- Publisher: Avon (Jun. 1982)
- ISBN-10: 0380585529
- ISBN-13: 978-0380585526
- Product Dimensions: 17.3 x 10.4 x 2.8 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,315,918 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Mulata Paperback – Jun 1982
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Mulata de Tal was first published in Spanish, 1963, in Buenos Aires, by the great Guatemalan poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, diplomat, and winner of the 1967 Nobel for Literature, Miguel Angel Asturias, who is considered one of the fathers of South American Magical Realism, that literary tsunami which first flooded U.S. shores in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mulata is fantastical, poetic, riotously funny, beautiful, imperfect, poignant shading even to tragedy, a work of genius, and an absolute translating tour de force for the renowned translator Gregory Rabassa.
This one’s about a soccer match where the team in white is angles and the team in read, devils: the winter controls life after death. Those were the words of Carlos Asturias, author, a man who spoke about his stories in a rich basso profundo, and afterwards, because I agreed to be his translator, handed me dozens of his stories stuffed in a cardboard box when I departed.
Since then I’ve spent the last twenty-four sleepless hours voraciously reading his work. Whether about plotting revolution in a tin shanty on the outskirts of Jalapa or how a peasant is reduced to digging form worms to feed his starving family, his storytelling is wildly inventive and explosive, written in a rich, eloquent prose.
It isn’t true that Carlos Asturias’s father was a bear, but having seen that massive beard and barreled torso covered over with curly-brown hair, you would think his mother, human maybe, but his father, definitely a bear, a lost grizzly driven out of the Northwest by forest fires, stumbling through Mexico and then driven again across the plains of Guatemala, where half-blind, burned and filled with rage, mounted a mestizo who eventually gave birth to a bear-boy, who grew up to be Carlos Asturias.
I stood up and peered into a mirror reflecting a second mirror on the opposite wall, creating a tunnel of closet-sized living rooms bending in infinite regress, a gaunt, sallow-skinned face in each room. That face belonged to me, I suppose, and was attached to a lanky body pushed to exhaustion by reading and brooding over the stories of Carlos Asturias.
He wrote all types of stories. A horror story were an obese washerwoman returns to her village for her mother’s funeral. She waddles up a twisted dirt road and reflects on her childhood: the tortillas, the guaycan trees, the sad-faced monkey she kept as a pet, but most of all her mother, the anchor of the family, as solid as the mountain she could see from her bedroom window. The washerwoman finds her village in ruin, her family’s house empty and the devil sleeping in her mother’s bed.
Mentioning the devil reminded me of the story Carlos Asturias was working on currently, the soccer match where angels are playing devils, where the outcome determines the fate of the human race. I wanted to know how the game ends.
And where did Carlos Asturias learn to speak such fluent English? Not even a trace of an accent. He hasn’t been in this country, Gringoland as he calls it, for more than a year. Truly a man of many talents. Looking at his large round eyes that seem to have the shine of bronze, my guess is he will have the devils win with three goals, one for the father, one for the son and one for the holy ghost.
Speaking of Gringoland, he wrote a satire where Guatemala breaks off after an earthquake and floats up next to Florida. United States politicians toy with the idea of making their new land the fifty-first state, or then again, walling it off, creating one giant tourist attraction. When a reporter asks about the Spanish-speaking people living there, all the politicians laugh derisively,
There’s also a wonderful story involving a walleyed prisoner who digs a hole in his cell with his bare hands. Down, down he goes. He discovers a paradise at the bottom of his hole, a land replete with bananas, mangoes, papayas, oranges and populated by long-legged maidens of every race. And the prisoner is the only man. One problem, though. Oxygen is in short supply. So the prisoner alternates between paradise at night and jail during the day.
I wondered why Carlos Asturias needed a translator at all. What was my link with this fantastic man? In the hope of gaining insight, I continued to relate the stories to what could very well be his past.
Like the one where a panther preys on a village, killing scores of women and children, until one fearless boy ventures off with his machete to kill the animal. However, when the boy encounters it in the jungle, he teaches the panther to dance. He then returns to the village with the dancing panther only to decapitate the creature on the steps of the church.
But there’s at least one story that can’t be strictly autobiographical. It’s where a man contracts a disease that eats away so much of his flesh, he orders his wife to amputate his arms and legs, which she does. Afterwards, since he isa pain-racked stump, he orders her to bury him alive. The wife, a sea of tears, digs a grave, but in an act of compassoin, slits her husband’s throat before she buries him. The husband could have been Carlos Asturias’s father, brother or friend, but not the author himself, unless, of course, he’s learned to transcend the laws of nature.
Or the laws of nature were transcended for him. Like in the piece where a new figure of a man or woman appears mysteriously on a mural every morning. Correspondingly, the real man or woman whose figure is depicted is nowhere to be found. Diego, the story’s main character, stands guard at the mural one night. As a new figure crystalizes on the mural, he covers it over with white paint. When Diego returns home, he discovers the military had been searching for his brother, Sergio. Fortunately, Sergio narrowly escaped, hiding himself in a barrel of flour.
Again, what was Carlos Asturias’s life apart from his literary endeavor? Undoubtedly, I had some good clues. Like his connection with music. There was an entire series about musical instruments. For instance, an Indian flute, a zul, that is good for rainmaking; a set of bells used as an aphrodisiac, a guitar that becomes a symbol for yearning, romance, loss, grief, and finally death. Speaking of clues that could be personally revealing, how about all the war stories – among families, neighbors, an entire nation drenched in blood.
