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Magical mediocrity: bringing Bringhurst and literary scholarship into 'coterminous' disrepute

By Domenico Pacitti

Coterminous Worlds. Magical realism and contemporary post-colonial literature in English, edited by Elsa Linguanti, Francesco Casotti and Carmen Concilio. Published in 1999 by Rodopi, Amsterdam, 282 pages, €35, ISBN 90 420 0438 X.

This book, written entirely in English, consists of fifteen essays by Italian academics on the theme of magical realism in literature. It also features some of the work of the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst which the editors have decided to include but which is of dubious relevance to the undertaking and which, as we shall see, turns out to do little for Mr Bringhurst's image.

The most striking feature of the book is that it contains no explicit acknowledgement to the translator or translators who presumably rendered it into acceptable English. It thus appears to attribute to the contributors – rather magically, one might say – a level of written English which they do not possess. It consequently also casts serious doubt on the authenticity of the content.

The volume therefore appears to represent yet another case of typical Italian academic departure from worldwide conventions of literary scholarship in respect of intellectual integrity and correct acknowledgement.

The distinct impression is that most, if not all, of the 15 contributions by Italian academics could not possibly have been written without considerable help from unacknowledged translators. Such unacknowledged translators of the work of Italian academics often find themselves also having to make significant additions and clarifications to the point of having to rewrite the original article altogether.

The following contributors to the volume either were at the time or have since become “professori ordinari” (Tommaso Scarano in Latin American, and the rest in English, studies): Elsa Linguanti, Biancamaria Rizzardi Perutelli, Tommaso Scarano (University of Pisa); Paolo Bertinetti, Renato Oliva, Alessandro Monti (University of Turin); and Alfredo Rizzardi (University of Bologna).

The term “professore ordinario” formally translates “full professor”. It thus conveys the idea that Italian “full professors” have similar academic competence and moral and intellectual integrity to bona fide professors in educationally advanced societies.

It is worth reminding readers that The Times Higher Education Supplement (London), The Guardian (Manchester), The Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington), The Scientist (Philadelphia) and Just Response Human Rights Journal (London & Rome) are among international journals which continue to expose the widespread cynical disregard of moral and ethical criteria at Italian universities.

JUST Book Reviews travelled to Pisa, Turin and Bologna and spoke to native English-speaking teaching staff, professional translators and students. All confirmed that mediocre levels of EL writing skills by Italian contributors to the present volume would in most cases have required extensive restructuring in addition to translation from the Italian original.

When not confused, the contributions are at best conspicuously lacking in originality and incisiveness and may be fairly generally described as mediocre and pedestrian in the typical Italian mainstream academic tradition. But some of the confusion seems especially due to contributors’ inability to elucidate the concept of “magical realism”, which the editorial team has perhaps unwisely decided to focus on. The remaining confusion is of an inbuilt, systemic nature.

The term “magical realism” was imported from the artistic to the literary world about 80 years ago. It was originally and most famously used to describe the work of José Luis Borges. Only within an Italian academic volume on the subject would it be possible to avoid citing any of Borges’ works or of even mentioning his name at all. This, incidentally, despite having a Latin American studies “professore ordinario” on board in the person of Mr Scarano.

Not content with bringing literary scholarship into disrepute, Mrs Linguanti and company have managed to embroil the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst in this interesting Italian pantomime. The table of contents and list of contributors feature the name of Robert Bringhurst alongside and on an equal footing with those of all the other contributors with a piece titled “Coterminous worlds”.

A closer reading reveals that Mr Bringhurst has not in fact contributed a new piece to the volume but has rather, as Mrs Linguanti says in the book’s introduction, allowed the re-publication of excerpts from his published work. Somewhat paradoxically, Mr Bringhurst,  apparently the only contributor who did not provide a commissioned contribution to this volume, is clearly the only one whose work merits any sort of serious attention.

On the other hand, perhaps partly on account of the editing and cutting, some of Mr Bringhurst's statements appear questionable. For example, he attributes to "the old philosopher-poets of Greece" a "refusal to be compartmentalized". Perhaps because it is deprived of its wider context, this statement, which is presented as a factual assumption, is quite incorrect and anachronistic.

It is not that the pre-Socratics refused to be compartmentalised since the compartmentalisation which Mr Bringhurst seems to have in mind had not yet come into existence. Rather, the poetic, the scientific and the philosophical spirit were one and had not yet become dissociated from one another.

Another reservation concerns Mr Bringhurst's statement that "the sages of Tang Dynasty China practiced and preached a tradition of freedom". It is not clear who the word "sages" is supposed to refer to. The Tang dynasty saw the increasing influence of Buddhist philosophy, notably Tian-Tai, Hua-Yan and Chan (or Zen) and did not produce any great geniuses in this area.

The greatness of the Tang is to be found rather in the poets, for example, Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Juyi – and Wang Wei (whose poetry and paintings were particularly influenced by Buddhism). Again, it may be that what Mr Bringhurst has in mind would be clearer within the wider, original context.

Mrs Linguanti and Ms Concilio provide 26 lines of introduction to Mr Bringhurst’s life and works and proceed to supply excessively short extracts from four of his books. From the first of these four books the reader is given six extracts which together run to just over two pages. Mrs Linguanti and Ms Concilio further edit these passages from Mr Bringhurst’s first book by making six arbitrary cuts.

In this 2-page section there are also about a dozen words and expressions in italics, probably Mr Bringhurst’s own, but Mrs Linguanti and Ms Concilio fail to make this clear to the reader. The remainder of Mr Bringhurst’s “contribution” is given similar editing treatment and the entire contribution runs to just nine pages.

Presumably in order to lend further prestige to a sad undertaking, Mrs Linguanti and company decide to seize on Mr Bringhurst's expression "coterminous world", remove it crucially from context, pluralise it and baptise it as the title of both the Bringhurst contribution and their book. It is uncertain whether any of this was carried out with Mr Bringhurst's collaboration.

So why "Coterminous Worlds"? The suggestion may be that the so-called magical world is somehow coterminous with the real world. But nowhere in the book do the editors either clarify this or explain in what sense they intend "coterminous". Do they mean "sharing a single boundary" or "sharing more than one boundary" and in what precise manner?

Or perhaps the purpose was to suggest that the world of Italian academia, which might appear to the uninitiated to share similar groundrules and conventions to foreign academia, is actually a moral and legal black hole, a "coterminous world" where egoism, greed, superficiality and the lust for power prevail and where there is no serious regard for the pursuit of truth and scientific enquiry.

Ironically – and from the point of view of Mrs Linguanti and her co-contributors, rather embarrassingly – in addition to being a poet, Mr Bringhurst also happens to be an experienced translator and a typography expert.

Mr Bringhurst also happens to admire, as he himself has put it elsewhere, “moral and spiritual and intellectual integrity”, while he abhors ignorance, greed, "the cult of personality and power” and “the religion of money”. These he describes as “diseases” which “are as visible in the typographic world as they are in the world of politics.”

With all the best will in the world, one wonders if Mr Bringhurst knew exactly what he was letting himself in for when agreeing to take part in this Italian academic exercise.

Finally, Mrs Linguanti sees fit to thank the Rodopi series editor Gordon Collier for helping "iron out the bumps". It would be interesting to know exactly what sort of bumps were involved and whether Mr Collier or Rodopi took the trouble to check the contributors' knowledge of English and whether they actually bothered to read the book at all.

It would also be interesting to know who funded this publication, how much funding was provided and how much Rodopi normally charge for such a service.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on April 30 2004.