Archive for the 'missed translations' Category

My Asymptote, your Asymptote

April 29, 2013

For the past couple of months I’ve been helping put together the Spring issue of Asymptote, a free online journal that showcases literatures from around the world—and now here it is.

Please take a look. Included are an enlightening interview with Margaret Jull Costa, in which she mentions that All the Names is her favorite José Saramago novel (it’s mine too) and a gorgeous short story by Lo Kwai Cheung.

And there’s an Indiegogo campaign to help keep the journal going. The last day to donate is tomorrow, April 30.

*

And so I am reading Asymptote.

Reading this journal is a balm, and an addiction. When I’d first encountered it in 2011, I was content (and had only enough time) to read the first few lines of each piece. This is how I read a collection of stories: dipping only into each first paragraph to savor what is to come later, both in the story and in the eventual act of reading it. To delve into translation, especially, is to delve into an uncanny voice, specifically into the precursors and descendants of Kafka; and I knew from the start that Asymptote offered plenty such precursors and descendants. At the close of each piece—whether Adonis’s “Ambiguity”; Lin Yaode’s “Hotel”; Josh Honn’s review of César Aira’s The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira; Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito; Quim Monzó’s “Life Is So Short”; Alejandro Zambra’s “The Cyclops”; or, finally, Vasily Grossman’s “An Armenian Sketchbook”—I felt a familiar shift in my mental horizon. Something new, yet recognizable, was experienced, something worth repeating.

Five stand-outs for me are Gérard Macé’s “The Museum of Shadows”; Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers poems; Mariët Meester’s “The Protagonist”; Reif Larsen’s “The Generosity of a Matchstick”; and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s “The Class, Death Seminar.”

1. “The Museum of Shadows”: At first I’d read this as fiction. The very best prose reads with no such distinctions made. The work of such brilliances as Sebald, Pierre Michon, David Albhari, Andzrej Stasiuk, and Clarice Lispector emphasize voice, story, a narrator troubled by the puzzle(s) laid out before him or her. Macé’s work belongs here.

2. From Smugglers: When I came across the poem called “Anchor,” its first watery lines—“To wake up, but not quite yet, I would just hang on the edge, / holding on to the sail and taking the captain at his word, / I would faithfully roll and stretch the ropes, as I had been taught, / a shadow which refuses to separate the man, a world in balance.”—brought to mind the first few chapters of a novel called Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, narrated by a melancholic woman stranded on an ecotonic boat with her grand party of a garden swaying before her. On the first page she watches her husband, her captain, whom she’d been taking at his word for the past forty years, jump overboard along with maps, civilization, and sanity.

Then I read the rest of “Anchor” and discovered it to exist on its own, to be its own thing, its own drifting body—of water, of land ho, of endless sky. And behold: twice, the gift of a decisive “What a mistake,” the echo occurring in the final stanza:

What a mistake. To wake up, but not quite yet, you must gather
all your courage, shiver with anxiety and be almost mad, the fall
will be deep, if your hands fail you, especially if you have no guardian.
I would not wake up, not at all: I would rather float like a judgment
                 postponed.

3. “The Protagonist”: A generous piece about relationships, how our protagonist is humanized and humbled in the face of honoring art.

4. “The Generosity of a Matchstick”: It’s no coincidence that two of my favorites on this list are about museums. As I read through this, I began to understand how a press or a salon operates. That is, attention to a special sort of detail, curiosity, and, indeed, generosity must be given to these words that emblematize the time, or rather a particular time. Asymptote publishes pieces that comment directly on such curating.

5. “The Class, Death Seminar”: This is not merely a comment about our fascination with death; it is an exercise in empathy. To empathize with the dead up close is to live among them. Aren’t the dead supposed to be the ones to school us in life? Instead, Rasdjarmrearnsook teaches us to teach them how to savor it. What an astonishing bit of bravado.

*

A young friend’s first novel has just been published in Spanish. He is in New York on a fellowship, and in 2012 was awarded the Alejo Carpentier Prize. He wants to show me his work, but I keep asking him for a translation. Okay, he says, maybe later.

