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The Tropic of Cancer – A 21st Century Review

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I did not pick up the phone. I already knew the “who” and the “why.” I knew, because an insider had told me. In this line of work you have to know people. Otherwise, you simply can't do it. So, the chief editor thought my translation wasn’t bad at all, no, but the style – the style was too – stiff. Yes, that's what she said, “too stiff” – like a dead body, if I may add – and it would need lots of editing to become what they wanted it to become. However, if I could change the style, perhaps have another try at the sample...

I could have done it. And perhaps I should have. Besides, this is what being professional is all about: Being able to adjust to the demands of the client. But the thing is, I'd rather starve. First of all, it was the book itself: Perhaps they would have wanted it to be more consumer-friendly, easier to digest – but the fact is that it wasn't. It was “stiffly” written in the first place, crammed with the unimportant details of any mediocre detective novel. So, what I was basically asked to do was rewrite the book in a different language. I wouldn't succumb to that. Oh, yes, I was too arrogant for this job. Probably for any job.

The problem was that I needed the damn money. I would starve. I wouldn't be able to afford my social security fees, nor my medication. So, I was a wreck, thinking about my zero options, knowing that I couldn't just swallow my pride and tell her “yeah, alright, I'll just mash the book like a potato for your toothless readers, no problem” or “yeah, you're right, I know my style is lousy, I'll improve” and just get the stupid job done. Ego makes you suffer – Freud had that intuition.

I was expecting her phone call and I was praying about the end of all civilization, but in the meantime I went to the bathroom. Now, there are a few things I must explain: Bathroom reading is not a habit I used to have. I had just acquired it recently, and for a good reason. During that time, I was working so much that I didn't have time to read. I'd been working with books, but I wasn't reading for pleasure, and this was something I honestly missed. I pretty much enjoy reading myself to sleep at night, but at that time I was too exhausted for such sports. Practically, the only time of the day I could squeeze in some pleasure reading was bathroom time. I used to enjoy some comic book or magazine in the bathrooms of friends, and I knew people – e.g. my grandpa – who always carried crosswords, or even the newspaper, with them in the bathroom. So, that was when and where I would do it.

I knew the Tropic of Cancer as one knows Withering Heights or The Grapes of Wrath. I knew it as a classic with a movie adaptation – the kind my mother enjoyed watching and always tried to get me to watch with her on TV in my dark, teenage years. So it had all the prerequisites that made it smell like boring. The title brought in mind some Marguerite-Duras type, post-colonial literature, and I was really not into Occidentalism, orientalism or any type of palm-tree fantasy. I was experiencing enough of the East already.

I had first come across the book a couple of years before, when a friend had insisted I read a paragraph from the first page that he was really fond of and that “talked to his soul,” as he put it. I quote:

Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.

My friend was clinically depressed, by the way. I hadn’t been impressed, back then, as I'm generally not easily impressed and, more importantly, as I was going through my optimistic phase. However, five years later, when the time came to choose a book for my bathroom reading and I saw the Tropic of Cancer on the bookshelf, I thought I could give it a try – that paragraph wasn't so bad after all. Besides, my friend had assured me that the story didn't take place in some desert, but in Paris.

Thus, I began reading the Tropic of Cancer in the bathroom. At first, there were moments that I was outraged and even thought of stopping reading it, tired by what I perceived to be aggressive and derogatory attitude towards women mixed with wannabe intellectual considerations. There even was a big picture of Henry Miller on the dust jacket flap, which made me think as I looked at it, “yeah, he's slime.” In short, I felt that the book was immature and even offensive, in a humanly and not a womanly way. However, I kept on reading – it was bathroom reading after all. And then it got me.

I soon realized the whole metaphor, the thing that Miller was describing, the clear eye which peered through the perfumes and laces with no aversion. He had managed to shake off all the fake morality that dresses and burdens the world, and there was a free man – and it actually takes a free man to truly love human nature, what if he uses the word “cunt” in every second sentence. The guy was spilling his guts out in that book. And it touched me. I connected, in a parallel universe type of story, where I myself had experienced the things he was describing, and he was guiding me through this hard life in a manner that no one, not even my parents – especially not my parents – had done. And no, I don't have the clap.

So, I was waiting for the editor’s phone call and went to the bathroom, looking forward to shutting the world outside and reading a page or two in a casual manner. I felt sad and frustrated and hopeless. But no: In truth, I felt “so goddamned sore and miserable, so dejected, so lousy.” That was a so much more fulfilling description of how I felt “after being whacked over the ass by that half-witted bastard,” so goddamned sore and miserable, so dejected, so lousy, “that I could have blown up the City Hall.” I was cheered instantly. It was the kind of soul-lifting that one experiences when they suddenly grasp that someone truly understands. It was enough. Many more sentences came afterwards to strengthen the point and the connection, but I had already made my decision. I did not pick up the phone. I‘d better starve. Henry Miller did it too.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2015 22:19
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