The Translator Talks Back: Megan McDowell Interviews Gonzalo Torné


Gonzalo Torné is an acclaimed Spanish writer from Barcelona whose book Divorce Is in the Air, which I translated, was recently published by Knopf. It is his second novel, but his first to appear into English. Entirely a first-person narrative, the book is nominally addressed to the Joan-Marc’s (the narrator’s) second wife, who has just left him. He is telling her the story of his first marriage, to a blond American athlete-cum-alcoholic named Helen. He also relates his more recent travails as he deals with middle-age bachelorhood and economic trouble after his wife’s departure, and reconnects with old friends from his past.

Joan-Marc is an often frustrating, occasionally insightful, contradictory, solipsistic, and prejudiced character who is ultimately (argue I) endearing. He has things to say about the human condition, often through beautiful turns of phrase; some are crazy, some insulting, others illuminating. The book demands a discerning reader willing to laugh at and listen to a character who cannot exactly be considered “likeable”– one to whom we may not be able to relate, but one we can benefit from understanding.

As the translator, I’ve spent a lot of time over the course of two years inside this book and the head of its narrator, Joan-Marc. I still had a few questions for his creator, Torné:

Megan McDowell: Much of the book centers on the futility of relationships between women and men, and on the characters’ relationships with their bodies — these concerns really come to a head in the character of Eloy/Eloise, a transgender woman who was a childhood classmate of J-M’s. It makes me wonder how actively you engage with questions of gender. Are you a feminist? J-M and Eloise seem so diametrically opposed, and in many ways Eloise, who has consciously shaped her body to fit her mind/ soul, is much more comfortable in the world. What are some of the key questions you were wrestling with when you imagined J-M and Eloise’s ways of looking at the world?

Gonzalo Torné: Eloy/Eloise to me is a key character because she allows me to “close” one of the novel’s subjects. Divorce Is in the Air is about matrimonial separations, of course, but it’s also about separation from life itself, the distance that grows larger between us and the things we lose, and the alterations that the body suffers as it’s subjected to time. The novel is peppered with descriptions of physical processes that the body suffers passively.

Eloise represents a possibility of voluntary bodily alteration, and she ends up countering many of Joan-Marc’s most reactionary and pessimistic ideas. If you like, her appearance in the book is a “refutation” of the protagonist, who until that moment has dominated the narrative thanks to the first-person privilege. My idea is that she should be a window through which a bit of new air can flow. And one could say that she’s a character I like very much.

About the feminism question: In Spain my most well-known book is Hilos de Sangre (Blood Ties), narrated for over 400 pages by a woman. This character has been praised for her intelligence and her sensitivity. I wouldn’t have dared to start out writing such a crude book, so aggressive and masculine, one that plays with the identification between the narrative voice and that of the author (does this man really think all this?) without having the “protection” of Hilos de Sangre. It’s funny that outside of Spain, Divorce Is in the Air will be my “letter of introduction.”

MM: One of the aspects of the book that I’m not sure U.S. readers will know much about has to do with the Catalan culture. In fact, J-M uses a fair number of Catalan words that were mostly lost in translation. Could you talk a bit about what Catalan culture means to Joan-Marc, and what it means to you?

GT: My ties to Catalan are at once distant and very close. Catalan is my mother tongue and it’s very easy for me to spend an entire day without speaking in any other language. Though its history is one of continual upheavals — the last of which is the attempted cultural genocide by Franco and his supporters — its literature is not minor, though it is somewhat discontinuous. Aside from its indisputable figureheads (Llull, March), in the 20th century it boasts a cast of admirable poets and at least one fiction writer at the level of the best: Joan Sales. For reasons that aren’t relevant here, I ended up writing in Spanish, but Catalan writers take an interest in and appreciate my work, and I try to stay up to date. There is a very lively poetry scene, excellent theater, and many fiction writers publishing very interesting books.

On the other hand, Barcelona is a bilingual city where two languages mix together with no problem, and it’s very common to take part in conversations where every participant speaks in the language he or she finds most comfortable. That’s why I turn to so many words in Catalan: they are floating in the ether. Joan-Marc comes from Madrid and he has a certain love-hate relationship with Catalan (the Catalanistas can sometimes be cantankerous), but he doesn’t resist the sensuality of mixing the two languages.

