Jonguitud, Paulette (2015), Mildew, CB Editions
Is it still a translation if a book was translated by its author? There’s something to that transition that many writers find a bit daunting. Yoko Tawada, for example, an author writing in both German and Japanese, does not translate her Japanese work into German. Thus, the Japanese novel which was translated into English as The Emissary, arrived in German later than in English, and in a translation by her longtime translator Peter Pörtner, despite the author being not just fluid in German, but regularly producing excellent novels and essays in this language. Another example regarding translations to Germany is Mikhail Shishkin, who is a professional translator between Russian and German, and yet, he does not translate his own Russian novels into German. In other cases, most famously Joseph Brodsky, it has been argued that Brodsky’s English equivalents of his Russian poems are inferior to the work produced by professional translators. As I said, it’s a bit of a curious issue. Why not regard the “translated” text as a new creation by the author? In any case, these are some of the questions raised by Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud’s (in many ways) masterful novel(la). Jonguitud is a Mexican author, and this book was published as Moho in 2010, and translated by the author in 2015. I found as I read and reread the book that one’s perception changes depending on whether we read it as a translation or as a new creation or re-creation by the author. I don’t think the book improves if we read it as translation – occasionally we come across strange changes in register, slightly uneven syntax, and other linguistic choices that I suspect read absolutely natural in the Mexican original. There’s a part of my brain that reads these passages as ‘mistakes,’ as infelicities, as problems that editors or a more careful translation could or should have fixed. I find that these passages don’t stick out as much if we read the book as an original English translation.
Here’s why: the protagonist is a mentally unstable woman, and the book an interior monologue as she comes to terms with some horrible things that happened to her and in her life, as she’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. If we read the stylistic oddities as related to her state of mind, they seem less odd than if we read them as related to the language of origin. And in this way, they add to the tapestry of the book – the sometimes odd syntactic choices can make a fussy impression: the language of someone who is trying to piece together what has happened in the past years, months and – crucially- hours. Constanza, the protagonist, is preparing herself and her daughter’s dress for the imminent wedding, but as she prepares, she notices a stain on her leg. The more time passes, the longer and larger and greener the stain grows, the titular ‘mildew’ slowly envelops her body. Jonguitud uses well-trod literary ground, but she remakes it new. The book weaves memory and worries, past, present and the possible future into a seamless narrative. The book is conceptually heavy, but never loses the fat meat of literary narrative and psychology. Unlike other books that have seemed too skeletal to me, like fellow Mexican writer Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, which was all concept and structure, Jonguitud’s book has emotional and narrative depth beyond the conceptual playfulness. Constanza appears before us: believable, distressed and lost. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and neither do we – we look at her past for clues, much as she invokes her own past as what has led her to this point and the green growth on her body. I’ll spoil it now: while there is a revelation towards the end, we never really get an explanation for the mildew. The book beautifully ties everything together in the dark last chapter, but that’s not an explanation.
And there’s a good reason for that. I will say I am leery of writers who use disfigurement and disability as a cheap metaphor – too often in books where, once the ‘problem’ is cleared, the disfiguration also clears up. It was in our heads all along! Sontag has warned of the use of metaphor to discuss illness: “illness is not a metaphor, and […] the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” But here’s the thing: it’s not really a metaphor, and not really an illness. And it doesn’t clear up. I honestly expected it to be in the narrator’s head – a manifestation of her fears, her self-hate, her guilt. I know this – the feeling some part of your body has developed a life of its own, the Sancho Panza to my anxiety’s Don Quixote, rushing the windmills of my mental health. It was instantly believable – but when Constanza’s daughter comes in and sees the mildew, and thus the mildew becomes a real object in the real world of the novel, we move out of these simple equivalencies. That we don’t get a reality based solution to what the mildew is means that we’re in a very different territory here. The obvious siblings of Jonguitud’s story include writers like Kafka, and his stories of the world’s terrifying, unexpectedly cruel and monstrous reality. The world suddenly turns on many of Kafka’s narrators and suddenly things we considered workable tactics in dealing with our environment slip out of control, change, become strange or threatening or both. Constanza isn’t suddenly disabled, or possessed – no, a real, physical mold has started to grow on her, something that inhibits her movements, even, not a discoloration, it’s suddenly there, it’s part of her reality and she has to deal with it. It mirrors the way things have changed in her own life, how certain people and their actions have become part of her reality and she had to deal with them.
There is an obvious Deleuzian angle here – but it’s indirect, in the way that much of the important theory of our time is Deleuzian in one way or another. When Foucault said that we would view the 20th century as Deleuze’s century, he was right – but off by a century. And I don’t really want to dig into the theoretical angle here, but I do want to note how extraordinarily rich in meaning Jonguitud’s mold is. Depending on how you approach the book, it can be seen to be about a vast variety of things. There is the obvious issue of the body – of the way women are socialized to view their bodies from birth to the end of their lives – and how other women often reinforce the pressures and expectations of physical womanhood. What is feminine, what is attractive, what is worth having? In this reading, the mildew is what Sontag called a “punitive […] fantasy” – but Constanza didn’t do anything wrong – except to be born a woman into a patriarchal society that places certain values on certain physical manifestations of feminity and womanhood. And yet – she’s clearly complicit in these narratives to a certain extent – and complicit in something much worse, as it turns out. The most obvious reading of the book would be an ecofeminist one, about how power separates and controls things, how certain forms of speech control and damage. There’s so much here, but it’s hard to really discuss without giving away some crucial details of the book. In some ways, one can read the book as an attempt at connecting the “becoming-minor” with “becoming-woman” as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in their Kafka book (I appear to circle back to Kafka here).
