Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism/WELCOME TO MARGIN

Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F R O M   T H E   E D I T O R
One Well-Seasoned Morsel From A Well-Seasoned Translator
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BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WA -- Have three months passed already?

We start our second quarter with a great new addition to the Contemporary Magical Realists section. João de Melo, an award-winning Portuguese author with many fine works under his belt, comes to you with work in a bilingual format -- a first for Margin. We offer two chapters from his book, O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino, in Mr. de Melo's native Portuguese. It's a wondrous novel which layers the themes of life, death and resurrection with a clash between worlds -- one of a forgotten people, the other of modern technology. There are plagues and miracles and all the lush devices, storytelling and innuendo found in any good work of magical realism. Gregory Rabassa, the novel's English translator, regards it as "another masterpiece showing that the best body of literature in Europe today can be found in Portugal."

That's right. Accompanying Mr. de Melo's beautiful lines in Portuguese are equally beautiful lines coming from one of the finest translators of our time.

It is my misfortune that I cannot speak, nor can I read, Portuguese, so that the typical course I would take, of interviewing our featured author, is something of a logistical obstacle, given the warp-speed expectations inherent in the vocation of online publishing. Mr. de Melo is not "plugged in," so to speak, so even a rudimentarily translated discourse using a web utility wouldn't be of much use except in the sending and receiving of messages via the slow boat -- and it's a long way from Lisbon to Seattle. But I wish to express here my gratitude to the author for letting us publish two chapters from his beloved book and my best wishes for Mr. de Melo's further success.

I must add here that I have Katherine Vaz, a mutual acquaintance (I shall say friend, at this juncture), to thank for checking my scans of Mr. de Melo's chapters for the seemingly endless (if lovely) strings of fanciful curlicued letters which comprise the accents of the Portuguese language. Even more than that, I must thank Ms. Vaz for bringing the work of João de Melo to Margin. Without her work as a virtual go-between, none of this would have been possible. Hers is a gift for which I will always be grateful.

Now, let me warn you: I'm going to flip convention on its side by centering my discussion around a translator. I know, I know. Mr. de Melo was the original inventor of this story, but I can assure you that Mr. de Melo is probably still marveling at the great fortune of having his words and ideas transformed into English by the venerable Gregory Rabassa.

Even I didn't have to look that name up. Anyone who has read One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez has Mr. Rabassa to thank, as he was the translator who brought that monumental novel to the English-speaking world back in 1970. Thirty years later, he might be experiencing déja vû with this latest of translations, My World Is Not Of This Kingdom, which I think qualifies as yet another gift for English-speaking readers everywhere.

That being said, I have to reveal a sad fact here: While Mr. de Melo's O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino is still enjoying bestseller status outside the States and has endured through a sixth printing, Mr. Rabassa's evocative translation, My World Is Not Of This Kingdom -- so irresistible in its urgency, mood, color and language -- remains unpublished in English.

How can this be? This is the translator who brought us Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch in 1966 as well as works from many of the major Latin-American magical realists -- Jorge Amado, Mario Angel Asturias and Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance. Even the venerable Mr. García Márquez has said how he prefers Mr. Rabassa's translation to his own Spanish original.

Like any translator, Mr. Rabassa does have his critics, though I am suspicious of their points. Some of us, after all, prefer lush, imaginative, fluent work that hasn't been desexed in the way some American writing programs, publishers and critics seem to prefer. But I'm a typical American reader (which to certain members of the literati equates with being a simpleton, apparently). What I do not know about translation, having never done it except in college French courses or by way of online services and, then, for frivolous purposes, has yet to hurt my ability to be moved by the work of this man, who deserves to have his excellent reputation precede him, who deserves more than a scattering of footnotes as acknowledgment.

What's with publishers that they think this is work to pass by? Mr. Rabassa shared his own embittered theory in a recent letter: "I set about translating (O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino) as a labor of love, confident that any American publisher worth its salt would grab it immediately. Alas, I had not realized that post-modern chic, so-called, has abandoned magic realism for banal irreality without regard for the popularity of the former among the sentient reading public."

(A note to the translator: I'm not sure I'm worth my salt, having only my enthusiasm, four years of J-school, a writer's eye, and a devotion to magical realism as literary art to qualify me, but I must say I appreciate it that at least you, dear Sir, believe there exists a sentient reading public in the United States. Thank you for believing in readers.)

