Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man won this year’s Best Translated Books Award in fiction. Shortly after the prize was awarded, Coverdale and I sat down to talk about Chamoiseau’s work and the importance of conveying tone and style in translated works.
The Millions: When did you first encounter this book? It’s the first work of Patrick Chamoiseau’s to be translated in over two decades. You translated him before, Creole Folktales (1995) and School Days (1996). Texaco was published in 1998. What happened then? Was he someone you wanted to continue translating, and it just wasn’t working out?
Linda Coverdale: The first Chamoiseau I ever read was Chronique des sept misères (1986), for a reader report, and I fell instantly in love with this astonishing unknown voice coming bang out of the blue, so when Carcanet Press offered to buy it if I would translate it, I was miserable saying no, but an honest translator knows when she is overmatched, and I wasn’t anywhere near ready to jump into Martinique. When the late and very great André Schiffrin offered me Au temps de l’antan (1988), however, I knew that I could begin to learn to handle both the language and the terroir with that one, so to speak. The New Press published it as Creole Folktales in 1995, and that was the first time Chamoiseau appeared in English. Baby steps in Creole-inflected text for me, with children’s stories, but they are clever tales of survival in a colonized land, already imbued with the mystique of the storyteller that colors all Chamoiseau’s writing, both in fiction and his essays. The Creole storyteller on the slave plantation becomes a secret agent in enemy territory, where his words must carry out their soul-saving mission in disguise…I started amassing my now huge stashes of books, notes, glossaries, Xeroxes of things Caribbean, all grist for the mill when the translator sets to work.
Then I moved up a notch with Chemin d’école (1994) for School Days in 1996. The word scratcher was born. He would carry his world and Creole tongue into the French empire of language while holding fast to his “inky lifeline of survival”—and he would beat the French at their own literary game. Ten years later, to my joy, the University of Nebraska gave me back that first Chamoiseau crush, Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows (1999), and I was ready: each time the bar is higher, but the terrain is more familiar, so the challenge can again be met and the beauty of the original in its humanity and wisdom can survive.
I’d read L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse when it came out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity. But it had already been bought over here, so that was that. Every once in a while I’d try to find out why it hadn’t appeared in English, but I could never learn the answer. Then The New Press returned from a buying expedition with L’empreinte à Crusoé (2012) for a reader report, but a casual remark revealed that L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse was back in play after almost 20 years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), so I pounced on it. The New Press acquired it, and then the fun began.
TM: Has Chamoiseau been involved in the translations? If so, to what degree did you work together?
LC: I do sometimes contact an author, either for answers to nagging questions or—if the author speaks English—to ask what she or he thinks of the translation, and in a few cases, as with an author’s first book, we’ve worked together to remedy a few flaws in the original text, and that is always a happy experience.
Patrick Chamoiseau, however, is not only an accomplished novelist, he’s a prolific theoretician, one of the founders of the 1980’s literary movement of Créolité, and he has amply explained his views on this valorization of the Caribbean experience as a reclamation of life-affirming values imperiled by deep remnants of plantation slavery. He has famously championed the essential mystery and multivalence of his language and been sparing in his specific textual explanations, but his translators receive a basic glossary, and whenever I have contacted him, as I did with School Days and Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, he has helped me with difficult interpretations. My m.o. has always been to do absolutely as much as I can on my own before “bothering” an author, and Chamoiseau, who is now well-known and busy in a million ways, wrote L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse over 20 years ago.
So I definitely bless the internet: Fighting through that jungle while working on this short novel over many, many months honed my research skills to the point of tracking down even the author’s own recondite sources, and I can honestly say that at length—great length—I finally found the answers to my gazillion questions and then called it quits.
I trust that Chamoiseau is pleased to have had this novel be a finalist for a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of both a French-American Foundation Translation Prize and a Best Translated Books Award in 2019. And I’m delighted.
TM: What is your background with Creole, or with Martinique? It’s clear from the language, the copious notes, and your afterword that this translation is thoroughly researched, but it also feels like lived experience.
