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.

Alacranes en su tinta

23 March 2010

Today I want to tell you about Alacranes en su tinta, which I started over Christmas & then left on my bookshelf for a while & then finally finished a week or two ago. I wrote in January, ‘I’m about halfway through, and haven’t gotten to the plot yet,’ and the reason why is, it turns out, because the novel consists of a few different pieces patched together, like a lurid quilt.

The first is a shaggy gastronomical tour of Bilbao, in which our narrator, Pacho Murga, embarks on an endless cab ride on New Year’s Eve, 2000, for undisclosed but apparently urgent reasons that have to do with (poisoned? we’re not sure) oysters. The narrative immediately grinds to a halt. We flash back to some months previous — he’s been cut off by his rich, hotel-dwelling father, and is lurching around having expensive taste in wine. Eventually he meets Antón Astigarraga, an eccentric alcoholic (with, we already know from the back cover, a tormented past) who whips up elaborate & delicious pintxos — deconstructed tortilla con patatas, a cup of foie-gras in a wine gelée and caramelized pear, a gazpacho of cockles & frozen cream in virgin olive oil, deboned quail thighs in a puff pastry sarcophagus . . . —  in a hole-in-the-wall in Casco Viejo. Also a pair of twins who own a bar — called Twins, in English — that specializes in dry martinis. They no longer speak to each other, for reasons that may or may not have to do with an infamous sexual substitution enacted on Ava Gardner in New York in the 70s.

When I left off, the Twins had just been found dead in an apparent dual murder, the present tense of the narrative was still in that damn cab, and the atormentada venganza promised by the back cover (which anticipates the plot by at least 150 pages) was nowhere to be seen.

At this point, a lengthy confession signed by Astigarraga is found, entitled Confessiones de un catador de Franco, and the bulk of the novel is taken up in relating this story, back in the late 60s, with a whole new narrator (there are occasional interjections from our poor, benighted Pacho Murga, who we’re realizing is a little dimwitted), and it’s a doozy, all sex-and-death and monstrous improbabilities.

In brief: catador (not in my dictionary, but I figured it out) means food-taster, which is to say that Astigarra’s father, and later Astigarra himself, taste Franco’s food before he eats it. Astigarra becomes the point man in an ETA plot to poison Franco, masterminded by his uncle Patxi, and things, of course, go horribly awry — Franco decides at the last minute that he’s a little carsick and not hungry, the food, already poisoned, is eaten as leftovers by Astigarra’s loyal father, who dies instantly, and Astigarra himself, who’d been promised an antidote, discovers it was a placebo,  & is sent into a years-long coma in which is is completely conscious, but unable to move, see, or communicate, for years, with nothing to think about other than the fact that his father is dead & his own death was part of his uncle’s plan all along.

While he’s under, he devises elaborate plans of revenge for the five architects of the plot, one of whom is a Jesuit who is sexually molesting him the entire time he’s in the hospital. The others, apart from tío Patxi, have become a famous opera singer, the coach for Bilbao Athletic, and ‘an important Basque politican.’

Well, now we’re in a narrative that is somehow tedious & overwrought at the same time — he becomes the priest’s lover just so that he can kill him, does the same thing to the opera singer, eventually joins ETA (to get closer to tío Patxi) & takes refuge in France (picture France in the 80s, ETA guys crowding the Basque bars just across the border, the French police not doing a thing . . . ), falls in love with a French girl whose father is a chef, learns how to cook, and then — just as things were getting back to normal, right? — she’s killed, tragically!, by a GAL assassination squad.

I’ll say this, at least I learned something. Because who or what, you ask, is the GAL? Well: turns out that during the 80s, a far-reaching conspiracy in the Spanish government siphoned public money to fund a deniable splinter group of French & Portuguese mercenaries & moonlighting Spanish national police called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), whose purpose was to range up & about French & Spanish Basque country kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating ETA members, or people associated with ETA members, or people with Basque names.

Really, you say? Yes, really. The whole thing was exposed by El Mundo in ’87, and there was a trial (well — just read the wikipedia article; I’m not pretending to know any of this). And before the GAL, there was the BVE, the Batellón Vasco Español, which did for the post-Franco UCD government in ’75-’81 the same thing the GAL did from ’81 to ’87 for the PSOE. Apparently the GAL was in large part responsible for ETA’s continuing existence post-Franco.

Incidentally, there’s more ETA in the news this week — an ETA member killed a French policeman, which used to be absolutely against the rules (France was referred to by ETA as ‘our sanctuary,’ and the deal was that they’d use it as a staging area but refrain from violence). Meanwhile, an ETA member has disappeared & then been found dead mysteriously. Red graffiti asking, in Basque, Where is Jon? has erupted all over the walls & alleyways of Bilbao.

The political graffiti is always painted over in less than 48 hours. A friend of mine is taking pictures. In one of them, a long Basque sentence, red, on the wall of the river walk on my way to the market, the only other thing I can understand is PSOE-GAL, which is clear enough, really.

Anyways. The GAL assassination launches Astigarra right back into it: he kills tío Patxi, and the Athletic coach, in feats of arson & torture that seem unlikely to say the least, and then we’re brought more or less up to the present, where he’s planned, in a huge féte at the newly-built Guggenheim catered by his pintxos restaurant (brought to prominence by our narrator, who has been used!) an assassination attempt on the last remaining conspirator, that nationalist politician, who as it turns out is none other than the lehendakari Jon Ander Txoriburu!