I feel such urgency for translation, for having others recognize the gift of it. But the process is characterized and influenced by time. Time must pass in order for a translation to occur and to be understood. Maybe later in fact means It is happening right now.

Asymptote is compelling to me for a simple reason: the works it curates translate—so to speak—into a single modern sensibility. That is, each piece is part of a disparate whole. Not one seems to be unrelated to the other. The thread, the flow, is clear, each piece connected by strength of voice, characterization, direction, absurdity. This is why I am drawn to translation. Not only does it give access to a world foreign to my own, or at least to what I’m familiar with, but it also strengthens this web of Kafka’s literary heritage, or the heritage of ghosts.

And today, Sebald’s heritage is deep.

Other Asymptote favorites: Aditi Machado’s review of Amina Saïd’s The Present Tense of the World: Poems 2000–2009; and Simon Lewty’s “Two Adventures in Translation”; and Chang Hui-Ching’s “War Among the Insects”; and Gen’yū Sōkyū’s “Is It Possible to Fear Properly?”; and Aamer Hussein’s “Knotted Tongue”; and— Well, I’ll stop here.

But of course I must add Shen Congwen’s “Family Letters,” José Saramago’s Small Memories excerpt, and Liao Yiwu’s “God Is Red.”

And this, especially, in the current issue: an English translation of an open letter penned by the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri to Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask following her recent public comments on a controversial immigrant policy known as Project REVA. He challenges Ask to switch skins with him and experience his experiences from age six through adulthood. The original Swedish letter ran in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter on March 13. By the end of that day it had broken the record for most-shared DN.searticle on social media. According to a DN article about the story, it was shared on Twitter enough times to theoretically have reached every Swede with a Twitter account.

This account is now available to English readers for the first time via a translation Asymptote especially commissioned.

*

May I ask you to share any of this, and the rest of the journal, with your friends, followers, lovers, families, students, FB, Tumblr, &c.? Please do.

Again: the Indiegogo campaign. Any donation is welcome. The journal is funded by labors of love, and every little bit helps.

Eduardo Halfon at BookCourt, 10.15.12

November 24, 2012

In October earlier this year, with the support of Words without Borders the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon came to New York City to promote The Polish Boxer, a book about one Eduardo Halfon who is haunted by the number “69752” tattooed on his grandfather’s arm. At BookCourt he read from the title story, in which Halfon the character finally discovers the story behind the number.

I will be interviewing him soon. Based on the Q&A that followed the reading at BookCourt (most* of which I have transcribed below), I have a feeling that the conversation will be a thorough one.

* “Most,” because I’d missed recording a couple of questions.

*

Q: How did your grandfather react to the coming of war in Guatemala?

EH: As most Guatemalans of his social class reacted: What war? It was a four-decade civil war fought between the guerrillas and the military in the mountains. Most Guatemalans in the city, of a certain economic or social class, just put it out of their minds. When the gunshots came into the city in the late seventies, they left. Most Guatemalans would not talk of it. We didn’t know of it. My grandfather, as far as I could remember, didn’t pay much attention. I thought you were going to ask how he reacted to the publication of the book.

Q: How did he?

EH: He cried. My mom read the entire book to him. I don’t think he got it. It was at the end of his life. He was a little senile in the last few months, a little at the beginning and then a lot at the end. In the last month he was in bed, he thought the German officer was in his room, and he kept speaking to him, in German. When he finally died, I walked in on a Saturday morning. This is the last chapter of the book, his death scene, but I left this detail out of the book, because it was too presumptuous: I walked in on a Saturday morning, but he couldn’t be moved until sundown because of Shabbat, so his body was on the bed and he was covered with a quilt—my grandmother was sitting on her side of the bed, hunched over, and my grandfather had shrunk physically and also in my head, he was such a small man compared to the man I had written about—and on his nightstand was my book. I think on some level he was proud that his story somehow would stay behind. I don’t think he understood everything I’d done with his experience. My family still doesn’t get it, and I’ve had a little bit of a tiff there. But just the fact that his testimony stayed—he didn’t take it with him. He was going to take it with him to his grave, but he knew that if he didn’t open up somehow, he would have to take it with him—so he had to open up to someone about this thing that had happened to him. That’s perhaps why he told me the writer—not his grandson, but his writer grandson. This is my inheritance. I inherited the family story. For good or for bad, I’m a writer, and what I do is write stories.

