That Pleasant Prison Dream

in squiggles| stardust

No, I doubt I’d be that kind of father
not rural not snow no quiet window
but hot smelly New York City
seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
And five nose running brats in love with Batman
And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
like those hag masses of the 18th century
all wanting to come in and watch TV
The landlord wants his rent
Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
Impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking–
No! I should not get married and I should never get married!
But–imagine if I were to marry a beautiful sophisticated woman
tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
holding a cigarette holder in one hand and highball in the other
and we lived high up a penthouse with a huge window
from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
No I can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream–

— From “Marriage,” by Gregory Corso

A Hindi poet I knew in Allahabad was, like many writers in his generation, very taken with the Beatnik poets. He had a particular desire to translate into Hindi the poem “Marriage” by Gregory Corso, but he was stuck on the line “…Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus.” We explained to him what each term meant, but in the end we had to agree that it would be pretty much impossible to translate that part elegantly. It would possibly take at least two or three footnotes, and as AK Ramanujan always used to say, in translation, “every footnote is a confession of failure.”

In the shiny future of globalized literary production, in which writers and translators can work hand-in-hand to produce smoothly realized publications for the international market, such conundrums are becoming extinct, according to Tim Parks in his a post at The New York Review of Books (h/t AK). Parks explains that not only do writers the world over hope to gain success by reaching the Goliath-like global English-language readership and prize pool by writing works that are easily translatable, but now many authors are finding that they can’t quite get the respect they deserve within their own literary/language milieux if they have not found a global audience. This formula, and certain literary styles, especially magical realism, have created a certain blandness in contemporary international literature. Parks mentions as a primary example of this that Kazuo Ishiguro, who, he says, has spoken about the importance of writing in such a manner that translators are not given too hard a time by references or language that is overly culturally specific. The fact that Ishiguro writes in English and grew up in the UK makes this example slightly confusing for his argument.

Murakami, who is known to work closely with translators to make sure his work comes out smoothly in English, would have been a better example to use. He. The omnipresence of Western and especially American food, music and sundry popular culture references in Murakami’s novels has been widely noted and makes for a smooth ride– the reader is asked to wrap her head around challenging and surreal situations and narrative loops– but the characters are all eating KFC. Recently I found myself startled when the protagonist in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World cooks up an endless meal of Japanese dishes for a preternaturally ravenous librarian. I found myself thinking, “I have no idea if that’s a lot of food or just a long list of light snacks.” I realized I was totally unaccustomed to thinking very hard about anything Japanese when I read Murakami.

Indian literature in English is, of course, written in English. I see how this example fits into Parks’ argument better than the work of Ishiguro, but it also serves to underscore the fact that he is eliding translated works with works that feel translated; not in the unfelicitous footnoted fashion of Gregory Corso translated into Hindi, but in the more digestible flavorings of Rushdie and his successors. Cultural references, Indian words and pidgin dialogue are sprinkled liberally throughout, like so much chaat powder. It often seems that many of these sprinklings are superfluous and merely serve to give writing an ‘Indian’ flavor. Perhaps it is a device which serves, in part, to make readers like Tim Parks feel as though they are reading a novel translated from an Indian language, when, in actuality, they’d never even find such a thing unless they were willing to go to the back of a bookshop in India, crouch down so they could see the lower shelves, and work their way through the poorly lit non-alphabetized Rupa, Katha and non-Shobha Dé and Khushwant Singh Penguin India section.

An echo of the problem of blandness and uniformity in international literature can be found in the art world. In an article on the current exhibitions in New York’s modern art museums in the NYT this Sunday, Roberta Smith complains of a similar problem of sameness. After listing off all the big shows currently up, she goes on to lament, “After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.” Her conclusions as to how this problem has come about sound startlingly similar to the pressures that dominate the production of global literature:

But a combination of forces threatens to herd all of our major art institutions into the same aesthetic pen. The need to raise and make money sends curators hunting for artists with international star power who work big at least some of the time, deploy multiple entertaining mediums and make for good ad campaigns…. The small show devoted to an artist who doesn’t have an immense reputation and worldwide market becomes rarer and rarer.

Knights of Columbus

The international commercial success of high art, high brow literature, blockbuster cinema and fast food are all driven by a streamlining impulse that knocks down any idiosyncrasies it finds in its path. Perhaps we can hope for a movement in the creative arts similar to the localvore movement in the world of food production and consumption. But getting people to buy books, tickets to art exhibitions and even music is, by its nature, a totally different enterprise. And, of course, the stakes are too exaggerated to really imagine any change in this trend. Here we have Sir Salman Rushdie staring down at humanity from his pleasant prison dream, and over here, the hopelessly local writers, toiling away to try to pay rent, gas & electric, Blue Cross.

On the other hand, maybe the problem is much simpler than that. One should never underestimate the profound provincialism of the Metropole. Maybe when we talk about ‘global trends’ and ‘international art,’ and we (I) cite critics writing for the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, we are really just talking about New York. Yes, New York is a global power center for publishing and art, but notice how Roberta Smith, in her review, mentions offhandedly that non-New York American artists showing at the New York museums were, not too long ago, referred to by the slightly insulting term “regional artists.” And maybe when we talk about the demands of global readerships and patrons of the arts, we are really talking about the demands of the publishers and curators of New York City. And maybe if New York publishers wanted to publish things that were more demanding to translate, they would be able to market them for mass consumption just as easily. Some things may be impossible to translate, and the translators may be forced to confess their failure in the form of a footnote or a glossary, but Ramanujan’s point was always that when necessary, the confessions must be made, not avoided.

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