The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Ana Clavel and the crappy translator

Posted on: January 22, 2008

A common problem in getting reviews up here is that I may feel that what I put down is not detailed or informative enough, so I let it fallow. This method does not have an impressive track record; often as not I never get around to reviewing that book. I felt doubly burdened with Desire and Its Shadow because it’s an Early Reviewers copy, which made me feel obligated to give Clavel’s novel all that I could, especially since it was a  translation and published by an independent.

The problem is that the book was not well translated and the copy editors gave up about halfway through, forcing me to correct spellings, insert missing words and punctuation until I gave up in resignation. With a promising novel like that I would not have minded, would have even eagerly returned to the first page after finishing the last, except for the prospect that a second reading would make things no clearer, that all fault lay with the translator.

It was not a foregone conclusion because Clavel wrote a story dense with shadowy imagery, symbolic dreams, and many literary and Mexican historical references. It’s framed within Soledad García’s dreams. In them she is invisible in downtown Mexico city. She reacts giddily, at first, using the opportunity to shoplift a cloud photography book and play pranks on a traffic policeman, but becomes anxious as her inability to be seen by anyone (except a street person who she briefly meets), the uncomfortable sensation of being thoroughly looked through eventually unmoors her identity, her sense of her very existence.

Scenes from this world open the first three parts of the novel and comprise all of part four. In the first three the reader moves over into what would normally be considered reality at different stages of Soledad’s life: her father’s funeral from her childhood; her affair with Peter Nagy, a Hungarian photographer, at university; and her job at the Palacio de Belles Artes. Essentially, it is a bildungrosman, an intense, psychological portrait of a woman who is both highly imaginative, predisposed to retreat within her inner mental sanctum, and unsure, indecisive, continually struggling to figure out who she is and what she truly desires; and which of the desires are the least destructive.

Paulina 1880 is similar, for it is also a novel that long occupies a young woman’s mind from childhood, allowing the reader an intimate look at her struggles with conflicting desires. However, for all of Jouve’s language play, on a fundamental level once detects a clear, honed presence, the author’s measured control. That is in no small part due to Rosette Letellier’s and Robert Bullen’s excellent translation skills. Clavel’s novel cannot give a similar boast.

She also went much further in order to portray Soledad’s double personality. Paulina feels divided within herself, with one side of her never subdued for long before the other swings into dominance. Clavel externalizes Soledad’s division by giving her an alter ego. Lucía was the name of a doll her father gave her as a birthday gift when she was younger. As Clavel is wont, this is not revealed until a few chapters into the book. On the first page one meets Lucía in the guise of an imaginary friend. For much of that period Lucía appears to be Soledad’s bolder, more outgoing side, able to earn approval from a disapproving mother and aunt, or daring to go into Miguel’s bedroom, the older brother of her friend, Rosa, before going back to her Chinese vase in which she sleeps with a dragon.

Such moments are mild enough when she’s a child but become more disconcerting as she grows older and behaves as if Lucía was an actual human being able to interact with others. Lucía reminds Soledad of events (usually sexual adventures) that Soledad cannot recall until a young man’s wave on a street, or the sight of a tall glass tower jogs her memory.

Clavel constructs this second reality with an elaborateness that lends it verisimilitude. It is probably wrong to try and number them since they bleed over into each other. What I initially took for dream sequences in which Soledad’s insecurities and memories were represented by this invisible figure perched on top of a historical monument contemplating suicide, or a train of memories on which films of past moments are played (echoed later when Soledad’s path is blocked by a train before she first meets the carelessly callous Nagy), turn out to be the present — Mexico in the 80s. Here only a few persons can see her: a blind man who helps the illiterate fill out papers or send messages, a street performer, a member of a child gang, and a statue of General Leandro Valle, a respected figure in the La Reforma movement in which the liberals tried to hold out against the imperialist backed conservatives during Mexico’s early tumultuous independence.

Her first reality, while often written in a clear and comparatively mundane manner — moments I sought with relief –was also riddled with symbols and metaphorical language that hinted at her other netherworld. Soledad imagines her desire as a dragon in the vase, one that she tries to keep banked or avoid for fear of being devoured, for fear of her desire to be devoured. When she is more inclined to pursue but meets up on obstacles, its represented as a labyrinth that she must navigate her way through with the help of Lucía. On the other hand the vase is also a place in which she seeks sanctuary, or clarity, help, because Lucía is there. Soledad refers to her home as a “house of portals” which prompts one to think of it as a series of different entrances and the implication that simply walking through her house could be a journey of sorts.

No word is used as often as “shadows”, “darkness”, and its variations. It emphasises the meaning of Soledad’s name, “solitude”, and she is often seen to be sitting in her room in darkness, seeking the darkness of the vase, only lit by the dragon’s red glow. Her sexual relationships, at least the bad ones, are described in terms of “shadows of eclipses”. All of her friends in part four could be said to dwell among the shadows of society’s margins, wandering in alleys, quickly running to hiding places, living underground. Even her job at the Palacio de Belles Artes involves photographing certain sections of the subterranean paths that exist underground.

Really, if I were to go into even half of the ways or number of times Clavel resorts to such metaphor I could write up another essay. (I scribbled on a page, “I get it, god, shadows, darkness, penumbras, ok! you can ease it up.”) One would tend to think of it as something that represents murkiness, doubt, indecisiveness and so on, and for Soledad this is so, but offers a comforting seclusion as well. Conversely for Nagy, her first major love, a married man who saw her as little else but a photography subject and sexual object, it clarifies, it brings details into relief.

