The Fata Morgana Books collects four novellas from Jonathan Littell and is forthcoming from Two Line Press, a new indie specializing in publishing English language translations of some of the world’s best literature. Here is their blurb about The Fata Morgana Books, Littell’s follow up to The Kindly Ones:
Ranging from swimming pools to art galleries, from beds to battlefields, and a few mythical places, these novellas are narrated by hermaphrodites, ghosts, wanderers, and wonders. Littell here once again mixes his love of the grotesque with time-twisting narratives and ethereal protagonists. Like an Italo Calvino or a Clarice Lispector, Littell channels the emotions of loss and desire to illuminate the shadowy depths of solitude, reflection, longing, and lust.
With fleet prose and Proustian self-reflection, these stories range from chaotic airlifts to a series of bullfights under the hot sun, fatal negotiations resolved as mathematical equations, and the nine circles of Hell. Commanding and beguiling, The Fata Morgana Books rings with depth and mystery, always pushing through to explore the in-between spaces: between thoughts, between bodies, between hungers and their satisfactions, between eyes and the things they look at.
I was psyched to get a review copy of The Fata Morgana Books; Littell’s previous novel about an SS officer’s depraved undertakings, The Kindly Ones, stuck with me in a weird, gross, foul way. In my review I suggested that it was “a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon.”
I read the first novella in The Fata Morgana Books, Etudes, which is comprised of four stories that read like an overture for what will come. The first piece, “A Summer Sunday,” sets an unnerving and estranging tone, where pleasure seems to mingle with ennui and dread:
That Sunday, then, after the beer near the cemetery, I accompanied B. to meet our friend A. and we went out to lunch at a beautiful, somewhat isolated restaurant with a terrace only half enclosed, which allowed one to stay out in the open air without breaking police regulations too much. We ate slowly, all afternoon, lamb chops with an onion salad, and drank a bottle of red wine. Afterward, B. and I shared a cigar, too dry but a great pleasure nonetheless. Then we bought some cakes and went over for drinks on my balcony, opposite the cemetery, with the two towers at our feet. It wasn’t till the next day, reading the papers, that we realized just how bad the weekend had been. But the summer had been like that for six weeks already, and it seemed likely it would continue that way.
By “The Wait,” the next chapter of Etudes, we’ve descended into Littell’s abject terrain. More to come in a full review.
From Thomas Bernhard’s play Der Weltverbesserer (The World-Fixer). The translation here is by Gitta Honegger and appears as an illustrating example in her fantastic essay “Language Speaks. Anglo-Bernhard: Thomas Bernhard in Translation,” collected in A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard (ed. Matthias Konzett). At the time of Companion’s first publication, Der Weltverbesserer had yet to be released in an English edition; Ariadne released one in 2005.
The July issue of Asymptote, a journal devoted to literary translation, is chock-full of goodies, including a long interview with David Mitchell, a shorty from László Krasznahorkai translation, and an essay by Fady Joudah with the marvelous title ”Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error.” Here’s the beginning of that essay:
In Borges’ story, “Averroës’ Search,” Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle’s Poetics (how to translate ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or “without conviction” as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is “near at hand” or, as in Lydia Davis’ “The Walk,” right “across the street.”
As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës’ guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:
“Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.”
Borges’ mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle’s ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’: theatre.
Lots of great stuff–check it out.
Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.“ Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.
Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.
Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:
The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.
I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.
Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,
The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.
Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.
Biblioklept Interviews Stuart Kendall About His New Translation of Gilgamesh, Altered States of Consciousness, and Terrence Malick
Stuart Kendall is the author of several books, including The Ends of Art and Design, a work that examines the role of experience-events in the post-subjective world, and Georges Bataille, a critical biography of that influential author. Stuart also edited and contributed to Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Stuart has produced and published numerous translations, including works by Bataille, Guy Debord, Paul Éluard, and Maurice Blanchot. His latest translation is a telling of Gilgamesh, one that casts the ancient epic poem in modernist poetry. Stuart has taught at several universities and colleges, including Boston University and the California College of the Arts, where he is currently Chair of Critical Studies. Stuart was kind enough to talk to me about Gilgamesh—and Malick—over a series of emails. You can read more about Stuart’s work at his website. Gilgamesh is available now from Contra Mundum Press.
Biblioklept: Why Gilgamesh?
Stuart Kendall: Gilgamesh is the oldest extended tale that has come down to us and it speaks to us from a pivotal moment in the history of human experience. It is also a particularly rich text, as rich in its depths, ranging back in time prior to its composition, as it is in its reach, remaining relevant to our own drama. Gilgamesh dates to the Bronze Age but the roots of the story, the bones of it, reflect notions about human experience that may stretch back beyond the Neolithic era to the Paleolithic. The text, to my understanding, contains layer upon layer of cultural renewal and reinterpretation. These layers of renewal are reflected in the extended life of the text beyond Gilgamesh into the related texts of the ancient world, like the Hebrew scriptures, and beyond those writings into the fundamental attitudes and ideas of Western civilization, many of which have been profoundly wrongheaded, to put the matter lightly.
From another angle, in part due to the age of the text, Gilgamesh reaches beyond relevance to Western civilization into world religious history through motifs related to shamanism, a practice that many historians of religion suggest may be at the origin of every religious tradition.
Finally, Gilgamesh is perhaps first and foremost a document of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. It is a text that can be traced into and through the fundamentally Judaic traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Our lifetimes have been scarred by the clash of these related worlds. An encounter with Gilgamesh cannot heal the breach caused by the tragic hubris and shortsightedness of some American politicians but it certainly can serve as one part of an on-going discussion about commonalities and differences in human experience bound as we are by time and place.
