"Prairie's powers" by Gustave Roud; translated from the French by Alexander Dickow

photo copyright Fonds Gustave Roud, BCU, Lausanne

Prairie's powers

Who would think to question a vast and ordered landscape’s irresistible ascendancy, at once over our gaze and, piece by piece, over our total being? It enslaves us gently, in the manner of a symphony. The sky, vacant or pasture to the clouds; the lands drawn out to their horizons with their naive features intact, or molded by the hands of men, offer to the eye their grand themes, in no way bound to any temporal progression, but pronounced across space in unison, where they forever secure the paradox of a simultaneous and immutable counterpoint. It is rather our vision that follows the length of each motionless phrase, enmeshed in the lace of shapely melody, the magic net, the relentless snare that every season, every day, nearly every hour bends, with the weight of so much fresh bait, beneath new harmonies. And the spirit eagerly suffers the delights of an expert capture: in an even more startling paradox, these delights teach the spirit its most secret, most essential strengths. More than Amiel’s celebrated remark, every landscape is an emotion, Brulard-Stendhal translates this mystery perfectly to my mind: the landscapes drew their bows across my soul, for this expression highlights the lasting likeness of landscape and lullaby.

A mysterious power plays indeed in the case of those grand, ordered spaces whose virtues surpass those of a mere soul-stirring bow to attain those of an immense orchestra, laying its plies from total silence to pure fury into a sheer universe of variegated inflections, and which, merely to interpret a few eternal themes, keeps at hand the sorcery of notes a thousandfold. A power still more mysterious in the case of an isolated fraction embedded in the larger landscape, whose welcoming gesture, by the secret virtue of a single clump of trees, of a liquid glint below a dark cluster of leaves, likewise draws us softly towards our finest self.

There I daydream, laying in a balmy October prairie where the encroaching evening spreads the ash and the oak trees’ shade alongside me – a fleeting prairie, bounded by a screen of trees and a creek of little violence; one of those ennobling sites where the most rehearsed gesture, the most everyday thought, divested, as it were, of its contingency, reaches toward a simplicity serene and near to greatness. My friend and his cart, some weeks ago, were here loading the soft aftermath with which the wind delights to mix the mower’s hair, or to cling to his scorched and naked shoulder. And this familiar labor, these always identical movements; the horses’ halt, their advance; the pitch, the draw of the rake; the pitchfork empty, the pitchfork full and in full swing; it all unfolded against the dark and leafy backdrop like a sort of dance, steady and flawless, from which were banished any rhythmic misstep. Then like a rash of angry hives across the mown ground the meadow saffron lit their tufts of flame. There was no one left. On Sunday, occasionally, the sound of laughter and brushing against leaves along the hedge: little girls were shaking the high hazel boughs. The grass grew green again, little by little, from one dew to the next. One morning, from up in the village, a herd hurtled down in a great tumult of cries and cowbells, immediately hushed. Only one shepherd led the herd, yet the beasts, their muffles lowered to the chill forage, proceeded at an even pace, as though the strange calm of this place had dimly arrested them. I remember it. A rain as soft as mist began to descend; the boy, kneeling, was trying to coax a blaze from smoke beneath an enormous ruined umbrella as blue as his damp overalls. Already I could no longer hear the bells; they were themselves the thoughts they punctuated in perfect time, muffled or clear, and in the tempo of my step I also felt this tranquil cadence, as though recovered in it, and once again overhead, in the lovely sprays of branches dark against the sky in sequence. What is called plenitude is perhaps less abundance than concordance; it is a call and response, a concert in which each voice sings itself alone, yet nourished by the songs of others in its ear.

And poetry, which I had not dared to invoke for such a long time, was suddenly present as if it had obeyed some mysterious summons. Poetry, or a poet, rather. A lifeless stanza that had haunted me for hours sings suddenly in its fullest wealth and in the searing reality of its music:

If only
My very courage does not expose me. This first we
Must understand. For like morning air are the names
Since Christ. Become dreams. Fall on the heart
Like error, and killing, if one does not
Consider what they are and understand.
But the attentive man saw
The face of God...(1)

I can see this Hölderlin, once he had taken leave, at the time of the hymns, from that which men call “life”; Diotima dead, Schiller cruelly silent, I can see him plunging alone into his grand prophetic Night, where, as lord over time and space, poring over the “immeasurable fable” of Earth and of humankind, he senses his imminent defeat, prepared to lose heart before the surge of presences conjured, gradually stronger than his expiring voice; casting ever rarer lightning-strokes across the centuries, and ceaselessly repeating this despondent cry to stave off the threat of silence: Ah! I have so much, so much left to say! – knowing full well he shall never say it.

