Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers

Gonzalo Celorio. Translated by Dick Gerdes. Austin:U Texas Press, 2009.

Michael Sedano

I am glad I am not a drinker. Money pours out to buy noxious chemicals that pickle a brain. The body gives out, the mind goes. Over time.Then there's la cruda, that enervating measure of accountability for a night's drinking.

But the bars! The booze! The ritual of the bar crawl and its rules: one beer and tequila chaser, then move along to the next spot. And if one delays and doubles the dose, ni modo. The feet know where to step next to reach the goal, another favorite spot out of many.

That hangover hit retiring professor Juan Manuel Barrientos hard. He's slowing down after twentyplus years as a university professor and one heck of a party the night before has pushed him to his limit and here he is the morning after, pushing his endurance once again. It's all downhill from here, literally.

Juan Manuel's life is out of control and he doesn't admit it. Instead, he hides behind professorial airs and alkie theories to justify drinking. Here is an extended sample to give you a flavor of the drinker's worldview and the style of this translation:

beer is simply a chaser for the tequila, because one of its ingredients, yeast, serves as a protective layer to the stomach lining. As a result, when you rigorously knock back a shot of tequila, an act sustained by the oldest ritual in Mexico, the liquor splashes on top of a foamy cbshion that protects our insides from irritation and acidity. And judging from the academic vocabulary that you usually use for explaining even the most mundane topics, your students would listen to you attentively-well, they would've listened to you had they been here today-similar to the way they took notes and listened to you lecture about Sor Juana's "First Dream" or baroque pilasters.
However, at the bar they served you three drinks-a mug of beer, a shot of tequila, and a sangrita chaser. You're alone, Juan Manuel, so you can knock back three or four drinks, one right after the other, which cures hangovers once and for all. And you can do it without having to talk to anyone around you. Bur you must restrain yourself and hold back as much as possible, because you still have several more stops to make. Right off the bat, you reject the sangrita and take a long sip of beer, which is tequila's best friend. Satisfying your thirst, the beer allows the tequila to concentrate on its own energy, strength, and nuances. Just imagine trying to quench your thirst with tequila. Well, you'd be dead by now, Juan Manuel, because your thirst is insatiable, boundless. You take a second swig of beer and ponder the tiny double ting of pearls that forms on the surface of the tequila. Judiciously, you sprinkle salt on a slice of Iime. Then you pick up the shot of tequila, raise it in a toast that the mirror behind the rows of vodka and gin bottles reflects back at you in a friendly way, and down it in one gulp, like yestetday at Casa Pedro, and like every day, as always, down the hatch, burning all the way down. Jesus! Tequila isn't to be savored. It's supposed to go straight down, no swishing it around in your mouth, because the good feeling it produces comes afterward, when you exhale, when its vapors resurface from below, from your stomach, in your breath. It's then, and not before, when the lime with a dash of salt blends sharply with the tequila, because in reality you're supposed to inhale tequila in the same way you inhale smoke from a cigarette. Tequila is a drink that you inhale. After quivering for a moment, you immediately feel a rush, a loss of body, and then everything returns to notmal. And there's nothing like tequila to cure a hangover. pg30

The lies and elaborate reasoning have become a lifestyle of the old professor. Today--how could he know?--will be his final hangover and the novel will track his final day bar by bar until the novel's ironic ending, in the same bar where it begins. Readers will be mystified how the irony arises. Was he that hungover he didn't see his student in the bar? Vice versa?

Gonzalo Celorio's novel takes its name from the Mexican National Anthem, as illustrated below in another of Juan Manual's drunken ravings. Celorio calls a reader's attention to the allusion early in the day. Readers want to make sense of the allusion, not just owing to the novel's declivitous story but beause the pun takes on added punch in the novel's last events.