LC: My “background” with Creole is simply the love my family has had for languages and books: The idea was to read early, read widely, and read beyond your years. My parents spoke French, I learned French as a child in France, studied German on my own because my mother spoke it, studied Latin and Spanish in school, tried to learn Russian on my own, earned a doctorate in French literature, studied Italian (messed up by my Spanish), and failed risibly at Dutch (screwed up by German and English). Before the Internet took hold, I think I knew the location of every little library in New York City with a dictionary of any French Caribbean Creole, and translating works by the Haitian authors Lyonel Trouillot and René Philoctète gave me more background. I also translated the Martinican writer Raphaël Confiant, whose magisterial dictionary of Martinican Creole is itself a teaching tool of unparalleled complexity.
If you love languages, you get a feel for them and instincts that can’t be measured but which operate as if on their own, and despite the hazards of sometimes-chaotic spelling and regional variations—if you keep at it, you can track things down. I searched for the meaning of one word for months, off and on, and finally found telling clues in a Polish Ph.D. dissertation on School Days that quoted a passage including the word, and my vestigial Russian told me only that the word was an obscenity, but that was enough to dissect it into separate Martinican Creole words, allow for the optional adhesion of the definite article to a noun, in its diminutive form, and bingo: I had my word in English. Confirmed by an amused native speaker.
And NYC is full of Caribbeans: I found Martinicans delighted to help my sleuthing, even relatives of Édouard Glissant who were invaluable in their discussions of his often gnomic writings. In short, this translation was a major adventure, one that at times confounded me but in the end came out just as I had hoped.
As for the “lived” experience, I’ve often gone to the Caribbean, and over the years have been to most of the Guadeloupe Islands: Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Les Saintes, Marie-Galante, La Désirade, and along with the rain forests of Costa Rica in particular, they’ve been models of sensory overload: sunlight shattering through the lush tropical overstory, standing inside a massive hollow silk-cotton tree listening to the invisible life all around—these things take root, branch out into words, and imagination takes things from there.
It may seem strange, but I no longer really want to go to Martinique after all these years. I’ve grown used to the island in my mind.
TM: In addition to your afterword and endnotes, you open the book with a translator’s note. These are all valuable and interesting additions to the book, and I was happy to have them. What do you see their role as? Are they essential for a reader, or additional?
One of the things that makes Slave Old Man stand out is the original used both French and Martinican Creole. The French itself is not “standard” either, is it? In your opening note, you explain the biggest translation choice you made. The Creole is mostly left in the original, where context explains, or you use combinations, like “djok-strong.” For the most complicated words, you use the endnotes. In between is where the more unusual choice is: “once there was an old back man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” So words are glossed, almost doubled. It works. It keeps the reader aware of the boundaries of Creole and French, and it fits the tone, where there is already repetition, variation, quick hits of commas, and lists. Did you consider or even try out other routes? What really made this one win for you?
LC: My approach to translating has always been based on trying to make the English text reflect not just what the French says, but also what it means to native French-speakers, who are immersed—to varying degrees—in the worlds of their language, a language that has ranged widely in certain parts of the real world. Francophone literature is dear to the French, and the writings of Marguerite Duras, for example, born and raised in French Indochina, have more dimensions in their eyes than they do in ours. Unless we do our homework. But who does, before picking up a book?
As a translator, I’m responsible for providing information encoded in the text that is, or might be, more easily accessible to a French reader, and to do that as discreetly as possible. Slave Old Man is a short but extremely complex and dense text. The creolization of the text was so widespread that it had to be maintained without disrupting the story, and frankly, you’ve already outlined the reasons why I did what I did: individual words could either remain untranslated, like gnomic little lumps in the text, or be translated into English, in which case they would simply vanish (not an option), or they would have all been translated in a huge glossary, which would have been a royal pain for the reader. Therefore, they were dealt with in situ, and as you said, this was (literally) fitting.
