A pair of ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

I WAS away when Colom­bian mas­ter Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez died, aged 87, on April 17, so this is the first chance I’ve had to put down a few thoughts. In the re­sponses to his death, what stood out for me were the pedestalpol­ish­ing trib­utes by other world fa­mous writ­ers. I don’t say that in a tar­nish­ing way; surely some pedestals de­serve pol­ish­ing.

Peter Carey, writ­ing in The Guardian, said his life was changed by “the great­est writer of our time”, specif­i­cally by his 1967 novel One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, which “threw open the door I had been so fee­bly scratch­ing on’’. Ian McEwan put Gar­cia Mar­quez in the same class as Dick­ens, an as­sess­ment en­dorsed by Sal­man Rushdie: “No writer in the world has had a com­pa­ra­ble im­pact in the past half-century. No writer since Dick­ens was so widely read, and so deeply loved …” Chilean writer Is­abel Al­lende said: “My mae­stro has died. I will not mourn him be­cause I have not lost him: I will con­tinue to read his words over and over.” That last point is com­fort­ing. We never lose great writ­ers be­cause their words out­live them (and us).

My own re­la­tion­ship with Gar­cia Mar­quez, who was named No­bel lau­re­ate in lit­er­a­ture in 1982, is not as deep as I would like (a com­mon theme that). I read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude and his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera when I was a young man and thought them re­mark­able books. But for what­ever rea­son I didn’t go on to read his other works. Nor have I re­vis­ited those two cel­e­brated nov­els. My col­league Ni­co­las Roth­well, whom I trust on such mat­ters, says Gabo’s great­est work is his 2002 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Liv­ing to Tell the Tale, so there is yet an­other ad­di­tion to the to-read list.

Co­in­ci­den­tally enough, when I went to my hap­haz­ard book­shelves to check some­thing in Ger­ald Martin’s well-re­ceived 2008 bi­og­ra­phy of Gar­cia Mar­quez, I noted that the next book along was Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Th­er­oux’s skin-peel­ing (for au­thor and sub­ject) 1998 mem­oir of his friend­ship with VS Naipaul. Which popped a thought into my head be­fore I could ar­rest it: is Naipaul, the 2001 No­bel lau­re­ate, a greater writer than Mar­quez? Well, all I can say is that I’ve read a lot more Naipaul.

Carey makes an im­por­tant point in pass­ing when he says that “while a writer’s great­ness can be marked in many ways, it can be ob­jec­tively mea­sured, across the bar­ri­ers of trans­la­tion and oceans, by his or her in­flu­ence on suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions’’.

The key word is “trans­la­tions”. Gar­cia Mar­quez wrote in Span­ish, so when Carey says One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude changed his life, some of the credit for that must go to the trans­la­tor. “Trans­lat­ing means ex­press­ing an idea or a con­cept in a way that’s en­tirely dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal, since each lan­guage is a sep­a­rate sys­tem. And so, in fact, when I trans­late a book writ­ten in Span­ish, I’m ac­tu­ally writ­ing an­other book in English.’’ That’s Edith Gross­man, who has been Gar­cia Mar­quez’s main English trans­la­tor for more than 25 years, talk­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post af­ter the au­thor’s death. In the same in­ter­view, Gross­man was asked which of his books was most dif­fi­cult to trans­late. Her re­ply: “Ev­ery­thing he wrote was gold. They were all won­der­ful to work on; I can’t say which was the most dif­fi­cult.’’ She said while Gar­cia Mar­quez was “not par­tic­u­larly en­gaged in the process”, he dis­liked ad­verbs that ended in the English equiv­a­lent of –ly. (“I some­times felt like a con­tor­tion­ist as I searched out al­ter­na­tives.’’)

But the best quote in the in­ter­view comes, fit­tingly, from Gar­cia Mar­quez. Gross­man says that when she signed up to do a trans­la­tion of Don Quixote, Gar­cia Mar­quez said “Di­cen que me es­tas poniendo cuer­nos con Cer­vantes”, which she trans­lates, faith­fully one as­sumes, as: “I hear you’re two-tim­ing me with Cer­vantes.’’


May 3-4, 2014

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