Memoir, Nature Writing, Biology

I have found in the past that reading widely and apparently outside the field I’m thinking about has helped me write my own books, so I’ve been exploring a bit as I imagine Sea of Intimacy.

I read a review of this book…25002982

in The NY Review of Books a few years ago, and thought I should have a look. It turned out to be much richer and deeper than I anticipated. The fact that I found it in the university’s biology library might have something to do with why it is not better known: people probably don’t quite know how to categorize it. To me it could as easily be a memoir as a book about the natural world.

There are very strong ideas in it–too many to enumerate–and also a beauty of expression that matches the subject matter quite skillfully all the way through. One recurring idea that does not have an index entry but should is the notion of the “fifty thousand generations” during which homo sapiens lived on the planet as hunter-gatherers, in close communion with the natural world. McCarthy returns to it as something of a leitmotif (e.g., “the bond of fifty thousand generations with the natural world,” “the legacy of the fifty thousand generations of the Pleistocene”). Another reminds me of the great chain of being notion (though not religiously inflected in this case) of the wondrous astonishment at what the world can contain.

The author’s many joyful encounters with the natural world are carefully interlaced with personal memories, life encounters, and stories of the dedication and shared wonder with others, including his relationship with his mother (a strong indicator of memoir). The attention to detail in nature even amid the human-made world reminds me of a book I translated, The Other Venice, by Predrag Matvejević, but Matvejević is tonally subdued by contrast to McCarthy, who does not mind at all waxing lyrical, quoting poetry, and finding moments of intense emotion even amid apparently humdrum non-resplendent environments, as when he feels he has discovered a secret in suburbia, namely, “that in the chorale of birdsong silvering the silence, the stillness and the great bursting dawn overhead, for a brief half-hour even the land of the lawnmower can approach perfection” (203).

A major reason the book might very well be mis-categorized in the biology library is that one of McCarthy’s principle propositions, which he borrows from Joseph Conrad, is that “the influence of the artist is more enduring and goes deeper than the work of the scientist” (217), a notion that frames the book–it is first offered up on pp. 27-28)–and provides the main rationale for its manner of exposition, which is beautiful and joyous and definitely worth spending time with, whether one is imagining one’s own book through its prism or not.


Translating Place

My author does a lot with names. Here is an example:

Like Mehmed-paše, Nemanjina Street was built in the sixteenth century. It had been a road in the neighborhood of the Hadji Balina Mosque, which the people would remember as Čekaluša. But Čekaluša did not get its name from the word čekanje, or waiting, as is sometimes thought today. Originally it was Čegaluša, which probably came from Čegaleu, the name by which Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha was known, who built the Brusa Bezistan and that wondrously beautiful bridge across the Željeznica River.

I am still uncertain about how to spell some of the names here (as the variation between “Mehmed-paše” and Rustem Pasha demonstrates—I’ll figure this out later). The hidden footnote “or waiting” is of course my explanation for readers who will not immediately see the connection between čekanje and Čekaluša. This is not an especially difficult one.

I remember struggling with these sorts of naming difficulties when translating Predrag Matvejević’s The Other Venice, which featured local dialectal names for rare plants, among other things. Websites for homeopathic remedies were extremely helpful at the time, with explanations about where various kinds of plants grow in the world and botanical names. Once you have the botanical name, you can figure out what the plant is called in many different languages, though that may or may not include Venetian dialect. It was fun in a way but slow going.

Readers will need to be interested enough to be paying close attention to the words, such as in this example:

The hillside part was called “Banjski brijeg” because it passed above the Gazi Husrev Beg bath, or “banja.”

Will readers see the internal “banj(a)” in “Banjski brijeg”? There’s not much more I can do than point it out, as efficiently and unobtrusively as I can, and so my “or ‘banja'” at the end.

But this is not just a travel guide, and the names carry weight in ways that are literary and cultural and are tied to the descriptions as markers of memory and imagination rather than just location and history. This becomes clear when Jergović mentions a Jewish porter named Samuel, a character from a story by Isak Samokovlija, and notes that the Jewish poor “spent their lives on that pilgrimage with the sepet crates on their backs, and soon it would be as if they had never been there at all, their only remembrance, and that uncertain, being in the names of these streets.”

Sepet is a Turkish-derived word for crate, so it’s technically redundant. But the street Sepetarevac gets its name from the crates, so I need it in there, and for now a tiny redundancy seems like a reasonably small price to pay for the reminder.

One more shows the intricacy of the place names and their importance to the idea of imagination and memory:

In our time Sepetarevac was linked to Bjelave by a little street called Zlatikuša. It was called this because the meaning of its proper name—Zatikuša—had in the meantime been forgotten. This is how Alija Bejtić explains the name: “In old Sarajevo, which was provided with water by street fountains, individual water sources were not abundant, such that in any of the places where the water was inclined to flow freely, the pipes needed to be squeezed and hindered, the verb for which was zatiskivati, so that the water would accumulate in the supply basin. These places were called zatikuše, one of which was in the location in question.”

Now, the switch from the actual name, Zatikuša, to the one people later used, Zlatikuša, involved the insertion of an “l” after the initial letter, creating a new idea, as zlat is the root for the word “gold.” Jergović does not need to do much to point this out, but English readers will need a little help, which I’m trying like this:

They continued to call the street Zlatikuša for a long time, for it takes but a slight revision to adapt an empty word without any meaning to the excessive desires of human imagination. And thus did gold, or zlato, appear on Zatikuša, at the top of Sepetarevac.

Is it enough? Is it too much? If this were a poem, I might be able to linger on this question for a bit more, but I’ve just rounded page 400 and need to push on to “Veliki park,” which perhaps needs to be “Veliki Park” (with a capital “p”) to accord with English naming conventions. In other words, the translation of “Veliki park” could very well be “Veliki Park.” Unless I have to explain what “veliki” means….