Monday, May 14, 2012

Panaït Istrati's Kyra Kyralina

 “…a born poet madly in love with simple things like adventure, friendship, rebellion, flesh and blood.” – Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

A few years ago I’d visited the French literature section of the library to track down a novel by Joseph Kessel (so few of whose works, alas, are available in English). I located it, but simultaneously my eyes spotted a brightly decorated spine the next shelf over. Stretching to pull it down, I barely avoided having it bean me on the head. On the cover a folkloric floral design accompanied the curious name “Panaït Istrati.” Intrigued, I turned to the preface, written by…Joseph Kessel. This fascinating piece of writing served as my entrée to one of the more unusual literary figures of the 20th century.

Kessel’s preface was followed by another by Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland, recounting the extraordinary circumstances under which Rolland had discovered Istrati. A young vagabond had slit his own throat in a park in Nice and was hospitalized there. Inside the man’s jacket, his rescuers had found a letter addressed to Rolland and had forwarded it to him. “I read it and was seized by the tumult of genius, like a wind burning on the plain. It was the confession of a new Gorki from the Balkans. They managed to save him. I wanted to get to know him. We began corresponding. We became friends.”

The man, of course, was Panaït Istrati, a young Romanian of Slavic and Greek descent who had led a most extraordinary life, one that had taken him around the Mediterranean, across eastern Europe and the Levant, and into and out of all kinds of jobs: “cabaret waiter, pastry chef, locksmith, tinker, mechanic, manual laborer, stevedore, house boy, sandwich man, sign painter, house painter, journalist and photographer.” Along the way, Istrati had picked up stories as varied and entrancing as those of The Arabian Nights. Rolland took Istrati under his wing, recognizing in him a born storyteller (in his preface Rolland notes that Istrati’s storytelling prowess proved so irrepressible he’d interrupted the narrative of his own suicide note to weave in a few choice tales).

Though I’d avoided being knocked out physically by the volume that had nearly cracked me on the head (Volume 1 of four volumes of Istrati’s fiction put out by Gallimard in Paris), I could not escape being metaphorically knocked out by its the first selection, Kyra Kyralina. I was smitten by the novel, enough to hunt down my own copy of the Gallimard edition, a book towards which I have developed a particularly fond personal attachment. Kyra Kyralina marks the beginning of what has come to be known as the Adrien Zograffi cycle. This series of tales set in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire had, by the time of Istrati’s death in 1935, amassed into more than a dozen novels, and had earned Istrati accolades as one of the pioneers of modernism. The Zograffi books had even been compared to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. But as Kessel points out in his preface, Istrati’s death, the dissolution of his publishing house, and the war all conspired together to send his work into oblivion for a third of a century until the Gallimard edition appeared in 1968.

Thus I was immensely pleased recently to discover an American edition of Kyra Kyralina and for the chance to revisit the novel, this time in English (translated by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno and including the original Rolland preface). This new English translation is especially welcome given that Istrati’s vernacular French (he’d only begun to learn the language seven years before writing Kyra Kyralina) contains some grammatical oddities that create occasional challenges for those of us whose French is inexpert.

But even were Kyra Kyralina scratched into dirt with a stick, one would be hard pressed not to recognize in it storytelling of the highest order. One reads Kyra Kyralina in large gulps. Its narratives “nest” within a framing device such as one finds in story cycles such as The Arabian Nights or the Decameron, beginning guilelessly and timorously with the young Adrien’s first leave-taking from home, then plunging one into tales of high drama and exoticism combined with a gripping realism. Adrien serves as the conduit for these tales, gathering them from the singular characters he encounters. In Kyra Kyralina, the story idles along until it meets one of these figures, Stavro, whom Adrien and a companion have joined on a trip to a nearby country fair where they’ll try to profit by selling watered down citric acid as lemonade. Stavro, confronted by the two boys after displaying some amorous intentions in a hayloft one night, offers as explanation the story of his life, a history riveting in its brutality, joy, independence of spirit, and instinct for survival. Stories in Kyra Kyralina possess this kind of power: a capacity for bewitching and transforming the moment; in this instance the boys’ sense of insult regarding Stavro’s advances is quickly dissipated by the spell his tale creates.

An honest, fundamental curiosity, refusing to censor any aspect of life, gives Istrati’s writing both a mythic quality and puts Istrati ahead of his time, with a particularly enlightened sensibility concerning gender and sexuality. Predictably, while the novel was popular upon its publication in France, it met with suspicion and distrust in the U.S., where, as Sawyer-Lauçanno points out, attitudes were quite a bit less liberal sexually than in the Ottoman culture from which Istrati emerged.

Istrati’s principal characters are, like those of Albert Cossery a few decades later, vibrant common people who refuse to accept anything less than their full human dignity, and who, through the sheer ferocity of their zeal for life, expose the niceties of bourgeois morality as sham. Unforgettable in their courage, persistence and vitality, they find themselves able to survive even in the most wretched of circumstances through a conviction, sometimes beaten by the world into a fragile thinness, that events will turn, that their oppression will not last forever, and that “suffering a thousand setbacks does not give one the right to dismiss all of humanity.” In this way these wanderers at fortune’s mercy become teachers of others in the school of hard knocks, their lessons often rising to heroic heights. When Stavro’s mother suffers a ferocious beating by her brute husband, she flees with Stavro and his older sister Kyra, then, once at a safe distance, leaves them with a powerful speech:

I was made by the Lord for the pleasures of the flesh, just as he made the mole to live underground without light. And just as that creature has everything it needs to live in the earth, I was lacking nothing to enjoy my life of pleasure. I made a vow to kill myself if I were forced by men to knuckle under and live a life other than what my body and soul dictated. Today, I am thinking about that vow. I’m going to leave you. …And Kyra, listen to what I have to say to you. If you Kyra, as I believe, do not feel the need to live a life of virtue, then don’t. Don’t be virtuous if it means you are constrained and shriveled inside. Don’t mock God. Strive to be the best in how He made you. Seek pleasure, even debauchery, but don’t let debauchery harden your heart…and you, Drogomir, if you cannot be a virtuous man, be like your sister and your mother, be a thief even, but a thief who has a heart, for a man without a heart, my children, is a corpse that keeps the living from living their lives.

Adrien plays a peripheral role in these tales, that of listener and transducer. The few places in Kyra Kyralina where he appears, he’s a traveler, “following his own destiny” and “[piling] up plenty of adventures,” the perfect vehicle for recounting the stories he hears, as learning them is “what interested him most in life: the need to look ceaselessly in to the deepest part of the human soul. The multitude of nameless beings he encountered rarely possessed souls worth exploring, but Adrien knew how to find them, and by chance he occasionally came upon them.”

It’s a glowing, vibrant, grand world of adventure, violence, tenderness, good humor, great friendship, and a prevailing love bound by blood. Above all, it is a distinctly human world in which God, important only in an abstract sense, proves fairly useless. When Stavro laments that God may have erred in preserving a few of his subjects after the Flood, he adds forgivingly that it wasn’t entirely God’s fault since, “God (like me at sixteen) didn’t know the world all that well and didn’t know what people were capable of doing.”

For its simultaneously larger-than-life and down-to-earth characters, warmly engaging narrator, and vivid realism combined with the exoticism of tales from another age, Kyra Kyralina is a work I relished re-reading. Istrati, like many supporters of communism, traveled to the newly formed USSR. Ever peripatetic, he traveled far beyond Moscow, confirming with his own eyes the rumors that others had incredulously dismissed. Among the first of several authors (later to include George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Victor Serge and Istrati’s close friend Nikos Kazantzakis) to warn of the horrors unfolding under Stalin, Istrati paid dearly for these truths. Accused of betraying the revolution, he was denounced ferociously by many who had been his ardent supporters. Rejected by both left and right, broken and disheartened, sick with tuberculosis, Istrati returned to Romania, where he died in the sanitarium in Bucharest.

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Translation: Carlos Drummond de Andrade

A recent obituary for Antonio Tabucchi noted that, in addition to being a writer of fiction, a political activist, and an academic with a strong focus on modern literature in Portuguese, especially Fernando Pessoa, Tabucchi also specialized in the poetry of Brazil’s most renowned 20th century poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I’m half ashamed that I’d never heard of him.

