The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán (tr. Will Vanderhyden). Open Letter Books. $18.95, 522pp.
“Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty.”
— Rodrigo Fresán, The Invented Part
Antonio Díaz Oliva begins his review of La parte inventada in El Telégrafo, musing, “I believe someone has already said it, but I’m going to repeat it one more time: something is bothering Rodrigo Fresán. Or, rather, something is bothering the narrator of Rodrigo Fresán’s last novel—novel? I place ‘novel’ in quotation marks—‘the shape of a fish or meat hook’—because the truth is I don’t know if La parte inventada is a novel, as its promotional band hysterically announces: ‘Fresán has written the total novel.’”
Unlike Díaz Oliva, my review is not of La parte inventada, that is, the Spanish-language text composed by Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán. How could it be, having not read it? It is, instead, a review of The Invented Part, a translation authored by Will Vanderhyden, in which Fresán is both implicated and exonerated.
It is also important to stipulate that my review foregrounds two fundamental questions: What constitutes a novel? And, is the novel dead? To proceed without addressing, however tentatively, these questions seems to me a tenuous proposition. Put simply, is The Invented Part a novel? And, if so, does it foretell the death of the novel as we know (knew?) it?
Writing in The New York Times, Benjamin Moser states plainly, “A novel is a book. ‘The novel’ is a discourse, and the death of the novel a rhetorical motif.” These distinctions, however simplified, are important to the point of this review, especially when generic classifications are becoming increasingly fluid and contested.
Returning, for a moment, to the claim of the “total novel,” such assertions are nothing new, especially in 20th-century Latin American literature. Cortázar’s Hopscotch; Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral; Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral; and, of course, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude have all had this laurel bestowed on them. Of these four, the only novel to which The Invented Part bears any resemblance is Hopscotch, and even then, the comparison is strained.
I’ll leave to other reviewers the question of whether La parte inventada, or even The Invented Part, constitutes the “total novel.” Instead, I’d like to continue to examine the question I posed above: Is it a novel? Two of the work’s 16 epigraphs lead us at least to question its generic classification: “Can I call this a novel?” (Marcel Proust); and “This is not a pipe,” a reference to René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, and a warning to the reader not to confuse representation with reality. In other words, is The Invented Part a novel or merely the representation of a novel? Perhaps the answer lies in its formal qualities.
Structurally, The Invented Part is divided into three acts, the longest of which is the second act, which itself is divided into five parts, or scenes if we extend the dramaturgical metaphor. As has been pointed out in other reviews, its plot is relatively simple: its protagonist, The Writer, having once enjoyed moderate success, and discovering that his books no longer interest readers, decides that the solution to his existential crisis is to break into the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where he hopes to merge with the “God particle” and, in doing so, become a god-writer, capable of authoring his own reality. This will allow him to achieve success. Consider:
There was a time when the definitive proof of success was the very ability to disappear, to be impossible to find, to have nobody know where you are. To be unreachable. To be outside everything.
À propos of Moser’s axiom, we also find an interesting twist of the death-of-a-novel motif—namely, the death of The Writer’s books, or more precisely, the death of interest in his books, even the death of book culture.
Admittedly, the question of whether The Invented Part is a novel was a rhetorical exercise meant to draw out certain aspects of this text. Of course, it is a novel. It is, however, something much more: a resounding refutation of the assertion that the novel is dead, and a statement of how omnivorous and adaptable the form is. To quote Mexican novelist Sergio Pitol:
[The novel] reappears on the international stage today with enviable health. It blooms with a fullness that roses would envy. Behold it: protean, generous, bold, ubiquitous, skeptical, cheeky, and unmanageable. Each crisis of society causes it to regenerate. When necessary, it sheds its skin. It grows with adversity. It is experiencing today one of its greatest moments, and, as a result, there are probably those among us who are beginning to predict its next extinction. Perhaps they have already chosen its coffin and burial place. This prophecy is part of the customs of our century. Each time the novel is reinvigorated, someone announces its death knell. The truth is no one can defeat it. (The Art of Flight)
Having read The Invented Part, it is not surprising that Fresán is often mentioned in the same breath as Bolaño and Cortázar; Bolaño because he is widely considered to be the Chilean’s heir, a folly that I will not elaborate on here, and because Fresán was also a close friend of his; and Cortázar because, as I stated above, The Invented Part is, rightly or wrongly, compared frequently to Cortázar’s magnum opus, Hopscotch; but more importantly because, like Bolaño’s and Cortázar’s translated works, The Invented Part is a welcome addition to the canon of translated Latin American literature.
