For this special microreview & interview, I share excerpts from a Spanish to English translation in progress I’m working on as well as provide insights into why I’m excited about this project and some commentary from the writer Manuel R. Montes himself.
review by José Angel Araguz
I am currently working with Montes on a translation of his novel Infinita sangre bajo nuestros túneles (winner of the Premio Bellas Artes Juan Rulfo para Primera Novela 2007), which is a complex work of fragmented storytelling. In our conversations over the text, I find myself using the phrase “lyric novel” to describe the ambitious range of techniques exhibited throughout the text. Infinita details the brief life and sudden dying of a prematurely born child through the various voices and thoughts of the individuals involved. The nonlinear story jumps between the past and present, establishing connections and metanarrative insights that recall modernists like Virgina Woolf and James Joyce, but which are executed with a human pulse in the style of Roberto Bolaño and Jonathan Safran Foer. Through this ambitious and engaging mosaic of voices and interwoven narratives, Montes honors the human experience of a child’s death with the gravity and complexity it merits.
In the following excerpt from the second section of the book, the narrative flows from a telephone conversation with the father of the lost child to the origins of the novel/narrative itself, all from the perspective of the writer, who is uncle to the “octomesino” or “eightmonther” (a variation on “preemie” which is used to refer to premature born infants):
“this morning I went to the cemetery, ripped grass from his tomb and am planting it, this way we’ll be closer to one another, don’t you think?” I hear a tightness in his voice, panting into the receiver, “by the way, have you begun writing the book?”
–I’ve yet to even try, the process comes less readily when one faces fiction in its most extreme order, made of pure reality–
my sister-in-law mailed me, in a yellow envelope, sealed, forty-two printed sheets and a back-up magnetic, three and a half inch disc, it is a long letter that contains “only what happened,” and besides this, another note, handwritten, in the first folio, which adds, “I hope this material will be useful, make whatever changes you think appropriate,” the font chosen is ordinary, the font size, reduced, in the document, unnumbered, almost every chapter is described, almost of a whole novel, “much is missing, I’m sending you what I have stored in the computer, according to my notes, as I remember it”
–but the novel or all the possible novels could be anywhere, and what is lost is the author, searching, attempting to write it or them, lost in the chimeric jungles of paraphrase–
the recipient of the letter is a space without image or the imposing blank page in the middle of a photo album
the recipient is, to be precise, the eightmonther
–“you should at the very least find a way to organize so many loose notes”–
A good sense of the tone and scope of the novel is given here, especially how the text moves between being a meditation on a family crisis as well as a meditation on the act of writing. Two frustrated acts of creation are paralleled. What moves the novel for me from straightforward prose into lyrical territory is how the narrative dwells on details and allows for significance and intimacy to arise out of things like the font chosen by the mother to share pieces of the story. The phrasing of that last line, that a brief life and a death can result in “so many loose notes,” is rich in poetic meaning, both for the narrator and the reader of this fragmented text.
The novel moves forward in this fashion, switching perspective and scene, in order to convey the emotional currents of the characters involved. One of the more impressive results of this fragmented narrative is the multiplicity of voices made possible through it, including that of the eightmonther. Here, in a passage a little after the one above, the narrator continues to metanarratively piece together and meditate on the task at hand, only to be interrupted by the eightmonther’s voice (in italics), creating itself amidst the “loose notes”:
another segment, from the notes of the letter
“everything was so real, that night –the first night of august– was the longest night of my life”
–is it that fiction could possibly shorten the suffering?–
it’s that your maternal love started to become more of a labyrinth, and started to darken
you have to tell them that my body, or its forgotten nostalgia, mourns itself at times, do not remember me, do not describe me, you don’t have to cure me, I am fighting to die, do not entangle me, do not bind me, I grow more distant if you tie me down, and I want to come closer, my body does not work, but I am not only my body, let me escape this body like I escaped yours, you have to tell them that it’s useless, you will see that it’s useless, when you are here, with me, that body has ceased to belong to me, leave it alone, leave me alone, that body continues to hurt me when you recall it
“I would like to know what you are thinking, what would you say if you could speak”
–“remember, organize, organize”–
there are quotes from other characters, but they are inconsistent, imprecise, lacking continuity, my sister-in-law could not deal too much with correcting them or giving them greater emphasis, making them more legible, clearer, impossible to behave so coldly when relating an agony, the voices which burst into the letter resemble those curtains which mysteriously widen like a bellows and make us look back, on summer nights, during a drowsy instant in which the wind has stopped blowing
Here, the rich turns of phrase continue: “remember, organize, organize” reads like a mantra during this attempt to narrate a dark time. The interruption of the eightmonther’s voice can be seen as a kind of consciousness bursting in, much in the spirit of the curtain image in the last paragraph, something else moving in the room of the narrative. What does narrative embody? What does it stir up? What does it potentially exclude or replace? These questions move like electric currents throughout the text.
While these short excerpts can by no means do justice to the whole of the novel, I feel comfortable sharing them here as fragments of a work that in itself is fragmented. Before a whole story is understood, there are voices making themselves known. The story of the eightmonther moves from the mother’s “loose notes” to the narrator’s meditation and effort that is the novel, and now to the translation of that effort. It is a story of motion, which is what is at heart of lyricism.
Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing this novel and how did you work through them?
Manuel R. Montes: The difficulties were — have been ever since I wrote the book ten years ago — strictly emotional, familiar. The writing process was impressively unconscious, fluid, impersonal and intimate at the same time. It was an act of hearing and transcribing more than anything else. Of waiting for the last pain from the silence of a white pages filling at their own pace. I — the self-critical I, the form-obsessed I, the style miniaturist and neobarroque experimental I — barely intervened. The novel wrote by itself in less than two months. I kind of recollect the overnight sessions in front of the computer, the urgency to finish and the sadness, but these I won’t consider hardships. The only real challenge for me was to deal with guilt and gratefulness, having dared to expose, with all its tragic luminosity and its engulfing darkness, the death of a new born, dear nephew. I experienced true regret and also a simultaneous, joyful necessity of immortalizing, in words that didn’t seem to be mine, his four-month, relentless and unbearable life and struggle before he passed away. I have not worked through this mourning feeling completely, nor have I stopped marveling every time I remember how the novel just materialized independently from me, way beyond my control or even my will. It was as if I couldn’t touch it. I still can’t.
Influence Question: In describing this project to others, I find myself using the phrase “lyric novel” – Do you have any thoughts about the phrase, which for me is not a fixed term but something I continue define as I continue to translate your book?
Manuel R. Montes: I am not against the phrase, not at all, which would offend by the way many of the novelists of my generation or even older authors if someone considered their works as examples of that category. Nevertheless, when I think of «lyric», it’s the expressive predominance of the «I» as the main voice of a work what comes to my mind, and because of that resemblance to a certain kind of poetry I would disagree with the term, since the narrator in my novel is a hidden shadow, a silent, invisible and anonymous figure, some sort of scared and hypersensitive witness who listens those around him or her crying. A nobody who is mute but has to translate to prose the horror and the wonder of a short and fragile existence, feeling impotence and fear and compassion, but also admiration. It’s not «I» who speaks or try to speak here, but «Them», «Us».
photo credit: Diana Cárdenas