Archive for October, 2005

Anita Desai – ‘The Zigzag Way’: cultural and translation problems of an Indian-Mexican encounter

Anita Desai’s latest novel, ‘The Zigzag Way’ (London. Chatto & Windus, 2004) will come as something of a puzzle both to readers of her earlier work and critics who have read her as a standard-bearer of postcolonial writing. This offering by the India-born writer contains no Indian characters at all: it is set in Mexico with flashbacks to the US (New England – Harvard and a Maine fishing village) and England (Cornwall). The main character Eric, a young researcher and author of a thesis on immigration patterns, is an American of Cornish origin whose grandfather, a miner, emigrated to Mexico, returning to Cornwall on his wife’s death in childbirth. In Mexico to follow his girlfriend Em, a medical researcher, Eric arrives in an obscure mining town in search of his family past. On, the way he encounters the enigmatic Doña Vera, a onetime Viennese dancer who runs an hacienda doubling as an ethnological research institute, despite never having published anything herself. **

None of the protagonists, then, are Mexican: Desai’s novel is about Europeans and/or Americans losing, finding or seeking roots in the alien environment of Mexico. The gradually unveiled history of the mining community reveals a past of exploitation by the mineowners under the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, interrupted by the (ambivalently viewed) revolution of Emiliano Zapata. Eric speaks little Spanish, while Doña Vera, who could be either a refugee from fascism or a Nazi supporter, is a native speaker of neither English nor Spanish and, according to some evil tongues, does not even speak the language of the Huichol ‘indios’ whose cause she serves. Eric, his ancestors and Vera are all displaced individuals, migrants with more than one identity and, to a greater or lesser extent, lacking in integration with the Mexican surroundings described. **

This is the first time Anita Desai has published a novel set totally outside India, although its predecessor, ‘Fasting, Feasting’, was half-set in the US, and her 2000 volume of stories, ‘Diamond Dust’, included narratives located in, significantly, Cornwall and Mexico. By writing on non-Indian themes Desai follows in the recent footsteps of Rushdie and Vikram Seth, much of whose later work has been set wholly or partly outside the subcontinent. Critics might be tempted to seek hidden analogies between India and Mexico, or to see this novel as a third-worldist denunciation of imperialism, but the text does not seem to support any such reading. India is not mentioned once (unless, as is possible, Em’s cat, called Shakespeare, embodies a hidden allusion to Raja Rao’s novel ‘The Cat and Shakespeare’), and the book’s exploiters are native Mexicans, not Americans. Rather, ‘The Zigzag Way’ seems best read as an instance of what might be called ‘new globalised Indian writing’, the assumption being that with India as a rising power in the global economy, it is legitimate for Indian writers to shift their gaze further afield and examine other cultures’ worlds – looking into those cultures in and for their own sake, not as analogues or opposites of India, and independently of whether they are first-world countries or emerging economies like Mexico. We might say that some Indian writers, at least, are increasingly participants in a new modernity of collective and indiviudual displacement and complex, shifting intercultural imbrication. **

There is also the question of authenticity: how well does Anita Desai know the Mexico she narrates? Her novel text is liberally sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases, including Mexicanisms like ‘zopilote’ (turkey buzzard – p. 68), but it is not clear from the internal evidence how far her grasp of spoken and written Spanish actually extends (in the credits at the end she cites only one text in Spanish). Nor is it clear how much Mexican literature she might have read or how far she would wish to place her novel in the line of comparison with Latin American writing. In ‘Diamond Dust’ she quoted Octavio Paz (but in English): in this book Doña Vera, with her links to the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (p. 74), bears a (passing and partial) resemblance to Rosario Castellanos – novelist, defender of the Chiapas ‘indios’ and collaborator with the same institute – and indeed to some of Castellanos’ characters (like Francisca in Castellanos’ ‘Balún Canán’, Vera is the equestrian mistress of an hacienda) – but the analogy goes only so far and is partly cancelled out by Vera’s dubious past, so that the question of Desai’s relationship with Mexican literature, and its depth or otherwise, remains an open book. **

