I’ve been making my way through Suzanne Jill Levine’s book on translation, The Subversive Scribe, and at the same time I’ve read her translation of Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (both in reprint from Dalkey Archive). It turns out that this book and G. Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, the two Levine translations I’ve now read, are the two she first published. From that experience I will say that Levine’s Scribe is much more interesting when you have read the particular book she is talking about in a given chapter: at other moments I find myself skimming a bit, looking for the nuggets of insight she pulls from the translation experience but less engaged with the details she uses to support them. While certain themes would announce themselves in any case (chief among them: the translator as collaborator with the author but also as necessarily faithful betrayer of the text), the way in which the essays enrich my experience of the books I’ve already read is what has made reading her accounts most worthwhile. In another post I want to say more about Levine’s book and how it strikes me as a reader of translations, but for now I want to focus on Puig.
When discussing Beytrayed, Levine focuses most of her attention on the translation of spoken language, but one thing that happens through the novel’s organization is a progression of forms toward writing. From the overheard conversations of the beginning and the internal monologues that make up most of the central section, we move to a final section that consists of various documents: a diary, an essay, a note, a commonplace book, a letter. The move towards written forms at the end, compounded with the movements forward in time and the maturity of characters’ consciousnesses, make the book easier to understand as you go, though there are still gaps to fill. It is the kind of book that tempts you to draw out a chart of the characters and their relations so you can remember just who it is suddenly reappearing after an absence. Indeed, at the beginning it could be easy to give up due to the difficulty of following just who talks when, but after an initial hesitation I enjoyed those chapters most by not taking many pauses. They struck me as offering, in spirit, a conversation happening in the next room among people whose voices are similar enough to blend with one another. You can’t always sort out who is who, yet individual personalities rise and fade. And what does come through, in Levine’s work on the translation, are the personalities of the characters, though these personalities become more clear, again, as we move to internal monologue and in written forms. Yet if these later moments are when the characters have the most striking voices, they are also voices fabricated for particular occasions, with likely readers in mind: even the diary and commonplace book carry the sense of being written with the sense of a potential future audience.
What the book also offers is an increasingly moving and still relevant rumination on the intersection of rural/urban divides with questions of masculinity and homosexuality. One of the central repeated plot threads highlights the strained relationship between Toto and his father Berto, who considers Toto far too effeminate and artsy, and who favors instead Héctor, an older, macho and womanizing nephew he and his wife Mita have adopted. Yet as the novel ends Berto’s relationship to Toto becomes more complicated; in a letter he wrote and never sent long ago, he reveals his hopes for Toto’s future that implicitly critique the interlaced homophobia and anti-intellectualism he has since adopted. Berto’s earlier wishes betray his future self, and Toto’s fulfillment of those wishes can only betray his father in turn. Part of this is a very common story of parents who want better for their children only to feel alienated when their children in fact succeed; but it also resonates with what has struck me, since childhood in a small town, as a very rural way of linking homosexuality to intelligence in such a way that homophobia and anti-intellectualism become almost synonymous. It is an attitude very much alive in the U.S. today.