In the last session of my last graduate seminar, our professor asked the class when the last time was that we enjoyed a book.
It was an unwieldy question, to say the least. Was she talking about that feeling I’ve been calling the Baskin Robbins dilemma, whereby professionalization breeds contempt? Or did she mean that pleasurable literature isn’t being produced anymore – that writing had moved away from the plaisir du texte (or, worse, that it was just bad)? Or maybe she was saying something about the way we read, these days. Personally, I’ve noticed that the word “interesting” has come to eclipse a number of more specific adjectives in my vocabulary, replacing aesthetic questions with thematic ones, propping up weaker works on the basis of their relationship to cultural and theoretical paradigms and the questions they raise, rather than the experience they offer a reader.
The last two books I read brought this question back to mind. They were both chosen for their thematic content, as part of my preparations for my next round of exams (the reason for the lagging posts on the blog – things will go back to normal shortly, promise). And while I found both of them interesting, I can’t say that I really enjoyed either. Which is not to say that the books are not worthwhile reads – only that each seemed a little imbalanced in its construction.
The first was Salvador Benesdra’s El traductor, a vast novel that follows the hapless translator Ricardo Zevi through his labyrinthine personal and professional entanglements. He meets a woman in a bar, and they begin to date. First complication: she is a devout adventist. Second complication: she is utterly and completely frigid. Back at the office, Zevi finds himself embroiled in a messy political situation as the leftist publisher with whom he has been employed for years shifts gradually and ominously to the right as it readies itself to enter the global marketplace. Zevi makes a few overly assertive observations in a public forum, and finds himself on the outs with the administration. It turns out that the leftist press has no interest in leftist politics when they touch too close to home.
The novel has plenty to say about power and how it manifests itself in both interpersonal and professional relationship, the place of ideology in the global market, and – though Zevi’s role as a translator and comments on the pitfalls of the practice – the possibility of exchange across languages and, even, between two individuals who would seem to be speaking the same one. Yet, there was something very predictable about the construction of the book, from the regular rhythm with which it alternated between Zevi’s two worlds (which never came into contact with one another), to the good-guy, bad-guy dynamic that shaped the interactions between the executives and the employees at Turba, the publishing house at which Zevi is (marginally) employed, and whose name evokes the chaos of the environment. Even the sex feels like reading a train schedule: after a few lines, it’s not hard to see where any of it’s going; nor did I enjoy the way that particular narrative strain was tied up so neatly with an O. Paradoxically, the resolution seemed at once forced and inevitable.
The other, Néstor Ponce’s El intérprete, follows an unnamed narrator through the decaying city of Buenos Aires at the height of the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1871 as he performs his duties as an interpreter between an ancient ex-judge and his ravishing young French wife (who, of course, drives the young man insane with desire). The prose is dense, baroque, occasionally grating – but very effective at conveying the historically logical tension between restraint and decadence. Though Ponce’s narrator never felt – to me, at least – like a complete, well-rounded character (his extensive philosophizing on his subjective and cultural position as an interpreter keep the reader at a distance), the novel is not without its pleasures. Not the least of which is a series of extraordinary and grotesque descriptions of bodies suffering from symptoms of the Fever. Sometimes sensationalism does have its perks.