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Fragments of Stories
in a Minor Key

     Fionn PETCH;

          in conversation with Thomas Chadwick

A Musical Offering is the second work by Luis Sagasti to be published by Charco Press. Constructing a form of many discrete parts, Sagasti’s work traces a circular route through musical history from Bach to the Beatles. In doing so the book places the beauty of musical composition alongside more sinister themes such as the demands of a German count struggling to sleep or a French composer's arrival in a concentration camp. Bridging history, fiction and poetry, A Musical Offering has been compared to Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, using it’s tight focus as a departure point for an enquiry into both musical and human history.

A Musical Offering can be ordered direct from the publisher here.

On the occasion of the book’s first-time English publication, Hotel’s Thomas Chadwick spoke with the translator Fionn Petch about the book, the forms it incorporates, the connections it fosters and the hope it might bring.

I like to start these interviews by asking about the book’s origin. What was your first encounter with the text? Was it as a reader or did you know you were going to translate it?
I read it already knowing I would translate it, since I’d previously translated his Fireflies and I knew Charco had the rights to this one. I don’t know if that changes your initial reading experience—possibly less in this case than with other types of book—but it does help to get your subconscious working on the little language puzzles you anticipate. My first impression was that the book is very much of a piece with Fireflies in terms of Sagasti’s approach. He has written other books with a more traditional narrative, but these two share a non-linear structure of brief sections that skip between different periods, characters, or images. Initially it can be a little disconcerting, but once you start picking out the connections it begins to coalesce.

A Musical Offering moves between forms; history, essay, sometimes even poetry. What do you see as the purpose of bringing these different forms together?
I think the use of different forms works like mood changes in music: they function as shifts between more intense and complex passages and lighter, more melodic sections. The abrupt switches also enable Sagasti to be very economical in the way he introduces new elements, or presenting the little nuggets that he describes as ‘poetic facts.’
In terms of its focus, this book is—at least at first glance—about musical connections. Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations. The tracks taken into deep space by the Voyager probe. A quartet composed in a prisoner of war camp. Read in isolation these can appear disparate, but I’d be interested to know how you think the book seeks to connect them?

The Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk won the Booker International Prize in 2018 for Flights, which is a book she describes as a ‘constellation novel’ insofar as it builds a story out of fragments, and invites the reader to make the connections between them. I’d argue that the same characterisation could be applied to A Musical Offering. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking it is no more than a compendium of jottings and notes. But then you start to notice the clues Sagasti has left: the recurring gestures and motifs that he identifies in each story and that start to form patterns, offering a glimpse of some kind of universal key underlying all these, indeed, very disparate fragments of history and culture.
The book’s cover seems simple but gives away a great deal about the work. Piano keys slowly break apart to reveal falling bombs. What do you think the novel has to tell us about music’s relationship to violence?
I can claim some credit for this one: as I was working on the final corrections, the image came into my mind and I sent a one-line email to the publisher reading PIANO KEYS THAT TURN INTO BOMBS. The beautiful design and colour scheme are the work of the outstanding Pablo Font, who does all of Charco’s visuals. The underlying idea is that culture—or so-called high culture—is not necessarily synonymous with civilization, but can just as easily accompany barbarism. I live in Berlin, where I am reminded of this fact on a daily basis. The evidence of it is all around. And yet even while Sagasti reminds us that the greatest works of classical music were most often commissions for royalty and for a wealthy elite, or that the Third Reich had its own propagandistic soundtrack, he is arguing for the power of music as a unifying force that transcends time and culture.
At one point the novel discusses Paul McCartney’s composition of ‘Yesterday,’ a melody, which he dreamt so vividly that when he woke up and wrote it down he was convinced it wasn’t his. Later, the novel comments on the fact that a radio station somewhere is always playing McCartney’s song: McCartney’s dream song that belonged to someone else has become ever present. This pattern is repeated throughout the book, with small, seemingly innocuous details, expanding outwards. As you worked on the translation were you conscious of the relationship between these ever-expanding loops of meaning?
Absolutely, and this was one of the real challenges, to keep my eyes and ears wide open for these echoes and repetitions. Sometimes a slightly unusual word would reappear after a few pages and I’d have to ask myself, is this deliberate? Should I make sure I use the same word in English too? Sagasti likes very much creating this ripple effect: the key stories are like stones dropped into a pond, creating waves that expand outwards as he supplements them with addenda and codas, which are amplified as they collide with the other narrative elements. You could probably create a map of the whole book this way. And there would be a light rain over this pond too, the little splashes forming the myriad other fragments of stories in a minor key…
Can you describe what it was like to translate A Musical Offering more generally; was it a linear process or did it involve your own cycles and reworkings?
It was slightly unusual because a year ago Charco produced a pamphlet with the ‘Wars’ chapter, from the middle of the book, for an event we held when Luis happened to be in Scotland. So that part was all done and dusted before I went back to start on a first draft of the rest. In general it takes a lot of drafts and a lot of reworking. On about the third draft it goes to an editor (in this case the wonderful Robin Myers, whose musical knowledge I relied on enormously), then it comes back to me to respond to those corrections. Eventually it’s typeset, and read and corrected by everyone again. The ideal thing would be able to put it aside for six months in order to reread it with fresh eyes, otherwise you’re only reading what your brain already thinks is there. But there’s never time for that!
In the opening chapter, there is a discussion of the pauses between each of the Goldberg Variations. It mentions how ‘The pauses between each variation are no small matter—no pause is—and Glenn Gould knows this better than anyone.’ Gould’s translation of Bach’s pauses made me reflect on the role of translating pauses—and translating punctuation—in literature. This isn’t something that ever occurred to me before. Could you describe your approach to translating punctuation, both in general and in the case of A Musical Offering?
It’s a good point, and translating punctuation is something that tends to be overlooked—sometimes translators will stick to the same punctuation as the original and it just doesn’t work because languages mark pauses and use punctuation in different ways. Especially when it comes to dialogue—I think it’s really important that a translator can ‘hear’ the tone and cadence of speech in the original to be able to rewrite it in a natural way. We need to have an ear for both languages.

