Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Drawing a Face on the Balloon

My son brought a balloon home from school with him this week, bright yellow. He played punching bag with it, he made obnoxious noises with it, he bounced it against the ceiling and retrieved it again. The first night, he drew a face on it. Last night, he added hair. 

My bedtime reading last night was "More Than Gone," the first story in Ethel Rohan's collection, Cut Through the Bone. (I haven't read the rest of the book yet.) "More Than Gone" is about a widow who carries a balloon home after a child's birthday party. The balloon may be company of a sort, or another sign of absence, or both. And it gets a face, too. 

The other books I read this week were Room, by Emma Donoghue, and Voltaire's Calligrapher, by Pablo de Santis (translated by Lisa Carter).  I read the first third of Room and was hardly able to sleep, my mind running circles after Jack in his routines. What I most admire in the novel is the consistency of voice and of perspective. Donoghue's creation of a language for Jack--precocious in some ways, limited in others--is wholly persuasive, and absorbing. (There are balloons in Room, too.) And the world created is both real and unreal.

With my students, I've been reading short stories, rounding out the survey course as the term winds down--"Talpa," by Juan Rulfo, and "Los funerales de la Mamá Grande," by Gabriel García Márquez. Since one of the most common questions I get, if I happen to mention that I teach Latin American literature, is "Oh, do you work on García Márquez," I asked the class how many had read any of his work before. Not many, as it happened. A few hands went up, but only halfway. It's a big class, and some of them are shy. But more than that, they weren't sure if their reading counted: a number of them had read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they hadn't read Cien años de soledad. "Only in English," one of them mumbled. Meaning, I read it, but I didn't really.

Gregory Rabassa's translation both is and is not García Márquez's novel.

Part of what continues to draw me to translation (as translator and as reader) is that unresolved tension, the copies of copies that both overlap and diverge. Voltaire's Calligrapher is a book continually preoccupied with copies, simulacra, masks, disguise, imitation. (Also, a serendipitous addition to my Argentina reading challenge list.)  No balloons there, but the company of reproductions that both shelter and betray their originals.

Presence and absence and empathy, even if illusory, and that squeaky marker sound drawing a face on a squishy balloon:  more reasons I read.


  1. Another lovely post. But I kept waiting for you to talk about what happens to the face when the balloon deflates -- how it contorts and wrinkles and ages. And what about when you draw the face before the balloon is inflated -- the silly-putty stretching, the what the lines fade? Either way, the features change in time. The same thing happens with a piece of writing, doesn't it? Whether in the course of composing or afterwards, when it stops belonging to the writer and becomes the reader's, it changes.

  2. You're right, Ruth. It's never fixed. Then there's the ink that rubs off the balloon, onto hands/shirts/floors-- also like words that jiggle and echo in the back of your mind?