Bad Nature
Or, With Elvis in Mexico
Javier Marías
Esther Allen, Translator

(New Directions)
Roy Berry is originally from Spain but he's completely at ease with English. He is trying to get a job in Hollywood. A friend of a friend calls and offers him work translating for Elvis Presley. Who?

Presley is making a film in Mexico. This is his thirteenth film, Fun in Acapulco. Berry and the crew fly down, spend their time watching the shoot and doing nothing, getting paid.

I can't go on. My précis of the plot is too simple-minded. As is true with all of Marías, the fun is in the reading. He takes a tiny Hitchcockian plot --- an innocent away from home, getting caught up in a broil --- and runs with it ... all over the place.

Berry the Spanish translator ends up with Presley and a couple of other crew members and friends in a crummy bar in Mexico. Someone --- they call him a member of the "white Mafia" --- insults Presley's buddy. Elvis turns and says to Berry, "You're going to repeat this word for word, to the guy with the mustache, don't you leave out one syllable. Tell him this," (looking at the Mafioso, and at the same time motioning to another big one sitting next to him):

    You're a goon and a pig, and the only fat faggot here is your little girlfriend there with the handkerchief.

Like an idiot, Berry repeats this word-for-word in Spanish, actually making it a even more poetically insulting, complete with the proper pronoun (Usted, the formal, polite "you"): Usted es un matón y un cerdo, y la única maricona gorda es su amiguita del pañuelo.

These words can only grab you if you've lived or studied in a Spanish-speaking country. This, as Marías knows, is the biggest whopping insult you can hand out to any Latino male. And once you have delivered it, even with the proper pronoun, you should be prepared to fight (and perhaps die).

§     §     §

Several friends of mine have gone head-to-head with me over this affection I have for Marías' writings. Some agree that he may be the 21st Century's own Thackeray, if not Proust. Others find him windy and self-indulgent. But my guess is that all will be captured by this one. They will have to find themselves caught by the portraits of the characters (Presley, the Mafia-types, Col. Tom Parker, the hangers-on). They will be driven by the unwinding of the plot, that awful feeling we all have about fate, and our place in it: "How did I get myself into this?" "I can't believe I was so stupid?" Worst of all: "How in the hell am I ever going to get out of this one?"

It's a driving plot-line, great writing (wonderfully translated by Ms. Allen), along with a compelling ambiance (the set of a tacky movie in Acapulco with bored bit players) ... and the final big paradox, "the pessimistic thought always coexists with the optimistic, the daring idea with the fearful, and vice-versa, nothing goes alone and unmixed." Especially when we and the narrator finds ourselves kidnapped, forced to live and move with these dangerous, unpleasant, toxic, self-indulgent men. "The abyss," Berry tells us, "would become or had already, immediately, become larger and the territory much more remote."

Marías worked for years as a translator. He weaves the perils and pleasures of translation into all his works. In one book, he shows us how a translator for a head of state can come to have immense responsibilities, possibly can change the world (in a meeting of heads-of-state, would the president know if his words are being changed faithfully into French or Russian or Japanese or N'khosa?)

The portrayal of Elvis and his buddies is believable, but becomes, finally, for the narrator, even for the reader, too good to be true: "He spent the whole day singing or crooning, even when he was under no professional obligation to do so, you could see he had a passion for it, he was a singing machine ... if conversation hadn't set in, it wouldn't be long before he started humming and the rest of us would join him ... it was an honor to sing with Presley."

--- Carlos Amantea
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