A Voluptuous Cat Beside a Queen: On Translating “Alejandra the Great” by Carlos Franz
Salt Hill Journal, Spring 2012
I met Alejandra on several separate occasions, and never was she the same woman. This, I would later learn, was the proof of her constancy.
I came to know her, first, in Spanish—her native language, as it were—when the decorated Chilean writer Carlos Franz sent me his story “Alejandra the Great.”A lovely Madrid-based literary initiative called the Centro de Arte Moderno, run by two bibliophile Argentines, was prepar- ing an illustrated limited edition of the story, and it was to be bilingual. This was in keeping with Alejandra’s professional spirit: in the story she is a translator herself, a polyglot of mixed blood, “half-Mapuche and half Viking,” as Franz describes her.
Franz, for his part, has only recently appeared in English because of an accident of geography and history. He was born in Switzerland to Chilean parents, and returned to Santiago for his adolescence and young adulthood (where he would go on to study under José Donoso) before Europe beckoned once again. He’s since lived in Berlin and London, and most recently in Madrid. It’s the kind of cosmopolitanism that enlarges a writer’s sensibility, but can just as easily confound labels and doom his work to belated translation into English. “Alejandra the Great” is just one example of how Franz mixes sensibilities. He is at once at home in the mannered, upholstered reaches of high society, and yet also is as evidently inspired by the quaint charms and breezy cantankerousness of the pueblo, and, as evidenced in this story, the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Alejandra could only have sprung from such diverse locales. The sto- ry is as much about her corporeality as it is about her textuality. She is a true giantess, primordially endowed, and a kind of Venus of Willendorf in the flesh. Her voluptuousness plunges the story’s narrator, an anthropol- ogist specializing in cannibalism, into bottomless lust (“the physical painof her absence, the idealization of her soul, the hunger for her body.”). Yet for all her fleshy, pulsating allure she looms largest on the page. She is that erotic object par excellence: a blank screen on which the narra- tor projects his obsessions and longings and also (according to the tale’s culminating footnote) the voice that literally reads out what the narrator has wrought in her honor. The story takes the form of an anthropolo- gist’s field manual, replete with footnotes and scholastic digressions. It is also leavened with the inevitable bombast of the academic ego, and is a sort of memoir—and even travelogue—chronicling a journey of erotic dissolution. It begins in Europe, in London and Paris, and concludes in the Brazilian Amazon. But in an important sense, the tale ends where it begins: in the loins. Anyway, it is no accident that Alejandra is a transla- tor by trade, a mediating and catalyzing presence—and a translator in more ways than one. To invoke that eternal phrase from Freud, she is “polymorphously perverse.”
I met Alejandra a second time as she made her approach into English. Her physique was both a fact to be reckoned with (her “blazing Amerindian cheeks . . . [and] folds . . . rolls . . . [and] curves of an ideal woman”) and a hazy abstraction; it seemed a metaphor for what I was doing. Polymorphously perverse, indeed.
Like the buxom Alejandra, the translating process itself was an ex- ercise in expansion. Pointed reading swelled into dogged translating, fol- lowed by a long stretch of refashioning with Carlos to tone up some unwanted fleshiness where it sagged between the two languages. An ob- vious challenge was to capture that engorged sensibility, which Alejandra embodied: not just her plumpness but also—and this was key—how she grew under the sweaty, breathless gaze of the narrator, until her fatness and his love of words partook of the same gluttony. The tools in English are, of course, different from those of Spanish. Aggrandizing suffixes in Spanish, humming cadences, and alliterations impelled suggestive rep- etitions, the elongation of choice phrases, and syntactical legerdemain in English. In a way, it was all very much a kind of call and response: a note is sounded in the Spanish, which calls out first for a match—a thematic and sonic equivalent—and then for a continuation of the idea or gesture proceeding along in the same key.