My prairie listened then just as it listens now to this still resounding lament. It even seems to me, at certain moments, that the prairie makes that lament its own, and grieves too, wherein each tree, each leaf, each clump of grass signifies in the face of an imminent winter that shall rob the prairie of its voice. Now the prairie too is alone, and like the poet, sovereign in its solitude. Before late autumn’s final farewell, it rehearses its farewell daily, its welcome to the night. How may one abandon this place without secret affliction, as it sinks majestically into shadow, overrun little by little by the chill of hidden water; the green of the ash dwindling to ashes, their own high, blind bulk burdening the feeble daylight; while around them evening draws out and distils a sky forever more akin to crystal?

(1) Friedrich Hölderlin, trans. Jeremy Adler and Michael Hamburger, Selected Poems and Fragments (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 247-249.

Gustave Roud (1897-1976) was a Swiss poet and translator of Novalis and Hölderlin into French. Rarely overblown and never pompous, Roud successfully fuses Romantic sublimity and classical restraint. Because of his repressed homosexuality and self-imposed seclusion, Roud’s landscapes bristle with sexual energy even in the absence of the masculine silhouettes that occasionally appear. The desire to envelop and possess the object of the gaze lends unparalleled intensity to a contemplative attitude suddenly bereft of detachment. Prairie’s Powers (Pouvoirs d’une prairie) was published in Air of Solitude (Air de la solitude) in 1945 (now published with other selections by Editions Gallimard as Air de la solitude et autres écrits, Paris, Collection Poésie Gallimard, 2002). Roud was Philippe Jaccottet’s mentor and direct literary ascendant, and is now considered one of the most important Swiss writers of the Twentieth Century. But because of his seclusion and natural distaste for literary promotion, Roud remains a discrete presence in France and elsewhere. Prairie’s Powers is one of Roud’s most visibly Romantic texts, while others, such as Requiem (1967), extensively reinvent familiar forms.

Alexander Dickow is a bilingual poet and translator who writes in French and English. He has translated poems by Aaron Belz, Amy King and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling into French, and is currently preparing a book-length selection of Gustave Roud’s works. He is also the author of a book of poems in French and English, Caramboles (Paris, Argol Editions, 2008), and irregularly maintains a weblog, Voix Off. He currently lives in Châtillon, France. Child, cowritten with his wife, is forthcoming in December 2009.

I hear The Armies charging across the land

Special Feature: The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean, published by New Directions (jacket design by Erik Rieselbach)

It seems like all this book does is go around winning prizes and knocking readers over the head. And rightfully so, on both counts. I myself read it in about a day and a half, my pace quickening as I went, snapping at anyone who interrupted me. Relevant comparisions: Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, maybe Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. Rosero is Colombian, and he likes García Márquez a lot, but comparisions between the two are misguided, in my opinion. The Armies is Macondo become hell itself, then made into a four-hour movie by a half-mad director and a cast of drug-crazed actors shooting at each other with live ammunition. Or better than that: The Armies is basically real, and that's what's so horrifying about it. It also happens to be an anti-war novel that makes its point without being didactic, and without irony or sarcasm. Catch-22 narrated by the people getting bombed, for once. What follows are interviews I did over email with the book's author, Evelio Rosero, and its English translator, Anne McLean. Thanks to them both, and to Renato Gomez, who somehow managed to make me sound polite when he revised my questions for Mr. Rosero. And apologies to all and sundry for the Joyce pun headline above. I couldn't help it. —Brandon Holmquest


photo by Sandra Páez; courtesy New Directions

Calque: The Armies is obviously an antiwar novel. Why did you decide to write a novel, specifically, instead of maybe a piece of journalism or a report on these issues?

Rosero: I'm a novelist. With fiction, I feel like a fish in the water. Journalism for me was just a way to earn a bit of money to pay the rent or the bills. Any work other than ficiton, however related to literature it might be, causes me a sort of intimate discomfort. The novel is definitely my spiritual resource for saying what I want to say to the world, for shouting.

