The Dirty Dust: Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (tr. Alan Titley). Yale University Press. 328pp, $25.00.
Long have I labored in the temples of translation, if not as a cleric, then let us say as a graying vestal. In those drop-ceiling’d holy sites, papered with grant applications and hung with the leathered hides of forgotten interns, rumors have long persisted of the great untranslated Irish-language novel Cré na Cille, its title traditionally English’d as “Graveyard Clay.” Now called The Dirty Dust (the better to retain author Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s alliterative original, says its introduction), it has at last been made available to Anglophones thanks to translator Alan Titley and the Yale Margellos World Republic of Letters.
“An influence on Finnegans Wake!” was one commonly heard refrain concerning this as-yet obscure object of desire, never mind that the two novels’ respective dates of publication make this a strained point at best. “In a league with Flann O’Brien!” was another, more reasonable, certainly more accurate line. To complete the trifecta, I even heard a few variations on “Beckett loved it!”—presumably unsubstantiated, but nonetheless tantalizing. Whether or not Ó Cadhain’s prose could really match or anyway trot sans embarrassment alongside the mighty strides of this Holy Trinity, the book’s premise was enough to lend credence to the rumors. Cré na Cille comes with an unbeatable “elevator pitch” that rhymes most deliciously with the work of its author’s best beloved countrymen: it’s none of your garden-variety narratives, following a protagonist or protagonists through which- and whatever conflicts and experiences, no. It’s 100% dialogue, and not just any dialogue, but a chorale of dead souls, every character already having snuffed it and been stuffed into their graves. À la an Our Town or Spoon River cross-pollinated with No Exit, however, these corpses are perpetually, rather hellishly awake, aware, and gabbing in Ó Cadhain’s wonderfully unsplendid hereafter.
They’ve brought all their squabbles with them, you see. They tease and fulminate at one another, they leave no grudge unaired, and are all entirely impotent, trapped in their little boxes, rotting away, as unable to plug their ears and shut out the words of their neighbor dead as they are to put a cork in their own streams of palaver. There’s no story, as such, or rather there’s a plenitude of them, as new arrival Catriona Paudeen pursues her niggling vendettas among the upper-, middle-, and lower-class deceased (one’s position is determined by how much money your survivors spent to bury you), and these deceased in turn pursue their own feuds, mocking and revising the plaints of their coevals, setting them to verse, and—best of all—lying through their bleaching teeth to pass the time. After all, nothing can ever happen to these characters. The only action, so to call it, in the book, in this world, is the arrival of fresh corpses bringing fresh news of the land of the living.
It’s a killer concept, and in this could indeed be a throwaway fished from some heretofore unremarked eddy of the Wake, could easily be a sketch by the ever-eschatological Flann, could easily be an early warm-up for The Unnamable or name-your-favorite “I am but a voice in the void” Beckett. There, however, is the rub: having “read” the book Bayardically so many times, having poured over the snips and blips of translated Cré na Cille that have already appeared in academic volumes and the like, having compared it (without having read it) to the masterpieces of Irish modernism, when I was finally confronted this year not with the “Graveyard Clay” of my Hibernian reveries but Mr. Titley’s Dust, it was decidedly, perhaps unfairly, anticlimactic. Enough so that it warranted a reevaluation not only of the readerly expectations I’d larded away concerning Ó Cadhain’s reputed masterpiece but of the very possibility I’d taken for granted, as a true believer in world literature, that we with no Irish (language) in us were, all these years, only a few steps away—a willing rights holder, an advance on royalties, and a brave translator, to name three—from finally being able to see, as they say, “what all the fuss was about.”
So imagine, friends, an afterlife not of harps and angels, not of devils and Don Juans, but a twilight beyond or below or beside our world here in the daylight, a plane putatively free of the petty concerns of the sublunary world, a region we’ve been led to believe will be loftier, purer, better than the circumstances to which we are condemned by birth, a realm in which our spirits might communicate effortlessly, unreservedly, freed of the constraints of language, of the impediments of class, culture, and nationality set upon us by waking life, of the anxieties that make us injure and malign one another; a place where our better selves might pursue their ideals unfettered. Imagine it, and believe in it, only to find, upon your annunciation into this wondrous realm, that all the rules to which you’d become accustomed back on Earth still, in fact, apply: this paradise is just more of the same, not a better place at all, only a clammy sub-basement to our accustomed grinds, a phantom zone in which all the misunderstandings, antipathies, preoccupations, and mendacities we were hoping to escape instead rage on in perpetuity. We may be unencumbered here, yes, but not of the pettifoggery to which the flesh is heir: only of the restraints our accustomed condemnation to a tactile, social universe had, all along (who knew?), been putting on our capacities for spite and self-delusion. It turns out that those we’ve left behind actually have it pretty good: in a realm of pure spirit, there can be no checks upon our egocentrism, you see, because there are no bodies, sights, sounds, smells, sandwiches to distract us from our grievances. All we have now are opinions, and ours can barely be heard over a million others, each equally convinced of its rectitude.
