Good emulation, by Marta Rebón

When words go through the sieve of a good writer, they lose that husk of (mis)use and recover their deepest meaning. Some of them, the best ones, even manage to make them look as if they had never been used in a sentence and, even if we believe them worn and empty, they subjugate us again with a particular force. We need literature because life narrows us down if we only hear or read clichés, with their predictable little music, like that of the political speech score. The great novelists give us a respite from common ideas, which is a monotonous fine rain that soaks into boredom. Javier Marías said about his profession: “The reasons of each person to act as he acts are indecipherable for others… Novelists only tell and, by telling, they understand”.

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More than once the author of heart so white he recalled his beginnings in the art of fiction. Enthusiastic about musketeer adventures, when he ran out of titles available to him, he began to write them himself, taking as inspiration the ones that had fascinated him the most in order to continue reading. Therefore, when in several interviews and talks he claimed the term emulation (not to be confused with a copy or imitation), he did it knowingly. He also said it as a translator of Sterne, Conrad or Nabokov in Spanish: translating is no longer the act of emulating an author of a foreign language in one’s own. Marías considered his translations of his works as much his own as his novels. Emulate, “the desire to be like the one we admire,” was not just his advice to aspiring writers (try to find your voice on the shoulders of giants and don’t torture yourself trying to be first and foremost original), but a reflection that also extended to an entire country, that Spain “in which it is difficult to admire and feel proud of someone”. Moreover, he added, if someone is a source of pride and worthy of emulation, the feeling that he arouses is that of offense: “But how dare you?”.

Marías’ praise of emulation has made me think of a curious concept that I discovered in one of my first stays in Russia, when I finally managed to rent an apartment from a private individual in Saint Petersburg and closed the chapter as a tenant in university residences. As a claim in the real estate advertisements, the term euroremont ; that is, the renovation of interiors according to European standards of comfort and aesthetics, something that had a lot of merit before IKEA landed there (today dismantled in Russia due to the war). In practical terms it meant that, after entering through an 18th or 19th century portal, you were no longer greeted by faded Soviet decor, but rather a space conditioned to emulate Western taste. Or sometimes an indescribable mix. After seven decades of bubble, it was as if a past impulse was being recovered, even more evident, moreover, in a city like St. Petersburg, designed and built according to models like Rome, Amsterdam and Paris, and for that reason felt alien to a certain extent in Russia compared to Moscow.

Javier Marías considered his translations works as his own as his novels

It is undeniable that the Russian dialogue with the West has achieved extremely successful successes in the cultural sphere. In the manner of the first Javier Marías, the writers of the Russian empire emulated their European colleagues, translated them or copied their style until they finally forged their own literature, that of the dazzling golden age, which captivated the world, and thus became be the translated and the emulated. It is in this way that universal literature is constructed, with the emulation of what is proper and what is foreign. With emulation, translation and hodgepodge, the literatures of each country come out of their reverie.

But then there is its reverse: the bad copy, the pastiche, the parody, the plagiarism. In an ideal world, countries would emulate each other in achieving progress and social justice; however, what is imitated the most is the false appearance of democracy. The one in Russia led to one in the style of the fake Potemkin towns, with their removable houses. Mock elections, media and courts are parts of the same papier-mache set. Or the referendum parodies in the occupied areas of Ukraine to appropriate them. At what point did we allow crude imitation to trump good emulation? Is it due, as Marías said, to sheer laziness?

Good emulation, by Marta Rebón