“You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light” | A Conversation with Ilan Stavans (Part 1)
Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American writer and translator. His work spans from the study of Latin American culture, to “Spanglish,” to translation; his work takes the form of books and comic-strips; and he is highly regarded internationally as a literary and cultural critic and has received numerous awards and honors. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stavans at Amherst’s Frost Library to discuss The Plain in Flames, his 2012 translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection, El Llano en Llamas. His is the second translation of this work into English, the first being George Schade’s The Burning Plain.
Juan Rulfo, a highly influential Mexican writer, was born on this date 96 years ago. He died in 1986. Stavans introduces Rulfo beautifully here.
You mention in the introduction your fascination with the book growing up. When did you first read El Llano en Llamas, and when did the translation project begin?
Growing up in Mexico in the 70s and 80s, Rulfo was already an established figure, a classic. When I first discovered Latin American literature in general, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in the Cathedral, and other important books of the 1960s and 70s, to which I was coming somewhat late, maybe a decade or so after they had been published, there was a constant reference, a constant moving around the figure that had fostered that type of new writing from Latin America. More than one figure, there were two or three to be honest – one of them was Borges, another one was unquestionably Juan Rulfo.
Juan Rulfo was by then already known as a man of very few words. He had published only two books: El Llano en Llamas and Pedro Páramo, a collection of short stories first, and two years later, a relatively short novel – and I say relatively short because, in that period that I am recalling, the novels that were coming out from Latin America were hefty and ambitious and epic, and this was ambitious and epic and hefty but short. It had myth as its main quest. And, you know, there are writers that you read, you enjoy, and you forget. And then there are writers that you read and you are transformed. Rulfo, from the moment I discovered him is … in very few words, in very few pages, he’s capable of creating an entire world, entirely complex and entirely vivid in its imagery. And growing up in Mexico, that world was very close to me. It is the world of the countryside, of the provinces; it is the world of pride, and proud working- class people living in the llanos, in the villages, outside of Mexico City.
And so I had a reference, I knew what he was writing about. And I also knew that he was writing about it in a way that, for us, illuminated their existence, if you would see them as simply part of the landscape. Now it was giving them an inner life. It was simply stunning.
I went beyond and wanted to meet Rulfo at one point. I knew that he was the head of El Instituto Indigenista, an institute created and devoted to fostering a better understanding of aboriginal and indigenous communities and indigenous cultures, but it was always very hard to get in touch with him. He was never in the office. And only as time went by did I discover how difficult it was to get to talk to him because of his reserve, his shyness.
He is one of the towering figures of Latin American literature.
Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
I saw him in an event, but I never talked one-on-one to him. In retrospect, it is… it’s fine [laughs]. I find sometimes that talking to writers that one admires is a difficult task.
Was his speaking rhetoric like his writing?
He was a man of very few words. Even when he was…
…in front of the microphone.
But he was a man that, when you saw him, you would not think necessarily that he would be able to create these astonishing stories. I think the stories are part and parcel of how Latin American reality should be understood.
Garcia Márquez, in an entire novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, can make you understand what is it in the DNA of the culture that makes it move. I think that Rulfo does that in one story, sometimes in one paragraph. Not surprisingly, Garcia Márquez sees Rulfo as a major influence.
When did the translation of this begin?
At one point I was doing a book of conversations that a Chilean historian had invited me to engage in on Hispanic culture; it’s called What is la hispanidad?. It was a very festive project. In delivering it to the publisher, who had already given us a contract, the editor said to me, “Would you consider doing some translations for me?” And I said, I love translation; it would have to be something precious, it would have to be a diamond or a jewel. “What do you have in mind?” And I said, if you had, Ilan, to choose the one book that you think you would like to translate and you think people should see differently, which one would that be? And I said without hesitation, El Llano en Llamas. They had published it in an earlier edition.
So I had started the conversation, and one thing led to another; he got in touch with the Juan Rulfo estate. The Juan Rulfo estate is partially run by one of his sons who is a filmmaker. I was asked to translate one of the stories to see how my translation would be different. I did “It’s Because We’re So Poor.” They liked it very much and we decided to do it.
The project altogether took a year and a half; the translation was commissioned in 2010, thereabouts.
You said you wanted to pick a gem. But was there any indication to you that it was in need of a new translation? Because The Burning Plain has been out since 1967. I’m wondering if you thought that that translation was merely dated, or if you think there is an historical significance in publishing it in 2012, and if there were any faults in The Burning Plain that you noticed.
