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Translator’s Note: Jessica Sequeira on translating The Absolute by Daniel Guebel

May 19

by Seven Stories Press

To celebrate the publication of The Absolute, Daniel Guebel’s English debut, we are proud to share Jessica Sequeira’s compelling Translator's Note, in which she breaks down the process, the complexities, and the joys of translating this multi-faceted novel, and rendering into English the many metaphors, layered references, and stylistic choices employed by Guebel.

Winner of Premio Municipal de la Novela, 2021
Winner of Premio Nacional de Literatura Argentina, 2018
Winner of Premio Literario de la Academia Argentina de Letras, 2017
Winner of Best Novel Award by La Nación, 2016


Approaching the Absolute

Daniel Guebel’s The Absolute is structured as six books that move from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century and recount a family’s secret interventions in music, mysticism and revolutionary thought over the course of history. The reader meets with:

1: Frantisek Deliuskin, a libertine who experiments with the sensations of women to write a musical composition;

2: Andrei Deliuskin, a seeker disillusioned by love, who makes an annotated copy of the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola, later read by Vladimir Lenin and applied to politics, then joins Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt campaign, where he seeks to decipher the Rosetta stone;

3: Esau Deliuskin, a political revolutionary who, after failing to assassinate the archduke Franz Ferdinand, is locked in a desert jail, where he engages in power games with his captor, breaks free and organizes a new society;

4: Alexander Scriabin, the famous Russian pianist, who works for Madame Helena Blavatsky (a Russian writer who cofounded the Theosophical Society of esoteric philosophy, which draws from Hinduism, Buddhism and Neoplatonism) and studies the teachings of Pythagoras, preceding his discovery of the mystic chord and his drafting of an unfinished symphonic masterpiece, the Mysterium;

5: Sebastian Deliuskin, the twin brother of Scriabin, separated from him in childhood, who reaches Argentina by ship and becomes a minor pianist in the provinces — as lovingly described by Sebastian’s daughter, the narrator of the entire book, interested in probing her family’s history;

6: the daughter’s ten-year-old son, a kid who builds a time machine in search of immortality.

Each figure engages in obsessive, absurd acts that might be genius or madness, indistinguishable as they exist in a process in which one finds oneself and thus cannot objectively know; deemed one or the other by those who control a narrative, they remain somehow both and neither, wave-particle duality forever uncertain. In other words, free. Countless minor characters also appear, intersecting with these stories yet spinning out on their own trajectories that suggest infinite parallel narratives.

A book called The Absolute is destined for evocative incompleteness. What an attractive concept, but also — what an absurd attempt to take it on! To do so, one must be comfortable with the notion of a productive defeat. What is success? And in any case, can’t the ill-fated striving to connect to an “absolute” nevertheless itself be art? Guebel’s work draws attention to its status as a failed project, and is self-aware and humorous about this in a Jewish tradition. The capricious and suggestive cut may always fall short of a true Absolute, yet there need not be anything melancholy about failure. The very effort is a joyful throwing of oneself into the world, a taking up of everything at hand not just to capture life but to create it, within and through words.

Although the book contains an overwhelming amount of “stuff,” it is never mere information. As the pages turn, there are both unfurlings and fallings short, moments of development and moments of rupture, mostly unanticipated. These change the course of self and society. Failure is as much a part of the personal and historical journey as success; Guebel is fascinated by the overly ambitious plans that end in unforeseen catastrophes and lead to new beginnings, leaving an object as testament.

Pluck the daisy petals: madman, genius, madman, genius. What seems to be bad, stupid, misguided, offensive or erroneous turns out, at a different historical moment, to be — instead or also — beautiful, intelligent, creative, visionary and avant-garde. How can one know which is which? Is there a greater reason or divine force behind our activity that keeps the wheel turning in revolutions? A vibration, perhaps? Here readers knock against a great, perhaps unknowable, philosophical question. In the meantime, Guebel narrates, and through his attention to detail and the stories of his individual characters, his work traces out a larger arc of events, both human and cosmic.