MM: In a similar vein: this is a very Spanish book. There is a distinct sense of place to it, and there are many landmarks and streets that appear in the narrative. What do you think this will mean as U.S. and U.K. readers approach the book? How do you think their experience of it will differ, how do you think the book changes in English?

GT: Well, although for administrative purposes I’m Spanish, the area where my imagination operates is Barcelona. As soon as I leave Barcelona I no longer feel at home. So I consider myself a writer from Barcelona, a city that has its own literary tradition, and where oftentimes Madrid is as distant as London. It’s the area I know and even when I look beyond it (there are half a dozen characters from the United States in the book), I do it from the prejudices of a Barcelonan.

The truth is I haven’t thought much about how the book will be received abroad, and luckily it hasn’t worried me with the novel I’ve just finished to know that I would be read in a dozen countries. I like to think that my books have very local settings but treat vital subjects that are common to anyone, and also that the problems and aesthetic solutions travel quite well. At the end of the day, the novels are directed at a very specialized class of individuals: literary readers.

There’s one thing that concerns me with this novel and it’s how readers will take the humor. In Spain, one critic wrote a long article demonstrating that the novel was not a comedy and that all the people who were laughing were absurd creatures. He almost convinced me. To me, the novel is a comedy, even though its material isn’t gags or openly funny situations.

MM: I’ll admit a secret: this is one of the hardest books I’ve ever translated. The cultural references, the use of language, it was all a bit more foreign to me than the Latin American books I’ve translated so far. Were you nervous about having your work translated into English? (Or am I making you nervous now?) What was it like to read your book in English? (This is something I’m always curious about with my authors.)

GT: Yes, it’s a somewhat strange Spanish, partly because I live in a city where two languages are spoken that mutually influence each other, and instead of hiding it, I try to put it in relief, in the semantic plane but also in the grammar. What’s more, my intention was to invent a way of speaking that would allow me to pass very quickly from one tone to another, and with as broad a range of registers as possible. I don’t know if I managed it satisfactorily, but I’m sure that some of the “difficulty” comes from that project.

In terms of the translation, I’ve never gotten nervous about it. I tend to trust in the professional capacity and talent of other people. I was convinced that our editors were going to find the ideal person, and when they gave me your name, I read your translations of Zambra and I rested easy. Later I read the proofs with the conviction that a language is a very complex system and that it’s best to let those who know a language better from the get-go do their work. Translation is really one of the most complex intellectual phenomena in the universe. My friend Juan de Sola, who is an excellent translator, says that books are more passionate in translation than in the original, and that you have two books for the price of one, and he’s right. For me, reading Divorce Is in the Air has been quite an experience (the only way to read oneself is in translation) and I’m very pleased with the result.

MM: I Googled you and found out something unexpected: You’ve recently published a detective novel under a pseudonym. Great! Why the shift in genres, and why the pen name? What would surprise me, as a reader of your literary fiction, about Álvaro Abad, the crime writer?

GT: I have to answer this question with a detour: It took a long time for me to start reading anything like novels, poetry, or philosophy. In my childhood and adolescence I was dedicated to sports, the only thing I read were superhero comics. There is nothing of that in my two novels, but I still have an affinity for the genre, and almost every year I write (sometimes in my head) a story, and I’ve published some, but in Spain there is no industry to absorb everything I come up with. What we do have, though, is a boom in the “crime novel” — a genre that with some exceptions I find unbearable. I was exhausted when I finished Divorcio en el Aire, and after resting for a year it occurred to me to redo one of my adventure scripts as a crime novel (taking out the super powers). I imposed a very strict calendar on myself (two months), and I had a lot of fun, but I don’t think I’ll do it again; a novel, whatever the genre, is a lot of work.

I used a pseudonym as a courtesy to readers of Divorce and Hilos, as a warning that they would find this book less fun (the kind of fun that my readers like). But I didn’t hide the fact that I’d written it. My complicit readers have enjoyed it, but I also suspect that they prefer it when I stick with more meaty subjects.

MM: Who are the writers in Spain today (preferably untranslated) that you think are most under-recognized? Who is doing the most interesting work? What about in Spanish in general? Do you read many Latin Americans? What North Americans do you read?