Let me answer that question by taking a step back and telling you that over the years I have been very interested in translation, not only in the practice of translation, but what translation means for us as a culture, the history of translation, and the impact of translation in the shaping of Latin American identity. Who were the first translators? What role did they play upon the arrival of the conquistadors and the missionaries? How has translating foreign culture shaped Latin American civilization? Who did the 19th century politicians read… of the French, or of the British, or of the Italian politicians of the time, or political philosophers? So the idea of translation has been with me for quite some time.
I also, in 2001, published an autobiography, a memoir, called On Borrowed Words, that is an investigation of the life that I have lived in four different languages. My first language was Yiddish, then I switched to Spanish, and then switched to Hebrew, and now I’m communicating with you in English. So this coming and going of languages is very close to my heart.
In 2003, I, by then, was already really deep into the study of Spanglish, the mixing of Spanish and English. I had published a translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote that later on I finished, and it’s now coming out in comic strip form at the end of this year. And so, the idea of what we translate, how we translate, what the impact of translation is, was very much with me when the editor of Texas University Press suggested this project.
And I knew that classics are books that need to be reread. And that, when doing a new translation, you are inviting readers to reread the book. You are not supplanting, necessarily, the first, earlier translations; you’re inviting readers to see them anew. Dressing them up in a different way. There are 22 full translations of Don Quixote into English. And so the question is, do we need 22? And the answer is, well, every generation needs its own reading of Don Quixote. And I think El Llano en Llamas is a classic; it needs different approaches, different interpretations, and that’s why I wanted to do it.
I had my own qualms with the translation that had been published in 1967, but more than anything I wanted to bring new attention to the book, try my luck, and also, show that the English language has changed, and that the approaches to translation have changed since the 60s.
I noticed, in The Plain in Flames, certain Spanish words are italicized. Whereas, in The Burning Plain, words like “chicalote” and “jarillas” are not italicized. They seem to be more integrated into the text that way. Does that ignore their origin?
No… I don’t believe that that is fully accurate. I did actually the opposite in many cases. There were words that were not italicized in my translation that are italicized in the George Schade translation because they had become much more common; they are less foreign from the 1960s to 2012; Spanish has become commonplace, a common language in the United States, and my argument is that in doing a new translation, we are reaching a readership that doesn’t have the foreignness, or the kind of alienation from the Spanish language that readers in the 1960s had.
However, there are certain words that are underlined in the original Spanish. For instance, in the story “It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the name of one of the daughters is italicized, and the name of the cow is italicized, and we did not want to take that away.
It’s an idiosyncratic strategy of Rulfo’s. He has a selective, unique way of choosing what to emphasize, and I thought my duty as a translator was to replicate that.
On the other hand, there are words that you don’t need to italicize anymore. And there are other words that, I thought, by using the italicized form, you would be telling the reader that this word is unique in English as it is unique in Spanish. And that was the purpose of it.
If I had to do a recount, I would say that there are fewer words that are italicized in my version than the Schade.
So for example, in the title story, “¡Viva mi general Petronilo Flores!” is not italicized.
Exactly. You also have to factor in that, in my age, I’ve already learned how to deal with the presence of copy editors who on occasion will tell you, “Are you sure you don’t want to italicize this word? English language readers are not going to…” and you have to defend your position. You have to make sure that by the time you reach the copy editor, you have a strategy, you have a declared approach to how to do it, without necessarily including that in the prologue or in a glossary or anything of that sort.
I noticed that in The Burning Plain, Schade omits certain words that in your translation, you have included. For example, “tequesquite salt” and “pasojos de agua,” which is an idiom. Are those common enough Spasnish phrases and words now? Are some of them uncommon? Do you think that, if we keep having future translations, like with Don Quixote, will we see more of these Spanish idioms?
One of the differences between the George Schade translation of 1967 and the one that I did is that in the interim, Juan Rulfo died, and the Juan Rulfo Foundation established a standardized Spanish version of El Llano en Llamas. And when I said to the foundation that I wanted to do the translation, they said they’d want me to work on the standardized version.
The standardized version included a few more stories than the one that Schade had, and it also included stories that had more paragraphs, or less paragraphs, or sentences that had been twisted and changed. [Rulfo edited some of the stories even after they were published.] Ultimately, the foundation had decided that the most authoritative version of any particular story was the latest one approved by Rulfo. So that meant that the text that I had in front of me to work on was not necessarily the same that Schade had.