Putting aside music and bloodshed, undoubtedly my favorite story was the one where an architect wanders into what he thinks is a garen but is actually a labyrinth. The hapless architect meanders for hours among the hedges, nearly abandoning all hope until he discovers a trapdoor leading down into a tunnel. He descends only to find that the tunnel is the beginning of yet another labyrinth, this time one made of slabs of rock. Hour after weary hour the architect fumbles aimlessly in the made of darkness, until he comes upon another trapdoor. He goes through, the stone door slamming shut behind him. When hi eyes adjust to all the bright lights, he sees a name on the door. The architect is transfixed, the name turns out to be his own, he has arrived at his very own office. Or has he really? Is this office, this building, this city the one he’s know all his life or is what he’s experiencing simply another turn in the cavernous labyrinth?
More than any of the others, I pondered this story as I leaned my elbow against the wall and kept staring at all the gaunt faces in the mirror blankly staring back at me.
Later, I left my apartment and was walking along the street to catch a subway to meet Carlos Asturias. A beggeer approached me for a handout. Not an unusual event; this city is crawling with people with their hands open for spare change. I stopped and looked at him for a moment but resumed walking. There was something about thi beggar, though that I couldn’t shake: the red bandana knotted around his forehead, the way he leered with four rotten yellow teeth, two bottom teeth pointing outward and two crooked top teeth between them. This beggar was familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.
I tried thinking about Carlos Asturias, however this time the author was all jumbled up with the beggar. Carlos Asturias wore a red bandana and leered with the beggar’s four yellow teeth. The beggar, in turn, had a full-grown beard of curly brown hair, staring at me with round eyes the color of bronze and asked for change with Carlos Asturias’s basso profundo.
And a few minutes later, when I entered the subway station I saw a quartet of earnest-looking men huddled around a tall, skinny guy speaking in whispers. I speaker glared at me as if I were his enemy. Startled, I turned my head away and paced to the other end of the platform, hiding myself in the crowd.
Fortunately, the headlight was in sight; the train pulled into the station. Relieved, I crammed in the front car among the throng and reached for a strap overhead. Added to my feelings about the beggar, that band of suspicious characters at the station made my skin crawl. Those men reminded me of another group, but for the life of me I couldn’t make the connection.
Once again, I tried thinking of Carlos Asturias. This time, not only was he interchangeable with the beggar, my imagination put him in the middle of that gang at the station, speaking in whispers just like their tall, skinny leader.
I tried not to think at all. Instead, I scanned the faces of everyone stuffed in the car with me: secretaries and bookkeepers and managers all going to work, students on their way to school, down-and-outers going who knows where. My eyes rested on a well-groomed gentleman reading a magazine. He has round horn-rimmed glasses and sported a Pancho Villa mustache. Where have I seen him before? I kept looking. Then it hit me! With the force of a billy club cracking my skull. As if the weight of the entire crowd was suddenly standing on top of my head. What triggered my memory was the gentleman raising his magazine so I could see the cover: Architect’ Digest. He fit the description of the architect in Carlos Asturias’s story. More than fit, he exactly fit! But that was only the beginning. I now recalled how the beggar on the street resembled the peasant who dug for worms to feed his starving family. And the men at the station – they were the ones plotting revolution in a tin shanty on the outskirts of Jalapa.
I broke into a sweat. After all, whose apartment was I riding toward but that of the author himself. Interesting man, my ass. A sorcerer more likely. And to think it was my intent to simply exchange pleasantries, to let him know how much I enjoyed his work and looked forward to translating his stories. Now, I focused on just one question: who was going to win his diabolical soccer match, the angels or devils? Let him be the one to start a conversation about my seeing his characters in the flesh. But so doing, I reasoned, I’d have a clearer idea of what kind of magician I was really dealing with here.
I looked again at the architect. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a chance of speaking with him. Wouldn’t that have made for an interesting conversation?! He stood near the door on the other side of the subway car and the way we were packed in, I would have been lucy to move six inches in his direction. Besides, he got off at the next stop.
I started looking for the other characters of Carlos Asturias’s stoires: the walleyed prisoner who found paradise in a hole, the obese washerwoman returning to her village, flour-covered Sergio, the young boy with his machete, the husband who was a pain-racked stump. I looked for them all -- in the subway car, on station platforms, then after I got off, along the sidewalks, driving in cars. I kept looking and looking but it was as if someone flipped a switch – his characters where there this morning, but as sooon as I started actively seeking them out, there were nowhere to be found.
When I finally arrived at Carlos Asturias’s apartment, he was sitting in the dark watching television without the sound, the sickly bluish glow bathing his face and beard.
I maintained my resolve. I asked: How is your story going? Who do you have winning the soccer match?
His response caught me off guard. Not taking his eyes from the set he said: You can find out for yourself, senor.
I asked: What do you mean?
Carlos Asturias pointed to the screen. Let’s follow the game together, he said.
I could only see the back of the set from where I stood, so I walked around next to Carlos Asturias. A soccer team was taking the field, a team in red uniforms. Enough was enough. I told Carlos Asturias in an even tone that I could read, translate and watch many things but I would not be a spectator to his fiendish game. He only grunted in response. I left him there in his room, his eyes still glued to the tube.
Too agitated to wait for an elevator, I took the stairway. His face, his voice, the stories, the characters in the flesh, the soccer match, it all clicked in my head with the rapid click-click-click of castanets. But before I knew it, other men were trotting down the stairway with me. Suddenly I was wearing gloves, different shoes and different clothes – the uniform of a goalkeeper. And the others around me – they were also wearing uniforms, soccer uniforms, white ones with gold numbers on the back. Another turn in the stairway and we were all in a tunnel. I heard an ear-splitting roar – the tunnel lead into a stadium and the roar came from the largest crowd I’ve ever seen. My heart pumped pure adrenalin as we took the field against the team in red. This was going to be some soccer match. After all, so much was riding on the final score.