Graciliano Ramos, translator of Albert Camus

Fabricio Lopez (Journal of Reviews)


Report of the adventures of the translation made by Graciliano of the novel The plague.

In 1915, long before he became one of Brazil's most acclaimed novelists, Graciliano Ramos was a young man trying to make it as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. I had always heard that he had failed in his pursuit of this career. Shy, homesick and unsuited to the sophisticated conditions of big city life, he was thousands of miles and a world away from his remote provincial hometown, Palmeira dos Índios, located in the interior of Brazil's arid Northeast. I imagined him beating a retreat, returning to become a merchant like his father before him, chafing at customers who interrupted his reading.

In 1928, however, Graciliano Ramos was elected mayor of Palmeira dos Índios and, through this unlikely route, gained national literary prominence. As municipal leader, he was required to submit annual reports to the State of Alagoas on budgets and projects, income and expenditures. He treated these reports as a kind of formal challenge.

In a narrative divided into sub-headings like “Public Works” and “Political and Judicial Officials,” he sketched dryly hilarious portraits of small-town life, rivalries, corruption, bureaucratic waste. The reports went viral – to use an anachronism – circulating across the country in the press and prompting an editor's question: Had he, by any chance, written anything else? His first novel, Caetes, was published soon after, starting a luminous literary career.

Graciliano Ramos eventually wrote three more acclaimed novels, the memoirs of his childhood, a monumental account of his period of imprisonment during the Vargas dictatorship, and numerous short stories, essays, and children's books. A national literary poll carried out in 1941 classified him as one of the ten greatest Brazilian novelists. His influence in the years since has been profound and lasting. Most educated Brazilians have read at least one of his books. Your latest novel, Dried lives, has had more than one hundred editions.

Recently, however, I've discovered that a viral narrative of another kind is hidden within its history. After a year working in Rio de Janeiro as a typographer and then as a proofreader for several newspapers, the young man who lamented his shyness in letters home received ego-boosting news: some of his non-fiction pieces would soon be republished in Gazeta de Notícias, one of the most prestigious newspapers of the time.

Things looked encouraging, but fate soon intervened. In August 1915, Graciliano Ramos's father sent a telegram to say that three of his brothers and a nephew had all died in a single day from the bubonic plague then ravaging Palmeira dos Índios. His mother and sister were in critical condition. “There was no longer any way he could stay in Rio”, writes biographer Denis de Moraes in old grace (Boitempo), his account of the life of Graciliano Ramos. Graciliano abandoned his big-city ambitions, took a boat home, married his little local sweetheart, and settled down. He would not return to live in Rio for twenty-three years.

I translated Graciliano's municipal dispatches because they had never been published in English and I love their indignant rectitude and sly humor. Knowing the role of the plague in his biography, however, changed my view of a prefect passion that stands out in these reports: hygiene. “I care very much about public cleanliness,” he declared in the 1929 report. He had public restrooms built and passed laws against littering in the street. “The streets are swept. I removed from the city the garbage accumulated by generations that passed through here and I burned huge heaps of garbage that the City Hall cannot afford to remove”.

He was sarcastic when mentioning detractors: “There are grumbles and complaints about my messing with the dust treasured in backyards; grumbles, complaints and threats because I ordered the extermination of a few hundred stray dogs; grumbles, complaints, threats, squeals, screams and kicks from the farmers who raise animals in the city squares”. (I had forgotten about the dog slaughter when I read part of my translation of the 1929 reports to my kids. They were laughing up until then, but then they decided they hated this guy. If only I could have explained that dogs can carry fleas and fleas can carry pests and the plague had decimated the author's family...or maybe I should have skipped that part). Graciliano even fined his own father for violating the law against letting pigs and goats graze in the city streets. When his father complained, he retorted, “Mayors don't have fathers. I will pay your fine, but you will collect your animals”.

Even though he is still admired for the work he did as mayor, Graciliano left that game after two years. His literary career took off, even though during his lifetime he reaped more critical acclaim than money. I'm sure the writer in him enjoyed that recognition, but as a father of eight, he had bills to pay. By 1950 he was again living in Rio and well connected in the literary community and so he was offered the chance to translate into Portuguese. The plague, by Albert Camus. I previously thought that Graciliano had taken on the project due to an interest in Camus. Upon learning of his tragic losses to the plague, I figured he might have been drawn to the novel for what the novel said about the disease, perhaps even as a talisman against some fear of moving south again, far away. of your home region.

In fact, I haven't found much evidence for either of these assumptions: the critical consensus seems to be that, while one of the most respected novelists in an era when publishers wanted to bring more contemporary foreign literature to the Brazilian reading public, he was hired to translate The plague, although his name would not appear in the book itself until the second edition. Graciliano was reluctant at first – he didn't really think Camus' writing was great, considering it too ornate – but he needed the money. His solution was to rearrange the novel, sentence by sentence, in the image of his own chiseled prose – his solution was, as the critic Cláudio Veiga has said, to treat Camus's novel as if it were an early draft of one of his own novels.

