lunes, 7 de julio de 2014

La ciudad de las ratas

La ciudad de las ratas [La Cité des rats] (El cuenco de plata, 2009)
by Copi [translated from the French by Guadalupe Marando, Eduardo Muslip & María Silva]
France, 1979

As far as rodent/human epistolary novels set in the City of Light go, La ciudad de las ratas [original title: La Cité des rats; English approximation: City of Rats] is probably in a league of its own.  Probably?  Literally!  Prologuist and co-translator Eduardo Muslip conveniently enough for me describes the work as "una mezcla de relato de aventuras, fábula rabelaisiana y novela experimental" ["a mix of adventure tale, Rabelaisian fable and experimental novel"] (5), to which I'd only add that its gross out humor and sheer wrongness are comparable in sicko comedic verve and scale to the night I saw Pink Flamingos at a midnight screening in the early '80s only to find entire rows of people walking out on the flick at staggered intervals.  Quite an impression!  Quite a parallel!  Narrated by the likeable sewer rat Gouri in conjunction with his human friend and the purported translator of the tale Copi, La ciudad de las ratas spins a wild, orgiastic tale--again, literally!--in which the struggle for the rat nation to survive amid a cosmic struggle involving the Dios de los Hombres [God of Mankind] and the Diablo de las Ratas [Devil of the Rats] leads to an all too human situation in which the Île de la Cité with Notre-Dame de Paris intact splits off from its European moorings and drifts to the New World with the U.S. and Russian navies in hot pursuit.  A foundational tale of a sort.  Although things end on a somewhat apocalyptic note beyond the mere smashing of the stained glass windows at the Sainte-Chapelle and the destruction by fire of the Académie française and the Louvre as you might imagine if you're at all familiar with Copi's earlier Enrique Vila-Matas translated "El uruguayo"/"L'Uruguayen," I won't say anything more about the vachement violent ending since I don't want Fnac to lose any sales over a careless abuse of the spoiler alert function on my keyboard.  That being said, here are three things I thought were really cool about the novel even though I probably could have done without occasional provocations like the "comedic" necrophilia scene near the end: 1) In a novel in which absurdism and realism reign side by side in monarchical harmony (or something) and in a novel in which some of the star sidekicks of Gouri and his rat friend Rakä so to speak include characters known as la Reina de las Ratas [the Queen of Rats] and el Emir de los Loros [the Emir of the Parrots], I for some reason couldn't stop laughing at two strategically placed words from the otherwise nondescript line "Todos los demás, hámsters incluidos, me gritaban '¡coraje, coraje!" encaramados a las ramas del sauce" ["Everybody else, hamsters included, were shouting 'Be brave!  Be brave!' to me while perched atop the branches of the willow tree"] having to do with the occasion when Gouri suddenly finds himself under attack from a human child (39).  "Hamsters included."  A nice touch!  2) The intrusive translator trick.  "Nunca supe cuál es la parte real y cuál la imaginaria en este relato, tal vez por falta de curiosidad" ["I never learned what was the real and what was the imaginary part of this story--perhaps out of a lack of curiosity"], the translator admits at one point.  Later, in the translator's afterword, he amusingly adds that "Creí útil cortar algunas de mis notas, cuya erudición sobrepasa y anula la imaginación, por respeto al estilo fluido y fresco del autor, que quise conservar" ["I thought it a good idea to cut out some of my footnotes, whose erudition surpasses and annuls the imagination, out of respect for the fresh and fluid style of the author which I wanted to preserve"] (139).  3) Somewhat incredibly given a story in which a bat serves as a form of aircraft for the Queen of Rats and her court, some verses from Jorge Manrique's 1476 "Coplas que fizo por la muerte de su padre" ["Verses Written on the Death of His Father"] manage to get worked into a scene in which the translator Copi tells how, during a particularly lonely period in his life in Paris in the late '70s, he first met the rat Gouri on the sidewalk of the rue Dauphine, took him home, and "ebrio a morir, le recitaba a Gouri el más bello poema que conozco, con mi execrable acento español" ["dead drunk, with my horrible Spanish accent, recited to him the most beautiful poem that I know"] (114).  Why would Manrique's Coplas show up in a work as envelope-pushing in its sensibilities as La ciudad de las ratas? I sure would love to ask its author!  However, my guess, that the poem had some strong personal significance for the flesh and blood Copi can't entirely be confirmed by the fictional Copi who in the translator's afterword merely notes that the poem excerpt comes from the first and the beginning of the second coplas of the Castilian soldier Jorge Manrique (1440-1479), is blessed with a rhyme that's "cerca de la perfección" ["close to perfection"], and relates "los últimos momentos del padre del soldado; el poeta cita este acontecimiento como ejemplo para conducir al lector a reflexionar sobre la brevedad de nuestras vidas, comparándolas con los 'ríos que van a dar a la mar", que es 'el morir'" ["the last moments of the soldier's father; the poet cites this event as an example for the reader to reflect on the brevity of our lives, comparing them with the 'rivers that flow out to the sea,' which is 'our dying'"] (139).

