Thursday, October 06, 2022


I enjoyed this seasonally appropriate 1960 Mexican film directed by Roberto Gavaldón, with cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. Macario is based on a short story by B. Traven, which is in turn based on a folktale called (in one of its many versions) "Godfather Death." It tells of a poor woodcutter (Ignacio López Tarso) who can barely feed his family enough tortillas and beans to fill their stomachs. Since his one wish in life is to have an entire roast turkey for himself, his devoted wife (Pina Pellicer) finally steals one and cooks it for him. As he sits down to eat it he receives in succession three visitors, whom we realize are in turn the Devil, God (or Jesus), and Death. Each asks to share his meal, but on the basis of some quite logical reasoning he agrees to invite only the third, who, in return, gives Macario a magic liquid that will enable him to cure the dying. There is a catch, however; if Macario sees Death standing at the feet of the patient, he may perform his cure; if Death stands at the head of the bed, the patient is his and Macario must not intervene. Macario makes use of the potion and becomes, in time, a rich man, until the Inquisition gets wind of his activities.

One of the things I liked about the film is that it plays down the potentially garish visual aspect of the story. (That aspect is, in part, reserved for the opening credits, which feature a troupe of folkloric skeleton marionettes.) The Devil, for instance, is a bit of a snazzy dresser, but he doesn't have horns and a goatee, nor is Death a skeletal figure with a flail. Macario, in his unassuming way, recognizes them for who they are nevertheless, and he isn't excessively impressed with either, or with the Señor. López Tarso is particularly good at giving Death skeptical looks at the bedside of patients who are obvious goners but whom Death assures him can still be saved. Really, this one? (Shrug.)

Gavaldón made at least two other films based on Traven novels or stories, Rosa Blanca and Días de otoño. I haven't seen either one, although I've read the story the latter is based on and it could be interesting. Ignacio López Tarso, at this writing, is still alive at the age of 97, which suggests that he set aside a bit of that potion for himself. Sadly, Pina Pellicer, who starred in Días de otoño, died at age 30 of an overdose of sleeping pills.

I'm not sure about the current availability of Macario on DVD or from streaming services; I watched an older DVD release that has subtitle options in both English and Spanish. A version of the folktale can be found in the Lore Segal / Maurice Sendak edition of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, one of those perfect books that belong in every household.

Friday, September 30, 2022

In the clearing

The grass may not always be greener, but with mushrooms it seems to be a different story. It's been a dreadful year for fungi-spotting where I live (too dry), but whenever I go away they seem to be abundant everywhere else. These specimens, from a brief field trip to New Hampshire, were found in an area of scrubby woodland along a rarely-used trail.
Amanita is an interesting and often photogenic genus, with the classic "toadstool" appearance. Some species are regarded as choice edibles (by braver souls than I), others are deadly, and one, the "fly agaric," is a notorious hallucinogen with an alleged role in shamanism and religion. They can be hard to tell apart and I'm not quite sure which Amanita these are, but it was a pleasant surprise to come across them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Stateless person

The narrator of this novel by the elusive writer who called himself B. Traven is one Gerard Gales, an American seaman who oversleeps while in port and loses his identification papers when his ship sails without him. Unable to prove his identity, his nationality, or even his legal existence, he is deported from one European country to another until he finds a freighter whose captain has reason not to be fussy about documents. As it turns out, the aptly-named Yorikke, on which Gales becomes a stoker's assistant, is a dilapidated ship of fools, doomed to be scuttled for its insurance payoff. If the first part of the book is bureaucratic satire, lighter but also sharper than Kafka's in The Trial, the rest is largely taken up with harrowing descriptions of the working conditions of those who tend the boilers. Unlike the Kafka of Amerika, who never crossed the Atlantic at all, Traven clearly knew from first-hand experience what a stoker's existence was really like. But even at its grimmest the book never loses its dark sense of humor. The Yorikke, Gales assures us, is actually thousands of years old. Its apparent timelessness gives the tale yet another dimension.

