I. “We live in space, in these spaces, these towns, this countryside, these corridors, these parks. That seems obvious to us. Perhaps indeed it should be obvious. But it isn’t obvious, not just as a matter of course. It’s real, obviously, and as a consequence most likely rational. We can touch. We can even allow ourselves to dream.”
These lines are from the foreword to Georges Perec’s great essay (though that’s not the right word for it) “Species of Space,” which is divided into: The Page, The Bed, The Bedroom, The Apartment, The Apartment Building, The Street, The Neighborhood, The Town, The Country, Countries, Europe, Old Continent, New Continent, The World, Space.” From small to the impossibly large Perec sets out to document spaces “of every kind and every size, diversified.” The spaces then get subdivided – The Apartment, for example, into “Walls” and “Staircases” and “Doors”.
Before we had a name for documentary poetics, Perec had a practice for it, and if there’s an argument in “Species of Space”, it’s that we are formed by spaces we don’t even recognize and which we mostly don’t pay attention to. This is about architecture and urban planning and global politics and local politics and communities and memory and mis-memories and decay and abandonment and utilization and birth and death and shoes.
2. I was thinking about “Species of Space” as I read through “On Poetical Renovations in Alamar,” in La Habana Elegante. This piece includes 7 poems by contemporary Cuban writer Juan Carlos Flores, translated by Kristin Dykstra, who writes a really useful introduction which situates Flores’ use of space within broader movements in Cuban art and architecture. Also, there are some awesome photos of Flores: he reads, he points, he does exercises in fluorescent-colored shorts and tank top.
These poems are from El Contragolpe/Counterpunch. The book was published in Cuba in 2009 and Dykstra’s currently searching for a publisher for this amazing collection of translations, part of a trilogy which Flores refers to as “his Poetical Resurrection of Alamar” Alamar, Dysktra writes, is the housing community outside of Havana where Flores has lived since 1971. It’s a city with a population of 200-300,00 people (depending on your internet site) jammed into hundreds of ever-expanding Soviet-style, 5-story concrete blocks that everyone seems to agree are “ugly.” The isolated, industry-less city, however, has had a flourishing arts scene, including the collective Omni-Zona Franca, of which Flores was a founding member. Also, Alamar is known as the home of Cuban hip hop, and from an outsider’s perspective it appears that its decaying environs have inspired at the same time that they have contained.
In her introductory note, Dykstra talks about how her visit to Flores’ home in Alamar and how her conversations with him led her to more clearly understand the documentary project involved in Counterpunch, and the poems’ connections to “the history and culture of Alamar.” The poem “Amusement park,” for example, refers to an amusement park in Alamar formed out of materials taken from other amusement parks. It’s hard to tell what this means, but in the poem “The kids, if they get bored, break all the glass they find.” This destruction of the park itself seems to be a part of its actual construction. From ruin to creation to recreation to ruin.
3. In the novel (though that’s not the right word for it) W or the Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec structures the book by creating two alternating sets of narrative: “One of these texts is entirely imaginary: it’s an adventure story, an arbitrary but careful reconstruction of a childhood fantasy about a land in thrall to the Olympic ideal. The other text is an autobiography: a fragmentary tale of a wartime childhood.” A wartime childhood – a Polish Jewish boy (Perec) in France who loses his family in the Second World War. Remarkably, the autobiography tells perhaps less about his life than the invented narrative of the brutal, isolated South American island of “W,” on which the Olympians pursue a tortured existence of endless physical training:
“A W Athlete has scarcely any control over his life…The life of an Athlete of W is but a single, endless, furious striving, a pointless, debilitating pursuit of that unreal instant when triumph can bring rest. How many hundreds, how many thousands of hours of crushing effort for one second’s serenity, one second of calm? How many weeks, how many months of exhaustion for one hour’s relaxation.”
Physical training, rules, torture, horror, the pursue of sport – all these things are inseparable on the island of W. To be an athlete on W is to be a member of a nation devoted to the purity of the body, which is itself a torture as well as a license to torture, and the rules exist to spawn more brutality, more torture. Conception, for example, is achieved through a ritualistic competition in which “the women thought to be fertile are taken to the Central Stadium, their clothing is removed, and they are released onto the track, where they start to run as fast as they can” in order to not be caught by one of the 162 men who will catch and rape them.
Thus, if in “Species of Space” Perec’s project is to consider how real spaces are shaped by imaginary desires, then in W, perhaps the project is to understand how the real spaces, and the unspeakable horrors they contain, infect and invade the imagination.
There’s not much hope here. Reality and the imagination are both horrible. Brother.
4. Which brings us to the Italian futbolista Roberto Baggio (the Divine Ponytail!), who famously led his national team to the World Cup final in 1994, only to wildly miss his penalty in the shootout, which is the subject of Flores’ poem “Number 10” in La Habana Elegante:
Roberto Baggio is in front of the goalie, if he puts the ball in the net, his Team Italy will be able to win the coveted, the golden cup, I, a thousand and one shadows rhythmically burning, at last I put my things in order, within the order of the Lotus Sutra, I know what it means to belong to a soccer team, I know what it means to nail it and what it means to miss, art or soccer or war, working for something wears you out, working for nothing wears you even more.
All of which begs the question of what Roberto Baggio (the Divine Ponytail!) has to do with Flores’ poetical resurrection of Alamar. And what resurrection could take place between Flores the writer and the funny gaffe of the funny-haired Italian striker at the time of the penalty kick?
Of course, I haven’t a clue how to answer this question other than to say that the imagination here is as important to the physical space as the physical space is to the imagination. Even when what is being imagined (the Divine Ponytail!) is so radically different from what’s real.
There’s more to say here, especially about the ways in which the politics of space—both real and virtual and imagined—the decisions to allow or not allow people to enter or exit these spaces—affect the realities of translation. In other words, lots of things make it hard to translate writers from Cuba, but perhaps we’ll leave that for a separate post. For now – check out the poems from Flores’ stunning project translated stunningly by Kristin Dykstra at La Habana Elegante.