[Charco Press; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Ellen Jones

El rastro, a 2002 novel by Mexican author Margo Glantz, out now from Charco Press in an English translation by Ellen Jones, narrates a day in the life of Nora García, a bereft woman who avoids the attendees at her ex-husband’s wake and withdraws into her thoughts. Nora grieves, remembers, and writes, and the streams of her inward life flow through a text that vibrates with texture. This cellist who married her conductor, and now mourns him, meditates on a lifetime of playing music to dodge the horror of death. Silently delivering digressive and essayistic speeches, Nora thinks as if thoughts were notes, as if the mind were an instrument, as if consciousness were a composition written by the unknown and played by the known.

In a mimetic interior monologue, the character describes what’s happening, while it happens, as if an actor onscreen were saying her stage directions aloud, or as if she were describing her surroundings and thoughts on a phone call. The Remains puts postmodern technique in service of the traditional ambitions of the novel. The novel belongs to a lineage that extends from Lazarillo de Tormes to the novels of David Markson. Nora remembers “his kisses, the taste of his tongue,” but gazing at Juan’s body, on which the mortuary has affixed a mustache, she acknowledges that “it’s not him any more, I’m not me any more.” The upsurge of “memories overwhelming me, battering me” gives her no pleasure, but occasionally subsides into a calm that opens other horizons, and she reflects that “female cellists hold the cello between their legs as if it were a man making love to them.” This breadth of feeling extends to displeasure, condescension, and ironic detachment in moments when Nora finds herself at odds with her milieu. Nora isn’t above looking down on her circle: when the wake ends, and the funeral procession leaves the house and wends through the streets to the cemetery, she sneers at “social climbing mourners,” as “a horde of women insist on taking their place at the graveside.” The most powerful moment encapsulates the heyday of a vanished Mexico: at the end of a concert, the final chord subsides, the audience stands and applauds, and “a strong smell of mothballs emerges from the ladies’ fur coats, filling the hall with its stink.” It’s an image as epochal as any in Giorgio Bassani’s Novel of Ferrara, in its evocation of a gone world.

Grief doesn’t only come from the absence of a loved one, but also from the presence of death. The negativity of grief is like that of writing, in that they are both metaphysical. They splinter the integrity of spacetime. The tedium of grief masks a paradox. A dead person narrates the grieving person’s life for them. Nora isn’t only thinking, but also writing, and the reader writes the words with her. She writes, not to savor her time with Juan, or to forget it, but “to halt life, to preserve the memory of life.” Nora describes scattered moments as if they occurred at the same time in the same place: “One day he left his wife (me, Nora García) and children, and started a chaotic, greedy life, but it doesn’t matter now, in my text he’s sitting at a table writing in his diary.” Nora’s haste testifies to the urgency that grief imposes on her. The project takes her away from the active life she might be living: “An extraordinary passivity obliges us to stop living in order to write,” she says. Her writing is a counterimage.

Nora’s mind keeps time with the kind of music that Paul Verlaine said poems should make above all; as he put it, her thoughts are “a gray song where the indistinct and the precise combine.” Music lends The Remains a metaphor for Nora’s emotional and imaginative life. If the cello is “the most human instrument” as Nora claims, because “it can reproduce the sounds of a human voice,” then she is a most musical fictional character. Her head is a cello that vibrates with the thoughts Glantz, the novelist, plays on it. Nora becomes a human soundbox for a sequence of variations, where motifs recur. In Glantz’s prose, “words ricochet, resound, engrave themselves, originating from several groups scattered around the space, jumbled, confused.” Within the aural chamber of Nora’s abstracted consciousness, grief tears personal history loose from its context. Things and people resurface from oblivion and associate freely in her imagination. Nora doesn’t insist on dramatic or ironic potentialities; she lacks the self-pity, or the self-awareness, required to overstate the case. Nora García may not be an avatar of Margo Glantz, but she represents a middle zone in which life and art seep into each other and intermingle, a place where neither art nor life can disentangle itself from its mirror image. Her sfumato features emerge from a depthless field behind her.

