22 July 2005

Three Paragraphs

As I noted in the last post, I've been reading Alejo Carpentier's novel Siglo de las luces ("age of enlightenment"), translated into English by John Sturrock as Explosion in a Cathedral, and it's excited me more than anything I've read at least since Tainaron by Leena Krohn. I can't resist sharing a few paragraphs from a seven-page scene that uses eloquent description of nature to both indicate character development and create symbolic resonance. Excerpted from the narrative, neither of those particular qualities will be apparent, but perhaps you can appreciate the rhythm of the language* and the vivid imagery:
Going from surprise to surprise, Esteban discovered a plurality of beaches, where the sea, three centuries after the Discovery, was beginning to deposit its first pieces of polished glass -- glass invented in Europe and strange to America; glass from bottles, from flasks, from demijohns, in shapes hitherto unknown on the New Continent; green glass, with opacities and bubbles; delicate glass, destined for embryonic cathedrals, whose hagiography had been effaced by the water; glass fallen from ships or saved from shipwrecks, polished by the waves with the skill of a turner or a goldsmith till the light was restored to its extenuated colours, and cast up as a mysterious novelty on this ocean shore.

...

Carried into a world of symbiosis, standing up to his neck in pools whose water was kept perpetually foaming by cascading waves, and was broken, torn, shattered, by the hungry bite of jagged rocks, Esteban marvelled to realize how the language of these islands had made use of agglutination, verbal amalgams and metaphors to convey the formal ambiguity of things which participated in several essences at once. Just as certain trees were called "acacia-bracelets", "pineapple-porcelain", "wood-rib", "ten o'clock broom", "cousin clover", "pitcher-pine-kernel", "tisane-cloud", and "iguana-stick", many marine creatures had received names which established verbal equivocations in order to describe them accurately. Thus a fantastic bestiary had arisen of dog-fish, oxen-fish, tiger-fish, snorers, blowers, flying fish; of striped, tattooed and tawny fish, fish with their mouths on top of their heads, or their gills in the middle of their stomachs; white-bellies, swordfish and mackerel; a fish which bit off testicles -- cases had been known -- another that was herbivorous; the red-speckled sand-eel; a fish which became poisonous after eating manchineel apples -- not forgetting the vieja-fish, the captain-fish, with its gleaming throat of golden scales; or the woman-fish -- the mysterious and elusive manatees, glimpsed in the mouths of rivers where the salt water mingled with the fresh, with their feminine profiles and their siren's breasts, playing joyful nuptial pranks on one another in their watery meadows.

...

Sometimes a great silence foreshadowing an Event would fall over the water, and then some enormous, belated, obsolete fish would appear, a fish from another epoch, its face placed at the extreme end of its massive body, living in a perpetual fear at its own slowness, its hide covered with vegetation and parasites like an uncareened hull. The huge back emerged amidst a swirl of remoras, with the solemnity of a raised galleon, as this patriarch of the depths, this Leviathan, ejecting sea-foam, emerged onto the light of day, for what might perhaps be only the second time since the astrolabe was brough into these seas. The monster opened its pachyderm's eyes, and, discovering a battered sardine-boat sailing nearby, submerged once more, anxious and afraid, down towards the solitude of the depths, to await some other century before it returned again to a world full of perils.

(pp. 176-179)
*I don't have a copy of the original Spanish text, so I can't say how close the translation is. The text as an English text is a marvel, and John Sturrock deserves accolades for that at the very least.

5 comments:

  1. Holy shit that's good!!!!!! Thanks, Matt. I'm going to go out and buy that immediately.

    JeffV

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  2. Ha! I started this post as an email to you, Jeff -- but then decided to share it with the world. Glad you liked it.

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  3. I just caught this, Matt. It is indeed profoundly lovely. Thanks for sharing.

    Best regards,

    Laird

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  4. Wow. Thanks for sharing this, Matt. I just went on my Wish List.

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  5. carpentier's "the lost steps" is one of my favorite novels. After reading you post it looks like I will have to add 'explosion..' to my ever-growing TBR list. Thanks for posting. Wendi

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