Friday, March 25, 2011

Underlining: an irresistibly unreliable narrator talks about art

The Topless Tower, Silvina Ocampo's long story/novella, translated by James Womack (London:  Hesperus Worldwide, 2010) is the tale of 9-year-old Leandro's unexpected entrapment and eventual redemption. Leandro mixes first and third person, sometimes inside his story, sometimes beside it, almost always inside the tower that he both suffers and creates. It's a story about writing (or making any kind of art) and about childhood and about the bonds (including ruptured bonds) between parents and children and also among friends. To me, it suggests what Harold's story might have been like if he'd been more introspective about his work with that purple crayon. 

In a twist on the unreliable narrator, Leandro tells the reader in the very first paragraph that he sounds like a better writer than he is: "Sometimes I can't understand what I write, it's so well written, but I can always guess what I wanted to say. I'll underline the words I don't understand" (3). And he does-- words like canopy, lugubrious, obliquely, prolonged, discern, marsupial, and impetuous. Many are Latinate, suggesting the translator might have found fairly neat parallels between English and Spanish. Those underlined words are one of my favorite parts. By no means constant, not overdone, they reflect the uncertainty of any writer, any user of language. Who hasn't used a word she didn't fully understand? Thrown in something that sounds good, hoping for the best? Even the words we think we understand completely can be slippery. 

Leandro is a determined artist, but he is not highly skilled; his paintings and drawings do not always resemble his chosen subjects as he had hoped they might, nor do they remain under his control, keeping him company or protecting him from danger. At least, not all of them. The tale blends the expected and unexpected until the threads come together with precision and a degree of inevitability. Inevitability shouldn't come in degrees, I know, but that impossibility describes this tale: it had to happen this way, but everything might have been entirely different. Maybe I should have underlined inevitability.

About the title: I might have changed that. The Spanish title is La torre sin fin. "Topless," an adjective all too frequently followed by "bar," so would not have been my first choice. Tower without end, on the other hand, like world without end: it's resonant, smooth--but not quite right, either? "Topless" does include the sense of "no upper limit," whereas "endless" or "without end" suggests a more lateral extension--road with no horizon, railroad tracks converging out of sight. And the juxtaposition (the jolt of "topless" against the dreaminess of the text) is effective, too. So I circle back, and the jury (this jury) goes back out.

Ultimately, the story celebrates what the narrator calls "the same joy that we feel at the end of a nightmare and at the magical beginning of a piece of creative work" (52). Coming to the end of the text is a kind of waking, too, and not entirely welcome--I immediately flipped back and reread the beginning. I came across the book while browsing and was hooked by the mix of bravado and caution in that first paragraph. I count it a find.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wish you were here. . .

My bookstore find this week: two small, square books of reprints of 19th and early 20th century postcards from Argentina, landscapes and gauchos, good tourist fodder. Some are black and white, others tinted in pastel shades that bathe the mountains in a perpetual sunrise or sunset. The backs of the cards aren't reproduced, but some have writing on the front--greetings from a loving aunt or a verse about the brevity of life. Waterfalls, glaciers that may have shrunk by now, feats of engineering. Gauchos with their horses and cattle, roasting meat, dancing, showing off their ponchos.
People still send postcards. Not as many, maybe, but the souvenir shops I've been in recently still stock a few. Still, now it's easy to send a digital photograph from phone to phone--which means no waiting, no trip to the foreign post office and no need to navigate confusing systems for queuing and buying stamps (but such pretty stamps, so often). No scrambling to write a card within the first day or so of a two-week trip so as to have some hope of it reaching its destination before the traveler gets home. 
Not long ago, I received a copy of a Brazilian theater journal (a very up-to-date journal; it's available on-line, as well as in print: Repertório) in an envelope almost entirely covered with stamps commemorating various Brazilian species of bats. The stamps are beautiful, and they're shaped like bats; the assemblage is beautiful. When I first lived in Ecuador and we wanted to send letters home, the postmaster in our town would layer the stamps one on top of another, with just the value showing, so he could fit enough postage onto the face of the envelope. He didn't have the big denominations. People in town might send a note to a relative in the capital, but they weren't mailing multi-page missives back to middle school friends in the U.S., trying to maintain some sense of connection.
Did I mention that the town now has Wi-Fi in the plaza? No need for two dozen 5¢ stamps just to get a letter back home. But long-distance ties still need careful tending, whether by text or call or smoke signal.
Or by postcard. When he first immigrated to the U.S., my grandfather took postcard photos in the Midwest, selling them to drugstores. A landscape doesn't have to be far off or exotic to be commemorated or shared. A collection of postcards, years after they were made, long after they were written on and sent, is an invitation to think about the way landscapes are constructed in experience and in memory, and the way those landscapes support the ties we might try to forge or retain with those who aren't in the frame.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Play language in play

