A story about epigraphs

I just had an adventure with some epigraphs in a book I’ve been working on. I didn’t even know they existed (the epigraphs to this book, not epigraphs—the quotes that open books—in general) until one of my bosses, the disconnected one, but the one who was also a pallbearer at this author’s funeral (a very early and unjust funeral, at just forty-one, two years younger than I am now), pointed out that they were missing from our impending publication of one Gabriel Aresti’s most important publications Maldan behera (Downhill), to be published together with Harri eta herri (Rock and Core in Amaia Gabantxo’s masterful translation, but the literal translation is more like “stone and town/people/country”).

The search started. I wrote the book’s editor, Jon Kortazar, and asked about them and he sent me a PDF with the epigraphs (and some dedications, and a subtitle, which my boss didn’t mention, but clearly it was the epigraphs that had caught his young, excited, volatile attention).

OK, an aside is in order here. These poems are just, you know, poems, but they were very important for a generation of Basques. They were new, modern, poems in a language that was at that time illegal, mostly untaught, fraught with danger—and I’m sure excitement—in the beginning of the waning years of a dictator. So they are poems, but they were more than poems. They were like, say, imagine Allen Ginsburg in a state in which your people had just recently, in your parent’s lifetimes, been bombed by the world’s first-ever terror bombing with planes loaned to the rebellion by Hitler and Mussolini. And poems written in a language Aresti learned as an adult, a forbidden language, a language outlawed.

His epigraphs, when they appeared, were in four other languages. They were unattributed. Some were religious although I know that Aresti was an atheist. They were absolutely beautiful. And they spoke to today. Here is an image of the original sent to me by the editor.

maldan-behera-1The first is from Nietzsche, as is not to hard to Google. I tend to think of Nietzsche as an asshole, as the frat-boy-who-got-into-bong-hits philosopher, and you know all that superman shit. I know this is all unfounded and probably unintended readings (something I want to tell every author, and myself, is that try as you might you can never help how you are read), but it is my impression of the guy. So you can imagine my delight when I looked up the translation of Aresti’s epigraph and found this beautiful delight: “Ich bebe kein Almosen. Dazu bin ich nicht arm benug.” There are many translations of Also Sprach Zarathustra, but they all work for this this little piece, “I give no alms. I’m not poor enough.”

It was followed by a quote from the Latin bible, the only bible for generations of Catholics. The bible has no single translation, more like threads, and this is a translation of translation that happened a thousand years ago, so there is nothing sure about it, but its a beautiful little piece of language: “Ego sum vitis, vos palmites,” which is translated very much, hard to not be in this case, but is, in the case you want to search in English, from John:15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (taken from first hit of my Google search, some random bible site), but which I much prefer in the Google Translate version, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Next is in English already, from T. S. Eliot, “There is no danger from us, and there is no safety in the Cathedral.” This comes from his play Murder in the Cathedral. I don’t know Eliot’s work well, this was a play he wrote in opposition to rising Fascism, but I don’t know much more.

And then the Spanish epigraph, from the love poems of Pedro Salinas, “estoy al borde mismo de tu sueño.” I don’t know if this has a regular translation, but it barely needs one: “I am on the very edge of your dream.”

But what really strikes me more than anything is that this poet, writing in the late 1950s (fifteen or more years before the dictator’s death, and in a condition of the prohibition of his own language, chose as his guiding lights the words of others in four different languages and from four different eras. To me this is a true testament of the beauty of humanity and our power to rise when all else falls. I just hope this tendency prevails among all of us.


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