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18 May 2014

Books Re-Visited: Translating Zsuzsa Rakovszky and the Art of Storytelling

In his well-known book Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson refers to the post-literacy of late capitalist culture as a condition in which literature can aspire to little more than the status of pastiche. All too self-conscious of the nature of writing as a tissue of citations, of déja lu, the postmodern author can do little more than foreground, through the citation of or allusion to established styles, his or her own powerlesness to transcend the conventions of the “literary” text. The gesture of borrowing seems reminiscent of parody, but unlike parody, pastiche in Jameson’s reading is devoid of any ulterior motives. It lacks any confidence in its own ability to reestablish, through irony, some sort of literary or aesthetic value. Ultimately it becomes, according to Jameson, little more (and at the same time nothing less) than “the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.”

From time to time I confess I have the impression Jameson’s diagnosis has proven all too accurate, not necessarily as an assessment of the actual possibilities remaining to authors of imaginative literature so much as an insight into the perception among writers and readers of the stylistic exhaustion in which we allegedly live. Writers seem hesitant to lapse (as it were) into metaphor without commenting on the preciousness of metaphor, artifice is announced as artifice (as if this had ever been in doubt?), and texts cite and recite themselves as the postmodern novel self-consciously recycles its own convention of recycling. Stories (as it were – for in the literary landscape of pastiche “story” is a word that can only be used in quotes in order to remind us that it represents a convention belonging to the past) seem like anachronistic mannerisms, or perhaps pretexts for a display of the clever cuts and pastes of the resourceful, even erudite postmodern author, but they are incidental in any event, the unavoidable baggage of the referential gestures of words, gestures even style cannot efface entirely.

It is partly in this – for me, gradually bleak – literary landscape that A kígyó árnyéka, Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s first novel, is so startlingly captivating. Unlike contemporaries such as Péter Nádas or Péter Esterházy, who are, Rakovszky’s impressive successes notwithstanding, nonetheless more prominent in Hungary and certainly far better known abroad, Rakovszky seems entirely unhampered by, I might even venture to claim unfamiliar with the (post)postmodern predicament. A kígyó árnyéka is refreshingly free of any of the self-referentiality that has become the label of the postmodern and sometimes even seems a kind of stamp necessary for the acceptance of a work of writing as a work of literature. It is a first-person narrative in which the narrator never comments on her style or the narrative act, never embeds her retelling in another (invented or non-fictional) retelling, and never seems to evince the slightest anxiety concerning the adequacy or appropriateness of metaphor or simile. Unlike (to cite two prominent examples) John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (translated into Hungarian by Zoltán Abádi-Nagy as Bolyongás az elvarázsolt kastélyban) or Péter Esterházy’s Harmonia Caelestis (translated into English by Judith Sollosy as Celestial Harmonies), A kígyó árnyéka is not an enactment of genres and styles of storytelling. It is simply storytelling, stylistically homogenous (almost naively so), unapologetic storytelling.

I should pause to ward off any misunderstanding. I have great admiration for the talents of Esterházy, Barth, and the almost innumerable other (“postmodern”) authors in whose works pastiche arguably plays a prominent role. I took great pleasure in reading Harmonia Caelestis, and it flattered my vanity to catch an occasional allusion to other works of Hungarian literature (and occasionally sense, when I sensed it, that I was missing one). But I confess, at times I grow weary of the perpetual self-qualifications of the so-called postmodern novel. If I can be forgiven for citing a specific example,

I would refer to a passage from the second paragraph of (the English translation of) Celestial Harmonies:


My father, this ferocious looking baroque grand seigneur who was in a position, nay under obligation, to raise his eyes to Emperor Leopold, raised his eyes to Emperor Leopold[.]


The narrative’s reference to itself, a reminder of narrative as artifice, is amplified in the closing words of the paragraph, according to which the narrator’s father “galloped off into the discriminating seventeenth-century landscape (or description thereof).” The implication of the superfluity of formulaic description is witty, if not unfamiliar as a trope, but one may have the impression one is reading the literature of etc. Where inclined, the author seems to abdicate responsibility and entrusts the narrative to the literary repertoire of the reader. And the reader may then begin to wonder why he or she is bothering to read.

