that?

To house numerous extended episodes like this, with all their attendant richnesses of description and reflection, should need two thousand pages instead of five hundred. That it doesn’t – that it can be compressed without feeling constricted – is due, I think, to the novel’s sly and brilliant construction. Journey, which can be taken as a grab bag of wild riffs and ravings, is in fact a tightly disciplined delirium, an exploration so focused as to be forensic that only poses as a haphazard picaresque. For all its exuberant sideshows, it proceeds like a dissection, deeper and deeper into the tissues under its glaring lights. But what is the body – the crime one might say – laid out on the table? It is both self and world, inner and outer; the journey proceeds in both directions simultaneously, the seeming paradox made possible by the myriad evocations of the named subject, “night.” Night ramifies, accretes, alludes, and dodges; we learn a new quirk or aspect of it on nearly every page (and almost every page of my old journal), the sum of these revelations, which, curiously like the Cappadocian refusal to fix God’s essence finally, approach without confining, shoving us into intimate proximity with something we can never quite see, confirming Night as both the central character and the presiding genius of the novel. The journey which binds the narrator to this undiscoverable, beckoning night is evoked with equal fluidity (the whole novel, not just its final scene, is riverine): it is a compulsion to “record the worst” (Manheim 18) . . . “to get at the essential truth” (Marks 29) . . . “more a sickness than a voyage” (Manheim 98) . . . “groping among the shadows” (Manheim 145) . . . “a key with which to try locked doors of many years and months, and finally days” (Marks 168) . . . “my vice, my mania for running away in search of God knows what” (Manheim 197) . . . “the strength to go further . . . even deeper and lower” (Manheim 230) . . . “calmly walking round by oneself to the other side of Time”(Marks 287) . . . “meticulous observation . . . a hobby of mine” (Manheim 291) . . . “to go further and still further with Robinson.” (Manheim 329) And Robinson, the always-questionable guide to deeper night, is first encountered as a figment of night, a part of it that detaches with difficulty: “That change in the layout of the darkness had taken place a few steps away.” (Manheim 33) “A few feet away the shadows had shifted . . . There must be somebody there.” (Marks 37) As the search leads the searcher everywhere, everything is to his purpose. Everything seeming to fly apart actually hangs together. The result is one of those world-devouring, world-disgorging novels that, while you are reading it, actually becomes the world. Nothing comes to you that is not Céline-mediated.

One of the great joys of this conceit of the inner/outer journey is that it allows for a complete elasticity of time and perception. When fact and perception of fact mingle across a perpetually permeable membrane, there is no discrepancy in, for example, the narrator’s first visit to a New York cinema taking longer, and seeming more significant, than his training to be a doctor. Metaphor ceases to be an adornment and becomes a law, a life force. Céline’s superabundant metaphorizing seems like precisely the consummation his narrator wishes for so devoutly: “One day when the inner rhythm rejoins the outside one and all your ideas spill out and run away at last to play with the stars.” (Marks 310) That ecstatic, universal communion is what I found, and still find, so shatteringly joyful and permitting a force in Céline. Imagination reels in a playground that is populous and deserted, centrifugal and centripetal; shocked remarks spin away from, and draw attention to, the gleeful panic at the centre.

One can be as innocent of Horror as one is of sex. (Marks 9)

 You can be a virgin in horror the same as in sex. (Manheim 9)
 And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? . . . You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself. (Manheim 173)
 And where can one go, I ask you, when one is no longer sufficiently mad? . . . You must choose: either dying or lying. Personally, I have never been able to kill myself. (Marks 199)
 All I could vaguely make out was his hands, folded in front of his mouth like a big livid flower, trembling in the night. (Manheim 264)
  . . . his hands clutching at his mouth like some pale flower fluttering in the dark. (Marks 305)

Céline did not stay working consistently at these heights. Who could? In the later, more fitfully brilliant novels, his snarl often dilutes to a whine, his disgust too often lacks its vitalizing obverse of astonishment, and his by-then-signature three dots (used sparingly in his first novel) are too often a lazy stand-in for the jarring juxtapositions that produced the original effect of catching perception on the run. But in Journey to the End of the Night he accomplishes something truly extraordinary. There he functions as that prized anomaly: the fertile hybrid. His pages don’t alternate between plodding rationality and insipid whimsy, each faculty enfeebled by the retreat of the other. He is always fully conscious and fully dreaming, and that is what gives his work its peculiar aura of lucid hallucination. He articulates a world that is perpetually dissolving in the act of reaching us. He crosses our own orbit as both messenger and mirage.

