Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.
I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.
That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.
By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.
The decency censors at the NY Times will never print my response to Ross Douthat’s utterly mendacious column, so I’m posting it here. Not that anyone will notice:
Mr. Douthat: Used to read you occasionally even while disagreeing with your positions because you seemed like a reasonable human being, but in this column you prove yourself a hack. As others have already pointed out, the president’s opponents in your party have relentlessly lied, distorted, dog-whistled, and obstructed. And now you — and they — are complaining that the president is being too negative. As Arlo Guthrie once put it, “You got a lot of damn gall.” This morning, your preferred presidential candidate is keeping things positive by distributing an outright lie about the Obama administration’s attempt to roll back GOP voter suppression efforts in Ohio. Man, how do you sleep at night?
Hữu Ngọc asked me yesterday on the way to lunch whether I had written any poems about Hanoi. “Only one,” I told him. This appeared a while back in the Beloit Poetry Journal & it is the second poem (currently) in the book manuscript I’m trying to finish putting together:
I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.
I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!
*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .