We begin a new series of monthly interviews for the Asymptote Book Club with a conversation between Asymptote Assistant Editor Lizzie Buehler and Chris Andrews, translator of César Aira’s The Lime Tree. For more about this sparkling novel, check out Emma Holland’s December review.
Josh Honn, reviewing an earlier Aira novel, suggested that Aira moves forward in straight lines only in “an attempt to make the line come back upon itself.” In the interview that follows, Chris Andrews discusses Aira’s “sinuous” writing technique, The Lime Tree’s links with Proust, and the way the novel depicts everyday racism in Perón-era Argentina.
Lizzie Buehler (LB): Tell us a little bit about how you came to translate The Lime Tree. How did the novel’s intensely self-reflective nature affect your process of translation?
Chris Andrews (CA): I read The Lime Tree (or The Linden Tree as it will be in the US edition) when it first came out in Spanish in 2003, and it has been one of my favourite Aira books since then. So I was very pleased to get the chance to translate it.
Aira’s work in general has a strong tendency to self-reflectiveness: sometimes his characters reflect on what they’re doing, often in surprisingly elaborate ways; sometimes it’s the narrator / author, as in The Lime Tree or Birthday (which will be the next title to be published in English) exploring a problem, offering a solution, correcting himself, raising a new conceptual hare, and dashing off after that. What’s tricky for the translator is that a single sentence in the original can compress a complex thought process, and the aim is to convey all the ideas wedged in there without being overly explicit.
LB: I was struck by the circuitous routes the narrator takes when exploring his own childhood memories. Would you say that the many resultant subplots are specific to the book’s subject—memory—or are they a broader representation of Aira’s style?
CA: I would say both. On one hand, he’s showing how memory is often triggered involuntarily, following the famous precedent of Proust—and the lime-flower tea links two domestic tyrants: Aunt Léonie in Proust and the narrator’s irascible father in The Lime Tree. On the other hand, he’s also following his nose as he improvises slowly from day to day in writing the book, which gives it a very sinuous course, as you say. Sometimes, when the digression comes to an end, what it started out from takes some remembering! Aira’s prose rarely moves in a straight line for long.
LB: Another aspect of The Lime Tree that stood out to me was the way in which the narrator talks about his childhood and the Perón era with a level of political understanding and sophistication that he couldn’t possibly have had as a child. Was it difficult to render in English this combination of childlike innocence and adult social awareness?
CA: He’s certainly blending the perspectives of the child and the adult. This didn’t strike me as particular difficulty when I was translating, but maybe that’s because as a translator you have your nose up against the prose most of the time, and you’re preoccupied mostly by difficulties at the level of the sentence: Do I need to put a proper name in here so it will be clear who’s doing what? Or, to take a more specific example: What do I do with these rhyming ritual insults, called espejitos in Spanish (“little mirrors”)? There I had a helping hand from Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, who came up with a really neat rhyme (sister’s / kissed hers). But to get back to the child’s-eye view: Aira’s ongoing reconstruction—or invention—of Coronel Pringles in the 1950s and 1960s is an extraordinary poetic feat. See “The Musical Brain” or Cómo me reí (How I Laughed). Style seems to give him direct access to a past that hasn’t passed.
LB: Following from the last question, would you describe The Lime Tree as a political novel?
CA: I would. It’s largely about how Peronism and the reaction to it after the “Revolución Libertadora” in 1955 deeply shaped the life of a working-class family in a country town. It also shows how everyday racism operated in that environment. It’s not a book of protest, but it is political.
LB: Aira is known for his prolific body of work and the speed with which he publishes new books. As the translator who has worked on more of Aira’s books than anyone else, do you feel any pressure to match his speed? When taking on a new Aira project, how do you—or his publishers—decide which of his many books you will translate next?
CA: I’m not sure that I could match his speed even if I were a full-time translator. Others have been hard at work too: Katherine Silver, Rosalie Knecht, Nick Caistor. When it comes to deciding which titles to publish next in English, that’s up to the publishers, although they often sound out translators (and other readers). I have made some lists of favourites for Barbara Epler at New Directions, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on a good number of those books.
LB: For Asymptote Book Club members looking for further reading in the same vein as The Lime Tree, what would you recommend?
CA: I’ll mention two books that are stylistically quite different from The Lime Tree but have similar settings: Manuel Puig’s early novels Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango (Dalkey Archive has republished these two). Puig was from General Villegas, which is not so far from Coronel Pringles. And apart from The Kiss of the Spider Woman, his novels aren’t as well known in English as they deserve to be.
Lizzie Buehler is an Assistant Editor at Asymptote. She graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature and is currently based in New York as a freelance Korean translator. She is currently at work translating a book of short stories by the writer Yun Ko-eun.
Chris Andrews was born in Newcastle, Australia. He was the translator of Roberto Bolaño’s first published book in English, and received the Vallé-Inclan Prize for his translation of Distant Star. His other publications include English translations of several novels by César Aira, and two collections of original poetry.
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