Reviewing the Reviewers*
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute

"David Kirby Phones It In"
By Brandon Holmquest

David Kirby’s recent New York Times review of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute seems to have been written with no purpose other than to provoke me. I keep going back and re-reading it, hoping to find a coded message or something: Just kidding, Brandon. And yet I know that I will not find one. It could be an attempt on the part of The New York Times to lure me into the open so their “security personnel” can take a clean shot. If so, it's going to work.

From the first sentence, “You expect a French book to be quirky,” Kirby gets off to a running start on the wrong foot. This is not a French book. Let me say it again: this is not a French book. It is a book which happened to be written in France by an Argentine and a Canadian. By Kirby’s logic, The Sun Also Rises is a French book, and so is every other book ever written in France, in whatever language, by any author. Obviously this is muddle-headed nonsense. Autonauts, by virtue of its style, themes, original language, and many other qualities, not least of which is the identity of its authors, is a Latin American book. Plain and simple.

Kirby then goes on to illuminate his French Quirk theory, citing Georges Perec and Michel Houllebecq as examples, pausing along the way to indulge in that pastime so cherished by people who write for The New York Times: quoting The New York Times. Then he shoehorns in a reference to a book that recently received favorable coverage in the Times, before wrapping up his learned discourse on Gallic eccentricity with the assertion that, “when a French book shows up in this country, we expect it to be somewhat unusual.” Really? What about Balzac? Surely Kirby means a recently-written French book, from the last fifty years or so, but if that’s what he means why doesn’t he say it?

To open his second paragraph, Kirby lightly brushes aside the issue of the book’s supposed nationality while simultaneously making his one and only reference to the book’s original language: "though it was first published in Spanish,” Autonauts is, “at least an honorary French book.” Again, no.

After detailing the book’s premise, Kirby proceeds, in his third paragraph, to explain to the curious reader who this man Cortázar is, anyway. A Google translation of the relevant Spanish-language Wikipedia page would likely prove more enlightening. Kirby delivers nothing but glancing references to one major novel and two loose film adaptations, then goes on to bemoan the fact that the book under review isn’t more like a movie, full of action and “the bloodier side of postmodernism,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.

Then comes this sentence, my favorite one in the entire review: “Instead, he prefers to look at the fuzzy reverse of society’s tapestry, the seemingly patternless surface from which emerges not the reflection of the image on the front but a new image altogether.” Mr. Kirby apparently believes that this metaphor is not only profound but also extremely helpful. What an exegete.

Kirby then goes on to openly disapprove of the book’s entire premise, which was indeed “to write a book about the journey, whether or not the journey had a book in it.” If this notion is so repugnant to the refined tastes of Florida State University’s third most distinguished professor of literature, why did he choose to review the book in the first place?

What remains of the review is Mr. Kirby’s, shall we say, idiosyncratic take on the book itself. Having begun from such inauspicious premises as the book’s being both French and not worth writing, he finds that, no sir, he does not like it. No surprise there.

His reasons are humorously asinine. The word “scientific” is used too often. There are too many “amateurish” photographs, though there is one photograph in particular that Mr. Kirby enjoys very much. This would be the only photograph in the book in which Carol Dunlop’s naked breasts are visible. Autonauts is broken into short chapters. It is not always easy to tell whether the author of a particular chapter is Julio or Carol. My own guess is that Carol wrote roughly 45 per cent of the book. In the entire review, the only mention of Carol Dunlop longer than the words “Carol Dunlop” is the twenty-five words Kirby devotes to this appreciation of Ms. Dunlop’s breasts, with a saucy French phrase tossed in at the end to demonstrate what a sophisticated rake he is. Watch out, ladies!

Following this blatant misogyny, Kirby goes on to confess that he prefers William Least Heat-Moon, to denounce snobbery on the part of the authors, and to squeeze in a quick, “witty” reference to that new thing on the scene that everybody is always talking about: the blog (whoa, modernity!), before this mercifully brief object-lesson in everything that is wrong with American literary criticism limps to close.

At least as interesting as what’s in Kirby’s review is what’s not there at all. One thing missing is any mention, even in passing, of Anne McLean, the book’s translator. There is, in point of fact, no mention whatsoever of the book as a translation. This is obviously because Kirby doesn’t know Spanish and doesn’t know the first thing about translation. Nor does he care to know, because he doesn’t think it’s important. All of which makes him completely unqualified to review this book at all.

This raises important questions. Who at The New York Times Sunday Book Review thinks that the literary art which allows us to read any book not written in English is unimportant? And who thought that the author of Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, the Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation was a logical choice to review this particular book? Wouldn’t some familiarity with any aspect of this book or its authors be an obvious prerequisite?

But it gets better. Not only is it the obvious editorial policy of one of the country’s most powerful cultural voices that translation is, at best, a minor issue, barely worth mentioning, but David Kirby himself once sat on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. This means two things. The first is that I’ll never work in this town again, the other is that Kirby’s ideas on the negligibility of translation as a component of literature represent the mainstream of American critical practice. HA!

And sadly a fine book, well-rendered by very talented translator is the ultimate victim here. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a fine read, especially for Cortázar enthusiasts, an extremely human book. David Kirby has simply missed the point. There was no possibility that the journey wouldn’t have a book in it. The entire idea is that every journey has a book in it. This particular book was intended by its authors to be equal parts a record of their journey and a spur to others to make journeys of their own, of any kind, but especially of the kind that seriously confuse and irritate the David Kirbys of the world.

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: a timeless voyage from paris to marseille, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Translated by Anne McLean, Archipelago Books, New York, 2007.

*We hope to make Reviewing the Reviewers a regular feature on the Calque website, and welcome essay submissions that critique current reviews of literature in translation. Email these and all other work to editors (at) calquejournal (dot) com.

1 comment:

Adam Larkin said...

Thank you for this.