Friday 27 February 2009

Julio Cortázar

This Argentinian writer is famous for his intricately schemed short stories and renowned novel “Rayuela” (Hopscotch). The idea behind the latter is gorgeous in itself, the execution even better. Part of Cortázar’s own introduction reads as follows :

“A su manera este libro es muchos libros, pero sobre todo es dos libros. El primer libro se deja leer en la forma corriente, y termina en el capítulo 56…el segundo libro se deja leer empezando por el capitulo 73 y siguiendo el orden que se indica al pie de cada capítulo…71, 1, 2, 116, etc”.

“In its own way this book is many books. However, above all, it’s two books. The first one can be read like normal and finishes at the end of Chapter 56…the second one can be read by starting with Chapter 73 and following the order that’s indicated at the foot of each chapter…71, 1, 2, 116, etc”.

The game of hopscotch isn’t just technical virtuosity for its own sake – Cortázar’s challenging of our expectations goes much further. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

Nevertheless, my favourite Cortázar book isn’t a novel or a collection of short stories. It’s his collected poems (Salvo El Crepúsculo), tough to find even in Spain. He’s virtually unknown as a poet, but his skill is immense. Cortázar’s poetry is scattered with terrific turns of phrase, but is also held together by an original vision that juxtaposes everyday and abstract elements:

“…esa comida recalentada, la memoria…”

“…el pozo herido
de una sola cabeza en una almohada…”

And here’s my betrayal of his original versión:

“…memory, that reheated dish…”

“…the wounded well
of a single head on a pillow…”

Wonderful stuff - this is poetry that accompanies me all the time.

Monday 16 February 2009

"Traduttore, tradittore" or “Translator, traitor”

This Italian saying might sound provocative until we undress the ramifications.

In spite of my background as a linguist, I’ve never enjoyed translating as a literary pursuit. It’s an excellent exercise in understanding how languages work, interact and misunderstand each other, but the impossibility of success frustrates my creativity rather than igniting it. For example, the cadences and connotations of English cannot exist in Spanish (and vice versa).

I’m far keener on using the original as a point of departure for my tangents, but then this is also what I do when reading poetry in English. On second thoughts, perhaps I too am a translator and traitor at once, but in my own language, from one poem to another, from reader to writer and on to further readers, just as all poets are.

Thursday 5 February 2009

The Last Place On Earth

Having previously mentioned poets whose attraction has faded for me, I should also mention that the opposite can also happen, as in the case of Peter Sansom.

I had always admired aspects of his earlier work, but with reservations. None remain since the 2006 publication of The Last Place On Earth. Words work harder to earn their place, while this sense of tightening also applies to the poems’ musicality. Humdrum events can sing and develop ramifications; Peter Sansom has mastered the art of getting them to do so, as in the opening lines of Ironing:

“I like it best when there’s time to see myself
though the drizzle of a weekday morning…”

Simple, mundane, yet already hinting at far more beyond as the poem advances.

I get the impression that Sansom is no longer bothered about nodding towards one poetic reference point or another. Techniques now don’t get in the way – they’ve been fully absorbed into his unified yet varied voice. The Last Place On Earth is an excellent example of how the portrayal of everyday events need not lack ambition. In fact, few poets are capable of rising to the challenge of meeting life head-on and then leaping beyond it without sounded trite or forced.

Peter’s Sansom’s achievement is thus considerable and undervalued. I’m convinced that The Last Place On Earth is a key book in contemporary British poetry. Get hold of a copy if you can!