2666 en español: ¿porqué?

Academic guilty conscience.

As an undergrad, I was a comparative literature major. This is basically like being an English major plus foreign languages. I concentrated in 20th century French and Italian writers, specifically Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, and it was expected that I'd read everything in the original. Since then, reading translations when I could understand the original feels to me like a cop-out, as if I were reading the Cliff's notes.

Snob appeal.

I won't deny it. Who among us (and by us I mean lit nerds) hasn't looked up from their weighty tome, scanned the other passengers on the bus, and thought, Who else would read this? Reading in a foreign language, you add, And who else could?


Reading in a language you don't totally understand is a little bit punk rock. The experience is rough around the edges, unfinished. You're taking on a task for yourself — the work of rendering a foreign text comprehensible — that someone else could have done better, but you know that going in. It's a choice you've made, to sacrifice professional polish in exchange for a greater sense of control and full understanding. Think Ramones; think Linux.

Language learning.

This is more of a rationalization, really.

Contributing to the discussion.

In the various internet forums for this 2666 group read, the question often comes up: What is this like in Spanish? Does what I'm noticing come from Bolaño or the translator? I like to know for sure — that's my foreign languages and literatures training again — but it also gives me a different perspective that is interesting to the other readers who are participating.


Author: Allegra Goodman
Year: 2006
Genre: Literary fiction

Intuition is the story of an academic controversy in which one graduate student accuses another of falsifying results. There's a lot of talk in the book about how science is a search for "truth," while I've always understood it to be a search for "facts." In this case, truth is hard to come by: not only the scientific truth of the results of the experiment in question, but even the more mundane truth about what happened in the laboratory.

Goodman draws up her characters masterfully. What I liked most about it is that there are no clear good guys and bad guys. Instead, you sympathize first with one character, then with another. I really wanted to take sides one way or the other, but I couldn't do it; the characters were too complex.

DMZ Vol. 1: On the Ground

Author: Brian Wood
Year: 2006
Genre: Graphic novel

There's a civil war going on in North America. Long Island belongs to one side, New Jersey belongs to the other, and Manhattan is the DMZ. A young reporter gets stranded there and has to find a way to survive, and hopefully send back some exclusive news.

The comic's first impact is a visceral reminder that war is real, and that modern war happens to everyday people in the place where they live. Amid the horrific vision of a bombed-out lower Manhattan, you're forced to remember that the realities of bombed-out Baghdad (and countless other places as well, but especially Baghdad) are just as close to home.

Premise aside, the book's plot and characters are interesting enough to carry you through the first few issues. Future installments will tell whether they're meant to function as your guide through the nightmare landscape of urban war, or will exist as independent entities in their own right.

Unknown Quantity

Author: John Derbyshire
Year: 2006
Genre: Science history

I like math. I was a math minor in college, and would have double-majored if I could have taken math classes on my junior year abroad. In high school I was really good at math, but when I took honors math classes in college I was just good enough to hang on for the ride. I realized that, as much as I enjoyed learning about group theory, complex analysis, and the search for really big prime numbers, I wasn't good enough to do it professionally. Sadly, if you don't live in that world full-time, it's astonishingly difficult to keep up with it at all, and so I let my math lapse after graduation.

Unknown Quantity is a rare exception: a book about math and math history made accessible to the interested layperson. And Derbyshire doesn't just write about math; he writes about algebra, possibly the most abstract and conceptually challenging branch of theoretical mathematics. By covering the history of algebra over the last 6000 years or so, the book follows how emerging awareness of numbers in ancient Babylonia led to the Greeks, the Renaissance, and the algebra that most people remember (or don't) from high school. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, algebra took a sharp turn to the abstract, but Derbyshire makes clear connections to show how it evolved from more representational problems. He challenged me, but he never lost me entirely.

The Two Towers

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Year: 1954
Genre: Fantasy

After whiling away a summer afternoon with Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie, I wanted to continue the story. So, I bought the DVD of The Two Towers online, and reread the book while I waited for it to arrive. Of course we watched the movie as soon as it got here, and of course my attention was drawn primarily to the differences between the book and movie versions.