I hope it is clear that I don’t think that Gilgamesh contains a positive record of something that we share, some universally valid message. Rather I view it as a product of a specific time and place, a distinct product of the process of history. But as such we can see the deeper past through it, trace our traditions to it, and measure ourselves against it in, I think, valuable ways.
Biblioklept: What motivated the project?
ST: This project was conceived in the classroom. I had been teaching Gilgamesh for a number of years, always to great interest, but also without finding a translation that both accurately and accessibly represented the text. Though there are a number of translations of Gilgamesh, they generally fall into two categories that I refer to as scholarly and popular. The scholarly translations are awkward to read since they assiduously and accurately represent areas of the text which are uncertain, either through the material decay of cuneiform tablets or through our failure to fully understanding the meaning of ancient terms. These translations also typically segregate different versions of the story — Sumerian, Akkadian, etc. — in different sections of a book, forcing a reader to flip back and forth to compare the different versions. While this is obviously the most accurate way to present the material, it is not the most expressive way to do so and students and I think other general readers often struggle with it. On the other hand, the more accessible translations of the text, like those by Herbert Mason, David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell, are often misleading, particularly in regard to the theology of the text. These translations, or versions more rightly, are also often too fluid. They emphasize the narrative flow of the story over the poetic or expressive devices at work within it and thereby offer a satisfying, but false, sense of continuity to the materials, as if it were a novel. They are if anything too accessible.
Semester after semester, I saw students respond positively to the text but always only up to a certain limit, depending upon the specific translation I assigned. Eventually I decided that I should do my own version, following a middle path between the scholarly and popular translations. About four years ago I began working on it, testing my draft in the classroom along the way. I’ve also had some friends who have tested the translation in their classes. While I don’t think that the task of translation can ever be finished, I do think that this Gilgamesh is ready for readers.
Biblioklept: Translation seems like such a daunting task . . . how did you approach and execute it?
SK: The translation process for this project was of necessity very different from the process developed through my other translations. At this point I’ve translated ten or so books directly from French to English — rather diverse books by Bataille, Char, Blanchot, Eluard, Baudrillard, and Debord, among others — as well as a large number of articles and shorter pieces. By diverse I mean that these writings have included essays, poems, lectures, letters, notes, and aphorisms across a wide range of fields from belles lettres,broadly speaking, to visual studies, cultural criticism, philosophy, and theology, all generally rooted in an avant-garde orientation to cultural change. The diversity of these texts is thus disciplinary, formal, and stylistic, as well as presenting challenging thoughts. I emphasize this diversity because it is part of what attracted me to Gilgamesh, since Gilgamesh is a text which itself includes a wide range of contents: psychological, philosophical, and religious. One of my main goals was to reveal some of this diversity in the work: this is after all a book in which gods speak. We live in a time in which the gods are silent. Entering into an alternate theological imagination presents an enormous challenge for readers, and, as a translator, I hope that I have done what I could to be helpful toward this end.
In terms of actual process, since I am not an Assyriologist by training or profession, I have had to rely upon the rigorous scholarship of leaders in the field, Andrew George foremost among them, for the core content of the work. George’s two-volume The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (published by Oxford) is the current standard edition of the ancient Gilgamesh materials. But there are a number of other scholarly translations of the work, in whole and in part, in its various ancient versions, that have been instructive, particularly by marking points of contrast. Beyond those materials, specifically tied to Gilgamesh there are histories of the period, cultural, religious and otherwise. And beyond that, a number of far more wide-ranging works within what I would call the history of consciousness, often of psychoanalytical inspiration — Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse — books that frame human experience in the most intricate yet capacious way, have been helpful.
Comparing all of the available scholarly translations of Gilgamesh, across all of the ancient versions of the text, including the stories that migrated beyond Gilgamesh proper, like the flood story in the Hebrew Bible, allowed me to develop a basic ur-text from which to develop my version. As suggested above, the distinctions between the scholarly translations were often more instructive than the points of agreement between them. Where scholarly consensus exists, I tend to follow it. Where the scholars disagree, I fall back on my readings in history and the history of consciousness for guideposts in my interpretation.
Once I had developed the basic text, I worked with it, inspired by the formal language of twentieth century American poetry, particularly the modernist language of Pound and Williams and the postmodern projective and open verse of Olson, Duncan, Eshleman and others. The point was to carry the experience of Gilgamesh into the language of our century without compromising that experience or that language by making either one overly familiar.
I think it is important to emphasize the fact that my method was essentially the same as that of other translators who have produced popular versions of the text, like David Ferry and Stephen Mitchell, neither of whom are Assyriologists by training. I hope that readers find my Gilgamesh to be more rigorous than those versions and more imaginative than the scholarly translation.
Biblioklept: I’ve read various translations of Gilgamesh—all prose—at different times in my life, and I’ve always appreciated it as an adventure story with a mythological scope. I still remember the first time I read Gilgamesh; I was in the 10th grade and the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh struck me as fascinating and strange (and seemed overtly homoerotic too, of course).
One of my favorite moments in your new translation is the first meeting of the pair, when Enkidu interrupts Gilgamesh’s lord’s rights to ravish a new bride in Uruk. The scene is energetic, violent, and sexual; it’s almost figuratively a wedding, or a replacement for Gilgamesh’s taking of the bride—it even ends in a kiss.
The depiction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship is clearly important to how the narrative illustrates human consciousness. Why does their friendship (and rivalry, and love) continue to fascinate (and perhaps inform) readers?
