Ghost Writers

None of the great Spanish authors produced their own works at breakneck speed. Sometimes I had to wait months for an interesting book to appear on which I could exercise my talents as a translator. Actually, the national sport of Spain, not counting soccer, is drinking cold beer and eating tapas, an activity that requires of the client a dedication that is often incompatible with producing a masterpiece of three, four, or five hundred pages. I should have been aware of this issue when I went to Madrid that first time. There, in the cradle of apostolic Roman Catholicism, the number of bars per street is equal to the number of stations of the cross. Semantic slippage had quite naturally, neither forcefully nor consciously, influenced people’s way of speaking, at first amongst the lower classes then quickly at all levels of society, so that the expression “doing the stations of the cross” had become a synonym for progressing down a street and stopping at the requisite fourteen stations, that is to say the fourteen bars ensconced at intervals along alternating sides, counting off the beers the way the old grannies counted off the beads of their rosaries.

The gap between my exacting tastes and Iberian self-indulgence leaving me with time on my hands, I took the liberty of dreaming up a great story: the biography of one of the founders of Francoism as told by good lady Caridad, heiress of a noble family from southern Spain, who had dedicated her whole life to cross-stitch, revolutionizing the art of tapestry. The life of this illustrious gentleman is described through the evolution of the said Caridad’s masterpiece, and the artistic merit of the story lay in having the final stitches of the tapestry coincide with the death of the political leader, blown to pieces by a car bomb in the last years of the dictatorship. On learning of her husband’s dreadful death, she continues her embroidery in silence, as if she has heard nothing, finishing a last remaining corner of the sky, adding a wisp of cloud as an afterthought, then she lifts her head and speaks to her devoted chambermaid, saying: “Consuelo, things will not be so easy from now on.” As fitting an end for a novel as for a political leader. Almost the “happy ending” publishers keep demanding from their authors, who do tend always to see the darker side of life.

I wrote the title of the story, Threads of Dictatorship, lay down my pen, contemplated the ceiling and allowed silence, that parody of thoughtfulness, to settle between me and the written pages. In fact I was musing: for the first time in years, what I was writing was not a translation. A kind of giddiness seized me, I suddenly felt as if words had lost their foundations. It was essential that they be anchored, attached to something more concrete than the arbitrariness of my imaginings. I needed to return them to the care of an established author, to flee from the constant threat of disorder, to find for them, as for everything else, their proper place. Like I said, I took on translations without betraying my standards, carefully selecting texts and publishers. But this time I had not chosen the text, it had risen up like an apparition, written without a safety net. Whereas I always worked with a safety net. As a matter of principle.

The safety nets, I told myself, were the authors. The only solution, a radical one maybe, but compatible with my working methods, was to entrust this text to one of them. This would be tricky, because I would have to deal with his sensitivity and convince him that he would definitely be the author of what I had written, since I was clearly only the translator. Whom to approach? I decided to offer the opportunity to a young writer, Torcuato Escueto, who up to that point had published only poetry, some short stories, and a few professions of postmodern faith in limited circulation journals. I dialed his number.

To start with he said nothing. Leaving him no time to make clear the reasons for the denseness of this silence, I painted a glowing picture of the benefits for him if he put his faith in me, not only in terms of having an easy task, but also because of the way it would leave his mind free: I assured him he would be able to write as he pleased while following the proposed approach, something that would leave his authorial authority intact, because he still had plenty of room for initiative. I even left him total freedom to choose a title in his own language.

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. I dared not ask even the tiniest question. Finally his response:

“When do you want the original?”

And so my career turned a new corner. The rhythm of my own production was no longer subject to the whims of authors or the negative effects of the “stations of the cross.”

Buoyed up by this experience, I perfected a number of tactics that varied depending on the writers I had to deal with. Most were happy to surrender themselves to a story that was not necessarily a good fit with their tastes or temperament. I would then sketch out a storyline entirely on my own, just as I had done with Threads of Dictatorship. Then I needed to track down its author. In fact I could only congratulate myself on the warm welcome I received. It all went so well that I even sensed that I might one day be able to spare myself the fuss and bother of negotiating with the author and instead simply present him with a finished product that he would merely need to write as he pleased, and with absolute freedom, of course.

In the second category I placed those writers lacking inspiration or prevented, for a variety of reasons, from completing their own work. Juan Borrego Borrego, another excellent writer, was one of these.

I had met him in Madrid at a literary prize-giving. Since he was not the happy winner, he assumed a detached expression and badmouthed all literary awards, every last one of them rigged, leering down from the height of his six-foot frame, table by table, at those fawning fools who expected glory to flow from their pens when it was nothing but work, work, work to put together a couple of semi-coherent lines.

His publisher kept encouraging him, since he had a novel underway that he was having trouble finishing, drawn into other less urgent tasks (with a mistress in Andalusia and another in Asturias, he spent most of his time on a train, trying to fill the loveless void that had its origins in his unhappy childhood down in the Basque mines during the heroic days of the anti-Franco resistance).

His book was about the private life of a Bulgarian researcher who had just discovered the ultimate weapon and was trying, in his terror, to keep it hidden from the rest of the world. He passed on the formula to his only daughter, a young athlete idolized in her homeland because she was an outstanding javelin thrower. Former spies from Eastern Europe who had switched to being mafiosi were trying to get their hands on the secret formula, hidden away, quite obviously, inside the winning javelin.

Juan was not entirely sold on his storyline; he asked me what I thought and assured me I could take my time thinking about it, since he was about to leave for Asturias. He would be away for several weeks because his lady love was to have some mysterious and possibly serious operation that required him to be constantly by her side. I promised to get back to him.

