Stories of animal transformation abound in myths and folktales across the world. The theme is one that pervades Greek and Celtic mythologies, to take just two examples, and traditionally takes two forms: the ability of a god or sorcerer or shaman to wilfully transform him/herself into an animal; and the punitive transformation of people into animals for some misdeed or crime.
In a reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis we might argue – as Nabokov does in his lecture notes on the book – that before the actual transformation, Gregor Samsa already lived like an insect, always scuttling about and kowtowing to greater pressures such as familial guilt and responsibility as well as a servile sense of duty to his job. Just as bugs mooch about, busying themselves yet at the same time achieving nothing, Gregor scuttles through his day, occasionally running across another insect and eating morsels as he finds them.
But what of the broader, mythical background to the notion of metamorphosis? In The Odyssey we encounter Proteus and Circe. Proteus changes forms several times throughout the poem: lion, serpent, leopard and pig, and ultimately is the character responsible for guiding Odysseus home. Circe’s ability to transform Odysseus’ crew into pigs might be regarded as the forerunner of countless tales of human-animal metamorphosis.
A powerful motif running though both Irish and Welsh mythic literature is that of shape-shifting . . . In the Welsh narratives, shape-shifting is generally presented as punitive rather than voluntary: a few episodes revolve around the transformation of people into animals because of some misdemeanour. Thus in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, Twrch Trwyth – an enchanted boar – is the object of one of Culhwch’s quests to win the hand of Olwen. When questioned as to the origin of his misfortune, Trwch Trwyth replied that God blighted him with boar-shape as punishment for his evil ways. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are turned into three successive pairs of beasts (deer, wolves and swine) because of their conspiracy to rape King Math’s virgin footholder Goewin (Math needs a footholder – obviously – because he will die if his feet are not held in the lap of a virgin).
The pig seems a popular incarnation for errant humans. In Christian symbology they represent venality and the sins of the flesh. But there is more. In Edmund Leach’s famous paper on animal categories and verbal abuse, we are reminded that what we eat is often analogous to whom we are normally expected to sleep with: for instance we don’t – in British culture – tend to eat dogs, and – analogously, according to Leach – we disapprove of incest. We do however eat domestic farm animals (pigs, sheep, chickens etc), which are bred for human consumption, a class of animal that Leach correlates to an intermediate rank of sociability: people whom one might meet socially, within a circle of acquaintances, and who serve as potential sexual partners. By extension, claims Leach, we don’t, as a rule, sleep with complete strangers (questionable, but let’s stick with the theory for a minute) – and accordingly we do not habitually eat exotic animals such as lions and crocodiles and elephants and emus (availability is an issue there, which kind of upsets the theory, but let’s not be pernickety). Leach’s thesis could be summarised in less scholarly terms as the edibility : fuckability theory.
Having just read Marie Darriussecq’s Pig Tales, the English translation of a book originally published in French in 1996 as Truismes, I will concede that pigs are not regarded favourably. The protagonist of this excellent short novel has the misfortune to find herself metamorphosing into a sow and there is little she can do about it. She puts on weight in all the wrong places, her skin turns tough and bristles of hair sprout abundantly. She starts eating flowers and develops a love of raw potatoes. She grows a third nipple, then a full set of six teats. She grunts and squeals uncontrollably and eventually finds it more comfortable to go about on all fours. Darriuessecq’s book is hilarious and filthy and thought-provoking, tackling big themes such as consciousness, gender roles and the objectification of the female body, but it would be a shame to encumber it with too much interpretation. Sometimes a novel can be read like a dream (or a nightmare) and just taken for what it is: a woman morphing into a pig (just as her lover morphs into a wolf). The concept itself is enough to travel with: just think pig. Relax. Lie back in your sty. Make a bacon sandwich. Read a book, why don’t you.
Poets who translate
It is our last day in Istanbul, and the rain continues, as it has done since Friday evening, shrouding the Bosphorous in grey mist. Before catching a taxi to the airport we snatch a visit to Aghia Sophia, that magnificent evocation of the implausible. The days of translation, of this particular kind of translation, have drawn to an end. Yesterday evening WN (‘Bill’) Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and a certain Richard Gywn, along with our respective translators, Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen and Efe Duyan read our work at the Nazim Hikmet Centre in Kadikö on the Asian side. We went by ferry through the soft rain, a rain almost as comforting as the sahlep we slurped, that peculiar sweet beverage of orchid root, milk and cinnamon, the liquid polyfilla of the Levant, as Bill calls it.
We had an early dinner at Çiya, one of Istanbul’s most successful new restaurants, whose owners have set out to collect recipes from lost corners of Turkey and recreate them in a modest but harmonious three-storey building. I should really say they have translated recipes found on research trips, dug up from family notebooks, dictated by aunts and grandmothers, and have brought them to an Istanbul all too well known for its predictable variations on ratatouille and lamb combinations as a reminder of the glorious culinary past of Anatolia. These recipes have been translated from a time and place distinct from our own, rejecting the universalist culture in which the staple has become ever more dull and tasteless.