As for the translator’s note and endnotes, I found them necessary, but any reader is free to ignore them, although ignoring the endnotes would leave big lumps everywhere. The publisher then suggested that I add something about Chamoiseau and Glissant, and that became the afterword—again, optional, but very helpful in context. Here I might add that The New Press could not have been more supportive of my take on this translation, and dared to publish a most unusual text. Because even the “straight” French is quite like an idiolect: Chamoiseau writes in…Chamoiseau.
TM: This is a book that lives or dies on tone/style. The man at the center is a fascinating figure, but it’s the mythical tone, the unique combination of a sort of detached perspective and an immediate, pressing urgency, that makes this a special translation. A significant portion of the book is a mastiff, with an almost magical aura, chasing a slave, who is painfully human, but also already almost a legendary figure, both to other slaves and his master. Are there places in the novel, moments, lines, recurrences, that helped you lock this tone down? The full introduction of the mastiff was one for me, as a reader.
LC: Every reader reads a different story, and will react in a personal way to the text, but my interpretation is locked to the French. And that belongs to Chamoiseau. I try to match his tone, his style, and there’s no strategy to that: I try to stay out of the way. Read; write. I do have favorite moments, of course, they’re everywhere, but as an example of something modest but telling in the seismic balance of the novel, I’d cite page 13, at the end of the first chapter, where the plantation is introduced, its inhabitants sketched…and suddenly chaos sets in. For hours, the master is at a loss, cudgeling his brain, when like a Fate emerging from the shadows to announce the arrival of Destiny, “a clairvoyant négresse advances to tell him, in the sunny flash of her teeth, ‘It’s that one who’s escaped his body, oui.’” That’s it, that’s all, that is her one moment in this tale: the old slave has escaped, the master comes out of his trance—and realizes that the mastiff has been howling for hours! A howling that in Creole (défolmante) is “dis-in-te-gra-ting” the master’s world. The black crone speaks “dans l’embellie de ses dents”: an embellie, in French, is when the sun breaks through clouds, and the author uses the word five times in this tale. On page five, after announcing that the Master adores the savage mastiff because it always catches runaways, Chamoiseau tells us that “The sudden sunshine of his smile [embellie de sourire] breaks through only for this beast.” And a few pages later, we find the tables are turned, as the lowest of his slaves bares her teeth at him in a “sunny flash.” His smile, her teeth: that’s the plot in a nutshell. The second chapter now returns to the beginning, to tell the story from inside that mythical space you described. All a translator has to do is follow Chamoiseau’s lead, carefully, and it’s up to the reader to pay attention.
TM: Now, call it a spoiler if you want, but eventually, the novel switches to first person. The balance between mythical distance and realist immediacy shifts. Both elements are still there, but in a different way than before. It’s a masterful change, by both Patrick Chamoiseau and you. Even the way Creole is used after seems to be a little different. Did you find this a particular challenge, or something that came with your overall conception of the translation?
LC: Again, Chamoiseau leads, I track him, I follow. The moment when the narrative voice shifts to “I” for the runaway is dramatic, but the dog and its master are shifting as well. This book is infused with the spirit of time, and holocaust, and man’s inhumanity to man, and the heroism of great souls in surprising places, and the sacredness of art that, like the Stone, keeps life alive even in death. All the faults, injustices, oppressions, and destructions our species embodies flourish in the institution of slavery, and when the old slave breaks free to run back in time and into nature to shelter in the Stone he becomes, with all his imperfections, a lightning flash of hope, the “crystal of light” the amazed mastiff glimpses on page 90. Slave Old Man has the sublime arc of a rainbow, which leads not to a treacherous pot of gold, but to the Stone, a vision of chaos, acceptance, and redemption.
TM: Do you feel any pressure with role or responsibility translating from cultures with colonial histories like Martinique? And what should readers know about Creole and literature? Where is the movement now? This year the longlist had a book from French and Martinican Creole and one entirely from Haitian Kreyòl, Drézafi. You even discuss the latter in your note.
LC: As I said in the afterword, there is a vision of language and the world that sees the Caribbean as a self-creating model for justice and beauty, to push back against colonialism and imperialism in the widest sense. Control, exploitation, oppression—these are elements of our daily life, really, and they’re writ large in misogyny, racism, all the prejudices we harbor. I haven’t translated a single book that was all sweetness and light; six of my 80 translations were about genocide. Not including the ones about the two World Wars. My responsibility is to the French text, and as long as I’m attuned to this text, and familiar with its terrain, that takes care of everything.
