NOVEMBER 30, 2020
THE PUBLICATION OF Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation, brings to English-language readers one of the most beautiful books in recent Mexican literature. The book collects six essays in which personal memories, literary affinities, historical anecdotes, and travel chronicles are interwoven. Each text is titled after a lighthouse, three of them located in New York (Jeffrey’s Hook, Montauk Point, and Blackwell), one in Oregon (Yaquina Head), one in France (The Goury Lighthouse), and one in Spain (The Tapia Lighthouse). Departing from Barrera’s visits to these lighthouses, each essay unfolds into fragments, reflections, and diaries orbiting around each geographical location, the trope of the lighthouse in culture, the author’s life, and recollections and the idea of writing. Precise and erudite, Barrera’s writing is as alluring and arresting as the landscapes and stories it conveys. Each piece is crafted with care, imbued with Barrera’s poignant critical sense and her perspicacious ability to unravel the different levels of affect, historicity, and magnificence that constitute the everyday life of each lighthouse.
It is surprising and encouraging that a Mexican book of literary essays, the kind that does not represent any kind of political imperative or stereotype, becomes available in the United States. Most conversations about world literature, most books available in translation, and most of the works that elicit critical and even readerly attention tend to be either novels or works of narrative prose which are read as analogous to the novel genre. On Lighthouses belongs to that large canon of works very rarely available outside their original language, particularly if they were written in Latin America or any other region of the Global South. Avid readers of essays know that the genre provides not only the unique pleasures and comforts that come from the careful ponderation of an object, and from the implicit conversation between the erudite archive of the essayist with the cultural passions of the reader. Reading On Lighthouses grants the rare opportunity for Anglophone readers to engage with a form of Mexican literature that construes intimacies with Western literary culture and history. It also makes a case for more of these books to be translated and to think of the essay as a key component of world literature.
In my scholarly work, I have used the term “strategic occidentalism” to describe the ways in which cosmopolitanism and erudition are mechanisms through which Mexican writers critically deploy Western literary archives. In the world literature of today, writers like Barrera claim an equal right to worldly cultural citizenship against the pigeonholing of Latin American, postcolonial, and other Global South writers as purveyors of authenticity and commodified fantasies of political resistance. Books like On Lighthouses deliver both intellectual and emotional experiences often missing in the ways in which foreign literatures are distributed and sold, as well as the opportunity to think interculturally about the shared archives that our common knowledge of world culture provides.
On Lighthouses is Barrera’s second book. In 2013, Foreign Body/Cuerpo extraño was released in a bilingual edition by Literal, a Spanish-language Houston-based publisher devoted to Mexican and Latin American literature. In a book that gathers the original text and Dave Oliphant’s English translation, Foreign Body/ Cuerpo extraño is a short and well-crafted essay structured around the idea of corporality, and in the sensorial, intellectual, and bodily images and ideas triggered by attention to elements such as tics, shadows, or migraines. This early book is a worthwhile read, and one can see in its short pieces the key elements of Barrera’s literary project. On Lighthouses, though, constitutes a major qualitative leap in Barrera’s style, particularly because her skilled and perceptive prose better achieves its task of mediating between ideas, experiences, and emotions. Barrera recently released in Mexico and Spain another book, Linea nigra, on pregnancy and motherhood. I hoped to read it before writing this review, but in the postal disruptions of the pandemic, it appears to be stuck somewhere between a Mexico City bookstore and US customs. On Lighthouses’s Spanish original, Cuaderno de faros, first appeared in 2017 in Tierra Adentro, a Mexican government imprint for writers under the age of 35. Pepitas de Calabaza, a finely curated press in Spain, issued a new edition in 2019. That a book as unique as this has achieved quick international circulation speaks not only of Barrera’s remarkable talent, but also of the critical importance of presses and translators invested in circulating the essay genre across translational and transnational cartographies.