I set to work at once. For starters, I got rid of the ultimate weapon; it was such a hackneyed old subject in France. I had to adapt, adapt, adapt: I replaced the weapon with the recipe, still a secret throughout my country, for “Good Ear Cake,” invented by a chef in the time of Louis XIV, a daring combination of pork cartilage and apricot jam. Debauched circles in the capital would dearly love to spice up their orgies with this type of dish, clearly aphrodisiac. I added a few remarks about the decadent eroticism of the dominant classes—that always went down well with the common people, reinforcing their disdain for power in the hands of others. At the same time, I was careful to preserve the champion javelin thrower: this would guarantee interest among readers in search of macho deviancy in literature, and was sure to lead to one or two very steamy prerelease talk shows.

When Juan Borrego Borrego discovered the new slant his project had taken, there was a lengthy silence on the other end of the line. Clearly the people I was dealing with were inclined toward silence. I cleared my throat and informed him that I had been careful to preserve his tendency to switch tenses within the same sentence to make the readers feel destabilized, off-balance, as if their own timeframe was jolted around by the story’s, a kind of diachrony showing the influence of contemporary philosophers. Juan Borrego Borrego resisted a while longer, then sighed deeply and said:

“My girlfriend is slowly recovering, I’m going back to sit by her bed. Do whatever you want.”

Rubbing my hands in glee, I constructed a psychological novel with a touch of espionage and chase scenes through the whole world’s kitchens: the bad guys slipping and sliding on crème fraîche and the good guys grabbing hold of them and dunking them in always gigantic cauldrons of tripe. Obviously I titled this masterpiece “Good Ear.”

A month later I sent the whole thing off to Juan Borrego Borrego. I had trouble getting hold of him because he was now in Seville, where his Andalusian mistress had fallen ill in turn. At the end of the line his voice was slow, his speech thick. Had he been drinking? Were his mistresses about to kick the bucket? No; he was quite moved by what I had sent. Perhaps believing himself stripped of his authorial prerogatives—understandably—he was laconic:

“I’m wondering why you wanted to keep the woman javelin thrower?”

I pretended to find his comment charming and encouraged him to finish writing as soon as possible, the publisher was waiting for his manuscript. Then I told him to take good care of his nearest and dearest and hung up.

In the meantime I was proofreading a novel, Charybdis and Scylla, full of slightly jumbled ideas, about a modern problem, drugs in the world of bull-racing. The story went round in circles a bit, not unlike the bull races, but the basic idea was good. I thought of adapting it to contemporary tastes by changing the plot: I was already thinking of a story about two young junkies allergic to fresh country air and therefore impossible to rehabilitate. As soon as the counselors offloaded them into nature’s greenery they started sneezing like potty-mouthed parrots. University researchers examined their case, psychologists could find no sign of deviance, judges were reluctant to make a decision. Then along came a coal merchant (in the original story it was a torero, but I didn’t want the SPCA on my back in a story that was already a bit sensitive) who offered to turn the crackheads into men. The specialists accepted the deal and the two young men headed off to the Massif Central (in the translation), where they spent months sorting lumps of coal by geological era and fluctuating stock market value. They (the junkies, not the lumps of coal) went home blacker than when they had left, saturated in toxic dust, but radiant, delighted at having finally discovered the true meaning of life. They married two superb women from Mali, whom they met by chance for plot reasons in a night club or a refugee transit camp (I still hadn’t decided between two possibilities: entertainment or social drama), and then they all went off to live in the snowy Far North so as to be able to see one another coming, even from a long way off, for the rest of their lives.

The author, one Felipe Malagòn, belonged to the third category of authors I was contacting. He had a reputation, which was a definite guarantee of sales, but I had to work hard to persuade him to write stories that weren’t necessarily to his taste.

He was astonished at first to find none of the toreros that figured in the best pages of his text. Instead of tackling his questions, I talked to him about his public and private life, evoking the dazzling possibility of his being able to devote more time, thanks to my technique, to working with the media and thus achieving fame more easily. As for the writing, normally speaking his responsibility, I would work away at it in the shadows and he would be showered with praise.

“And you’ll have more time to spend exploring the milieu.” (This was a code expression among realist writers, meaning live the normal daily life of ordinary people that you wanted later to portray in your writing.)

“I hadn’t planned to write about the stations of the cross any time soon.”

His irony gave me food for thought. This famous practice was causing even more damage than I had realized. Maybe it would be a good idea to write a novel on the subject, in the postmodern style perhaps, you know the kind, where the sentences are never complete, where glasses are drained down to the dregs before a single idea has been sketched out . . .

Over time, the authors in the three categories I’ve just described to you turned into obedient collaborators. I made an effort to maintain a kind of creative closeness to them that they were well-advised to protect. These days authors aren’t in the habit of proclaiming urbi et orbi that the works published with their signature are the fruit of someone else’s pen. There’s a name for those kinds of people. I was careful anyway not to welcome a new element into my stable unless he had solid motives: he needed time for traveling, an extramarital adventure, to withdraw from society, or addiction (alcohol, shopping, family, it was all the same), and he would entrust me with the rather tedious creative task of coming up with the storyline, sketching out the characters, defining the novel’s hidden meaning, pinning down its message, in short, he would hand over the bulk of the effort to me.

I was almost swamped with work, but very happy.

From Les Nègres du traducteur. © Claude Bleton. Published 2004 by Éditions Métailié. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Jean Anderson. All rights reserved.