Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cormac McCarthy--Language Landscapes

I recently finished reading what is normally considered Cormac McCarthy's greatest novel, Blood Meridian. While it's certainly among one of the best books I've read in a long while, I cannot place it "best-of" style among McCarthy's canon, since the only other novel of his that I've read is The Road. The film version of No Country For Old Men should probably count for half a point in this tally, since most of the essays I've read generally agree that the film is a faithful adaptation. However, I won't put too much stock into that, since I've always agreed with the old saying that the book is almost always better than its film version.

Before I get into specific thoughts, my reading of Blood Meridian put a spin on another longstanding literary "rule." When one reads an English translation of a non-English novel, it's usually a given that, no matter how good the translation is, something (whether it be specific passages, certain words, or entire intangible atmospheres) often gets lost. Unless you're reading a work in the original language, it's simply not the same in its English form, no matter how good. I've never thought of this adage in reverse until I finished Blood Meridian. Take this passage:

"They followed an old stone trail up out of the valley and through a high pass, the mules clambering along the ledges like goats. Glanton led his horse and called after the others, and yet darkness overtook them and they were benighted in that place, strung out along a fault in the wall of the gorge. He led them cursing upward through the profoundest dark but the way grew so narrow and the footing so treacherous they were obliged to halt. The Delawares came back afoot, having left their horses at the top of the pass, and Glanton threatened to shoot them all were they attacked in that place (McCarthy 149)."

The novel is full of paragraphs fashioned with rapid verbs and stark descriptions that sometimes don't stop for analysis; events happen and the story moves along. I thought about the ideas of translation in a couple different ways. One, as I hinted above, would this English novel lose its atmosphere in translation to, say, Spanish or French? McCarthy is writing about the Old West, a time and era unfamiliar to modern Americans, with "familiarity" coming through stylized, cleansed Western films and books. I cannot help but think that readers in other languages would understand the book, but still lose something innate and present in the descriptions...just like what happens when English speakers read Proust or Marquez. Another side of translation that I thought of was that Blood Meridian feels like a translation. Despite being filled with metaphors and allusions, passages like the one cited above might (at first glance) feel simple, as if they've been modified from a different source. Then, it struck me: a reader of this novel (no matter what language it is presented in) is reading a translation of sorts, reading a description of 1840s-50s Southwest America written by someone in 1985. McCarthy was obviously not alive during that time, but his gifts of language and description are so detailed that one cannot help but believe the authenticity of the novel's events (which were based on true happenings in the mid-nineteenth century). Dialects and meanings definitely change within a language from era to era, so in a way, we're reading a "translation" of sorts.

As I mentioned, the novel is rife with metaphor, biblical comparisons and allusions, and is the type of work that requires intense study and re-readings, so anything I mention in this post should be taken with a grain of salt, since I'm merely going on a single reading. The story follows the exploits and adventures of "the kid" who teams up with an anti-social, violent gang made up of intimidating, colorful characters, many with two sides, hidden motives, and descriptive names such as "judge" and "ex-priest." What can safely pass as one of the main plots is the murder and scalping (for sale) of Indians in the American Old West. Like William Gaddis, McCarthy has no need for quotation marks, simply letting the dialogue stand on its own. At certain points, I was reminded of two other novels.

"All to the north the rain had dragged black tendrils down from the thunderclouds like tracings of lampblack fallen in a beaker and in the night they could hear the drum of rain miles away on the prairie. They ascended through a rocky pass and lightning shaped out the distant shivering mountains and lightning rang the stones about and tufts of blue fire clung to the horses like incandescent elementals upon the metal of the harness, lights ran blue and liquid on the barrels of the guns. Mad jackhares started and checked in the blue glare and high among those clanging crags jokin roehawks crouched in their feathers or cracked a yellow eye at the thunder underfoot (186)."

In seventh grade, my English class read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. I clearly remember that our teacher had us make a list of all the colors that Crane mentioned, and by the end, there were well over one hundred examples of color adjectives. The same is true of Blood Meridian. As desolate and violent as the landscapes and the people are, there are constant references to hues and colors, which serve two functions. One, these adjectives highlight and give the reader concrete mental images of the book's settings. Two, in the case of the works of Crane and McCarthy, colors provide an ironic contrast to the violence. While The Red Badge of Courage is nowhere near as violent as Blood Meridian, there's definite angst when a page has meticulous details of violence mixed with vibrant colors of nearby objects.

The other novel I had in mind was The Road. It's been about a year since I last read it, and I don't have a copy available in order to make specific, cited comparisons. However, as I was reading, I felt that the two McCarthy novels were sort of linked, whether as similar entities or opposites. Blood Meridian's "kid," at least at the beginning of the novel when not much is known about him, reminded me of the son in The Road. They're both young, somewhat innocent, and subconsciously know that violence is looming. The bandit gangs that abound in Blood Meridian are not unlike the unseen villains that the father warns his son about in The Road. Even the time periods, while separate, can be connected. The futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road would likely resemble the landscape of Blood Meridian, especially if more people were introduced in the former.

In both cases, McCarthy uses his incredible gift of language in all forms. Whether he's giving us a scenario at face value or layering it with metaphor for interpretation, he can take utter depravity and somehow make it beautiful, forcing readers to admire the situations even as they recoil from them.

Work Cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. Copyright 1985 by Cormac McCarthy.

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