Megan McDowell Posts

Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents” and “Not to Read”, translated by Megan McDowell

It’s unhealthy to get stuck in the past. 

My Documents is a collection of short stories by Alejandro Zambra, the award-winning Chilean writer, that are constantly playing with the idea of memory, truth and fiction. Whereas the recently released Not to Read is a collection of his non-fiction writings that can be loosely termed to be a literary autobiography while sharing his theory of reading. Like the many who have written before him, he too is of the opinion that reading and reading is what matters the most. There is a lovely anecdote he recounts of being able to read to his heart’s content when he was unemployed and seeking a job. He would spend the morning distributing his resume but would hurry home by late morning, so that he could then have an entire day to himself to read at leisure. Later when he did get a job he was fortunate enough to be appointed a telephone operator at an insurance company which meant he worked nights and there were hardly any calls to attend to. Once more giving him ample time to read. The joy of uninterrupted time, solitude and silence — the perfect mix to allow one to sink into the book.

My Documents, published in 2015,  consists of short stories. A short story collection can become predictable and monotonous in tenor but this is certainly not true of My Documents where each story is unexpected. It is not just in tenor but also in the form. It is impossible to tell whether it was like this in the original language too but in the hands of an incredible translator like Megan McDowell, there is a gritty texture that comes through each story. It is also difficult to discern what is fiction and what is a memory being shared of living in Pinochet’s era. The reader who is unfamiliar with the local cultural landscape is immediately immersed into it, it is like being transported to Chile in real time and witnessing the action. The stories, the people, the peculiarities, the conversations etc. Alejandro Zambra achieves this without any longwinded descriptions. My favourite story is “I Smoked Very Well”, a meditation on trying to give up the habit of being a smoker but at the same time in his characteristic style meanders into the literary space, making excuses that his inability to get off his nicotine habit is also the root cause of his writer’s block!

Not to Read is a collection of short essays previously published in the newspaper. So these are really short reads of about 2-5 mins. And yet so opinionated and loads of fun to read. He creates a literary landscape that is so incredibly detailed if all the 60-odd essays are read together, it makes you yearn to have a library handy of all the books and authors Zamba mentions! It’s also rare to find an essayist like this nowadays who is so immersed in his work that that is all he wishes to talk about. He is not distracted by anything else. His writing style is simple and lucid and yet within it are embedded vast banks of knowledge and strong opinions. Take for instance his essay “In praise of the photocopy” where he talks about these “fake books” as he defines them, the photocopies he and his friends used to access literature.

Essays by Roland Barthes marked with fluorescent highlighters; poems by Carlos de Rokha or Enrique Lihn stapled together; ringbound or precariously fastened novels by Witold Gombrowicz or Clarice Lispector: it’s good to remember that we learned to read with these photocopies, which we waited for impatiently, smoking, on the other side of the copy-shop window. As citizens of a country where books are ridiculously expensive to buy and libraries are poorly equipped or non-existent, we got used to reading photocopies, and we even came to find it charming. In exchange for just a few pesos, some giant, tireless machines could bestow on us the literature we so desired. We read those warm bundles of paper and then stored them on shelves as if they were real books. Because that’s what they were to us: rare, beloved books. Important books. 

Later he argues for making books available at an effective price:

The discussion around digital books, incidentally, is at times overly elaborate: the defenders of conventional books appeal to romantic images of reading (to which I fully subscribe), and the electronic propagandist will insist on the comfort of carrying your library in your pocket, or the miracle of endlessly interlinking texts. But it’s not so much about habits as it is about costs. Can we really expect a student to spend twenty thousand pesos on a book? Isn’t it quite reasonable for them to just download it from the internet? … Editors, booksellers, distributors and authors unite occasionally to combat practices that ruin business, but books have become luxury items and absolutely nothing indicates that this will change. 

Alejandro Zamba’s last point is controversial since this is exactly what is at the core of the various legal battles in various book markets but he does make a strong argument. All his essays in the book are as simply written with a single idea shared pointedly. Whether you agree with his viewpoint or not is immaterial, reading the essays is pure joy.  Two extracts from the book can be read at Harpers on “Literary Customs” and on the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions website about “Obligatory Readings”.

Ideally one should read both the books in quick succession then it is perfect. The two volumes of fiction and non-fiction writing compliment each other beautifully. If you have not as yet discovered the rising literary star of Chile, Alejandro Zamba, then you have a treat awaiting you thanks to the wonderful translations by Megan McDowell.

Both the books mentioned are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

3 September 2018 

 

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 2017 

 

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