Q: Did you fictionalize any of it?

EH: Yes, I only write fiction.

Read the rest of this entry »

The deaths of Ricardo Reis

March 30, 2011

A LETTER TO BETH ADAMS

At The Cassandra Pages last October, dear Beth wrote about José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel I’d recommended to her. Below is my response to her letter.

*

Dear Beth,

I’d brought Ricardo Reis with me to Mexico in December with no intention of finishing it, even though I had only thirty more pages to go. To be clear, there had been no intention of not finishing it either. The book mainly served as a well-worn thing to press my fingers against while I sat in a park watching four men fly, something to thread through while my legs gave themselves a stretch at a bus depot in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, but mostly it was used as comfort in moments of the loudest quiet when our mutual friends entered my thoughts, which was often.

But now I’ve gone and finished it. I finished it here at home during lunch a week ago. Immediately I sent you a note to mark the occasion, and then I spent a week forgetting about it. The book has been lying on my desk at work as a reminder that I am forgetting about it. A colleague spotted it and said he can’t remember a single thing about Ricardo Reis. Perhaps this is the purpose of Ricardo Reis: he’s so opaque, he’s not meant to be remembered; he’s so mannered, he’s not meant to be a character, even though he’s very much flesh and blood (just look at Lydia, just look at what he does, or did, to Lydia); he’s so not there, we forget that he was never meant to be there at all, that he doesn’t exist twice over. He himself acknowledges this passivity:

He finally said aloud, like a message he must not forget, I live here, this is where I live, this is my home, this, I have no other, and suddenly he felt fear, the terror of a man who finds himself in a deep cave and pushes open a door that leads into the darkness of an even deeper cave, or to a voice, an absence, nothingness, the passage to nonbeing.

In this way I see something of myself in him. My porosity to books, as you so aptly phrased it, can be intense, but in the past it was to absorb the style and nuance of the writing to fuel my own—a bit like stealing the books’ souls. Toward the end of Ricardo Reis, however, no longer was there a style for me to absorb, because in place of style—and here I also mean story—were the mundane details of a world creeping toward war and of a man fallen into a sound, soundless depression. What I wound up absorbing here was lowness, absence, the porosity of a ghost.

This partly explains why I’d avoided finishing the book for so long when I was close to the end. To continue through this emptiness—this fatigue, as you put it—would have been to enter into it myself, wholly; and once the final page was reached, despite what little redemption I’d been prepared to find in the storytelling (not in Ricardo Reis, I’d given up on him), I would be faced with a precipice, a point of decision making: what does one do with this emptiness?

Saramago describes Ricardo Reis as “a man who claims to be so detached from the world yet who after all wants the world to trample on him.” Detachment is a choice; waiting for the world to happen to you is a choice. But the interesting thing about passivity as choice is that it can also be considered as hibernation, as a springboard toward action. In Ricardo Reis’s case, only one action is left to him at the end of the book. I don’t agree with his action, but I don’t disagree with it either. If he is to leave our pages at all, then it is fitting that he should do so with his creator, Fernando Pessoa. And when this final page is turned, we are at last left with a blank.

I once dreamed of what it would be like to die: I was hiding behind the counter in a convenience store while a masked man was robbing us, then he found me and pulled the trigger—and all went black. I was still conscious inside the dream—that is, I hadn’t awakened to my bedroom but was staring at a screen of black—and thought: “Well, this isn’t so terrifying.” The dream had sprung from two recurring (though low-register) anxieties: the memory of a robbery when I was a teenager, and the mental preparation for the deaths of loved ones. I stopped dreading death; what I started dreading instead was un-fulfillment, nonperformance, choreographed complacency, flatness, a literal nonbeingness. But now I see that these categories can also belong to death, with the comforting constant being the black screen, the blank page at the end of the book. This doesn’t have to be so terrifying.