It’s possible a reader will pick up a title like this one with some trepidation, as I did at first and perhaps still do, even after having spent a number of months with its pages. Yet what most astonishes me — and the book has much that astonishes — is its sensuous approach to the abstract. Every character or episode along the way seems insignificant when viewed up close, yet is a luminous and self-contained unit. And when viewed from a different temporal perspective, each of these units is shot through with the whole. Whatever its spiritual or cosmic forays, Guebel’s book always continues to see, hear, smell, touch, taste. Forgive me if I put this in insufferable terms: The Absolute is an absolute of absolutes, but never forgets it has five (or more) senses.

History’s scope is suggested here, but also boldly embodied in style and language, which unceasingly change. The sensual is rationalized and the abstract incarnated, while time seems to move in not progressive but spiral form, plunging forward yet forever turning toward an echo of the same. An eternal return — until cataclysm breaks the account, yet again, into further multiplicities. The single narrative of philosophical history is shattered into literature. What other work has done something like this? Here one can find views from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, set out not by a historian with today’s perspective but portrayed through the eyes of characters themselves in a stylistic free indirect discourse. The line between not only life and literature, but also history and literature, blurs and melts away.

As translator, it now feels strange to deliver up this absolute book — one that is philosophical, political, historical, literary, sentimental, erotic, religious, scientific and artistic — to the usual cycles of publication and criticism. It asks for so much more than that: a fuller interrogation, a deeper consideration. The salvation of the universe. Those who wish to go straight to “the thing in itself ” are welcome, but if you’ve got a moment (or have already finished reading), I’d like to share a few thoughts — smaller infinities based on concrete objects, tangible ways I’ve found into this immensity, stylistic aspects that startled me into thinking.

Egg (Philosophy)

The egg on the cover is a symbol of the absolute, both contained whole and origin. (Which came first . . .) A single detail — for instance, an immigrant grandmother’s pronunciation of “boiled egg” as “bodeg” — can contain infinite stories. The concept of the absolute is rooted in a paradoxical desire to encompass an abstract totality, yet simultaneously refer to each unique part. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel developed this in his version of idealism. Every possible being is fully itself yet dissolves into nothingness when contextualized in the greater whole of the Absolute Spirit. Through the use of reason, I, me, the ego, the subject, comes to know an object and acts. For Hegel, History was the unfolding of a universal Reason led by great men such as Napoleon. The Absolute Spirit is the perfection of this logic, the infinite self-conscious sum of being.

Or could one think of this another way, from different philosophical traditions? I and Other, Son and Father, Nature and Spirit, Atman and Brahman — each pair may be intimately related, as both recipient and wellspring; and ultimately the duality of these pairs or complements may prove to be illusory, a non-duality.

Guebel, as a novelist, avoids the hairsplitting, book-swallowing speculations of the halls of Jena or the rishi’s ashram. But his characters and their actions give body to ideas and suggest new theories.

Magazine Page (Eroticism)

Guebel explores an array of erotic practices in intimate situations, from temporary infatuations to long-term partnerships, sadomasochist encounters to tender friendships, lesbian relationships to heterosexual marriages. Only a few pages in, the reader is treated to a description of how a libertine great-great-grandfather “composed” his musical masterpiece on the basis of the reactions of female bodies. Nowadays this might make for uncomfortable reading, but it would be a shame to stop there.

For this account — set in the eighteenth century — is very much in tune with the refined chronicles of scandal and treatises of eroticism by writers such as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Denis Diderot and Marquis de Sade, read all over Europe in their time. There is curiosity but no cruelty in Guebel’s account, and the whole section is a tongue-in-cheek version of the Marquis de Sade’s excess rationalism, in which the sexual act is obscured by a too logical attention given to poses and variations.

