Fiction In Conversation
You, Me, Larsen, Petrus, and Dr. Díaz Grey
Donald Breckenridge in conversation with translator Katherine Silver
A Dream Come True (Archipelago Books) gathers together the complete stories of Juan Carlos Onetti into English for the very first time. To commemorate this momentous occasion I interviewed his translator Katherine Silver—we exchanged emails over the first two weeks in September.
Donald Breckenridge: How did you first discover Onetti—when and where?
Katherine Silver: I first read Onetti in the very late 70s, early 80s, when I was keeping the questionable company of Latin American literature fanatics and then started taking classes on the subject at the university. I remember my early experience of reading Onetti in contrast to, say, the works of Alejo Carpentier and Lezama Lima. In all those cases, I understood little, yet I loved what I was reading. Like the experience of reading as a child, when the mystery itself is what compels, spurs one on to continue reading. With the Cubans, specifically, the problem was the vocabulary, the baroque syntax, and I needed time and experience and the Spanish language before I could fully take them in. But with Onetti I knew even then that the difficulty was of a different nature, that I had not only to learn to read Spanish, but to learn to read. Period. I remember El Astillero [The Shipyard ] as having constantly overcast skies, but the blur was in my cognition. Even later, over the years, whenever I went back to Onetti, I knew that I would never really get him unless I translated him. This is one of the reasons I started translating: to learn to read and write and to penetrate more difficult texts, al fondo. Translating Onetti now, toward the end of my career, is the perfect affirmation of that impulse, that passion, the proof— joyous—that I am still learning how to read. I had the oddest experience when I was reviewing the page proofs of the translation: finally, after reading those stories tens of times, after struggling over every phrase, every sentence, they were finally revealing themselves to me in their full mystery.
One thing I did understand right away when I started reading Onetti, though probably somewhat vaguely: his work was behind and under and of a different caliber than many of the more accessible and popular books of the so-called Latin American Boom, which we were also reading voraciously at the time. His work was never going to be “popular,” in any language; he was always going to be an acquired taste, a writer’s writer.
DB: In reading Onetti you’ll occasionally find that as brilliant as his sentences frequently are, he will freely employ a nearly blithe indifference, albeit an exquisite one, toward the reader which requires more energy and closer attention to the line than say reading Cortázar, for example, who had been my point of departure and frame of reference for Latin American fiction until I discovered Onetti in my early twenties. His dazzling iridescent sheen, sometimes it reads as almost fickle, atop the imagery and surrounding his characters’ motivations, will occasionally deliberately counter their impulses, and work in direct opposition to their perceptions, thus forcing multiple perspectives on the reader.
Reading an Onetti sentence has always been a singular experience, and you have done a remarkable job of bringing all of his hermitic worlds into English. And absolutely yes, he is certainly a writer’s writer, and so how do you think a high school dropout managed to pull this off?
KS: Maybe only a high school dropout could have pulled it off! Onetti’s masters were the masters themselves, most importantly to my mind, Faulkner and Proust (who had much more of an influence on him, I think, than many have recognized.) He read voraciously and broadly. Isn’t that the best training for a writer? I picture him as not having intermediaries telling him how to swallow and absorb and then use what he was reading. His early stories, really juvenilia, feel like interesting (even more so upon rereading) but sometimes blind stabs at finding a voice, a style, a sentence structure, really a form, that could allow him to most fully express his experience of being alive, of Time (as Onetti writes: in literature, Time is written with a capital T). I think “A Dream Come True” is an important breakthrough—I agree with Vargas Llosa that it is his first masterpiece—though he never really settles, he keeps tanteando, groping, experimenting, playing, till the end of his life.
Yes, he does seem sometimes to not consider the poor reader (let alone the translator!), but I don’t see that difficulty as imposed or contrived, as “style” separate from “substance.” Because he also never underestimates the reader’s ability, never explains or dumbs down. Onetti rarely falls into what Vargas Llosa calls “verbalism,” a kind of verbal acrobatics, which has more style than substance; mostly his descriptions, of a landscape or the look on a woman’s face, are concise and vivid, crystal clear. Poetry. You mention Cortázar. Especially in his stories—maybe less in Hopscotch?—his language is limpid, see-through, deceptively simple (though some of his translators didn’t always honor that), whereas in Onetti, the focus is on language itself, its capacity to fudge perspective and time, a language that gets pushed to the very threshold of the sayable.