Macbeth: A Picture of Health

A Chinese student of mine, poor in English and disinclined to improve, recently read Macbeth in a translation that was at least thirdhand: Chinese prose (which she also found too hard) rendered into basic English and retrieved in chunks from someone’s website. The results were notably threadbare: “It is a story told by a fool. Full of noise and anger, yet without meaning.” Along with shock at how much was missing (and relief that Faulkner got his title at the source), surprise crept in, a little after, at how much still remained. Shakespeare’s distinctive language may be gone, but the image of bottomless nullity endures. The image is so strong it can survive extensive hacking.

Su wei (I will call her) proceeded to give me a rather remarkable précis of Macbeth consisting almost entirely of vivid pictures. Remarkable because this string of vivid tableaux laid bare the play’s strong skeleton of imagery and event, and, even more remarkably, suggested (to Su wei and to me) many of the subtleties of its flesh, quite without the flesh of Shakespeare’s language.

Macbeth’s battle prowess, his résumé of violence . . . his temptation by witches, whom he more than meets halfway . . . a skeptical friend, a scheming wife . . . “unsex me” invocations (these never fail to impress, perhaps largely due to the word “sex”) . . . a beckoning, floating dagger . . . murder in the dark castle, the frightened perpetrators, blood . . . “Sleep no more” . . . And so on, a necklace of brilliantly macabre moments, until “Out, damned spot!” and the clasp closes with a new traitor’s dripping head displayed.

(None of my students, by the way, fail to see the play as a love tragedy, the childless protagonists driven to separate corners of hell by the very means they had supposed would unite them fruitfully. They arrive at this understanding mathematically, noting Lady Macbeth’s diminishing number of lines and then her absence from many scenes until her pre-suicide ravings. Movie-schooled to calibrate screentime, which in a halfway honest screenplay will predict plot turns (none of my students was surprised, a decade ago, by Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the box in Seven; her coffee shop conversation with Morgan Freeman had prepared them; otherwise, “baby talk in that restaurant . . . waste of time,” as one boy, now a dentist, informed me), they count the solitary scenes that spell the end of a marriage. Not uninterestingly, they see Macbeth as a middle-aged, and thus appropriately perverse, sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Su wei even recognizes the gender divide implicit in the different deaths available to husband and wife: “He can fight other men . . . she just kill herself.”)

Now, if it would be absurd to claim Su wei had any real knowledge of Shakespeare’s language, would it not be equally absurd to deny that she had some significant acquaintance with his imagination? And can that mean, really, no knowledge of language? Can we amputate so neatly the world-staining hands she knows from the “multitudinous seas incarnadine” she cannot, saying one is image and the other words?

The other day, I was reading a translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre tombe (a title even Céline might have envied), when I came across the memoirist’s evocation of a bygone era (more fanciful than historical, I assume), “an imperfect state of civilization [in which] superstitious beliefs and semi-barberous customs of foreign origin mingled romance with everything: characters were strongly deWned, imagination powerful, existence strange and mysterious.” Chateaubriand being Chateaubriand, I couldn’t be sure if his tone was more nostalgic or contemptuous, but it struck me that his listed attributes are equivalent to several of the most robust literary features, those most likely to come through translation intact: strong character, powerful imagination, strange and mysterious existence (or sense of existence).

“Exuberance is Beauty,” said Blake. (Who, not incidentally, was constantly aware of translation as the core activity of writing. His poems were “dictated” to him by the visionary world, and he testified in active verbs to the number of realms and faculties they had to cross to reach him: I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock: with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, and read by them on earth.” [emphases mine]) And exuberance is precisely what is least easily swaddled by decorum or change of costume. Every author is a translator first. So is every reader. Words cross monstrous gulfs to reach us. But admitting all crossings are perilous is a long way from saying all are doomed or even equally costly. If all authors defy you to get them right, some, and the best among them, dare you no less ardently to get them wrong.


1From “a conversation between two persons diagnosed as schizophrenic,” recorded in R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin, 1967), p. 84.

2John H. P. Marks. Journey to the End of the Night. New York: New Directions, 1934.

3“Everywhere and nowhere,” like “hopelessly hopeful faith,” point to an experience – eerie and brain-arresting, though not really puzzling – I have had from time to time; that is, finding a phrase or passage that might illuminate Céline’s aesthetics – and this is the only time I find such phrases – in a religious work, particularly of the mystical variety. The parallel popped up most recently – as it will pop up again in this essay, if I can slip it in over Our Author’s intensified cacklings in Eternity – in a volume of Simone Weil, in statements such as these from “Decreation”: “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day. To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively. To exile oneself from every earthly country. . . . But by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.”

4Ralph Manheim. Journey to the End of the Night. New York: New Directions, 1983.