SK: Undoubtedly some of the fascination follows from the enigmatic nature of the relationship, particularly for modern readers. The relationship is familiar, since we all have friends, but also ambiguous. Why are these two characters friends? What is the nature of their friendship? In the earliest extant versions of the tale, the two aren’t friends. Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s servant. In later versions of the story, and in the Standard Version, they are friends. The change can be explained in part as a means of lending additional drama to Enkidu’s death and also, thereafter, Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. It is one thing for your servant to die and another for your closest friend to die. The bond between the two is obscure. They are in many ways opposites. I see them as complementary characters, Enkidu being as close to the animals as Gilgamesh is to the gods, Enkidu from the wild, Gilgamesh from the city, etc. Together they form a kind of complete composite of human experience, like two sides of one character. William Blake’s notion, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that opposition is true friendship, certainly applies to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The larger symbolic affiliations – Enkidu with the animals, Gilgamesh with the gods – are significant in almost all of their encounters both with one another and with the other characters in the major episodes in the narrative, like Humbaba and Ishtar.
The potentially homoerotic element of their relationship is of course highly contentious. For some readers, such a notion is very appealing. For others, it is repellent. I myself am reluctant to project contemporary social or sexual norms into the ancient text. There are countries in the world today where men kiss men or women kiss women without sexual connotation. Something has been lost in our contemporary discourse of physical experience and human relationship if we must treat or imagine every physical relationship as being of one kind. On this point, characters do have sex in the book. Gilgamesh clearly has sex with the young brides of Uruk and Enkidu has sex with Shamhat. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh don’t have sex. I think we go too far if we speculate as to whether or not the authors of the ancient text what readers to imagine the relationship to be sexual. The two characters are however obviously very close friends whose bond makes us reflect on the proximity of opposites and the role of opposition in friendship as well as illustrating issues in the fundamental duality of human character.
Biblioklept: How might Gilgamesh challenge contemporary readers’ attitudes and beliefs about human consciousness?
SK: Gilgamesh challenges contemporary readers in a number of ways. It challenges Jewish and Christian readers with an alternate, and very different, version of the flood story from the Hebrew Bible. It also challenges Christian readers with an alternate version of life after death. The Christian notion of heaven is entirely absent from Gilgamesh. In its place, one finds a pagan notion of a barren world of shades, where priests and kings are powerless and food and drink are tasteless. This vision — conveyed in a dream, or rather a nightmare — is not a vision of Hell or of some other kind of eternal punishment. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it isn’t torture. It is more like non-life and that is the horror of it. The pleasures and the pains of earthly life are absent after death and that is a terrifying notion. Gilgamesh, in other words, gives us a worldview that fears death as the loss of this world and that vision goes against the dogma that this world is in some way fallen, that our true reward is to be found in some alternate reality called heaven. There are many similarly challenging themes and motifs throughout the book.
In part notions like these are so deeply disturbing because they cut to the core of our perspective on reality. As part of a thoroughly pagan text, Gilgamesh consistently encounters gods in the things and people around him. But he also fears some of those same things as much as he savors others. The text provides rich details about objects and animals. It shows people looking at and enjoying other people. It is a book of sensual celebration as much as it is a journey into despair and the two are related, as I suggested just now: death is to be feared because life is so very full.
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes. Here I am thinking in particular of the journey to kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. On each night of the journey, Enkidu performs a kind of shaman ritual, preparing a bed for Gilgamesh. And each night Gilgamesh has a new nightmare which Enkidu, again as a shaman, interprets for him. The immediate effect upon the reader is to elevate our foreboding about their journey to confront Humbaba. But in another way the repeated nightmares – and these aren’t the only ones in the book – testify to the porousness of consciousness within the world. The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos.
This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Pierre Klossowski once remarked that consciousness is never absolute. Our mind, in other words, isn’t like a light that is either on or off. It is more like a light on a dimmer switch subject to the fluctuations of an unexpected power surge. Gilgamesh is, in some ways, a guide to living with and through altered states of consciousness.
Biblioklept: I’ve read your essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a favorite film of mine. In the essay, you discuss the film’s disruptive, destabilizing properties. Aspects of your analysis seem equally applicable to Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, a film that deeply divided audiences.
In your previous answer, you discuss how Gilgamesh potentially threatens to destabilize the reader’s sense of a world anchored in fixed, absolute meaning. Do Malick’s films operate in the same way? Why was The Tree of Life such an affront to so many people’s sense of narrative propriety?
SK: I’m glad you brought this up. Malick’s films are deeply fascinating to me and, yes, I do see a certain continuity of concern, if not necessarily technique, between Malick’s films and Gilgamesh. The continuity of concern between these two types of cultural production is what attracts me to both of them, though obviously they are world’s apart.
In the essay on Malick’s Days of Heaven that you mention, “The Tragic Indiscernability of Days of Heaven,” I attempted to show that Malick’s film style, particularly in that film, might be compared to Greek tragedy in a formal way, since both Malick’s film and Greek tragedy overdetermine language and images with religious, political, and philosophical meaning. They do so not to integrate those different types of meaning but rather to demonstrate the extent to which these different types of meaning might be incompatible with one another. The viewer is put in the awkward position of having to choose between different registers of meaning, essentially different interpretations of the object, sometimes moment by moment, or viewing by viewing. There’s that remark from Kierkegaard, that what looks like politics and imagines itself to be political will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. But in the case of Days of Heaven and tragedy, what looks like politics one day, might look more like religion the next, since it is both simultaneously and therefore also unstable.