So yes, the last two pages of Ricardo Reis seem to answer this question of the choice of continuation, of perseverance. The answer is on the oblique side, to be sure, but sometimes that is the best kind of answer. Anyway it is a relief to have any answer at all, don’t you think, after reading pages of a dried-up life and of a nation entering war?

*

Here, again, are the lines near the end that had moved me:

Reading is the first faculty one loses, remember. Ricardo Reis opened the book, saw meaningless marks, black scribbles, a page of blotches. The faculty has already left me, he said, but no matter, I’ll take the book with me just the same. But why. I relieve the world of one enigma.

Meaningless marks. Black scribbles. A page of blotches, of “incomprehensible drawings.” With these words, Ricardo Reis no longer gives himself the space to breathe. Is such an ending a miracle? For me it is. I see both real meaning and no meaning in these lines; by the time I reached them, I had no relationship to literary style anymore, because there’s just not much you need to absorb unless you go out and live meaning. Maybe when you’re shadowed by yourself, as Ricardo Reis was shadowed by Fernando Pessoa, the word “meaning” becomes too complicated. In some ways I’m glad my own shadow hasn’t shown up yet, though I’ve caught glimpses of her now and then.

Beth, forgive me for these incomplete thoughts, which are far incompleter than yours—I have a long list of favorite passages I’d hoped to touch on—and also for the tardiness of my response. I’ll close with this: A friend once said she saw herself walking about as an old man, and this had resonated deeply with me. I recognize now that the resonance comes from a desire to mourn what had once been tangible, as well as the passage of time. Time can be so loud, from the ticking of a clock or the falling of miraculous leaves. In the case of this novel that we’ve enjoyed together—from which we’ve taken away such personal readings—there is the year after the death of Fernando Pessoa, which is also the year in the death of Ricardo Reis. Imagine Fernando Pessoa visiting each of his heteronyms during this one year to let them know he’s died. During his time away from our Ricardo Reis, he must have gone to see Alberto Caeiro as well, while also steering Álvaro de Campos through his own existential crisis; and Bernardo Soares, disquieted by the silenced Fernando Pessoa, must have set down his own pen finally.

yours in life,
wmc

Man and ghost stared at each other.

April 13, 2010

Christine Zilka has kindly included me in a literary relay, where ten bloggers each write a 250-word post about a stranger coming into town, and must use the previous writer’s last line as the post’s first line. Because I’m first up and had nobody to steal a last/first line from, I stole the last line from a favorite novella: César Aira’s Ghosts.

The next person in the relay is Jamey Hatley.

*

Man and ghost stared at each other. They stood on the footpath leading to the crest of the mountain, their mutual home, though one lived on the east side of this crest and the other faced west, natural preferences for each, the one enjoying shimmering dawns and the other, velvet sunsets. For ten years, however, neither man nor ghost had encountered anything past his own shadow, the other’s existence having been mere rumor—and how unkind, both realized with regret, was unrelenting rumor, for a ghost, the man saw, was not a fire-breathing beast, and neither, conceded the ghost, was a man a thing of utter ugliness. In fact, one was indistinguishable from the other.

The man wiped a hand on his pants and held it out to the ghost. He had been swimming in the river below, he explained, taking a break from his farm work. The ghost looked down at his own hand, which was stained with poetry’s ink. He had once worked on a farm himself, long ago. Perhaps now was the time to share each other’s gifts. Who, he wondered, shall invite the other into the folds of his mountain, treating him no longer as stranger but, finally, as guest? For a moment, memories of life, rich with earthly scents, overwhelmed the ghost, and his eyes were blinded by the mountain’s sun pinned high above their heads. But when he could see again, really see, the man was gone. The river, he noted, had darkened.

*

[Other contenders for last/first lines, after the jump.]

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The stranger (4)

February 10, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

4.

[after Cao Naiqian, author of
There’s Nothing I Can Do
When I Think of You Late at Night]

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me.

She had moved us back to Mule City when her role on a television show ended after twenty years.

