Un día en la vida

Un día en la vida

“Books were always being written differently from how one spoke” muses the narrator of Manlio Argueta’s Un día en la vida/One Day of Life (110/141). But not this one, perhaps. It’s a novel based on interviews with Salvadoran peasants and it abounds with the country’s typical linguistic forms, such as the use of “vos.” It also features characteristic words and expressions that include “cipote” for kid, “chucho” for dog, “chele” for blond or light-skinned, not to mention a whole range of terms for the flora and fauna of the countryside. Indeed, in interview, Argueta responds to a question about his “particular use of Salvadoran vernacular” with the comment that “it is a way of promoting the oral language as our own wealth [. . .]. I do this to reaffirm our own values, local values, so as to know that we exist.” Just as the book’s title asserts the particular within the general, the specific day within a much broader life, so the book’s language is unapologetically local, tied to a place that is not simply El Salvador as a whole but more specifically still rural El Salvador, here the department of Chalatenango in the country’s north, near the Honduran border.

To reproduce the forms of speech of the rural poor is also unmistakably a political choice, not least at the point at which the book was published, in 1980. It’s not simply (indeed, hardly at all) a matter of cultural nationalism. Rather it is one of the country’s most distinguished writers and intellectuals (he is now head of the National Library) affirming the vitality and expressive capacity of a whole social stratum that had been marginalized and oppressed, abused to the point of either breaking or exploding. For this is also a novel that comes from a very particular point in time: just before the formation of the FMLN, an alliance of various armed groups, and the outbreak of revolutionary insurrection. In the decade or more or civil war that would follow, up until the peace accords of 1992, Chalatenango would forever be one of the areas where the guerrilla had most support and freedom of maneuver. It was a “liberated zone” almost from the start, ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. To some extent, this book is Argueta’s contribution to the combat.

This novel anticipates the war to come. As Gareth Williams notes, it is “the narrativization of an impending insurrection whose violence is arranged around collective martyrdom, sacrifice, and rapture as will-to-power” (The Other Side of the Popular 192). We hear the age-old history of the abuses that the peasants receive from the landlords and their hired men, not to mention the myriad other “authorities” with their posturing machismo and absolute disdain. We see, moreover, a gradual escalation of violence: the peasants are slowly gaining consciousness (“conciencia”) of their exploitation and refusing to dismiss it as one of life’s many sufferings; they are beginning to agitate and organize in more formal ways to claim their “rights,” encouraged by a new set of priests inspired by liberation theology. In response, the authorities respond ever more brutally, trying (at times quite literally) to dismember the body of the campesinado and stick it in the ass to the priests.

The crunch comes when the novel’s protagonist and dominant voice, Lupe, is faced with the mangled remains of her husband, Chepe, more dead than alive, who is dragged to her door for her to confirm his identity. Seeking to protect herself, her family, and her neighbours, as well as in honour of a pledge she has made to Chepe in the past, she constrains her emotions and denies that she knows him. What follows is her grand-daughter’s vision of a grotesque counter-violence, of the corpse of one of the soldiers who has been tormenting them: “His eyes and his mouth were open, and no matter how much they tried to shut his eyelids they would open again, and no matter how much they pulled on his big toes, his mouth would not close” (166/215). Lupe fears that this is a nightmare, but her grand-daughter articulates the logic of the novel when she tells us that it is anything but.

Rubble

Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.

Hijo de hombre II

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.

Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.

In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:

Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)

This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.

In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt is, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:

They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)

Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:

There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.

There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)

In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.

An Unspeakably Long Sentence

[Crossposted to Infinite Test].

broom

There’s an extraordinary sentence in Infinite Jest, almost exactly halfway through the novel: on page 488 (out of 981). Or rather, the sentence in fact begins on page 487, continues all the way through page 488, and ends on page 489. So part of what’s extraordinary about it is its sheer length, even in a novel that distinguishes itself throughout for its extension: long paragraphs (just before this sentence, pages 479 to 486 consist of just two paragraphs, each encompassing well over three pages), long chapters or scenes (such as the twenty-page description of the Eschaton game), and of course the novel as a whole. David Foster Wallace specializes in prolixity, which might be described either as a verbose failure of restraint or, perhaps more charitably, as a unfettered stream of creativity. Even if we went for the uncharitable view, however, it’s worth noting that failure of restraint is itself a significant theme of the book, many of whose characters are addicts, and whose plot seems increasingly to revolve around a mysterious “Entertainment” that viewers simply can’t stop watching. The novel’s form, then, sometimes seems to mimic its content: it continually oversteps its bounds because it proposes an uninhibited foray through a disordered world, a garrulous guide to competing, cacophonous discourses. Infinite Jest immerses us in a tumultuous flow of language.