Now, I'm not one of those die-hard LOTR fans who finds fault with any deviation from the original. On the contrary, out of the four most important variations I noticed, two of them were positive:

  • In the book, Merry and Pippin convince the Ents to fight against Saruman. In the movie, Treebeard is reluctant to join either side in the war, and Merry has to trick him into walking near Isengard and seeing the devastation for himself. I like Merry's having to do something clever (any redeeming moments are welcome for those two troublemakers), and it's really effective on film to see the horror of deforestation from an Ent's perspective.
  • In the movie, but not in the book, the elves come to the aid of the Rohirrim at Helm's Deep. This led to some cool fight scenes and gave Viggo Mortensen the chance to speak a little more Elvish. More important, though, the alliance between elves and men is one of the recurring themes of the epic, and it's thrilling to see the Anglo-Saxon-like Rohirrim and the numinous Elves fighting together.

I also noted two differences that I thought took away from the story:

  • Tolkien's Faramir is immune to the Ring's temptation, while Jackson's Faramir actually kidnaps Frodo and tries to bring him back to Gondor. I believe that Jackson is making the point that all men are corruptible, but the point of Faramir in the story is just the opposite. He represents the noblest tendencies remaining in the fallen race of Gondor, the nobility of Númenor that persists in his line. In the movie, he wants to steal the ring, but in the book, he says to Sam, "Not if I found it on the highway would I take it."
  • On a related note, the sibling rivalry between Boromir and Faramir is played up much too strongly in the movie. Mostly, I don't like Jackson's interpretation of Denethor (who doesn't even appear in the book until The Return of the King). The Steward should be mad with despair, for regardless of whether Mordor or Gondor prevails in the war, the reign of the Stewards will end. He should have a sense of mortality and impending doom on a grand scale, not just for himself but for his family, as if he had failed his noble ancestors. With such a hopeless outlook, he should have no interest in playing favorites between his sons.

On balance, I consider the book and the movie to be complementary ways of telling the story. Tolkien's writing is strongly visual, presenting a challenge to which Jackson's production design responds admirably (while also working wonders for the New Zealand tourist board).

The Penelopiad

Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 2005
Genre: Literary fiction / Mythology

Margaret Atwood retells the story of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view, interspersed with commentary from the twelve maids that Odysseus kills after his return to Ithaca. These days, there seems to be a trend of new fiction based on classic literature (see Finn and March), and Penelope is an obvious character to pick up, especially for someone like Margaret Atwood.

The book did have its interesting parts. I liked the look at Penelope's early days as a sheltered princess in Sparta, ugly-duckling cousin to the slutty Helen. It's easy to forget that those mythological royal families had more intermarriage than the 19th century crowns of Europe, and that characters who are generally considered to symbolize different aspects of femininity are also people who would have known each other. In fact, I'd say in general that Atwood succeeds when she reconsiders mythological characters as people, rather than symbols.

Unfortunately, though, through most of the book, she uses the characters of the Odyssey as symbols that suit her own agenda. Her treatment of the maids is the most glaring example: in Homer's version, it's true that they are needlessly slaughtered by Odysseus and Telemachus, but there's not much more to say about them. Atwood inflates them into figures of more importance by saying it over and over, albeit in different literary forms: there's free-verse poetry, folk music, courtroom drama, and even a sea shanty. The introduction notes that "the maids form a chanting and singing Chorus," but this isn't the sort of chorus you'll find in Aeschylus; rather than commenting on the action of the main story, they have their own story to tell. And to repeat. In the end, I didn't feel sorry for them anymore, just guilty and defensive on behalf of men for the mistreatment of women throughout the history of the world.


Author: David Almond
Year: 1998
Genre: Children's fantasy

This is a dreamy, mystical story about a young man named Michael who is trying to deal with life crises that are bigger than he is: a new home, an unwell infant sister, and his parents' being distracted by all that, leaving him to work things out for himself. Plus, there's a man with wings living in the garage, suffering from arthritis, living on aspirin, Chinese takeout, and beer, and waiting to die.

It's a story about balancing the spiritual and the material, two tendencies that are symbolized by our young hero's friends. With his school buddies, Coot and Leakey, he stars at soccer and clowns around. His companion in his personal struggles, however, is his next-door neighbor Mina. She does not go to school, but is receiving an education at home that involves birding, sculpture, and William Blake. Michael stays at home for some time exploring an old abandoned house with Mina and meeting the mysterious Skellig in the middle of the night, while he builds the inner resources to deal with his life's problems. There's a difficult scene, drawing on the story's symbolism as well as the trials of friendship among 12-year-olds, in which Michael's school friends come to visit him at home, and he joins in their mockery of Mina. It's clear that Michael's place is in the world, but he hasn't truly come to terms with things until he can return to school, to be friends with Leakey and Coot, and also with Mina.

