University of Córdoba, Spain
Edición, traducción e introducción de José Francisco Fernández
Málaga: Editorial Confluencias, 2013
168 pp. ISBN: 978-84-941691-8-2
After the Second World War, Samuel Beckett entered an extremely fruitful period of artistic production, taking a crucial decision in the development of his literary career: turning from the English language to French. The first extended text to emerge out of this decision was Mercier et Camier, written in 1946. Not finding an editor then and being later left aside by Beckett himself, the novel was not published until 1970. The English translation intermittently occupied Beckett from 1970 to 1974, when it finally came to light in John Calder’s publishing house.
The Spanish text under review here is the translation of Beckett’s 1970 English version by José Francisco Fernández, a leading scholar of Beckett, whose deep critical knowledge of the writer and insightful intimacy with the linguistic texture of his works are at the basis of a rigorous and engaging translation. This publication, furthermore, fills in a great gap in the field of Spanish translations of Beckett’s oeuvre. Although in 1971, Féliz de Azúa translated for Lumen the French text of Mercier et Camier, the translation of the English version had never been done, and both texts – the French and the English – constitute in fact two different works.
As opposed to the critical tendency to regard Beckett’s translated versions of his texts as almost identical twins with respect to the originals, Connor (1989) explains that whereas that is certainly so when the writing of the original and its translation took place in a more or less simultaneous manner, the two texts tend to reveal important differences when there was a long time gap between both acts. In the case of the two versions of Mercier and Camier, Beckett introduced elements in the English text that reinforced the Irish component,1 but the most obvious difference is the amount of material that Beckett decided to cut out in the English translation: around 12% of the original French text. Connor points to the fact that many of these omissions relate to the two characters’ links with the everyday world, so that the English text reinforces the effect of a narrative in which the protagonists are strangely cut off from ordinary people and objects. This narrative is certainly a strange story which tells of a journey by two tramp-like friends who walk around a city that resembles Dublin and get out of it, but only to return to it. In the meantime, they watch dogs copulating, meet odd characters in bars and other public places, have inconclusive conversations and continually worry about their possessions – a sack, an umbrella, a raincoat, a bicycle. The pair of characters, the tramps, the aimless journey, the attachment to ordinary objects or the absurd dialectical exchange: Mercier and Camier anticipates elements that will become central in later major works such as En attendant Godot (1952) or the texts of the Trilogy, Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951) and L’Innommable (1953), and that have come to be seen as quintessentially Beckettian ones.
The novel is divided into 8 chapters, grouped into four sections, after each of which a “Summary of two preceding chapters” or “Resumen de los dos capítulos anteriores” is provided in the form of a list:
Encuentro de Mercier y Camier.
Plaza de Saint-Ruth.
El haya roja.
The Spanish edition includes an index that indicates this division into chapters and summaries, an added element that alerts the reader to an unexpected and baffling aspect fully in accordance with a strong metafictional dimension highlighted by the figure of the narrator. This narrative voice, which tells us of Mercier’s and Camiers’s actions, words, and even thoughts and feelings, is a detached and often impatient and irritated one that calls attention to the gap between action and account. The first overt metatextual sign comes early in the novel, after a grid that registers the different times of Mercier’s and Camier’s missing chances to meet: “What stink of artifice!” (4); “¡Qué embrollo más apestoso!” (27), a remark that inaugurates a series of comments on the arbitrariness and constructedness of narrative.
In stylistic terms, Mercier and Camier occupies some kind of middle ground within Beckett’s work. On the one hand, it is still partly indebted to Beckett’s early narratives – Dream of Fair to Middling Women, More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy or Watt – and their baroque and convoluted language, which appears from time to time in Mercier and Camier and which Fernández perfectly recreates: “Sufría de la cadera horriblemente, con un dolor punzante que le bajaba como un disparo hasta la nalga y le subía por el recto hasta las tripas, llegando a la altura del píloro, culminando, de hecho, en espasmos uretroescrotales que le provocaban unas ganas de miccionar cuasi incesantes” (33). In the case of obscure and archaic references, word games or terms in foreign languages, Fernández tends to keep the original ones, a wise decision that reinforces this erudite dimension of the text: “omniomni” (48), “treponema pallidum” (61), “Potopompos scroton evohe” (64), “gemütlich” (68).
However, for the most part, and as explained by Fernández in his Introduction, Mercier and Camier “es una obra marcada por una actitud de austeridad, concisión y exactitud que será la característica fundamental de su producción literaria posterior” (20). And it is here that one of the main strengths of Fernández’s translation lies; in his ability, when demanded by the original text, to choose words and phrases grounded on the particular and the concrete, and removed from the allusive, the vague or the abstract: “Tras un breve silencio, Camier empezó a reír. A Mercier, a su debido tiempo, también le entró la risa. Entonces rieron juntos a carcajadas, agarrándose de los hombros para no desplomarse” (88). Fernández skillfully endows each passage of the novel with the linguistic style and tone it demands: the evocative and descriptive beginnings of chapter IV (85) and chapter VII (137); the conversational directness of dialogues, as in Madden’s speech in chapter III: “Aprendiz de carnicero –dijo el viejo–, aprendiz de pollero, aprendiz de matarife, encargado de funeraria, sacristán … ¡y venga un cadáver tras otro!” (63); or the humorous moments that, as usual in Beckett, abound in the novel, like the moment in which Watt makes a cameo appearance and gives the following witty description of the protagonists: “El larguirucho se cree que es San Juan Bautista, del que seguro ha oído usted hablar, y el canijo, aquí a mi derecha, no se atreve a sentarse por miedo a que se le rompa el culo de cristal” (156).
This edition by Confluencias has an attractive design where the drawings – both on the cover of the book and on the black pages before and after the text, and which incorporate Beckett’s own doodles – beautifully evoke familiar elements from Beckett’s world, together with its playful and surrealist character. Fernández’s illuminating Introduction provides the reader with all the essential information about the text and the edition, which adds the following postscript: “Has probado. Has fracasado. Da igual. Prueba otra vez. Fracasa otra vez. Fracasa mejor”. These words, coming from Beckett’s 1983 Worstward Ho, have in a way become a Beckettian motto. Mercier and Camier certainly anticipates the failure, impotence, ignorance and dissolution that are going to become prevalent in later works. It is a pivotal work that, both in thematic and stylistic terms, works as a bridge between Beckett’s early and late production, and that is central in order to come to terms with the implications of Beckett’s momentous decision to adopt the French language. Fernández’s fully successful achievement is to make the reader experience those implications through the Spanish translation of an English text; to make the reader experience that, as put by Kenner (1973), writing in a language one has learned in classrooms entails “vigilance”, “deliberation”, “detachment” and “awareness” (83).
- See Kennedy (2005) for an analysis of the obscure way in which the novel relates to the birth of the Irish Free State. [↩]
Beckett, Samuel. 2010 . Mercier and Camier. London: Faber and Faber.
Connor, Steven. 1989. “‘Traduttor, traditore’: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Mercier et Camier”. Journal of Beckett Studies 11/12. http: //www.english.fsu..edu/jobs/numIII2/027_CONNOR.PDF [retrieved: 20/12/2014]
Kennedy, Seán. 2005. “Cultural Memory in Mercier and Camier: The Fate of Noel Lemass”. Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 15. 117-129.
Kenner, Hugh. 1973. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. London: Thames and Hudson.