But the astute reader will have guessed by now that I am speaking not of the comically nightmarish afterlife depicted in The Dirty Dust but of the world of literary translation. Not for nothing did I begin by referring to the practice in religious terms: aside, perhaps, from that ultimate question of quality—otherwise known as “Is the damn thing any good?”—no other component of our day-in, day-out literary practice is as tangled up as translation in what might be termed an applied science, while nonetheless shading off into the impossible or mystical. Not only reviewers and publishers and writers but lawyers and international treaties and rights contracts—they all refer to books not as agglomerations of words in this or that tongue but as disembodied, Ideal Forms: “works” floating in a sort of limbo, waiting for a medium to reach out and siphon them out of the ether and into a new vessel, a vessel that in no tangible way resembles its original, pre-ascension shape, but which retains—by common agreement—the name, the “essence,” and the reputation of body from which this airy spirit fled. What is it but pure and beautiful faith on the parts of we readers, consumers, acolytes when we succeed in navigating the cognitive dissonance of believing despite the evidence of our senses and intelligence that a product entitled, say, Hopscotch, is in fact a product entitled Rayuela—the consumption of which will endow an (in this case) Anglophone with all the rights and privileges accorded a reader of the words actually set down by its author? It’s absurd, no?—but then that’s never stopped any true believer. It’s never stopped me for a moment.
All of literature, you’ll say, runs on faith—which I grant, but I’d still make the claim that translation comes closest to a sort of practical eschatology for the Work of Literature, requiring of us the unusual conviction that nothing—not even the loss of every single word making up an original text—can truly stop a Great Work from being Great. A novel is born, lives through a publicity cycle or two, dies, is memorialized, and on its journey toward eternity becomes a wordless quiddity in the heaven-cum-purgatory of translation, shedding everything that made it itself save the pomps of its identity. We who await its arrival, craving access to its bounty, deploy our table-rappers and haruspices to make contact, and then welcome it with much fanfare—hosanna! we can read That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, we can read The Empty Book, we can read Trobadora Beatrice, we can read The Dirty Dust!—briefly according this version of the newcomer a special status as the Real Thing, our best hope of assimilating a toothsome text. Before, that is, by and by, forgetfulness, mixed reviews, and competing translations of the same novel (if we’re lucky!) all conspire to make the work into just another gray, undifferentiated, infinitely transposable and expendable citizen of the world republic of letters.
Have I mentioned that a second, annotated translation of Cré na Cille, reverting to the title Graveyard Clay, has already been announced by Yale for 2016?
You may well ask, What crime The Dirty Dust has committed to provoke these lucubrations in someone who ought by now to have a confessor or VD specialist’s purportedly disinterested eye where it comes to the ugly and unmentionable processes of (literary) reproduction? What’s wrong with this book, anyway? And I’d have to answer, Nothing much. There are minor concerns, yes: the book itself, if I can speak of its migrating soul independent of its new body (or bodies), strikes me as a series of not terribly elegant changes rung on its however-clever theme: some sections deliver the goods, are as pungent and funny as advertised; others smack of laziness, as though the weight of the necessity that each character in a novel sans narrator continually identify him- or herself through verbal tics alone hit Ó Cadhain’s logorrheic genius like the proverbial ton. Semi-protagonist Catriona’s recapitulations of “Abooboona/Abuboona/Ababoona/Aboo boona [etc.]! I’m going to burst! I will burst!” whenever she feels traduced by one or another bag of bones are quickly wearying, as are so many other such tags—and book is chockablock with them. Even those more slyly deployed, such as the manifold and misapplied “de grâce”s of the despised Toejam Nora, a woman who has developed new intellectual pretensions post mortem, come to irritate rather than amuse. And while there is a progression to the novel, while it does have a beginning and an end, a reader could be forgiven for being unable to keep these in sight during those longeurs where the author’s ingenuity flagged, where the gabble seems to be treading water (treading dust?), and the book comes to feel as though there’s no better reason for it to continue for another fifty or hundred pages save that this is how many pages you see are left to read.
