Alessandro Boffa on writing You're an Animal, Viskovitz!
John Casey on translating You're an Animal, Viskovitz! from the Italian
ALESSANDRO BOFFA ON WRITING YOU'RE AN ANIMAL, VISKOVITZ!
I worked as a biologist for two years, in a lab where I had to titillate frogs and rats to collect their eggs and semen. It didn't exactly match the romantic dreams I had about science. I switched my field of interest to the human brain and worked on a mathematical model of the cerebral cortex and thought processes. Continuously thinking about thinking managed to drive me crazy and so, one day, during the financial boom of 1986 I made some money on the stock exchange and left for a three-week vacation that lasted some eleven years, one in California and ten in East Asia. I took a diploma in gemology in Bangkok and started dealing precious stones, then I spent five years in a little island in Thailand, running some bungalows and a little restaurant, but mostly fishing, reading and watching videotapes. What did I like about Asia? The people, their being so different from me. For instance I liked their habit of referring to themselves in the third person. Someone might say to you, "Yang thinks you are stupid," and you'll ask "Who's Yang?" and he'll say, "I'm Yang," with a smile, because he's not offending you, Yang is. It's the same attitude an actor has with his part, he doesn't identify with it and can always get out. It's a very healthy habit that allows you to relax and laugh at yourself. The difference between tragic and comic is in the point of view: your troubles are tragic, somebody else's are comic. So laughing becomes a sort of spiritual exercise in relinquishing your ego. I believe that every tragic story has a comic "translation" that is harder to put together, but that says the same things in a more effective way. To me, good comedy, laughter that overcomes tragedy, is the highest form of art, and good comedians are saints. And then I like the japanese practise of "mu," of seeking enlightenment in a cup of tea, even if I don't like tea.
At some point, I started writing postcards to my friends. One of them, my best pal ever since, found my mail interesting and suggested I write something longer. So I did a travel article about my riding a camel in Sinai, a camel called Bob Marley who never took me where I wanted but always went in pursuit of lady camels. While doing that, in the middle of a particular sentence, I suddenly realized that writing could be something fun. I don't remember the particular sentence, I only know that it seemed to be written by someone else. It was a revelation to me that I could be someone else. It was a revelation to me that you don't have to be a nice person to write something nice. Sometimes mistakes do happen, and stringing them together you may fool even the toughest of critics. (Actually it takes a while to realize that what looks sublime to the writer is usually just another piece of trash to the reader. When you see a piece of quartz in the dirt it looks like you've found the shining eyeballs of the universe, but when you take it to the jeweler. . .) Anyway, I consider this business of writing pretty much like kamasutra: the art of giving pleasure, of taking you to a place where everything is wonderful, like when you are a kid, or in love, or traveling, or about to die (though coming back from a place where everything is horrible is just as good). As in love talk, it doesn't really matter what you say, however perverted, but only what it feels Iike. As opposed to science: I always thought that science was serious business and real knowledge, while fiction was more like playing around. I still feel that way but now I'd rather play around. Trying to create, to give birth to something (not surprisingly, the favorite pastime of all animals) is frightfully more fun than trying to explain or even to understand. This novel I wrote surely isn't about the meaning of life. If something is funny or beautiful it already is the meaning of life.
You're an Animal, Viskovitz! is about the beastly love affair between two animals, Viskovitz and Ljuba, started when they were microbes some two billion years ago, and goes on through different animal transformations (twenty in this book). Each episode is a complete short story, starring Viskovitz and Ljuba (and their friends) in a different animal body and a different environment, but they add up as the chapters of a novel, with its own "evolution."
It's not a book about animals, but rather about life as seen from twenty
different and paradoxical angles, through the eyes of Viskovitz, a beast
who has a hard time behaving beastly and is once a lion in love with a
gazelle, once a chameleon in search of himself, once a buddhist police
dog, once a snail obsessed with its two sexes, once a dung beetle in
search of riches, once an ant in search of power, once a dormouse in
search of dreams, once a microbe with an inferiority complex, and so on.
In every incarnation, he faces a new tragicomic drama, with his love,
his "vanity" and his set of values at stake, those values changing every
time he changes species. (The morals of a shark, for instance, are the
opposite of ours: "first, kill," "second, covet your neighbor's female,"
etc. For a pig, behaving like a pig is good manners. For a male mantis,
ejaculatio precox is a blessing, and so on.)
