There must be something right with a country, when your guide talks to you on your hike outside Bogota about his love for Llosa, Cortázar, Hemingway, Kazantzakis, and Tolstoy. And then at the end of the hike he asks for a list of novels and poets he should read!
Am I living in the wrong country or what?
I asked myself this question last week in Colombia, where I lectured at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota and the Universidad de Cartagena in Cartagena. One more time I was confronted by the broad, universal reading of my hosts in comparison to which we seem, despite our wealth, so provincial. During my week’s stay I met academics, students, artists, and intellectuals who were all versed in the traditions of Latin American writing yet also conversant with literatures and theories of other countries.
I have experienced this in other places as well. Whenever I leave the Anglo-American world, that is, whenever I break out of the hegemony of English, I encounter people who have a more ecumenical understanding of the world than we do here in the US. (Even CNN is more global when you watch it abroad, speaking in multiple accents and from major world cities beyond New York, Washington, and Atlanta.)
I remember being astonished by a lawyer in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was reading a book, the review of which I was just glanced through in the Times Literary Supplement en route. And in Turkey I was dazzled by intellectuals telling to me about Turkish literature while spicing the conversation with references to a wide array of world authors. In these moments I feel my own limitations very much.
Our colleagues abroad excel in more languages than we do, they investigate more of the world than we do, and, above all, they know more about us than we know about them. This imbalance has to do less with individual intelligence or taste than with our respective positions in the global exchange where English reigns as the lingua franca. Small systems must by necessity know more about the larger systems than the other way around. The large system expects the world to come to it, using its own language.
Take a look at translation. A small country like Greece translates per capita more books into Greek than the United States does into English. This claim is not new and has often been made in the past. The statistics of translations of foreign works into English is beyond embarrassing, a sad proof of our ignorance of what goes on beyond our shores.
This insularity is revealed to us whenever we go abroad. Not only does this world read more literature than we do, it reads more of world literature. For better or for worse, the globe has heard more this year of Jonathan Frantzen than of any other author, with the exception of Mario Vargas Llosa, this year’s Nobel winner in literature.
Right now, to be working in English is necessarily to be damned into a certain worldly parochialism. Is this a paradox or what? The more you work in the global language, the less you know of the globe.
Let’s us look at another example. This month marked the first year anniversary of the Athens Review of Book. Patterned after the New York Review of Books, it would hardly have the confidence to compare itself with its more august and influential older sibling. Yet, in so many ways, this neophyte is much more transnational in its vision than the publication coming out of New York, so self-assured of its preeminence in the American world of letters.
Recent issues in the Athens Review of Books have highlighted the following topics in addition to articles on Greece: on Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Ronal Dwarkin, Amin Maalouf, Jean Genet, Stefan Zweig, T. S. Eliot, Tony Judt, José Saramago, J. M. Coetzee, Joan Sutherland, and Anne Carson. Each issue goes well beyond Greek reality because Greek readers feel a greater need to read an avant-garde poet, such as Anne Carson, than American readers do a comparable Greek poet. This does not make Greek readers more sensitive or more finely attuned, just more informed.
In short, the global reach of the Athens Review of Books does not represent some ethical superiority or higher intelligence. It is borne out of necessity. Relying very much on articles from its overseas correspondents and on translation, the Athens Review ends up with a globally eclectic selection of subjects each month. Of course, it leans more heavily towards Europe and North America. But it offers its Greek readers a large percentage of non-Greek oriented articles.
The built-in sense of anxiety that comes with feeling cast off at the margins of global exchange ensures a greater sense of global awareness. Those at the top, on the other hand, confidently assured that no one comes higher above them, don’t need to explore as much of the world around them.
This takes us to the paradox of globalization: The more you feel yourself at the center of things the more parochial you are. And the more provincial you are made to feel, the more ecumenical your perspective turns out to be.