Such misgivings can’t be laid at the feet of the translation process, but with that said, Titley’s Dust is a strange chimera made to seem stranger still by the knowledge that it will have a sibling/competitor on the market so very soon. Often, mind you, Mr. Titley soars: there are eye-watering squibs on the order of “What she said was like a plague of stoats buzzing back and forth through my brain spitting out venomous snots,” which—never mind that stoats do not, to my knowledge, buzz—is funny enough that it drowns out any anxieties about harmony or fidelity. Likewise, we have the uproarious and perfectly rendered pronouncements of the force or entity or ancient of days who terms him- or itself the “Trumpet of the Graveyard,” and whose portentous prologues—“States of the Union” meant to give the other dead, who aren’t listening, a more holistic or cosmic view of time passing both above and below ground—open many of the novel’s ten “interludes.” The Trumpet’s lines range from the prickly poetic (“The unturned sod is unwelcoming and sour with its lining of ice”) to the positively florid (“Aboveground life is putting on the raiment of Spring. The pert peek of serendipitous stalks and the fresh smile which breaks on the bare earth are the basting thread of this suit of clothes . . .”), and usually within a sentence or two. These are triumphs of bad-good and good-good and bad-wink-bad writing, deserving of applause.
And yet, and yet . . . The Dirty Dust is speckled throughout with other expressions this reader can’t believe have likely equivalents—no matter how broad the equivalence—in Irish, let alone in Irish circa the 1940s. “Holy fuckaroni” is a particular stand-out, but there are also lashings of “total asshole”s “scumbag”s, “clueless”es, and other locutions that—whether or not they might appear (and it’s possible!) to the informed bilingual as legitimate readings of the author’s original and to-me inaccessible profanity—feel cacophonously contemporary in this context: alien artifacts of the dreaded now, or maybe of some other novel altogether. Titley’s admission in his excellent introduction that his translation, following Ó Cadhain’s lead, took whatever liberties he saw fit—his reminder that “languages are not algebraic equations”—could never entirely ameliorate my sense that what we might have gained in fuckaroni was nonetheless a loss for the unity and substantiality of Dust. A loss for the delightful (if, I’ll readily admit, largely illusory and impermanent) sense our greatest translations give us: that this version is, for all that it will never contain even approximations of its author’s words, working on us in a way similar to which the original would have aspired. In the absence of the protective shell of this illusion, the apparent lags in Ó Cadhain’s verbal resourcefulness are compounded by Titley’s apparent excess of resourcefulness in such a way as to hobble the whole. The reader—or this reader—is never able to settle in and simply enjoy.
So, what is The Dirty Dust’s crime? Nothing much, save this: it came first, after years of anticipation, and moreover came booby-trapped with the information that a presumably less modernized, more “faithful” translation is on the way. Nothing much, save this—which may also happen to be this edition’s most valuable distinction: it is, therefore, internally and externally, in its content and the manner of its composition and the manner of its translation, the manner of its publication and soon-to-be republication, a perfect if unintended cameo of the Babel that’s given it birth in English: a fractal portrait of translation with all its glorious compromises glaring. Yes, The Dirty Dust disappointed me—but disappointment and the backbiting that follows disappointment are precisely what the book is about. We hope for heaven, for the ideal, and wind up with decomposition. That’s life, innit; or, that’s afterlife. And one is reminded of how perhaps the most productive concept in Western, twentieth-century eschatology—fiction-wise, I mean—was the reawakening of the pre-Christian notion of the World to Come as nothing more than an infinite slog: there’s something out there, all right, beyond human ken, but once you get there, it’s just the same old shit in a spookier package (cf. The Third Policeman, Lanark, Sweet Dreams, and so forth).
So, what is The Dirty Dust’s crime? Only this, that the next time I see, on a shelf, multiple Quixotes, multiple Borgeses and Bovarys and Ó Cadhains, I will remember the dead of Dust lying bound up in their graves, some in hardcover (the Pound Plot), some in soft (the Ten Shilling Plot), speaking their pieces rather than resting in peace, and all wrong about themselves and about the world in various strident measures. I will for a moment question one of the basic tenets of my religion—that where translations are concerned, the more is always the merrier—before I lapse into my accustomed, mountain-moving faith, and determine yet again that this eternal argument is the only heaven we deserve.
Jeremy M. Davies is the author of two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015), as well as The Knack of Doing, a collection of short fiction forthcoming this winter from David R. Godine. He was for some years Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press.
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