Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

  1. July 21, 2016 at 12:43 am

    This does sound like good fun if you’re in the right mood, and some of the quotes made me smile. Too bad it’s not in available in an English translation…

    Like

    • July 21, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      It is good fun. I wonder why it’s not available in English.

      Like

      • July 21, 2016 at 4:07 pm

        The non fiction book I just read about books in translation basically says that the bigger publishers tend to publish prize winners. Don’t know what the criteria is for the smaller publishers (who really seem to be trying) but this might be a hard sell.

        Like

        • July 22, 2016 at 10:13 pm

          I can see that the profitability of such a translation is doubtful. But it still is published in French and there are less French speaking readers than there are English ones.

          Like

  2. July 21, 2016 at 7:56 am

    Goodness gracious, sounds like the kind of book where you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry! (I have a friend who is a judge and sadly she reports that many of the things criminals say in court sound very similar…)

    Like

    • July 21, 2016 at 12:58 pm

      You know what Beaumarchais said: “Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d’être obligé d’en pleurer.” I chose to have a good laugh despite the horror behind the words.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 21, 2016 at 1:21 pm

        Do you know, I thought that was a Romanian proverb – I had no idea Beaumarchais said that.

        Like

        • July 21, 2016 at 1:22 pm

          See, that European thing is a reality. Even in proverbs…

          Like

  3. July 21, 2016 at 8:36 am

    A Translation tragedy indeed. The quotes really bring it to life, so much black humour there. (I particularly like the one about the ice cube.)

    It’s nice to see so much interest in Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, an event that seems to have gathered quite a bit of momentum in recent years.

    Like

    • July 21, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      It’s not even OOP. I think it’s never been translated. I like the ice cube one too.

      Spanish Lit month is a great event. It pushed me to read books from Argentina, Cuba. The one I’m currently reading is excellent.

      Like

  4. July 21, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Jacqui beat me to it, definitely a translation tragedy. It sounds rather fun. Oh well.

    Like

    • July 22, 2016 at 10:14 pm

      It is fun and really black humour. You laugh because you can’t help it but the substance of the snapshots is terrible.

      Like

  5. July 22, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Ah , the tragedy! This sounds great. I have a penchant for these one-page-per-voice / idea / situation type of books.

    It sounds like it might turn up one day in a NYRB edition – they did Fenenon’s Novels in Three Lines, after all. We can hope. It reminds me of the very funny Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard as well (although he’s a big name obviously so not surprising all his stuff is in English).

    Like

    • July 22, 2016 at 10:16 pm

      Let’s hope that NYRB picks it then.

      I’ll have to check out the Bernhard.

      Like

  6. Vishy
    July 23, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    This book looks wonderful, Emma! I will look for it. A good way to practice French, as you gave said 🙂 I loved all the lines you have quoted. My favourite was ‘The words burst inside of her.’ I wonder what that felt like.

    Like

    • July 23, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      It’s not difficult to read in French and since the paragraphs are short, it’s not too discouraging if you find it difficult.
      I hope my translations conveyed the atmosphere of the texts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy
        July 23, 2016 at 4:49 pm

        Thanks Emma! Your translations were wonderful! I will try to get the book and keep my French dictionary next to me in case I need it 🙂

        Like

  7. July 24, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    This sounds great – what a shame it’s not translated into English. I can only find two of his books in English, one long out of print and the other translated quite recently. (Happy to be proved wrong!)

    Like

    • July 24, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      It’s great, I love that kind of books. It’s entertaining but it stills reveals something about human nature. Our ability to rationalize even the worst is absolutely amazing.

      Like

  1. No trackbacks yet.

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: