Idea: A Rugged Rope

wynand-van-poortvliet https://unsplash.com/photos/kx7KMnSIA2Y

Enough with the sun and the sky. Today, I tackle a scene.

Gasp!

A whole scene description from Martín Adán’sCardboard House.

If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)

Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.

(Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)

I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speechstill form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.

Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?

If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?

All of them?

The literary scalpel comes out.

The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.

A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.

A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest.

Seemingly innocent, but very much sexual: fronds are phallic, they move, they are rubbing against an immobile, defenceless house. The swallows are not actually chaste, this is a transferred epithet. Their song is to be interpreted as a protest against the unseemly affections of the frond. An example of how to inject interest into an ordinary scene.

Above, the cirrus sky.

A scesis onomaton is a sentence without a main verb, and can be used to set the scene. Here to be is implied here.

Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk.

The verb stained evokes a metaphorical application of dyes. The as if signals a simile which compares light with chalk and shadow with soot. Note the inversion light, shadow then soot, chalk. Normally this would trip up the reader, but here it’s a meta-play on the way shadows move, alternate, blend.

The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again.

At first glance it may seem that the jacket is being personified, or that this is an instance of transferred epithet (the man is actually belching), but I would take the belch to be a metonymy standing in for the process of expelling air and the movement of the chest, which is then metaphorically transferred to the jacket. Put succinctly: it’s windy.

With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets.

The brooms are first compared to paintbrushes via a simile, then fully transmogrified via a metaphor into something one draws with.

The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men.

This is an application of tricolon, or triple parallel construction of the pattern

[property] of [type of person],

with the standard gradation appearing in the [property] slot, from concrete to abstract: hair, eyes, silence. (Curtailed example of auxesis, or climactic ordering.)

There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out.

The no then yes is the mark of correctio, which is self-correction or redefinition. It’s sneaky because it can almost be seen as a paralipsis (or occultatio), or in other words, a figure that emphasises a statement by denying it and therefore puts the reader in a particular frame. The Quote would have read differently had the first sentence been deleted and had the second started with There is one penumbra … The first sentence sets the tone. (Alternatively can be seen as a restrictio,which restricts a previous statement by citing an exception.)

Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes.

Anaphora is a figure in which the same word begins consecutive clauses or sentences. It can be used for binding two sentences, like here, where first we get a debunking of a common notion (that shadows is negation of light), which also establishes what the common notion is (even if it wasn’t for you before this paragraph), then we get a redefinition which highlights the special aspect of this scene.

The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away.

Here to be signals the metaphorical identification across senses (synaesthesia), of light with dust. 

A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea.

The sentence about the girl is to be taken at face value, but it’s only a setup, a pattern of action, that is taken up by the following sentence via the same, simple grammatical structure Subject-Verb-Object and the use of the same verb and prepositions:

[subject] inserts [object] into [another object] of [a third object].

It’s a clever and useful transition mechanism from a physical action to a highly metaphorical concept.

I wonder whether to insert a cord into a spool is a tailor’s idiom or part of craft terminology, because I would have chosen a word with a rotational component, like wind or wrap. 

If not, I sense that the translator had to make a choice between:

  • using the same verb for cord and for adjectives, as is highly likely Adán used the same word in Spanish (so the parallel between sentences remains true), and
  • using a more accurate English word for winding thread onto a spool, which would break the parallel.

I’m grateful to the translator for the preserved parallel.

I also wonder whether wooden was meant to carry a self-jibe, as it did for me, where Adán worries about wandering into overwritten territory. After all, he was eighteen when he started the novel and entitled to some insecurity.

At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.

I like the ambiguity of grows pale. This could mean the paling of large or long objects getting lost in the far distance, or it could be a temporal paling as dusk approaches, or a dust storm, or mist.

Adán’s thoughts do not grow pale. Indeed, they emerge bright and beautiful from the haze of the past every time someone opens his novel. Further still, thanks to Katherine Silver’s translation his thoughts also emerge from the haze of another language. The writer-translator symbiosis ought to be celebrated more often.

miguel-a-amutio https://unsplash.com/photos/P1Qg-kJoxiU


This is part of a series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver). I analyse his vivid lyrical prose and learn from it.

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar
  3. Idea: A Rugged Rope

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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