GT: Writers of my generation are very engaging and there are many I find interesting. I like La Trabajadora (The Worker) by Elvira Navarro, two novels by Isaac Rosa (El Vano Ayer and La Mano Invisible), and Fresy Cool by Antonio J. Rodríguez. I also read everything written by Julián Rodríguez and Martín Giráldez, who publish very daring books in a country where people who claim to be avant guard do things that were already old in my grandparents’ days. Of the writers a little older than me (and for a lot of younger writers) Luis Magrinyà is the best, and it’s a shame that the English-speaking reader is deprived of reading Intrusos y Huéspedes — a masterpiece, one of the few that exist. I would talk about poets as well but I’m afraid my answer would go on for too long.

I resist grouping writers from so many different countries under the label “Latin American.” I don’t know anything about what is being written in the tropics or in Central America. I have more of a relationship with Argentine and Chilean literature, I read what the critic Ignacio Echevarría suggests to me; he is not only a very intelligent reader, he is personally invested and is very respected there. Of my generation (to avoid an interminable list of names) I very much like the books of Zambra, Gabriela Wiener, and Julián Herbert.

Of U.S. literature, the Jewish tradition is very important to me, from Singer to Ozick; without it, the novels I try to write wouldn’t even exist. I like the visionary novelists (Melville, Faulkner, McCarthy, DeLillo) a great deal, but as a writer I’ve never known what to do with them. In terms of contemporaneous writers I have to say that the Spanish press acts as a very disciplined and uncritical satellite of everything that reaches us from the United States, so that I read them with great caution. I like Lethem and Lerner and I admire everything written by Junot Díaz, who is very near to being a genius.

MM: You are also a translator — you’ve translated William Wordsworth and John Ashbery into Spanish. What drew you to those authors, and did they pose any interesting challenges? How did the experience of translating affect your writing?

GT: Well, I’ve translated some texts, but as I respect the profession a lot I would never dare to call myself a translator. My work is writing novels, but sometimes I get an urge to publish authors that I know like the back of my hand, and to avoid arguments I end up “moving” them myself to Spanish. I’ve translated Pascal, Wordsworth, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, and a few others. But if you gave me a contemporary novelist that posed new problems, one I had to “interpret” into my language for the first time, I’d start to cry. I wouldn’t be able to translate myself. I tried from Spanish to Catalan, and I failed.

The Millions Interview: Alejandro Zambra

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Alejandro Zambra is at the forefront of Latin American—indeed one could say “world”—literature. He is young, Chilean, and writes with a poetic lucidity that engages a reader from the first line. His first two novels were both published by Anagrama and placed him immediately in the international spotlight. Bonsái won the 2006 Chilean Critics’ Award; it was published in English by Melville House in a translation by Carolina de Robertis in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. In 2010 my translation of La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees), Zambra’s second novel, came out from Open Letter press.  Both are short books—some call them novellas—and both center on middle-class Chilean intellectuals.  While this may sound dry and specialized, Zambra has an electrifying ability to underscore ambiguity in the seemingly definite—or to turn a vague outline into a bull’s eye—that makes his material feel universal.  In 2010, Zambra was among 22 writers included in Granta magazine’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.  Granta says its lists “predict talent more than spot it,” and previous predictions have included writers like Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, David Mitchell and Lorrie Moore, to name only a few. 

Zambra’s third novel, Formas de volver a casa, will debut with Anagrama in May, and from what I can tell, it deviates from his previous books in form but not in feeling (that is, in its broad emotional landscape). Formas is significantly longer than its predecessors, and is told in various, well, forms: mostly narrated in first person by a young boy, it also includes verse and non-fiction elements.  The book is set in the 80s during Pinochet’s dictatorship.  Its child narrator is the son of an “apolitical” middle-class family, with parents who avoid risk out of fear, and who protect their children from the truth of their world.  It’s the story of a little girl who asks a younger boy to spy on her uncle, and the boy agrees because, as Zambra says, “he’s a little bit in love with her.”  It’s that “little bit” that is so particularly Zambra—there are no large, sweeping emotions here, but rather complicated, contradictory, little-understood intuitions.  This is a book about Chile, and the generation of Chileans who grew up during the dictatorship.  Zambra calls the literature of his generation “la literatura de los hijos” (literature of the children), because he feels his generation came of age believing the novel belonged to the “fathers of literature”, and that history was something imposed by their forebears.  As he says in an interview in Ñ magazine, “History belonged to others, and we confronted our inheritance sometimes with rebellion and other times with acquiescence; it took a long time for us to realize we had our own history and we had things to tell.” I asked Zambra a few questions about his upcoming book, and his feelings about being included in Granta’s list.

