“This is a book of literary criticism.” That is the first sentence of Chris Andrews’ Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, recently published by Columbia University Press. It seems odd that an author would have to specify their intent right off the bat, but both Andrews and Bolaño are interesting cases. Aside from teaching at the University of West Sydney, Andrews is partially responsible for introducing Bolaño to anglophone audiences, translating several key works including Nazi Literature in the Americas, By Night in Chile, and Distant Star (for which he won the Vallé-Inclan Prize). Moreover, the intensity of Bolaño’s reception — the diversity of his thematic and stylistic choices mixed with obscurities surrounding his biography — poses its own set of challenges to critics trying to draw themes out of his still growing body of work (interviews and stories still remain to be translated into English). That being said, Andrews has written a very good book of literary criticism, drawing in a wide range of topics from Bolaño’s use of narrative tension to the relationship between literature and philosophical accounts of narrative identity. Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction will interest the casual Bolaño reader, students of Latin American literature, and more generally those concerned with deepening their understanding of one of the most singular figures of contemporary fiction.
Over email we discussed the ways in translating can aid the practice of literary criticism, the state of translated literature in Australia, and why Bolaño is an author who is likely to be studied for years to come.
Michael Schapira: I want to begin with a question lifted from our recent translation questionnaire. What is the most recent problem you ran into in a translation (a sentence, a word, a phrase)? How did you solve it?
Chris Andrews: This is more a recurrent temptation than a specific problem. I’m translating a novel by César Aira, Ema, the Captive, which is set on the frontier of settlement in nineteenth-century Argentina. Yesterday I came to a part where there’s a group of indigenous people standing around discussing a deal done between a chief and the colonel in charge of the local fort. The colonel sent out a big cart full of cash (that he printed himself) to appease the chief and his warriors. This is discussed in very abstract and theoretical terms, and the temptation is to lower the register, to make it more concrete, so that its sounds more realistic, but the whole point of the exchange is that the “savages” are in fact ultra-sophisticated (and this has a political resonance: the book was written in 1978, during the dictatorship, when the military government was celebrating the “Desert Campaigns” against the country’s original inhabitants). So I think it’s important to keep it abstract, which produces (provisional) results like this: “Real money! That’s ridiculous! Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness in passing the time.”
In the Introduction to Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction you talk about three very different modes of reading — as a general reader who makes decisions about what to prioritize in the text (“plot over subplot, action over atmosphere”), as an academic critic who focuses on aspects of the text pursuant to their scholarly interests, and finally as a translator, who is “obliged to distribute their attention evenly” across the text. In this respect you have a special vantage point on the case of Bolaño, an author who emerged as a commercial/critical success and as an object of academic study at around the same time. I have two related questions:
First, it is a mysterious process as to how relatively contemporary authors become objects of academic literary criticism, especially when they have achieved a level of commercial success. I don’t want to ask you why Bolaño has begun to attract more scholarly attention, but simply to share your impressions on how you’ve seen this process occur in Bolaño’s case (and I’m wondering if it is similar to a European “contemporary” like Sebald, and whether we might anticipate it for living authors like Marías).
To generate a really thriving academic industry, a writer’s work needs “hooks” — features to which academics can neatly attach their theoretical preoccupations. Borges is a good example of this. But there are wonderful writers who don’t provide so many hooks of that sort: their work has a smoother surface, so to speak, harder for academics to get a grip on. Penelope Fitzgerald, for instance. I don’t mean to suggest that one kind of writer is better than the other.
Bolaño’s work does have some academic hooks (in 2666 especially) but the scholarship on his work in English hasn’t yet reached industrial proportions, and it’s hard to say how it will develop, especially since what constitutes a hook changes as intellectual fashions come and go. Whatever happens in the universities, I think it’s clear that the exploration of his work has just begun.
Marías . . . he could be attracting much more scholarly attention in the future. There’s already A Companion to Javier Marías (Tamesis, 2011).
My second question is that I assume as a translator you also have the first mode of reading in mind, how the general reading public will potentially react to a translation choice. I’m wondering if you can think of an instance where switching between these two modes actually yielded an insight for the more formal literary criticism that we find in this book?
