Saramago as a labyrinth

A note about The Last New York Times translation

José Ángel Navejas already had several weeks working on the translation into English of my novel, El último New York Times, when he wrote to me about checking some details. At first, I thought it would be about an expression too Venezuelan, or a too obscure reference I took from the archives I searched while writing the novel. For my total surprise, he wanted to check the accuracy of a quote I made from The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the book by Jose Saramago.

The Last New York Times was born as a direct consequence of reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. On one passage of the novel, Ricardo Reis read in the news the story of a tailored edition of The New York Times received by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and I wanted to read that newspaper. Then I began a journey around digital archives and email exchanges that, in the end, became the inspiration and a part of The Last New York Times.

Jorge Luis Borges said that you only need to put one mirror in front of another to build a labyrinth. And for me, I just needed to receive two conflicting emails to write one in the form of a novel. The first email was from the Rockefeller Archive Center, telling me that they had never heard about a Rockefeller personal New York Times. The other was from the Saramago Foundation, saying that the writer used only newspapers from the era of the novel (1930’s Portugal) to write The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. These details are in The Last New York Times, what is not in there is the discrepancy Navejas found.

Navejas asked me about the quote “hombre tan rico, tan poderoso, y dejarse burlar así, y dos veces burlado, que no basta que supiéramos nosotros que es falso lo que él cree saber, sino que sabemos que él nunca sabrá lo que nosotros sabemos.” He did not find it in his English version of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In the English version, the quote is: “Such a wealthy and powerful man allowing himself to be fooled in this way.” Now, you can go to The Last New York Times to read the complete Saramago’s idea: “…and fooled twice, because not only do we know that what he thinks he knows is false, but we also know that he’ll never know what we know.”

I immediately thought about comparing English, Spanish and Portuguese versions looking for other differences; maybe I could find new details for my novel. At that moment, El último New York Times was already finished but still unpublished. The only thing that stopped me from keep building the labyrinth was how advanced Navejas was on the translation.

The anecdote made me remember another challenge around my reading of El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis. I bought the book in the famous digital bookstore. At that time, I was still living in Venezuela, and I used to send my purchases to my sister’s house in the United States until somebody could bring them to me. When I finally had El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis in my hands, probably around three to six months had passed from the moment I bought it. I was eager to read it. Then, on page 160, I discovered my copy jumped to page 177. To continue reading, I had to find another copy of the book. Luckily, I had talked about my new acquisitions with an uncle, and when I mentioned El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis he told me he would have lent it to me. I borrowed it from him and photocopied the missing pages.

For years, El año de la muerte de Ricardo Reis was easily visible in my library because of the letter-size papers folded inside of it, like the bookmark of a never finished reading. I did finish it, and it was a reading that has accompanied me like few others. The search for the missing pages was the preamble of a more urgent quest, one that ended on The Last New York Times.