At his lecture Soledad enters just as he plunges the classroom into darkness to show some stills.

“Other photographers speak of light, I will speak of the nature of darkness. It isn’t light that defines objects, but the lack of it. Blind light, shadows create the range of colours. Volumes, textures, feelings emerge from cutting off light. Da Vinci said that shadows are more powerful than light…”

Arguably, another world is related in Soledad’s stories. She loves them, would often ask Peter in bed to tell her some, and one of her fondest memories is about her father doing the same (but err…under different circumstances, obviously). Soleded writes her own stories, for herself, short takes in which she may re-imagine, remap and reconsider her experiences. They complement the main narrative, often recasting certain moments into more abstract, symbolic fiction that work better at conveying her complex feelings about, say, her youthful (early teens I hazard) random sexual encounter with an older man; or they reveal important information obliquely referred to in the main, like the events behind Miguel’s, Rosa’s brother, death in a political riot. Clavel scatters these throughout, usually situating them fairly close to the relevant incidents.

What’s the point of all this relentless ambiguity? It may be that Clavel wanted to accentuate how words can come close but ultimately fall short of capturing reality, and how easily they can be manipulated to deceive through simplification and reduction. To be “realist” one needs complexity. Matías, the blind “professional scrivener” in part four tells Soledad

I return again to my taste for fairy tales, not for their happy, cohesive endings, but their prophetic symbolism…I think the fate of man didn’t begin so much with the expulsion from paradise but with the birth of language: the tiger ceased being that bag of muscle and bone with prodigious reflexes and became a word with which we grasped its fleetness and threatening reality. Well, when we don’t pay attention to words, the last redoubt where we may seize reality, when the dead of San Juan or those from ’68 can be counted on two hands in the official version, then we’re lost, as if filter upon filter were placed between us and the name of reality…those in command believe that anguish is exorcized with veils, falsehoods, lies.

I searched Google for other reviews of Desire and Its Shadow and luckily found Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s critique for The Modern Language Review Oct. 2007 issue. She helped to clarify my ideas and drag me down from the symbolic clouds long enough to pay attention the novel’s more concrete elements. Lavery had the advantage of reading the original Los deseos y su sombre (1999) and knowing more about Mexican literature.

For instance, I did not know that male Spanish-American writers so dominated the literary scene because the fiction of their female counterparts were seen as “light weight”. She highlighted the political and sociological — how Soledad struggled against her mother’s conservative ideas of femininity (one that dictated women should shut up before men’s superior judgement and not bother to attend university because, for women, it’s no good); the union strikes at government institutions and how the conservative establishment tried to infiltrate and interfere; and the low economic and social status of the invisible Soledad’s friends.

Lavery also introduced me to what appeared to an entirely different novel. She framed it to suit a psychological and feminist reading so she drew on scenes that had any gender clashes and whatnot. One of these was a scene in Soledad’s youth when a “Desconocido” brutally raped her. Wha!? What the heck is she…oh. That sexual encounter with a stranger that seemed to be her first. I assumed it was her first because she mentioned some moments of pain, but they came of as kind of metaphorical and….well you judge it for yourself:

In the dim light, Sol focuses on the disparate silhouettes of this girl and this man who leans forward to whisper something in her ear and at the same time kiss her on the cheek, who lifts the hem of her rather short dress, and puts his hand up it….

Before going on (the excited look on the man’s face, the girl’s shining eyes, the silvery coins he offers her all rush together), Soledad resists believing everything which will be determined by this scene. All right, she asks alone with her shadow, how many people have desperately gaped into the caverns of sex? For whom does the anguish of one’s own unknowns prove easy? Who isn’t a plaything of another’s desire? And above all, who doesn’t enjoy being so?

Here’s another passage, an excerpt from Soledad’s story of the event:

The man’s lip search me out again, his hairy mouth searches for my shortened breath and makes it even more laboured. I don’t know why his hands have so many pin-shaped fingers, and why the pain of feeling myself go beyond myself is something that has little in common with pain. I’m just a doll. Immobile, waiting in a dark station for the man to finish constructing a tunnel in me…Then I get dressed. But my body is still all a beating heart. I crawl to my bed before the dragon smells my steaming bloody. The coins remain in my hands. They’ve lost their splendour. Now they only cast their rays upon the flaming darkness of guilt.

Does any of that sound like “extreme sexual violence” to you? Is it…is the tunnel construction and “pin-shaped fingers”? If Jay Miskowiec managed to get that completely wrong, and there’s no reason to doubt Lavery, what else have I missed? Why am I even bothering to review the damn thing?

I still managed to discern the makings of a “highly sophisticated novel”, per Lavery’s description. The novel’s architecture alone was a marvel, positively baroque with the implication that in parts it was a little overdone. I haven’t even covered all of it, like the Greek mythology references, for instance. Soledad, the tale’s hero, was a satisfying mixture of potential, strength, and weakness, who would fail to rise to a particular courageous moment and try to seek some restitution. I’m still not sure what to make of part four, the realisation that she is presently invisible, perhaps even dead already, although not irretrievably lost. I’d make more of an effort to figure it out if it wouldn’t mean rereading sentences like this: “Unexpectedly now experts, his fingers knead with the will of a crumb that in the end drags from me a groan.”

Yeah, I have no fucking idea, either.


2 Responses to "Ana Clavel and the crappy translator"

Wow. Craziness!

Ha! That’s one reaction. The book’s an odd, ambitious thing but I like the odd and ambitious…if it’s written (in this case translated) well.

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