Who was B. Traven? He usually claimed that, like Gerard Gales, he was an American whose documents had gotten lost. Sometimes he blamed the destruction of his birth record on the fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He may have even believed it, and it may even have been true, although few scholars now give the idea much credence. That he was the same person as one Ret Marut, a German actor and radical writer whose paper trail went cold in the 1920s, is no longer seriously questioned, but then who was Ret Marut? We may never know with absolute certainty.

The Death Ship was originally published in German as Das Totenschiff. The earliest English-language edition, issued in 1934 by Chatto & Windus, was translated by Eric Sutton. It was followed almost immediately by an American edition brought out by Alfred A. Knopf, of which my Collier Books edition above is a reprint. No translator is indicated inside the book. Traven, who reportedly didn't like the Sutton version, chose to translate the novel himself for Knopf, expanding it as he did so. His command of English was faulty, however. The German scholar Karl S. Guthke explains what happened:
The manuscript of The Death Ship that arrived in New York in 1933 was couched in an English that would have raised the eyebrows of most readers. As Knopf editor Bernard Smith reported, the text was so Germanic in vocabulary and syntax that it could never have made it in to print. And for good reason: Traven himself had translated the novel (as he was to translate the other novels Knopf would bring out), at the same time giving free rein to his lifelong passion for rewriting, cutting, and inserting new material. Knopf asked Traven to agree to a revision by Smith. Traven asked for sample pages and was favorably impressed. After instructing Knopf that only grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic changes were to be made, he authorized Smith to rework the entire manuscript. "This entailed treating about 25% of the text," Smith recalled. "In any given paragraph there was sure to be at least one impossibly Germanic sentence, and sometimes an entire paragraph had to be reconstructed." Smith stressed that his contribution in no way involved what could be considered literary or creative work on the three novels he revised. He had merely turned Traven's translations into acceptable English. It was clear to Smith from the beginning that English was not the translator's mother tongue; the syntactic thread was German, and even in Smith's reworked version the German original rears its head from time to time.

B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends
The treatment of American place-names in the Traven-Smith version is a bit off. Referring to Wisconsin familiarly as "Sconsin" might just slip by unnoticed, but Chicago is casually referred to as "Chic," Cincinnati as "Cincin," and, least likely of all, Los Angeles as "Los." Other than that and a few eccentric colloquialisms the novel doesn't particularly "read like a translation" at all. Weirdly, it winds up being a work of American literature.

Traven, who would stubbornly maintain the fiction that his novels were originally written in English, allowed his German-language publisher, Büchergilde Gutenberg, to issue a new German "translation" in 1937 based on the Knopf version.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Literary services

I've been assigned to escort a famous poet to a public reading in Princeton, New Jersey. We are to meet in Grand Central Station before transferring across town to catch a southbound train, but I've neglected to arrange an exact rendezvous with Famous Poet, whose number isn't in my phone. I wander about looking for him, but the terminal is an enormous bazaar covering acres and acres, and it's hopeless to try to locate one person in such an intricate and crowded space. Parts of the bulding have been torn down or have fallen into ruins; on the levelled ground earth-moving machines are preparing the foundation for new structures to come. I select a name from my list of contacts, a colleague who would be likely to have Famous Poet's number, but the person who answers is a stranger who knows nothing about it. I call my boss but he can't help; he is alarmed that we aren't already on the way.

Finally I spy Famous Poet near the ticket booth. He is distraught and tears of rage are streaming down his face. There's no question of continuing; the reading will have to be rescheduled.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (III)

It's been another unpredictable year in the squash patch. The acorn squash that I planted in the wake of last year's profusion of volunteers didn't come up at all, perhaps because the seed I saved just wasn't viable. It looks like I may have some Black Futsus coming (seed from Baker Creek), and I have some vines that are just starting to run but that I suspect may turn out to be butternuts. In general things are late, perhaps because the spring was a bit cool here and the summer has been hot and dry. I did get some nice gray zucchini before the vine borers wiped them out.
The big surprise (literally big) is this 15-lb. pumpkin, which I didn't consciously plant and which I suspect grew out of last fall's Jack O'Lantern. I've named it Rusty Staub, in homage to le grand orange.

