And in the best of these cases, the author and translator become close friends. Like Mexican Crack generation writer Eloy Urroz and myself.
We've written, translated, and published two books together, The Obstacles and Friction, and we are currently pitching a new novel, The Century Behind Me, to editors. Eloy likes to mention (half in jest, half in truth) that authors tend to consider their most recent books to be their best. But I have to admit that The Century Behind Me, first published in Spanish in 2004, stands out as a personal favorite of mine. It's a big, sweeping, multi-generational family saga in the old school García Márquezian vein which starts in the Middle East and migrates to the Americas.
The protagonist is a woman by the name of Silvana Forns Nakash, and the novel traces the history of her family, told in her own voice. She is a Mexican American, born in the US to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, torn between countries, cultures, and languages. In coming to terms with her own identity, she paints a Diego Riveraesque mural of the century preceding her birth, one whose scenes include a Syria decimated by cholera, revolutionary Mexico under Cardenas, an Edenic kibbutz in Israel, and a the free-wheeling 60s and 70s right here in America.
In case that sounds at all intriguing, I'm posting an excerpt here from my own sample translation. Please read, and enjoy.
In October of 1918, General Allenby’s cavalry had retaken Damascus and captured some 75,000 Turks and Germans. The outbreak of malaria—brought by mosquitoes from the Euphrates—came on the wings of the cholera epidemics that had twice (in 1823 and 1832) already decimated the population. The so-called “Spanish Flu” also swept through Europe and the Middle East in those days, leaving as many dead as the entire Great War itself had.
Once Damascus fell, the final Ottoman redoubt was Aleppo and its surrounding areas, a city that once—and for three centuries—had remained under Ottoman control, until 1833 when it fell to the Egyptian forces led by Muhammad Ali. The German general von Oppen, who had managed to keep his troops together, died of cholera, leaving a power vacuum that Allenby took advantage of with his attack on the last bastion of central European forces. Nevertheless it would be none other than Commander Macandrew who would finally retake Aleppo for the Arabs and, of course, for the French (into whose hands it would pass in 1920). That final campaign took place in Haritan, to the northeast of Aleppo, finally resulting in the armistice of October 31, 1918. The war had ended, but not the consequences of pain and death that cholera, malaria, and violence had left in their wake.
Above all, my grandmother remembered resting on the Shabbat, the blessings on the eve of Yom Kippur, the daily household farewells, the kiss that the handsome young man gave her every morning before heading off to work, and her father’s hand upon her forehead, ready to give her the Hebrew benediction, Baruj Ata Adonai. In a soft voice she spoke his name, Jacobo, and simply closed her eyes with a long sigh. The young man in that photo was her father, not even forty years old.
So it was, then, that Jacobo Chirá went out into the twisted, labyrinthine streets of the city we’ve barely mentioned, Aleppo, old Cilicia, in the Middle East, also called Beroia, a mixture of Bedouins, Muslims, Christians and some Jews, overcrowding the centuries and reunited towns: first Amorites and Hittites, then Syrians and Persians, and finally Turks, Kurds, Mamelukes, Russians, Muslims and Armenians. Among all those, the Halebis Jews had been a respected minority in the city since the Middle Ages (they were called “Halebis” or “producers of milk,” since on the way to Canaan, the patriarch Abraham—revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike—was prodigal with the poorest of the poor, offering them the produce of his herds). Vera doesn’t know, however, where her father was from or when he arrived there; if she ever did, she’s long since forgotten. From that photo—the only one I’ve ever seen—I can tell that Jacobo was definitely a Semite: he had dark eyes and thick eyebrows, he was very thin, and he had a faint little beard, barely visible around his lips. Everything in that photo—the same one my grandmother kept guarded until the end of her life—indicates that Jacobo was a distant Jew whose origin dates back to the Crusades of Antioch and to the resulting diaspora of Jews who survived during the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Jerusalem was conquered. The surname Chirá was, it seems, typically Turkish—Jewish Turk—since those Sephardi had come from there before being exiled to the South, to Syria, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And she was apparently very similar to him, at least physically: short, skin more olive-colored than brown, thick eyebrows, grave, sloe-colored eyes, and a long nose... all traits that she passed on to her three children, among them Rebeca, my mother, but not to me, who—they say—looks so much like her father, while Álvaro and Rodrigo are the living portraits of our mother and, therefore, their Jewish great-grandfather.