I say “half ashamed” as the fault lies not simply in the inadequate scope of my curiosity, but also in the scarcity of English translations of Drummond’s work. Drummond is a grand figure in Brazilian literature. His poems are widely recognized, anthologized and recited; one even appears on a bill of the nation’s currency. Yet a mere handful of short collections have appeared in English, all now out of print. This makes for a rather astonishing state of affairs for a poet of Drummond’s stature: imagine not being able to read Pablo Neruda in English, or reading only Spanish and being unable to find Walt Whitman in translation.

Prompted by the Tabucchi obituary, I dug into one of these books - In the Middle of the Road, translated by John Nist – with an exponentially growing excitement and an almost proprietary sense of discovering a writer who appealed to me so directly as to merit inclusion in the selective personal pantheon of writers for whom I feel the greatest enthusiasm. Here was the kind of poet who – in his resonant, concrete clarity, deep humor, and profound appreciation of life’s knife-edge proximity to death – threw into sharp relief the inadequacies of so much other poetry. I followed Nist’s book with The Minus Sign (translator Virginia de Araujo) and Traveling in the Family (various translators). These three volumes together offer a terrific introduction to Drummond, as well as – given their overlapping selections – the opportunity to examine, side-by-side, different approaches to translating him. But the difficulty of finding these books and the limited number of poems they contain – altogether about 100 accounting for overlap, compared to over 200 in a single French pocket edition I found - underscore the dire need for an expanded collection of this tremendous poet’s work to be published for English readers. I’m talking to you, publishers!

The three volumes exhibit remarkably complementary strengths and weaknesses. Only In the Middle of the Road provides the original Portuguese, with translations on facing pages. Drummond’s clear simplicity of expression makes turning to the originals - if for no other reason than to get a sense of the sound and rhythm of his work - rewarding to anyone with even a wisp of a background in a Romance language. De Araujo notes that Nist’s translations are often overly literal, and while in certain instances I preferred them to others, they displayed occasionally wince-inducing missteps (most notably in the translation of a proper name, “Raimundo,” used to rhyme with “mundo” [world], for which Nist’s baffling, expedient solution is "Twirled"). The organizing principle behind Nist’s selections is also unclear and frustrating in its lack of dates for the poems. Traveling in the Family remedies this problem with a chronologically-arranged selection of about 45 poems, translated by Thomas Colchie, Mark Strand, Gregory Rabassa and Elizabeth Bishop - the last widely credited with bringing Drummond to the attention of admiring Anglophone poets (with whom Anglophone familiarity with Drummond has largely, alas, appeared to settle).  Finally, Virginia de Araujo’s solo translation effort, The Minus Sign, offers some 55 poems organized thematically: The Individual, Land and Family, and Being-In-The-World. De Araujo also offers a majestic introductory bio-sketch of Drummond’s remarkable life (plus, as an added bonus, a defense of her translation method that could stand alone as an unusually conscientious argument for the serious responsibilities of the translator). This beautifully written introduction outlines Drummond’s aristocratic origins in the hilly mining and agricultural country of Minas Gerais and the way in which the close friendships of his youth – with many who would later become influential Brazilian politicians – trumped to a large extent any ill feeling regarding his rejection of privilege in favor of a strongly left-leaning, humanistic political activism. Thus, despite an embrace of communism, Drummond remained a respected civil servant in Rio de Janeiro, holding for most of his life a position in charge of preservation of the country’s historical monuments.

One poem included in all three books - “In the Middle of the Road” - is arguably Drummond’s most famous – and uncharacteristic. Here is de Araujo’s translation:

In the Middle of the Road

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

I will never forget the occasion
never as long as my tired eyes stay open,
I will never forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

This short, curious poem encapsulates many of Drummond's signature elements: humor and liveliness; complexity in simplicity; universality; the abrupt sense of the immediacy of events; the grounding (literal in this case) of his subject in the concrete and tangible; the notion of the inevitability of obstacles in life; the harmonious melding of form with function (in this case, experimentation with form as a means of approaching and evading obstacles).

