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Book Review : Inverted Style Is Still No Substitute for Substance

November 27, 1986|BRIAN LUNGER STONEHILL | Lunger Stonehill teaches in the English Department at Pomona College. and

The Translator's Wife by Deena Linett (San Jose State University: The Humanities Arts Press: $6.50)

Deena Linett has written what would have been called, before the Latin American "boom," an experimental novel. Since Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others have already shown that these time-warping techniques can be made to succeed admirably, "The Translator's Wife" must be considered less of an experiment than an import--as, indeed, its title coyly implies.

Linett's first chapter is headed "April in the Near Future." After that follow chapters set in "January Three Months Earlier," "December Ten Days Earlier," "The Prior April," and so on, each chapter consistently preceding the one before.

Like Harold Pinter's play "Betrayal," then, Linett's novel offers a gloss on Kierkegaard's remark, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." The writer's revenge on time, that not-so-subtle thief, is to stand on its head.

Not Much of a Wife

But there are other, less amusing inversions. The wife of the title is not much of a wife at all. Vida Campbell betrays her husband, Mac, repeatedly and spends much of the narrative recalling her exploits. One more avant-gardish novel suffused with retrograde morality!

The style is intelligent, the story depressing. Vida's life is dull. Her husband, an exaggeration of antipathy personified, failed to get tenure as a professor and so turned to translating Latin American novels into English. While Borges and Garcia Marquez are mentioned, the writer whom Vida meets and adds to her collection is a fictional Peruvian named Rojas.

Vida herself has gone back to school for a graduate degree in archeology, studying clay pots and taking a particular liking to the ones that look unfinished. She's unhappy with her looks, never forgets an insult and is deeply and permanently grateful when one of her lovers tells her that she resembles the Earth.

Unlike Flaubert's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna, what motivates Linett's Vida is neither boredom nor desire, but merely a need for approval. She feels cheated by life--in her looks (a source of constant disappointment to her), in her spouse (such a bad choice that he pains the reader), and in her unexplained lack of children. For each and all of these, Vida seems unreflectively determined to compensate.

Spare, Inventive Prose

Linett's prose is sharp-edged, spare, inventive. Chapters written in the future tense alternate what others cast in the past or the present, a device that rises above its potential gimmickry to real evocativeness. Yet what the novelist has done, finally, is to take a method that was ingenious and apt in Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes, and "translate" it onto an unilluminated and unilluminating character. As a result, our impatience with the story falls upon the novel itself.

Like the fruit of the Latin American "boom," too, Linett's novel owes much to the so-called French "new novel" of the '60s, the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and others--writers who, with their insistent emphasis on the appearance of things, refused to stoop to such dubious intangibles as the motives of behavior or the meaning of events. Vida herself, Linett tells us, is "innocent of depths" and "certain only of surfaces." This can only add to our frustration with a character who reduces those around her to either withholders or suppliers of the experience she requires. We start longing for a depth charge to shake the character up.

Vida thinks, perhaps explaining why her author declines to use quotation marks to set off dialogue from narration. Let's pretend, in other words, that what we say is as real as what we see--or that style may adequately substitute for substance.

As a novel, "The Translator's Wife" follows the already hardened grooves of post-modernist fiction by mirroring life in stylistically novel and inverted ways. But our sensibilities, as readers, are at least as hungry as our intellects, and we need translations that address the heart as well as the head.

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