Floored Genius

From high-minded to hype-crazed, book fairs have a rich tradition of coaxing out reclusive authors. New Times was fortunate to get a rare audience with the person redefining writing, M.M. Pascal-Paul.

So you spend part of the year in Miami and part of the year in Havana? Isn't that illegal or something?

Well, no. I have a Canadian passport, because I was born in Montreal. We lived there until I was about eight months old. But others who deserve to come can't. Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Or the so-called Cuban Bukowski, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Lisandro Otero, who was living in Mexico but is now back in Havana. Pablo Armando Fernández, Miguel Barnet, Lorenzo Luna, Amir Valle. The list goes on. They probably can't afford to come. But maybe next year I'll organize a seminar around such writers, who, one, can't get visas to get into the United States and, two, even if they did, couldn't afford the plane ticket. But the situation is even more absurd than this. I was recently surfing the Web and I came across something truly shocking. This is going to sound apocryphal, but a translation was embargoed.


M.M. Pascal-Paul is to non-nonfiction what Camille Paglia is to opportunistic feminism
M.M. Pascal-Paul is to non-nonfiction what Camille Paglia is to opportunistic feminism

I'm not kidding. There's a very experienced translator; her name is Esther Allen. She's the current chair of PEN's translation committee, and she translated a Penguin edition of selected writings by José Martí. Her translation of an essay by Alejo Carpentier, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the so-called boom period in Latin American literature, was embargoed! The essay is about architecture in Havana. Photographs were going to accompany the text. It was supposed to be a nice coffee-table-like book. Editors at the Smithsonian Press were hot to trot, until its executives met with people from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Treasury Department. The OFAC folks said in order to go ahead with the project, the Smithsonian would have to apply for a special permit. So they dropped it.


And that's not the only example. OFAC put the kibosh on the publication of a field guide to birds in Cuba, a book about Cuban archaeology, and the history of a slave revolt. All because there were Cubans living in Cuba involved in some way in the publication.

Wow. That sucks.

I have a girlfriend in Havana who writes occasionally for the online magazine Salon and Granma's online English edition, and she is experimenting with a sort of radical approach to print. She'll put in certain keywords — like Shakira or iPod or Paris Hilton or Jermaine Dupri — so that when people are Googling for those, they might just come across her article. Kind of a guerrilla marketing approach.

So, back to you. How lucky — fluent in four languages. But is it confusing, as a writer? How do you decide which to write in?

Well, it's not that hard to decide. First of all, Kreyol is a dead language. Not like Latin is dead, but dead for all intents and purposes. I mean, who's going to buy a novel in Kreyol? It's important for Haitian national culture to have people writing books in Kreyol. And as a development tool. You could use audio books in Kreyol in conjunction with an iPod scheme to, you know, educate the masses. But it is virtually dead, for a serious writer. Your audience, readership, just isn't extensive enough. You could wait for your novel to be translated into English or Spanish or Arabic or Chinese. But why not cut to the chase and just write in English to begin with, if that's an option? I suppose you could create some kind of vodou mystique about how a novel was originally written in Kreyol and therefore has some kind of authentic quality that would be missing if the original was in English, but how many people are going to get all excited about that? I mean, the novelist writing in English could just say that the original was in Kreyol. You know, like in Don Quixote.

What? Cervantes said Don Quixote was supposedly translated from Kreyol into Spanish?

No, mi amor, from Arabic into Spanish. The narrator, who is not necessarily the author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, at some point explains the scribe who has documented the delusional gentleman's adventures was a Muslim and thus wrote in Arabic. So, of course, that means that someone had to translate the scribe's chronicle before the alleged narrator took it over and presumably altered it again. In part two, the narrator increasingly weighs in to relate that the translator had made notes in the margin of his translation questioning whether certain events being written about actually occurred.

Fascinating. And frightening.

So here we are in 2005 — 400 years after the publication of book one of Don Quixote in 1605 — and now there's a new English translation of the novel. Part two was published in 1615, a year after another writer published a fraudulent sequel.

Dizzying. By the way, this new translation is being featured at the Miami Book Fair International this year. Any idea what's new about it?

No idea. It's gotten great reviews, though. I think it just puts the narrative into a more contemporary style of good ol' American English — as opposed to those stilted translations the Brits put out sometimes. Which is cool. I recently skimmed the introduction by Harold Bloom, and he writes some shit about how Don Quixote's madness is self-inflicted and deliberate. Hey, whatever — express yourself, dude. That's not how I read it. The guy just went insane because practically all he did was read books of chivalry — romance novels. That's like people today watching TV soap operas or even, quote, reality shows. Reality? Hah. And then Bloom goes on to say — and this I remember vividly — he says, quote: There is a clear sublimation of the sexual drive in the knight's desperate courage. End quote. Gotcha, Harry. Anyway, I prefer to read Don Quixote in Spanish, the language it was written in.

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