Friday, May 23, 2008

Wow. Wao.

I'm just about to finish listening to "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." I wanted to love the book, it was replete with geekiness. It's one sentence description says it's about a guy who wants to be "...the Dominican Tolkien." And there were many Tolkien references, and other geekiness, one great line about how Oscar "wore his nerdiness like a light saber." And it had a kinda mystical realism thing going on that wasn't unlike Marquez. That was fine. All in all, I'm just kind of "eh" about this book. It won the Pulitzer this year I think, or some other major literary hoopdedoo. All in all, as I say, it gets a resounding "eh" from me.

However (you must wonder why an "eh" book gets it's own blog post) I was just flipping through the reviews and comments on Librarything, to see what the LT world thought of the book. And I was fairly well shocked by what I found. Lots of people liked it, some people didn't like it, much as you'd expect. But a large percentage of the 32 reviews written (without counting, I'd guess about 25 of them) mention how they found the authors use of Spanish distracting, disruptive or downright despicable. Okay, no one wrote despicable, but I was on an alliterative slope there. I couldn't stop myself.

I was surprised that so many folks complained about that. I found the language off-putting at times, the English, I mean, because it was frequently profane, and while I'm not against profanity to any real degree, sprinkle enough through your narrative and I'll get annoyed. I'm assuming the Spanish was fairly profane as well. I have what could generously be described as a "Sesame Street Level" understanding of Spanish, or what can be made out of understanding a bit of French here and there. And I was listening to the book, so maybe that made a difference. But I never found the Spanish in the book irritating or inappropriate. I'm stunned that other people did. People wrote that they felt like they missed a lot, by not getting the Spanish. I didn't feel like I missed anything. In fact (and again, it could be because I was listening) I liked walking around with the sound of Spanish in my head (blissfully unaware of it's profanity.)

Collectively, y'all speak too many languages to answer this really objectively, but have you ever felt alienated from a book because it had phrases in a language you didn't speak?

P.S. My favorite review in Librarything a) has a footnote, and b) has a Star Trek reference. Let me just copy and paste it here for you, Librarything's "lampland"'s comment. Temba his arms wide.

He talks like a major geek, throwing in reference after reference to various movies and comics but to what end? He continuously paints himself as an outsider, as not a geek, but then he starts talking like a goddamn Tamarian* by saying things were Mordor or that he was Kaneda and never actually explaining what the hell he meant.

(*Remember that episode of Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard is kidnapped by that race of guys who only talk in metaphors? The universal translator would translate the words but still no one knew what they meant because there was cultural, contextual knowledge that accompanied those words. "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and so forth. Well, that's what this novel is like reading sometimes. Díaz will take the time out to explain Dominican history, but not tell you who Galactus is.)



jean said...

Fascinating. A book I read recently "In The Country of Men" took place in Libya and was sprinkled throughout with Arabic phrases and words. I have to admit that I found it a little frustrating at first but only because I realised that I was not going to be able to learn Arabic anytime soon (there are a few other languages that I want to learn that have priority over Arabic). But as I got deeper into the book, I sort of figured out what the bits meant and it wasn't that much of an issue.

I think you are onto something with your theory that listening to an audio book makes a difference over reading one with lots of foreign language phrases. The reader helps you along with their performance, the nuances of their voice, the inflections, etc. I mean think about how when you read a book with complicated names of characters or places, your eyes just sort of glide over the letters registering a few consonants so that the name is familiar enough in context when it comes up again later, but if you were to have a discussion with someone about the book and tried to reference the characters by their complicated names, you wouldn't necessarily be able to say then out loud, right? Or you'd probably be wildly creative with the pronunciation, just managing to get the first letter of their name right. I mean, does this only happen to me?

For the readers who found the sprinkling of Spanish distracting or disruptive I wonder if they would have felt the same way with an audio version?

Goodyear said...

I usually enjoy a sprinkling of non-english in my reading. Eco sends me off to dictionaries and web sites, and adds to the fun.

One occaision where it became way too distracting was when, in an advanced english class in college, I was introduced to Ezra Pound. Now I am still fond of the fellow and his poetry, but he had a whole series of Cantos that included Chinese characters embedded in them, and these I had no clue how to decipher (perhaps our newest Portlandites could help here??).

Some of the opposition to this sort of thing comes from those who believe that English is so superior that they resent the implication they should have some knowledge of any other language. This group I commend to the Balrog.