The authenticity question is also likely to pose problems for the Spanish translator (as far as I know the book is not yet out in Spanish). Should this novel logically be confided to a Mexican translator, or to one from anywhere in the Hispanophone world? A Mexican translator would obviously take maximum care with the Mexicanisms, which a Spanish or Argentine translator might be tempted to minimise, replace or gloss. On the other hand, a version done by a Mexican might end up excessively naturalising or ‘domesticating’ a text that, while about Mexico, represents non-Mexican perceptions from both author’s and characters’ viewpoints (albeit this problem would not arise for other Spanish-speaking readers, who might indeed even need a glossary of Mexicanisms!). The strategy adopted will need to be partly dependent on a critical evaluation of this book’s authenticity as a portrait of Mexico – a task surely best performed by a Spanish-speaking critic, preferably Mexican and conversant with Desai’s earlier work. This puzzling novel brings out with all clarity how criticism and translation are now becoming complex multicultural phenomena, quite as much conditioned by globalisation as the primary literature that they serve. Those scholars who explore both Indian and Hispanic universes will await the Spanish translation of Desai-on-Mexico with great interest!


José Saramago – next novel: ‘As intermitências da Morte’

The next novel by Portugal’s Nobel-winning novelist José Saramago (still not finished) will be called ‘As intermitências da Morte’ (approximately, ‘Intermittent death’ or ‘Death’s Intervals’). The author unveiled the title on 13 October 2005 in Cáceres (Extremadura, Spain) at the award ceremony for the Premio Carlos V (to the Portuguese President, Jorge Sampaio, for his dedication to the European cause). See:** In the same week, in an event (reported by the Correio da Manhã newspaper on 16 October 2005), linked to the 15th Iberoamerican Summit in Salamanca (Spain) – at which summit Mr Sampaio was also present – Saramago was one of six Iberoamerican writers to address a group of students of the University of Salamanca in a debate on literary issues. He said that he writes in order to understand the world and as a first step to changing it. See:** In illustration of this text, I have added three photographs of the Convent of Mafra, near Lisbon, which features prominently in Saramago’s novel ‘Memorial do Convento’ (in English, ‘Baltasar & Blimunda’). Two of the photos (taken by Hélder Pereira) feature myself and Agostinho Pereira, my friend and former editor of FAROL (Viana do Castelo).

NOTE ADDED 28 January 2008: The English translation (by Margaret Jull Costa; London: Harvill Secker, 2008) proves in fact to be entitled ‘Death at Intervals’.


Bob Dylan: no Nobel 2005, but Quill Book Award (US) instead (and J.K. Rowling too!)

Once again, Bob Dylan did not get the Literature Nobel: the 2005 prize went to Harold Pinter, and despite the best efforts of Professor Gordon Ball of the Virginia Military Institute, who proposes the songwriter for the Nobel every year, Dylan’s admirers will have to wait at least another 12 months …

Even so, Dylan did still gain a book award, for the first part of his autobiography (published in 2004), ‘CHRONICLES Volume One’. See AOL News (12 October 2005):
‘Rowling, Dylan win Quills prizes for books’. Extracts:

‘J.K. Rowling led the list of writers winning prizes at the first Quill Book Awards on Tuesday, and singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the biography/memoir prize.
** (..)
The winners were determined by online consumer voting from a list of nominees put forward by a national panel of 6,000 librarians and booksellers.
Rowling won the prize for book of the year and best children’s book for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" while Dylan won best biograpy/memoir for "Chronicles: Volume One," his personal history as a musician and tortured pop icon.
Neither author was on hand to accept their award. But Rowling, who said her travel was limited because she needed to look after her young child, gave a video-taped acceptance.
** (..)
The Quills mark a challenge to the more staid National Book Awards and the Pulitzer prize, which have tended toward works with strong literary merit but little public recognition.