I don’t believe one can make the same kind of claims about The Tree of Life however. The Tree of Life is a very demanding film, in part because it asks theological questions in visual terms. In a way, the film might be the direct contrary of Days of Heaven. While Days of Heaven is saturated with meaning, overdetermined, The Tree of Life is underdetermined. The viewer must constantly ask whether its images are in fact evidence of the existence of god or not. Are they, in other words, meaningful, or not. For a believer, The Tree of Life is challenging because it does not correspond to common visions of faith, even though many believers do I think recognize self-organizing systems — like a flock of birds in flight — as evidence for the existence of their god.
But The Tree of Life is challenging at the most basic level as well. In the first part of the film, the viewer is given very little narrative information. We see the parents being told that their child has died but it is far from explicit: the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, reads a telegram to herself and reacts to it. The father, played by Brad Pitt, is told over the phone while standing near an airplane. He can barely hear the call; we certainly can’t. In order to construct the narrative, the viewer has to look very deeply into the film. And once the meaning is clear, it still isn’t clear, since the entire film explores the problem of meaning in this way. There is a lot more to say about this film, obviously, particularly about the final section of the film.
Returning to Gilgamesh, I think it is important to observe that Gilgamesh is very different from both of these films even though it does share many of the same concerns. For one thing, rather than being the work of a single author — or even cultural group — Gilgamesh, I think, is best understood as a palimpsest of materials aggregated by several ancient cultures over fifteen hundred to two thousand years. Roughly contemporary works with a similar ambition include Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Pound’s Cantos, and Olson’s Maximus Poems. In film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma offers some similarities; it is certainly a visual palimpsest, even though it only spans the 100 year history of cinema. All of these works as well are distinct from Gilgamesh because they are the products of individual authors, though Pound, Olson, and Godard all do incorporate many different types of “found” materials. As a palimpsest, Gilgamesh is far more heterogeneous than most readers, I think, give it credit for being. The tale offers several different responses to the problem of death, for example, at different points, each without referencing the others. Another example can be seen in the three different methods of obtaining immortality shoved together at the end, none of which reference the others or suggest that the series might not continue indefinitely.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Malick’s films are highly crafted, whether overdetermined or underdetermined. They are built in such a way as to give their viewer a fairly specific task. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is overdetermined in a completely different way, in part due to the historical circumstances of its collation, composition being perhaps too strong a word for it. The challenge for readers of Gilgamesh is to get into the perspective or perspectives that originated the narratives it contains. It is much closer to the perspective expressed by Kierkegaard in the quote I referenced above. A good example of this is the encounter with Ishtar. Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, love, and war, essentially a nature goddess, and she is the patroness of the city where Gilgamesh is king. In the story, she offers herself to Gilgamesh in marriage, promising fecundity for the city. In one ancient worldview, it is the function of the king to “marry” the goddess of nature and thereby ensure the abundance of the land and safety of the people. Gilgamesh however has different ideas. He does not trust Ishtar — and how can you trust nature? Instead, he forms a community with his male companion, Enkidu. The two of them fight Ishtar together and, successful in their conquest, have a feast. The story is clear as a story. The allegory is clear as an allegory (that has been catastrophic for our civilization). But the conflict between the two historical perspectives — sacred marriage vs. community of men — is masked by the successful integration of the text.
Where Malick uses instability and overdetermination to create an aesthetic object that raises questions or creates problems for his viewer, Gilgamesh, as an object, uses integration as a mask for heterogeneous cultural and historical materials. The reader of Gilgamesh has to do the work of peeling the layers of the text apart (without hope of finding a stable, original, core meaning). That in mind, the casual reader of Gilgamesh might not realize how very complex and multi-layered it really is, whereas the complexity of Malick’s films is self-evident. Put differently, it is easy to see why Gilgamesh is quite popular among casual readers and Malick off-putting to casual viewers.
Biblioklept: Do you have another translation project on the horizon? What are you writing now?
SK: I’ve been working on some translations of René Char’s later poetry, some of which is forthcoming in Plume among other places. I’m also finishing a short book on Andy Goldsworthy and another, on Georges Bataille, Gregory Bateson, sustainability and the sacred. Both of these later projects fall under the general heading of the ecological imagination.
Biblioklept: Can you elaborate on “the ecological imagination”?
SK: I’ve been using the phrase ecological imagination as a way of evoking the history of our human awareness of and interaction with our environment. Ecology is environment or habitat, but more generally also the situation or system that supports life. I emphasize imagination here rather than “thought” because the notion of thought too quickly enters into the history of rationality or even ideas, whereas imagination retains a strong connection with the imaginary, which can include the untrue. As Nietzsche insists, untruth is often a necessary part of life. Gilgamesh is part of this ecological imagination project as well, an early panel reflecting our disconnection from nature, whereas the more contemporary panels — on Goldsworthy, Bataille and Bateson — are concerned with recent attempts to reestablish some kind of physical connection to our world.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SK: I stole a copy of Shelley’s complete poetry, an Oxford edition paperback, from a public library when I was a teenager. At the time, the book seemed essential to me. The edition itself is undistinguished and, frankly, a minor annoyance to me now. I don’t enjoy reading it but I also don’t enjoy Shelley enough to replace it with a better edition. On a few other occasions I’ve walked away with a cheap paperback or two, though never from a bookstore. Books have nevertheless been my abiding passion in life, the only material possessions that really excite me.
The Chihuly book was too beautiful not to pick up for my wife—cloth bound and so orange. I picked it up along with Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary this afternoon at my fave used bookshop; ostensibly, I was searching for a copy of the Mutis book Noquar reviewed here this week, but who really needs a legit reason to browse the stacks?