More importantly, Guebel’s work, moving chronologically through history, adopts the tastes and styles of the people he describes, even if they’re no longer “appropriate” from today’s perspective. The reader may experience heady moments when coming across — in the very same set of pages — attitudes they consider barbaric, excessively rational, illuminated, disquieting or unfamiliar. Guebel’s scandal is not conscious of itself in each scene, but is so within the context of the work. While a negative reaction to certain passages might be understandable, this disgust or repulsion, too, forms a part of the book’s fascination. We are not in the realm of the safe and correct, and all seven of the traditional Catholic deadly sins are represented. If some parts are offensive to contemporary readers, that’s because much of history is also offensive from today’s perch. But to lose such “outdated” views, and the language that encrypts them, would also be to lose the history of ideas, the history of failures, the history of History.

Sex appears often in these pages — incarnated for a variety of tastes — but the real eroticism in Guebel’s work is his tender description of sensual being in the world through noticing. The pleasure is in the anticipation, and all the characters of the Deliuskin family hold dreams in their heads that make them savor what’s around them, from a listing of edible delicacies at a country lunch spot, to ink leakages through the transparent pages of a magazine that inspire fantasies of Eva Perón. Often this attention is more satisfying than the final outcome, if it comes into existence at all. Imagination and the processes of creation are ultimately erotic, beyond the result — there’s eroticism even in failure, if the ideas are caressed well enough along the way.

Talking Fish (Religion)

For Guebel, religion is based in the belief that all people and events are connected at the deepest level. The scenes slide from situation to situation, person to person, in absurd yet flowing transitions. Characters are sui generis personalities — again, thanks largely to the deft use of free indirect discourse — yet they form part of the same story, or historia. Shards from the same luminous whole.

The Kabbalah is important: Guebel’s Jewishness is in the tradition of Kafka and Babel, and like his admired Borges, he always seeks the Aleph. A deep mysticism, the direct relationship between self and the absolute, is achieved by characters through an extraordinary variety of experiences, from the discovery of a talking fish by a shopkeeper in Finland, to the annotation of a Catholic manuscript, to the practical savvy of a Jesuit priest who advises Lenin, to the doubt-filled grappling of a mother unsure her story bears meaning, to the stubborn proofs of love by a young boy who builds a machine to launch into the absolute silence of the cosmos. And every fragmented part in this broken, impure world is a gleaming spark of a fractured totality.

The Jesuits play a key role too, for they are the enactors of abstract religious ideas and secret agents of history, an ideal combination of the spiritual and the practical. Ideally, the order is focused on helping others, and on seeking the divine where it is not obviously to be found. Yet its probabilistic sophistries are also able — flexibly, hilariously, dangerously — to justify about anything.

Japanese Battleship (History)

History is always a narrative, after all. This is a book about everything, but it focuses on the lived stories of a few beings. In Borges’s anecdote “On Rigor in Science,” a map is built of the same scale as a territory, but its obsessive level of detail is precisely what renders it useless. Mapping the world one-for-one as literature would be a similarly impossible project. One must select certain points that represent but also contain the absolute. Naturally, this requires techniques of exaggeration and caricature, selectiveness and a zoom lens, to condense and sharpen the narratives, which — like Borges’s map — would otherwise suffer from an unwieldy excess of information. Or as Georges Canguilhem put it, “Often a caricature reveals the essence of a form better than a faithful copy.”

Napoleon, Lenin, Eva Perón, Rasputin, Madame Blavatsky — Guebel shows us these great figures as obsessive megalomaniacs, eccentrics with foibles, well-situated actors on the “world stage.” A writer can make us see someone we think we know with fresh eyes. Ricardo Piglia, through an essay, made Che Guevara famous as a reader as well as a guerrilla. Guebel, through his imaginary reconstructions, indelibly alters how we think of such “greats.”

At the same time, he recounts a generational family history — a history of lesser-known figures with scattered ambitions, poorly placed or ignored, yet equally important to the story. And he recounts the story of the physical objects — books, bones, boxes, battleships — that shift the course of history as much as any human might.

