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Marquez in the USSR

[Several days after the death of Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, the literary world has been offering up its memoirs of the great author. Here are Tatyana Pigareva’s recollections of Márquez’s visits to the USSR, loosely translated from the article on Colta.ru. Cross- posted in JOST A MON.]

Our university days – at the beginning of the 80s – coincided with the Latin American boom, and among our classmates in philology there was a joke: ‘Whom do you love more – Borges or Cortázar?’ which was answered with ‘Márquez!’ The names of the ‘Holy Trinity’ were interchangeable, but the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude occurred more often not in the question, but in the answer. His fascinating and dramatic novel, appearing in Russia in the magnificent translation by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina, read like a poem in one breath. It became not just a bestseller but a byword for an entire generation, which, having lived an entire age with Macondo, was not much surprised when the Soviet imperium would be ‘swept off the face of the earth by a hurricane’ but not ‘erased from people’s memories.’

In 1990, in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a McDonald’s opened, and above it shone the country’s first advertisement for Coca-Cola. Festively honouring the end of an era evoked in the politically incorrect memoirs of Márquez – ‘The USSR: 22,400,000 square kilometres without a single Coca-Cola advertisement’ – we gathered in a company of Márquezomaniacs, and went to the Friendship Park by the Rechny railway station. There in 1957, the thirty-year old Colombian, deputed to the International Festival of Youth and Students, had planted a tree. Our idea of spontaneous performance concluded in laying a bouquet of yellow flowers (Márquez’s favourite bloom) at that same tree. The flowers could equally have been a tribute to Cervantes – in those years, the only monument in Moscow to a foreign writer was in the same park – but, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude had long been dubbed the ‘Don Quixote’ of the twentieth century. We made merry, tossing quotations at each other; someone claimed that this wide linden was just like the chestnut of Jose Arcadio Buendía; but at that moment from the neighbouring treetop flew out a flutter of brimstone butterflies. Yellow butterflies – a clear sign from the wise Gabo – we unanimously decided to name this that same tree. On the way to the metro, someone cried out, ‘Look at the puddles – a goldfish is sure to emerge!’ The text of the ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was firmly rooted in our lives: the golden fish would first evoke Aureliano Buendía and, only much later, Pushkin’s fairy tale.

The appearance of One Hundred Years of Solitude coincided with a major shift in Russian consciousness. The final days of the USSR were upon us: mirages of history were sprinkled with ‘fallen leaves’, life was stuck in an ill groove, and nobody wrote letters to anyone, not merely the Colonel. Everything appeared all too familiar: the non-existent trains with corpses; the sleeping sickness that destroyed memory; the commands to paint all housesin blue; generals and patriarchs. But gradually the storied parallels fell by the wayside, like a ‘transparent or ghostly’ town, and the mythic reality became paramount: an idealised model of reality where any ‘big village’ from Moscow to the suburbs could be equated with the universal village of Macondo, and any history found itself mirrored in the alembic of Melquíades.

In the middle of the 1980s, I was a guest at the translator Ella Braginskaya’s. Behind the glass door of a bookcase was a photograph: Ella and Márquez in an affectionate argument. Such surrealism! ‘Yes, this was at Vera Kuteishikova and Lev Ospovat’s, in 1979 – he was exhausted from our discussions about his artistic plans and asked how we cooked potatoes. So we began to argue about national cuisines. His eyes just lit up…’ Then Márquez explained to Ella that his entire family used to live on potatoes while he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, and when he wanted to send the manuscript to the publisher, he need 160 pesos, while he only had 80, and so he had to pawn a dryer and a mixer. His long-suffering wife Mercedes sighed: ‘All we needed was for the novel to sink…’ Amazing shots from this first literary visit of Márquez to the USSR survived with Yuri Greiding, an adviser on Latin American literature to the Writers’ Union. He had accompanied Márquez and family, and fortunately didn’t abandon his camera: there were pictures of the meeting at the airport, of Yevtushenko, of signings, of the Pushkin Museum, of dinners with Hispanists, of meetings at the journal ‘Latin America’. In this journal appeared the only non-pirated Soviet edition of Márquez – the writer had personally allowed Lyudmila Sinyanskaya to publish the translation of Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

