Translating the Absurd: Mark Haber’s Theory of Failure

Discord of Analogy, by Michael Cheval

By Bruno Ríos

If you’ve ever been in Brazos Bookstore when Mark is there, you would know the meaning of enthusiasm. Even while making small talk, his energy seems endless, especially when it comes to books. The first thing I want to mention about Melville’s Beard is that his infinite fast-paced energy is transparent in the way these stories are constructed. There is no room for awkward silence or meaningless descriptions; everything fits as in a well-told joke that builds on its own momentum. His prose maintains not only a rhythm that seems like a continued punch-line but when it finally arrives at a safe landing place it delivers a terrible reality: the absurdity of failure in his characters’ conditions of possibility tells us way more than what we expected. It is humbling and depressing, all at once.

Inhabited by incomplete, weird, sometimes uncomfortable characters and situations, Melville’s Beard is a collection of short stories that configures a subtle theory of failure. Building on the always contemporary absurdity of Bartleby—the famed story by Herman Melville—, Haber shows the reader how the absurd is nothing but a reading of the present, how we are living in times when absurdity is just a juxtaposition of the possibilities of our reality. A country plagued by the infinite number of holidays; a man that contracts his wife’s ex-husband’s snoring like an illness; a psychopathic botanist that seamlessly participates in a murder; a Herman Melville that fights with his wife about her disdain on reading that giant novel he wrote some time ago. These characters and situations, as whimsical as they may seem, teach us a humbling lesson: even in failure, in the utmost pathetic stupidity of life, there is beauty and despair. As readers, we find ourselves rooting for these characters whose life is as meaningless as ours, believing that the absurdity of their lives gives us something to care about, even when we’re nothing but accomplices of their reality.

Regarding his prose, Efrén Ordoñez’s translation into Spanish renders an interesting effect. To an attentive reader, Haber’s prose might seem odd at times, not necessarily in a bad way. With long sentences and a complexity that could be read as baroque at some points, his narrative flows in surprising ways for the Anglo reader. We could read this only as a marking of style, as a personal fingerprint of erudition. But, it’s through its translation that I find the other, maybe better, explanation to this. As an avid reader of Latin American literature in translation, Haber’s prose in English feeds from the natural construction of Spanish sentences by adopting its tendency towards subordinate clauses. This is relevant on its own account and should be an incentive for anyone who wants to read this book. Nevertheless, what happens in Ordoñez’s translation is noteworthy. When the translation renders the text into Spanish, it tries to compensate this tendency. What we get from this process is a text that features the economy of English into Spanish. For readers in Mexico and Latin America, reading Haber’s short stories should feel like a close knitting of a literature that maintains the natural texture of the English language in its Spanish version, while still creating a tension with the Latin American literary tradition. By regulating the excess it would create, the Spanish version reads as a text written in a very peculiar way as if we’re reading a writer that navigates through the fine liminal space between two traditions in constant weaving.

In sum, Melville’s Beard / Las barbas de Melville represents a product collaborative work that aims to bring unusual and independent literary works to Spanish readers and does it with remarkable results. These stories, in their own obsessive way, describe an order or things that might seem completely detached from our chaotic lives. But to a reader that knows the tragicomedy that is life in Latin America, this is nothing our of the realm of possibility. It is inherently ours, too.


Bruno Ríos is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. He has published a book of poetry (Cueva de leones, Cuadrivio, 2015) and a novel (La voz de las abejas, Sediento Ediciones, 2016) in Mexico.


Twitter: @brunoriosmtz