I wrote this book at a time of my life when I had given up trying to be
a better person and worrying about being regarded as a pig, an insect,
and an ugly bastard, so somehow this character was born, that of a guy
who in spite of having all the defects and the worries of this world,
animal and human, always manages to remain quite sure of himself and
very much in love with this gorgeous but hard-to-please beast, Ljuba, in
spite of the hell she puts him through. I guess I found myself
sympathizing with the sorry fate of the animal male here. It's a known
fact that animals have horrible sex lives, but those of males are
particularly miserable. Most invertebrate males are continuously
humiliated, castrated, beaten up, and eaten up by females much larger
and crueler then they are. Take the sage cricket: anytime he makes love
his lady partner devours his wings. The world is full of poor sage
crickets that for having fallen in love once are condemned to crawl in
the dirt, and for having fallen in love twice are reduced to a heap of
trash. Even those big vertebrate guys who manage, by their honest work,
to secure themselves an harem, can only enjoy it for the few minutes of
the year when their concubines are receptive, having to spend the rest
of the time slaving away and getting rammed and butchered by their
rivals. There are very few exceptions: some insects, like the
Trichoptera cavernicola, can enjoy uninterrupted sex for three months
straight, but they are blind and live in caves, so that's probably the
only fun they get. Many females, I admit, don't fare much better: lady
mosquitoes, for instance, get raped as soon as they leave the egg and
get a chastity belt strapped on when it's over, then they take it out on
us by sucking our blood for the rest of their lives. But by and large
it's the guys who get the roughest deal. In the end I guess that a
better acquaintance with our fellow animals can do wonders to dispel any
envy we may have of them for being unashamed of their instincts, and to
help us look at the hypocrisies of civilization and our own rotten love
life with relief and gratitude.
A famous writer once said that the portrait you make of others is the best description you give of yourself. Though not flattered by this, I may easily argue that portraying humans and their behaviors through animals does make respectable sense. Aesop did it, Ovid, Plato, Roland, Orwell and so on. Aesop's tale of the fox and the grapes wouldn't be as famous had it been the tale of "the plumber and the grapes." When you take something out of its usual context you make it more visible. It's like traveling: you start to understand a place better when you leave it. Or like talking with somebody much different from you: it makes you question your habits and see them in perspective. Only these days, with everybody watching the same TV shows and all, it's getting harder to find someone really different from you. Animals are the only "exotic" characters we have left, no wonder they are becoming media superstars. So interviewing a worm would be as much a scoop as interviewing a martian. That worm would probably tell us that he regards being a bisexual parasite with no brain and no heart as his best qualities, the ones he wants to bequeath to his children. (Incidentally, had our ancestors always listened to their parents and followed in their footsteps, we'd all still be anaerobic microbes, meaning no offense to them.) Anyway, as our family album shows, a short while ago our grandads looked like chimpanzees, 70 million years ago like rats and 500 million years ago like fish. All those traits still run in the family. Like it or not our DNA is not that different from a chicken's. And DNA portrays us pretty well. That's probably why I am starting to hate animals just as much as humans, and hopefully my next book will be about robots.
-- Alessandro Boffa
JOHN CASEY ON TRANSLATING YOU'RE AN ANIMAL, VISKOVITZ! FROM THE ITALIAN
I didn't know what I was in for.
My editor, Carol Janeway handed me Alessandro Boffa's book Sei una Bestia, Viskovitz. I read several pages leaning against a wall while they waited. I laughed.
The next thing I knew I was surrounded by four dictionaries and a graduate textbook of invertebrate zoology. Reading for fun is one thing; translating...
Luckily I fell in love with You're an Animal, Viskovitz. Boffa's comedy is both high and low. The low bawdy parts are very Italian, that is to say, exuberance backlit by a certain melancholy. The high comedy depends on Boffa's education as a biologist and his ability to turn the true curiosities of natural history into verbal cartoons.
I was also lucky in having an Italian friend, Maria Sanminiatelli, who would visit one or two weekends a month. She also fell in love with Boffa.
From time to time she would read a chapter aloud in Italian so we'd both get a sense of the rhythm. This took a long time for two reasons. The first was that we would start laughing and not be able to stop. The second was that we would be baffled by a single word that wasn't in the ten-pound Italian dictionary. Once or twice it turned out that Boffa had made it up. (Maria to Boffa via e-mail: " Your cannubia made us SUFFER." "La sua cannubia ci ha fatto molto PATIRE .")
But what I remember isn't the suffering but the pleasure of reading aloud the English version to Maria (fluent in English--she's an AP reporter) and hearing her laugh all over again.