The job had ended because she quit.

She had been encouraged to give up the lurid costume production in favor of a contemporary drama, which would start filming over the summer. In the former, the story was steeped in the mythological history about a polyandrous empress; in the latter, a story about domestic affairs would have her weeping from one scene to the next and wed to only one man.

“I am not a weak woman,” she said into the camera.

In her last scene for the costume production, she had improvised this line. Her husbands in the show wept for real, and the camera continued rolling. In many scenes with these husbands, she had worn almost nothing, slips of silk covering her breasts and pelvis. The Radical Empress was the name of the show, and she had starred in it starting at the age of fourteen. When she became pregnant with me with only eight episodes aired, she was so loved by her fans that the writers used the pregnancy to their advantage: a child empress, with so many husbands, should indeed become pregnant by the age of fifteen. Who among these fans didn’t have a grandmother or great-grandmother who’d given birth to children at younger than fifteen?

Who among these fans hadn’t fucked like an empress at younger than fifteen?

The baby—me—appeared for only five episodes. Then I was kidnapped by a dastardly enemy. The real reason I had to leave the show was that I objected to being passed around among such scrawny pairs of arms, longing vociferously for Mother’s plump arms. Twenty years later, a young woman joined Mother in her final scene on the show. It was not me but somebody who was supposed to be me—the kidnapped baby returned to her home, to her mother’s bosom, to her throne.

*

We left for Mule City soon after, where she’d been born and where her father had promised her a bit of land. Two of the husbands from the show followed her there, and sat themselves on this bit of land until she let them in through the door. But she let in no others, especially if they were strangers.

In Shanghai, I hadn’t been allowed out the door without a chaperone, but here in Mule City Mother let me be. One day, I was walking along a road running parallel to the river when I tripped over myself and knocked my head on the ground. I lay still, panting. I felt my eyes close, yet I continued to see the shifting sky above me. Voices from the show, in all their operatic flourishes, clouded my ears, and then, quite clearly, came a memory of my conception.

“No!” Mother had said.

“No!” Mother had said.

I couldn’t have remembered this, but I did remember. And now that I did remember, I was unable to forget.

Mother was not a weak woman, it was true. Mother was not a weak woman, it was true.

5.

“I have only two yuan on me,” I said to Zhen Cun[1]. . . .

_________________

[Note after the jump.]

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The stranger (3)

February 2, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun,[1] her voice startled as though she’d only just noted the loss.

“What does it look like?” I asked.

“Red, with a gold clasp and a short strap. I had once spilled some ink on it—unused to pens, my hand had waved the things around uncapped, I must have been about to write a letter, carrying so many pens at once, and then one of them which had been leaking for some time spilled ink all over the purse so that a blue stain spread throughout the leather like veins.”

“I’ve always disliked pens myself.”

“Oh, I don’t dislike them, I’m just ill acquainted with them. I do all my writing by pencil, the kind you have to sharpen, not the mechanical ones that click out a sliver of lead, no, I prefer sharpened pencils for the pause they provide me in the course of writing, that is once the point becomes blunt or in some cases breaks off, I have room to breathe once more, I mean there is really nothing quite like breathing in the fumes of a sharpened pencil to wake yourself up, to open up a line in what you’ve written to enhance the imagery further. A pen, on the other hand, offers no traction, literal or metaphorical, on the paper. I am a poet.”

“You work with words and paper, and need to discover the relationship between the two.”