That said, the extreme situation of colonialization still affects much Caribbean literature, for the local slave cultures were exclusively oral, and Chamoiseau makes no bones about his devotion to the orality and the potpourri nature of Creoles, born of the mix of African voices with the particular European language of an island’s white ruling class. His mantra: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.” A codicil might well be: “Screw the gaze of The Other: I wander where I please!” So did Shakespeare and Rabelais, and the more the merrier.
And Caribbean Creoles, looked at in their origins—the rubbing together of languages that create new ones—are a model of how language itself lives on. There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but the possibilities are infinite. I don’t teach anymore, and would never presume to speak about “Creole and literature,” but I think it’s safe to say that once-marginal voices all through our societies are speaking up, and loudly—some of them, at least—for tolerance and the opening up of all the world’s cultures, which is a welcome and wonderful thing. And we read constantly about the fading and death of languages around the globe, so any books in any Creoles are welcome saviors of the fragile worlds they sustain.
Max’s recent post cataloging 13 years of Anglo-American “Prizewinners” got me wondering… what were the most decorated books in foreign-language fiction during the same period? And how many of them are currently available in English? I assumed that, in an Internet age, this information would be easy to come by in consolidated form; as it turned out, I was wrong. And so, by way of a remedy, I embarked on a tortuous research process.The first step was to figure out what prizes I should be looking at. I tried to identify awards that recognized a single work of fiction annually, or biennially; that focused on a specific linguistic tradition; and that would give a book traction in a market sizable enough to facilitate comparison. That is, I was looking for analogues for the National Book Award or the Booker. The list of prizes I ended up with covers a slightly expanded version of the U.N. Security Council – France and its former colonies, the Spanish-speaking world, Germany and Austria, Italy, Russia, and Japan – which may, in itself, tell us something about the nature of literary laurels.Next, to allow for the time required to translate a book, I narrowed my window to the years 1995-2005, assuming that more recent books may still be in the process of translation. Using Wikipedia, World Literature Today the Library of Congress Catalog, Amazon.com, Babelfish, and other resources, I was able to track down English-language versions of prize-winning titles from those years (though not to rule out the existence of translations the LoC and Amazon might have missed).With its many arbitrary elements, its patent Eurocentrism, and its shaky grasp of some of the languages and cultures involved (readers are encouraged to enlighten me via the comments button), my ad hoc methodology makes the one publisher John O’Brien critiques in the current issue of CONTEXT look positively rigorous. Nonetheless, in light of O’Brien’s argument that “translations have suddenly moved from their marginalized place in the American marketplace,” the resulting list turns out to be pretty interesting. And, no matter how one interprets the data, this “International Edition” of our Prizewinners feature should offer readers who share my passion for contemporary world literature a place to start.(N.B.: Jealous of Max’s arithmetic prowess, I’ve injected some pseudoscience into this post by calculating the Translation Quotient (TQ): percentage of winners of each award that have been translated into English. The prizes are listed in descending order of TQ.)1. French-Language LiteratureIn the Prix Goncourt, France has one of the world’s most venerable and distinguished literary awards. Every December since 1903, it has been given to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.” My favorites among the honorees include Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove and Patrick Chaimoiseau’s Texaco. Perhaps because of the prize’s august history, and perhaps because of the intensity with which the French promote their literary culture, the Goncourt has the best Translation Quotient of any of the prizes I looked at. Of the 11 winning books from 1995 to 2005, eight have been translated into English. The 2006 winner, Les Bienveillantes, was written in French by an American, and was one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2008.Goncourt winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 73%)1995 – Andrëi Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers (Arcade)1997 – Patrick Rambaud, The Battle (Grove)1998 – Paule Constant, Trading Secrets (University of Nebraska Press)1999 – Jean Echenoz, I’m Gone (New Press)2000 – Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven (City Lights)2001 – Jean-Christophe Rufin, Brazil Red (Norton)2003 – Jacques-Pierre Amette, Brecht’s Mistress (New Press)2004 – Laurent Gaudé, The House of Scorta (MacAdam/Cage)2. Spanish-Language LiteratureNovelists working in Spanish have a number of interesting prizes at their disposal, including the Cervantes Prize, given for lifetime achievement. The premier prize for a single novel is pretty widely recognized to be the semiannual Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos. Three out of the six winners from 1995 – 2005 have been translated into