Names are of great importance in this story. Both Michael and Skellig come from the island Skellig Michael, and Michael is also the name of a winged angel. Mina is short for Wilhelmina, which echoes William Blake. Coot is simply a nutty character, while Leakey, a character who expresses skepticism about the evolution of human beings from the great apes, refers to the family of paleontologists. Perhaps most important, the baby sister is nameless throughout most of the story, and the family's act of naming her at the book's conclusion definitively recognizes her as one of the living.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series

Author: Eliot Asinof
Year: 1963
Genre: History

An interesting history of the 1919 Black Sox scandal from a journalistic perspective. It's the book that John Sayles's movie was based on.

I picked up this book (for $1!) because of my casual interest in baseball history, but baseball isn't really the point of the story at all. Instead, it's a sad reminder of the way that power protects the powerful, whatever side of the law they might be on, while pawns and servants (innocent or not) are left to take the fall. It seems clear that all of the eight banned players were present during discussions about throwing the World Series, and that at least some of them actually cheated during the games. It's also clear, though, that the gamblers who really benefited from the fix got away clean while cheating the players out of most of their payoff. In the end, there was a sort of unspoken agreement among the more powerful gamblers, lawyers, and baseball team owners that the easiest face-saving decision would be to treat the eight suspected players as harshly as possible — and then to do nothing else. It's even more tragic because baseball is all that guys like Shoeless Joe Jackson knew how to do.

I wonder how much has changed since 1919. Of course, with baseball players now regularly paid in the millions, they have little reason to throw games for money. They're much more powerful than they were. I believe, though, that there still exists a sort of collusion among teams, players, and the media to perpetuate a wholesome, nostalgic view of baseball. (How often did "kids" and the "national pastime" come up in contemporary discussion of the 1919 World Series? How much are they mentioned in connection with Barry Bonds?) Talking about baseball as a cultural institution is good for business, after all, and talking about it as a business, well, isn't.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

Author: Robin Brande
Year: 2007
Genre: YA fiction

Mena begins her ninth grade year in a bit of an awkward situation: she comes from an evangelical family, but all the kids from her church are ostracizing her. ... Freaks of Nature is her diary, and as we follow the story, we learn what all the trouble is. It's the story of a girl who's learning to think for herself, and beginning to create an adult relationship with her parents.

I don't read a lot of this kind of book, so there's not much for me to compare it to. I do know that Brande is a bit misleading on the science. Of course, the evolution unit in Mena's biology class becomes a battleground for the fundamentalist kids, and evolution itself is treated as a metaphor for personal change. BUT! That means there's a lot of equivocation between character development and actual biological evolution, which does not happen in one individual's lifetime! I feel like the science teacher needs to come out at one point and say "Yes, that's very good, you feel like you're evolving, but that's not what I mean when I talk about natural selection."

Meaghan and I talked a lot about who the target audience must be for a book like this. It's certainly not addressed to the hard-core fundamentalists, who would probably take exception to their being portrayed as snotty teenagers. In the end, we decided that it might be intended for kids like Mena, who come from a religious background but are starting to question. On the other hand, it might be meant for kids like her boyfriend Casey, who know that most religious belief is ridiculous, but haven't had much to do with believers before.

Girls vol. 1: Conception

Author: Luna Brothers
Year: 2007
Genre: SF

One dark night in Pennystown (pop. 65), Ethan picks up a beautiful, naked, silent "mystery girl" on the side of the road. He takes her home, where she forces herself on him (not meeting much resistance). In the morning, she lays eggs that give birth to identical mystery girls, who then begin assaulting the women of Pennystown.

This first volume features the madness and uncertainty of the beginning of a monster movie. There are freak occurrences, violent deaths, interpersonal conflicts, and a wide supporting cast who may or may not turn out to be simple stereotypes. The series may go on to say something interesting about gender roles and relationships, or it may turn out to be a pulp story with sexy zombies.

The art is unusual, featuring digitally enhanced color separation, lighting, and depth-of-field effects. More important, the characters' visual representation supports their individual personalities, which is essential to keeping track of the dozen or so townspeople.