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Books

Music as untranslatable art

No puerile showing off of writing skills, no frivolous descriptions. These stories reflect a deep respect for the untranslatable
qualities of music


Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction
Edited by Cass Canfield, Jr.
Harper Collins
28 dollars (US)

A novella is a short novel or a long short story. Two of the eight novellas in this collection revolve around music: The Pursuer by Julio Cortazar is about jazz and I heard her sing by Cabrera Infante is about bolero.

I heard her sing was written in 1965 and is set in the Cuba of 1958 when Fidel Castro was about to take over. Havana's night life forms its backdrop. Codak is the photo-journalist-narrator, trying to capture La Estrella, a mulatto bolero singer and dancer, for posterity.

Infante's narrative is free of conventional punctuation. There are no quotes to distinguish the various people whose conversation makes up the novella. This flood of language lets the music of La Estrella flow through:

"...I have to say that neither she (La Estrella) nor Cuba had exchanged so much as a word because they weren't on speaking terms, I suppose because a singer who sings without music never speaks to someone whose singing is all music ... with apologies to her friends who are also my friends Cuba reminds me of Olga Guillotine, who is the favorite singer of all those people who like artificial flowers and satin dresses and nylon-covered furniture..."

La Estrella's bolero comes through as a formless song mode, the singing of which translates into an act of rebellious dreaming. The language used for her is also rebellious and formless. It is free of self-explanation, just as La Estrella's singing is free of music. It exists by itself and thus defines the singer, the music and a society in turmoil. Cuba is trying to find itself and Codak discovers its photo-verbal-musical identity through a series of non-events.

Cortazar's The Pursuer is tightly knit. The narration has a breathless quality, and the title suggests a thriller. This novella explores the difficult relationship between the artiste and the critic (the pursuer). It examines, accepts and then rejects the notion of a biography; it questions the arrogance that one can really ever understand another human being.

Bruno writes the biography of Johnny, a friend and brilliant jazz musician. His interpretation of the man and his music makes him famous, while it renders the rebel Johnny's life 'acceptable'. Johnny's drug escapades, eccentrities and impoliteness are all explained away neatly. His mystic preoccupation with time only makes others uneasy. Bruno is complacent in his position as the critic until one night when Johnny tells him,
"But Bruno what you forgot to put in is me... Bruno, jazz is not only music, I'm not only Johnny Carter... A man can't say anything, right away you translate it into your filthy language. If I play and you see angels, that's not my fault. If the others open their fat yaps and say that I've reached perfection, it's not my fault."

Bruno tries to retain his superiority over Johnny by adopting a patronising tone and treating him like a demented half-wit who's only good at jazz.

Both novellas describe artistes and the biographers who try to capture their lives through words and photographs. The music reflected by both is anguished and untouchable, consciously untranslatable. Both pursuers unwillingly admit their ineffectiveness in portraying the artiste and his/her work. Therein lies their greatness and sensitivity to music and the artiste. No puerile showing off of writing skills, no frivolous descriptions of music or instruments. Only deep respect, and awe about the untranslatable qualities of music.






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