Posts Tagged ‘Mario Benedetti’

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.


The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.


Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.


The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.


Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.

 


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.

Who Among Us?

July 1, 2019

Who Among Us? is the third of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s novels (though the first written, in 1953) to appear in English in recent years, translated, as with Springtime in a Broken Mirror, by Nick Caistor. His previous novels demonstrate a writer intrigued by different narrative forms: The Truce is written in the form of a diary; Springtime in a Broken Mirror presents us with a chorus of different voices. Who Among Us? is perhaps the most daring yet – its love triangle, while not quite a ménage a trois, is certainly a recit de trois, a story told in three narratives: the first a journal, the second a letter, and the third a short story written by one of the characters.

Each member of the triangle (Miguel, Alicia, Lucas) tells the story from their own particular angle. It is Miguel who writes the first and longest section, having encouraged his wife, Alicia, to go to Buenos Aires to sell some property in the hope she will meet Lucas. He now regards their eleven-year marriage as the wrong choice for her:

“The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas.”

Miguel, Alicia and Lucas’ relationship dates back to their time at school, the first two quickly becoming friends with Lucas added when he arrives a year later at Miguel’s insistence. Though Alicia is closer to Miguel, he feels that her relationship with Lucas is somehow more necessary:

“It was plain the two of them really liked me, were loyal to me and would carry on being so. I was certain of that. They, however, did not like each other: they needed one another.”

Despite this, and a period after school when it is Alicia and Lucas who spend most time together, it is Miguel and Alicia who later marry. Even so, Miguel considers Lucas an important factor in Alicia’s choice:

“Probably Lucas sang my praises (I also praised him whenever I talked with Alicia; the absent person was always the star), and no doubt as a result Alicia became convinced I was the best of the three – and consequently the better of the two, Lucas and me, which in the end was the only choice that mattered.”

Miguel tells the story of his relationship with Alicia in a detached manner, frequently commenting on his lack of strong feelings. “I’ve never needed,” he tells us, “to be the reflection of other people’s affections.” The crisis in his marriage with Alicia is precipitated by a realisation that his feelings for her, even when she is pregnant, are lacking to the point of absence:

“All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced and that deep down I couldn’t care less about her or her condition.”

“I still don’t know if any any point was in love with her,” he says, “but that’s more because I question my emotional capacity.” Miguel excuses his indifference by portraying himself as the inferior member of the trio. As a teenager, he says, “I knew I was there as their witness… and consciously vegetated in their shadow,” going one step further to describe his relationship with his own life in the same terms:

“Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can’t even avoid being witness to my own life…”

He briefly describes a childhood where his father routinely abused his mother, where he is also a “silent witness,” winning the reader over with his honesty:

“I don’t want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.”

Or, at least, so it seems – at the end of the first section there is a revelation which I assume is the reason Jonathan Gibbs commented on Twitter:

“Blimey. Something’s just happened in this book… that makes me want to chuck it across the room and leave it there.”

Miguel is not, after all, a reliable narrator, as we quickly discover reading Alicia’s letter:

“I never understood why you insisted on brining me and Lucas together. I saw him as an intruder and wanted to refuse him entry, to cut him down to size, before the boundless prestige you endowed him with could begin to overshadow our fragile bond.”

The final section is a short story written by Lucas with footnotes on which he relates the characters and events in the story to those in his life (for example the character Claudia is Alicia) when he meets Alicia in Buenos Aires. Just as the previous narratives have allowed us insight into the narrator’s feeling, so too does the story in the gaps between reality and fiction.

Who Among Us? is masterfully constructed, refracting its three relationships through three different lenses, while also questioning a fourth relationship – that between text and truth: the stories we construct to explain what we do. Luckily Benedetti still has five other novels awaiting translation.

Springtime in a Broken Mirror

April 24, 2018

Until 2015, when The Truce was translated by Harry Morales, Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti had been largely ignored by the English speaking world. Three years later a second novel, Springtime in a Broken Mirror, has appeared, this time translated by Nick Caistor – a much shorter time period than the twenty-two years which separated their original publication (Benedetti wrote eight novels over fifty years). Initially it seems an addition to the large Latin American library of dictatorship lit, but in fact, like The Truce, its interests are more domestic.

The novel is told from a variety of viewpoints. It begins in the voice of Santiago, imprisoned in his native Uruguay, but goes on to include his exiled father, Rafael, his wife, Graciela, his daughter, Beatriz, and his friend, Rolando. Each voice has its own title: while Rafael’s is simply headed ‘Don Rafael’, Santiago’s is (unusually but appropriately) ‘Intramural’, and Graciela’s is ‘Battered and Bruised’. Each also has its own style. Graciela’s, for example, is in the third person and generally consists of dialogue; Santiago’s is written like a diary or letter; Rafael’s is presented in a single paragraph each time as if revealing his thoughts. There are also chapters in italics entitled ‘Exiles’ which relate the writer’s experiences:

“At approximately six p.m. on Friday 22nd August 1975, I was reading, relatively carefree, in the apartment I rented on Calle Shell in the Miraflores district of Lima, when someone rang the doorbell downstairs and asked for Senor Mario Orlando Bendetti. That already smelt fishy because my middle name only appears in official documents. None of my friends ever uses it.”

The author’s experience of exile reflects that of the other characters. Rafael questions:

“Am I a foreigner? There are days when I’m sure I am; others when I don’t attached any importance to that at all, and other still when I in no way admit my foreignness to myself. Can it be that the condition of being foreign is a state of mind?”

Even Beatriz is challenged by her exile:

“This country isn’t mine but I like it a lot. I don’t know if I like it more or less than my own country. I came here when I was very little and can’t remember what that was like any more.”

Santiago, on the other hand, is experiencing an internal exile, separated from those he loves. Trapped not only in his cell, but in his mind, he seeks control where he can find it:

“I was being tyrannized by my memories. Then, one evening, I thought, I’m going to free myself from this tyranny. And from that moment on, I’ve been the one controlling my memories.”

However, as Rafael warns:

“The past becomes resplendent and yet it’s an optical illusion. Because the poor, dismal present wins a decisive battle: it exits.”

This matters in a practical sense as, during the course of the novel, Graciela’s affection for Santiago diminishes and her love for Rolando grows:

“I still love him. How couldn’t I, after ten years of a wonderful relationship?… The problem is that our forced separation has made him more tender. Whereas it’s made me tougher.”

Rolando is aware that Graciela is preoccupied. “Can it be I’ve been transformed, by exile, into as different woman?” she asks. He believes that her doubts over her relationship with Santiago are caused by her physical needs and asks her if she has erotic dreams:

“When I’m awake, I do day dream. You’re going to laugh. I dream of you.”

As their relationship blossoms, the question becomes whether to tell Santiago while he is in prison or wait until his release:

“He’s a prisoner there, but I’m also imprisoned in my situation.”

Springtime in a Broken Mirror does a number of things extremely well. It explores the price of protest – imprisonment and exile – in the context of everyday life rather than political legend. Further, it uses these experiences to examine our relationship with the past on a personal level without ever losing sight of the national context. Ranging across a number of characters – each different, each convincing – our understanding and sympathy flourishes. Building emotional tension, Benedetti skilfully delivers his climax using his multiple narratives to fashion a conclusion which is both subtle and heart-breaking. Hopefully more of his work will follow.