Another Lost Giant

This is from “The Bee Journal,” which could be its own short book—an internally coherent novella of a little of 170 pages—and is one of the final three parts of Kin I am translating, along with “Parker 51” and “Sarajevo Dogs.”

While some appraised Plague and Exodus as an outrageous casserole, “the product of a megalomaniacal mind,” “a work of provincial learning that suffers from delusions of grandeur,” one big prank by a collection of idiots, or, simply garbage, the sort that occasionally appears everywhere as a result of the over-production of books, others, a small number, but largely more authoritative and powerful, greeted it as an epoch-making book, “the final actualization of a brilliant intellectual biography, proof of how the greatest literary works and historiographical syntheses take shape in the solitude of monastery cells, far from university cathedrals and academies, in peace and in silence, with anthropological reach into the depth of our civilization’s sub-conscience, magisterial cultural and historical ceremony and summation, a disclosure of the human and the apiary soul, a theological tractatus on insects and on flowers, which puts man and God face to face, even for those of us who don’t believe in either the one or the other. Plague and Exodus is all of this and much more!” This was what Professor of Aesthetics Ivan Focht wrote about [Đorđe] Bijelić’s book, but all the polemics were halted and all the derision died when Miroslav Krleža raised his head in defense of Bijelić’s work. He was not leaving his house anymore by then. He was old and found it hard to move. He was no longer writing, but he came forward on two occasions, to defend two books: Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidović and Bijelić’s Plague and Exodus. Both had been written by Jews, one dealing with concentration camps, the other with beehives.

I find the interweaving of fact and fiction, literary history with invented literature, and the invented histories of invented literature, both fascinating and effective. It is just one of the many things Jergović does well in the book.

Internal Rhyme for the Kicker

I’m moving so fast now that it’s likely I’ll forget even more of this process than elsewhere, so I’m creating a quick post as a memory marker. This is towards the end of “The Match Juggler,” an extraordinary story that actually has a slightly longer title: “The Match Juggler—Furtwängler.” The eponymous juggler is introduced early in the story and then left, when Rudolf Stubler says good-bye to him at the Graz station. Stubler continues on to Berlin, where he has a chance encounter, and a long conversation, with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The title of the story is ambiguous about whether Furtwängler is his own sort of match juggler. It is a story about art, the death of Beethoven at the hands of the Nazis, the Holocaust, and much more.

The thing I want to remember is the internal rhyme I’ve placed in this paragraph, which does not exist in the source but seems right to me here:

This was what Wilhelm Furtwängler was told, which he, word for word, conveyed to Rudolf Stubler, who would tell the story of these events during family gatherings, when someone got married or when someone was buried. Among the Stublers, as has been noted and as the finale of this family history testifies, they buried a lot more than they married.

I will finish this seventy-page story today, then move on to “The Bee Log,” an internal novella of 170 pages or so.

The Cultural Shape of the Sentence

I recall learning in graduate school—I can picture the particular lesson, which was delivered by Irina Paperno, probably in the first-year introductory pro-seminar, in which we were reading The Master and Margarita in Russian, and this topic was sure to come up—about how Russian literary prose typically orders itself differently from English. Irina used the syntactical concept of tema i rema (which has other designations in other languages). The basic idea is that each proposition contains some old information and some new information. Tema is the old stuff, while rema is the new. Russian tends to have a lot of tema at the beginnings of sentences, while English tends to do it the other way. I have often wondered whether this particular syntactic bias has also influenced the standard of journalistic prose in English, which tends to lead with the newest stuff at the beginning and then fill in a whole bunch of background later in the article.

Here is a good short descriptive example from an online Croatian grammar:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Marko je došao kući.

Or, in English,

Mama: Who came to the house? Papa: Marko came to the house.

In the response, “Came to the house” is tema, “Marko” is rema.