The outbreak of cholera at the end of the war devastated the city, claiming many lives as it swept through. Who had brought it? Everybody and no one, ravages and filth, and thousands of unburied bodies. It came and went like a phantom. Of course, it wasn’t the first time. The trash accumulating in alleyways, the shortage of water in the city, the rats swarming in the morning heat, and the awful sewer system... everything contributed to the proliferation of bacteria, to the dry, foul-smelling miasma that boiled over in the summers when the desert mosquitoes invaded the souks and narrow, tumultuous streets of Aleppo, which was also known as Little Armenia. Even starving dogs would appear at dawn (and sometimes you’d come across a rabid one, usually owned by one of the Bedouins passing through there), some of them carrying a dead rat in their jaws, the day’s only sustenance. With every outbreak of cholera or the plague in Middle Eastern cities, everyone knew what to do (which included some of the household remedies of yesteryear) although accepting the idea of having to do it, and to do so without delay, was truly terrifying. First of all, every citizen was prohibited from leaving their homes under penalty of death. Schools, jobs, the Muslim madras, and the commerce in the souks were all suspended, as were religious services in the mosques, churches and synagogues. Secondly, stray animals were put down, and the city was divided into distinct sections, each under the jurisdiction of a designated mayor. Each street was patrolled in turn by an inspector who peered through the windows of each home to make sure that nobody had died and been hidden away by their family. These were the same inspectors who locked up the doors and took the keys away with them, promising to return them only after the quarantine period was over. They had to whitewash the perimeter and the walls, while families stayed cooped up in their homes... On the sixth day of the quarantine they carried out a purification of each house’s rooms, sprinkling them with incense and then burning it. For this to be done, the whole family had to leave the house for some three hours and fill their keyholes with wax. The injunctions stayed in place, however, until all signs of the cholera had passed. Nobody drank water unless it had been thoroughly boiled. Food had already been stocked up: jibna (cheese), khobz (bread), sukkar (sugar), khadrawat (vegetables), fawakih (fruit), and ahwa (coffee). In some exceptional cases, small wooden bread boxes were made available for transporting the goods. But even with all these and other precautions, Jacobo still fell sick—vomiting, diarrhea, fever, fatigue, and muscle pains—and, knowing this, he chose to leave the house and wait (patiently) on a corner of Bab Al Faraj where he lived, half-hidden yet still able to watch his children. As such, says my grandmother, he could wave to them and cry with them through the windowpane. None of them knew what to do except obey the decrees and wait, undaunted, watching their father drift off. My grandmother—still quite young—couldn’t fully understand what was actually happening, though she could feel it in the fibers of her being: she was on the verge of losing Jacobo, and there was no remedy for such a malignancy, such an absurd absence. There was just nothing to do, though she wanted to with all her soul: it was a destiny that was not called as such, for it had other names.
Not much time passed before that morning when a wooden cart (which everybody in Aleppo knew or had heard about) came clattering down Al Moutanabi street before turning onto Bab Al Faraj, ready to carry him off. The man who drove the cart was known as “The Raven.” For the two days that he spent out in the street (after kissing his hand and pressing it against the mezuzah), Vera could see her father as he slept under the eaves of a neighbor’s deserted house, and she could also see her mother and sisters crying incessantly with a sense of foreboding, despite all their efforts to stifle it. The inspector verified that Jacobo wasn’t moving from his spot, and was waiting for the cart to come. A Rabbi (given special permission to be out during the quarantine) came to see him and was able to speak to him from a distance during that final night while his four children watched from the window. They all watched as he cried, kissed the Star of David that he carried, and bid the Rabbi farewell; then, he laid back down on the ground, weak, his eyes bulging from the convulsions and fever. It was just the other day that the cart, drawn by a bony, dapple-gray horse, had gone by with other afflicted people piled in the back: they were just able to make out their pallid countenances, their heads hung in resignation, including a few soldiers who weren’t able to escape the disease and had decided to stay once they knew that it was all over. Those angular, phantasmal beings seemed to have assumed the perfection of their destiny: they didn’t look around but rather at the floor, letting themselves be taken away, ready to die. Jacobo then said something from beneath the eaves: he asked Sammy, the oldest, to take care of his mother and three sisters, Frida, Zafira and Vera. Then he said goodbye to his wife, my great grandmother, and then he blessed the house and his family in it from where he lay. Finally he rolled halfway over, gathered up his filthy bundle and his dusty blanket, and climbed aboard the death-cart, which immediately returned to its course down that ruined street. The Raven cracked the reins and continued on, bored and melancholic, with his route. The dawn’s light was hesitant, seeming to stain rather than illuminate the way. My grandmother, then, was only just able to bring herself to watch him—conceded, opalescent and fading in the distance—losing him forever without having been able to touch him one last time, without feeling his hand on her face, without having heard the Talmudic oration which she wouldn’t have understood anyway, as she’d never learned Hebrew. Overnight, Vera had become something of an orphan, a loner, ready to strike out on her own, casting her fate out among the stars, the first of a long lineage that started with her or with that man who left for the mortuary to die of boredom, surrounded my mosquitoes, dust and heat, on the verge of his fortieth birthday.
