Movies, to a child, are almost always about seeing imagination played out on the big screen. Yet, there's little imagination in Fuguet's story structure.
The Movies of My LifePublisher: HarperCollins (Rayo)
Author: Alberto Fuguet
US publication date: 2003-10
In a recent issue of Context, the Center for Book Culture's print forum, its publisher John O'Brien scrawled across the back page a passionate essay concerning the lack of literary translations in America. He claims it was not his intent to "argue whether there should be more translations," but rather to investigate why there are so few. Still, the former is as much a part of the argument as the latter, leading O'Brien to call the dearth of translations a "cultural travesty."
Soon after reading this essay I picked up the recently translated Movies of My Life by Alberto Fuguet, a purportedly somewhat autobiographical novel about a young boy born in Chile, raised through early childhood in Southern California, then returned to Chile for the rest of his years. Now a renowned seismologist, a brief but intense encounter with a female stranger on a plane has caused Beltran Soler to go on a manic writing spree. He sequesters himself in a Los Angeles hotel room when he's due in Japan, inditing essay upon essay about the movies he saw as a child. The essays uniformly end up being about his childhood, not the movies. Ostensibly, he is going to send these essays off to the woman from the plane. And, ostensibly, she is not going to be creeped out by all of this.
Of course, the stranger and Japan and the airplane and hotel room mean nothing to the story. It's all a none-too-elaborate set-up for the essays, which chronologically tell the story of young Beltran moving from Chile to Cali and back, now an immigrant twice- over.
Fuguet is a member -- and some say the leader -- of a Latin American literary movement called McOndo, which is heavily critical of magical realism. At one point in Movies Fuguet even takes a moment to have his Beltran refer to something as "a bad magical realist novel." McOndo draws its name from Macondo, the fictional town from magical realist bellwether Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. In an essay against magical realism in Foreign Policy, Fuguet called magical realism "overfolkloric" and the writers of his movement "in-your-face."
The trouble is that as apt a storyteller as Fuguet is, his McOndo stance seems to have forced him into such a literal mode that his life-cum-movies conceit runs dry quickly. If the book is about a child's experience with movies, and how those movies both shaped and reflected his formative years, why does it seem appropriate to strip the story of all the "magic" of the movies? Movies, to a child, are almost always about seeing imagination played out on the big screen. Yet, there's little imagination in Fuguet's story structure. The beats of the essays are all the same: biographical introduction, movie watched, biographical fallout. Nothing surprises.
There's a rule in comedy that says you should never reference another comedian for fear of losing the audience. In other words, when Jimmy Fallon does an Adam Sandler impersonation, it's really only good because everyone is thinking about how funny Adam Sandler is. Jimmy Fallon (luckily) is forgotten. The same could be said for Fuguet's book. When Beltran writes of seeing Jaws, it's difficult for the reader to become interested in the world Beltran inhabited and the increasing strain on his family at the time he saw it. The reader wants the sharks.
In truth, it's difficult to tell why Fuguet chose to tell the stories through the somewhat clunky and compulsory format. By focusing on movies and forcing himself to write about them in each chapter, Fuguet lets nearly every character besides the narrator slip. We know his father is like Steve McQueen because he often tells us so, and that his mother is unhappy anywhere but Chile because he often tells us so, but there's little else. The movies get in the way of the story.
Of course, it may be somewhat hypocritical to criticize Fuguet for his movie references when this review began with a reference to a review publication. I concede that. However, my point in drawing from the O'Brien quote was to question whether literary translations, with such rare opportunity for publication, bear a larger burden of proof. In truth, Fuguet's book isn't bad; it could use a little imagination, but I never once put it down without expecting to pick it up again. However, the book's status as one of the few and privileged to be translated and distributed by a large publisher had so piqued my interest I expected greater things.
Certainly, it would have been no cultural travesty if this translation had never been published, but it seems unfair to put that much weight on a single book by a young author. Fuguet has some interesting things to say about immigration and occasionally gets at the truth about how pop culture influences our lives. If he's just scratching the surface, and if with him the American publishing industry is just scratching the surface of potential translations, imagine what we are missing.