Thursday, November 16, 2017

Multiple and contradictory ways of being faithful

My breathing had grown regular again. But it was not nothing. I didn't know that it would ever be nothing — what person contemplates the details of her betrayal without feeling some combination of regret and humiliation, however far in the past?
I first heard about A Separation, by Katie Kitamura, during the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge (mostly weeks one and two). I learned that there was very little story to it, it was told by an unreliable narrator who's also cold and distant, it transpires in Greece, and it's a meditative look at the dissolution of a marriage and its minutiae. Kind of. Opinion was very divided. Sounded right up my alley.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, worried about Christopher. She obviously doesn't know they've been separated for six months, and rather than tell her so, the narrator agrees to go to Greece to check up on him.

So the narrator's a little passive, possibly emotionless — I'd say she's slow and careful about how she processes things. I think she's very relatable, in a "my god, how did I get here?!" kind of way. I mean, who hasn't been married for five years to a guy you may or may not love and felt intimidated by a mother-in-law you don't like, and you spend so much time with them, do you even really know these people, and one day you wake up and you're separated and you're not sure you even care?! Totally relatable. You do your work, you live your life, death is an inconvenience.

I hesitate to say the narrator is unreliable, because nothing she surmises is ever proven false, I don't feel she lied to me, I never felt she was hiding anything from me. On the contrary, she's very forthcoming in her opinions of others and theories of their goings-on. What stands out about her as a narrator is that we know next to nothing about her; we spend time in her head, processing her world, but without access to her history. Quite possibly she doesn't know herself very well.

In my reading, it's key to note that she works as a translator. She has occasion to be reminded of her work on Balzac's Colonel Chabert.
Although the story favors the colonel — the countess is the villain of the story, insofar as there is one, she is portrayed as callow, manipulative and superficial — as I worked on the translation, I found myself increasingly sympathetic to the countess, to the extent that I began to wonder if this feeling showed in the translation, if I had weighted the words without realizing it. Of course, this sympathy might not have been so errant, it might have been Balzac's intention, the very effect he wished to cause in the reader: after all, what a terrible fate, to be faithless, to commit bigamy without being aware of it, it was all in the text itself.

Perhaps because of this concern — one that is in the end a question of fidelity, translators are always worried about being faithful to the original, an impossible task because there are multiple and often contradictory ways of being faithful, there is literal fidelity and there is in the spirit of,a phrase without concrete meaning — I thought about Chabert now.
Clearly she doesn't just work as a translator, she lives as one: filtering everything, distilling it to its essence, weighing it and weighting it, considering its intention and its effect. She translates the whole world for us.

Also in many ways she remains faithful to the original — her first marriage.

There are some great "pieces" in this book: on the expression "he's dead to me"; on modern technology facilitating a different kind of pornography; on the personal ads in the London Review of Books; on professional mourners.
You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you in order to mourn for other people, and not only yourself.
The mood of A Separation is quite meditative, on several subjects: how we never really know anyone else, what we choose to believe about others, how we maintain appearances, the disconnect between what we say and do and feel, how we lie about stupid things, for stupid reasons.

Not much happens. I found a stillness in this novel that suited my state of mind well.


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