Tuesday, August 24, 2010

stencil #026 - soledad puértolas

(High Street, Thornbury)

Soledad Puértolas, whose work I much admire, is a writer I’d choose to translate if I ever did decide to have a go at literary translation (but that’s not going to happen).

As far as I know, her only novel to appear in English translation is Bordeaux (1998) translated by Francisca Gonzalez-Arias

There's a guilty pleasure in knowing her other books are only available to select readers (Spanish, French, and German); however, I think it’s a shame for English-speaking readers to be deprived of her extraordinary writing. 

Días del Arenal, the first novel of hers I read (and am currently rereading), introduced me to her style of fragmented narratives that mirror the fragmented and discordant lives of her characters, which I think convincingly conveys the way most people experience their existence: the predominant feelings are a sense of alienation, disquiet, disconnection, and uncertainty. In a fragmented narrative, the ‘whole’ story is never told - not in order to withhold information, but because, as in real life, what we find out about others comes to us in bits and pieces, at different stages, and involves multiple tellers.

In his book Love, Life, Goethe, John Armstrong offers an optimistic view of the fragmentary nature of biography: 
. . . when we know another person, when we are friends with them, there are often large blank spaces in their history, as far as we are concerned. We may only have a sketchy – and probably one-sided – grasp of what occurred over substantial stretches of that person’s life. And yet our encounter with them is not puzzling or missing something. As we grow into a friendship, aspects of how the other person thinks and acts become part of the fabric of our life – part of how we see things, what we regard as possible, desirable, interesting or worthwhile.
In Puértolas’s novel, Historia de un abrigo, where the fragmented narrative is employed to a much greater extent, the narrator offers a similar view: 
Hay personas . . . que no preguntan nada. Se enteran como pueden de las historias de los demás, les bastan esos datos que se van dejando caer sin intención aparente. No se fijan tanto en los datos como en otra cosa. La forma en que se habla, en que se mira. Cosas menos tangibles, más reveladoras.
Some people . . . never ask questions. They learn things about other's lives incidentally, in passing, making do with whatever information comes their way. Focusing less on personal details than on other things - how one talks, how one sees things. On less tangible but more revealing things. (my bad translation) 
In another part of the novel, the narrator describes a less satisfying aspect of fragmentary experience:
Sólo ha conocido una parte de la vida de su madre, porque eso es lo que conocemos de las vidas de los demás, partes, trozos, fragmentos, incluso de las personas a quienes tenemos más cerca, las personas a quienes creemos conocer mejor. La vida de su madre era más amplia de lo que parecía, vivió mas de lo que les mostro a ellos, a su familia.
She has known only a part of her mother’s life, because that's all we can know about other's lives: parts, pieces, fragments. Even those closest to us, the people we think we know best. Her mother's life was much more than what it appeared to be. She lived her life in more ways than what she showed to them, her own family. (my bad translation)
Even on rereading, the fragmentary narrative style of Días del Arenal has an impact. In the third section of the novel we learn of the suicide of a character who had dominated an earlier part of the novel. However, her death is mentioned almost as an aside. Since the shift in focus in the third section has been onto a different character, its unexpected, unheralded insertion is strongly felt, akin to hearing terrible news about someone you knew and liked in the past but had lost contact with. 


Ramón Acín gives a precise description of the types of characters that populate Puértolas’s stories: 
. . . personajes escurridizos, difuminados, perdidos . . . insatisfechos, cargados de enigmas y oscuridad . . . La vida estalla en ellos como algo complejo; esperan algo, deambulan en su busca y resisten, en tenaz lucha, los embates de sus fracasadas indagaciones.
(and here’s my bad attempt at a translation:)
. . . vague, shadowy, elusive characters . . . dissatisfied, lost and perplexed . . . life erupts within them as something complicated; they're waiting for something, wandering around in search of something, tenaciously resisting the blows of their doomed or failed quests. 
Puértolas excels at creating an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty. She sets up situations that never take shape, initiates events that remain in suspense and sketches characters that then vanish. There are frequent shifts of focus on characters: often, minor or secondary characters end up becoming central protagonists in different sections of her novels or in different short stories, while the characters whose stories appeared to be central simply vanish. 

A bit like what happens to us later on in our own lives when, instead of collecting people, they begin to vanish (or are banished) from our lives for one reason or another, and whose stories we may not hear about ever again. People once thought of as close and central to our lives suddenly no longer play such an important part and connections stall or simply fade. Not to mention all those plans that were never initiated or that never took shape . . .

Here’s a lovely fragmented photo of Soledad Puértolas from an interview in elcultural.es:


fragmentos said...

Muy intersante!...la pondre en mi lista.

Me said...

Hi there,
I'm wondering if you knew how i could get hold of the English translation of 'La indiferencia de Eva'?

Thank you :)

pfdañado said...

It's the first story published in "Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text" (Translated by John R. King). It's available from Book Depository.