Abraham Nakash, my grandfather, my father’s father, had his eyes set on Vera Chirá. That would be five years down the road, but from that point on, they say, he couldn’t tear them away from her in fifty-two years.
Abraham Nakash sold Arabian mats, rugs, and carpets, and as Venus appeared there on the horizon, right at six-thirty, he took a bold pinch of snuff in the midst of the streets of Aleppo, pausing for a moment to adjust the tiny yarmulke on his head, give thanks to God, and contemplate the nascent sun and the indigo sky of dawn, melding together as do the lovers in the Canticles, which he himself would often sing… all of which means it was before the morning prayer and the available traditional breakfast of laban (yogurt), khobz, and a handful of dry fawakih: either moz (banana), mishmish (apricot), or tufah (apple), which was his preferred fruit.
Abraham bought the textiles in Damascus, Tabriz, Bursa, or İskenderun, and he sold them to the Armenians andBedouins at double or triple the cost. Although he didn’t always go far, my grandfather loved to travel, right up to the last day of his life. I don’t know how many qirsh he spent (in those days, they actually had some value) on snuff, which he was always carrying in one of his deep pockets, but the fact of the matter is that Vera just couldn’t stand it: the stench, the yellow stains that tobacco left on clean, white shirts didn’t seem to bother him in the least, and so he would shake out a bit without so much as a cursory glance (to check, for example, whether it contained any strands of unground tobacco). Unlike many of his countrymen, Abraham was able to work buying and selling kilims and other woven tapestries that he obtained in such remote places as Heriz, Qum, and Kashan: he would buy cheap at the local souks in the places he visited, and then resell them in his home city. He would assure the owners of the shops in Damascus, Bursa, and Tabriz (where the tapestries were sold) that these woven camlets weren’t worth what they were asking for them, and they haggled over the price for hours and hours under the sun, downing liter after liter of shai or coffee infused with cardamom in an energetic display of resistance or heroism, feigning an impossible friendship; meanwhile, when it came to his buyers like the Ottoman Khans and the foreign souks, especially the Russians and the Bedouins from Raqqa and Resafe—all with their long, grimy turbans that cast their grimy foreheads in shadow—he made them feel like they would be missing a once in a lifetime opportunity if they decided to buy some simple canvas instead. And he succeeded.
Despite all the promising fruits of this labor, something remained that upset this thirty-nine year old man terribly. The business and the synagogue were not enough for him; not even Kol Nidrei night, which begins Yom Kippur, hadn’t offered him much comfort in years, giving thanks to God for the success of his business was becoming a bitter monotony, the precise and punctual wrapping of the straps of the tefillin and placing a siddur underneath his arm were growing dark (almost absurd and obsolete), his chats with Rabbi Ben and his Muslim friends were boring him, the dream of reconquering Israel was, at the time, an unattainable mirage, a madman’s utopia: Theodor Herzl, whose rhetoric were well known throughout the region. But this gradual souring was indistinct, and he had no intention of trying to remedy it… that is, until the day he saw, there on Hawl Al-Qala’a street—the same one that encircled the citadel, surrounding it like some sort of giant Ouroboros—my grandmother, walking with her mother, Yemil, and her sister Zafira.