SALMAN RUSHDIE – interview in ‘L’EXPRESS’, 29 September 2005

The French weekly ‘L’Express’ for 29 September 2005 carries a long interview with Salman Rushdie, whose new novel ‘Shalimar The Clown’ has just appeared in French translation (cf. this blog, 7 October 2005). The interview, by Thierry Gandillot (pp. 110-114 – is entitled ‘Salman Rushdie: "Aucun auteur ne devrait être aussi connu que je suis"’ (‘Salman Rushdie: "No author should be as well-known as I am"’). I paraphrase some of the main points: 1) Rushdie sees Kashmir, the region where his maternal grandparents lived, as a ‘paradise lost’, a place where in the days before Partition Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony; 2) he stresses that this novel, unlike his earlier ‘Midnight’s Children’, is *not* transformed autobiography: none of the characters should be identified with the author; 3) in particular, the writer killed for alleged religious offences in the book is a fictionalised version of the late Algerian novelist and journalist Tabar Djaout, and the incident has nothing to do with Rushdie’s own tribulations; 4) this is a novel of globalisation, set variously in the US, India and Europe (notably Strasbourg, France), and reflects the ever-closer interrelation of people and events the world over. Rushdie adds, asked about his relationship with India, that he returned to the country of his birth three times last year and that his visits are no longer news!


Se acaba de descubrir, en España, un cuadro hasta ahora desconocido del maestro francés del siglo XVII, Georges de la Tour. Se trata de un acontecimiento de envergadura en el mundo del arte, pues son muy pocos los cuadros autentificados de este pintor (1593-1652), a quien se le dedica un museo en su pueblo de nacimiento, Vic-sur-Seille (alrededores de Metz). La crónica del descubrimiento se puede leer en ‘El País’, 12 de octubre 2005 (‘Historia de un cuadro’, edición internacional, pág. 40; La obra representa a San Jerónimo, barbudo y vestido de rojo, leyendo una carta a través de unos anteojos. Fue hallada en los locales del Instituto Cervantes de Madrid: quien se dio cuenta de su presencia fue César Antonio Molina, director recién llegado de dicho organismo y autor del artículo. La autentificación fue llevada a cabo por los expertos del Museo del Prado. La obra maestra repescada se encuentra expuesta en el Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (Barcelona) hasta el 15 de enero de 2006. Hay una reproducción a colores en la URL de ‘El País’ que citamos arriba.


A ‘new’ painting by the seventeenth-century French master Georges de la Tour has just been discovered in Spain. This is a major event in the art world, as very few authenticated works are known to exist by de la Tour (1593-1652), to whom a museum is dedicated in his birthplace near Metz, the village of Vic-sur-Seille. The discovery is reported in ‘El País’, 12 October 2005 (‘Historia de un cuadro’/’History of a painting’, international edition, p. 40; The painting represents Saint Jerome, bearded and dressed in red and reading a letter through an eyeglass. It was spotted on the premises of the prestigious Cervantes Institute in Madrid by its newly arrived director, César Antonio Molina (author of the article), and was identified as being by de la Tour by the experts of the Prado museum. The newly unearthed masterpiece is on exhibition at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (Barcelona) until 15 January 2006. **There is a colour reproduction at the ‘El País’ URL cited above. **Below is a view of Vic-Sur-Seille, where de la Tour was born.

Walter Benjamin: my ‘Arcades Project’ essay on reading lists, Universities of British Columbia, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, San Francisco and others

I have discovered that my essay from 2002 on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ has, for the third and fourth times to my knowledge, been put on the reading list for two more university course: the Universities of South Florida (Tampa) and Aberdeen (Scotland) are now joined by the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (Canada) and the University of Leeds (England). ** If I put up information of this kind on my blog, it is not solely to publicise myself but also – I hope you agree – for the spirit of the Internet. If my essay has got on to these various courses, it is not so much because it is in a book (published in Delhi and only obtainable from India), gratifying though that is, but above all because it is on-line and therefore freely available to the world.

