Blesok no. 74, September-October, 2010
Kolenič and His Inspirations
A few years ago I was asked to translate an extract from Ivan Kolenič's new novel Say Goodbye to Poetry. I realised instantly that I was up against the peculiar literary being known as the Accursed Poet. Taken as a type, in English-speaking countries the Accursed Poet is one of the most popular poets of all. The largest poetic gathering I have ever seen was in the RDS Main Hall in Dublin, a huge auditorium otherwise used for conferences of major political parties, Tina Turner concerts and the like; on this unique occasion it was packed to the doors for a poetry reading by the Most Accursed American, Allen Ginsberg. It is paradoxical that, while the Accursed Poet despises conventional society, conventional society, which normally despises poetry, treats the Accursed Poet with something like respect. To a certain extent it recognises his calling. As if representing society he publicly drinks himself into a stupor, takes exotic drugs, has scandalous relationships, lives on the brink of lunacy, suffers excruciating torment, and in the end hopefully gathers the flowers of his evils, poetry. Respectable society at the very least takes an interest. Ultimately perhaps it is even grateful – not counting those respectable people who happen to be the Accursed Poet's relations.
But what sort of mind does he have, this Accursed Poet? Does he have a sense of humour? And if so, what kind? – There's a continuing argument over whether these poets have any humour at all. Many readers think that they don't – they can't, since they take their mission too seriously. In some individual cases the evidence is compelling. Taking Ginsberg for example, I would fully agree that humour wasn't his strong point.
But Kolenič resurrects the Accursed Poet with unpredictable humour as well as imaginative energy. Right at the beginning, Kolenič gives him the ideal girlfriend, who wants nothing else but to have her share of poetic suffering: She told me she loved me as a verse-creating object, as something with an enormous shaggy tail, something absurdly spectacular and at the same time hopelessly primitive, old-fashioned, prehistoric; I love you as a most magnificently versifying object, Klárika would murmur through kiss-curved lips before everyone had fallen asleep and let nothingness alight upon the earth, till then unended, I love you as an object of poetry, as a swarm of animate corpuscles, as a race of irredeemable tramps… while all were not yet sleeping Klárika was in her element, she raved into the blue sky like a crossed-out conscience, she spat out her ice-cream over bastards and roared laughing, she did handstands and cartwheels, she stripped off her T-shirt in the public squares, ripping the hearts out of old men, she was splendid and beautiful, she would dream with open eyes of inaugurating the reign of folly, then immediately fall into gloom and vicious cursing – the chaff to death, the cornucopia for life!
Kolenič begins with a high measure of confidence; he willingly, even arrogantly takes risks. Amidst the flood of lyric association, when there's scarcely room on a page for as many as two full stops, he is not afraid to throw a banal little midget-sentence into the torrent and thus deliberately provoke comic bathos. For example, when the narrative turns abruptly from Klárika to the poet: … when the bus inspector was coming she thrust lighted cigarettes into her pockets, she flung about dog-eared banknotes, she swigged stout from the bottle like a dipso, she bought half-pints of vodka and poured it in transports of feeling behind her collar, she gripped me powerfully by the hand till it took my breath away, and whispered that she loved me, she loved me catastrophically… I love you, poet of mine, it's beautiful with you, everything with you is about love and frightful suffering!
She'd hit the nail on the head. Because the poet is an inexplicably mysterious creature, delicately concealed, the poet is a being without time and space, the angels of blasphemy are roving in his veins and craning out as far as his devil's hooves, hence the poet is an oddity of creation, eccentric, non-sterotypical, an ethereal, astrophysical, jaded figure, he conceals within himself armies of woe and dreadful pain, which are all the time exploding in him like summer storms, and simultaneously he dispatches into the world regiments of unlimited bliss, the poet is scorned, spat upon, buried underground, made a saint of, chopped in little bits, he's an instinctive predator, hated and loved, hating and loving, och! how a poet can love…
That much will do to give the flavour. To my mind, it's a successful experiment with language and an interesting original variation on the old theme of the Accursed Poet. I had to translate the first ten pages and translate them I did, with frightful translator's suffering, because Kolenič has an amazingly wide vocabulary of the high and low Slovak tongue. And then I went out to buy the book. I was anxious to read the rest. And I wanted to know if he could hold this pace to the end.
Half-way through, after seventy, eighty pages, the question was still open. Kolenič found a brilliant inspiration for his central plot. He imagined a mysterious disease which deprives all normal conventional people of their physical and mental capacities, leaving only the poet – along with the lowest rabble, to whom he belongs – immune. This is a very old, in fact an archaic theme: it's the central theme of the old Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. In the Táin the immune super-hero Cú Chulainn single-handedly defends the province of Ulster against the rest of Ireland, while the warriors of Ulster lie incapacitated by a kind of “labour pains”. Cú Chulainn, unlike the Accursed Poet, is by no means one of the rabble, but he too is an outsider. I have no idea how Kolenič came by this theme; for his purposes he revives it as something fresh and vital.
And yet, alas… our author‘s courage fails him in the end. His lyric despair lures him to a fatally easy solution. As I understand it, his poet surrenders the pride of the Accursed and collapses meanly into the (now incapacitated) conventional multitude. He ceases to be Accursed and becomes just normally, unpoetically, vicious… ordinarily, crassly obnoxious. By the end I felt disillusioned and angry.
And nevertheless I think this novel is an interesting literary experiment. I haven't often found so much lyrical talent in the prose of our times.
Can something like that be translated, retaining the humour that belongs to it integrally? I made the attempt for the Slovak Literary Review (December 2004).
Afterwards a lady from a publishing house in Illinois, USA, who was interested in new authors from Central and Eastern Europe, wanted to know if there was anyone fit to publish in Slovakia. She was put in contact with me, and straightaway I sent her my ten pages from Kolenič. He genuinely was outstanding among those prose writers whom I'd translated and, aside from that, I was curious: what would they make of him in the land of Edgar Allen Poe? But immediately after sending my e-mail I regretted it. An inner voice was telling me, “You idiot! If she accepts it… that means translating one hundred and fifty pages of this phantasmagoria… including the parts you can't stand!”
The lady from Illinois replied immediately, “Thank you very much for sending the prose extract by Ivan Kolenič. Once we've considered it I'll be in touch right away.” Three weeks went by, a month; I imagined various conflicts in the literary community in Illinois. Finally the lady replied, “Thank you again for sending the prose extract by Ivan Kolenič. Unfortunately, in our opinion it is not suitable for the selection we intend to publish.” And she gave her reasons. “I never got into it at all. For me this author is unconvincing.” To be blunt, and putting it plainly: “It seems to me he's got a bad attitude towards women…“
First of all, I breathed a sigh of relief: I'm free of those hundred and fifty pages! And secondly… well, why should I reproach the lady from Illinois for her incomprehension and prosy political correctness? – because surely she's right after all: this author's attitude to women leaves a certain room for improvement. Though mind you, this lady isn't Kolenič's mother, she's a literary person judging him as an author. That might make a difference. The question will have to remain open, which of us is to blame: whether Kolenič, being unable to write convincingly, or myself, not being able to do a convincing English translation, or the lady from Illinois, who just might be a little bit lacking in the quality which we call humour. Be that as it may, this story of a Slovak literary foray into America has no happy ending.