The Brahmin Orientalist of the New Yorker: John Updike

John Updike reviewed books, many in translation, for thirty years—first for the New York Review of Books and then for the New Yorker. His tenure coincided with the peak power of Kakutani at the New York Times. For literature in translation they loomed like Scylla and Charybdis. While Kakutani encouraged a World Literature comprised of neo-modernism and magic realism, Updike attacked genuine literature in translation.

In his younger days Updike set himself up in idealistic “reviewing rules,” but by the 1970s he had become blind to his own formative influences and a “historic” attitude toward all literature.42 Consider the opening sentence in his 1976 review of three African novelists: “Africa is in the news today, as it was a hundred years ago. In 1877 Stanley emerged at the mouth of the Congo, having passed through the dark continent.” Proceeding in this manner for another 200 words, Updike came at last to title of Xala by Ousmane Sembene, which he introduced with the arch observation that its dust jacket touted a film version.43 He was fascinated by the novel’s details on polygamy, but he provided neither African nor Islamic context for them.

Let an African author write about Christianity, as T. Obinkaram Echewa did in The Land’s Lord, and Updike critiqued the nuances of his theology. If the author came from the Middle East, Updike began with references to “Charles M. Doughty’s classic Travel in Arabia” or T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.44 In a review of the Indian writer R. K. Narayan he began with a discourse on V. S. Naipaul. What the subcontinent needed, he said, was “a Tolstoy or Cervantes who could render India more fully, without the touch of complacence and insubstantiality that Nararayan’s Hindu sensibility bestows.”45 The Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki’s characters “remind us of Chekhov’s.” Kobo Abe was “a follower of Kafka.” Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle suggested “rather than the early Mann and the nineteenth century realists, the circling, anxious, multiple perspectives of Woolf and Faulkner.”46 As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, Updike seemed to like “only those who meet some kind of gold standard” and the gold was always European.47

Updike usually passed over translators, as he did in an approving review of two novels by Shusaku Endo and one by Kobo Abe.48 But if he disliked the work, Updike picked nits with its translator, not that there was evidence that he had read the original. His quarrel was always with the elegance of the English. In a review of Ngugi wa Thiong’o he wrote “The opening pages are peppered with Swahili and Kikuyu words, as if to warn non-African readers away. Whatever else political fervor has done for Ngugi, it has not helped his ear for English.”49 Updike thought that Joseph Brodsky “has written Watermark in his adopted English, which is adequate to all but the most artful word-carving. .. .It is just this kind of carving, however, that interests him.”50 In Peter Esterhazy’s She Loves Me, “the translator seems to be hurrying to keep up with the writer.”51

After a period of travel in the 1980s and 1990s, Updike thought that he understood China and Japan. By the 2000s he was reviewing Mo Jan and Ha Jin as if he spoke Mandarin: “China is ... the nation of the future” and “Semicapitalist China will not replay the censorship game by the same rules as were hammered out in the Soviet Union, but free spirits in China are still short of enjoying free speech.”52 Anthony Quinn, in a review of Updike’s collected reviews, wrote that “great writers are entitled to their holidays,” but “won’t somebody tell him to stay at home?”53

Like Kakutani, Updike was late in discovering magic realism. According to one scholar, he first read Garcia Marquez in 1985 and “was surprised that Garcia Marquez’s magic realism was blacker than expected.”54 His laggard recognition was probably influenced by his support of Mario Vargas Llosa, whose politics and religion were more conventional. As Erin Overbey notes, “Updike characterized Vargas Llosa as the writer who ‘has replaced Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the South American novelist for gringos to catch up on.’ ”55 Updike compared Vargas Llosa to Nabokov, analyzing how the writer’s politics informed his “shrewd fictional portraits.” Updike did not comment on One Hundred Years of Solitude until long after its publication. Then in a 2005 review of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the author of Rabbit Run castigated Garcia Marquez’ entire oeuvre for its treatment of prostitution, which he found “sordid” and “squalid.”

The works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez contain a great deal of love, depicted as a doom, a demonic possession, a disease that, once contracted, cannot be easily cured. Not in-frequently the afflicted are an older man and a younger woman, hardly more than a child. In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” Aureliano Buendia visits a very young whore.56

Then Updike proceeded to catalog every abject detail in that work and in Innocent Erendira, concluding that “As Garcia Marquez frames these cases, an element of whoredom is necessary to the, in Stendhal’s term, ‘crystallization’ of love.”57

If Updike did not review Murakami until late (Kafka on the Shore, 2005), he certainly stuck to the tried and tired triangulation: “his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki.”58 Then he delivered 500 words of plot summary, until a text reference allowed him to digress on “The Tale of Genji,” which led to another digression on its translator Arthur Waley (not a word on Philip Gabriel, translator of Kafka). Back to the plot summary he returned, with an aside on the MacDowell Colony and a note suggesting that Murakami didn’t get Goethe or Spenser. Finally there was a stupefying, page-l ong paragraph on “Japanese supernature,” Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and Shinto, in which Updike quoted from the Encyclopedia Britannica.59

But it is typical of the dominant fraction that it refuses any “negotiation,” as David Damrosch calls it, with originating cultures, any engagement that might open up a new space within the receiving culture. Updike’s answer was always the grand “no” of the established author fending off newcomers, while Kakutani’s “no” was that of the acolyte. The power of the dominant fraction is neatly summed up by Milan Kundera: “their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere.”60 But the double bind of the sufficiently rich is that they need their novelty, and that comes from elsewhere. They just don’t know where the “new” resides or how to access it, so they have invented World Literature.

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