It is easy to forget that translation is something we are engaged in, without option and at all times, from the very start of life. It is an activity that is by no means confined to those who term themselves ‘translators’.
Early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. Maybe we don’t change that much in this respect, as we continue to translate others, and ourselves, in and throughout the course of a lifetime, with varying degrees of success. The fact that we exist as part of a functioning element within society (family, school, member of this or that group or organisation) consigns us necessarily to different modes of translation.
Literary translation concretizes and makes specific acts of translation that otherwise exist in our everyday lives. Poets who also translate join a community of international poet-translators who are enabled, through a process of collaboration, to sharing their respective poetry with new audiences. Many lasting friendships are made in the process, as well as dialogues being opened between cultures in essential and surprising ways.
This is what the organization Literature across Frontiers – under its indefatigable director Alexandra Büchler – manages to such good effect. In meetings across Europe practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who have different first languages but share another language in common (English, most commonly, but any language will do) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very stimulating process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they gel as a team. Working as a small unit has other benefits – there are always at least two perspectives – indeed, as many as four or five– on a single poem, and this multiplexity of approach can lead to small epiphanies in the act of translation. Translation is not only a linear and logical progression of a text from one language to another; it is also a process of revelation, an uncovering, de-layering: a transmutation of materials, an act of linguistic alchemy.
Sometimes, needless to say, translation goes all wrong. I have written about this before, in relation to restaurant menus, a constant source of entertainment for anyone who travels. But in the last few days, Istanbul has coughed a few examples of translation weirdness that are equally diverting. I post a selection below.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.
Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.
Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me. But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.
So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.
And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.
The Holy Coyote
What are the chances of bashing your head on the protuberant arm of the TV bracket twice in your hotel room in the space of ten minutes? The second time my head bled so profusely by the time I got to the bathroom I looked like an extra from a zombie/slash/horror movie. Never mind. I’ve moved the table where I type away from the wall now. As far as it can possibly go.
Today I was taken to lunch in El Santo Coyote restaurant, and in the shady garden (where, as usual, according to the sign, invasion is prohibited – please see my post from Montevideo on this recurrent theme) complete with waterfall, your man comes to the table with mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock and, after asking if you like your salsa hot or what, he begins to pummel it into shape before your eyes. With chilli, garlic, some variety of parsley, and then tomato. And hell, yes, it works.
The blurb on the menu of The Holy Coyote tells of the thirteen Sioux tribes and all that shamanistic stuff. I love it. All my Carlos Castaneda comes flooding back: I will meet my ally soon, or dance with coyotes into the dark chasms of forgetting. But probably not tonight. After the bump on my head I’m half way there anyway, forgot just about everything today, including my ticket for the Herta Müller dramatization/reading at the theatre. I’ve forgotten what else I forgot but will probably find out tomorrow if I manage to sleep.
As for the food from the north of Mexico – so not, strictly speaking, indigenous to Guadalajara – I take off my hat, the hat that would, if it existed, cover my poor skull. But since my literary activities don’t begin in earnest until tomorrow, and the sun is shining, it was good to look around and see what is what.
But without invading anything or anyone, if possible.
Blistering Blue Barnacles!
Buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup and bacon (the latter a rare commodity in the Blanco kitchen these days) all washed down with lashings of coffee made with real beans: what a way to start a Sunday. Not only that, but today’s is the ONE HUNDREDTH (100th) POST SINCE BLANCO BEGAN BLOGGING ON SUNDAY 10TH JULY THIS YEAR. HUZZAH!
Last night we went to see the Spielberg/Jackson production of Tintin (The Adventures of). Mrs Blanco and I were agreed that Captain Haddock (played by Andy Serkis with a magnificent quasi-Scots drawl) and Snowy (aka Milou) the dog stole the show. Tintin is always so damned earnest, but more alarmingly for me, bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Welsh novelist of my acquaintance, and he returned in a more complex hybrid form later, to haunt my dreams, a sort of Tintinesque literary prodigy ploughing the astral plains in search of Ultimate Literary Truth. God help us.
The Tintin stories, for all their being imperialist and racist (charges which no one in their right minds would dispute) created in young readers of my generation – long before the advent of gap years hanging loose on Thai beaches or trekking in the Andes – an ambition to see the world, to become an explorer of worlds. And this is what excited me from an early age. A Dutch student of mine once told me that her grandmother said that children who love the Tintin books will become travellers as adults, and those that don’t won’t. I have a suspicion that something of the kind might be true.
In the meantime I must refrain from embarrassing myself and my dear ones by coming out with exclamations like ‘Great Snakes!’ or ‘Blistering Blue Barnacles!’.
On a quite unrelated theme, I see the film of Owen Sheers’ novel Resistance will be out shortly, with an introductory talk by the author/scriptwriter at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Saturday 26th November, which I will miss as I am off to Mexico that weekend. In fact I was invited to Mexico along with the same Mr Sheers, who is clearly otherwise engaged – but I share with Owen a childhood fantasy – we grew up a few miles (but two decades) away from each other in the Black Mountains – both playing games that involved charging around in the bracken and ferns evading Nazis, something which I discovered quite by accident while chatting to Owen when we were doing a series of readings together in New York (and where Resistance – the novel – was getting its U.S. launch). What a perennial occupation this Nazi obsession must have been for boys growing up in the decades following World War 2: is it still? I have no idea. But how profoundly the mythology of Nazism has infiltrated our psychological as well as our historical agenda.
