Light Detained by Bones: Miguel Ángel Bustos’s “Vision of the Children of Evil,” translated from Spanish by Lucina Schell

By Jessica Sequeira 

Bustos_Cover_Front.jpgThe two books gathered in this 2018 co•im•press translation as Vision of the Children of Evil, translated by Lucina Schell—“Fantastical Fragments” (1965) and “Vision of the Children of Evil” (1967)—were written in the decade before the military coup in Argentina, and it is understandably tempting to view them through a biographical lens. Bustos was “disappeared” by the dictatorship—shot by a firing squad in 1976, following the coup led by Jorge Rafael Videla—and this fact inevitably influences how we think about and remember him. Yet to reduce Bustos to a political key flattens out the warped oneiric sensuality of his work, less concerned with human problems or direct action than sublimated into an alternative plane of dream and nightmare.

Bustos was involved in politics, but he was not a purely pragmatic thinker, interested in furthering the cause of specific policies; he took a wide-angled view, and extended his thinking to humanity and the cosmological structure itself. These poems are not really a direct response to political events, and if they are an “act of resistance,” as a blurb about the book puts it, then they suggest rebellion against the very cosmological structure which antedates and far exceeds in scope the outrages of any transitory moustached lieutenant general.

Poetic prose for the most part, Bustos’s texts reflect his temperament; their nightmarishness results primarily from a psychological orientation toward darkness and a literary inheritance from the poète maudit tradition (Nerval, Baudelaire, Poe, Schwob and Artaud are explicitly referenced). The image on the cover of the book, Bustos’s own painting, reflects his sensibility well; it features flowing and spiky forms, wry eyes that peek out and tangled limbs; nothing is in an obvious place, where one would expect it to be; all is textured overlap and dissolved dream, the figures high-contrast and well-inked, with a heavy use of black.

Many of Bustos’s ideas are familiar ones from Western gnosticism, deriving originally from Persia, Egypt and Babylon and passing to the post-exilic Hebrews before acquiring popularity in late-19th and early 20th-century occultism: the battle between darkness and light, the gods’ ascent and descent, the notion of creation and abandonment, the emphasis on the physical body as a locus for this ongoing drama and the creation of a prose that conceals its secrets. Bustos is particularly captivated by the idea that death involves a kind of sinking into light, resulting in amnesia and complete stillness; for this reason, he would prefer to align himself on the side of darkness, for though he lives in anguish, he does so intensely, possessing memory. It would have been fascinating to know more about the specific intellectual sources of Bustos’s themes, beyond his poète maudit readings.

The tone saturating the book, the register taking on infinite forms, is that of anguish; as Schell notes in her afterword, the word “trembling” repeats frequently. This idea that we disappear into light, that consciousness fades into totality or nothingness, need not be a source of suffering. In Eastern traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism this impermanence is not only not a source of fear, but is seen as existential bliss, the ultimate relief.

But Bustos, a consummately Western thinker both in his readings and his personality, is terrified by the idea of any annihilation of his ego, his ultimate self. The mere idea that he will forget, that the gods live in a state of obliviousness such that justice exists only on earth and not in the heavens, is a source of indescribable suffering for him. He experiences a profound anger, sadness, horror and fear for the amoral light that does not impose ideas of justice, to the extent that he prefers the shadows, and he finds no joy or tranquility in this light whatsoever.

In “Fantastical Fragments,” the very form of Bustos’s text is anguished, with the familiar modernist preference for shattering rather than synthesis, indicative of a broken wholeness (dis)embodied in the fragmentary form. Sometimes this prose poetry creates compelling and unexpected juxtapositions; other times it can be a bit tiresome. The numbered entries at the start, the rewritten aphorisms that do not accumulate into anything, are the least compelling for me, precisely because they spurn narrative in favor of the cleverness of almost-contradiction. It is when Bustos introduces poetic anecdote that I find myself drawn into his existential turmoil.

Bustos’s anguish turns him into a kind of prophet, in various historical registers—Schell keeps up with Bustos as he jumps from the ceremonial Spanish of the conquistadores to imitations of the 19th-century French romantics—creating new origin tales. We have a personal origin about the pet tigers and birds of his childhood, a local origin about the people of Buenos Aires and the long thorns they pull from their heads as a form of dying, and a historical origin about the pre-Inca Peruvian Indians who drew the Nazca lines and prayed for the coming of the gods, only to be visited by the Spanish and injustice—one asks why they requested the divine, why they expect it to be human and merciful, why they assumed there was ever a personified protector who could descend or abandon. There is also a cosmological origin about a young god who descends to Earth before his memory disappears. It seems new gods can return to earth if they have not yet been totally annihilated by the light, their language in the process of disappearing is able to grow back temporarily, even if when they do go back it will again disappear. Perhaps Bustos thought of the book itself as that of a god, with its complex, fragmented language appearing or dissolving.

