NEA Literature Fellowships

Amanda Powell

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(2014 - Translation)

Excerpt from El gato de sí mismo by Uriel Quesada

[translated from the Spanish]

However, like all our historical monuments, Versailles nowadays is closed to the public. Indoors, under the guidance of foreign curators, workmen painstakingly restore the woven-thatch walls of sugar cane, wood, and mud. Some conservator, kneeling in the garden with patient diligence, searches through the underbrush for fragments of what used to be the pond. There the Queen Mother once raised her little goldfishes on an oatmeal diet, planting water lilies so that they could rest, have a little privacy, and (if it be that fish feel love) make love as well. Naturally, the Queen Mother never spoke of such things. She simply fed the dear creatures, letting nature take its course, never hurrying what ought to take place on its own. 

We can be sure that architects are discussing proper reconstruction of the edifice, and curators devote weeks to their evaluation of furnishings and the condition of priceless works of art, while each expert prepares a detailed report. But who will listen to them, if no King now holds sway in Versailles? True, His Majesty still eats and sleeps there. No one has chopped off his head, but his thoughts are no longer coherent. A few days ago he was mugged, and [21] he lost his mind. That’s why God sent for me. I pause before the magnificent doorway of exotic woods and press the doorbell. Then I jump, just the way I did as a little boy: because no ringing ensues, no ding-dong, but a piercing scream that startles even the sailors at work far down in the harbor, hundreds of leagues from Versailles.

I wait, posed in a salute. It is now that pages, the Majordomo, and the Grand Master of Ceremonies must prepare the crimson carpet. Thus may Prince Hermann Hermannovich, newly arrived in a golden carriage from San Josésburgh, tread upon noble fabrics rather than plebeian soil! Now will they roll out the tapestry embroidered with gold thread and precious gems, at which the royal weaver-women have toiled for years, awaiting my glad return. No mortal save the King may set foot upon it, under pain of being lamed and having the severed foot displayed near the lower barracks—where sleep the humblest, most rebellious palace servants.

Through the narrow laminate window to one side of the palace door I see a shadow approach. The magic eye swings around, and I know that the sentinel has found me and now sends a page with the happy news: Hearken and rejoice! Hermann Hermannovich returns triumphant, having saved the True Faith from the claws of Mohammedan infidels! Bring on the musicians and tumblers! Draw wine from the casks, slay animals of fattened flesh for Hermann Hermannovich! I hear hinges seven centuries old groan heavily, so unused are they to moving. An offensive odor of the [22] living dead assaults me, but I resist, as every warrior must. The old dame does not draw back as is proper for those of her class, nor does she fall prostrate.

“Little Hermie,” croaks this diabolical figure. She is more than six hundred years old and dresses like a noblewoman in a towering peaked headdress and several gowns, each with four skirts plus a yoked bodice. “You got here, thank God! I thought we would never see you!”

I should forgive her boldness in supposing herself my equal; when all is said and done, she has been with the family for several generations. She helped the Queen Mother give birth, and she rouged the Queen’s cheeks when it was time to wrap her in her shroud. She took charge of Prince Albert and me, assuring that we would never lack a clean white shirt for school or someone to detest in the role of progenitor. She has stood staunchly by His Majesty the King in even his worst moments. She knows intimately the story of my abdication from the throne; and though she might criticize me constantly and pass hateful gossip to the press, she knows that I abdicated for love. Where others have a beating heart, she has an empty space. Yet I am sure that she uses that very emptiness to love me, just a little.

Excerpt in Spanish

About Uriel Quesada

Uriel Quesada is widely published and awarded in his home country and increasingly in the U.S. and abroad. Gato de sí mismo received Costa Rica’s National Literary Award for Novel in 2006. The short-story collections Lejos, tan lejos and El atardecer de los niños also received major awards. Stories appearing in English include “I Leave Tomorrow, I Come Back Yesterday” in Ambientes, “Spoken Portrait” in Iowa Review 36 (2), “Ghosts and Towns” in 91st Meridian, and "Behind the Door" in Contemporary Short Stories from Central America, ed. Chambers and Jaramillo Levi. Other translations are to Croatian, German, and French. His work emphasizes displacement, exile, and queering themes. He serves as director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Loyola University, New Orleans, where he is associate professor of Spanish.

Poet and translator Amanda Powell investigates early modern Spanish and Spanish-American poetry and spiritual narratives. Since 1995, she has directed the international workshop in Spanish-English literary translation, “World to World/Mundo a Mundo.” Her collaborative and solo translations and other publications include The Answer/La Respuesta (prose and poems by Baroque poet Juana Inés de la Cruz (Feminist Press at CUNY, 2010)), Wild Country Out in the Garden: Spiritual Journals of a Colonial Mexican Nun (Indiana, 1999), and “Mujeres alborotadas [Women in Uproar]: Early Modern and Colonial Women’s Cultural Production” (Letras Femeninas 35, 2009). Current projects include an anthology of European early modern women’s love poems to women. Her chapbook of poetry Prowler appears with Finishing Line Press (2013).  She is senior lecturer in Spanish at University of Oregon.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Powell

Translator's Statement

This grant will allow me to complete a project that brings me fun and challenge in equal measure: the translation of El gato de sí mismo by Uriel Quesada (working title, Cat on His Own Behalf; Costa Rica, 2005). This is a breakthrough work in Latin American fiction. With stylistic virtuosity, Quesada here skewers social hypocrisy, affirms family love, presents a straightforwardly queer approach to sexuality, and provides romping entertainment. Few Spanish-language novels so directly address the damage to self—and to society—inflicted by homophobia. At the same time, this book charms with a narrative that darts between elements of science fiction, fantasy and the uncanny, historical romance, gothic, cinema, and detective fiction. Overlapping time frames and campy satire fuse with hard-hitting topics like exile, trauma, and repression. Humor stoked by anger allows this fusion. Rich allusion, humorous characterization, and jokes blending elite and popular culture make it impossible to hold action, or affect, at a remove. Readers must inhabit the tale to construct it from disparate elements.

A background in studying the lavish style of Baroque poetry and Spanish mystical writing helps me to convey Quesada’s allusions, styles, and themes. I enjoy the high-wire act of making English render his scenic intercutting of historical periods (Ancient Carthage, Alexandrian Egypt at its Neoplatonic height, Versailles under the Sun King, Paris of 1940s film, New York in film noire, and the Wild West), together with the splicing of neo-Baroque hyperbole, breathless travel writing, and hard-boiled detective blague. Finally, the project has humanistic appeal. People of all orientations have to make sense of our own modes of sexuality and sociality, often in alienating if not hostile environments. This novel makes its implicit assertions more with a wink than from a soapbox, and they are all the more powerfully affirmative. A translation of Gato calls for the playful reach and light touch of the original, while staying true to purposes that are liberatory and—if one may use the term in our corporatized cultural moment—noble. I want to share this with an English-language readership.