Sunday, January 16, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 14.1 (Javier Marías)

Marías, Javier
Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí


Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books in September of 2009.

This is the last Marías book I read cover to cover. I am still stuck halfway in another, which I am not sure I'll got back to. It took me a long time to read this book, mostly because I got stuck on one passage.

I could not figure out what was happening. I read it and re-read it and got nowhere. I could not go on without understanding the meaning of the passage because it establishes not only the profession of the protagonist, but also a crucial professional relationship that determines the course of the events that follow.

I got so frustrated that I put the book down for several months.

One day I broke down and went to the library and found the English translation. Once I'd established the meaning of the sentence, it was much easier to move forward. Sadly, my memory of this book, which is a great one, is still marred by my frustration with trying to understand this one passage. I'll quote it below. But here's the set-up.

The book opens on a date between a man and a married woman. They are in her apartment. Her young son is in the other room. Suddenly, she dies. The man, frightened, makes a sandwich for the little boy, now asleep, and leaves without calling anyone, for fear of suspicion and also of the husband. He reads the paper and finds out the location of the funeral and anonymously attends. He then seeks to ingratiate himself with the family. The father (named Téllez) happens to be an aide to the king of Spain and the protagonist, a writer, gets a job writing speeches for the king.

Here's the beginning of the passage in Spanish:

Fue a través del padre como conocí a esos hijos simultaneamente, y a Téllez procuré conocerlo y lo conocí de hecho a través de un amigo al que en más de una ocasión he suplantado, o al que había prestado mi voz y ahora tuve que prestar mi presencia, y además busqué y quise hacerlo, a diferencia de otras veces. Ese amigo se llama o hace llamar Ruibérriz de Torres y tiene un aspecto indecoroso....

Ok, paraphrased, this tells us that the protagonist got to know the Téllez children at the same time as the father and that he got to know the father through a friend named Ruibérriz de Torres..."who I had on more than one occasion supplanted, or lent my voice, and to whom I now had to lend my presence, and what's more, unlike in the past, this time I sought him out, I wanted to do it."

This all makes sense at a certain point, but what follows is a description of this friend as a sort of failed writer who now made a living writing speeches for others. However, his "indecorous" appearance caused the people for whom he worked some alarm that he might prove an embarrassment. So, he often hired the protagonist to work as a proxy. Sometimes as a ghost writer, other times as a more pleasing physical substitute.

Anyhow, this is not explained immediately, but slowly and obliquely, which caused me a lot of confusion. The passage above is mysterious enough that I entertained the possibility that Torres was a figment of the author's imagination. What further confused me is that the word for "ghost writer" is simply "negro," which literally mens, "black." I was not aware of this, so my confusion was compounded by this sentence later on in the passage:

Así, él es lo que se llama un negro en el lenguaje literario--en otras lenguas un escritor fantasma--y yo he oficiado por tanto de negro del negro, o fantasma del fantasma si pensamos en las otras lenguas, doble fantasma y doble negro, doble nadie.

Thinking somehow that Torres might be a figment of the author's imagination, and not knowing the maning of "negro," my internal translator broke down and could not comprehend the meaning this passage. For some reason, I was also reading "fantasm" as "phantasm," when it really means ghost.

If you translate "negro" as "black" and use the cognate of "fantasma," the passage reads like this:

So, he is what in literary parlance is called a black--in other languages a phantasm--and so I have served as the black of a black, the phantasm of a phantasm, if we are thinking of other languages, a double black, a double phantasm, a double nobody.

Properly translated, it should read something like this:

So, he is what in literary parlance is called a ghost writer. And so I have served as the ghost of a ghost writer, a double ghost, a double nobody.

Unfortunately, you have to lose the extra level of translation because the "other languages" he refers to in the original include English. A perfect translation would require another phrase for ghost writer, so you could get at all the layers of character doubling. You might pull it off by reversing the languages. Something like this:

He is what in literary parlance is called a ghost writer--a black in other languages--and so I have served as the ghost of a ghost writer, the black of a black if we are thinking in other languages, a double ghost, a double black, a double nobody.

Anyhow, you can see how one might get confused.

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