It’s on-line at:  Do also look at the 16 photos of the arcades which are here on this blog at:!1pU_1OTU2C-hHPw5E4OX2UJA!117.entry)

The Canadian course is taught by: Prof. Kevin McNeilly** Associate Professor Department of English University of British Columbia ** and Associate Editor, ‘Canadian Literature’ ** Extract from the UBC site: ** Studies in the Nineteenth Century: The Culture of Listening: Audience and Consumption in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle ** ‘This seminar will focus on the emergence of apparatuses of listening and reception in the late nineteenth century in late imperial Western Europe, and on the impact of those technologies on the practice of poetry. New conceptions of a public as consumers, decadents, aesthetes, flâneurs and philistines run parallel to the marketing and widespread use of new forms of recording and transmission, from gramophones to telegraphs, which affected ideas of voice and voicing. In addition, movements in arts and crafts – including presses like the Yeats sisters’ Cuala Press and William Morris’s Kelmscott Press – suggest an attention to the material fact of the book, and to editing as an engaged form of audience, that corresponds to a vital re-imaging of the speaking or writing subject as listener. Stylistic innovations, remarkable for example in the publication of Charlotte Mew’s work (intersecting with the New Woman movement) or in Robert Bridges’ edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins, only heighten tensions over gender, nation and the reading public – tensions that inform Walter Benjamin’s recently translated Arcades Project, which we will use as a guide to the problematics of consumption and reading that inform a new cultural poetics, and to the emergence of literary and cultural studies on the national scenes. An investigation of the work of William Butler Yeats, as last Romantic, late Victorian and emergent Modernist, will frame the seminar.’ ** Seminar Schedule ** (selected entries – URLS given):** Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project ** Homepage of The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate** “Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West” by CHRISTOPHER ROLLASON** “From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish and the Aesthetic Dimensions of Prohibitionist Realism” by Scott J. Thompson. ** The Leeds course details are as follows: ** ** University of Leeds History: reading lists: ** APPROACHES TO CULTURE – Dr Phil Withington – SEPTEMBER-DECEMBER 2005 Unit: WALTER BENJAMIN: KNOWING MODERNITY ** Primary reading (includes): Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings (Cambridge, MA, 1996) _____, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA, 1999) ** Further reading (includes): S. Buck-Morss, S., Dialectics of Seeing (1989) E. Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000) Rollason, C., ‘The passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and contemporary cultural debate in the West’ (with URL)


ADDITION, 21 Sept 06


The same Benjamin essay is now also on the reading list for the culture module of the research students’

training programme of  the School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture of the Uoiversity of

Manchester, England (taught by Dr Esther Gomez-Sierra).


This too is a great honour.


ADDITION, 17 July 2009:

For more citations of this essay, see entries for 20 May 2008 and 16 July 2009.


ADDITION, 3 March 2010

I add, expressing my gratitude, that the same article has been included in the course “Urban Life and Social Theory”. taught by Dr David Parker at the University of Nottingham, England (School of Sociology and Social Policy):

**23 March 2010

My Benjamin article has also been cited in the following M.A. theses:


University of British Columbia, Canada:

Faculty of Graduate Studies (Sociology)

Lisa Anna Hale, ‘The Aesthetics of Trespass: The Art and Practice of Urban Exploration in the Postmodern Metropolis’, 2006

University of Cincinatti, Ohio:

Master of Community Planning, College of Design, Art and Planning

Silvia Gugu, ‘Skywalks as Heritage: Exploring Alternatives for the Cincinnati Skywalk System’, 2009 


Note added 28 September 2011:

The essay has been also used in a study group reading ‘The Arcades Project’ at the University of San Francisco. My thanks to Dr Rose Levinson of the Jewish Studies and Social Justice Program of the university’s Department of Theology.

Portbou (Catalunya, Spain) and Walter Benjamin

Portbou (Girona/Gerona province, Catalunya/Cataluña/Catalonia) is the first place travellers arriving from France reach after crossing the border with Spain. It has not only a beautiful natural setting but a rich and dense history of border crossings both ways, by such figures as George Orwell, Alejo Carpentier, and, above all, Walter Benjamin, who breathed his last in Portbou in tragic circumstances in 1940. ** I have published an article about Benjamin and Portbou: ‘Border Crossing, Resting Place: Portbou and Walter Benjamin’, Lingua Franca (Brussels), Vol. 5, No. 8, 2002, pp. 4-9; on-line at: 