Calque: I've read that you used journalistic methods to gather material for the novel. Can you tell us something about this process and what interested you in these investigations?

Rosero: They weren't really “journalistic methods.” There were simply news reports on the radio and television (during the writing of The Armies) that began to affect me in a very different way than they had before, that made me lose all hope for the country, but also made me rebel, with my writing. These reports and events, which I call reports from reality arose in such a way that they incorporated themselves into the novel I was writing as though the novel itself had been waiting for them. The trick was to elevate these motifs from raw reality to literature. I've always thought that a finished novel is more real than the very reality from which it originates. This assembly and purification of reality is the novelist's principal task. Then, when the novel was almost finished, to corroborate certain atmospheres, I spoke personally with some of the “desplazados,” those displaced by the violence, in Calí. But these weren't formally investigative, journalistic conversations. They were spontaneous, human, like a conversation between two strangers on the bus.

Calque: The Armies is in first person, in the voice of Ismael Pasos. Why did you choose first person, and why a character as advanced in age as Ismael?

Rosero: The first draft of the novel was worked out in the third person; I haven't discovered what internal mechanism moved me to put it into first. Something similar happened to me with other novels, but in reverse: I started them in the first person, and wound up switching to third. I've never worried about finding out the reasons, but I think these changes of perspective, the attributes of the narrative voice, remain in the background of the work all the same, and maybe give it a certain originality and even a double objectivity.

Calque: Is the use of the name Ismael an allusion to Herman Melville?

Rosero: The protagonist's name came to me very quickly, unpremeditated, the way I prefer to name my characters. Of course, I instantly thought of Melville and of his extraordinary opening line, still unequalled in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” I immediately wanted to change the character’s name, but just as quickly decided not to. In the end it seemed to me that the old teacher Ismael Pasos was another Ishmael, confronted with “another” monster of the most fearsome proportions, though not managing to survive.

Calque: Although The Armies expresses a moral horror for the war, it's not exactly an ideological novel in the manner of some of the later Cortázar, for example. Do you think this is because you prefer to remain outside of ideology, or is the role of ideology in Latin American literature changing?

Rosero: The way I see it, the novelist should situate himself outside of ideology. Of course a novelist has an ideology, which is permanent, which obeys his principles and his culture, his particular interpretation of reality, etc. But to directly wield an ideology, its aims, questions, solutions and puzzles, is more appropriate for an essay or a study, I think. Obviously the novel can let you do anything, and for this very reason it is a great genre, but also a dangerous one. Ultimately, the novel is art. It's humanism. As a reader I'm no great friend of the novels you refer to as ideological. As soon as a writer voluntarily proposes to advance an explicit ideology in his work he commits the worst error: he forgets the human being, which is essentially he himself, who loves and feels fear, hatred, hunger and loneliness without need of ideologies, whatever his race or creed. To try and exceed reality, to impose a reality by means of the novel, is already truth enough.

Calque: It seems to me that The Armies can be read allegorically, did you write it with that intention?

Rosero: No.

Calque: You've spoken of Colombian indifference toward the violence in the country. Do you think your book has affected that indifference? Do you think a novel is capable of doing such a thing?

Rosero: Yes, I believe a novel can change things. Not in an immediate way, the way a film can, or a television program or a piece of journalism. But the novel's ability to change things is, it seems to me, deeper, it sticks in your memory. It transforms consciousness. I myself have felt this transformative effect of the novel as a reader: I was not the same boy after reading Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t the same teenager after Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment. I know the United States through its poets and writers. I think my book—as various readers have confirmed—has chipped away at the indifference people feel toward this horrible daily custom of death and massacres in my country, of fathers, sons and brothers chained up for years. It's humanized their perception of reality, through the novel. But this was not my goal when I sat down to write. I only wanted to write about what was affecting me deep down, as a human being, not as a sociologist or a journalist or a historian: my reality, my country. Death and fear very near to desire and love.

Calque: Are you surprised by the success that The Armies has had outside of Colombia, especially in the English-speaking world? Why do you think it's had such success?

Rosero: Something strange has happened to me with the success and translations. It always seems like it's happening to someone else, some other writer. It's not about me. I'd like it, but I am still here and he is still over there.