Contra Mundum Press is publishing a new translation of the epic of Gilgamesh by renowned translator and scholar Stuart Kendall, who has translated works by Bataille, Blanchot, and Debord, among others. You can read (and download if you like) a good chunk of this text now. It’s good stuff.
From Lydia Davis’s insightful and entertaining essay “Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary,” from issue 198 of The Paris Review—
The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on at least three things: the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; his or her conception of the task of the translation; and his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have subsets that can recombine infinitely, which is why one work can have such widely differing translations. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Professor X, head of the French department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches translating, and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.
Some of the good people at Hyperion, the journal of the Nietzsche Circle, have begun a new publishing venture: Contra Mundum Press. Their first project is a new translation of the Gilgamesh epic by Stuart Kendall; it should be ready next month. In December, CMP is planning to release the first English language translation of Nietzsche’s “Greek Music Drama.” Their list of future titles looks quite promising, and it’s always great to see a new indie publisher making a go of it in an era where print books are being eulogized (with no small level of hyperbole) on what seems to be a weekly basis.
A sample of Roberto Bolaño’s short essay “Translation Is an Anvil” (from New Directions’ forthcoming Between Parentheses, a collection of Bolaño’s essays, newspaper columns, and other ephemera)——
How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
On the heels of last year’s hugely successful first-time-in-English publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the good folks at Melville House have issued another of Hans Fallada’s epic novels, Wolf Among Wolves. Set during Germany’s 1923 economic collapse, Wolf centers on Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier and itinerant gambler languishing in the corruption of Weimar Berlin.The beginning of the novel focuses on a single summer day in Berlin; Fallada’s naturalist, realist eye paradoxically puts all the minutiae of this world under a microscope even as it expands to capture a holistic vision of life in morally-decadent, post-war Germany. The effect is both devastating and enlightening. It is epic realism, the condensation of the everyday existence of an alien world. Another paradox–behind Fallada’s omniscient, steady, neutral narrative, so plain and descriptive and frank, there lies another voice, a moral, ethical voice that prompts Pagel to transcend the wolf-eat-wolf world. Indeed, Fallada presents a vision of moral cooperation in a world dominated by self-interest. Here’s a passage describing some of Berlin’s heady post-war decadence:
But the girls were the worst. They strolled about calling, whispering, taking people’s arms, running alongside men, laughing. Some girls exposed their bodies in a way that was revolting. A market of flesh–white flesh bloated with drink, and lean dark flesh which seemed to have been burned up by spirits. But worst of all were the entirely shameless, the almost sexless: the morphine addicts with their contracted pupils, the cocaine sniffers with their white noses, and the cocaine addicts with high-pitched voices and irrepressibly twitching faces. They wriggled, they jiggled their flesh in low-cut or cunningly-slashed blouses, and when they made room for you or went round a corner they picked up their skirts (which, even so, didn’t reach their knees), exhibiting between stockings and drawers a strip of pale flesh and a green or pink garter. They exchanged remarks about passing men, bawled obscenities to each other across the street, and their greedy eyes searched among the slowly drifting crowd for foreigners who might be expected to have foreign currency in their pockets.
Melville House’s edition of Wolf Among Wolves is the first unabridged English translation ever–scholars Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs have restored passages originally omitted in Philip Owens’s contemporaneous translation.In his insightful afterward, Carstensen addresses why certain passages were not included in Owens’s original translation, pointing out that most omitted passages showed an inclination toward fairy-tale or mythic structures, aesthetics that “contradict the claim to naturalistic representation” one expects in Fallada’s work. By preserving the occasional “almost surreal mode of perception” omitted in the original, Carstensen argues that:
In short, the fully reconstructed text, with its enhanced inconsistency, provides the reader with insight into a literary aesthetics that is unique among the novels of German modernism: Fallada combines realist prose and ethical concerns with a narrative technique that renders ambiguous what is supposedly a semi-documentary representation, shaped by his very own experiences in the country.
We’re eating up Wolf Among Wolves right now, and will have a full review in time); for now, we recommend you pick it up for some good summer reading.
The New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog interviews Chris Andrews. The magazine published Andrews’s translation of Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” earlier this week. From the interview:
A book that’s a joy to read can be frustrating to translate when, for whatever reason, the process keeps jamming up. And it’s very hard to predict just how hard a book will be to translate until you really get down to it, because smallish but time-consuming problems can be virtually invisible on a first reading. But of course translating has its joys as well: moving in slow motion through a fictional world, exploring its dimmer recesses, listening to what echoes in it, handling rich vocabularies …
This weekend, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States (new in a handsome trade paperback edition from Picador at the end of this month). The word “volume” seems to imply multiple, discrete editions, but really the term has more to do with Thirlwell’s sense of humor. Like an 18th century novel, The Delighted States comprises chapters, books, and volumes. That playfulness also echoes in the book’s subtitle: “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Despite the mock-serious tone there, the subtitle is a pretty accurate description of the book. Not that Thirlwell is pompous or long-winded. Rather, he’s the rare literary critic who manages to show authority without being didactic, who balances scholarly insight with playful humor and a willingness not to answer to every little detail.
But what is it about? From Thirlwell: “This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.” Thirlwell, a translator himself (the book flips over to his version of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Mademoiselle O”) uses translation (of books, of styles, of ideas) to relate a history of the rise of literary modernism. The first volume finds heroes in Gustave Flaubert and his would-be mistress, James Joyce and his French translator, Denis Diderot, Marcel Proust, and Balzac. There’s Gogol and Nabokov, Tolstoy and Borges–not to mention their characters, major and minor. It’s a lot of fun, but even better, it’s the kind of performance to which every literary critic should aspire. It makes you want to read the books you haven’t yet read and re-read the ones you already have.