Jergović’s prose, like Bulgakov’s in M&M, I now realize, features lots of tema at the beginnings of sentences. Sometimes tema can extend for a whole paragraph before getting to rema. Here is a good short example:

Poslove oko plamenika za parne lokomotive na uskotračnoj pruzi Sarajevo – Ploče, Rudolf Stubler završio je već trećega dana boravka u Berlinu.

I suppose literally this could be something like this (though I generally do not create “literal” equivalents as I’m working, perhaps a topic for another post):

The work/s surrounding the burners for the steam locomotives on the narrow-gauge track Sarajevo-Ploče Rudolf Stubler completed already by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

All the stuff leading up to Rudolf Stubler is tema since it was stated earlier in the text that this was the ostensible purpose of his trip. Here too is the notorious “already” (već) rearing its ugly head. Actually, the part about being in Berlin is also tema, so in a sense it is split up, not really all at the beginning, but the subject of the sentence waits a bit long to enter, and if I ordered my English sentences this way as often as the source does, I fear they would become rather annoying to English readers. With this particular one, here’s what I’ve done:

Rudolf Stubler had completed the work regarding the burners for the narrow-gauge steam locomotive on the Sarajevo-Ploče line by the third day of his stay in Berlin.

It still might feel a bit wordy, but the pace of the text is like this, and by this point in the book—somewhere around page 600—if readers aren’t prepared to take their time, well, they won’t have got to this point in the book if that is the case.

This suggests to me, too, that the example from the Croatian online grammar should really be re-shaped for maximum effect:

Mama: Tko je došao kući?
Tata: Došao je kući Marko.

Or, what one generally cannot do in English, but here goes:

Mama: Who came to the house?
Papa: Came to the house—Marko.

 

The idea of nebo as sky and as heaven

I remember Fulvio Tomizza making the claim—this was during the only meal we ever shared together, at his home in Trieste—that he aimed for five ideas per page. An idea, I understood, was a turn of some sort, either in reasoning or character depiction or language, some new thought that generated new interest on the level of the page while the entire book was working towards its larger aims. You might block out how you wanted the book to go, but ideas of this sort were discovered in the writing.

Translating an author’s work—a serious author who wields ideas in something like the manner Tomizza intimated—often means getting a feel for how the author thinks, the sorts of connections he makes. Otherwise, the turns leave you feeling baffled. This is true especially when the ideas are embedded in language play.

Here is an example from a passage in “The Match Juggler”:

As we have repeated on multiple occasions and demonstrated through the depiction of multiple episodes from his life and the memories of other members of the Stubler household, Rudolf Stubler was a believer. Chance (or God) had so willed it: the Stublers were divided into deep, authentic, which also means naïve, believers, and complete unbelievers. There was never a loss of understanding between them—about God there could be no misunderstanding. It was just that for some of them the sky was blue and for others heaven was empty.

This was an earlier draft, when I hadn’t figured out how to deal with the use of nebo, which can of course mean both sky and heaven. In context, the English sort of makes sense, but it is murky and leaves me feeling like the author (the translator channeling the author) is trying to be clever but not succeeding. One can sense a thought behind it, but without knowing that nebo has this double meaning in the source, the thought remains distant and not quite realized in the English version.

I haven’t been counting, but it feels like this sort of turn or one like it happens at least five times per page in Jergović’s prose, and I suspect it is one of the main ways that he manages to get us to be patient—he is very patient—with him as he makes his way towards the book’s larger aims. I have been thinking a lot about patience as I work my way through his book. It is a distinctive quality that he shares with writers he references often, like Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš.

Patience also helps me to resolve such issues, as I set them aside but return to them later, and, in this case, see that heavens (plural) can of course have a similar double quality, though by contrast to nebo, which begins with a secular sense and expands to a religious one, heavens begins with a religious sense and allows a secular one. It’s a difference I can live with, and my solution becomes: “It was just that for some of them the heavens were blue and for others they were empty.”

I believe my author will appreciate the zeugma.