At the same time, I did thorough research in every single story and when I found that there was a discrepancy between what the standard edition had, what Schade had, and what two other versions that are also considered canonical in Spanish had, I would send a letter to the foundation that asked, “Are we sure that we want to have this paragraph here?… Is this approved?…” and there would be a dialogue with them.
So, on occasion it was a creative decision on my part; on many others I was basing it on the authoritative text that the foundation had established.
In the introduction you mention the perfection of some of these stories. On the outset you talk about the “elusive quest” for perfection in short story writing. As a translator, that must become an extreme obstacle or difficulty. I’m wondering how this idea of perfection impacted your work. And also if you think, concurrently, that a perfect translation is possible. How does perfection translate, if you will? Does the idea of perfection always change with time?
There is no such thing as a perfect text. For the same reason, there is never going to be a perfect translation. And yet, as translators we should strive for as close to perfection as our translation is capable of being.
And what do I mean by perfection? As genuine, as authentic, as truthful, as loyal, and as artistic and creative as that can be. Every translation is a product of its time and space. My translation was defined by the factors that have defined me as an individual, and the translation by George Schade likewise was defined by the factors, the forces that shaped him as an individual. Whoever is going to come in 10 years, 15-20 years, 40 years, is going to live life differently, is going to register the temperature of language, the Spanish and English languages, in a different way, and the languages will have changed by then. So those translations will reflect the time and the cultural texture of the moment.
I think that a classic is a book that survives its time and space. It survives very often thanks to translation, and very often it is the translator that “updates” the original by making it palatable, by making it accessible, by fitting it in to the time in which we live.
I believe that the explosion of Hispanic culture in the United States in the last 20-30 years has redefined the way we see Latin American literature, that the first translations of some of these classics were the result of a moment of initiation, of discovery, of freshness, and today we have assimilated that work and we see that Spanish is not as foreign; there is a Latin America living within the United States. And so the translation that I tried to produce is a translation that reflects some of those changes.
I adore Chekhov. I adore Isaac Babel, I adore Kafka. I don’t read Czech, I don’t read Russian. I partially read German. And for that reason, the way I will access any of these writers will always be through translation. There is always going to be an intermediary between me and Isaac Babel, or Kafka, or Chekhov. I have to trust the translator as an intermediary, as a conduit, and yet I know – and I hope everybody knows – that we are not reading the original, that somebody has offered a filter, or a veil. There is a very important, early modern Jewish poet who said once that to read a book in translation is to kiss a bride through a veil. You are kissing the bride, but there is something in between.
In the second part of Don Quixote toward the end, Don Quixote and Sancho enter a bookstore in Barcelona, and they are talking about translation, and Don Quixote tells Sancho that to read a book in translation is the equivalent of looking at a Flemish carpet from the back. You know there are colors, you know there are silhouettes, but they are not fully what you’re seeing.
One hopes to come as close as possible, and that is the strife that we have in perfection. Not hoping to be perfect is a failure; achieving perfection is impossible.
Coming from the translation so recently, do you think that future translations seem possible at all? That there are future readings or events that could impact how this work is retranslated?
Because of the laws and the mechanics of the market, this translation is going to be around for some time, and things are going to be seen through what is happening between now and whenever the next translation comes along: things that have to do with immigration, that have to do with assimilation, that have to do with ways of changing culture.
The original book came out in 1953; that is mid-20th century. We are already in the 21st century. Mexico continues to be a poor country, but now there’s a growing middle class. The middle class reads Rulfo in a way that the middle class in the 1950s didn’t, because poverty has changed in Mexico and because the countryside is now seen as a tourist destination, because there’s something kitsch about peasant life in Latin America that these writers, like Rulfo, have helped to provide. The scene of a donkey, with a poor campesino walking around, carries a certain cache that is kitschy and what we call in Spanish “cursi” that didn’t exist 50 years ago and that might change dramatically later. Cultures are always in persistent transformation, and that pushes us to read writers in a different way.
I wanted to ask more about the act of translation. Julio Cortázar also speaks about perfection in the short story in his essay “On the Short Story and Its Environs.” In it he speaks of writing a short story as a sort of exorcism, and how the story gains autonomy separate from whomever wrote it. He argues that the story is projected “into universal existence, where the narrator is no longer the one who has blown the bubble out of his clay pipe.”
Surely there is a responsibility of the translator to maintain a certain style of the writer himself. But do you think that there is a similar ecstasy, or exorcism, in translating a short story?
