Ode to the Mango: My Dinners with Neruda

The one time I visited Santiago de Chile—it was July 1991, winter in the southern hemisphere, and the days were sunny, cold and crisp—I made the pilgrimage to Pablo Neruda’s house on the coast, in a place called Isla Negra. My reason for this trip to the Cono Sur—I would also…...read more »

Bard on the Beach: Remembering Phu on Thailand’s Gulf Coast

Two hours east of Bangkok, on Thailand's gulf coast, lies the small beach town of Bang Saen. Lined mostly with casual restaurants and lower to middle-range accommodations, Bang Saen is usually bypassed by foreign travelers for more glamorous resorts further east, leaving these laid-back shores to…...read more »
Image of The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Dorthe Nors

The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Dorthe Nors

Special City Series/Copenhagen, Denmark 2015 If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                 …...read more »

The Week in Translation

GO what: Two Lines presents: Catalan Literature & Tapas with Katherine Silver and Peter Bush when: January 27, doors open at 5pm, event starts at 5:30 where: B44 Catalan Bistro, San Francisco more info: http://ow.ly/HaxKz SUBMIT what: PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants ($2,000-$4,000), open…...read more »

Let’s Talk about Love and Duty and Being Nice to People

Pictures of Shi Tiesheng show him wearing the standard issue baggy jumper and squareish, plastic-framed glasses sported by intellectuals of the eighties, and—almost invariably—smiling. Sometimes his wheelchair is in view and sometimes it isn’t. The cause of his disability was usually…...read more »

Fast Memories: Recycled Soviets and Real-life Russians in Havana Bay

When Vladimir Putin traveled to Cuba in 2000, he was the first Russian president to do so since Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1989. Soviet influence on the island was hardly something anyone wished to remember. At that time, a Cuban woman in the street reported to the press a sentiment that echoed an…...read more »

The Week in Translation

GO what: Two Lines presents: Catalan Literature & Tapas with Katherine Silver and Peter Bush when: January 27, doors open at 5pm, event starts at 5:30 where: B44 Catalan Bistro, San Francisco more info: http://ow.ly/HaxKz SUBMIT what: PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants ($2,000-$4,000), open…...read more »

“I Like Calling Myself a Thief”: An Interview with Rabih Alameddine

“I wanted to write a happy book; really, really happy—and this is what came out,” Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine said of his new novel, An Unnecessary Woman, at a reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop last year.  On the surface, the novel seems anything but happy:…...read more »

New in French: “La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais” by Lola Lafon

At the 1974 Montreal Olympic Games, the fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect “10” on the beam and dazzled the entire world. It was the first time an athlete had ever done this in an Olympic gymnastic competition. Even the electronic scoring board wasn’t…...read more »

Suono e Significato: On Being Translated into Italian

While completing my MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, I took a wonderful course with Jennifer Atkinson entitled, “Poetry in Translation.” I loved reading about how various translators worked, and the rationales behind their linguistic decisions. I even produced a few semi-competent…...read more »

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Pulp Fiction as Speculative Sociology: On Hernán Vanoli

I have always been drawn to literature driven by overt or covert sociological inquiries, fictions constructed to understand on various individual or collective levels those vexing questions of cultural or political history that social scientists spend their careers measuring, theorizing, and debating.  It should perhaps not have come as a surprise to me, after reading Hernán Vanoli’s work and looking up the author’s credentials and trajectory, that he is, in fact, a professional social scientist, whose participation in the independent literary scene of Buenos Aires is simultaneously practical and theoretical:  he wrote a dissertation in the prestigious sociology department of Argentina’s major public university on the economic and cultural hierarchies of independent literature, while still finding the time along the way to be an important prose stylist and critic.  He often critiques contemporary Argentine literature as engaging only superficially with the real political issues of our neoliberal era worldwide: specifically, I’m referring to the growing (and increasingly militarized) gulf between the middle and upper classes and the “surplus populations” that live in “villas” (shantytowns), populations whose changing lifeways and institutions are not being watched closely enough by academics, by policy makers, or by the cultural trendsetters.

This is, I think, the sociological inquiry driving Vanoli’s satirical and eccentric pulp-fiction novel, Las mellizas del bardo (The Rumble Twins).  How is the “favela-ization” of Argentina’s underclasses (and increasingly, of all the world’s “surplus populations”) creating new forms of violence and allegiance, new religions, new social worlds?  In what direction are these self-governed “villas” headed, and how could outsiders justly intervene?  This is a major question in contemporary Latin American political thought and social science, one which has yielded in Argentina a school of literature that Argentine critic Paola Cortes-Rocca has dubbed literature villera.  Following the lead of satirical works like Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s lamentably as-yet-untranslated La virgin cabeza (2009), Vanoli uses satire and camp to bring the reader in and suspend those judgments and prejudices that keep the criminalized villa-dweller shrouded in mystery.

What I find most interesting in Vanoli’s work, however, is that it disarms the reader by assembling a staggering pastiche of pulp-fiction tropes and genres that are all deceptively silly and seemingly unrelated: the crime-fiction heist-cum-road trip, the landscapes of dystopic sci-fi, female biker-exploitation, the cyberpunk fixation on cyborg black markets.  The common denominator in all of these wide-ranging generic sources is, upon closer analysis, the same sociological inquiry I mentioned before: the long history of middle-class imaginations, and simulations of a desperate culture of outsiders, a variously cartoonish or sensitive depiction of the culture (and the economics) of the streets.  There is a long tradition in Argentina and elsewhere of using mass culture as an access-point for imagining a life beyond that which the writers and readers of literary fiction are presumed to share—and with each generation, this operation seems to come more naturally, and to grow in complexity and reach.

What’s more, the style of this naturalistic work also seeks to disarm through its exceedingly casual tone, its gallows humor, its slack,  Generation-Y idiolect, and its conversational way of offhandedly alluding to the midnight-screening landmarks of trash cinema.  Its greatest strength for an Argentine reader was, however, my greatest difficulty as a translator: having always erred on the side of loyalty over naturalism, I had to really strain for an English tone as laconically unimpressed and as “chill.”  Making a few short excerpts read as a cohesive series of vignettes took far less revision than approximating that stony and welcoming prose.

The new title highlights one aspect of the novel’s backstory that might not be as salient to a non-Argentine reader, which is that Lionel Messi (like Diego Maradona before him) is the object of a kind of hero-worship that quite literally crosses over into folk religion.  Team-loyalty and clubs of super-fans are, over time, proving increasingly volatile.  This is largely because they are so central to the lives of people whose economic underpinnings are themselves becoming increasingly precarious and violent.  It takes a committed and trained sociologist to see (and to show, and to teach) the ways in which soccer and its hooligan gangs can function as an institution in the largely institution-bereft life of the villa, alongside the drug industry, the Catholic and evangelical-protestant churches, and the vote-buying apparatuses of the major parties.  Imagining a future in which soccer has eclipsed these other institutions is a stroke of genius, but also a crucial commentary on the present and our blindness to it.  If it is this hard for even an Argentine literary audience to see and understand the culture of the underclasses all around it, how can it be made visible and intelligible, much less to a global readership?  These are the questions that I think this kind of writing, when executed properly, can open up, and that make it a thought-provoking, if difficultly–contextualized, contribution to Words without Borders.

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