02 June 2011

Cultural Learnings Of Spanish World For Make Benefit Glorious Degree-Granting Institutions

Oddly enough, my previously expressed desire to get back to reading in Spanish was triggered by a book I read recently in English by a Spanish-language writer, Marcelo Figueras' KAMCHATKA. This book reminded me of a dozen others I had been assigned over the years in Spanish classes, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way, which I'm not sure the author was going for... but I'll get to that.

My Spanish literature education fell along a couple of different lines, but I was assigned a lot of what might be called historical-problem works -- those that that use the backdrop of a recent event to inflame or inform a domestic drama. In KAMCHATKA's case, it's Argentina's 1976 military coup, leading to tens of thousands of people on the other political side being "disappeared" (that's tortured if they're lucky), and while the eleven-year-old narrator of the novel doesn't know exactly why he's been pulled out of school to stay at someone else's vacation home, he's fairly sure it's not because his parents want to surprise him. Particularly when his parents tell him to choose another name by which he'll be known on their extended-non-vacation. And when he chooses Harry, in honor of Harry Houdini, a biography of whom has been left in the vacation home.

To alleviate the boredom from being taken out of school and told not to leave the grounds or call their friends, "Harry" and his younger brother "Simon" (who chose his name in honor of "The Saint") drop into hours of games of their own devising, from trying to train the toads that fall into the pool to walk out to determining the limits of Superman’s powers, while their parents leave them in the care of an impossibly cool 18-year-old whose own lack of context -- who is he, why is he there? -- is a mystery.

Because “Harry” writes from adulthood, the fate of the family in KAMCHATKA is all but spelled out in its earlier chapters, with the stay in the countryside just a way station toward the inevitable. In the moment, the villa figures as both a protected space and an arena made dangerous by uncertainty; most of the time, for Harry, it’s the former, a locale where he can ‘train’ for future feats of heroism. Yet he doesn’t dream of rescuing his family from their uncertain fate, only of returning to the status quo. Like his namesake, he only wants to go back to being free.

There are pedagogical reasons to include novels like this, because they pack a double punch of language development and cultural knowledge. That I didn't catch onto that part as I was inching up the institutional ladder at first is assured. But it took me back to the (now obvious) realization that learning another language isn't just a matter of translating word for word, or even sentence by sentence; you have to strive for the words behind the words, the way Argentineans use "disappeared" to talk about dissidents of that time, not because they aren't sure where the people are.

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