Suffice to say that Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is darkly brilliant – condensed but rich, one of the best books of its kind that I can remember reading. Stylistically it’s not without flaws – but it’s not all bad, either. Jonguitud’s English is simple – I am not a fan: simplicity is the most difficult style – there’s nowhere to hide. I sometimes have the suspicion that the reception of writers like Kafka in translation is also one of simplicity of language – in German, there’s nothing simple about Kafka’s language which consists of carefully layered tenses and conditionals, of precariously balanced registers and complex descriptions that can take many readings to unfurl. We don’t get that here. The language in Mildew is plain – but even so, the book is brilliant and everyone should read it.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
So I’m starting work on a Mary McCarthy paper due in May and this amazing interview seems like a good start:
At least in my corner of Twitter, the new Marie Kondo netflix show has caused ripples of upset – less about the suggestions regarding cleaning your apartment she makes, and more about how those suggestions apply to books. To a bookish person, the basic mantra – hold up something and see if it sparks joy, if not, chuck it out – can apply to pillows or knick-knacks (though even there there is resistance), but surely not to books. As Ron Charles notes in his exasperated complaint about Marie Kondo’s show and book(s), she says holding it up does not include reading from that book, because that might muddle your opinion. I mean, God forbid that reading a few sentences might spark joy that seeing a cover might not. Strictly speaking, I share that upset opinion, and my apartment, with all of its walls lined with books, bears witness to that. Similarly, I also understand the other side of this, given that I know that romantic partners may have had a hard time accepting the vast sea of books. Certainly, my decision to hold on to a lot of books is indulging a personal sense of memory, loss, words, a very personal sense of comfort and a quiet sense of pleasure. It ties into other personal habits that are difficult to square with partners, like my penchant for nighttime writing and constant reading.
That said, everything changes eventually. This past year, due to space issues, I had to cull some books. This week, among many others, I got rid of a book I have owned for almost exactly two decades – for some reason, I bought Thomas Lehr’s bildungsroman Nabokovs Katze when it came out in 1999 and have kept it around until today. I carried it from apartment to apartment, from one corner of Germany to another one and finally to Bonn, where I have lived too long already. So this week, I took the book from where it was on my shelf, I looked at it, and considered why I own the book – the answer is: because I own it. Back when I read it for the first time, I disliked the book, and the one time I reread it since, I liked it even less. As a reader, I never had a ton of patience for these flat autofictional titles where some masculine erotic fantasy is offered as a lazy masturbatory replacement for introspection. And I have less patience for this nonsense today. There’s a well regarded Spanish writer that an acquaintance of mine translated into French that I tried real hard to appreciate, but this writing, particularly with a connection to cinematic knowledge or background, is so common, and boring and dull, and I don’t need that kind of thing in my life. What makes it worse, Lehr is stylistically dull dull dull despite inexplicable critical praise for his style. So out it goes.
This is my Marie Kondo rule adaptation:
- Did I like it?
- If not, is it interesting?
- If not, is the book as an object worth keeping (rare/beautiful book?)?
- If not, is the book worth keeping as a memory support?
- Is it part of some collection?
In the case of Thomas Lehr’s voluminous meditation on a masturbatory boyhood and lazy cinema references, the answer to all of these is no. The only reason I own this specific book is because I have owned it for two decades. Which is no longer acceptable given the danger of being crushed by my own books. I own too many books to keep one on the shelves that fits none of these categories. Bye bye.
Last time I was in Paris I went to (and recommended on the blog) a bunch of bookshops. This time I wasn’t there for a conference so I had time to visit more, but I would only recommend three of them. They are from left to right (click to enlarge): the Librairie Vendredi at the top of rue des Martyrs, Le Monte-en-l’air, nestled between a church and the busy rue Ménilmontant, as well as the queer-themed Les Mots à la Buche, just around the corner from tourism hotspot rue des Rosiers. At the bottom, all the books I bought, minus one that I cannot currently locate.
The past year was not ideal, at least for me, but let’s hope for a better new year. It began at the riverbank of the Seine, in Quai d’Orléans, fitting, since I’ve been writing about Bishop for about seven years now. In the weeks and months to come I need to work on getting more of my writing and reading published somehow, I mean for what it’s worth I do a lot of it. Thank you readers who have stuck around for indeed sticking around.
So I’m in Paris for a few days around New Year’s – though I haven’t actually figured out what to do ON New Years – and I arrived today. I’m a bit under the weather, a burgeoning cold, exhaustion, depression, everything somehow caused me to stay inside for much of the day – the first thing I did once I did leave the apartment was to go to a bookshop. I have a list of bookshops in Paris I find intriguing (and last time I visited, I went to a bunch), and I somehow can’t stay away. I can’t stop buying, sorting, reading books – and bookshops are more than just a conduit for this addiction. They are powerfully rich places – when I visited Poland and Finland this year, I went into several well reviewed bookshops, although they did not stock books in languages I can readily read or even understand. I’ve expressed my admiration for booksellers before, but it bears repeating: I love bookshops and I cannot stay away.