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Salvador Benesdra: El traductor [The Translator]

This was the only novel Benesdra completed and was not published till two years after his death by suicide, with financial support from his family. It soon went out of print and was almost impossible to obtain, despite the fact that it had built up a huge cult reputation. It was republished by Eterna Cadencia in Argentina in 2012, though is still difficult to obtain outside Argentina. It has not, at the time of writing, been translated into any other language. Though it could probably use a bit of editing – it is well over 600 pages long – it is an amazing work, complex, stunningly original, full of ideas and incredibly inventive. It is also one of those relatively rare modern novels that successfully deals with the complexities of the modern workplace.

The novel is set in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. The country is still coming out of the period of dictatorship, the Dirty War and the Falklands War. The hero is Ricardo Zevi. He works as the staff translator for a left-wing publisher, Turba. It is unusual for a publisher to have an in-house translator and unusual that a left-wing publisher has been so successful in Argentina. At the very beginning of the novel, Zevi is sitting in a café, thinking that, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, all ideologies will soon be gone and the world will all be the same, sort of dull grey. While sitting there, a young woman approaches him with some leaflets, offering to bring him the Word of the Lord. Zevi is left-wing (it is partially because of his politics that he got the job with Turba) and an atheist. He regrets that he never took the time to read the Bible, which makes him unable to refute the poor arguments outlined in the woman’s pamphlets. He is about to spurn her when he gets a sudden realisation that she will be important in his life, so he starts talking to her. He learns that Romina, as she is called, is an Adventist and learns a little bit about her religion. He tells her that he needs to talk to her, faking a problem at work, and they arrange to meet later. He is clearly attracted to her but, at the first meeting, she seems very much committed to her church and its work. He later learns that she had been engaged, back home in Salta, but the engagement had failed as her fiancé’s father had died and he wants to stay with his mother, who does not like her son’s fiancée.

Zevi, of course, hopes to seduce her and when they meet again, they chat. He offers to buy her lunch but then points out that the restaurants will be closed by then (which is untrue) and persuades her to come to his flat. To his surprise, she accepts and, while initially reluctant, she allows herself to be seduced by him. They go on to have a passionate sex life, despite the fact that she never seems to have an orgasm. He also learns that her previous boyfriend had simply dumped her for another woman. Meanwhile, at work, he has been translating the works of the (fictitious) right-wing philosopher, Ludwig Brockner. Benesdra gives us pages of excerpts from Brockner’s work, both in German and Spanish but his basic principle is that liberal capitalism is good (an unusual viewpoint for a right-wing commentator, in Zevi’s view) because it ultimately leads to a natural order of things, which means that there are people who are naturally superior and those that are naturally inferior and that is how it should be. He points out that the triumph of the left post-1968 with the elections of Brandt and Mitterand, led to all sorts of problems, such as illegal immigration, moral decadence and feminism (quoting Lacan’s famous statement la femme n’existe pas (woman does not exist). Zevi, despite his dyed in the wool left-wing views, has a suspicion that some of these views might not be entirely wrong and feel others of left-wing persuasion might agree. This becomes important as the situation at Turba starts to change. First of all, Juan José Barnes, a long-time editorial reader, is made redundant. No-one seems to know why, least of all Barnes himself. There is a lot of discussion about what to do – whether to go out on strike or start a petition. Zevi had previously expressed an interest in becoming a reader and had spoken to Gaitanes, the director of the company, about the possibility. Gaitanes had said he would think about it but Zevi never heard anything more. Some time after Barnes’ departure, Zevi is given the opportunity to take on some of the functions of a reader, assisting on a series called Facetas [Facets], about democracies in other countries, which he accepts, not least for the extra pay.

Meanwhile, things are going on with Romina but he is concerned at what he calls her frigidity, i.e. her lack of orgasm. He decides that they should split. Throughout the book they will have an on-off relationship while he has a series of very unsuccessful relationships with other women, including the occasional visit to prostitutes. While they are together, he tries not only to change her sexually, with a series of more outrageous actions, but also tries to educate her, giving her books to read (she is not too keen on Vargass Llosa and García Márquez) though she finally resists after reading The Naked Ape, pointing out that it is now generally accepted that there is no such thing as evolution. When he discusses some of the basic principles of Brockner with her, she is inclined to agree with Brockner, that equality is a myth and some workers do need firing. But at work, things are getting worse. A new reader is hired, so Zevi loses his temporary promotion. Then management starts following the Brockner model, as staff are gradually persuaded to leave and Turba does not seem to be following the principles it espouses. It’s only a job, someone says while others feel that the company should live by its principles. Zevi becomes active in protecting staff rights and much of the latter part of the book is about the deteriorating staff-management relations at Turba and Zevi’s role in the resultant disputes.

This is a very complex book, involving both right-wing and left-wing politics and philosophy, the difference between principles and action, machoism and feminism, translation and how we live our life, particularly our social, professional romantic life, with other people. Benesdra goes far more into these ideas than I can possibly describe here. He also tells a wonderful story of a man in his thirties who is unsure of himself, both romantically and professionally, living in a society undergoing difficult changes and dealing with events in both his professional and personal life that he has not faced before and with which he struggles. Benesdra also comes up with a very clever ending, which few readers could have predicted and one that works. It is sad that this book has been so difficult to obtain, even in Spanish, and that it has not been translated. Perhaps, now that it has been republished, it may appear in other languages.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones de la Flor in 1998
No English translation