‘I actually write poetry disguised as a novel’

‘Some authors want to have control over the translation of their books. No matter what. Even if it’s about languages ​​they don’t speak. Agustín Fernández Mallo is not one of them. He is relaxed and accepts that a translation is not just a copy of the original in another language, but a text with its own status.” Happy and a little nervous, translator Adri Boon (1961) gave his acceptance speech on Saturday at the Crossing Border festival in The Hague after receiving the European Literature Prize 2022 from jury president Manon Uphoff. The award, which recognizes both author and translator for the best contemporary European novel of the past year, went this year to Nocilla Trilogy by the Spanish writer Agustín Fernández Mallo (1967). In this three-part novel, published by Koppernik, Mallo describes in brief sketches the lives of individual people around the world: an Argentine who erects a monument to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, a prostitute who falls in love with a photo collector, a man who chewed gum , stuck on the pavement, painted. Fragments are packed with references to film, architecture and conceptual art. In the final part, which begins with a single sentence on nearly seventy pages, Mallo also questions the extent to which he, as a writer, is not simply passing on what all his predecessors have already thought or written. “It is possible that behind the pseudonym Agustín Fernández Mallo lies a collective of frustrated writers,” he writes jokingly. And implicitly he asks if he as a writer actually exists.

It does Nocilla Trilogy to an extremely complex work, which according to the jury also makes it a ‘real tour de force’ for the translator. In his confirmation on Saturday, Boon referred to the figure of Pierre Menard who appeared in Borges’ short story collection Fictions questions the nature of authorship, appropriation, and interpretation. “Also Nocilla Trilogy seems to deny the unique origin of creation,” Boon said. “In a way, Agustín Mallo participates in the great party of disguise and transvestism that is translation.”

‘Nocilla experience’

A few days before the award ceremony, this game about writing, language and translation is also the subject of a Zoom conversation with the author and translator. Boon tells how, during his work last year, he was so absorbed by Mallo’s imagery that he experienced a true ‘Nocilla experience’. “I had friends over and I wanted to make paella. I cleaned my paella pan and hung it to dry on my racing bike, which is in my living room kitchen. I had ridden that bike to Spain several times. When I saw that image – paella pan hanging from the handlebars of a racing bike – I suddenly saw a poem made of iron: two heterogeneous objects joined together to form a suggestive image. I suddenly saw how two different elements together can form something new. And I realized: that I am now thinking about this is because of Agustín’s work.”

In fact, says Boon, that Nocilla Trilogy the poet’s work. “Poetry is about imagination, connecting disparate elements to create new associations.” Mallo, who is listening from his hometown of Palma in Mallorca, nods in agreement. “I write poems disguised as novels. When I sit down at my desk, I never know in advance what I’m going to do. It’s like staring into the horizon: in front of me lies a vast space where anything can happen. I start writing without a definite idea and never know exactly where I’m going.”

In his books, Mallo, a qualified physicist, also makes the connection between science and literature. That Nocilla Trilogy is full of quotations from authors including Raymond Carver, Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar, but there are also mathematical and physical formulas or short texts by scientists or thinkers such as Roger Penrose or Jerome Segal. “Actually, Agustín is a scientist with an interest in culture,” says Boon. “He wants to connect everything science meets artproject.” Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein plays an important role in that, says Mallo. Wittgenstein said that the use of language ultimately determines its meaning. Humans make sense of things: If we put something in a new context, its meaning can change. That’s why I’m drawn to conceptual art.” He mentions the famous work of art as an example fountain from 1917 by French artist Marcel Duchamp. “When he signed a urinal, he elevated an everyday object to art. I also try to implement this mindset in my writing. For example, you can connect high and low art by adapting a thought from Plato into a cartoon.”

That Nocilla Trilogy is basically a collage of voices and then, Mallo explains, he subordinates his own voice to one Gesamtkunstwerk. Is there such a thing as originality? “Of course, a writer can come up with original things. But no one can create something out of nothing. Writers are influenced and shaped by the work of others.” Mallo makes a comparison with the theory of evolution: organisms with new characteristics can arise through mutations. The same applies to art, he says. “Something new is created from old material, and if it’s good, it gets its own raison d’etre.”

In a way, Boon concludes, this also applies to the translation of a novel. “Each translation is a particular reading of a text. The zeitgeist also plays a part in this. A translation of Don Quixote from 1650 will differ from a translation from 1850. Suppose a book is translated seven times, each translation will differ in major or less from the original text. This makes them independent works. But together, all these different versions may well lead to a more complete reading – of the original text. I think that’s a nice idea.”

Hazelnut paste

First, says Boon, translation is a craft. “You’re literally converting words from one language to another. The trick is to get it as close to the original as possible.” But beyond that, a translator must also grasp the world that an author conjures up. This takes time, especially in the case of Fernández Mallo. “Sometimes there is a whole world in one word.”

This also applies to the title of the book, which Boon deliberately left untranslated. “Nocilla simply means hazelnut spread, of course, it’s the Spanish version of Nutella. But for me personally, this word is also inextricably linked with the beginning of prosperity in Spain. In the fifties, you spread a little olive oil with sugar on your bread, and then suddenly a lovely sweet product appeared on the market.” In the trilogy, Agustín uses the term differently. “I’m referencing a song by the Spanish punk group Siniestro Total,” Mallo says with a laugh. “It’s irony. They sing the same line for almost the whole song.’nocilla. Que Merendilla!‘ It used to be an advertising slogan, meant to please children. But Siniestro Total has turned something banal intended for children into an underground anthem. So it will be a joke. It’s about transforming something like that for me.”

The Nocilla Trilogy came out in Spain between 2006 and 2009 and brought about a major shift in the Spanish literary world. While Francoism and everything around it had long been a milked-out literary theme, a new generation of writers emerged – now known as the ‘Nocilla generation’ – who were no longer preoccupied with the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship, but mainly looked at the borders. “When the trilogy was just out, people outside of Spain often asked me about the relationship between Franco and literature,” says Mallo. “But I wasn’t worried about that at all.” Outside of Spain, the period under Franco is still considered very important, confirms Boon. “It makes sense, fascism and war are still important themes, and a civil war and 35 years of dictatorship are of course not nothing. Publishers in the Netherlands are still governed by this. But it shows a limited view of Spain. Today’s writers are no longer concerned with that. It’s time to expand your horizons.”

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