The absence of American character

Novels In Translation

March 11, 2001|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,Special to the Sun

Americans in a foreign land are said to announce themselves, loudly, by the way they move as well as by the way they talk. But what about the way we write? Is there any such thing as an Americanness of self-expression obvious to others in our writing?

One way to discover what we are, of course, is to explore what we're not, and with this in mind I recommend four recently issued books in translation.

Elena Poniatowska's "Here's to You, Jesusa!" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 303 pages, $24) is being issued in English for the first time 32 years after it was first published in Mexico, where it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and went into 28 printings. Beautifully translated by Deanna Heikkinen, it is the story of a poor Mexican woman, born in the early 1900s, whom Poniatowska interviewed over a period of years and calls "Jesusa."

It is a work of astonishing vitality. Wisely, Poniatowska did not polish the story too much; its various small rough spots and gaps give it all the more authority. So too does Jesusa's magnificently inconsistent character, alternately brusque and gentle, exuberant and bitter.

The struggle for survival that begins with her mother's death brings Jesusa from her home town in Oaxaca to one miserable job after another while she is still a child. She is beaten, betrayed and abandoned, over and over again.

She is married by force to an army corporal during the Mexican Revolution who brings her along to battle. Her opinion of men, and human beings in general, becomes ever more jaded, but her sense of herself, in Poniatowska's telling, is dazzling. She believes herself to be worthless, and also special.

Whether through her own unlettered narrative or Poniatowska's literary shaping, she is one of life's heroic losers, but no fool. She is without expectation, and also without self-pity: "I don't know what sadness is. I've never been sad. You're speaking Chinese to me. Ah, crying is one thing, but sadness is something else! It's bad, worthless, it doesn't matter to anyone but you."

Crying with anger, and also with sadness, is the equally powerful protagonist of Malika Mokeddem's novel, "Of Dreams and Assassins" (University Press of Virginia, 132 pages, $45). Kenza is more intellectual than Jesusa, more self-conscious, and more critical of society's effect on individuals. Like Jesusa's story, Kenza's is disturbingly real.

Her mother flees her father's brutality but is forced to leave Kenza behind; Kenza's escape is through education and an adoption of Western ideas and social mores. Her intellectual and cultural freedom becomes increasingly unacceptable, even dangerous, as her Algerian homeland is swept up in religious violence and murder. The world of her college friends -- a world of wine-soaked late-night discussions familiar to college students almost everywhere -- is under siege.

On a beautiful Mediterranean beach, they are afraid to swim lest they be killed for showing some sliver of flesh. Only in France can Kenza fulfill a dream impossible in Algeria: of sitting "alone in a cafe, having something to eat while drinking a beer."

In Martin Winckler's "The Case of Doctor Sachs" (Seven Stories, 432 pages, $27.95), the protagonist, a family doctor working in rural France, also has ties to North Africa, where the author himself was born. But the move to Europe is already in the past, taken for granted and like the protagonist's Judaism, is barely cause for mention. Dr. Sachs' assimilation is complete, his isolation not that of poverty (like Jesusa), or gender and intellect (like Kenza) or even that of race or religion: his isolation is that of the compassionate man. His story is told mainly through his patients, sick or troubled, brave or fearful, understanding or rigid in their judgment.

Such communal narration seems at times a triumph of the doctor's selflessness, at others a higher form of narcissism. Though powerfully written, the book is perhaps a third too long. But Winkler's extraordinary sensitivity to the infinite variety of human bodies and their failings, to the common misery and grace of human lives and to what people need from doctors makes this work worth reading. Sachs understands that "People don't have some Whozit's Disease, they have pain, they suffer. ..." Such simple insights, in a world of increasing factorylike handling of medical care, have great value.

Where Sachs seeks to find and understand himself in the people around him, Roger Grenier goes further, in his utterly charming and irresistibly quotable "The Difficulty of Being a Dog" (University of Chicago, 132 pages, $22). Grenier is a true man of letters, author of more than 30 books of fiction and criticism and an editor and literary adviser at France's most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard. And he has loved deeply a companion he calls "my alter ego, my double" who can neither read nor write nor speak, even though named after the great storyteller, Ulysses. The book is pellucidly translated by Alice Kaplan.

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