The Millions: Now that you’ve received a fair amount of attention for your books, do you worry more during the act of writing about how it will be received?  Or does the recognition validate you, give you a sense of freedom?

Alejandro Zambra: At the moment of writing, I feel completely free.  I really don’t think you can write anything genuine when you are under any kind of pressure. What’s more, publishing a book isn’t like giving birth to it; when you publish a book you feel what a father must feel when his son leaves home: you wish him well, you delight in or suffer with his successes and failures, but you can’t do anything more for him.  And your daily work is more interesting: the next book, the child you are starting to rear.

TM: Recognizing that any list like Granta’s will be subjective, is there anyone you feel strongly should have been included, but wasn’t?

AZ: Such lists are always arbitrary, and I suppose there are a lot of authors who were worth including in Granta’s, and in the end were not.  The truth is it’s an uncomfortable subject for me, because I really don’t believe in lists or rankings.  In any case I’d like to highlight the work that younger people have been doing, such as the Chilean Diego Zúñiga or the Mexican Valeria Luiselli (the author of Papeles falsos, one of the best books I’ve read recently).

TM: Not many authors have their books published more or less simultaneously in Spanish and in English, but both La vida privada and Bonsai were.  I’m curious about how the experience is different in Chile and the U.S. How does your status as a native or foreigner affect how people read you, do you think?  Do you feel more pressure to be “representative” in some way when you are outside of Chile?

AZ: I think both novels are very Chilean, so I’m sometimes surprised that they can be read in other languages.  To me, it’s a beautiful thing that readers so distant and different can connect with a book of mine.  It’s like sending out thousands of letters, and little by little receiving replies you never expected.  I guess some readers in the U.S. or in France want to confirm some prior idea they had about Chile or about Latin America.  But books aren’t made to confirm ideas; they’re made to refute them, to question them, to put other images out there where we thought everything had already been said.

TM: Tell us a little about Formas de volver a casa—is it much of a departure from your first two books?

AZ: It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile.  It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents.  It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess.  And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.  I don’t know if it’s very different from my previous books; the truth is I feel like it’s close to The Private Lives of Trees.  In fact it starts from there, from some of the intuitions or images of the past that were in that book.  Maybe the main difference is that it’s in large part narrated in the first person.  It also includes a writer’s diary, a kind of center or heart in which the fiction breaks, and the only thing left is the writer’s voice searching for its origins.  It’s my most personal book, without a doubt, although the others were that as well.

TM: Do you get frustrated with how people associate Chile with the Pinochet dictatorship?  Do you feel a need to establish yourself in relation to it, because if you don’t others inevitably will?

AZ: It doesn’t frustrate me; on the contrary, it seems like a conventional and understandable expectation. That relationship is very important to me, also.  I grew up in a dictatorship, I said my first words in a dictatorship, I read my first books in a dictatorship.  It’s part of my experience, part of my life.  And of course, Formas de volver a casa talks a lot about that.  But I don’t believe in genre novels or in a simple relationship between literature and history.  Literature doesn’t exist to depict something that’s already given, already processed.  We write because we want to live in a different way, because we seek new ways of understanding the past, present and future.

TM: One of the things I was drawn to in The Private Lives of Trees was the way you portray the relationships between the characters, and the characters themselves.  No one makes grand proclamations, which makes Julián’s promise that “if we get out of this we’ll go, at last, to see the snow” all the more heartbreaking.   The characters aren’t exceptional, but their mediocrity isn’t emphasized, it’s empathized with.   There is no bombast, but there is so much genuine feeling. I guess what I’m saying is that when I read your books, I feel like there is room for me in them, there’s no sense of looking in from outside.  Are you conscious of this, do you have to try not to judge your characters, or to not make them more than they are?

AZ: Thank you very much for what you say.  If that’s the case, if in some way I managed to portray those lives without failing the characters, I’m satisfied.  Because that’s what I want: for there to be space in my books to share gazes, to meet up; to know ourselves as fragile and strong at the same time, as we all are.  I hope for that, when I’m writing: to bear witness to a compassionate recognition of our failures and triumphs.