Pyramid of Acrobats (Politics)

The absolute turns with ease into absolute power, the supreme God or dictator, the international trafficking of senselessness. Napoleon, on a whim, commands that a man be enclosed in a sarcophagus and sent as a spy to France, and that a pyramid of acrobats be ordered from this same France to stand still as long as possible. In parallel he conducts active maneuvers intended to prove his love for Joséphine and along the way conquer Egypt, with no better results; politics comes to seem a farce of personal passions and idealistic obsessions, with “action” the amoral conduit toward this or that fantasy.

Karl Marx famously criticized Hegel for his philosophy of absolute knowledge with a self-conscious, estranged mind that abstractly comprehends itself. For Marx, this was yet another form of alienation, given that “man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being full of natural vigor” with “real, sensuous objects as the object of his being or life.” Marx emphasized action upon the material things around us, and change undertaken not just by self-proclaimed great men but by entire oppressed social classes. Yet such ideas have resulted in their own complications and tragedies.

For his part, Guebel parodies grand gestures of both intentionality and action, which casting toward new visions of past or future, trample with oblivious violence through the present. The Absolute is an extended critique of the saying “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” But it also knows eggs will inevitably break, and there might be nothingness within: the ovule of would-be genesis, leaving behind its shattered, beautiful shell.

Micropolitics is macro: any character of his, with the smallest unintentional gesture, and without realizing it, can produce outcomes as grand as floods, wars, peace, the alteration of perception. Genius, an “absolute” idea from Romanticism, here could find a twenty-first-century twist. If genius is the single-minded pursuit of self-realization, then perhaps the concept remains a vital one — should “self ” be capacious enough to contain alter egos and other people. Self-realization exists in infinite forms, and everything is bound to everything else. When the talking fish is cooked into a gefilte fish, sacredness is distributed throughout the community.

Note the supposed author of this book does not self-define as a genius, and although she suffers from doubts, she gets the work done. Individual geniuses burn fast and flame out, while perhaps those who create in a community are more like scribes, in the tradition of Kafka.

Ham-and-Tomato Sandwich (Sentimentality)

In an old notebook, I found scrawled a favorite line, by Rilke to his wife. It speaks of “we most changeable ones who walk about with the urge to comprehend everything, and (because we’re unable to grasp it) reduce immensity to the action of our heart, for fear that it might destroy us.” The Absolute is a great book because it is often a sentimental one, unafraid of emotions from love to jealousy to despair. The suffering of women and men, the close relationship of a boy with his grandmother (manifested through a loving description of the ham-and-tomato sandwiches she sat and ate with him), the heaviness of family expectations, the intensity of small affections, betrayals, sadnesses and loyalties, the importance of tenderness, faith and nostalgia — if “the Russian novel,” beyond its specific practitioners, has become shorthand for the expression of philosophy and human emotion in a big work of fiction, without fear of kitsch, then Guebel has written a Russian novel.

Rosetta Stone (Literature)

In The Literary Absolute, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy describe literature as “the production of its own theory” and a “poetics in which the subject confounds itself with its own production.” The Absolute is a novel that is fully aware of itself, and contains within it rewrites or parodies of almost every genre of novel, from the detective story to the adventure tale to the science fiction utopia. It abounds with aphorisms, the most condensed literary form, in which one line can allude to an entire unspoken tradition. Any “theory” in the book is embedded in its structure and infused in its stories, which are random yet coherent. Many mysterious signs are traced on the same stone for possible future decoding. Guebel himself has said in several interviews that the plots and preoccupations of all his previous novels are contained within this one.

The Absolute pays homage to specific writers, works and traditions, such as Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (Alexander Scriabin / Adrian Leverkühn), the Argentine movie El Fausto criollo (1979), Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (especially the Grand Inquisitor section), Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Lamborghini’s condensed writings, and Nabokov’s various tongue-tapping works, from Speak, Memory to — perhaps especially — Ada, or Ardor. From the latter there are not only moments quoted (such as the line “to leave is to die a little, to die is to leave a little too much,” in turn borrowed from Edmond Haraucourt), but also similar imaginaries like Anti-Earth, symbols and erotic episodes, as well as the broader theme of how a family might attempt to alter the Universe.

