Wednesday 13 June 2007

Book Review: The Climes of Despair by Winwood Augary

Winwood Augary’s first work is a highly ambitious project. In his introduction he tells the story of how, while on holiday in Greece, he found a tiny second-hand book shop down a back alley. In a dark corner at the back of the store he stumbled across a small and dusty volume that enchanted him. There was no title or author listed on the cover, and the whole book “seemed to ripple with magical intent”. He bought the book and resolved to translate it, a particularly ambitious project, given that Augary neither speaks nor reads Greek.

In the four years that Augary has spent translating the book, he used various methods to recreate the book in English, none of them involving a Greek-to-English dictionary. Intuition seems to have played the biggest part, followed by imagination and free association. Indeed, there are sections of the book that have an element of the beatnik poets to them, and some of the more labyrinthine passages are almost Joycean in nature. All this was necessary, Augary believed, to truly convey the meaning that the text gave to him.

Though the book loosely follows a plot about an aspiring writer going to war, there are huge sections where Augary deviates from the storyline, in one case reading the original Greek text as a series of shopping lists. He also takes one part of the book to be more suited to French, another language of which he has little to no knowledge. The French in the book is more like a phonetic reproduction of an Inspector Clouseau sketch than anything written by Dumas or Corbière.

Augary provides extensive notes to explain his choice of words and grammar, and these provide some of the most interesting parts of the book. In one case he notes: “My initial reaction to the word ‘big squiggle – big squiggle – little squiggle – sideways 8 – three small joined squiggles’ was that it stood for the English word ‘divulge’. However, after seeing the same series of squiggles in numerous other passages I came to change my perceived meaning of the word to ‘avocado’. Three weeks’ work was wasted as I had to go back over all my previous chapters, changing the passages with this word in it to reflect this.”

While the story itself is meandering, poorly written and, in some cases, plagiarised from modern soap operas (acknowledged by Augary as ”manifestations of current themes erupting from my own subconscious”), it is an interesting exercise. Whether or not Augary was successful in his desire to “transverse the boundary between inherent fact and personal understanding, while blurring the concepts of belief and truth” is another matter.

Sadly, this exercise was one that took its toll on the writer, however, and by the last chapter the story has degenerated into meta-narrative about the original book itself, with Augary seemingly under the impression that the book is mocking him and his efforts to translate it. This chapter and the notes for it echo Augary’s own mental breakdown which culminated in his incarceration at a mental institute.

It is a sad note, therefore, that the editor’s postscript at the back of the book informs the reader that Augary had, in fact, unknowingly translated a Greek phone directory printed in 1955.

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