Thirlwell, like any good avid reader, reads his books (and authors) in dialog with each other, and I can’t help but do the same. The hardback edition was published in 2008, but I can’t help read in Thirlwell’s work a response to David Shields’s new “manifesto” Reality Hunger. Both authors recognize that novelists attempt to represent or even re-enact “reality” in their works (despite Plato’s claim that mimesis was not the business of the poets). However, where Shields for some unclear reason nihilistically argues for the death of the novel, Thirlwell repeatedly demonstrates why a novelist’s depiction of reality is important. Thirlwell realizes that “The more a sign looks as if it’s real, the more it will have to be artificial,” citing Joyce’s interior monologues as an example. “The less artificial a sign is, the less likely it is to be convincing,” Thirlwell writes. Put another way, novels — and by proxy other narrative art forms — must use artifice to achieve reality. Like Shields, Thirlwell cites Joyce’s famous quote — “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man” — but the effect is far more satisfying in The Delighted States, where it is contextualized evidence used to bolster a point, and not mere solipsistic indulgence. But maybe I’m still holding a grudge against Shields. And maybe it’s not fair to use Thirlwell’s work to rap at his (metaphorical) knuckles. Unlike the sensationalism, negativity, and gimmicks of Reality Hunger, Thirlwell’s argument for the novel is measured, patient, well-researched–and thus far less likely to cause as big a stir. In a single parenthetical aside he reveals more about his critical subjectivity than Shields is ever willing to admit in an entire book: “Good novelists (or, maybe more honestly, the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are also morally avant-garde as well.” It’s a good thesis on its own, but what’s really wonderfully refreshing is Thirlwell’s honesty about bias in criticism–that “Good novelists” are really “the novelists I like.” Fantastic stuff so far, and I’m itching to read more.
The Australian is running a new article about one of Roberto Bolaño’s English translators, Chris Andrews. Reporter Bernard Lane reveals that
Andrews had been badgering publishers for translation work. In 2001 he badgered the right publisher, Christopher MacLehose of Harvill Press in London, at the right time. MacLehose had just bought the first English rights to Bolano and his translator had fallen by the wayside. Andrews knew and admired Bolano’s [sic] writing, thanks to his acquisition of Spanish at the universities of Melbourne and La Trobe. He got the job and out came By Night in Chile.
Andrews on Bolaño–
“I think of him as a pan-American author, as an author of the western hemisphere,” says Andrews. Bolano’s reception in Britain had been slow at first, not that his prose was a problem.
“There are a lot of important features of Bolano’s style that can be transferred from one language to another,” Andrews says, “The big syntactic patterns, the patterns of repetition, the long sentences, the bursts, the parenthetical remarks; that comes across.”
The article centers around Andrews’s translation of Nazi Literature in the Americas. We absolutely love the Picador edition’s cover for the UK, Australia, and similar markets. It captures the book’s apocryphal tone, its violence–and also its sharp sense of humor. On that book specifically (and Bolaño’s work in general)–
In a sea of allusion, English readers may feel adrift. “I don’t think it matters very much,” says Andrews. “It’s probably going to be read by people who have already got an interest in Bolano.
“One of the nice things about those bits of Bolano that are full of references and allusions is that it is hard to draw the line between the historical characters and the fictional ones.
“In different literary cultures, there are different norms about what you need to explain. In the French translation of Bolano, there are footnotes.”
Wouldn’t readers halfway familiar with Bolano suspect they were dealing with yet another level of artifice? “I think they would,” Andrews says, “even if it said ‘translator’s note’.”
The article details what techniques Andrews employs when stuck, particularly with regional dialects and slang. Andrews also talks about his correspondence with Bolaño himself, in the last few years of the Chilean’s life. Here’s Andrews describing his attraction to Bolaño:
The prose has a mesmerising quality that intrigues Andrews.
“There’s a character in one of the stories I’ve just been translating who’s an actor called El Pajarito [Little Bird] Gomez. He’s a skinny, unimpressive-looking guy, but as soon as he appears on camera he vibrates in a weird way that almost hypnotises the viewer.
“When I read that, I thought, that’s a bit like what happens with Bolano’s prose for many readers, that it has a strange kind of vibration.”
Dennis Johnson, along with wife Valerie Merians, heads Melville House Publishing, an independent book house putting out some of the best stuff on the market today. They also have a bookstore in Brooklyn that regularly hosts all kinds of neat literary-type events. Melville House is the outgrowth of Johnson’s literary blog MobyLives, an insightful source of reportage on the literary world today. In 2007, the Association of American Publishers awarded Melville House the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing and in 2009 The Village Voice declared Melville House “The Best Small Press of the Year.” I talked to Johnson by phone last week and he answered my questions with patience and humor. We discussed how Johnson finds the marvelous books he publishes, translation, novellas, and upcoming releases from Melville House. After the interview he was kind enough to ask me about my own blog and offer me some encouraging words. Just a few days after our talk it was announced that one of Melville House’s recent publications, The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven had won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.
Biblioklept: I want to begin by congratulating Melville House on Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone. It’s done really well both critically and commercially. The book is something of a “recovered classic,” published just last year for the first time in English. Can you tell us a little bit about how Melville House came to publish the book?
