Translating The Builder's Spirit
Two Books from Mexico's Valeria Luiselli
By Patrick McGinty
Maybe you, like me, have always felt shameful about these spaces. In elementary school, the promise was a soccer field, one that would repurpose the polluted gully near my best friend’s split-level one story. Meetings were had. Nothing transpired. By the time I was scanning the gulch from the throughway—usually going fifty or sixty in a thirty-five—the gully stood for the many things our parents had failed to build us.
This is a dim way to view such a space, to view “an emptiness, an absence.” Luiselli argues that these relingos around Mexico City function as a “depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom-follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.” She knows what my drivers-licensed and pre-Sidewalks self ultimately forgot: that my friends and I built two barracks of a paintball field in that gully and imagined many others, marching across the thick wet leaves, scheming a way to dam the water. There are many accomplishments in the essay’s seven brisk pages—Luiselli traces the cultural and linguistic histories of a term; she unknots the many tongues and aims of the urban planner (who peddle “pure nostalgia for the future”); she clarifies the task of the writer (“a person who distributes silences and empty spaces”)—but most importantly, she shares a secret with you about yourself: those empty spaces are the places you walk to, aren’t they? They are where we drive past and bike through and do our best thinking and remembering. Similar essays explore biking and Joseph Brodsky—to the extent that her essays are bound by a singular topic.
Nor is her first-person novel, Faces in the Crowd, in one singular voice. The book helps clarify some admittedly jumbled thoughts I had recently about Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, about which I wrote: “This is one of those emerging books that makes fiction feel like performance art—the changing pronouns, the conversational quoting of Rilke and Keats and Weil, the discussion of writing via writing.”
I had been circling some sort of idea about an author disappearing into character and character disappearing into parts of herself, multiplying via pronouns, losing her sense of self and reconfiguring it from section to section, and Luiselli’s narrator—a mother, a wife in an at-risk marriage, a writer, a narrator-in-sections—is similar to Offill’s. She is at work on a project about Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. Whereas Offill shifts the pronoun from “I” to “she” or even “the wife,” Luiselli’s technique is more intricate. She will employ a break. She will inhabit one of two voices—the translator losing herself to her work, or the poet being worked on, unknowingly (or perhaps somewhat knowingly). Often times, she will then withhold a gender or character indicator as though drawing back playfully from a kiss. Who is the ‘I’ now? Is it the young mother, the one we’ve seen reflecting on her days as a literary translator? Is it the poet, coming alive in 1950’s Philadelphia, and in the main narrator’s book, and for us as readers? Is there a ‘main’ narrator here? The line “I put my arm around his shoulder” might strike you as unremarkable, but it startled me—hadn’t this subtle action just occurred in the novel’s foreground, in the woman’s life? Does it signal a shifting of the foreground? And look: a mosquito. Isn’t that how this novel—the one in my hands with all these parts inside it—isn’t that how this started?
Podcast: Valeria Luiselli and Patrick McGinty discuss prose and translation.
This, I think, is closer to what I meant when I referenced novel as ‘performance art’: to see a piece of art feeding itself; to be hyperconscious of the way in which it is expanding. I confess that these analogies aren’t quite right, either. What I can say with a bit more certainty is that too often, we as readers and critics look to large events in an artist’s life—death, birth, divorce—and draw neat lines to their creations. Oh, this must be his “father” novel. His post-divorce album. What I like so much about this book—and what feels so much more accurate to the experience of creation—is the way in which so many small arm-around-a-shoulder moments inform a writer assembling her story.
Translator Christina MacSweeney is no doubt due much congratulations for these many connective moments. The first page of Faces in the Crowd wryly advances the notion that “in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion,” but I would urge you to read these books unsuspiciously. “Prose is for those.” What a delightful bit of rhyme unearthed from the Spanish version. That line alone should quiet all suspicions.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about the financial struggles of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture.