Babel: Before and After

What was it your mother always said? Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it? For a gaggle of translators stuck at an ill-fated convention in Pablo De Santis’ La traducción, these cautionary words ring ominously true.

The novel, which was a finalist for the Planeta prize in 1997, is what might best be described as lit-crit noir: a wry detective novel in which the translator protagonist doubles as a sleuth and the denouement  seems like it was plucked from George Steiner’s After Babel. The premise of the book is almost absurdly complex: an interdisciplinary translators’ convention is held in a sort of non-space (completely barren and impossible to place on a map) at the ends of the world – i.e. the end of Argentina – and some of the guests are there with the ulterior motive of studying a mythical pre-Babelian language said to restore linguistic unity (no more pesky division between sign and referent) and bestow immortality upon those who know it. Phew. Unfortunately, a number of conference participants turn up dead, and it is up to Miguel De Blast – a translator of scientific texts who only decided to attend in the hope of seeing his ex-girlfriend (who, in perfect noir fashion, left him for his literary nemesis) – to get to the bottom of it all.

Sound far-fetched? Well, it wasn’t the novel’s realism that made it a darling of the critics. Though I personally will admit to finding the theoretical conceits a little heavy-handed and the character development a little light, it is impossible not to appreciate the way this novel breaks down traditional boundaries between literary criticism and its object. For better or worse; I would argue for better. From the very first paragraph, a casual remark about the difficulty of piecing the fragments of a broken vase back together signals to the attentive reader that he is passing through a Benjaminian looking glass,* and the plot only thickens from there.

As the body count grows and the clues become more and more esoteric, De Santis constructs an ever-more elaborate theoretical framework complete with left-handed allusions to Saussure and a charmingly irreverent treatment of the sanctified space of the epigraph (setting Dante alongside an apocryphal novelist who is later cited by one of the conference participants in a lecture). If the characters seem a little thin at times, it is because many of them serve as mouthpieces for the ruminations that drive the book (though I’m not sure just yet whether this is a criticism or a justification). Even the police superintendent called in to manage the homicide investigation is something of an armchair philosopher of language, and proves to be the bearer of the central argument of the book: that language is far more than what it names. When De Blast tells him about the perfect language that existed before the fall of the Tower of Babel, the latter responds:

If we could only name things once, if it one word were enough to explain everything, life in this town would be pretty horrific. Everyone silent, in the bars, at the salon. Here no one talks without a detour now and then; no one walks in a straight line. Do you know what the only perfect language is? The kind that kills time.

Horrific, indeed: it is ultimately this elemental, ideal language that destroys those who seek it – apologies to those of you who didn’t see that coming (it’s foreshadowed from about the 10th page of the novel, if it makes you feel any better).  I almost feel silly saying that the ending was predictable – De Santis was obviously going for something far greater than your typical potboiler – but I do have to wonder whether the conceptual necessarily comes at the expense of the aesthetic. Perhaps the answer is legitimately yes, in this case – perhaps a more developed cast of characters and a more creative resolution would have overshadowed the real questions that De Santis wanted to pose. Perhaps it will just have to remain a mystery.

The deserted lighthouse: both metaphor and setting.

*  For those without an instant recall of “The Task of the Translator,” one of the most-cited metaphors is that of the broken amphora, the pieces of which are never fully identical to one another, and which can never be fully restored to its former integrity.

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