But I think it’s a mistake to focus too much on the difficulty of reading Onetti. Many of his stories are actually quite compelling: page-turners. Many are structured like detective stories (he was steeped in Poe and, of course, Borges), where a key resolving element is kept tantalizingly out of reach of the reader until the end. It is said he spent much of his last ten years in exile in Spain lying in bed, drinking whisky, smoking cigarettes, and reading detective novels.
When Jill Schoolman and I first discussed translating and publishing Onetti’s stories, we thought we wanted to do a selection. The stories, as I’m sure you would agree, are not uniform in accomplishment, and I thought it preferable to cull the best. In the end, I’m very glad we did them all. They inform on each other, enrich and enhance the experience of reading each one, and several that I liked less before translating them have turned out to be my favorites. I hope readers skip around, maybe start with the more accessible stories, then turn to the earlier ones, then move on to the more demanding ones. “A Dream Come True” is a good place to start, as is “Welcome, Bob,” as well as the novella, “Jacob and The Other.” In that last one, he changes narrators as the story is told, but not, as he does in other stories, in the middle of a paragraph and without any warning! Then I’d recommend the stories you are running, “Most Dreaded Hell,” “As Sad as She,” as well as “House in the Sand.” Those three stories taught me how to read Onetti. In them, you learn that one day can be all days, one moment can include all moments, and that Díaz Gray, or some of the other denizens in Santa María, are definitely not reliable narrators, au contraire, and that their lives have no narrative arc or coherent back story. They were born on the page...
Thank you for your kind words about the translation. To use a cliché, translating Onetti was both a nightmare and a joy. The imperatives that I follow as a translator—to add nothing, subtract nothing, keep what’s ambiguous ambiguous, and what’s clear clear, avoid including my own interpretation beyond the text itself so as not to limit the reader’s options—are nowhere more important than in Onetti. Like crossing over a deep abyss on a narrow rope. Very little room for error. A writer’s writer, a translator’s writer.
DB: I really like that line, a language that gets pushed to the very threshold of the sayable, as I think in many ways that sums up the spirit of his approach to literature from the very beginning. I would be very wary to refer to his supposed lapses as lapses into verbalism (especially coming from Vargas Llosa) which relies heavily on style over substance simply because I have always appreciated Onetti’s trust in my ability to comprehend where he is taking me, and that if I don’t get there on the first or second try then the path will reveal itself on the third or even fourth pass.
And while the earlier pieces in this remarkable collection can’t touch the mastery of his middle years, I really enjoyed watching him push boundaries and flesh out the characters in “The Obstacle,” the second story in the collection which was first published in ’35 when he was all of twenty-six. Also “The Possible Baldi,” from ’36 has a terrific disenfranchised post-adolescent humor and lurking anger to it that I immensely appreciate.
The day this book arrived I had been out all afternoon selling wine in the sweltering heat and humidity. It had been a brutal day and while collecting the mail when I got home the last thing I thought I’d be doing for the next six hours was immersing myself in a short story collection but that is exactly what happened. I sat down at my desk and opened the book pretty much at random then began reading “Most Dreaded Hell,” and I was about halfway through the story when I realized that I had taken off one shoe but forgot to remove the other one. That was on the first day of August and I have been over the moon for this book ever since.
Who are some of the other writers you’ve translated that were as challenging and perhaps as rewarding as J. C. O.?
KS: “Most Dreaded Hell” is a merciless portrayal of individual emotional suffering and degradation. Despite what some consider Onetti’s misogyny, the female character—and putative villain and victimizer—is portrayed with depth, empathy, and even compassion. The same can be said about the female characters in “Masquerade” (a prostitute), “Esbjerg By the Sea,” (a Danish woman married to an Onetti loser of the first order), “As Sad as She” (a neglected wife being eternally punished for a minor infidelity), “The Twins” (two child prostitutes), and “Full Moon” (an older woman loathing herself). I have even played with the idea that a reader—this reader—feels his women as flesh and blood more than any of his men, who mostly remain vague and ungrounded, clueless, baffled by the world they find themselves in (many are Adam-like, readymade, though usually lacking a mate, their creator less generous), to be pitied but not loved. Sometimes I think he identified most (or on a different level from his obsession with the prepubescent female) with his women characters, and several stories dealing with non-standard sexuality and gender ambiguity buoyed me in that direction (“Soap” and “On the Thirty-First”).