But, of course, this is a book chock-full of references, and looking for “influences,” versions or thefts in Guebel’s extended wink only gets you so far. What matters is how he transforms or transmogrifies them into his particular and moving style. Often lyrical, he is also fond of resources that poetically condense material, such as lists, anecdotes and jokes, as well as jack-in-the-box surprises and other forms of humor. Both the possible failures and the possible powers of literature are gloriously affirmed. As a writer, Guebel has been associated with the “Generación Babel,” which published the ’90s magazine Babel; while avoiding shock value for its own sake, the writers in this loose group did subscribe to the belief that no topic or style is off limits in writing if taken on with audacity, in the search for meaning.

Literature is ultimately a wager. The Absolute is composed by a mother writing a history of her family’s geniuses. By imagining their various attempts at mastery and entering into details, she discovers the specific luminosity of each life; she makes them geniuses. Yet this activity eats away at her own life. Are these biographies worth her soul? What is the value of her productions within art and eternity? Literature is a time machine, but it is also the great consumer of time.

Keyboard with Lights (Music)

While translating I listened constantly to the piano music of Alexander Scriabin, a character but also the theoretical impetus behind Guebel’s novel. Scriabin, a Russian composer and “tone poet,” was linked to theosophical ideas and practiced an exhilarating synesthesia on the basis of mathematical chord progressions. In his works for pianoforte — from the études to the sonatas to the preludes to the symphonies — notes clatter, crash and thunder in dissonant sonorities, not a continuous flow but a discrete overlap of sounds. Yet somehow this remains satisfying to the ear.

A couple of years ago, Scriabin’s notebooks were published by Oxford University Press, ecstatic declarations in Russian cursive that radiate freedom and bliss, torment and ecstasy. They do not touch earth, but remain high above in a mystic flight of the spirit, far from graspable material objects and tangible desires. There are no small moments of affection and humor; the senses are everything, but the body is missing. Only extremes reign, and a whole range of colors is absent from the palette. They are fascinating, yet I can live in his words for only a short time.

But his music — his music! His music is everything. It exalts, it melts ice blocks within you. What fatigues in literature intrigues in music. Scriabin aimed to play upon all the senses through his art, working with lights and sounds and colors to raise listeners to a higher plane of existence. To watch Glenn Gould play Scriabin’s chords, raising a hand up and then letting it drift slowly down, is, indeed, ecstasy . . .

The special piano — the tastiera per luce — that Scriabin invented does truly exist, as does the mystic chord, even if he died before they were put into action. Scriabin’s great project, to bring together humanity in a community through music and change the course of the planets and history, is perhaps the greatest failed project of the twentieth century, the awesome “what might have been.” Or perhaps its failure is an acknowledgment that we cannot realize the absolute in mediated fashion, and will forever stop just short of knowing.

Music, as many have argued, is the purest art; it does not allow for representation, for concept, for the intervention of language or image. Scriabin’s music does not seem abstract like this, however. It is more like literature, accessing fundamental ideas through superficial symbols, and through surfaces, colors, textures. Idea and substance. At its best, Guebel’s writing extends the project of Scriabin’s music, embodying a similar sensorial exaltation, lyrical yet avant-garde. It is art because of the intention and beauty of its process, but also as a created object — the work.

Time Machine (Science)

Guebel riffs on the “divine science” of theosophy, as well as on Pythagoreanism, doctors’ jargon, popular science, alternative medicine and astronomy. These are treated as sources of wonder, even as they are affectionately mocked. Science comprises not just theories derived from experimental data, but also theories that cannot be confirmed — fictional constructions, hypotheses, alternative proposed versions that burst open and expand current visions of the known to form new Wissenschafts, anti-systems, other ways to understand or organize the world. Science includes its own paradigmatic critique, and need not be reduced to a system. It does not progress in an obvious way, but continues to discover the essential in kaleidoscopic forms — just as in the last scene, we zoom both toward and away from the Big Bang, as ending becomes origin and the labyrinths, tunnels and wormholes that seemed so disparate connect via looping repetitions, constantly renewed.