One could compare, for the sake of contrast, a few sentences from the first pages of A kígyó árnyéka:

If I try to recall the earliest years of my life, the image that most often flickers before my inner eye is of how, as a two or three year-old girl, I crawled on the stones of the kitchen floor, pulling a broken jug or some other simple plaything behind me by the string looped through its handle, while the firelight wriggling beneath the iron plate of the stove held captive my gaze. For hours I would stare as it shimmered and flared, cowering back or rearing up at the whim of the gusts rushing through the chimney while the flames stretched upwards towards the underside of the soot-black cauldron. Enrapt I would watch the dimly glimmering patches of light as they faithfully followed the fire’s every twitch, flashing and fading on the tin platters and ladles dangling from the wall, and I was breathless with excitement when

I saw, as I clamored underfoot in the early mornings, the yellow light tumbling like some poorly fastened tress across the kitchen floor as mother opened the oven door and lifted the freshly baked bread with the peel.


This is literature luxuriant, almost decadent with detail. It is unabashed by its own wealth of metaphor (simile, personification), and there is no explicit comment on the stylistic homogeneity of the narrative. Style here functions as the vehicle for a story, not the other way around. Either the author/narrator is unaware of other styles of narration, or she simply does not feel the need to justify or apologize for her choice of this one. The tools with which the spectacle is constructed are here less interesting than the spectacle itself.

A reader familiar with the Hungarian text may well object to the excerpt above on the grounds that it has been shorn of some of the details that make the original so captivating. One might furthermore object that several details have translated “incorrectly” or “unfaithfully.” In the original text, for instance, the oven door is opened not by the narrator’s mother, but rather by an unspecified “they” (the verb is simply conjugated in the third person plural, and it is not necessary in Hungarian to include a nominative pronoun). Such objections raise questions concerning the nature of translation and the intentions of the translator. In defense of my mistranslations (which are all deliberate, and which have all met with the author’s approval, though I myself do not necessarily consider an author the final authority on a translation), I would hazard the contention that one does not translate a literary text from a source language to a target language. Rather, one translates from a set of discursive practices demarcated in one language as literature to a set of discursive practices demarcated in another language as literature. As a set of conventions, “literature” in English is, not surprisingly, often quite different from “literature” in Hungarian. To mention a relatively simple example, English is comparatively intolerant of adjectives and adverbs. One would rarely be so bold, in English, as to modify a single noun with three adjectives (at least not without ironic comment). This is less true of Hungarian literature, in part, indeed, because Hungarian grammar offers more ways in which to attach modifiers to nouns (grammatically it would not be incorrect to say in Hungarian, “the in 2010 published, not widely read article on Zsuzsa Rakovszky”). The English translator of a work of literature in Hungarian may well be justified in omitting modifiers, for instance, where they would begin to make the text more ponderous to an English reader. Any such decision is highly subjective and highly debatable, but questions of fidelity should be understood as fidelity to the literary norms of the two cultures, not fidelity to the original, which, after all, is a work of fiction. How can one offer an “unfaithful” representation of fiction except as an unfaithful representation of discursive practices?

But this raises a further question, one more essential to the task of the translator. Why would one bother to translate anyway, especially into English? The fact that a work of literature in a language other than English has been successful among native speakers does not necessarily mean that it is of any significance or interest to English-language readers. There is an overwhelming overabundance of literature in English. Why should one bother to translate something from Hungarian when literature is being written in English in innumerable countries across the globe anyway? In my admittedly tentative view, the only literary text worth translating into English is the literary text that presents a challenge to the prevailing discursive practices regarded as “literature” among English-speaking readers. At least in the context of contemporary British and American literature, A kígyó árnyéka does. Precisely through its wealth of detail and the unhesitant use of style as a vehicle for story, Rakovszky’s novel offers something unusual (almost unfamiliar) at the moment to the British or American reader: storytelling. Bogged down for so long in the conventions of Realism, the goal of which was the total absence of artifice, English and American literature since the 1960s seems to have become equally bogged down in the postmodern recognition that all literature is nothing but artifice. One doesn’t have to disagree with this in order to find it gradually less interesting as a subject. Rakovszky offers a refreshing return to literature not as a parade of various possible styles, but rather as a single style executed (at least within the parameters of that style) with such unfailing precision that one quickly forgets (perhaps is tricked into forgetting) that one is reading style and finds oneself immersed in the pleasures of reading a story.

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