The plague begins with a description of a place that sounds familiar to readers of Graciliano’s books: an isolated provincial town, where people are bored, where they work a lot, “interested above all in commerce – business occupies them, as they like. to say”. Camus's narrator is a reluctant amateur writer, unidentified until very late. (Also Graciliano centered some of his novels on amateur writers, dealing indirectly, as well as The plague he does so, with problems of self-expression and narrative legacies.) We know that the narrator is a resident of that place – Oran, on the north coast of Algeria – who is responsible for reporting the disorder generated by an outbreak of bubonic plague. He frequently slips into the first person plural, speaking of “our city” and “our citizens,” but he refers to himself in the third person. Among the various modifications made by Graciliano to Camus's style and elocution is the elimination of these “ours” and “us”, obliterating the sense of community that these pronouns contain. And Graciliano reduces it: he condenses the sentences to their essentials, not only making the narration more distant, but making the novel more concise and fair overall.

It was nothing more rigorous than the process he used for his original prose, which he – unsurprisingly – described in terms of hygiene. As he said in a well-known 1948 interview: “One must write in the same way as the washerwomen in Alagoas do their job. They start with a first wash, wet the dirty clothes on the edge of the pond or stream, wring the cloth, wet it again, wring it again. They put on the indigo, soap and wring it out once, twice. Then they rinse, give it another wet one, now throwing the water with their hands. They beat the cloth on the slab or clean stone, and they wring it again and again, they wring it until not a single drop drips from the cloth. Only after doing all this do they hang the washed clothes on the rope or on the clothesline to dry”.

Scrubbing, beating, hanging out to dry: this was apparently his approach to translation as well. I couldn't help noticing a certain irony, reading all this as its translator: I was motivated to translate Graciliano into English in large part because I felt that he had been distorted by translators who did not sufficiently respect his stylistic accuracy. And now here he was, radically modifying a French Nobel who was equally careful in his stylistic choices.

But none of Graciliano's translators, obviously including the one who writes to you, was among the most important novelists in their countries. So when we wonder what Graciliano was doing by shrinking Camus's sentences like an angry washerwoman, reshaping them to his own constricted vision, one has to remember that it's as if a late-career Faulkner were translating him. We probably wouldn't be surprised by the arrogance and would be curious about the outcome.

Many dogs are killed in The plague; cats too. But it's when the rats start to reappear, scurrying about, going about their business, that the townspeople of Oran realize that life as they've known it is starting again. More towards the end of The plague, the citizens of Oran “threw into the streets, in that exciting minute when the time of suffering was about to end and the time of forgetting had not yet begun. There was dancing everywhere […] the old odors, of roast meat and aniseed liquor, rose in the soft, beautiful light that fell on the city. Around him, smiling faces turned to the sky.”

Since Susan Sontag crystallized the idea in AIDS and its metaphors”(Companhia das Letras), it has become commonplace to say that we think of pests as invasions. “A feature of the usual plague script: the disease invariably comes from elsewhere,” she wrote, listing fifteenth-century names for syphilis—the English called it the “French disease,” while for Parisians it was “morbus Germanicus; for the Florentines, the illness of Naples; for the Japanese, the Chinese disease”. We want to believe that pests beset us or are inflicted on us from afar, that they are not ours and least of all our fault.

Camus's radical innovation was to show the plague as something that arises spontaneously within the population of Oran - the book ends by saying that the bacteria can lie dormant for years before "awakening their rats to bring death to some happy city" - although, since the book is often read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, the foreign invasion metaphor is not too far off. But what do you do if, like Graciliano, you're trying to define and value national literature in a country still emerging from colonization, when you can't earn enough to survive from your own writing (even if you think you'll make a fortune after die) and your publisher wants you to help popularize European literature by translating a pestilent and irritating French novel? [1] Perhaps you will make this novel your own novel.

Despite its final somber tone of warning, The plague he is interested in being comforting in a way that Graciliano rarely is. Camus's narrator tells us that he wrote this account as a testament to the injustice and violence suffered by the citizens of Oran and "simply to say what one learns in the midst of an epidemic, that there is more to admire in men than what to despise”.

Graciliano's novels tend to be circular rather than linear. They do not end with faces turned to the sun, nor with praises of man's essential goodness. Rather, his books testify to the wonderful and unnoticed ways in which people face their fate and fail to change it, largely because of their own blindness. His characters, despite their ambitions, never triumph over human nature, over their own natures, or over nature itself; plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

When Camus's narrator reveals his identity, we learn that he is, paradoxically, neither of the two men we saw actually writing. One of these, who spent years compulsively revising the first sentence of what will surely be his magnum opus, if he manages to get past the initial line, he finally achieves a small amount of satisfaction: “I cut all the adjectives,” he says – a motto that could be Graciliano's.

*Padma Viswanathan, essayist and novelist, is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and University of Arizona. translated into english St. Bernard (New York Review of Books editor).

Translation: Anouch Neves de Oliveira Kurkdjian.

Originally published on Paris Review, May 15, 2020.


[1] The author plays on words with the neologism plague-y (possible to be translated by pestilent) and plaguey (irritant).


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