Wormhole (Translation)

Is it possible to create a parallel work of art in another language, a wormhole from Spanish to English? The original novel is trying to act, do something, affect bodies and minds. Characters in the book dream of other lands, other forms of communication. The Absolute makes categories like the “national” or “global” novel seem miserly and all too human. Again, the reader comes back to the question of what literature can do. Often, while fiddling with this or that phrase, I thought of the entire translation as a mirror of Guebel’s. A parallel system of relations. Not a ghostly double but solid and material, neither more nor less true. Mirrors hold both horror and fascination, as “fulfillers of an ancient pact / to multiply the world,” as Borges put it. The espejo fiel, or faithful mirror, with its many significances of translation between worlds and texts, is at the heart of the Sephardic Jewish tradition. But faithfulness is an abstraction that can encompass nearly everything . . . Such were my thoughts as I engaged in the foolhardy task of “correcting the Absolute,” at least this translation.

For this is the kind of mirror that doesn’t just reflect and multiply, but lets one fall through to the other side. The word transido repeats throughout the book, and on one page we find the expression transido de escritura, racked by writing. Taking the meaning of rack as torture device, to be “racked” is to be “pierced through,” in agony or ecstasy. The path from writer to page to reader is a wormhole, especially with a mystical and marvelous writing that forges systems of correspondences with a passion for detail. The writer is racked, the reader is racked. But what kind of a wormhole is translation? Is there an absolute of language? How can one set of symbols be racked by or pierce through to another? Is a translation a second wormhole that bifurcates from the first, the creation of a parallel universe?

Two or More Absolutes

Throughout his book, Guebel plays with ways of thinking about the self and the whole found in both nineteenth-century European Romanticism, and in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. He also plays with Eastern settings in other novels; his latest is set in the world of Japanese samurai.

While differences between East and West are exaggerated and do not exist in any real sense anymore, if they ever did, perhaps the historically constructed dichotomies they represent still hold. This book flirts with two visions of the absolute, loosely mapping onto supposed Western and Eastern traditions. The Western Absolute is time, events as unfolding process, with changes and developments in the material tending toward an end (possibly utopia); it favors scientists and revolutionaries, and is ultimately self-creation. The Eastern Absolute is the negation of time, events as illusory succession, with changes and developments in the material unveiling themselves as non-reality that reverts to impersonal silence; it favors mystics and contemplatives, and is ultimately self-abnegation. To reconcile these two visions of the absolute seems impossible. Perhaps any attempt at unity is destined to fail. Or perhaps, just as there are false divisions between geographies, there is also a false division between what is now and what could be.

The Absolute is about building things that are imperfect and transitory — whether these be sculptures, musical works, political structures, poems, relationships or families — but whose effects continue to resound in the universe. Both creation and abnegation form a part of what’s made in practice, and theoretical contradictions cease to be so in the lived paradox of human experience.

Sometimes, when listening to a piece of extraordinary music —  or reading an extraordinary novel — I feel myself poised on the brink of something between the physical and the mental, between reality and its negation. On the endlessly delicate, quivering line between This and That, an inviting abyss. Such a singularity, I tell myself, must be Art.

—Jessica Sequeira


DANIEL GUEBEL has published over twenty-five books, including novels, short stories and plays. He won Argentina’s National Literature Prize as well as the Argentine Academy of Letters’ novel prize. The Absolute was chosen by La Nación newspaper as its book of the year and The Emperor’s Pearl won the Emecé Prize. His autobiographical book The Jewish Son also won the Buenos Aires Book Fair’s award for literary criticism. Guebel’s latest novel is A Japanese Crime. A lover of Japanese literature, he owns a sushi restaurant.

JESSICA SEQUEIRA is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated over twenty books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán for her translation of Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke. She lives in Santiago, Chile and Cambridge, England. 

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