Whose to blame Mr. Rabassa for feeling a bit stood up by American book publishers? I am green to the ways of publishing insiderism, but not so green that I don't notice a serious retreat in this industry from that gray area of fiction which stretches between gritty, hard-core realism and Middle Earth. After reading MY WORLD..., I grew even more perturbed by its unpublished status, for what I found there was a story of miracles, faith, and magic in a context as contemporary to American readers as the concept of online publishing.

What else would you call a story about a man returning from the future to prophesy to a forgotten people the miracles of modern technology?

Something else Mr. Rabassa said rings through me every time I pick up his manuscript: "When I began reading My World Is Not Of This Kingdom, I thought for a moment that I was back in Macondo." The timing of my inclusion of his translation could not have been more synchronous, as I have also been engaged in the rereading of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Similarities do, indeed, abound: In Mr. de Melo's book, a Melquíades-like character exists as a time-jumping beggar named João-Lázaro. Mr. de Melo's Cadete the healer might be compared, in some ways, to one or more of the complex and tragic Buendía men in GGM's classic. The setting is not only similar, but seemingly requisite in standard works of magical realism -- that is, it is the landscape of the solitary community. While Macondo was only an island in a topographical and social sense (I am reminded, too, of Llosa's remote settings in The Storyteller and Louise Erdrich's harsh reservation backdrop), Mr. de Melo's Achadinha is the ultimate protected destination: an island. Mr. Rabassa writes: "What greater seat of solitude than the Azores, alone out there in the middle of the Atlantic, gazing inward at its navel." And you can't deny the novel's sheer circus parade of characters who Mr. Rabassa notes are "larger than life and the stuff of mythology."

There are similarities in narrative style, as well. You can expect those long-spun paragraphs in Mr. de Melo's novel, not so very unlike GGM's own poetic passages. There is a seamlessness to transitions in time which propels both stories like lemmings intent on the sea. I recognize the same felicity with language from one book to the next, which is striking, even humbling, and yet natural and effortless. This is a book of serious amusements, just as One Hundred Years Of Solitude was a pleasurable challenge: the humor, the lyric, the imagery, the power of story are there even as larger messages about humanity's tragic core underscore the theme.

But before you decide Mr. de Melo's work is a spinoff of the greatest magical realism classic of our time, let me caution you -- My World Is Not Of This Kingdom is a very different sort of tale. In the excerpt we offer here, João-Lázaro's rebirth from the future is a journey for all of us to take, begging questions about the direction of our lives as a society as we move toward personal unions with technology. The constant references to death in the book are not as much about any one epidemic or any one plane crash or any one disappearance as they are about the profound changes still in store for us as we continue to nurse our subordination to the Machine.

You may have missed an interesting echo in the title: The Kingdom Of This World was written by Cuban magical realist Alejo Carpentier in 1949. In its foreword exists the very first introduction to the concept of literary magical realism, which he coined lo real maravilloso. That novel was an opulent and unusual evocation of Haitian history. After reading Mr. Rabassa's text, I'm reminded of the unique way history is transformed and revealed in the works of magical realism. Now, all I want to do is learn more about Portugal, thanks to Mr. de Melo and Mr. Rabassa.

But I am lucky. I have almost 400 pages of manuscript to motivate me to deeper pursuits. While My World Is Not Of This Kingdom remains a manuscript and not a book, all that you, the reader, can enjoy are these two chapters.

Dear reader, here is a chance to make a difference. Read this translation (or the original in Portuguese, if you are blessed with that particular ability). Tell me what you think. Tell me whether it moves you to think about the direction of your own life, your family's future. Tell me whether it whisks you out of the sterile screen-gazing existence that we've all come to accept as the norm. Tell me if and how you are inspired by the quirky narrative and whether you think this book is important. With enough response, maybe we can bring this work to the masses where it belongs.

Amid today's book-marketing myopics, Mr. Rabassa's translation may require a cult following to inspire American book publishers to snatch it up as the worthy article it is. Let's form the cult, then. You are the sentient reading public out there, the one which drools over books like these. Why must you starve for this well-seasoned morsel? At least let's not starve alone. -- TKS, Editor

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Rev'd 2003/03/27