The celebrated author of a large and varied body of work, including accounts of twentieth-century colonial and Mexican literatures, in the vein of Ford Madox Ford, Czesław Miłosz, and Carlos Fuentes, and a book about her family’s immigration to Mexico from Ukraine, Glantz has also written criticism and travel narratives. Several themes from across her oeuvre appear anew in The Remains, with the difference that the novel’s protagonist raises them to a monumental scale. “What does a marital problem, totally banal for everyone not part of the couple breaking up,” Glantz asks in “Alicia’s Mirror,” an essay on her friend Sergio Pitol, “have to do with a concert in which, almost supernaturally, a virtuoso performs Liszt’s Mephisto waltz?” Here, in the shadow where darkness takes over, obscurity coincides with the author’s concerns. Glantz’s fiction repeats this unanswerable question in a finer tone. In The Remains, Nora’s daydreams outline a poetics. In one of the book’s more abstract moments, Nora/Glantz describes the ideal musician/writer as a castrato, “a beautiful mix of man-boy-woman” whose voice, with its “slender, high-pitched timbre,” remains “pubescent, tremulous and uncertain, intact.” Similarly, the novel is a piece of “contrapuntal music” that immerses its main character in contemplation, disengaged from the social world. This is an area Glantz has explored at length in Las genealogías (Family Tree), a book of family history comprised of narrated interviews with her parents, where she depicts her habit of searching through books to find a past that she came from, but can’t remember. “A memory comes to mind here. It’s a false memory, it belongs to Isaac Babel,” she writes. “I often have to turn to certain writers to be able to imagine what my parents remember.” European, Russian, and American writers of Jewish heritage play a special role in Glantz’s substitution of literature for memory. “To understand what my paternal grandfather looked like and how his mind worked,” she writes, “all you need to do is read Bashevis Singer.” But she also notes how the art of the New World duplicates and builds upon that of the Old. When her father is describing the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in Ukraine, which he lived through, Glantz interrupts, “It all sounds so familiar, it’s like those revolts that our nineteenth-century novelists wrote about and like what you read in novels about the Mexican revolution, the revolts and the levies, the confusion, the sacking of towns and villages, the deaths.”

This indistinct area between art and life accommodates a world unto itself. Nora embodies it in The Remains. “I can no longer revive the sad yet pleasurable sensation of immense melancholic tearful tenderness,” she says. It’s “a feeling I can capture more easily when I hear the miraculous combination of notes in certain passages.” Just as Nora’s feelings move from her emotional life into her art, The Remains transposes Glantz’s preoccupations onto the medium of fiction.

Ellen Jones’s translation of The Remains adds a voice to Anglophone literary traditions, where the book doesn’t fit in or stick out. For Jones, whose 2022 study Literature in Motion can be read as a manifesto, the process of translating a book “involves constant movement, a repeated pivoting between infinitesimally different versions.” In other words, a translator tries to translate a text in various ways, before choosing one way—or not choosing. This may seem obvious. But Jones’s point is that no two ways of saying something say the same thing, and multilingual writing dramatizes this fact by its form. Glantz’s novel provides Jones with a case in point. Adrift on the waves of mutilation, Nora clings to a buoy of truth, a line from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, which she repeats throughout the novel, phrasing the sentence differently each time. Pascal writes: Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. It’s a kind of line we have in English, but it’s more common in Elizabethan and Augustan writers than in contemporary prose. Nora translates, Glantz writes, and Jones retranslates: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know”, “The heart has impulses that reason does not know,” “The heart has reasons that intelligence does not know,” “The heart has secret designs that reason does not know,” and “The heart has motives that reason does not know.” (I think these versions lose the idiomatic quality of the original line: to preserve the spirit of Pascal’s French, you would need to write something like “The heart has its reasons, which the head can’t reason with.”) Alongside these intertextual considerations, there is also the metatextual fact that Jones’s translation of El rastro is itself a version, a retranslation: this is the second time in less than twenty years that El rastro has been done into English. A translation by Andrew Hurley, entitled The Wake, was published by Curbstone Press in 2005. Here is Hurley:

A good musical performance demonstrates perhaps the most profound emotional sincerity—the true emotion that is born in the heart, the emotion that an artist is able to transfer to the sounds, an emotion that entails something “personal” but at the same time surpasses it.

Here is Jones:

A good musical performance can demonstrate the deepest, most sincere feeling, real feeling, from the heart, feeling that an artist manages to convey in sound, feeling that implies but also surpasses the personal.

Here is Glantz:

Una buena interpretación musical quizá demuestre la más profunda sinceridad del sentimiento, el sentimiento verdadero que nace en el corazón, el sentimiento que un artista logra transferir a los sonidos, un sentimiento que conlleva algo personal pero que a la vez lo sobrepasa.

Neither is truer to the original. But where Hurley is sluggish, formal, and pedantic, Jones is swift, vernacular, and emotive. While it might have been a better idea to translate something else by Glantz instead—Jones’s translation of Glantz’s Anunciaciones is forthcoming this year—the translator announces herself as the novel’s second author, and increases the pleasure of reading it.

Erik Noonan is the author of the poetry collections Stances and Haiku d’Etat, and his writing appears in the anthology Cross Strokes. He is Managing Editor at JackLeg Press and Assistant Dean at the San Francisco Film School. He lives in Oakland.

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