The third – and final – visit of Márquez to the USSR in 1987 was to the Moscow Film Festival. He refused to travel in an entourage, but he was happy with a promised meeting with Gorbachev. Following their interview, Márquez’s verdict was: ‘You have never had a ruler of such intelligence, of such measure.’ Gorbachev’s calibre left a special trace in my own Márquezian history. At the Film Festival, I worked with the Spanish delegation; we were dining at the Rossiya hotel, and examining the slogan that proclaimed that Communism was Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country, and adorned the thermal power station across. The producer, Enrique Gonzalez Macho, now the president of the Spanish Film Academy, waved his hand, and we were joined by his friend of a somewha t gloomy mien. I continued my story about the slogan’s mathematical operations, and of my dream of living under ‘electrification’: Communism minus Soviet rule, nothing could be better. The grim Spaniard laughed with everyone else, his eyes brightened, and he announced that he hadn’t seen a crazier hotel in his life, and if private enterprise were allowed in the USSR, he would establish a taxi service to transport guests through its corridors. He apologised, said he was tired and that he had an unbearably officious press-conference to attend, and said goodbye. The Spaniards began to talk about unfortunate films based on Márquez’s works, and that’s when I understood that it had been him. That was the chronicle of an appearance unforetold. I remembered Ella Braginskaya, and that potato.

2012 was a triple jubilee for Márquez: 85 years since his birth, 45 years since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and 30 years since the Nobel Prize. In the Cervantes Institute, we decided to hold an exhibition of modern Russian artists on the themes of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Honoured artists responded immediately, but the reaction of the younger ones, who had taken up the novel following our invitation, was surprising: ‘What a strange book… we couldn’t grasp it… tedious, exhausting.’ Was this a generational problem? The answer turned out to be simple and unhappy. Firstly, the classic translation of the novel was by Valery Stolbov and Nina Butyrina. They had worked for years on the complex text; all the items in their house had been named after the heroes of the novel: the armchair was Ursula, the massive sideboard was Aureliano Buendía; they had engaged with the characters and discussed them constantly, honing the rhythms and styles. That text sounded natural and poetic in Russian, and became the ‘real Márquez’ for several generations. In its early editions, there had been elisions of several sex scenes, but these were later reinstated. And then in 1997 the Rusiko publishing house printed a new translation by Margarita Bylinskaya with the surprising subtitle ‘A complete translation from the Spanish’.

The translator accompanied her publication with a series of articles in the press on the imperfections and sins of the previous translation, and also informed Márquez’s literary agent that the novel had been published earlier in an abridged Soviet translation, and that only now were its mistakes corrected. As a result, when the AST publishing house acquires the legal rights for the One Hundred Years of Solitude, the only version printed is that of Margarita Bylinskaya’s translation.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of blunders and mistakes – these could happen to anyone. The tragedy mainly lies in the intonation and stylistic register. Recall the scene of the passing of Remedios the Beauty, who had inspired the love and caused the death of her beloved. Butyrina and Stolbov rendered it: The foreigners, who heard the noise in the dining room and hurried over to take away the corpse, noticed that his skin exuded the stunning aroma of Remedios the Beauty. Margarita Bylinskaya: The remaining uninvited guests, hearing the terrible noise, rushed out of the dining room, lifted the corpse and immediately realised how strongly it reeked of the breath of Remedios the Beauty. In the same translation, instead of ‘ants crawling on the body’ (original text), there appeared ‘flesh that bristled and burned’. In Márquez’s prose there is a poetic, musical nature; in it rings the voice of the narrator, archaic and fearless. And so the erotic texts, a particular standout in the ‘full translation’ of Bylinskaya had appeared in the original translation of Butyrina and Stolbov as a stylistic revelation for Russian literature. García Márquez himself had noted that he had always wanted the book to have a poetic rather than a narrative value. The Mozart of the Caribbean captivates the reader, and if this doesn’t happen, if the tonality of the speech is lost, then even One Hundred Years of Solitude can seem ‘tedious and exhausting’ reading. And so the novel should be sought not in bookstores, but only in libraries, in the old translation. Even though the AST publishing house has confirmed that the preprint of the ‘new old translation’ is ready and has shortly gone on sale.

A few years ago in Guatemala I stumbled across a lump of ice at a beach bar. It lay on the hot sand, shimmering in a cloud of vapour. There they were, ‘ants crawling on the skin’. ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ There is no greater wonder. To the question posed in 1979 in the journal ‘Latin America’ – ‘What do you believe in: magic realism or the magic of literature?’, García Márquez had replied: ‘I believe in the magic of real life.’ May there be with everyone that inspired solitude, with the cockerels of Ursula, the goldfish of Aureliano, the aromas of Remedios and the parchments of Melquiades.

[Also see Yan Shenkman (April 21, 2014), ‘Márquez was inspired by the Soviet Union‘, Russia & India Report.]