Calque: Which writers have been the most important for you? Which contemporary Colombian writers do you like the most?

Rosero: The 19th Century Russian writers are my masters. I reread them and find them stirring every time. Not long ago I read The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and I thought it was a tremendous, disturbing book, the kind of thing I haven't come across for a long time. Coetzee is another great writer. Now I'm reading a lot of histories of Colombian independence, which I have to force myself to read, joylessly, because it's the background for my next novel. But I long to read a good novel, discover another great writer. Reading is the best excuse for not writing, it's better than traveling, or the same, but you go farther. The only thing comparable to a good book is making love. I hope, therefore, that García Márquez hasn’t stopped writing. We could still get one more book out of him, I think. Among Colombian authors, I always keep an eye on Gabo. He's the best.


Calque: Like most Spanish-English translators, you work with books from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Was there anything about Los ejércitos, which is so Colombian, that took an adjustment, or a different kind of approach? Did you have to do any research?

McLean: I always have to do lots of research. Los ejércitos was my second Colombian novel so I already had a great diccionario de colombianismos and was already paying attention to the place, reading around the novels in English and Spanish. I don’t think I really took a different approach than with any of the other things I’ve translated.

Calque: Evelio's prose style is rather poetic, taking full advantage of the greater flexibility in terms of word order within the individual sentence that Spanish offers, as opposed to English. How did you go about trying to capture his style without making him sound like a demented Romantic poet?

McLean: This is something I try not to think about while I’m doing it. When I first read, and was blown away by, Los ejércitos, my gut reaction to the prose style was: intraducible. To tell you the truth, I found the prospect of attempting to translate this book terrifying.

But in the end I just tried to follow Evelio’s lead and stick as close to his word order as I possibly could in English, whenever possible. And, as I’m sure he did, I pared down the prose with each successive draft. And then, as usual, read it aloud to see if I’d recaptured, or could recreate, any of the rhythms of the writing.

Calque: Judging by the prizes and reviews, this book seems to have struck a chord in the Anglo literary world. Were you surprised by that, and would care to hazard a guess as to why people are so into it?

McLean: I was very surprised. I suppose it could be because the book’s a surprise in itself: an artful treatment of an age-old subject, a beautifully told depiction of an ugly reality, and not at all what the opening pages might lead the reader to expect. I think it’s an almost inexplicably moving book and it speaks to our times. You don’t need to know anything about Colombia and its current conflict to understand these characters: defenseless civilians caught in a crossfire.

Months after the book was published here in the UK I heard a news reporter on the radio say, “The Americans are keen to tell us the villagers don’t want the Taliban here, and it’s true. The villagers don’t want the Taliban, but they don’t want American soldiers either. They don’t want Afghan soldiers. They don’t want men with guns in the village.” And I thought just change a very few words and he could be talking about rural Colombia.

Calque: How much interaction do you tend to have with an author you translate, and what kind of questions, problems, etc. do you turn to author for help with?

McLean: It varies enormously depending on how well I know an author. I didn’t meet Evelio until The Armies was published in London last October so I tended to only ask him questions I couldn’t figure out from other sources. I had pages of vocabulary and usage queries but I was also in touch with the German translator of the novel, Matthias Strobel, whose deadline was very close to mine, and we discussed some of the thorny issues like the shifts in verb tenses, and lots of specific difficulties to do with the demands of our languages (and publishers) when trying to recreate Evelio’s style.

My other great stroke of luck was that the other two Colombian authors I translate, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Héctor Abad Faciolince, happen to be the only two writers I’ve ever met in person before translating their work, so they were already friends, and already forgiving of the huge gaps in my understanding of their language. They both reviewed Los ejércitos and admired it and were both enormously helpful with specific vocabulary and usage and context. Now that I know Evelio, I won’t be so shy about asking him stuff the next time I translate one of his books.

But that’s how it goes. When I translated Soldiers of Salamis, for example, I think I asked Javier Cercas three questions after I’d been through several drafts and maybe three or four more during the copyediting. When I was working on his novel The Speed of Light, a few years later, I asked him hundreds, probably lots of stupid little things…

But most of my questions are along the lines of “What does that mean?” or “How unusual is that in Spanish?” I expect their usual first reaction is “Why doesn’t she know that?!”