September 2nd, 2015

Postage stamp

“Prodigies” by Angélica Gorodischer


The Argentine author Angélica Gorodischer writes more than science fiction, although that’s what she’s known for. In fact, out of thirty books, only four or five are science fiction. And this book, Prodigies, is like none of her other books.

“It was hard to write,” she told me in an email after I had finished translating it.

The book’s spark was ignited by a conversation she had with a colleague. “She claimed it was impossible to write a novel contrary to one’s own tastes, one’s own inclinations. I said it was, and not only was it possible, but from time to time it ought to be done. At least, it was healthy to go against yourself and write purely as a writer.”

Gorodisher decided to try to write that kind of novel. “And sooner rather than later, I began to write Prodigies. And I repeat: it was hard. It was hard but I liked it.” According to some readers, it is her best novel.

Translating Prodigies was hard, too, the kind of difficult task many translators yearn for: lush prose and delightful turns of phrase. Translation never substitutes language word for word. Instead, it substitutes meaning for meaning, essentially rewriting the book in a new language. But how could I rewrite something I could never have written myself?

I did it sentence by sentence. Some sentences took a long time or several tries, but I seem to have succeeded. Kirkus Reviews says, “Gorodischer writes a poetic, vigorous prose.” (She does, but so did I!)

NPR says: “Run-on, garden-path-style sentences meander, they move sharply to one side or another, and misdirect, and then always land somewhere unexpected. ... The right audience will have a willingness to savor, to double-back over sentences, to bob along to wherever the author and characters wish to take you. If you are ready for the experience of Prodigies, it is definitely ready for you.”

The story takes place in the late 19th century in the most elegant boardinghouse in a city in Germany. Everyone is changed when a new boarder arrives. Some must embrace or flee from their deepest selves. A maid sees fairies and a old man wreaks dark sorcery. Yet the house itself holds power beyond the dreams and aspirations of its inhabitants.

The story begins:

“On the day Madame Nashiru arrived at the boarding house on Scheller Street, a brief tremor passed through the house, unnoticed. ... the wood was what felt it the most since it had never stopped living, or fossils, coal or ashes, never: in the beams and the doorframes, in the lintels and the parapets and the banisters, in the baseboards and the parquet, in the floors and the windowsills, in the framework, in the cheap pine of the attic, the imperfect lignin fibers twisted, created a tiny space between themselves, then stretched and returned sadly to their places, searching for each other, fitting a convex curve into another’s hollow, obedient. ... Nothing returned to the way it had been before, nothing held the same place as it had.”

— Sue Burke

Cover art by Elisabeth Alba.

Also posted at my professional website,