One of the pleasures of reading On Lighthouses is the physical beauty of the book: a small hardback with a sky-blue cover showing the title, the author, and the translator in white letters, recreating an ocean view at the back of which we can see a lighthouse. The winsome and elegant typeset supplies a visually pleasurable relationship with the text. Apt for traveling, this compact volume can be carried around, inviting reading and rereading. I find it essential to note the nature of the object because it matches the spirit of Barrera’s work, a volume designed to be collected, to last, to be constantly visited. In tune with the diary-like quality of Barrera’s prose and the personal nature of her aesthetics, the book resembles the kind of small notebook in which writers jot down their notes and ideas. The original title points in this direction and is sadly lost in the more economical English version. Cuaderno de faros points to the idea of the book being itself a notebook (a cuaderno in Spanish). Barrera appears to have taken the title from a government publication that appears in a photograph — in the Spanish edition it is the first image of the book; in English it was moved to the middle. The order of the images is the only significant variation I found between my Spanish edition (I own the Mexican one) and the English one. Generally speaking, MacSweeney renders brilliantly the spirit and the linguistic qualities of the original.
Before proceeding, I would like to highlight the magnificent editorial work at Two Lines Press, an imprint from the Center for the Art of Translation. Two Lines has one of the most spectacular catalogs of world literature in English. I learned after noticing the press through Barrera’s book, that they have translated, among others, one of the greatest writers in the Portuguese language, João Gilberto Noll, as well as the brilliant Afro-Italian writer Igiaba Scego. The press in itself validates the quality of Barrera’s book, as part of a catalog of world literature that goes above and beyond what we usually see in literary media.
Barrera’s work deploys writing as device to capture the vectors of experience, memory, knowledge, and aesthetics in her essays. Her essays participate at their core in the classical line of the genre, which traces from Montaigne’s idea of essayer as experiment and ponderation to contemporary notions such as essayism, defined by Brian Dillon as a combination of exactitude and evasion, and as a multidimensional approach that never reaches full comprehension of the object. At the same time, Barrera’s writings always have a formal surplus, a centrifugal force away from their classicist spirit, tangential lines of flight marked by affect and knowledge. Barrera’s prose echoes the contradiction she identifies at the heart of lighthouses: “[T]hey combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.”
In On Lighthouses, the essay is the site of paradoxical encounters between knowledge and uncertainty: “The great majority of my collections have been failures,” Barrera tells us. “My largest collection is books.” The act of collecting as described here is a defining tenet of her own work: “I’m now able to divide that collection in two categories: the books themselves, as objects, and the reading experiences, which can also be coveted and amassed.” What I find most powerful and most seductive about On Lighthouses is the way in which the actions and affects of link to the essay — reading, collecting, remembering, feeling — capture forms of knowledge and emotion that refuse fixation, conclusiveness, authoritativeness. In another passage of the book, Barrera tells us “I’ve never been capable of reading when there is noise or music playing. I can’t even do it in libraries, surrounded by silent multitudes.” Silence is a condition of knowledge: without it the act of reading is impossible. And yet: “I wonder how far I’d have to go to hear silence. Or at least some form of silence, because at sea there are always waves, in the countryside there are the sounds of the wind and mammals.” The process of absolute cognition is always already pre-empted, or maybe present only in liminal spaces and extreme experiences where that act of knowing is rendered moot: “Perhaps silence can be found in anechoic chambers, which absorb sound waves, or in outer space, or in death.” In Barrera’s essays, the pursuits of enlightenment and sensation traverse a meandering path that aims toward, but never reaches, its horizon of totality.
On Lighthouses profits from MacSweeney’s expert translational abilities. MacSweeney is also a deft reader who provides ways to approach Barrera’s style of writing. In an interview with Bookforum, MacSweeney describes the labor involved in checking original quotations and in creating the context for them, so they are readable in English. MacSweeney’s translational practice, as she describes it, is focused on books that “all require an active reader. They are not classic narratives where you sit back and wait to be told what’s going on. But other than that, they’re all very different.” In this philosophy of translation, we can see the reasons behind MacSweeney’s crucial role in Mexican literature as read in English. The works of Valeria Luiselli, Eduardo Rabasa, and Julián Herbert, among the ones published in her translation, showcase Mexican literature as practice in which writers continuously elicit culture and the word to establish a relation with readers that is always critical and tensional. This is as much the case of Valeria Luiselli’s hyperaware narrative in The Story of My Teeth, as in the intensely political and highly reflexive autofiction in Julián Herbert’s Tomb Song.