And this leads me to the third topic of the day, or the fourth if we include breakfast: the front cover of the Vintage paperback edition of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.
The picture shows a solitary German soldier walking down a country road in what I imagine is some part of the Soviet Union. If, as the acknowledgement claims, the photo was taken in 1943, the soldier is probably in retreat. In the background and to his side, across a field, are other soldiers, themselves walking alone. There is snow on the ground, and it is either still snowing or else there is a mist. The soldier is walking purposefully, and carrying a rifle over his soldier, so is not in a state of combat. I am fascinated by the photograph, and am trying to work out why. Is it to do with the solitary status of the soldier, knowing as we do the vast numbers of troops involved in the invasion of Russia and in its defence, the huge tallies of the dead that Littell’s protagonist Dr Max Aue recites ad absurdum in the introduction to his story? From what source does the poignancy of this image derive, and why does it affect me so?
I think the focus on the individual soldier is meant to reinforce Max Aue’s refrain that yes, he is responsible, he did the things which he recites, but that he was an individual in a chain of command, an infinitesimal cog in a massive destructive machine, and his question is, simply, what would you have done?
Or, more succinctly, in Aue’s words, it is “a fact established by modern history that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins.”
The Kindly Ones, fastidiously researched (Littell spent many years on the project and read over two hundred books on the German occupation of the USSR alone) is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of recent times: I would place it, together with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 as one of the two most significant pieces of literary fiction in the 21st century, at least that I’m aware of. 2666 was written in Spanish, obviously, but Jonathan Littell’s book was first published in French as Les Bienveillantes in 2006 and won the Prix Goncourt. It is marvellously translated by Charlotte Mandell, and maybe I will write about it when I have finished (I am not quite half way through its 960 pages, but will stand by my current appraisal nonetheless), but in the meantime I am fascinated by the cover picture, poorly reproduced here, because I could not find a copy of the original, despite searching online through the Keystone/Getty archive, who apparently hold the original. If any readers know anything at all about this photograph, please let me know.
A Very Fine Cake Shop and the Palace of Ducks
After lunch in a cheerful Brazilian place in Palermo (the one in Buenos Aires, not Sicily) we walk through the sunny streets in search of dessert and coffee. Our destination turns out to be one of the finest cake shops in the world. I don’t mean showy and pretentious like the cake shops of Vienna, but one with extremely good cakes. The display, like so many places in this city, makes imaginative use of the impact of colour. In fact both of my favourite eating places so far are spectacularly colourful, the modest Brazilian café, and El Viejo Teodoro (Old Theodore’s) which is my local, where I first ate six years ago.
They are also inexpensive. But the cake shop here, run by Georgina (in photo, with one of her creations) is something else. After considerable deliberation, we went for macaroons (red, green and blue ones) and I shared a slice of banana chocolate cake, washed down with coconut tea. It is to be found in the Plaza William Morris.
Palermo is a bohemian, bustling barrio, with many bars and bookshops. It is also where Jorge Luís Borges lived as a small child, before his family moved to Europe. There is a street named after him, which conveniently crosses the Plaza Cortazar. The bookshops often have bars, so customers can spend hours browsing, drinking coffee and chatting. Perhaps the most spectacular is Eterna Cadencia (also a publishing house of the same name), with its oak-paneled rooms, sofas, patio and upstairs terrace. A beautiful place to enjoy books.
However I had been up most of the night due to the rugby (see previous post) so did not appreciate the long traipse around the bookshops as much as I might have. But I did pass a store with four large fish tanks, and cushioned seats. Here you can sit with your feet in the tanks and dozens of little fish will eat the flaky bits off your feet and nibble your toes. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Since this week I actually have to get down to some work – my tour is not simply for pleasure – perhaps I should have gone for some xthiliopathic therapy, as it calls itself, but to sit there in full view of the passing pedestrians while fish feast on your skin, well, that’s just wrong.
On another theme, my friend Jorge told me, on our walk through another part of the city on Saturday evening, as we passed the Palace of the Ducks (Palacio de los Patos), that the phrase ‘quedarse pato’ which literally translates as ‘to be left a duck’ refers to a person who has come down in the world, or lost a fortune. The Palace of Ducks was divided into numerous apartments, many of which were taken by formerly aristocratic or wealthy families who had ‘come down in the world’ – largely as a consequence of the economic crash in the late 1920s. In other words, it was the collective home of people who had lost their properties, and could no longer afford to own a place. However, the surroundings were glamorous enough to remind them of their former glory, and to forget their penurious circumstances.
I wonder whether there is a connection with the term ‘to score a duck’ to be out for nought, to score no runs – in cricket. What is it with ducks that relates to poverty or the idea of zero? Any suggestions welcome.