Unlike Bolaño and Cortázar, however, the appearance of Fresán’s work in English has been belated and sparing. Of this ten books, only two have appeared in English: Kensington Gardens (Faber and Faber 2005), translated by Natasha Wimmer, and The Invented Part, translated skillfully by Will Vanderhyden and released in May of this year. Fortunately, Open Letter is scheduled to publish two other Fresán novels, The Bottom of the Sky (May 2018) and Mantra (TBD), “with plans to complete the Parts trilogy as well,” presumably—hopefully—in Vanderhyden’s translations.
Unfortunately, translators, perhaps out of professional courtesy, or the fear of being labeled the translation police, are hesitant to comment on fellow translators’ work. The task, then, inevitably falls to reviewers who, frankly, are unqualified to do so, and whose critiques inevitably make references to “fluency” and “invisibility” or recur to bromides like, “This translation reads as if it were written in English,” an observation that at best is a backhanded compliment.
As a translator of Latin American literature, however, I feel obligated to comment on the translation. At 522 pages, it was impossible to read the original as well as the translation for this review. Of what I did read of the original, in tandem with Vanderhyden’s translation, I am happy to say that the translation is commendable. This young translator, who already possesses an impressive resume of titles, is, at least in this instance, like a fish in water (to borrow an idiom from Spanish), that is to say, in his element. Adjectives like seamless and effortless come to mind. Consider the following passage:
No hacía mucho—en otro vuelo, afortundamente breve—había escuchado la conversación ininterrumpida durante una hora y media de dos seres quienes, imposibilitados de hablar con sus teléfonos, se la pasaron hablando de sus teléfonos. A primera vista, su aspecto era decididamente prehistórico, como hooligans informáticos. Cráneos abovedados, ojos pequeños, brazos largos y pulgares inmensos, pupilas dilatadas por la exigencia de tener que leer y escribir con letras cada vez más minúsculas, repetición de palabras a las que pareceían faltarles letras.
Not long ago—on another flight, mercifully short—he’d listen to the uninterrupted, hour-and-a-half long conversation of two creatures who, unable to talk on their phones spent all their time talking about their phones. At first glance, their appearance was decidedly prehistoric, like tech hooligans. Domed skulls, small eyes, long arms, and huge thumbs, pupils dilated from the need to have something to read and write in increasingly minute text, the repetition of words that seemed to be missing letters.
What excites me about this passage is the degree to which Vanderhyden was able to be faithful—admittedly an adjective fraught with baggage—to Fresán’s syntax, while at the same time making (only) the necessary syntactic changes. Of interest too are his lexical choices: mercifully for afortunadamente (fortunately); creatures for seres (beings), tech for informáticos. These choices reveal not only a careful wordsmith but also a profound understanding of the semantics of his choices.
In preparation for this review, I asked Vanderhyden a series of questions, including what I call the $64,000 question: “What’s your ‘philosophy’ about translation? Or, what do you see as the ‘task of the translator’?” His answer was both refreshing and obvious: “I think the translator’s task is to find what makes that text unique and to try to bring that to life in the translation. What that comes down to with the writers I’m attracted to—in a very broad and abstract sense—is recreating style.” Obvious because it is what every translator should endeavor to do; refreshing because the author’s style is, to paraphrase Frost, what too often gets lost in translation.
A recipient of a 2016 NEA translation grant, Vanderhyden’s wrote in his translator’s statement that the “NEA fellowship will allow me the freedom to, for a while, fully engage with the sprawling, multifaceted novel that is Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part, to study it, to comprehend the way its world of references fits together, to work at recreating in English the coherence of its complex interplay of ideas and the rhythms of its sinuous sentences.” If nothing else, this translation is proof of the value of the NEA and the wise investment of its resources.
Podcasts dedicated to The Invented Park, including an interview with Vanderhyden, are available here.
George Henson is a literary translator and lecturer of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. He is the translator of Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna, as well as fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke. His translations have appeared in a variety of literary venues, including The Literary Review, BOMB, The Buenos Aires Review, The Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. He is also the translation editor for Latin American Literature Today.
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