Maletas perdidas

5 April 2010

— Pegaso camión, the model that Gabriel drives, found via Daniel Gascón.

This is beginning to become a series of book reports about Spanish-language novels, I’m afraid, but nothing else comes to mind these days. So: today I’d like to tell you about Maletas perdidas, Barcelona writer Jordi Puntí’s first novel, published last month by Salamandra in Catalán and in a concurrent Spanish translation (done by Rita de Costa, although Puntí is, of course, bilingual).

I found it in the library when I went looking for his story collection, Animales tristes (Salamandra, 2003), which was on Milo J. Krmpotic’s list of “Ten Celebrated & Beloved Novels From Spain That Have Yet to Find An American Publisher,” and I’m just short of finished with it.

It’s very good for a certain value of history as sensation, as a feeling — in this case the feeling you get of a Spain in the 60s & 70s still under an aging Franco, borders closed off, Barcelona a sleepier town without even an airport to its name, the first tentative shipments of tourists just starting to disembark in Málaga. Just try to imagine Spain without tourists, even — impossible, these days. Semana Santa this week, & Bilbao kind of empties out — it’s still a northern working town, and everyone’s on vacation — but you do notice foreigners on the streets now, French high schoolers, people asking me for directions to the Guggenheim in broken Spanish.

In Maletas perdidas, people are still getting thrown in prison in Barcelona for having Catalán political slogans written on plaster casts. War orphans in the 40s are sent to be cared for by monks or Jesuits, who give them last names that mark them as abandoned children (in the case of the father: Delacruz & Expósito) — this earns them a certain amount of sympathy in some cases, a certain amount of suspicion in others (how were they orphaned? is there Red blood in their veins, were their parents dissolute Republicans, anarchists?). Rural Andalucíans are migrating everywhere as cheap factory labor — to Bilbao & Barcelona, mostly, and also in Spanish neighborhoods on the fringes of European capitals. Puntí references Jaén in the backgrounds of three separate minor characters (shout-out!) as a shorthand for people escaping rural poverty. In Bilbao they still talk about that influx in the 60s & 70s as being encouraged by Franco explicitly as a way to de-Basque the provinces, bring in some Spaniards.

It’s a kind of a road novel — a missing father who drove a moving truck across Europe for a Barcelona-based company whose owner in is tight with the government & has a contract to move Francoist government officials to their posts in Europe when they’re assigned there. Gabriel, our missing, orphaned protaganist, fathers four sons in four different countries, and so we have two narratives — in the past, we’re given a kind of travelogue out of that somnabulent, isolated Spain into a Europe frothing over with rebellious students, drugs, cultural effervescence, social unrest. We get a lengthy psychadelic interlude on a ferry crossing the Channel, where in addition to household objects our furniture movers are covertly transporting the daughter of a wealthy Barcelona family to a London hospital so that she can get an abortion (she takes LSD with a couple of hippies & ends up naked on a horse). We get front row seats for radical student riots in Paris. Meanwhile, in the present tense, the four sons, who have only recently found out about each other, follow the traces left by their father (missing, but perhaps alive?) and narrate in the first person plural.

The narrative voice (nosotros) certainly sounds unusual in English, & I think it probably qualifies as a formal innovation in Spanish too. Puntí’s prose style (well, in translation) is funny, colloquial & lyrical by turns— and, interestingly in Spanish, pretty punchy. Lots of sentence fragments, the rhythm much more staccato than, say, those sinuous & winding pagelong sentences in Javier Marías.

It doesn’t look to me as though this will see English publication any time soon — Puntí is pretty well critically acclaimed, but he writes in Catalán, and his 2003 story collection doesn’t have an English-language deal either. In that spirit, then, and after a too-pretentious facebook status recommending it to any of my friends who read Spanish prompted Bryan McKay to leave a two-word comment (“Translate it”), I got an itch & decided on Sunday to do exactly that, at least to the end of the first chapter, to try and give you the flavor of it.

I have some thoughts about the particular difficulties of translating it, & the piecework strategies I used, but I’ll save those for the comments. All I have to say now is the obligatory — Translation is hard! I mean fatiguing. The more you read, the more you start to think in Spanish, & the harder it is to recover whatever idiomatic English you’re trying to bring to mind.  This is just a rough run-through I patched together yesterday & this afternoon over vermouth in the Casco Viejo — if you’re interested, I’ve attached the first eleven pages in a pdf here: Translation, MALETAS PERDIDAS.