Click to access BenjaminPortbouWBRSversion.pdf

Here is a brief extract from that text: ** ‘On the afternoon of 25 September 1940, a group of three clandestine travellers arrived in Portbou, exhausted after a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees from Banyuls-sur-Mer in France (15 km distant as the crow flies). One of them was a stateless German Jew, who carried on his person a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseille, stamped with a Spanish transit visa, also issued in Marseille and good for the land journey to Portugal. A fugitive from the Vichy regime, he now aimed to reach the safety of the US via Lisbon. He had once visited Ibiza, but spoke no Spanish, although he had an excellent command of French. The Spanish frontier guards accosted the group and demanded their documents. They told the bearer of the US passport that he could go no further: his presence on Spanish territory was illegal because he had no French exit visa. However, in view of the traveller’s evident ill-health, the police agreed to postpone expelling him back to Pétain’s France until the next day. Impelled, perhaps, by inexplicable generosity or covert republican sympathies, they allowed him to spend the night, not in a police cell but in the less undignified surroundings of a cheap room in the Hotel de Francia – at No 5 in Avenida del General Mola, a street in the town centre near the police station, recently renamed after a Francoist commander. At 10 p.m. the next day, in Room No 4 on the hotel’s second floor, the traveller was found dead. The stateless refugee whose life ended in Portbou on 26 September 1940 was Walter Benjamin, now recognised as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century (…)’ ** These photographs complement my article. From left to right you can see:  1. The cemetery, with marble slab in memory of Benjamin;  2. The Casa Alejandro, formerly the Hotel de Francia, where Benjamin died (in the second-floor room with the balcony). 3. View of Portbou;. 4. The Benjamin monument by Dani Karavan, 5. The Benjamin museum.  ** The words on the memorial slab read: in German, ‘Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein’, and then in Catalan: ‘No hi ha cap document de la cultura que non ho sigui també de la barbàrie’ (‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’).



The French translation of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, SHALIMAR THE
CLOWN, is already out and in the shops. Details are: SHALIMAR LE CLOWN,
Paris: Plon, 2005, translated by ‘Claro’. The translator thus appears
under an alias and leaves no other details as to his/her name and
background: I make no comment. There is no introduction or glossary.
This translation is out remarkably fast, but it appears that this is
generally the case for Rushdie.

This blog will be keeping an eye on translations of literary works,
especially though not only of Indian Writing in English, and I will
welcome any relevant information anyone wishes to send me. It is
unlikely I would actually read the translations into any language
othert than Spanish, but all relevant data will be grist to my
globalised mill …

Dora Sales Salvador, ‘PUENTES SOBRE EL MUNDO’: recepción + bibliotecas

En esta bitácora (27 de septiembre de 05) encontraréis una versión abreviada de mi reseña de PUENTES SOBRE EL MUNDO, estudio critico de la autoría de Dora Sales Salvador. Ahora he descubierto que este libro figuraba, para este curso 05-06, en la bibliografía crítica básica de la asignatura TEXTOS HISPANOAMERICANOS (programa que incluye el estudio de LOS RÍOS PROFUNDOS de José María Arguedas, texto analizado en el libro de Dora Sales), de la licenciatura en Filología Española de la Universidad de La Laguna (Islas Canarias). Esto se debe a la profesora responsable de la asignatura, Petra Iraides Cruz-Leal, experta en literaturas hispanoamericanas, a quien, efectivamente, yo había enviado el texto de la reseña. 


Añado que, según lo que he podido verificar por la Red, el mismo libro PUENTES SOBRE EL MUNDO se encuentra ya en las bibliotecas universitarias de NAVARRA y SALAMANCA (Estado español), AMBERES y GANTE (Bélgica), EDIMBURGO (Escocia), MANNHEIM y VECHTA (Alemania), MONTREAL (Canada), ILLINOIS at CHAMPAIGN (EE UU), y KINUGASA, Kyoto (Japon),y también en las del Consejo Superior de Investigación Científica (Madrid), del Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (Amsterdam) y del Instituto Iberoamericano de Berlín.

Esta noticia fue actualizada el 7-2-07.