Among the stories I grew to love and admire, but which might better be read, even at random, after some of the others have been approached, are “The Kidnapped Bride” and “Death and the Girl.” It has been said that the first one was inspired by “Roses for Emily,” though if Faulkner lent the initial spark, Onetti carried the torch as far afield as Yoknapatawpha County is from Santa María. (That’s supposed to be a joke.) The second, a novella more than a story, often published in Spanish as a separate volume, is a detective novel without a crime, but with a lot of guilt to go around. Both are Onetti at his most trusting of his reader, a world the reader would do best to enter entirely and therein allow the language and the mood to immerse you in ways you describe...one shoe off, one shoe on.
After we discussed the complexity and difficulty of his language, or its possible verbalism at moments, I remembered that many of the stories in the last third of the volume, toward the end of his life, are crystalline and narratively straightforward, in that regard like Cortázar’s best. Among these are, for example, “Montaigne,” the story of a reunion of friends invited to witness the host’s suicide; and several that refer to the brutal dictatorship that forced him into exile: “Three in the Morning,” “Presencia,” “The Tree.” But here, as in all his work, Onetti’s stories are as much about what is not said as what is...translator beware!
It’s difficult to compare projects, authors, as each presents a different challenge and reward. I worked on Onetti right after and at times alternating with the translation of a selection of stories by the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro (NYRB, forthcoming 2019), another fascinating, important writer who was overshadowed by the writers of the Boom. I have been referring to both of them as “twentieth-century classics,” writers who cared about writing (the joy of crafting sentences and creating worlds, which infused their grim view of life with elation) and not about the market (imagine that). Both uncompromising. As with all great artists, however, what matters is not how they resemble each other or anybody else, but how their voices —the translator’s hook, our guide, the stuff of our craft, what we must hear and never stop listening to—are incomparably and uniquely theirs.
DB: I decided to run “As Sad as She” and “Most Dreaded Hell” because they mirror one another so beautifully, and I thought they would be a perfect introduction to his writing, for the Rail readers who are unfamiliar with Onetti, in addition they happen to be profoundly sympathetic stories that possess extraordinary empathy and masterful depth. While pressing his novels on friends and writers over the years I have always felt compelled to preface my enthusiasm for his work by quietly mentioning how he isn’t particularly kind to the majority of his female characters, although I have never used the word misogyny to describe his depictions of women. And so yes it was an absolute revelation to discover how sympathetic he is with his women characters throughout these short stories.
In touching on something you mentioned about his later years; how do you think his exile informed his work? Do you think he evolved naturally? Was this straightforward paired down style you find throughout the last third of the collection something he was destined to gradually evolve into over time, or do you think that this paired down minimalist style is the result of a psychic shock he could have sustained as a result of his imprisonment and subsequent forced displacement?
KS: I can’t help but notice that I am answering this question on September 11. Before it was our tragic anniversary, it was Chile’s, 1973, the second—Uruguay’s being the first—of a series of brutal military coups that took place in South America, coups that, as Salvador Allende said in his last speech while under siege, retook power in order to defend profits and privilege. Plus ça change...
My sense—derived mostly from the texts themselves—is that, yes, exile—and the prior imprisonment—was a shock, and clearly his writing practice, his relationship to his art, changed dramatically after 1976. Whether he was anyway coming to the end of what you call “the mastery of his middle years,” is probably unknowable. On the other hand, here is a sentence from an article he wrote in 1978: “There’s only time to partially unpack the suitcases, and it is impossible to begin anything anew, or every moment is drenched in urgency, in the depressing sensation of futility.”
Many of his later stories are more distilled, less peppered with those uncanny and ultimately gorgeous strings of discordant and crescendoing adjectives that dig down into the overlay of moments, and more with the telling of something, the recounting, if that distinction makes any sense. Though even these generalities are difficult to sustain, for “Montaigne” and especially “Ki no Tsuryuki” are more in the vein of some of his earlier works. (Were they written earlier and only published later? I don’t know, though somebody probably does.) Plus, he did write and publish at least two novels while in Spain. The paradox is that, in part due to the cultural relationship between Spain and its ex-colonies, Onetti’s residence in Spain expanded his audience, his exposure, and the recognition of his work, which included his winning the Premio Cervantes in 1980. Also interesting is that he did not return to Uruguay in 1984, when his old friend, Julio María Sanguinetti, was elected president. During the last ten years of his life, particularly the last five, he became increasingly homebound. Maybe he got tired of reconciling the world he had created in his mind, namely Santa María, namely literature, with the physical world around him, and by then he knew that in Uruguay he would be as far away from Santa María as he was in Spain.