On Lighthouses deploys MacSweeney’s talent in a new direction. Her previous translations were of works with proliferating aesthetics or with a certain degree of literary amplitude that her translations often had to contain and order. For instance, Herbert’s style acquires economy and effectiveness in MacSweeney’s English. Barrera, on the other hand, is perhaps the most precise among MacSweeney’s translated author, which in turn elicits a different translational relationship. In the interview, MacSweeney notes that reading one of Barrera’s main sources, Sir Walter Scott’s Northern Lights, was “a beautiful, unexpected part of my research […]. I got totally wrapped up in it — was like taking a time machine back to what seemed like thousands of years ago but in fact was only two hundred.” MacSweeney’s translation lovingly delivers to readers the beauty of her research and her reading abilities.
Barrera’s literary references elicit potential acts of readership in dialogue with her own creative and critical concerns. In one of my favorite moments of the book, Barrera names three books on lighthouses tied to their respective authors’ death. She invokes Jules Verne’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World, published posthumously; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Light-house,” an unfinished work; and Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel, completed prior to his suicide. Barrera’s readings and annotations of all three, as well as her attempt to complete Poe’s story, harness the lighthouse as a mediating point between her reflections and recollections, the critical act performed in her writing and her readers’ own culture, in which the citations may be familiar or virtual references, present in their mind or in a potential future. After noting that she has encountered three books that tie lighthouses to death, Barrera notes: “I’m falling in love with an idea of beauty that at moments seems too much like death.” The experience of this beauty — its liminal relationship to death and the impossibility of fully apprehending it — becomes the departing point for the reader to experience these affects and ideas with her, and to delve on her collection of books and lighthouses.
Barrera is part of the collective that created Ediciones Antílope, one of the most exciting publishers in Mexico. Antílope presents itself as a “space for new, ancient, risky, translated and rescued voices. We are, in Salinger’s words, lovers of the improbable, protectors of the unproductive, defenders of those extravagant without remedy.” The press launched with a forward-looking anthology of essayists and poets. It has achieved major discoveries, including the talented poet and translator Robin Myers, an young American expat with an exceptional sense of verse and language, and the unique writer Jorge Comensal, whose novel The Mutations was recently translated into English. Antílope has also published Spanish editions of writings by Rebecca Solnit and Mary Beard, as well as Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, translated by Barrera and her partner, the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. Barrera’s poetics, tied to the fragment, critically informed by questions of gender, and infused with a culture that is both encyclopedic and personal, shares many affinities with Little Labors. English-language readers who enjoy Solnit and Galchen will certainly love On Lighthouses. The book will also be relatable because Barrera’s canon has substantial Anglophone groundings. Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson, and many others are cited throughout book.
Barrera’s work is part of a larger constellation of Mexican essays, which has gradually appeared in English in the past few years. Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and The Magician of Vienna and Luiselli’s Sidewalks are well-known works in the genre. Barrera’s Antílope partner, Isabel Zapata, wrote a lovely and learned short book on pools, Alberca vacía / Empty Pool, which has strong affinities with On Lighthouses. Regrettably, Argonáutica, its bilingual Mexican publisher, suffers from dismal distribution in the United States. MacSweeney continues working on the essay. Her translation of Luigi Amara’s The Wig: A Hairbrained History, a witty and encyclopedic work, was published by Reaktion Books in October. This is a small but meaningful set of books that should be part of the collection of any enthusiast of the essay genre.
“Lighthouses,” Barrera tells us, “were a throwback to the age of enlightenment.” They also have a primordial history: “A controlled flame is an indication of human presence: survivors of shipwrecks once used fire and smoked to alert possible rescuers.” The literary essay works in analogy, it is the writerly sign of human presence, the record of our enlightenments in the middle of our various societal shipwrecks. “Lighthouses,” Barrera continues, “speak in that primordial language of flame, and their message is, first and foremost, that human beings are here.” The novel is often credited to capture the experience of the human in the secular era, the genre of a humankind fallen from the relationship with the numinous, as György Lukács famously remarked. Yet a younger Lukács found in the essay a different kind of truth: “[T]he essay is an art form, an autonomous and integral giving-of-form to an autonomous and complete life.” On Lighthouses is a book in constant search of this life, but in its unattainability, in a refusal to believe that the crystallization of soul and form, as the Hungarian theorist termed it, was in itself a form of perfection, or even a conclusion. In the intersection between the pleasures of erudition and the intensity of emotion, the essay genre carries our impure archive of ideas and passions. And in this measure, Jazmina Barrera is one of its most skilled practitioners.