I read Bolaño first as a general reader, then as a translator, and finally as a critic. With each switch, new things came into view. When I was reading the stories for the first time, I found them completely absorbing and didn’t care why. When I was translating them, reading them slowly, over and over, I felt that I was beginning to see “inside” them, to grasp how they worked, to discern the lineaments of the “secret plot” that every short story encodes somehow, according to Ricardo Piglia. And then there were things that weren’t clear to me, even after translating, until I started trying to lay out a critical argument, like what the fights in Bolaño’s fiction mean. At first I thought they were like the epiphanic duels that keep coming up in Borges’s fiction: those crucial moments that reveal a character’s true identity. But it turned out that the resemblances to Borges in this respect are superficial. Bolaño’s fights are not epiphanic: they test courage but they don’t reveal an identity; and they’re not all about a singular hero. Most of them are motivated by the duty to rescue a third party.
How did you come to translate Bolaño? More specifically, many translations of Latin American literature into English will come from a British or American translator, as this is where the publishing houses are located. So how does an Australian translator become one of the major Bolaño translators?
Luck. I was in London in 2001, bothering a series of publishers in search of some work as a literary translator (I had translated two books of nonfiction). Christopher Maclehose at Harvill made time to talk with me, and one of the questions he asked was: What have you been reading? I had bought The Savage Detectives in Chile on my way to England and expressed my enthusiasm for Bolaño. Harvill, as it happened, had just bought the rights to By Night in Chile, but they already had a translator lined up. When the translator pulled out, they needed a replacement, quickly. They asked me to do a sample and then the whole book. At first I was working with Harvill, but after Distant Star, I began working directly with Barbara Epler at New Directions.
Following up, what is the status of translated fiction in Australia? Is it growing, or running up against structural constraints like where the publishing houses doing the translations are located?
There are keen readers of translated fiction here, and excellent magazines that publish translations done locally — Higher Arc, Contrapasso, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin — but it’s rare for an Australian publisher to buy the rights to a book and commission a translation. It does happen, though: Giramondo has just published Death Fugue by the Chinese novelist Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant. And last year Text published Penny Hueston’s translation of Marie Darrieusecq’s All the Way.
You are one of three major translators of Bolaño, the other two being Natasha Wimmer and Laura Healy. Do you think that Bolaño’s “expanding universe” — where characters circulate between texts, chapters get developed later into novels, themes are repeated with slight variations — minimizes problems that might emerge with other authors that have multiple translators?
Yes, I think so: when you recognize a character or an episode from a text that you’ve read, you have a sense that you’re entering a new part of the same big space. The robust distinctiveness of Bolaño’s style helps too, and the quality of the work done by the other translators you mentioned. As I say in a note at the start of the book, I occasionally modified my own translations when quoting from Bolaño, but there was no need to tamper with those of Natasha Wimmer and Laura Healey.
I particularly liked your chapters on Bolaño’s use of narrative tension and on aimlessness. What I find most compelling about Bolaño is his steadfast resistance to resolving this tension and his presentation of the whole sweep of life without a post-hoc statement that might make it more intelligible. In many cases you have the brute presentation of facts (or lists), which speaks to something more atmospheric, in darker moments something like menace that looms behind the text (e.g. in the end of “The Part About Fate” in 2666). It reminds me of certain discussions of presence and absence I would read when studying phenomenology. Do you see Bolaño’s work as philosophically illuminating in other ways?
In the later chapters of the book, I try to connect questions that arise from reading Bolaño with the work of some philosophers, mainly from the analytic tradition: Claudia Card on evil, Ruwen Ogien on minimalist ethics, Bernard Williams on moral luck. But I also use some concepts and ideas from Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben. The chapter on aimlessness engages with the interdisciplinary debate about narrative identity, and there I think Bolaño is illuminating, because many of his key characters are what Galen Strawson calls Episodics: they don’t have a sense that the self they are now was there from the start and will be there to the end. Some of Bolaño’s Episodics are unhappy and bad, but it’s not because of the way they experience their selves in time.
Aside from being a translator you teach at the University of Western Sydney. I don’t want you to get into any trouble with your colleagues, but Australian universities have been aggressive in adopting governance models from the private sector, ironically called “New Public Management.” Has the study and teaching of literature been affected by this change? Is the university a good place to develop a new generation of translators or readers of literature in other languages?
Things are not looking good here, to be honest. The whole idea of the public university is under threat. The humanities in general are finding it hard to defend themselves, and one of the reasons is paradoxical: they’re not expensive. Research success is measured more and more by the size of the grants secured. Language offerings at Australian universities continue to shrink. Where I work, the Spanish and Italian programs were eliminated in 2012. Literary translation does not count as research, so from an institutional point of view, it’s a waste of time. Well, you asked!
On the other hand, when I remember the good students I’ve had at the University of Western Sydney and at the University of Melbourne before that, I’m not pessimistic at all. The passion for reading in other languages and the desire to translate may not be very widespread, but they’re not about to disappear.
Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor for Full Stop.