“Y retiemble en sus centros la tierra,” meaning “And let the earth tremble at its centers." Here, it was as if the earth had several centers, that is, as if the center-the epicenter-equally distant from other centers, configuring the circumference, and giving the center precisely its condition of centeredness, according to its definition, was not just one but many centers. It wasn't a rhetorical figure, like the one that multiplies the essence of the nation or its destiny in order to make it sound more sonorous or emphatic-the destinies of the nation, the essences of the homeland. No. The idea of several centers was something else. Explaining the phenomenon to Jimena and Fernando in that unbearable professional tone, you say that to you the anthem's original version says "antros" instead of "centros," that is, caverns instead of centers. Haphazardly, the songwriter González Bocanegra must have transcribed some of the letters in such a way that they were interpreted differently, and since then, have become a part of the official record and the public domain. As a result, "And let the earth tremble at its centers" should have been "And let the earth tremble in its caverns," because back then "antros" didn't have the connotation that it has today, that is, dingy, disreputable bars or dives, like you would have wanted it to mean, but only the innermost recesses of centers, that is, caverns, caves, or grottos. "And let the earth tremble in its caverns" meant just that, its caves and grottos. So, why not say, "And let the earth tremble from within?" That doesn't sound so bad, does it? The verse would be longer and more fitting for the rhythm of a national anthem, you exclaim while gesticulating wildly. This is crazy! We've had to add syllables to every verse forever and ever in order to make them fit the music: [heaven] ha-has given you a soldier in every son. Do you see what I mean? Mexicans, at the cry of wa-war, / prepare the steel and the ste-eed / And may the earth shake at its co-ore / to the resounding roar of the-e cannon. Like any other anthem, ours is a fighting, warlike, violent hymn, bur we've had to stutter, adding syllables, to make it work.

Bolstered by the strange pleasure he got from the combination of tequila and philology-centers, caverns, and dingy bars-Juan Manuel Barrientos walked to the Tolsá Plaza, so secret yet so magnificent. 35

Readers will enjoy the translator's skill in creating fluid prose in English from Celorio's anything but straightforward prose and abrupt time and scene shifts. As with any translation, it would be fun to review the original with the English. I look forward to the day a publisher elects to bring readers facing page text to double the pleasure and help answer nagging questions. For example, the unusual style of the narrative, particularly Celorio's heavy reliance upon second person narrative addressing his character as "you" immediately raises the question, "tu" or "ud."?

Travelers to Mexico City will want to carry the novel along. It opens with Juan Manuel parking at Bellas Artes and preparing to give his students an architectural tour of the historic centro's unknown treasures. You'll get a fabulous, though sketchy, guided tour of the area around Garibaldi Plaza, Bellas Artes, el Zócalo. It would be fun to follow, up to a point, Juan Manuel's footsteps.

English majors and other critics may be tempted to see parallels in Juan Manuel's story to the title character in Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell. They share the plot of progressive degradation and oddball character, so some readers may wish to re-read West with an eye on Celorio's Mexican horizon. I intend to.

All in all, readers who enjoy Mexican novels, who love el Defie and have walked its streets and boulevards, will find this impressive work a lot of fun.

My gosh, that's the final Tuesday of October! A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except you are here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga. With DDLM around the corner, not to mention treats or tricks, costumes and screamingly happy tykes, there's tons of fun happening between now and next Tuesday. Enjoy your share.


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jmu said...

Oiga, joven, ya me chi...fló usté. All my life, I believed that it said "centro" not "centros". But even the pinche version oficial says "centros"!! Chin!! All this time I had it wrong!

At the risk of messing with your fine review, while looking for confirmation of my wretched memory, I came across a reseña that claims that my tocayo is a Christ figure since he follows a vía crucis towards his own calvario. What do you think? I haven't read the novel, but that take somewhat intrigues me. Would you buy that premise? I get the feeling that this difference in interpretation might be cultural since, as you know, most Meskins are muy católicos and, you know, pobrecitos los pochos, tan lejos de Dios and living en los USofA among all those protestantes and aleluyas.


Your most esteemed friend, y



msedano said...

don manuel, that exalts the pendejo too much. christ parallels exist, i suppose. juan manuel goes through some torment by the placa but no crown of thorns that i recall. i'm challenged to see any critical provender in a christ template. i remain content to allow the character and events to sit on the page as is.