Copi, a/k/a Raúl Damonte Botana
(Buenos Aires, 1939-Paris, 1987)

I read La ciudad de las ratas/La Cité des rats for the Paris in July 2014 fête hosted by Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza and her co-hosts Adria of Adria in Paris, Karen of A Wondering Life and Tamara of Thyme for Tea and for the year-long Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge hosted by Emma of Words and Peace.
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As luck would have it, almost all of the Manrique lines cited by Copi in this novel appear in this post here with an accompanying English translation from Edith Grossman.

23 comentarios:

  1. Such an intriguing sounding book. The Pink Flamingo's comparison is interesting. I remember loving that when I saw it with friend, but that was a very long time ago. All in all, I think that I would like this. I would be rooting the rats.

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    1. It's a very entertaining read because of the way it looks at human beings from a rat's point of view and because of all the zany descriptive flourishes. One phony human with a forced friendly smile, for example, is described as having an imitation version of the smile which is "natural" among rats.

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  2. What, another Paris novel with a rodent chorus? Hmm.

    I see that Copi collaborated with Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose films I've seen clear theaters faster than Pink Flamingos. Sounds like they were good company for one another.

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    1. I don't think I've ever seen any Jodorowsky films, but if what you say is true about their theater-clearing capabilities, the Copi/Jodorowsky alliance was a match made in gross out heaven. Between your mustachioed mice book and my mustachioed rat book, I think we've just identified a wonderful comp lit thesis proposal for somebody...completely by accident!

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    2. You have to watch some Jodorowsky Richard. The Elephant's funeral scene in Santa Sangre is like a crazed mix of Fellini and Waters. El Topo possibly requires viewers to be in an altered state of some kind.. The book sounds great and I would like to nominate I Was a Rat by Philip Pullman for your Rats in Literature course. it's a wonderful twisted fairy tale that I discovered reading for the kids.

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    3. Séamus, I feel like I've almost watched Jodorowsky--usually El Topo--about a million times. I don't know what keeps stopping me other than my disorganization and a short attention span! Anyway, thanks for the tip and for mentioning I Was a Rat! Sounds like a worthy addition to the children's section of the rat literature reading list from the description I just read on Wikipedia. Who would have thought this was such a venerable topic outside of plague books?!?

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  3. Trust you to find the obscure for this challenge. While some of us are posting about wedding dresses and food, perfume and photographs, you are finding Spanish works about the City of Light. Although from your descriptions here and there, I can't help but wonder if Copi isn't referring to Chicago.

    Here again, I wonder if I would find the same bits funny as you do. I can't figure out if my sense of humour is seriously lacking, or the language barrier interferes, or I just need you to sit across the table from me and explain it to me. I trust you, though, that "hamsters included" is funny.

    Thank you for joining in the Paris in July fete. I truly value your perspective and input; you constantly broaden my awareness of literature I've yet to read.

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    1. p.s. Jacqui of JacquiWine's Journal is reading 'Never Any End to Paris' by Enrique Vila-Matas; another way of looking at Paris through a Spanish eye, though Copi is from Argentina.

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    2. Bellezza, thanks for the warm Paris in July welcome! I have another book review or two I hope to contribute to the event, but I imagine the work(s) will be way less over the top and transgressive than this one. We'll see!

      By the way, the Argentinean-born/Uruguayan-raised Copi apparently spent the last 25 years of his life or so in France where he made his living as a cartoonist in French for a French publication of note. I'd actually planned on reading the book for Spanish Lit Month, but since it was written in French and in France by an adopted citizen, I though it made more sense for Paris in July instead. I apologize if this is an unnecessary clarification.

