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Dust on Her Tongue.

Although these stories are probably uncanny in their original Spanish, they are excellent examples of the translations of Bowles. When we read his various translations - of The Lemon or The Beggar's Knife - we seem to regard them as his works. Does Bowles overcome the original work because of his distinctive voice? How does he choose which works to translate? In his introduction to this collection of stories Bowles writes: "The stories are as compact and severe as theorems, eschewing symbol and metaphor, making their point in terse, undecorated statements which may bewilder the reader unaccustomed to such bareness of presentation." Bowles is correct in his assessment, but he is also characterizing his own fiction - his fiction is, without doubt, "terse," "severe," "concrete." Perhaps his fiction is shocking because the "presentation" coolly describes mutilation, rape, madness.

The very first page of "The Proof," the opening story in the collection, not only forces us to see the truth of Bowles's statement, it also seems to be a representative description from his own fiction: "One night while his parents were still on the highway returning from someone's birthday party, Miguel went into the living room and stopped in front of the canary's cage. He lifted up the cloth that covered it, and opened the tiny door. Fearfully, he slipped his hand inside the cage, and then withdrew it doubled into a fist, with the bird's head protruding between his fingers." The undecorated sentences immediately attract us; we are seized by the boy's desire to lift the cloth and to see what is behind it; we notice that he is fearful and alone; we almost forget that Miguel kills the canary - he merely makes a fist and, of course, destroys the bird. The entire scene is without gore; it is cleanly presented.

Many of Bowles's critics would probably admit that the presentation is breathtaking, but they would claim that it is not philosophical or meaningful. But these critics are wrong because we soon read that Miguel kills the bird in a quest to discover divine design. He wonders whether or not he will be killed for this unholy act. The story thus becomes a quest as inverted (perverted) sacrifice. There are metaphysical and epistemological questions raised. After Miguel's parents return, they are not sure about the missing canary. The story takes a darkly comic turn as another canary is substituted. Parents and Miguel engage in an odd game, not recognizing what really happens. They do not have "proof." One line is especially relevant: "Perhaps that canary isn't what you think it is, [his mother] said to Miguel in a mysterious voice. You have to look at it very close."

And if we look closely at all the other stories, we note the inability of every character to find the correct answer. There is uncertainty about motives, about natural (and unnatural and supernatural) behavior. The stories are playful examples of meaninglessness; they are, if you will, open, indeterminate, and risky. And these qualities undercut or violate the "theorems" that routinely guide our lives.
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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