Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Martí's onanism, Johnson's novel

Michael Sedano

The audience knew what Pete Seeger was going to sing. "José Martí was born in..." and the audience goes into wild applause. I was a high school kid hearing protest songs sung to a comfortable New York audience to raise money for the Freedom Riders. The song was a Spanish language poem, "Guantanamera", sung in awful accent by Seeger, joined in by the whole crowd on the recording who knew the words. I didn't.

I rushed to the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands to find the whole piece. Not available in 1962 or maybe it was 1963. A number of years passed before I was able finally to read the entire poem, but hadn't run into much Martí.

Thus, it was with a rekindling of an old passion when a book arrived out of the blue recently, Ismaelillo, the title, José Martí and Tyler Fisher's names on the cover. Wings Press has published "the first complete bilingual edition".

Enjoying a facing page volume like this, I sat eagerly to consume it, only to be confused then disappointed. I avoid cover blurbs and dustwrapper praise, seeking the artist's work itself to express whatever I can find. But reading the cover stuff proved unavoidable. So here is a collection of poems written by the young poet in exile, separated from his wife and son. A poet, the blurb says, "whose zeal and dedication helped not only to birth his own nation, but served and continues to serve as a model for revolutionaries throughout Latin America."

A touching dedication to that son, "Hijo: Espantado de todo, me refugio en ti." So far, so good. Then the first poem and my confusion arises. "Enano"? dwarf, I think. "Principe enano" translated as "Tiny Prince." Odd monarchistic allusion for a revolutionary, I think. Then I ask a couple of friends, what "enano" means to them. Dwarf, or a small statured person, they agree. But then one begins to read with more understanding than I such lines as "Venga mi caballero/Por esta senda!/ Entrese mi tirano/ Por esta cueva!" and so on. My friend says, "I may have a dirty mind, but this this is about his penis." Indeed it is. "My cavalier,/" the translation goes, "Come through this path!/ My tyrant, enter/ Through this cave!"

Dang, knife find thy sheath. What a disappointing revolucionario this guy has turned into. I shook off the discord of this interpretation but soon stumble across other problematic translations. I cannot recommend the right hand pages, but Martí's other work offers worthwhile reading, if one can get past his dwarf-sized member. Come to think on this, with the Unitedstatesian male's infatuation with "size matters", maybe there's something truly revolutionary in these works?

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke will keep a reader occupied for an extended period, if for no other reason than to work through its 614 pages. The novel recently won an award, so others think quite highly of it. I found it an involving story revolving around a couple of losers and one want-to-be larger than life character who doesn't quite achieve the stature the author has designed. In the end, Tree of Smoke is just a long novel, not a masterpiece that will rival the greats of war literature.

For a Vietnam novel, it lacks the urgency of Charley Trujillo's Dogs from Illusion, or Soldados, the literary quality of Alfredo Vea's Gods Go Begging or Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead.

Johnson plots three sets of lives. There are white trash brothers whose stories wind down into disaster, leaving the reader wondering why make such a big deal about such losers? The older brother is a sailor who goes AWOL fearing a shipmate, winds up back home in Phoenix an ex-con getting beaten up by his biker buddies. The other brother re-ups for a third tour in country, only to gang rape then murder a Vietnamese woman or child as a respite from the fear of an ambush. A sympathetic sergeant fixes things so he gets an Honorable Discharge and sent back to Phoenix where he earns a prison sentence for armed robbery.

Another story revolves around a hapless CIA agent and the Colonel, his uncle, the legend. Skip Houston's is the heart of the story, the two brothers window dressing to illustrate the universality of mindless bullshit that defines the CIA and US military adventures. Bad as the brothers' stories, Skip's is all the worse because he's used by both the uncle and the agency, a puppet dangling from a rope as his story ends meaninglessly, except to Kathy Jones.

Tree of Smoke is worth the time spent in its aimless story for its single sympathetic character. Kathy is a missionary widow whom the hapless spy runs into in the Philippines during a completely botched operation, then again in Vietnam. She is the only character to emerge whole, as it were, from the story.

At the very end of the story, Johnson pulls his most cynical line that makes me think I missed more than I read into the novel. Kathy has returned to North America in 1983. She's in St. Paul to speak at a fundraiser for Vietnamese orphans--a fashion show to maximize the incongruities of the novel. A planeload of orphans had crashed on takeoff from Saigon, killing hundreds but not Kathy and a girl whom Kathy recognizes as a child from that flight, then a Amerasian infant, now a middle-class teenie bopper.

In two-inch heels and a blue skirt and yellow T-shirt tight across her training bra, with lipstick and mascara, she looked like a little whore, arrogant and sullen, her auburn hair twisting in a wind that blew from the street through the alley and down the Mississippi. She opened her purse and found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Her cheeks pouched as she shielded the flame with her hand and lit a filter-tip cigarette. She exhaled and the breeze snatched the cloud from her mouth.

It's a masterful allusion to scenes and events that recur in the lives of the characters, like a mirror image reflected from mirror after mirror.

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Anonymous said...

The Diccionario de la Real Academia might offer more reliable clarification than you evidently had at your disposal ~

Enano (Del lat. nanus): adj. Diminuto en su especie
*AND* coloq. niño

So 'enano' is by no means restricted to 'dwarf/dwarfish'. (And given that 'Principe' is accurately translated in this rendering, are you then presumably criticizing Martí's 'monarchist' allusion rather than Fisher's?)

And your proposed alternative reading, though innovative, does seem out of place with the rest of the volume--perhaps you could cite other specifics? I'm working my way through this book too, so I would be very curious to see which other translations appeared problematic to you. (I haven't met Freud in its other pages...jaja, better watch out for those friends of yours?)

msedano said...

thank you for your observation. the monarchism is martí's. i hold fisher creditable for the translation, and therein lies the problematic heart. translating a poem most often produces a list of words, rarely poetry. i'm reminded of yvor winter's quip that poetry is a constant reminder of all the things that can be said in only one language. so you read the dwarf prince as simply a paean to his son?

regards, mvs