      The rat book is obscure, though--it wasn't even translated into Spanish until about 5 years ago from what I understand--and I suspect its sense of humor might appeal to me more than most others. Some of the humor made me wince even though most of it made me laugh. That hamster bit, by the way, is just a line that tickled me for some reason; I don't expect others to find it as funny. Interesting to hear about JacquiWine's plans; I like Vila-Matas a lot and I actually own that book as well, but I haven't read it yet.

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    3. You never need to "worry" about unnecessary clarification with me; I know so very little about Spanish authors that all information is welcome. The reading I've done in this genre has been with the women: Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Isabelle Allende. They aren't as obscure for me as Bolano,for example, has been. And I think your choice of Copi for Paris in July is wonderful! It's so interesting to look at Paris through other cultures' eyes than my own. Hence part of the love for reading, n'est ce pas?

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    4. Bellezza, thanks for clarifying the lack of a need for clarification--will keep that in mind in the future! I wasn't a fan at all of the one Julia Alvarez novel I've ever read and Bolaño wasn't a fan of Isabel Allende (and vice versa), so it makes sense to me that if you like those other writers, you wouldn't like Bolaño. They aren't alike at all. I thought the one Cisnero book I read was OK, but I don't consider her a Spanish language author (I believe she writes almost all her books in English with just a few Spanish expressions sprinkled in here and there). Agree that seeing things through other cultures' eyes is often one of the good things about reading, though.

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  4. Reminds me of RB's line in 2666: I'm telling you between you and me: the human being, broadly speaking, is the closest thing there is to a rat. And perhaps his "Police Rat" story, sans humans, may be a nod to this Copi book.

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    1. Rise, I suspect Bolaño was aware of Copi's novel but I'd have to reread "Police Rat" to see whether I thought that story might have been a nod to this book or not. It's certainly plausible, though, and timely too insofar as you've reminded me that I also need to reread Kafka's "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" sometime soon. As far as that great 2666 line you reference, Copi's Gouri gives a rousing speech where he tries to build bridges between humans and rats. One of the lines, from p. 98, is "todo hombre que pasó una parte de su vida en un calabozo es una rata por adopción; toda rata que habla es, por adopción, un hombre" ["every man who's spent part of his life in a prison is a rat by extension; every rat who speaks is, by extension, a man"]. The moral of the story? Whatever the parallels or lack thereof between these two works, somebody obviously needs to put together a rats in literature syllabus at some point!

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    2. Oh, I like Rise's connection! I remember that part/quote quite well!

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    3. somebody obviously needs to put together a rats in literature syllabus

      Somebody has already started one:

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/31/ten-best-rats-in-literature

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    4. I wonder if Rat from The Wind and The Willows is in there, or Templeton from Charlotte's Web...who has been teaching elementary school for many, many years? ;) Off to peruse the list, thanks to Scott.

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    5. Ratty IS in the list, along with Beatrix Potter's Samuel Whiskers! Sadly, no Templeton, yet.

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    6. Scott, thanks for sharing that link. Strange but timely information, ha ha! I guess that Bolaño's "Police Rat" "title character" and the anonymous rats in Miguel Delibes Las ratas were too far off the beaten language path for the compiler, who only included one non-English work, and maybe Kafka's "Josephine" was eliminated because of anti-mice prejudice. However, I was surprised to see that the novel that inspired such rat film classics as Willard and Ben were also left off the list. This syllabus is only a work in progress, I guess!

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    7. Bellezza, you can't win 'em all! Thanks for the other syllabus suggestions, though. :D

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    8. Richard - Yes, that list bares scratches the surface of the literary rodent warrens. I meant to mention too what may be a particular motif of rodents in Paris. The museum of the city of Paris, the wonderful Musée de Carnavalet, for example, seems to have a curiously inordinate number of works in which rats figure.

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    9. I haven't managed to make it over to the Carnavelet in two visits to Paris, Scott, so how ironic and maybe sad it will be if I go there next time on account of this rat exhortation from you! "Literary rodent warrens" is a great expression, by the way.

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  5. This book sounds wild, I have to say. A look at the human race from a rat's perspective...very intriguing! Great review.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqui! The book is wild and probably in poorer taste than I let on although quite funny, so it was incredibly easy to find things to say about it. Cheers!

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