This week brings us two stories in translation. First, “Six Days in Glorious Vienna,” at Hobart, is a quiet story with a punch. By Japanese author Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder, the story is part of the anthology A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, released on Thursday by Irish publisher Tramp Press. “Six Days” is indeed about distance, and not just the physical kind. It’s about the distance between past and present, youth and age, the living and the dying.
The story follows a young Japanese woman, our nameless narrator, who has treated herself to a trip to Vienna for her birthday. She shares a hotel room with a fellow Japanese tourist who signed up for the same travel package, an old widow named Kotoko who is quiet and timid and can’t read the alphabet. As it turns out, Kotoko isn’t in Vienna to see the sights. She’s there to visit a former lover who is dying in a nursing home. By some mix of begrudging compassion and duty, the young woman ends up taking Kotoko to the nursing home the first day. And then the next. And the next.
Yoko Ogawa’s descriptions are far more than sensory. Their details reveal character, meaning, emotion. Kotoko carries a purse packed full with chewing gum, throat spray, bottled water, a comb, anything you could possibly need, revealing a nervous and over-prepared woman. The hospice wing of the nursing home faces a sunny courtyard with a blooming garden, while inside the residents wait for death. When Kotoko finds her old lover, it’s only by the name at the end of the bed, all of the patients having been “cloaked in a shroud of old age that concealed their former appearance.” Ogawa’s words reveal so much with so little, such as in this next passage, right after Kotoko has kissed her unconscious lover’s cheek:
She took a damp tissue out of her bag and wiped away the lipstick and then found another and cleaned his mouth and around his eyes. Then for the longest time, she sat next to him, folding and unfolding the tissue, as if reluctant to throw it away.
The story feels quiet, like Kotoko, like the hospice wing. But there’s power in that reserve; it trembles just beneath the surface of the story like the withheld grief of a long death, waiting for release. Kotoko and the narrator return to the nursing home every day for the rest of the trip. They sit by the bedside. They eat lunch in the cafeteria. They stroll in the courtyard and surrounding woods. They wait for Kotoko’s lover to die. The young narrator never gets to see any of the sights of Vienna, but by the end, perhaps she has learned something no museum or walking tour could ever teach.
Also in translation this week, “Everything Good That I Know I Learned From Women” by Mexican writer Tryno Maldonado is up at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. You can read the English translation by Janet Hendrickson or, for the bilingual among us, leer el original en español. As Guest Editor Jennifer Croft, founder of Buenos Aires Review, writes in her introduction, Maldonado manages, through thirteen short vignettes, to show us not just a boy’s childhood, but also to “interrogate class, gender, sexuality, nation and national identity, the origins of meaning, the origins of violence, political corruption, unions, psychoanalysis, Cormac McCarthy, and more.”
The story is funny, sensitive, irreverent, and, at times, disturbing. It abruptly shifts from laughter-inducing anecdotes to brutality and back again. Take the opening lines:
My mother is a teacher. A preschool teacher. If you want to fuck up a man’s amorous relationships with women for he rest of his life, there’s no more efficient method than this: sign him up for his mother’s preschool class. Good luck, Freud!
And later in the same paragraph, this:
That afternoon my grandmother Amparo told me I would burn in hell for being a pig, and she put out the embers of her cigar on the back of my hand as a taste of what was reserved for me there.
“Everything Good” is a layered story, seemingly light but so, so heavy. It’s also another wonderful story from a writer just across the language divide, largely unknown in the United States but celebrated in his own language. So let’s all take a moment this week to appreciate the work of the translators who give us precious access to works like these. And, translators, keep ‘em coming!