Saturday, April 14, 2012

Of stories and their migrations

Here's a little fable, which, like all fables, isn't really true, although it isn't really untrue either. Once upon a time there was a vast city, whose inhabitants had come together from all parts of the earth and spoke all sorts of different languages. Some of those languages were thriving and were spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and some of them were dying tongues known only by a dwindling handful, the dispersed survivors of cultures that hardly anyone even knew existed. In that city lived a writer, a curious little man with a mellifluous voice, who spoke the language that most of the people of the city knew the best, and he used it to write and tell stories for his own amusement but also so that other people would be entertained and maybe even enlightened.

From time to time someone would gather up a few of the writer's stories and make them into a book, so that people who had never heard him read them aloud -- an art at which he excelled -- could buy a copy and get to know his work, and also so that people who had heard him read in person or on the radio could open the book from time to time and remind themselves of just how enjoyable the stories were. This went on for a long time until finally the little man became old and one day he died, and many of the people who used to listen to his stories also died and others lived on but thought about the writer less and less, except once in a while when something -- a turn of phrase, a inexplicable flash of whimsy -- would suddenly recall him to their memories. His books disappeared and were forgotten, with only a few copies lingering in dusty attics or the bargain bins of second-hand stores.

But in the meantime something unexpected happened. Someone who lived in a country thousands of miles away (though he knew the writer's language as well as his own), came across a copy of one of the books and was captivated by it. He passed it along to a friend, who gave it to another friend, and eventually someone went to a publisher in that country and told the publisher about the book and suggested that a translation of it might find an audience and make everyone involved a little bit of money. The publisher was persuaded, perhaps reluctantly at first, and the book was issued and it sold a few copies but in the end not very many and after a while it vanished from the market and no one thought that it would ever return. A few people still treasured their copies, however, and they continued to read them and share them with friends, and the book became famous in the way that things that hardly anyone has ever heard of sometimes do in defiance of all logic, and even though many of the people who read the book knew nothing of the author and couldn't speak the language he had originally used to write his stories, the translation was good enough that it didn't matter or maybe the stories even sounded a little better in their new language, and after a while the publisher decided to issue a new edition and new people bought the book and read it and passed it around. And in the end the writer's name was all but forgotten in the city where he had lived but became better and better known in another tongue far away.

Okay, the above is really very silly, and for the record at least one of Spencer Holst's books is still in print in the US, but I can't help thinking that Holst, whom I used to see now and then in the streets and reading venues of New York City many years ago, would have been amused by the irony that The Language of Cats, reborn as El idioma de los gatos, seems to have found a more appreciative audience in Spanish (a language in which his stories seem to work rather well) than in his native tongue and his own country -- at least, that is, judging by the enthusiasm expressed in blogs and reviews in the Spanish-speaking world.

For those who can understand Spanish, there is a very entertaining audio recording of Holst's sweetly demonic story "El asesino de Papá Noel" (translated from "The Santa Claus Murderer") online at a website called esnips (link no longer active). The text of the story (again, in Spanish) can be found on the website of Página 12, along with Rodrigo Fresán's very amusing introduction to the translation of El idioma de los gatos, an introduction he too has wrought in the form of a fable (a better one than mine, I have to say). The translator of the Spanish-language edition is Ernesto Schóo; the publisher is Ediciones de la Flor in Argentina.

Though I don't mean to imply that Holst's stories aren't enjoyable on the page (they are), the best way of experiencing them is in his own mesmerizing performances. Many recordings of his readings were made, including some that were broadcast on WBAI radio in New York City in the 1970s. Unfortunately, I've found no audio or video of his readings online, although some cassette recordings may still be available from the New Wilderness Foundation. A good selection of Holst's stories is available in The Zebra Storyteller from Station Hill Books. For his story "On Demons" see my previous post.

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