The lehendakari is the Basque head of state. In a novel set in Bilbao, this reveal — killing the lehendakari in the Guggenheim — is the rough equivalent of staging your American novel’s climax as, I don’t know, a death struggle featuring the President of the United States on the roof of the Empire State Building.

Naturally, everything goes wrong, including a burro chase through the Richard Serra installation. It turns out, at the end, that our narrator has eaten poisoned oysters, and, in a surreal closing dialogue that reads like a college stage play, that the cab is driven by something that may or may not be God posing as a Galician, and that our protaganist died some time ago, and is being driven through a strange & desolate country that is no longer Bilbao, and then everything fades into the middle distance, punctuated by distant radio reports and broadcast Christmas carols.

It’s all entertaining enough, I suppose, even if the pacing is a little stop-and-go and the prose style reads exactly like a columnist-turned-novelist, which is to say, nice turns of phrase from time to time, lots of sex & torture, some name-dropping . . .

Here’s a nice sentence from early on, about a good wine: ‘. . . un tinto de Ribera del Duero, un Protos reserva del noventa y uno, fuerte y redondo como una buena blasfemia.’ (p. 52) — A red from Ribera del Duero, a ’91 Protos Reserve, strong & rounded like a good blasphemy.  (Obviously, good blasphemy is no substitute, rhythm-wise, for buena blasfemia, but I can’t quite finesse it.)

In the end, it more or less confirms my suspicious that mediocre fiction is a great training-ground for someone reading in a second language. There’s lots of quotations & references threaded in — you even get the entire Olentzero children’s song in Basque & Spanish — and some undigested historical references.

I’ve got a stack of Spanish books from the library on my desk now, including an historical novel set in Cadiz, 1811, and Jordi Puntí’s Maletas Perdidas (Lost Luggage?), which is his long-form followup to his widely acclaimed (and still not translated into English) story collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Txakoli (& kalimotxo)

10 March 2010

Romería, José Arrúe (1977). Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

“El tercero era un tal Txomin Oronoz, alias Txordo (cerjijunto), un silente navarro de Elizondo, el experto en explosivos. Era adicto al kalimotxo, innoble brebaje cuya paternidad o al menos bautismo se atribuye al sediento poeta bilbaíno Gabriel Aresti.”

Alacranes en su tinta, Juan Bas (p. 188)*

Kalimotxo, (that innoble brebaje, Bas calls it — more on his weird, weird little novel tomorrow), is one of those things you discover quickly: the Basques, you’ll be told, drink (the person telling you pauses here, scandalized) wine and coca-cola together. Yes, true: In the midst of some of the best wine country in Spain, Bilbao’s youth adulterate their plonk with litres of coke, apparently since 1972, when during fiestas in Getxo (in the origin story, it was still called Getcho then), a massive quantity of wine spoiled somehow & to save the party, it was mixed with gallons of Coca-Cola so that nobody would notice.

Truth is, though, mixing cheap red wine with whatever’s at hand is kind of a Spanish national pastime (see: tinto de verano). In Aragón & parts of Navarra they call it cubata del pobre — ‘poor man’s cuba libre.’ Elsewhere in Spain, the spelling is knocked into castillian orthography & it’s called calimocho, or sometimes rioja libre. It tastes about how you’d think. The sallow 15 year-olds who are its primary consumers are called kalimotxeros.

Txakoli is a different story altogether — it’s a local white wine, very dry & acidic & served cold, didn’t even have a denominación de origen until about twenty years ago (some types were only certified eight or nine years back). Before that, it was all homemade. “Now,” a teacher from my school told me, “they even make it with grapes!” It used to be like battery acid, she said. You needed a stomach made out of steel to drink it.

But these days, it’s gone & refined itself — there was an article in the local paper about a big tasting in Madrid, it’s become trendy like Argentinian malbecs were a couple years back. There’s three main regional varieties, some of which (I drank this kind in San Sebastían) are kind of frothy, almost fizzing. In bars, they pour it into flat-bottomed glasses from a great height, or you drink it at village fiestas out of a porrón, which is this glass decanter with a spout that you hold about three feet over your head.

That’s, at least, what I did on Sunday afternoon, at the going-away party for a Basque bartender-friend who’s studying in Poland for three months. Look closely at the left part of the Arrúe painting, at the guys with the accordion & the guitar & (probably, although I can’t see it) an alboca — that was more or less the scene in Plaza Nueva three days ago: virtually everyone I knew in the city trooping through the streets of the Casco Viejo, playing traditional Basque music, dancing, drinking txakoli (an excellent accompaniment to fried seafood), drawing a crowd, little kids running alongside us.

When I get my hands on some good photographs I’ll try to tell you all about pintxos.


*Translated: “The third was one Txomin Oronoz aka Txordo (“Unibrow”), a taciturn Navarrese from Elizondo whose specialty was explosives. He was crazy for kalimotxo, that bastardized concoction fathered, or at least baptized, by that thirstiest of Bilbao’s poets, Gabriel Aresti.”

(This has to be some kind of joke that I’m not getting — one of Bilbao’s most famous Basque-language poets was a kalimotxero? If you say so, Juan Bas.)

A note on Basque spelling: tx is pronounced ch, and knowing that gets you a long ways towards being able to read it out loud.