English; some authors, like Enrique Vila-Matas, have had works other than their Gallegos-winners translated.RRómulo Gallegos winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 50%)1995 – Javier Marías (Spain), Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (New Directions)1997 – Ángeles Mastretta (Mexico), Lovesick (Riverhead)1999 – Roberto Bolaño (Chile), The Savage Detectives (FSG)3. Italian LiteratureThe preeminent Italian prize is the Premio Strega; the Italians seem to do a pretty good job getting books chosen for the Strega translated into English. Of the 11 winners between 1995 and 2005, three have been translated into English, and several authors have had other titles appear in the U.S.Strega winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 27%)1999 – Dacia Maraini, Darkness (Steerforth)2002 – Margaret Mazzantini, Don’t Move (Anchor)2003 – Melania G. Mazzucco Vita (FSG)4. Russian LiteratureThis one was a disappointment. Russian is one of the great literary languages, and has its own Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize. Monumental winners like Georgy Vladimov’s The General and His Army (1995) would seem to be right up my alley – but haven’t been translated into English. Vasily Aksyonov, a Millions favorite and winner of the Russian Booker in 2004, has had a number of books appear in the U.S. But apparently, only one book that took home the prize between 1995 and 2005 has itself been translated.Russian Booker winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 9%)2003 – Ruben Gallego White On Black (Harcourt)5. German-Language LiteratureI have to admit, this surprised me. I would have expected German speakers, with their robust literary heritage, to coronate a single book each year to present to the world. Then again, given the history of the last 150 years, the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, and so on, I suppose it’s not surprising that there is some fragmentation when it comes to awards. Perhaps as a remedy, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in 2005 created the German Book Prize. But according to my (admittedly cursory) research, the preeminent prizes for a single work of German-language fiction during the 1995 – 2005 period would have been Austria’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Alfred Döblin Prize (endowed by Günter Grass). Surprisingly, out of the 17 combined winners of these two prizes from 1995 – 2005, only one was translated into English. (The percentage goes up slightly, to two out of 20, if we throw in the great Ingo Schulze’s, 33 Moments of Happiness, which won the Döblin “Förderpreis,” [meaning, first novel prize?] in 1995).Döblin and Bachmann winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 6%)1995 – Norbert Gstrein, English Years (Minerva [U.K.])Japanese LiteratureA mixed bag here. The Tanizaki Prize would seem to confer just the kind of distinction a publisher would want – it’s so selective that some years, they don’t even give it out – and yet none of the 12 winners from 1995 to 2005 have been translated into English. (There were two winners in 1997, 2000, and 2005). Then again, Yuko Tsushima, who won in 1998 and Yoko Tawada, who won in 2003, have had other works translated into English, and Ryu Murakami has been translated quite often.Tanizaki Winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 0%)
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.
Kenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition – a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow’s world-historical reach – and Ngugi’s storytelling gifts – may emerge disappointed that it isn’t quite a homer.Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, “The Ruler” instantly evokes Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda’s Idi Amin… and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not “entirely coincidental.” Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction – his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria’s economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why – thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.The country’s cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged “to the size of electric bulbs… so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places.” Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened – the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers’ jockeying for position emerges the book’s Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, “to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?”Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular – as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel’s refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti’s depressive asceticism, Nyawira’s spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I’ve read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful “Wizard of the Crow,” and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi’s least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but…Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet’s mnemonic didacticism clashes with the “literary” desire for understatement.It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira – to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau’s magisterial Texaco.Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it’s equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel’s deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world’s heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!