“Why, yes. You see exactly how I mean. Now this purse, my neighbor had given it to me for my birthday last year, dear Mr. Shu Pao-ming, who never forgot the day, though I had long ago stopped anticipating it myself. A red purse! At my age—no. I tossed it aside, and didn’t think about it again until yesterday, when Mr. Shu died, was found dead, or had expired is how the police put it, in a very curious location in his apartment. Now if you were to ask me to guess where an expired body would be found in an apartment, I would guess, and I’ve watched enough soap operas to have an idea, the bedroom or the bathroom or the kitchen, even the balcony, or perhaps the roof, but in Mr. Shu’s case, he was a musician, you see, or used to be, he was found inside his cello case[2]. It wasn’t murder, mind, nobody forced him inside the case, nobody broke his body into bits and pieces to fit him in there. He had wedged himself inside all on his own. He was a little man, I mean he had been a little man, generous in voice and in heart but so very little in body, and every night he had curled up inside the cello case and gone right to sleep. It turned out that one night the lock on the case accidentally clicked into place, and he couldn’t let himself out. Now, Mr. Shu and I got along well enough—he was prone to giving me gifts, like a pet, and I was prone to accepting them, old as I am and surrounded by things that belonged in the past—but if I didn’t see him, I didn’t give him a thought. There were days, even weeks, when I wouldn’t encounter him, or hear one note out of that beautiful cello, and not once would I wonder about the absence or the silence, I was too busy with the absence or silence inside my words. Can you understand how that is?”

“I think so. I’m sorry about your neighbor.”

“This morning I took the purse from the closet and examined it a long time, and I can tell you now exactly where the the pen’s ink first hit, the direction of the braiding of the strap, the clasp’s weight, all without having to look at the thing, though really, now, I’d rather be looking at the thing. This man had lain dying in the apartment beside mine, separated from me by a mere wall that you could knock down with one punch, and I had sat at my desk, duped by strings of silent words into believing that I was a poet.”

She said nothing for some time. Her eyes were finally dry, and she massaged her hands slowly, rubbing Mr. Shu into her life. How she had lost her purse I was no longer curious about, but I was oddly moved instead by the fate of Mr. Shu. If she was now letting him in, embracing his gifts as she should have, or believed she should have, when he’d been alive, then I felt like letting him in as well.[3]

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

__________________

[Notes after the jump.]

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The stranger (2)

January 31, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. Though supplying a name didn’t remove the label of stranger, the old man’s—Zhen Cun—revealed certain intimacies to me, that he’d been born in the spring and hailed from a more moderate climate, perhaps Shanghai, and therefore was left-handed, wore fashionable spectacles while he read, and preferred gelatinous noodles over the thin rice noodles that was the pride of our area, likely he never set foot inside the restaurants clustered on Old Division Street, where bowls tilted forward and back between tables and mouths and soup spilled into laps, where talk was interrupted by spittle wads, toothpicks, empty contemplations of the teacup, and greetings between friends burst into unfailingly explicit digressions about the previous night’s sexual escapade or that morning’s strenuous bowel movement, a guttural world, in other words, of the familiar. No, Zhen Cun’s meals would contain respectful hesitations, lacquered spoons, and caged parakeets twittering in the corner of the restaurant’s most private dining room, which one would reach through a long, dark labyrinth of dimmed hallways that gave one the impression of traveling through the body of a magnificent beast, a dragon, say, in which case the restaurant would be called Golden Dragon and its chef’s special the Triple-Headed Dragon Delight, only instead of the room being located in the belly of the beast, it sat on top of the head, the eyes—grand windows containing the fire color of the room—opening out onto the river.

But that the old man was standing in the street crying like a child also told me that he was much older than I could ever imagine a man to be, though how old I couldn’t decide until I looked into his eyes, or rather until his eyes met mine and told me the rest of the story that his name was unable to reveal. He was staring at his hand, the curled fingers resembling larval segments, the wrist as slender as mine though spotted with rot, the forearm a dark, winter tree branch that extended toward me as though of its own accord, reluctantly, tremblingly, not meant to grab or to startle but to seek relief, or absolution.