In “Vision of the Children of Evil,” words like kill, night, pain, madness, glory, redemption, annihilation, medieval exorcism, illumination and so forth abound. This is heady and heavy stuff, often suffocatingly so. A prologue to this second book by Leopoldo Marechal notes how the anguished Bustos approached him, and ends with this line: “To Miguel Ángel Bustos, I must remind him of what I have said in my Laberinto de Amor: The only way out of a labyrinth / is Up” (155). But Bustos has no interest in going up; his entire disturbance is based in his desire to stay just where he is, not raised up or disintegrated.

What is essential to understanding Bustos, I think, is that he found a pleasure in the notions of darkness and evil. The evil in the title is not negative but positive; he himself is a child of evil, and these are his visions. Here is why looking for the political angle might be misleading; Bustos met a horrific end, and in “real life” would be against the coup, but his literature—his own mind, too, as he even spent some time in a mental asylum—was very much attracted to the demons. The line between the real and the literary breaks down, and his attraction to madness is clear. These works can be read as an explicit, self-conscious confessional journal in the style of Baudelaire and Artaud, a supreme howl of the “I” that insists on existence and refuses to be forgotten.

What about the translation? A note: This review is for the blog that Schell herself founded, Reading in Translation, where I have contributed reviews before. Schell is a generous person, and her translation is a luminous, beautiful thing. As I read it and the afterword, however, I wondered whether it was almost too much so. The translation as a whole is very sympathetic to Bustos, discovering ingenious solutions to specific problems (for example, she flips a line with the endings “rima / orina” (246) around to retain the rhyme “missed / pissed” (247)). Schell makes Bustos more playful and pleasant than he seems to be in the original and draws out the latent humor in his phrases, finding the poem within the poem.

In her translator’s note, she is a bit wary of the political reading, as I am, commenting on the poète maudit connection; she also prefers to focus on how he “never loses his capacity to play while wounded” (though this leads her to focus on the, to my mind, weaker logic games of the aphorisms). But she also makes huge social claims for Bustos’s work, for instance that his “grand project” is a “sweeping critique of colonialism and the horror of the postcolonial political and social situation in Latin America through the motif of the divine descent” (284). Bustos’s quite individual pleasure in evil in the original work, his obsession with darkness, is not her major focus.

I don’t believe that a translator’s personality necessarily has to match that of the author, or that there has to be an affinity of aesthetic, in this case, Bustos’s fascination with evil. But I do note that Schell tends toward informality (“It’s Góngora playing up above” rather than “It is Góngora, who plays in the heavens” (243)), often uses contractions (“don’t write it, it’s a story for demons” rather than “do not write this, a story for demons” (15)), and employs sympathetic expressions (“Tomorrow I ate up a cake” rather than “Tomorrow I ate a cake” (247)). She also prefers synthesis in the phrases where another translator might retain the original rhythm (in “the resounding starfield” rather than “echoing field of stars” (243); “sorrowful grass” rather than “herb of sadness” (255)), giving the book a contemporary American tone. This makes Bustos more palatable, more approachable, than he is in the original, and in doing so perhaps introduces him to a different audience with its own key of despair in the modern world.

For me, there is something deeply disturbing about Bustos’s very style, which responds to violence not with serenity but with further violence. Schell claims that “In my translations I have striven to be faithful above all to Bustos’s blasphemy, which constitutes an act of resistance through writing as imperative now as it was then” (297). Her translation is an excellent one in her own style. But I am not convinced that Bustos’s work was really blasphemous at all. The gnostic currents are one more variation—a rich one—on the heavy incense and liturgical garments of Catholicism, a Judaeo-Christian heresy or schism that ultimately requires the original reference for its about-face. It is disturbing in its frantic clinging to the darkness and the broken things of this earth, rather than in its rejection of them.

A matter of personal aesthetic taste might be at work here. Schell references Time of the Assassins, Henry Miller’s work on Rimbaud, in her afterword, a very self-conscious positioning by Miller himself into the poète maudit tradition. Bustos’s work seems to me to be doing something similar within the Argentine context. But I think of Kenneth Rexroth, to whom I am more sympathetic; he was friends with Miller, yet suspicious of the stridencies of Rimbaud. “I think myself that the whole Rimbaudian gospel is open to question,” he opined (World Outside the Window, 65), and wrote elsewhere that “The activities of men endure and have meaning as long as they emanate from a core of transcendental calm. The contemplative, the mystic, assuming moral responsibility for the distracted, tries to keep his gaze fixed on that core.” For Rexroth, more influenced by Eastern traditions, the artist was the contemplative, and “morality” simply meant a kind of tranquility. Such thought is alien to Bustos, for whom immorality and anguish were not only symptoms but ideals, and for whom the greatest beauty was to be found in his own dark malaise.

Bustos, Miguel Ángel. Vision of the Children of Evil. Translated by Lucina Schell. Co-im-press, 2018.

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