Dennis Johnson: Well, it was a search it’s a real saga about hunting down that book. I’m always interested in finding material from that part of the world and that time of history because I think a good deal of very good literature was lost between the two wars. And it’s just writing that I like a lot. So a friend of mine, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg had family that came through that part of the world at that time and I asked her if she had any recommendations and she told me I should look into Hans Fallada, who I’d never heard of. So I tracked down a couple of his titles that had been translated–because he was a bestselling writer here in the 1930s–and it took a while but I found some of those books which had been out of print for a long time and I really loved them. And then, von Furstenberg told me that his best one had never been translated. That was Every Man Dies Alone. And so we set about going after it and acquiring it. And, at that point, once we’d discovered it, it was pretty easy sailing. But tracking down his stuff that had been translated and finding out more about him was really kind of a fun bit of detective work.
B: Did Michael Hoffman translate it specifically for Melville House?
DJ: Yeah, he did. We hired him to do it.
DJ: Well, there’s a couple of things you can do. You can find the translator, or you can reprint things that have been translated already, if you think it’s already a good translation–that’s a less expensive way to do a translated book. So for example, with the Fallada, I bought some old translations of his other books and published them simultaneously with the new translation of Every Man. There was, you know, there was no old translation to buy. But two of his other books, two great books, one called The Drinker and one called Little Man, What Now? I thought were pretty well translated so we just bought those old translations. They were out of print, they were available [for publication].
B: It seems like a lot of the books you guys put out are–I don’t know how to put it–recovered classics or cult books or just books that English-reading audiences just aren’t necessarily exposed to. Is that purposeful with Melville House?
DJ: I think we have a fairly mixed list. The names you were citing a minute ago . . . Balestrini, he’s only been translated once, I think, thirty or forty years ago. But he’s a very prominent writer in Italy. And it wasn’t exactly a “discovery,” it was just someone that we thought American audiences should know about. Imre Kertész on the other hand is extremely famous, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and he’s published by Knopf. We were thrilled when he wanted to come to Melville House. So, you know, some of these writers are here, some are not. We publish some well known writers, some very obscure writers. We try to mix it up. You know, there’ s no rule, just good literature.
B: Can you talk a little bit about the Contemporary Art of the Novella series? How did it come about?
DJ: Well, we originally had a series called just the Art of the Novella. It’s classics, many of them translated, classics from around the world, lots of European classics, and some of those are new translations that we did it, some are old translations that we reprinted. And that series did really, really well and people really seemed to love it so we decided that we would do a contemporary version of that series and try to mix it up the same way. And so the new series has new discoveries in it, some old reprints, things from around the world, we’re expanding beyond Europe and Russia, we’ve got a native Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto in it coming out, we’ve got African writers, South American writers . . . It’s been off to a very good launch. I think we’ve done about fourteen or fifteen books in that series so far and it’s going really well. You know, it’s very hard to publish translation in the United States. It doesn’t . . . it doesn’t sell. It’s hard to keep it in store for a long time. And it’s expensive to do translated books because you have to pay your translator. In the Contemporary series we often use new translations because it’s new work that’s never been translated before and that can get very expensive because you’ve got two authors, you know, you have to pay the author, the translator, and that’s why a lot of people are cutting back on doing translations. But we wanted to keep doing translations and we had to figure out a way to keep doing it and one idea we had was, if we had this series of short novels . . . well, one, they’re just cheaper to do, they cost less to buy from another publisher, they cost less to make because they’re less paper and they cost less to translate because they’re shorter. And you know, you pay by how long. So, it suddenly became a more economical way for us to publish translated books. The booksellers, they like the Contemporary series. They get the whole series and they keep it in the store. So, for example, we’re about to do a deal with a new book store in Fort Greene called Greenlight where they would do a whole wall of these books. Other stores do a spin-rack of these books. And they just keep them. And what usually happens with new books is you just get a few weeks in the bookstore and if it doesn’t sell they return it. And so we would get really creamed on the translated work because it wouldn’t have very long in the store and it’s hard to get publicity for them and then they just didn’t have enough time to sell. But, if they’re taking the whole series and keeping them on display, forever, well, then these books have a real chance of surviving. So there were a lot of good reasons for us to do a Contemporary series. And in the end, the reason was that it allowed us to keep doing really good, serious, translated work.
B: What do you think about “rock star” writers like Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño whose English translations sell very well? Does that help the prospects of translated books at all?
DJ: Well, every year there are one or two books that are translated that do very well. But they’re the exception to the rule. At any given point in the year, you look at the New York Times bestseller list for fiction, there’s almost never a translated book on it. Or if there is, it’s some, you know, Scandinavian murder mystery or something. It’s very rare it’s a serious work of literature. So I would say those writers are the exception to the rule. But it’s certainly does help those of us selling translated fiction to be able to point to those things. It encourages booksellers to give us a chance.
B: Can you tell us a little bit about upcoming titles and authors you’re excited about?
DJ: Well, we’re doing another Fallada–
B: Wolf Among Wolves, right?
DJ: We’re doing Wolf among Wolves in May. And we’re doing the paperback for Every Man Dies Alone at the end of this month, as a matter of fact. So those are two that I’m really excited about. We have some really great nonfiction coming out. We just published a book about North Korea called The Cleanest Race. It’s about understanding North Korea through its propaganda. It’s got a lot of really wild art showing the propaganda posters and movie stills and things. And then we’ve got some novels coming out, one from a young British writer named Lee Rourke. It’s the first novel. It’s called The Canal and I think it’s one of the very best novels we’ve ever published. It’s generating a lot of excitement. We’re doing another one with Kertész next year, which is a big novel called Fiasco. He wrote a trilogy years ago about his experience in the camps. What was he, fifteen or something, when he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, working in a Nazi factory trying to turn coal into gasoline? And he wrote a novel called Fatelessness about that and another one called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. And Knopf published Kaddish and Fatelessness but they never published Fiasco. So we’re really excited about that.