I learned Spanish as a kid, but maybe I was a little too old for some things. I never learned the Spanish equivalent of Pig Latin. Until recently, I never even thought much about the fact that such pretend or play languages must exist in many home languages. Of course they do--in Spanish, French, Javanese, Portuguese. Indeed many of the world's languages serve as source languages for one or more play languages. I expect most, or even all, of them do--my review of the (sparse) literature has been fairly cursory so far.
I got started on this because one of the last plays my class on Argentine theater read this quarter was Claudio Tolcachir's La omisión de la familia Coleman. I was lucky enough to see the play performed in Manta, Ecuador, at the 21st Festival de Teatro Internacional in 2008. It was fast and hilarious and sad, and the jeringozo went right by me. But later, there it was on the page, generously footnoted: add a p, followed by the vowel from the previous syllable. Thus, ¿Vospo tepenéspe plapatapa? renders ¿Vos tenés plata?-- i.e., do you have any money?
Years ago, writing on representations of performance in Latin American plays, I studied game plays in which the characters play elaborate (often violent or highly manipulative) ritual games. The characters' use of jeringozo in Tolcachir's play is a game they play with each other--and with the audience. It's a fleeting game, only a few lines. Some people will get it, others may not. Some, like me, will be driven by inclination and training (deformación profesional) to follow the footnote and look things up.
Play languages can mark the in-group, conceal meaning, keep the mind and the tongue nimble. Beyond that, they reflect the abundance and excess of language that, in its very limitations, makes room for yet more abundance: even the ostensibly monolingual may need a way to hide in plain hearing, to speak an English that isn't English, a Spanish that isn't Spanish.
The icing on the cake? It seems there's a play language specifically associated with Rosario, where I'll be teaching in the fall: rosarigasino. The study abroad brochures don't mention it yet--neither do the travel books--but I'm sure they will soon.

If you want to read the play: Tolcachir, Claudio. La omisión de la familia Coleman. In Poéticas de iniciación: Nueva dramaturgia argentina, 2000-2005. Ed. Jorge Dubatti. Buenos Aires: ATUEL, 2006. 135-206.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Variations on a steamed-cake theme

On Sunday, I made quimbolitos for a dinner party. Quimbolitos are one of my all-time favorite Ecuadorian delicacies, a rich (eggs, cheese, lard), not-too-sweet cornflour cake steamed in achira leaves. Getting the flavor right brings an instant memory burst of family adventures (and misadventures), close friends, afternoon sunlight, possibility. . . all worth, to me, a bit of kitchen struggle, a little on-the-fly translation and adaptation.
What are quimbolitos? One cookbook I have describes them as "sweet tamales," which seems accurate, as far as it goes--it conveys the idea of a leaf-wrapped, steamed cake--but I have always considered them completely different, possibly because of the way I learned the names. I learned the names as I learned the foods, and as I learned Spanish. Tamales, quimbolitos, humitas are not eaten on the same occasions in Ecuador, they're not necessarily made at the same time of year, they're not interchangeable.
But as anyone who's traveled knows, food vocabulary isn't interchangeable, even within the same language. On my first trip to Spain (after living in Ecuador, after graduate school, after several years of teaching) I was often mystified by half the items on a menu. My saving grace was that I spoke the language well enough to ask for explanations.
I first learned Spanish in a small town in northern Ecuador. It took some getting used to, but it's a place I came to love, and still love--me enseñé. For years, my food vocabulary was firmly rooted in that town, limited to what might be available for sale in an Andean town of 4000 people. For instance, there were two kinds of onions: long, green (cebolla) and round, red (paiteña). I simply had no Spanish word for the round, yellow onions most common at home. It was a little disappointing to discover that cebolla would stretch, generically, to any old onion. (The dictionaries I have to hand turn up paiteña only as a gentilicio for a native of Paita, a province of Piura, Peru [Diccionario de la Real Academia]. No mention of onions.)
Ecuador used to be further away. When I first lived in there, no one in town had a private phone. To make a call, you went to the central office; if you had a call, they sent someone to find you at home. Now there's Wi-Fi in the plaza. When we first returned to the U.S., I took it for granted that certain things would be inaccessible. I didn't expect to find particular foods, ingredients, songs. My mother told the story of her ill-fated attempt, returning from Ecuador in the early sixties, to make quimbolitos for her father, using plastic wrap (or was it wax paper?) in place of the required leaves. So much for that. I didn't try quimbolitos myself until two years ago.
Things have changed. Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz's Latin American cookbook, first published in 1969 and reprinted through the seventies (perhaps beyond) gives mail-order sources for specialty ingredients; she suggests parchment or foil for steaming. Maria Baez Kijac's The South American Table (2003) informed me that banana leaves, a possible substitute for achira, are available frozen. Conditioned early to a degree of resignation--you can't get that here--I would never have thought to look. But we have an excellent Latino/a grocery close by and, sure enough, they carry the leaves. And the lard, the right kind of cheese (a little saltier, maybe, but close enough). Feeling sentimental, I even bought Mexican sugar weekend, because it looked like I what I remembered. I don't own a tamalera, but my husband's bamboo steamer worked fine.
Of course, it's not just the taste I'm after. We have a friend, a wonderful woman who welcomes me every time I arrive as if there were no one in the world she'd rather see. She always makes me quimbolitos, and she always lets me help, rather than sending me out of the kitchen like some kind of guest. I have three different recipes in my cookbook library, but the one I use is the one in Spanish that most resembles the way I remember making them, modified a bit according to her advice. That's the recipe I translated for my dinner party friends.
This weekend was only my second run at quimbolitos. They're really not that difficult, but the folding and wrapping is time-consuming. My daughter helps me, though. She remembers making them when I took her to Ecuador a few years ago. And the taste really is the one I remember, even with my little tweaks and substitutions to get out of buying a whole bottle of anisado.
I do feel some sense of loss in this compression of distance. What was once special or reserved is now easily obtainable. But I welcome the chance to knit my children more fully into this piece of my experience. And I'm still working on a few modifications. On my last trip to Ecuador, I bought several plant books, needing to learn more names for a translation I was working on. I found out that achira is a kind of canna. Well, cannas seem to run rampant in Oregon. Maybe even I could grow them. What I haven't found out yet is if all cannas are equally edible, so for the time being, I'll use those banana leaves in my grocer's freezer. I did promise my daughter it wouldn't be another two years before we made them again, so it's time to speed up my investigations.