Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Bird that Swallowed its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte

The Bird that Swallowed its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte
Adapted and Translated by Walter Murch
Afterword by Walter Weschler
(Counterpoint: Berkeley: 2012)
ISBN: 978-1619020610

I’ve written about Curzio Malaparte’s World War II ‘novel’ Kaputt. While I’m waiting for my library to get a copy of the recent NYRB Classics re-release of The Skin I thought I would post on two other works of Malaparte’s that have been translated into English, starting with this collection of excerpts. (The post on the other book, The Volga Rises in Europe, will come in a few weeks.)

Walter Murch, the famed film editor and sound designer, has provided translations and adaptations from several of Malaparte’s writings. I’m going to spend some time on Murch’s comments about his translation and adaptation since I think it important for a reader to know what and how things have been changed from the original.

How does an award-winning film guy decide to dabble in translation? When interviewed about film adaptation, Murch makes the analogy

that filmmakers adapting a novel are performing a kind of multilevel from the language of text to the language of image, movement, and sound, and that the old Italian adage traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor) particularly applies: an attempt to be overly faithful to the text often results in a damning-up of its deeper currents, so that an artful betrayal of the original work seems to serve an adaptation best, something along the lines of Picasso’s dictum: art is a lie that tells the truth. (8)

It’s a point I’ve made many times (although never quite so well) when reviewing films adapted from novels. Murch realized he had never tried actual translation so he turned to one of his favorite foreign authors, Malaparte. In doing so, he felt that some of the lines he translated naturally arranged themselves in lines of free verse.

Over the years, I worked on a number of Malaparte’s stories and meditations, none of which had yet been translated into English. Many of them…wound up also being “translated” from prose into free-verse format. With hindsight, there appear to be four reasons for this shift: the rich, almost overwhelming density of Malaparte’s original text; the fabulous nature of his imagery; his frequent use of repetitions and chantlike sequences (dented wheels, transmission belts, gleaming steel handles, bearings, gauges, gearings and crankshafts scattered on the factory floor); and the cross-sensory nature of his metaphors (the air filled with water and stone; a bitter blue light). (9)

Murch covers the game Malaparte plays with the truth in the translator’s essay “That Character Called ‘I’.”Murch highlights the layers of lies and truths at the heart of certain episodes, including Malaparte’s own self-referential prank pulled in The Skin. In this passage, Malaparte relies on his reputation of telling fantastical stories when pretending to eat a soldier’s hand supposedly blown off by a grenade and landed in the soup kettle. Malaparte uses imagined realities to heighten the reader’s feelings, employing the approach of the above quote attributed to Picasso. For more on Murch’s approach to translating Malaparte, I recommend this interview with Joy Katz at the Poetry Foundation.

If you have read any of Malaparte’s work you will recognize many common themes the author often focuses on in this collection, such as war, death, decay, betrayal, fear, and sadness. The following exchange from “Partisans, 1944” encapsulates how Malaparte seemed to feel about World War II in particular and the 20th-century in general:

This war is interesting for one reason only, laughed the Russian. It has murdered Europe.

Exactly, I said.

But Europe was already dead before it was murdered, said the Russian.

Not everybody knew that, I said. Now everybody does. (97)

Murch’s use of blank verse works most of the time for me since I find myself slowing down and focusing more on the word choices in a line than I would have in a prose line (which probably says more about my reading habits than anything else), and for the reasons Murch lists in his introduction. The prose, though, has no problem standing on its own and providing some of the same shock and humor as in Kaputt. One of the better stories of the collection, “The Traitor/El Traidor” was published in the London Review of Books. Malaparte (or rather the “I” of the story) finds himself at the siege of Leningrad when Axis troops capture several Russian soldiers who turn out to be from Spain. The farce and contradictions that play out between Malaparte and the Spanish Ambassador in Helsinki repeats itself during the absurd charade in Spain once one of the prisoners returns home.

A great inclusion in the collection is the “missing” chapter from Kaputt, omitted from Cesare Foligno’s English translation. Titled “The Gun Gone Mad,” it just as easily could have been titled “Dogs” to fit in with the novel’s animal-based chapter theme. The chapter takes place during Operation Retribution, the German bombing of Belgrade. Malaparte observes the bombing from nearby and visits the Italian embassy in Belgrade after the Germans take control of the city. He tells the story as if he had been in the embassy during the bombing, partly from the vantage point of Spin, the envoy’s setter. Readers of Kaputt will find passages about the bombing familiar:

And the city shook to its foundations, with howling crowds pouring into the streets. But every so often, between one explosion and the next, there would be a great silence: everything would hold its breath, immobile, death all around. It was exactly how the silence of nature will be when the Earth itself is dead—that extreme, immense sidereal silence of the Earth when it is cold and dead, when the destruction of the world will finally have been achieved.

Then suddenly another horrendous explosion would uproot trees and houses, and the sky would collapse upon the city with a clap of thunder. (128)

Unfortunately the closing comfort that Spin finds, turning him from sadness, despair, shame, and self-pity to his normal self isn’t available for humans…the war has changed everything.

The best parts of the collection achieve the haunting, lyrical nature of Kaputt while the lesser pieces provide additional insight into Malaparte’s vast catalog underrepresented in English translation. Highly recommended.


seraillon said...

Dwight - I've been eager to get a copy of this (and only missed Murch doing a book-signing event last year due to my screwing up the date). It sounds like a great contribution to the existing Malaparte available in English. He's so good at conveying the absurdities of war, and goes so far out on a literary limb to accomplish it. And how many writers are so easily identifiable just from a fragment - even in translation?

Dwight said...

I have to admit I totally missed this when it was released (not to mention the book signing). I guess we could go visit him since Bolinas isn't that far away!

Some of the excerpts don't work as well as The Traitor or the Kaputt chapter, but I still enjoyed them. His writings on the war are powerful and I'm looking forward to the translated works I haven't read yet (The Skin and The Volga Rises in Europe).