Yet this is a novel that is also laden with irony. It starts, after all, with a scene (Hal’s university interview) in which verbal articulacy is somehow blocked, and all that emerges from our protagonist’s mouth are grunts or other subhuman noises. In short, this is a book that is equally about constriction as well as capaciousness, order as much as chaos, blockages no less than flows. And the extraordinary sentence that spans pages 488 to 489, at the novel’s very center or heart, concerns the relationship between these two competing forces, call them inertia and momentum, or repression and desire. It suggests that they are not simply opposed, that one can emerge from the other, and perhaps that it’s never entirely clear which is which.

The sentence is also about language. It begins with a reference to “words that are not and can ever be words” (487). Indeed, words are the subject (the grammatical subject as well as the theme): words that seek to emerge, to be brought forth from the throat and body of Lucien Antitoi, a burly French-Canadian storekeeper and (with his brother, Bertraund) would-be terrorist member of a “not very terrifying insurgent cell” in an otherwise Portuguese and Spanish low-rent neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts (480). Lucien is mute, intellectually disabled in some way, a French Canadian who cannot speak French except for the obscene phrase “Va chier, putain!” that his special-school tutors taught him, cruelly claiming it meant “Look Maman I can speak French and thus finally express my love and devotion to you” (481). So the only snippet of language he possesses is in fact an unwitting misunderstanding, product of a heartless joke or jest in which savage rejection is dressed as proud communication and tenderness. And Lucien is desperate to speak out, to say something, anything, because he has just seen his brother’s head (the head of “the brains of the outfit” [480], and of “the only brother he’s ever had” [486]) shattered by a railroad spike driven with such force that its rusty tip protrudes from the socket of his “former blue right eye” (485). In a store whose front room is cluttered with mirrors, vision has now failed. The culprits of this blinding murder are a squad of sinister “wheelchair assassins,” fanatic Quebecois separatists in search of “an entertainment item” (487) they believe that the Antitoi brothers may have inadvertently acquired. Now their leader, who wears a mask decorated with “an obscenely simple smily-face in thin black lines” is threatening Lucien, who shakes “not from fear so much as in an attempt to form words” (487).

The page-long sentence then describes Lucien’s ghastly death, as he is impaled by his own home-made, sharp-tipped broom, with which he has kept the old shop spotless. The chief wheelchair-bound assassin rams it down his throat and through his stomach until it emerges, forming “an obscene erectile bulge in the back of his red sopped johns” (488). It’s truly a disgusting passage, as the pole is thrust into the man’s open throat, rhythmically accompanied by the repeated chant “In-U-Tile”, as if to confirm that there is something fundamentally useless or superfluous about this extraordinary violence, not least because it symbolically silences someone who already has no voice. As the broom’s shaft descends Lucien’s throat, “small natal cries” are heard, “the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream” (488). The strange thing here is that the passage suggests that aphonia or muteness is associated with particular noises: the sounds of silence. So that this silencing also has its peculiarly acoustic signature, and we are asked to imagine hearing the unspoken or unspeakable, with its double implication of what cannot speak and what cannot be spoken because it goes beyond (almost) all representation. Again, however, there is a kind of formal contradiction here, as Foster Wallace takes unreasonable delight in describing this horrific event in great and granular detail, as though to probe the limits of what can or should be said. Hence in part the bloated prose, lingering on “the fibers that protect the esophageal terminus [that] resist and then give with a crunching pop and splat of red that bathes Lucien’s teeth and tongue and makes of itself in the air a spout” (488). There is something here of the slow-motion delight in stylized, even aestheticized, violence that is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino. But now the vehicle is the word, rather than the image, and the equivalent of the film director’s slow motion is the author’s run-on sentence.

Lucien dies, but in the process he is portrayed as experiencing a kind of extasis or epiphany. Thus the sentence ends: “as he finally shed his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free [. . .] soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues” (488-9). From mute constriction to polyglot freedom. If this isn’t a flip fantasy designed retrospectively to justify the gross depiction that has immediately proceeded it (and we can’t rule out, I think, that that’s what it is), it is a picture of rebirth that resonates also the “natal cries” that accompanied the start of the process. It’s a peculiarly monstrous and even perverse parturition, as “the culcate handle navigates the inguinal canal and sigmoid with a queer deep full hot tickle” (488). So is the broom’s slow passage through the body an image of repression or freedom, blockage or flow? Everything becomes unclear or undecidable, precisely at the point at which we are told that clarity and articulacy are achieved at last. Indeed perhaps the strangest thing about it is that this vision of rebirth in grisly death, of “bell-clear” multilingualism forced out of a recalcitrant, mute body via almost impossible violence, turns out to be among the few positive or optimistic notes sounded in the whole book so far.

Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi, Survival in AuschwitzThe striking thing about Primo Levi’s testimony, Survival in Auschwitz, is that the Germans barely figure in his account at all. It is a book about the Holocaust in which the ultimate perpetrators are almost entirely absent. In so far as they do appear, they are seen from a distance, glimpsed fleetingly, or presented simply as disembodied voices: “a raucous German voice ordered silence. Another German voice rose up in the sudden quiet [. . .]” (148). If the Germans are invisible it is perhaps because they incarnate the abstract logic of the camp, of the diabolical genocidal program. Germany is almost always invoked in terms of general characteristics: “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger” (19); “the Teutonic sense of humour” (40); “The Germans apply themselves to these things with great skill and diligence”; “their national love of classification” (156). The Germans exist only en masse, not as individuals–though one assumes that there is a “mysterious German bureaucrat who supervises these matters” (138), he is merely putting a general program into practice. And ultimately, neither the program nor the manner of its implementation make any real sense: “No one can boast of understanding the Germans” (139).

Indeed, in a rather strange passage the Germans are almost absolved (or is it that they are all the more condemned?) in that their behavior is presented as more or less automatic, unthinking and unconscious:

The Germans are deaf and blind, enclosed in an armour of obstinacy and of willful ignorance. [. . .] They construct shelters and trenches, they repair the damage, they build, they command, they organize and they kill. What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen. They could not act differently [. . .]. (141)

It’s like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which a scorpion stings and so kills the frog who is carrying him across a river, ensuring that they both will die. When asked “Why?” the drowning scorpion replies “It’s in my nature.”

There is but one exception to the general rule that Germans are not identified or treated as individuals–and it proves not to be such an exception at all. The only German to be described at any length is not one of the SS men, or a camp commandant. He is the civilian chemist, Doktor Pannwitz, who tests Levi on this knowledge of Chemistry before deciding whether to admit him to the relatively privileged “Chemical Kommando.” Pannwitz is the only German in the book to be named or physically portrayed, though even Levi’s description of his features soon refers us back to the generic: “Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond; he has eyes, hair and nose as all Germans ought to have them” (105). And the more typical the doctor becomes, the more unfathomable and unreadable he is. Levi tells us that in front of him he feels “like Oedipus in front of the Sphinx” (105). But where Oedipus solved the mythical Sphinx’s riddle, Levi (though he passes the Chemistry exam) fails this more significant test:

From that day I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man; how he fileld his time, outside of the Polymerization and the Indo-Germanic conscience; above all when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany. (105-6)

Ultimately, this is not a book that claims to explain “the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.” That would be, it seems, an impossible task. Hence its focus is on Levi’s fellow prisoners, and not merely because they are the ones with whom he is in most contact. Nor indeed because it is his fellow prisoners (particularly but not solely the kapos and others who are higher up in the camp’s infernal hierarchy) who are most immediately the agents of Levi’s torture and misfortune: for we soon discover that, here at least, there is no solidarity among the downtrodden, that you can trust nobody and forget about any notion of compassion.

The point rather is that, however inhuman and degraded the prisoners become, it is still worth trying to understand them in all their particularity and individuality. Hence the numerous pen portraits of men such as Schepschel, who survives four years thanks to “small and occasional expedients” (93), Alfred L and his “cold life of the determined and joyless dominator” (95), or Elias Lindzin, “the most adaptable, the human type most suited to this way of living” (97). Levi tells us that the camp was “pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment” (87), and in some sense he is as fascinated as anyone in its results, in what it tells us about the human condition, human habits. This is the “meaning” of the experience, if we have to assign it a meaning. But in the end we can learn nothing about the Germans. As far as Levi is concerned, they are fundamentally unknowable.

“The Cooked Cat”

Roberto ArltI recently translated one of the Argentine writer Roberto Arlt’s very first short stories: “El gato cocido,” from 1926.  Arlt is hardly known outside of Latin America–indeed, outside of Argentina–and little of his work is translated.  But it’s worth a read, not least (as critic Ricardo Piglia has argued) as the messy face of early twentieth-century modernization, as opposed to Borges’s splendid but often icy lucidity.

Precisely because of its messiness, its localism, its use of slang and (frankly) at times its sheer ungrammaticality, Arlt’s writing is a challenge to translate. Any suggestions for improvements or changes would be most appreciated.

Here’s how it starts:

“I remember.

“Old Pepa Mondelli lived in Las Perdices. She was an aunt of my in-laws, who were the children of Alfonso Mondelli, the terrifying Don Alfonso, who used to beat his wife, María Palombi, in the back office of his General Store business. He exploded, there’s no other way to put it, one night in an attic of the big house jam-packed with merchandise, while in Italy Mrs Palombi spent, on the gum-diggers of Terra Bossa, the money that Don Alfonso was sending to support his children’s schooling.

“Now the seven Mondellis were dark, egotistical, and cruel as death. It was said that one of them once, in front of the train station, used his whip handle to beat out the eyes of a horse that couldn’t pull an over-laden cart out from a pothole.

Thanks to María Palombi, passion raced in their blood, combined with the nerve to stop short suddenly, making their fury at the moment of danger all the more calculating. This they showed later on.”

Read more… (.pdf file)