Vera Chirá says (or perhaps she told this to one of her daughters) that on that day they were on their way to the covered Az-Zarb souk to buy wheat, nuts, spices, and khobz, a kind of leavened flatbread that is baked for all the world to see in open, oblong ovens amidst clouds of dust stirred up by mules that never cease to bray and kick. In turn, green-winged flies form sort of grisaille or convex curtain as they gather around the tails of the mules and the dogs or land on pieces of baklava or the sweetened, sliced coconut cookies known as isfinjiyya; the rats, meanwhile, will venture out and then disappear in a flash, often with a bit of rotting pineapple between their teeth. The midday heat seemed to scorch the air, but this was simply a mirage produced by the dust, by the swirling clouds of dust, like a hot, fine flour that stains everything. The light, though, was just able to filter down through the openings in the immense roof covering the famous Aleppo souk, the largest indoor market in the world, amidst the general din of shoppers and the sudden calls to prayer, which came several times a day, when the imams and muezzins would appear, dressed in black tunics, atop the soaring minarets of the local mosques. Meanwhile, the smell—an insoluble stench thick as dough seeping from the sewers, from people’s clothes and the Turkish lords or khans, and from the fresh, bloody carcasses hanging in the butcher shops—would hang over the city from dawn until around five o’clock in the afternoon, when the Turkish, Arab, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Jewish, and Russian tailors, shoemakers, jewelers, and traders began to pack up and disappear; with them went the many seekers of curios, trinkets, and other sundry items, as well as people hawking water perfumed with orange blossoms, plus artisans, spinners, and weavers, vendors of flowers and vegetables… all of them dumping their garbage on the sides of the streets. Abraham, though, never seemed to notice that Vera was barely twelve years old, and when he did in fact find out, it didn’t matter to him in the least; on the contrary, a nubile, innocent young girl was what just he’d been searching for, although he never expected it to happen like this… and above all, the most important thing: she was Jewish, a fact which he quickly and easily discerned with the sharp eye of the connoisseur, primarily because none of these three women was wearing a Muslim veil, though there were many other distinguishing minutiae. There was a different sort of veil that was required by law of Jewish and Christian women (a true minority) whenever they exited the home, and even the way they gathered up their hair was different. But the true mental discovery of his desires—the attraction this girl provoked in him notwithstanding—didn’t fully reveal itself until a few days later when he said, quite sensibly, that it was finally time to get some rest, since he hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep in who knows how long, and all of that because of that flash, that fleeting vision, since what ultimately happened that day was, after seeing the women gathering their loaves of khobz and wrapping them up in large kerchiefs, Abraham Nakash—almost instinctively—adjusted his yarmulke, stroked his small moustache, and set off after the three of them, down the dark and dusty Az-Zarb street, thronged by barefoot children running and frolicking along the walls, the cries of Allahu Akbarfrom nearby minarets, and teenagers carrying baskets on their backs, down the broken sidewalks of this poor city, pursued by loves of their own. My grandfather followed them at a safe enough distance: first they passed Al Jame Al Omawi street, then headed up Al Moutanabi before turning left on Bab Al Faraj, where my grandmother lived with her mother. At the door, the three women touched the mezuzah with respect. Abraham watched them enter the house before turning around and returning home with a sense of tranquility about him that he hadn’t felt in many years; mostly he was content with feeling something almost unspeakable, something indescribable pounding hard deep inside of him. He’d taken on sense of certainty that ruffled his senses a bit, and which he was unable to excise and label until two days later, when he realized that he no longer wanted to be this bachelor, this orphan for as long as he could remember, and he no longer desired to spend his profits from the textile business on neighborhood whores, who were always bothering him with their stories of surgical scrapings done with a curette. Nor did he want to throw his hard-earned qirsh at the filthy hammans where he frequently went to bathe, on those eternal games of French backgammon, or on those interminable nights spent sitting around a hookah, smoking with his Arab friends; no, he had squandered away enough money, and his work to that point had no use, no purpose, much less a lasting satisfaction. His older brother David lived somewhere very far away, and other than him, he had nobody else. He was, as they say, alone in the world, and from time to time he would in a very fatalistic way resent his absurd solitude, especially when work ended on Friday afternoons and he began to observe (almost against his will) the rituals of Shabbat. And from that point on, he put his money towards three things alone: first, to the young girl, whom he had decided he was going to marry (though he never bothered to ask himself whether she would agree to such a thing); second, to buying more snuff… much finer snuff; and third, toward a trip with that child. He didn’t know how, exactly, but he did know where: America, the land of his dreams ever since adolescence.
But why America? Because everyone on earth wants to go there, but also because that’s where his lone brother, David Nakash, lived. For the past six years, he’d been receiving news from him and Raquel, his sister-in-law. They lived in Chicago and told him about the wonders of the city and its skyscrapers, but above all they told him about how easy it was for any old countryman to start making money in the so-called New World. And while Chicago had long been the goal, his departure from miserable Aleppo was now confirmed: he had found the perfect woman, whose name he didn’t yet know. He never could have imagined, though, that he and Vera would be spending the rest of their lives somewhere else. What he did sense was that once he left Syria, he would never again set foot on the land of his birth.
On the other hand, I must admit that I occasionally wonder if my grandmother Vera (strange as she was, as am I) ever asked her mother Yemil the same question that I posed to Sebastián one day: if she also felt that wave of fear when she lost her own father. Who knows. Vera had just lost him five years earlier, so it’s not so unusual, then, the desire to ask her; yes, a bit unexpected, perhaps, but that’s all I was thinking, out of the simple urge to compare her anguish with what her mother, my great-grandmother, must once have felt.
For the time being, my grandmother did not expect or even imagine that soon enough she would be leaving Yemil, and wouldn’t see her again for decades, and then only once, in New York, where my light-skinned paternal great-grandparents, Ashley and Arnulfo (about whom I’ll speak later) had met thirty years ago, staring up in amazement at the Statue of Liberty.