Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews

I shall reminder, and do you, that the life in time is a wheel, and one point sole of the rim touching the earth, a creature is alive but at the point, the rim's points gone by are death, the points coming are not alive, when they come the now will be dead.  It shall be new creatures.

Zachary McCaltex is a librarian living in Miami; his wife Twang Panattapam, a native of the fictional Southeast Asian country of Pan-Nam, is living in Florence, Italy.  The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is composed of their letters to each other, discussing a lost Italian treasure they believe has disappeared off of the Florida coast, and how much they miss each other.

Harry Matthews was known as the only American member of Oulipo, a French writing collective whose authors set for themselves strange linguistic games.  In Odradek Stadium that manifests in Twang's letters, which are a kind of pidgin-English meant to reflect a half-successful translation from the fictional language of Pan:

I've the memry of your to-come in my town.  Our dog in the under-house likes you, he make the strange woof of tendernes and sensure--then, I have interest in you.  And hiss.  Do not put a way your memery of the litlte money you will send.  Do not think, the of-Nau things be roots, they are tirds, yet are OK if you act only little.  I & you; harmnony; peace.

The mistakes, such as they are, have regularity because they come from a clearly conceived linguistic structure.  Pan, you might infer, has no gerund but only infinitives; see Twang's memory of Zachary's "to-come" in her small town, rather than his coming.  She mixes up "c" and "h," suggesting something about the pronunciation of Pan.  Mathews uses her unfamiliar English vocabulary to make a number of small pomo jokes: she describes a radio program describing a fire as a "pogrom," rather than a program; a beautiful blue geranium becomes a "cranium."

A scheme like this would easily devolve into condescension and Orientalism, but Mathews makes Twang self-evidently intelligent and wise.  From her place in Florence she is the chief researcher regarding the treasure; she uncovers the story of its inheritance bit-by-bit.  She tries to recommend a kind of Buddhist wisdom to Zachary, though her zen koans tend to be lost entirely in translation.  And what's more, her English gets progressively better over the course of the novel--so slowly that it's actually difficult to notice.

Even still, the main theme of the novel is how much gets lost in translation.  Zachary and Twang, though they know each other better and more intimately than they do anyone else in the world, frequently misunderstand each other.  A secret letter, in which Twang confesses that she knows her associates in Italy are reading her mail and so she is going to salt her letters with misinformation, gets lost in the mail, muddying the linguistic waters even more.  They get so mixed up, in fact, that Zach boards a plane to Florence at the same time Twang boards one to Miami, and so they miss each other completely.

In his letters, Zachary tells the story of his induction into Florida's premier secret society, the Knights of the Spindle.  He accepts in part because he wants to get close to the head of the society, who bankrolls treasure-hunting expeditions, but he's also flattered to be admitted into arcane truths (itself a kind of postmodern commentary on the theme of the accessibility of knowledge and communication).  These scenes borrow their comic wildness from The Crying of Lot 49, and can be really funny.  They play rec-league baseball against other secret societies, and at one point their libidinous party in their secret sewer lair is interrupted by municipal workers, who join them in their revels.  The Miami of Odradek is a fanstasia of occult Carnival festivities that seem more appropriate to New Orleans, but exaggerated to riotous lengths.  It's better, I'm sure, than being in the real Florida.

In the end, The Sinking of Odradek Stadium achieves the most difficult thing that a postmodern language-obsessed can achieve: it strikes an emotional chord.  After their relationship seems to have utterly dissolved--Zachary, going slightly mad, loses all the hair on his body--Twang discovers the missing letter, marked return to sender, and says some very beautiful things in her newfound English:

It is as that which was tumbled is raised or what was hidden is unclosed, some yellow rose, like the right road pointed to she who was lost or a light brought into the dark for those who have eyes to see.  Yes my cheeks are wet.

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