Between Humor and Horror: An interview with Heather Cleary, translator of Comemadre
Comemadre is “a plant with acicular leaves whose sap produces (in a leap between taxonomic kingdoms that warrants further study) microscopic larvae. These larvae devour the plant, leaving only tiny particles behind; the remains then spread to take root in the soil, and the process begins again.” From New York, Heather Cleary tells us about her translation of Roque Larraquy’s homonymous novel.
Denise Kripper: In her blurb in the back cover of Comemadre, Samanta Schweblin asks herself what kind of book this is: “Is it humor? Horror? Is it about art? Science? Philosophy?” What do you think? How would you describe this novel?
Heather Cleary: Do we have to choose? One of the things I love most about Comemadre is the way it draws connections between different fields of inquiry to reveal the inconsistencies, obsessions, and ideologies of each (especially between institutional and political violence and the supposedly neutral discourse of science, or the chimera of art for art’s sake). Closely related to this is the symbiotic relationship between humor and horror present pretty much from the first page: in a recent interview with The Believer, Roque described his use of humor in the novel as a way to “establish a contrast between the dark nature of the narrated events and a distanced, lightly caricatured voice, which takes tragedy into the territory of farce and deconstructs every last suspicion of realism.” I love that this book is able to be about all these things at once without crumbling under the weight of its own philosophy, and I think the cross-pollination of disciplines and styles is how Roque manages to pull this off.
DK: How did you come to this project? What made you want to translate this book in particular?
HC: Pure serendipity. A friend pulled out a copy of La comemadre at a dinner party one night a while back; Coffee House was interested in acquiring it and wanted my opinion We started reading passages out loud and everyone at the table was riveted—the silence was broken only by outbursts of laughter and the occasional sound of someone choking on an unluckily-timed bite of food. That seemed like a pretty good sign. I kept reading and was bowled over by the book’s conceptual depth and dark humor… and also by the nuance in Roque’s treatment of subjects like love, violence, selfhood, and obsession. And, of course, there was the prose: between the fascinating challenges its distinct narratives presented and its diverse offering of dirty puns, it was immediately clear how much fun this novel would be to work on.
DK: The novel is composed of two very distinct, albeit related, parts. The first takes place in a hospital at the turn of the century, where doctors investigate the line between life and death, while the second tells the story of a celebrated contemporary artist and a dissertation written about him. The setting, the time, the style of the two parts are different. What particular translation challenges did the two parts present?
HC: One of the things I find most interesting about the novel is the way time flows in both ways in it: there’s not much surprise in having one of Doctor Quintana’s distant descendants find a vial of comemadre nearly a century after the events at Temperley, but it is certainly surprising that the oracular utterances of the participants in those experiments are phrases taken from the text of the second part of the novel (some of these are central to the narrative, others are incidental). This twist is reinforced by the use of contemporary phrases, typically bawdy, in the 1907 storyline: the years that divide the two narratives become a permeable membrane. Not only is this a fascinating conceit, it also gave me a lot of room to play.
In a broad sense, the challenge was not to muddy the waters. Each part of the novel has its own distinct voice, so I let myself be guided by that: both are misanthropic and libidinal, but the first part is quite baroque, while the second is, ironically, more clinical. There was also a set of challenges on the level of the word: making the severed heads speak in relatively intelligible snippets that could be recognized when they appeared in the second part, but didn’t give away too much. A good deal of fine-tuning went into those.
DK: The author has described the relationship between the two parts as one of “mutual parasitism” and I can’t help but be reminded of translation. Would you say there’s a mutual parasitism between the Spanish and English versions of this novel?
HC: In the sense that I believe translations and originals give life to one another, in general—yes, I guess there’s a mutual parasitism. An original text gives life to a translation in the obvious sense of allowing for its existence, and I think translations create the conditions for new readings of the original, as refracted across time and through the lens of new cultural and linguistic frameworks. Plus, sometimes the translating language is generous and allows certain gestures to be more fully realized: while working on Comemadre I was delighted to land on a pun in English that the Spanish was begging for: in the scene Quintana breaks into Menéndez’s room and starts going through her belongings, trying to learn more about the object of his outsized affection. He opens her closet to find a spare nurse’s uniform (which he interprets as her dedication to her work), a few boxes (these represent her secrets), and a “cosa peluda” (literally, a hairy thing) he can’t quite identify in the back of her closet. Later, he quips that this “cosa peluda” could be his undoing. Prattling on about a mysterious bushy thing in the back of a closet is funny to begin with, but English graciously offered up the muff, plausible accessory and pudendal euphemism, all in one.