For skeptical readers, I’ll quickly note that the poem is perhaps the most obscure in these collections. By contrast, most of Drummond’s work, though no less intriguing,  is eminently accessible: intimately personable, warmly conversational and clear. He writes about subjects immediately familiar (at a slant), exploring unexpected niches of life one nonetheless recognizes as having been in front of one’s face all along:  the essential weirdness of family photographs; the losses that occur with maturity; the mixture of joy and regret in discovering love in middle age; the curiously potent nostalgia in seeing a grand hotel being demolished; the everyman qualities of Charlie Chaplin; even a poem about the complicated psychological concern for one’s appearance that dental work can produce. His range is formidable, from brief poems that indulge in almost childlike, whimsical word-play, to lush, erotic love poems, to poems with a deep resonance on sober subjects, for example a mother fretting over a disappeared daughter (“Forget politics for a moment/set aside materialistic concerns/and devote some time to searching,/making inquiries, nosing around./You won’t regret it. There’s no/satisfaction greater than the smile/of a joyous mother”), or a man heading to his death in a plane crash - a stunning poem told as though time has been twisted to simultaneously show both the man's awareness and unawareness of what’s to come (“I eat a fish in a sauce/of gold and cream./It is my last fish on my last/fork.”). 

Mortality and its companions, time and aging, appear throughout Drummond’s work. Particularly striking for a modern poet, Drummond appears to assume the inevitability of human extinction, though with a fierce defense of the importance of reveling in life despite our species’ poor odds. What appears to be an implicit pessimism may actually be (to use a phrase from Sartre) “the sternness of our optimism,” as these are hardly what one would think of as apocalyptic, grim or morose poems. They exalt and extol life, rage against the dying of the light, sometimes on a global scale, embracing the “the sun of the short day in which we fight.” There’s a tender ferocity in Drummond, a deep appreciation of the limited time we have on earth fused with a pointed sense of justice and a deliberately humanistic, generalisable quality. When he writes of love, it is both particular and partaking of a wider, agape-like love of humanity. Also, in defiantly setting himself against death, Drummond can be funny and moving in equal measure.

One example of this is the poem “The Table,” an extended fantasy on a family holiday feast at which Drummond’s deceased father – and the family’s other ghosts – are present along with the living. It’s a clever idea brimming with humor (“you’d feel replete, pleased/to have such sons…Man!/What crooks! But [you’d say]/they did turn out better/than they looked”), but also flickering with deeply felt grief and love. At one point in the poem, Drummond invites his father to look at a girl we assume to be Drummond’s daughter:

take a close look at this
little girl: chin, eyes, hands,
and into her private conscience,
and into her young grace,
and say, after that look,
if she isn’t – in my tide of error –
an island of surprise.
She is my explication,
my best, my most quiet stanza,
my all, who fills the vacuum.

“My most quiet stanza” echoes a philosophical underpinning of Drummond’s poetry – that poetry is both essential and inadequate to life, a kind of meager scratching to get at truth. Poetry itself is a frequent, reflexive subject of Drummond’s poems, which plead both in form and content for conscientiousness in writing and humility in recognizing poetry as a tool for the grand task of living.  Seldom does one find a poet who breathes so much life into words, makes of them such living entities, offers such buoyant support for why poetry and literature matter to us.

Come close and consider the words.
With a plain face hiding thousands of other faces
and with no interest in your response,
whether weak or strong,
each word asks:
Did you bring the key?

Take note:
Words hide in the night
in caves of music and image.
Still humid and pregnant with sleep
they turn in a winding river and by neglect are transformed.

Amid poets who believe so strongly in the power of the written word, it’s immensely refreshing to find one who so humbly recognizes that poetry can only get us closer to life, that (in the poem from which de Araujo’s book takes its title) “the best poetry is/a minus sign.” In the pantheon of great modern poets, however, what Drummond deserves is addition, particularly for those readers of English like me who until now have been unfamiliar with his marvelous work. Discovering him in the middle of my own road has been an occasion I will never forget.