Above all, translation is an enlargement or deepening of a sensibility rather than a point-by-point redrawing of a likeness. You always know this to be true as a translator—that translating is essentially rewriting— but especially when the story is itself a kind of portrait. Before long, you realize that the visage you’ve imagined is an agglomeration of three or more visages, illuminated by three ongoing moments: the original Spanish, the limbo language of doubles and catalogues of synonyms that marks early drafts of a translation, and the final English. The translation ends up bearing all the traces of these antecedent materials.
In Alejandra’s case, she and her story got bigger rather than more compact in translation. At the presentation of the illustrated edition back in October in Madrid, I found myself next to the artist who drew Alejandra. We were on a panel, together with Carlos, talking about the story, and I remember feeling somehow appalled at what the artist was saying. He seemed to be talking of a single Alejandra (after all, he needed to make an actual drawing), whereas I’d fallen for her multiplicity and indefinability. Franz calls this “the optic-erotic indulgence” in the story. The phrase comes from one of my favorite moments: “…I begged her to let me gaze upon her in leisurely fashion while she stood nude before the closet mirrors, her flesh multiplying itself in that illusion of infinity that opposing mirrors jointly produce.”
This all leads me, finally, to what may be the story’s most subtle and difficult irony to reflect back in translation. Behind the profusion of words and anthropological citations and indulgent, eroticized descrip- tions is a lean nostalgia. Our narrator heaps on effusion after effusion— how he pines for Alejandra, lusts after her, quite simply cannot have his fill. And yet this is insufficient. The magnetism of sexual desire, its primal wellspring, its utter inexplicability and power—all inevitably cheapen the talk, trump and overshadow it, crush it under their unfathomable weight. (Like Alejandra sitting atop the narrator and nearly suffocating him dur- ing sex.)
How many times does the narrator interrupt himself to say, in ef- fect: ‘it’s so much more than this, so much more powerful than what I’m saying’? The first line anticipates our skepticism; it parries that inevitable snub: this must be some kind of silly fetish, a man losing his head over a woman. The author imagines a dismissal born of judgment: “How is it my fault if I like the fat ones,” he opens, more defensive than he seems to know. Or later: “Whoever asks me why this healthy fatness is so desirable to me, I’ll simply remind him that he has a bad memory.” At one point, an embarrassed Alejandra calls him a “pervert.” And the accusation is piercing because it is dismissively categorical, while the narrator has been so fixated all along on particulars: on the particulars of “his” Alejandra. To accuse him of being a pervert is, perhaps, to undercut his articulateness, his regard for the details.There’s the lurking danger throughout the story, percolating until the very end, that all these words might be ignored as some frivolity.
There is thus a wistfulness behind the humor. It seems tied to a long- ing for a simpler, more primitive time when so many explanations and rationalizations may not have been necessary; in short, a time before all this verbosity and speechifying. The narrator bemoans:
“Man’s infancy is spent in eager anticipation of climbing onto the immensity of The Woman. Later, we grow, and everything gets smaller; women shrink in proportion to our rise in stature. Now we cannot mount them without crushing them. What male solitude this has wrought! Such nostalgia for that original desire!”
We grow and displace that bygone, wordless space that was once the province of wonder. The sentiment seeps into the narrator’s love of Alejandra’s “wisdom and simplicity.” It also partially explains his obses- sion with the contrast of her massiveness and delicateness: she “contains multitudes,” as Whitman would have it. Her feet, Franz says, are “the feet of a Greek statue where only the veins at the top of her instep” betray the weight they are supporting.
Like any proper homage, the aesthetic stakes of the story lay at the feet of the statue. Alejandra’s own body sets out the example: hers is the figure “of an ideal woman,” something paradigmatic and possessed of a transformative beauty. It creates in its own image, all in that slight strain of the instep. The lilting irony and playful, Nabokovian digressions support a great weight. Watching Carlos hoist it up, even helping him set it aloft just so, I felt myself as translator (to borrow a phrase from Edith Wharton) “dilate in the presence of luxury,” the sumptuousness of Alejandra the Great.