For A Musical Offering it was particularly important to attend to the pauses, to the silences (it is a book about silence after all), to what is left unsaid. Whether it’s the punchline to an implicit joke, or a glance into the abyss. Sagasti’s sentences tend to be short and self-contained, and a lot depends on capturing the rhythm they create. The choice between a colon or a semi-colon can be agonising.
Was music a part of your practice when working on this book? Did you, for instance, find yourself listening to any of the pieces mentioned as you worked?
Yes, of course, I listened to most of the works mentioned. The classical works especially. The most useful thing I did, however, was to watch the videos of Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations, since Sagasti describes in such detail his gestures and bodily movements as he plays. That helped me not to stick too closely to the Spanish but to put directly into English what I was seeing.
You’ve translated another work by Luis Sagasti, Fireflies, how did this translation compare to that one? Was the author involved in the process at all?
I actually found this second one a lot less of a puzzle as I feel I’ve gained greater insight into the Sagasti universe and the way his mind works. He writes with a very distinctive voice, an understated humour and a quiet wonder at things. The first time round I had a lot of questions for him, which he responded to generously. With A Musical Offering I had fewer uncertainties, and mostly asked him to confirm some of my interpretations. He is very open to suggestions for how to deal with specific problems.
Towards the end of A Musical Offering it is remarked that 90% of all compositions ‘languish slowly until, one day, someone hears them whole for the last time.’ At first this seems like a tragic conclusion, but the passage goes on to reflect on the precious role of the intermediary: ‘To resign yourself to being the mere intermediary: that’s true liberation.’ Do you feel liberation in the process of translation?
That line is one I also lit upon as embodying the task at hand. Yes, there is something I find very attractive and liberating about this idea of producing a work that is already there. There’s something very Zen about it. Unlike a mere messenger, however, you’re not just responsible for delivering the package: you have to know what’s inside. You have to hold it so close to yourself that you can assimilate it and then generate it anew in your own tongue, as if you were the author. A lot rides on that ‘as if,’ though. Unlike the author, you’re not writing in order to express your own ideas. And nor are you creating something that you yourself need: you can happily read the original. That said, the process of translating does (ideally) clarify a text for you in an unparalleled way. It would be interesting to consider if we could also translate texts that are already in our own language, say from English to English, as part of a practice of close reading…

Luis SAGASTI, a writer, lecturer and art critic, was born in Bahía Blanca, Argentina in 1963. He graduated in History at the Universidad Nacional del Sur where he now teaches. From 1995 to 2003 he was Curator in charge of Education and Cultural Outreach at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Bahía Blanca, authoring numerous art catalogues for exhibitions. In addition to Fireflies (known in Spanish as Bellas Artes, 2011), he has published four other novels: El Canon de Leipzig (Leipzigs Canon, 1999), Los mares de la Luna (Seas of the Moon, 2006), Maelstrom(2015) and Una ofrenda musical(A Musical Offering). His most recent work is Leyden Ltd., a book composed entirely of footnotes (2019).

Fionn PETCH was born in Scotland, spent a decade in Mexico City and is now based in Berlin. He translates from Spanish and French, and specialises in books on art and architecture. He has curated multidisciplinary exhibitions and worked for numerous cultural festivals. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Fionn has also translated The Distance Between Us by Renato Cisneros and co-translated Jorge Consiglio’s Fate for Charco Press. In 2018 he was shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize for his translation of  Sagasti’s Fireflies.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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