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El pueril orgullo de haber entendido

Every few years I return to reading in Spanish, my first "second" language and the only one in which I've maintained an ability to read for pleasure. Whenever I do I remember a line from Alejo Carpentier's El acoso in which a character struggles through a sentence of Italian and experiences what Carpentier calls "the childish pride of having understood". Exactly. When Carpentier wrote that, could he have anticipated a classroom full of gringo undergrads seeing themselves in its mirror?

The latest object of my pleasure in understanding what doesn't come easily is Cuando fui mortal (also published in English as When I Was Mortal) by Javier Marías. It is a collection of stories, that being my preferred form for linguistic excursions, since it eliminates the chance that one moment of incomprehension will result in 200 pages of hard-slogging confusion. Although several of the stories have an air of the supernatural -- ghost stories, in fact, something one doesn't see so much these days -- and others have a noirish edge, the most common element among them is the theme of betrayal. Marías likes to go for a twist in his stories but rarely the kind of twist one expects from "genre" writing. Rather than a cute plot hook or an ironic turn, the twist can be a shift in focus or point of view, as when a story set up to relate a young woman's first day in the porn business turns out to be about something else altogether. (That's characteristic in another way: sexuality in these stories always happens just off camera. There are sexy or lurid situations but the narrator or protagonist never seems to have his or her own libido in play.)

Stories that rely on a twist can be hazardous for the language-challenged reader; miss a few crucial words in the final page of a story with a dramatic payoff and you may want to throw the book across the room in frustration. I avoided that situation in this case, but not by much. Maybe the best story in the book is a short murder mystery whose climax depends on understanding the attitude of one of the characters toward the deceased. I managed to catch the substance of it but not the tone.

Cuando fui mortal     When I Was Mortal

Would the tone have come through more clearly if I'd read it in English? I don't know. One of the downsides of dabbling in reading literature in the original is that it makes you hypersensitive to imperfections in translation. I've got a shelf full of novels in Spanish and German that I'll never read but neither will I break down and read them in English because no matter how gifted the translator, the result won't do justice to the original. And yet I can't claim that my internal translation does it justice, either. At least the mistakes are my own, the words are the original words albeit half-understood, and what I miss is made up for by the pueril orgullo of getting what I get.

books 2004.02.20 link