I believe that writing a short story, in literary terms, is arguably the most difficult task. In my view, it is much harder to produce a good short story than to produce a good novel. A short story is, as I mentioned to you before, like a diamond, like a precious stone. Every single corner, every single edge, needs to polished just in the right way. There are hundreds and thousands of short stories. But there are very few extraordinary short stories. And those short stories are the ones that, you read them and you feel the world is no longer the same. You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light thanks to this particular writer, thanks to 3 or 4 pages of this particular writer. That is enough for that transformation to happen.
But once the short story takes place, once it is published, it no longer belongs to the author. It no longer belongs to its original creator. It belongs to whoever is reading it; and the act of finding the story, and of having an intercourse with the story, is an act of creation, because the story is the encounter between he or she who gave birth to it, and he or she who receives it. And without the receiver, the story doesn’t exist.
Likewise with translation, a good story needs a midwife that will enable it to get into the world just in the right way. There are hundreds of thousands of translations. But a good translation, it seems to me, is the one gets into the essence of the story, is able to read the DNA of the author and tries to convey the mapping of that DNA in the new language, in the receiving language. It is a big task [laughs].
You have to be synchronized in two cultures. You have to understand beyond the words how the original cultures moves, what makes it tick. And you have to get into the receiving culture and be able to translate, meaning transpose, meaning recreate, in that receiving language, what is conveyed in the first one. I think it is as much as a creative task as the task of writing a story. And it is as much the writer’s and the translator’s as it is the reader’s. But it is none of theirs anymore the moment it is published. Once my translation is out, it is not mine anymore but it belongs to a man whose last name is Stavans, who could be really anybody… the fact is, it’s already in the world as it is, and I have become secondary. It is the object as such that has life.
“What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?” (Ulysses)
What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90 percent of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.
From the penultimate episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
A Creole “Bovary” is this little novel of Miss Chopin’s. Not that the heroine is a creole exactly, or that Miss Chopin is a Flaubert—save the mark!—but the theme is similar to that which occupied Flaubert. There was, indeed, no need that a second “Madame Bovary” should be written, but an author’s choice of themes is frequently as inexplicable as his choice of a wife. It is governed by some innate temperamental bias that cannot be diagrammed. This is particularly so in women who write, and I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme. She writes much better than it is ever given to most people to write, and hers is a genuinely literary style; of no great elegance or solidity; but light, flexible, subtle and capable of producing telling effects directly and simply. The story she has to tell in the present instance is new neither in matter nor treatment. “Edna Pontellier,” a Kentucky girl, who, like “Emma Bovary,” had been in love with innumerable dream heroes before she was out of short skirts, married “Leonce Pontellier” as a sort of reaction from a vague and visionary passion for a tragedian whose unresponsive picture she used to kiss. She acquired the habit of liking her husband in time, and even of liking her children. Though we are not justified in presuming that she ever threw articles from her dressing table at them, as the charming “Emma” had a winsome habit of doing, we are told that “she would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart, she would sometimes forget them.” At a creole watering place, which is admirably and deftly sketched by Miss Chopin, “Edna” met “Robert Lebrun,” son of the landlady, who dreamed of a fortune awaiting him in Mexico while he occupied a petty clerical position in New Orleans. “Robert” made it his business to be agreeable to his mother’s boarders, and “Edna,” not being a creole, much against his wish and will, took him seriously. “Robert” went to Mexico but found that fortunes were no easier to make there than in New Orleans. He returns and does not even call to pay his respects to her. She encounters him at the home of a friend and takes him home with her. She wheedles him into staying for dinner, and we are told she sent the maid off “in search of some delicacy she had not thought of for herself, and she recommended great care in the dripping of the coffee and having the omelet done to a turn.”
Only a few pages back we were informed that the husband, “M. Pontellier,” had cold soup and burnt fish for his dinner. Such is life. The lover of course disappointed her, was a coward and ran away from his responsibilities before they began. He was afraid to begin a chapter with so serious and limited a woman. She remembered the sea where she had first met “Robert.” Perhaps from the same motive which threw “Anna Keraninna” under the engine wheels, she threw herself into the sea, swam until she was tired and then let go.
“She looked into the distance, and for a moment the old terror flamed up, then sank again. She heard her father’s voice, and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was a hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.”