Dominoes (Georges Perec)

Before the former child star Olivia Rorschach sets off on one of her frequent trips, she leaves instructions for her au pair, Jane Sutton, one sentence of which reads "Buy cooked Edam for Polonius and don’t forget to take him once a week to Monsieur Lefèvre for his domino lesson." Perec appends an explanatory footnote:
Polonius is the 43rd descendant of a pair of tame hamsters which Rémi Rorschach gave Olivia as a present shortly after he met her: the two of them had seen an animal-trainer at a Stuttgart music hall and were so impressed by the athletic exploits of the hamster Ludovic – disporting himself with equal ease on the rings, the bar, the trapeze, and the parallel bars – that they asked if they could buy him. The trainer, Lefèvre, refused, but sold them instead a pair – Gertrude and Sigismond – which he had trained to play dominoes. The tradition was maintained from generation to generation, with each set of parents spontaneously teaching their offspring to play. Unfortunately, the previous winter an epidemic had almost wiped out the little colony: the sole survivor, Polonius, could not play solo, and, worse, was condemned to waste away if he was prevented from indulging in his favourite pastime. Thus he had to be taken once a week to Meudon to his trainer, who, though now retired, continued to raise little circus animals for his own amusement.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Monday, August 01, 2022

11 Rue Simon-Crubellier

When I first read this 1978 novel by Georges Perec in David Bellos's translation years ago I recall being entertained but also perhaps a bit underwhelmed. This summer I'm reading it in the original (with the translation on hand as a crib) as a way to keep up my French. In some ways it's ideal for the purpose. It's made up of fairly short, self-contained chapters that I can read at a relaxed pace of one or two a day, and it's not particularly slangy or conversational (street French not being something I'm up on). The grammar I can handle; the hard part is the vocabulary for material objects (clothes, home furnishings, tools) which Perec delights in ennumerating. (In fact the cataloguing of objects was part of his compositional method.) These are, as it turns out, the very things where my English vocabulary is weakest; thus when Perec refers to an aumônière, I am little wiser when I turn to Bellos and find that this is "a Dorothy bag." My eyes begin to glaze over when Perec, at his most maniacal, devotes several pages to the contents of a catalog from a hardware manufacturer. Fortunately, such extreme moments are rare.

For those unfamiliar with the book, La vie mode d'emploi captures a snapshot of the inhabitants and furnishings of a Paris apartment building at one instant in June 1975. In addition to describing them synchronically, he also moves back in time liberally in order to narrate the stories of the present and former denizens of the building. There's also a frame tale involving an expatriate Englishman named Bartlebooth who wanders the world for twenty years painting harbor scenes, which he sends home and has made into jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles and games fascinated Perec, and the writing of the novel was itself structured by the use of various constraints and procedures, such as a "knight's tour" in chess, in which the knight visits every space on the chessboard exactly once. But arguably the parts are more interesting than the whole.

Comparing the two versions raises new puzzles. Why, for instance, in the list of paintings created by a tenant named Franz Hutting, did Bellos translate
14 Maximilien, débarquant à Mexico, s'enfourne élégamment onze tortillas
14 Maximilian lands in Mexico and daintily scoffs four nelumbia and eleven tortillas
and for that matter what on earth are "nelumbia"? Why does
21 Le docteur Lajoie est radié de l'ordre des médecins pour avoir déclaré en public que William Randolph Hearst, sortant d'une projection de Citizen Kane, aurait monnayé l'assasinat d'Orson Welles
21 Dr LaJoie is struck off the medical register for having stated, in front of Ray Monk, Ken O'Leary, and others that, after seeing Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst had put a price on Orson Welles's head
with the parts in bold (my emphasis) being apparently gratuitous additions by the translator?

As it turns out, there is method to Bellos's changes. According to a table available here, each painting description in the original conceals the name of one of Perec's friends and associates. Thus "s'enfourne élégamment" hides (Paul) Fournel, which Bellos has reproduced with the mysterious "four nelumbia." Similarly, "Kane, aurait" reveals (Raymond) Queneau, prompting Bellos''s "Ray Monk, Ken O." (Harry Mathews, by the way, is tucked into "Joseph d'Arimathie ou Zarathoustra.")

These diabolical devices, of which there must be many examples throughout the novel, add to the book's fascination, but also provoke some frustration. What else, one wonders, is one overlooking as one reads innocently along?