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

The stranger (1)

January 30, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers, or you will suffer their stories, she said, but when I came across a crying old man one day in the road, I stopped to ask what was distressing him so that, in the attempt to right the wrong in the old man’s world, made little, I guessed, by his declining memory, his scuffling gait, the number of dumplings he could fit into his mouth reduced to two, I could discredit Mother’s warnings about strangers, or at least this warning, one of a handful she dispensed daily and without a break in her speech from other, more pedestrian matters, for instance her announcement for bedtime went something like “Keep your arms at your sides and your legs straight, or whoever’s looking in through the window will think you’re a cripple and then rob you the first chance he gets, good night.” I always thought that to speak in this manner signaled lunacy, and having learned early on at school that lunacy was inherited, I resisted any urge to spout such nonsense myself. This turned out to be easy enough, for when one’s mother was the most famous actress in Mule City, where acolytes, colleagues, and even rivals prayed to her image torn from magazines and taped to their walls, one didn’t have to say a word, or rather one didn’t have a word to say, for she hoarded them all in perpetual rehearsal. She became a jawline to me, a set of wrists and fingers, knees, a waist artfully bent, and slowed down only on three occasions—when she stood on a stage, when she slept, and when she was greeted by strangers.

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

A letter

November 28, 2009

6. J’ÉCRIS UNE LETTRE

J’ai une lettre à écrire. Je prends une feuille de papier à lettre et je la pose devant moi sur la table. Je prends un porte-plume, je trempe ma plume dans l’encre et j’écris. Je sèche l’écriture avec du papier buvard. Je prends une enveloppe, je l’ouvre, je plie ma lettre en deux, je la glisse dans l’enveloppe, je ferme l’enveloppe et j’écris l’adresse. Je colle un timbre dans le coin droit supérieur de l’enveloppe et je jette la lettre dans la boîte au lettres.
(D’après Gouin)

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 8

*

A new mailbox has appeared on my street. I find an envelope in my desk and wet a stamp; it sticks crookedly on the upper right corner of the envelope. I write my professor’s address, which I found on an old receipt in his handwriting. The receipt had been lying in a book of correspondence between my favorite poets, one on the cusp of divorce, the other flirting with madness. I fold a sheet of matching stationery in half, then press it back open. My pen is new. It is poised above the sheet of paper, the letter poised on the tip of the pen. A drop of ink settles into the crease in the middle of the sheet. I dry the drop with my lips—the perfect blotter. Which one of us is mad this time? No matter; I have a letter to mail.

Inside, outside

July 22, 2009

1. L’OISEAU QUI A FROID

C’est l’hiver. Il fait froid. Un petit oiseau a faim et froid. Il frappe à une fenêtre. Une petite fille ouvre la fenêtre et l’oiseau entre. Elle lui donne à manger et le soigne tout l’hiver. Au printemps l’oiseau est triste. Il ne chante plus. L’enfant ouvre la cage et l’oiseau s’envole.

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 1

*

With winter setting into the sparseness of its feathers, a hungry canary taps its beak on a window to be let inside a building. Behind the window, an old woman sketches restlessly in a notebook the contours of several windows. She is a lover of windows. What she draws now is a blending of two windows from her life—one the window in her present house, the other a bamboo-latticed window in a faraway house in which she used to live, until the age of three, with her mother and father. The latter window is a hazy yet heavy memory, and evidence of this former life lies clearly in a photograph stashed beneath her pillow. In the photograph, she stands between her parents outside the window, the only window in the building that remains intact while a pitted rubble, created by giant, new machines, has settled around them. A flood or a highway (the old woman can’t remember which) is about to go through their Mule City, and this sturdy window with their family’s surname burned into the topmost bamboo strip is the only thing allowed to hold on to life. The window in her present house, meanwhile, is plain, a single pane set in red brick, and she looks at it now to see which window, this or the one in the photograph, will gain the upper hand in her sketch—and finally she notices the bedraggled canary shivering on the sill. Stunned, she no longer sees the window, or any window at all. Instead, she sees the rest of her life play out within the canary’s black, black eyes: She will let the canary in, and it will land gratefully on her pillow where the photograph of the ruined house lies, flat, underneath. All winter she will feed the canary bits of her meals, and at night the canary will perch itself on her hard pillow. Then when spring comes—the old woman’s final spring—the canary will look out the plain window and remember, perhaps with confusion or perhaps with abrupt clarity, that the yellow sun had once been kin. It will stop its songs, for spring is its home, not the inside of a forgotten house. So the old woman will open the window for her little canary again, and flicking its tail feathers now dense with brightness belonging to the sun, the bird will fly off and away.

*

[study questions after the jump]

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