After glancing at it from time to time as it gathered dust on my desk, I finally got around to reading Fernando Báez’s El traductor de Cambridge (Lengua de Trapo, 2005). The book hasn’t been translated into English and – as much as the idea of a sadistically misanthropic translator in the employ of one of Britain’s foremost educational institutions piqued my interest – I don’t know that it has the chops to merit one of the coveted and far too scarce places within that three percent.
The novel opens with the discovery of a woman’s body, mutilated beyond recognition and in an advanced state of decomposition. From the seclusion of his library, the narrator offers his account of the events that led up to her murder, “so that her death might not have the last word.” By way of “justification or warning,” he describes the agreement between the two that sanctioned his brutal act, along with the psychological and sociological underpinnings of his desire to torture another human being – a woman, specifically – to death, and her desire to serve as his ‘object of inquiry.’ Their relationship is driven by a complex power dynamic that affords the narrator (though I would argue that it is the author himself, and not his protagonist, that has the penchant for bombast) the opportunity to expound upon humanity’s propensity for destruction through topics ranging from the surplus of information in the digital age to the vagaries of translation to the political and cultural crimes committed by the Bush administration.
The end of the work brings us nearly full circle to the moment of the woman’s death, the description of which was so artlessly graphic that it actually made me queasy. This hasn’t happened to me since I accidentally read the scene in Lord of the Flies in which Piggy takes a boulder to the head over a plate of General Tso’s chicken. I’ve read jarring violence both good and bad, and this wasn’t good. I’d like to give Báez the benefit of the doubt and argue that his stylistic choices serve as a commentary on society’s collective desensitization to the most essential human experiences based on a passing reference to the infamous exhibit “Sensation” earlier in the novel, but somehow I’m not feeling particularly generous at the moment.
All in all, with so much emphasis on the novel’s socio-political backdrop and so little on plot or character development, the reader gets the distinct impression that this text isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The transitions into philosophical diatribe are abrupt and clumsy, and the dialogue – which is just as often used as a vehicle for elaborate theories on politics and society – is stilted and unnatural.
It’s clear that the author was trying to novelize the non-fiction work for which he is known, but this first attempt at fiction comes off as juvenile and hollow. This is particularly unfortunate because Báez’s non-fiction is generally well received (except by the Bush administration, who barred his entry into the United States and threatened his publisher with tax sanctions during the release of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, which is critical of the Army’s treatment of the cultural patrimony of Iraq).
While I actually would give Báez’s non-fiction a chance, I suggest going elsewhere for narrative – at least for now. For a different take on the cultured sociopath in a respected position in society, I would recommend Mario Bellatin’s novella Damas Chinas (Chinese Checkers). The writing is taut and nuanced, and the protagonist is presented in a far more elliptical and engaging way.