DK: In both parts of the book there are several references to Argentina. For example, in the first part, one of the characters says “don’t start acting all Argentine” and in the second, there’s a mention to the “average Argentinean family.” How do you think the reader of this novel envisions “Argentianness”? How does this novel confirm or challenge those assumptions?
HC: Oh, goodness. I don’t know that I have anything useful to say about assumptions regarding “Argentineanness” in general, except that the novel presents the concept with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Comemadre takes aim at the dark underbelly of national identity, whether in the form of phenotypic profiling or expansionist violence like Argentina’s Conquest of the Desert toward the end of the 19th century (which makes a cameo appearance in a rather disturbing monologue by one of the doctors after he’s had a few too many). Both parts of the novel present a critique of violence enacted under the aegis of the nation-state, with the twist that in the second, nations get distilled to their pop “essence” as signifiers on t-shirts emblazoned with the names of different countries to announce the wearer’s mood.
DK: In the second part of the book, an artist is responding to a woman who is writing a dissertation about him. He comments on her work and shares with her relevant moments of his life. Was there such a collaboration between the author of this novel and yourself as the translator? Was there any correspondence between you two?
HC: There was! Thankfully, though, the tone of our correspondence was far less acerbic than what you see in the second part of the book. Roque and I met the last time I was in Buenos Aires, and maintained a wonderful dialogue throughout the process. I like to spend time with the writers I translate, when possible, because I get a fuller picture—or maybe it’s more like a negative image— of their prose by hearing them speak. Anyway, after that we spoke often about specific choices, many of which are discussed above. I have very fond memories of those conversations, which were about both very precise lexical details and the bigger concepts behind the book. It didn’t hurt that Roque is as kind as he is talented, which is to say, extremely.
DK: An epigraph by Ferdinand de Saussure opens the book: “What predominates in any change is the survival of earlier material. Infidelity to the past is only relative.” Again, I am reminded of translation here and the cliché traduttore traditore. What are you remaining faithful to when you translate?
HC: It varies from project to project, of course: each text has its own armature, and I try to stay as close as possible to its weight-bearing elements, whether they’re conceptual, linguistic, tonal, or whatever. I also keep a close eye on the ways a text deviates from or upholds the norms of whatever tradition it belongs to (some combination of time, place, genre, and influence) and recreate those gestures in the translation. In this case, this deviation was most obvious in the anachronisms that pepper the first part of the novel and the shifts in register between bureaucratic formality and overt ribaldry. Structurally, I was working with two interrelated narratives marked by a sharp gallows humor, which is not only situational but also very much in the pacing of the prose. The two parts of the novel are quite different in tone, however, so that was something I paid close attention to—how to hint at continuity while maintaining difference. Then there was also the philosophical and critical discourse embedded–and distorted–in both narratives: that terminology had to be recognizable so its perversion could really come through.
DK: In her review, Sarah Booker says “The consumption of this novel is quick, but the text will inevitably continue to haunt its reader.” Does this resonate with you as a translator? Was it a quick project? Does it still haunt you?
HC: Comemadre definitely continues to haunt me, in the very best way: certain scenes—like the one I mentioned before of Quintana breaking into Menéndez’s room, and Papini’s monologue about bidets, for example—occasionally flash back into my mind and I’ll crack up, even after all this time. And then there are the little puzzles I had the pleasure of spending time with, the linguistic play of the book: certain phrases and their solutions come back to me, too. It’s a narrative world I wish I could still be inhabiting, though I don’t know what that says about me.
DK: You were recently at the residency program for literary translators at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. How was the experience? What can you share about your next project?
HC: It was wonderful. I can’t recommend the experience enough (even if the temptation to wander through the breathtaking landscape slowed my progress a bit). In all seriousness, though, it was such a luxury to spend three weeks discussing translation both broadly and in minute detail with incredible colleagues from around the world. I was there working on Sergio Chejfec’s novel Los incompletos, which Open Letter will publish next year. Sergio was able to join us for a week, too, which really enriched the process. As for other upcoming projects, my translation of Mario Bellatin’s El jardín de la señora Murakami is on its way soon from Phoneme Media.
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy and translated by Heather Cleary is available from Coffee House Press.