B: Something I enjoy about MobyLives is your perspective as a publisher covering real news about book selling.
DJ: Thanks. It’s a labor of love. If you look at the historic arc of the website, you can see that we became more informed by being a publisher. I wasn’t a publisher when I started it and it was much more general-interest reader kind of thing. I try to get help. I try to make the staff here participate, I think it makes it a little more wide-ranging.
B: So, have you ever stolen a book?
DJ: Sure, yeah. I used to steal a lot of books from my brother. I remember stealing Gore Vidal’s Burr. My big brother’s a lot older than me and he left the house when I was a kid and I remember stealing a lot of his books. So Burr yeah, a novel Vidal wrote about Aaron Burr. Fantastic book. I still have it. He hasn’t asked for it back. I don’t think he knows.
Roberto Bolaño, in a 2002 interview, tells us that
. . . literature is not made from words alone. Borges says that there are untranslatable writers. I think he uses Quevedo as an example. We could add García Lorca and others. Notwithstanding that, a work like Don Quijote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it–bad translation, incomplete and ruined–any version of Quijote would still have very much to say to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.
The interview, conducted by Carmen Boullosa, was originally published in Bomb. It’s now collected along with three other interviews, all meticulously annotated (there’s also a fabulous introductory essay by Marcela Valdes) in a collection called Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview, new from Melville House. While you’re browsing Melville House, I highly, highly recommend Tom McCartan’s column “What Bolaño Read,” which will be ongoing through next week. Great stuff. Biblioklept will run a proper review of The Last Interview later this week (no big surprise for regular ‘klept readers: I love it. Get it. Read it. Give it to the Bolaño fanatic in your life), but in the meantime, back to the quote.
I’ve written so much about Bolaño over the past year yet I’ve never really reflected on his English translators, Chris Andrews (the shorter works) and Natasha Wimmer (the long books), probably because I wouldn’t know how to begin. Reading interviews with Andrews and Wimmer (links above) is enlightening. Andrews attests that he tries to avoid “a translation that is unduly distracting,” and remarks on Bolaño’s epic syntax. Wimmer says she simply tried “to follow Bolaño’s lead,” but admits to her reviewer that she might have missed some puns (“Missing things like that is the translator’s great dread, but it’s probably inevitable occasionally, especially with Bolaño”). In both of the interviews, Bolaño’s translators come off as critical readers whose love of their source material is clearly at the forefront of their project. I have to believe–and have to is the operative term here–that their translations are faithful to Bolaño’s text (and spirit), that they are not, to use the man’s term, a “shit storm” on his oeuvre. But, given Bolaño’s own definition of “literature,” I’d also aver that his masterpiece 2666 could weather any shit storm (hell, the thing was, I suppose, technically incomplete at his death). In any case, I find Bolaño point reassuring, not just in light of his own work, but also within the context of a greater canon of world literature. His suggestion that real literature speaks beyond “words alone,” that storytelling is more than mere verbal tricks and schemes, should be an affirmation to anyone who’s ever been unsure that he’s properly “got” Kafka or Haruki Murakami or Dostoevsky or whomever. And I like that idea quite a bit.
Bourbon Island 1730, part funny animal graphic novel, part historical literature, recounts the story of Raphael Pommeroy who travels from France to Bourbon Island with his ornithology professor in search of a living dodo. On the journey to the French colony, Raphael becomes entranced by pirate tales, and when he arrives to Bourbon Island, he immediately tries to join up with some ex-pirates–unsuccessfully, of course. The French government has offered an amnesty to all pirates, and many have become successful plantation owners. However, their new wealth comes at the expense of the large population of slaves brought to Bourbon Island from Madagascar and Mozambique. The most interesting subplot of Bourbon Island 1730 involves a network of maroons, runaway slaves who have colonized their own villages at the top of the island’s treacherous terrain. When the notorious pirate Captain Buzzard is captured, some of the maroons plan to set him free and lead a revolt against the French colonials. In the meantime, the colonial authorities, including the scheming governor and the greedy priest, are trying to get Buzzard to reveal where he’s hidden a large cache of treasure.
Lewis Trondheim’s art strikes a nice balance between vivid detail and the classic funny animal style, and the book’s measured pacing delivers the story at a nice clip. Appollodorus and Trondheim never rush, taking the time to convey the cultural complexity of Bourbon Island–quite a feat, really, when you consider how much is going on here: the end of a pirate age, the horrors of slavery, and the problematics of colonization. Appollodorus and Trondheim envision Bourbon Island as a strange nexus of slavery and freedom, piracy and central authority, of the meeting of the cultures of Africa, India, and Europe. Leading man Raphael is a hopeless romantic who pines wistfully for the absolute freedom he sees as the life of a pirate and the natural right of all men. And yet, as the book makes clear, idealism can rarely stand up to the corrosive complexity of the real world.
With twelve pages of endnotes, Bourbon Island 1730 is just the kind of well-researched historical fiction that would fit neatly into any post-colonial studies course. There’s only one major fault with the book: it ends too quickly. Appollodorus and Trondheim have too many fascinating subplots that they don’t bother to resolve. While we have no problem with ambiguous conclusions, Bourbon feels simply rushed at the end, as it sprints to a virtual non-conclusion. We would’ve been much happier with a cliff-hanger and a promise of a part two. Nonetheless, anyone interested in colonialism and post-colonial studies should check out this book.
Bourbon Island 1730 is available October 28th, 2008 from First Second.