“Edna Pontellier” and “Emma Bovary” are studies in the same feminine type; one a finished and complete portrayal, the other a hasty sketch, but the theme is essentially the same. Both women belong to a class, not large, but forever clamoring in our ears, that demands more romance out of life than God put into it. Mr. G. Barnard Shaw would say that they are the victims of the over-idealization of love. They are the spoil of the poets, the Iphigenias of sentiment. The unfortunate feature of their disease is that it attacks only women of brains, at least of rudimentary brains, but whose development is one-sided; women of strong and fine intuitions, but without the faculty of observation, comparison, reasoning about things. Probably, for emotional people, the most convenient thing about being able to think is that it occasionally gives them a rest from feeling. Now with women of the “Bovary” type, this relaxation and recreation is impossible. They are not critics of life, but, in the most personal sense, partakers of life. They receive impressions through the fancy. With them everything begins with fancy, and passions rise in the brain rather than in the blood, the poor, neglected, limited one-sided brain that might do so much better things than badgering itself into frantic endeavors to love. For these are the people who pay with their blood for the fine ideals of the poets, as Marie Delclasse paid for Dumas’ great creation, “Marguerite Gauthier.” These people really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life, whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands. They insist upon making it stand for all the emotional pleasures of life and art, expecting an individual and self-limited passion to yield infinite variety, pleasure and distraction, to contribute to their lives what the arts and the pleasurable exercise of the intellect gives to less limited and less intense idealists. So this passion, when set up against Shakespeare, Balzac, Wagner, Raphael, fails them. They have staked everything on one hand, and they lose. They have driven the blood until it will drive no further, they have played their nerves up to the point where any relaxation short of absolute annihilation is impossible. Every idealist abuses his nerves, and every sentimentalist brutally abuses them. And in the end, the nerves get even. Nobody ever cheats them, really. Then “the awakening” comes. Sometimes it comes in the form of arsenic, as it came to “Emma Bovary,” sometimes it is carbolic acid taken covertly in the police station, a goal to which unbalanced idealism not infrequently leads. “Edna Pontellier,” fanciful and romantic to the last, chose the sea on a summer night and went down with the sound of her first lover’s spurs in her ears, and the scent of pinks about her. And next time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible, iridescent style of hers to a better cause.
Pittsburg Leader, July 8, 1899
I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others years ago in an undergraduate class called existential literature or something like that.
Had to have this Penguin edition. Here’s the back:
Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles collects material from his column Cruiskeen Lawn:
I got a review copy of My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, the first novel from Patricio Pron a few days ago and wandered into it a bit yesterday afternoon but then got distracted by something else. Anybody read this one—or anything by Pron? Curious what you think…
From a Granta interview:
Name the five writers you most admire at the moment (any period, language or genre).
David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño.
Here is publisher Knopf’s blurb for My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain:
The anticipated American debut of one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists: a daring, deeply affecting novel about the secrets buried in the past of an Argentine family.
A young writer, living abroad, makes the journey home to South America to say good-bye to his dying father. In his parents’ house, he finds a cache of documents—articles, maps, photographs—and unwittingly begins to unearth his father’s obsession with the disappearance of a local man. Suddenly he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past and with the long-hidden memories of his family’s underground resistance against an oppressive military regime. As the fragments of the narrator’s investigation fall into place—revealing not only a part of his father’s life he had tried to forget but also the legacy of an entire generation—this audacious novel tells a completely original story of corruption and responsibility, history and remembrance.
You can also read “Ideas,” a story by Pron published in The Paris Review, which I think is an excerpt from the book. First paragraph:
On April 16, 1981, at approximately three P.M., little Peter Möhlendorf, whom everyone called der schwarze Peter, “black Peter,” went home from the village school. His house was on the eastern edge of Sterberode, a town of some five thousand inhabitants outside the East German town of Magdeburg whose main economic activity is farming—asparagus, mostly. His father, who was in the basement of the house when little Möhlendorf arrived, would later say that he heard him come in and then could infer from the sounds in the kitchen, which was above the basement, what he was doing: he flung his backpack beneath the staircase landing, went to the kitchen, took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, and poured himself a glass, which he drank standing; then he put the carton back in the refrigerator and went out into the backyard. Anyway, that was what he did every day when he came home from school and it could be that his father hadn’t really heard the noises he later would say he heard but rather had heard Peter come home and from that had guessed the rest of the series of actions. However, what his father did not know, as he listened or thought he listened to the noises his son was making above his head, was that little Peter was not going to return home that night or the nights that would follow, and that something incomprehensible and frightening was going to open up before him and the rest of the townspeople, and it would swallow everything up.