Each issue, our blog editors choose some of their favorite pieces to showcase. The Fall 2017 issue is extra special for us, since we get to introduce two new assistant blog editors: Sarah Booker, who translates from Spanish, and David Smith, who works with Norwegian. Together with Stefan Kielbasiewicz, they make up the Asymptote blog team. Enjoy these highlights!
Ricardo Piglia’s piece, “On the Threshold,” is a philosophical, melancholic meditation on the art of reading and the construction of the autobiography. Composed of a series of diary entries in which the narrator muses on his grandfather’s life and on the practice of writing, this text poses fundamental questions about the practice of writing: How do you write an autobiography? What moments really matter when considering a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to write? The realization that experience “is a microscopic profusion of events that repeat and expand, disjointed, disparate, in flight” is what finally allows the narrative to unfold and the pieces of these two men’s lives to come together.
Often read as a projection of the late Piglia, Emilio Renzi is a character who, from his first appearance in Artificial Respiration (in which he imagines an encounter between Kafka and Hitler), delights in imagining unlikely meetings between the major literary and historical figures. Within the pages of these retrospective diary entries, Renzi hypothesizes that Borges had approached him as a three-year-old boy in a train station and later recalls an evening spent with the blind writer seventeen years later. This kind of literary and historical imagination is perhaps one of the things that makes Piglia such an utter joy to read, and Croll’s translation creates the space for that play.
Along with the window into the streets and bars of Buenos Aires and the roads that crisscross the country, what I found most compelling about this piece was the attention given to the act of reading and the formative power of that experience. The reader is first clued into the author’s interest in the material significance of the book through geography; the narrator and Emilio sit talking in a bar a mere block away from El Ateneo, a vast bookstore built into what was once a theater. The text itself then considers the importance of reading and the ways that such a practice plays a role in the construction of identity. Perhaps my favorite image from the piece is when the narrator purchases a copy of Hemingway’s In Our Time and recalls the experience of reading the book as day shifted to night. It is moments like these that give the text such a hauntingly reflective and pleasurable quality.
—Sarah Booker, Assistant Blog Editor
Truth be told, when I read the first line of Frédérique Martin’s excerpt of The Despair of the Roses, “I sold my mother the other day,” the first thought that entered my mind was, “Why didn’t I think of that?” So, sue me—who among us hasn’t had a difficult relationship with their mother? And yet, wherever one’s experience lies on that spectrum, our judgement in this story is preempted and disarmed by a narrator who treats the whole affair with tenderness: “Don’t think I don’t love my mother. I said to her—I love you, Mum.”
The power of this story’s premise stems from the fact that, from a social standpoint, selling one’s mother is forbidden to the degree that it is truly unheard of. We will have heard of parents selling their daughters for marriage (or worse), as well as the whole history of slavery, but Martin flips that upside down, mocking a system that teaches us to always respect our parents, yet that is also comfortable with leaving us to neglect them emotionally. Throughout the excerpt, the narrator attempts to balance selfishness (“I’m almost twenty five years old you know”) with altruism (“hypocrites . . . end up putting their elderly relatives in retirement homes where death awaits them”). Thus, the logic of the premise is played out in that most traditional (and in this situation, strangely archaic) of social settings: the outdoor market.
After some thought, I believe that The Despair of the Roses could only have come out of our contemporary moment. With falling birth rates in industrialised countries, a rapidly ageing population, increased lifespans, and governments struggling to provide adequate pensions, how are we going to deal with a surplus supply of parents and grandparents? Perhaps what Martin is suggesting is that the solution to the problem lies in the free market. Surely, with the endless threat of privatisation, it’s only a matter of time. All in favour?
—Stefan Kielbasiewicz, Assistant Blog Editor
Thanks, Stefan, for that reference to the brave new world where economic utility trumps maternal love. I’ll piggyback off that to introduce my pick, which was written by economics professor-turned-author, Karine Nyborg. Her story, “The Convex Hull Will Always Exist,” is from her story collection, The Ballad of the Invisible Hand. The epigraph to that collection claims that Adam Smith “did not particularly esteem the invisible hand and thought of it as an ironic but useful joke.”
Adam Smith’s joke has become our orthodoxy—or our curse, depending on how you look at it. In any case, it is a misinterpretation, and one which our modern world cannot seem to let go of. Similarly, the crux of Nyborg’s story is a mistranslation that holds sway over the narrator’s life: in trying to describe the gap she finds within herself, the narrator has latched onto the notion of a “convex hole.” This is the result of a poor translation of the English geometry term, convex hull, into the Norwegian konvekst hull, “convex hole.” Even after learning about the error, the narrator says, “it has become inextricably bound to my own perception of the gap, an integral part of this perception: a false association no doubt established partly due to my own inability to describe the gap any more precisely.”
There’s another association which I noticed in the Norwegian original, one that is probably untranslatable into English. In one of her footnotes, Nyborg writes of “a nothingness with an all-consuming presence, something fundamentally different from the empty set Ø, which indicates only a void.” I have to think her choice of the letter Ø from the Norwegian alphabet is deliberate, since in Danish (to which Norwegian is closely related), that letter Ø is also a word meaning “island.” Nyborg’s Ø is therefore both a hole and an island, and, as we read later in the story, the notion of a “convex hole” is forever associated in the narrator’s mind with the island of La Digue.
The doubleness of Ø-as-island and Ø-as-void is not the result of a mistranslation, but it is nevertheless an interesting slip-up of language. Ever the economist, Nyborg not only deploys the economical precision of the Norwegian tongue, but manages to pack so much meaning into a single, taut letter.
—David Smith, Assistant Blog Editor
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