It’s Kahn’s fault that I read this book, but I’m glad I did. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse isn’t the easiest read. And the translation by Charlotte Brewster Jordan didn’t help. (I’ve learned that translation around the turn of the twentieth century was heavily into the literal, word for word translation–not always the best thing.) Originally written in 1916, during World War I, Blasco Ibáñez’ novel is the kind of cathartic book that that war generated.
The first half of the novel takes place before the war breaks out. Blasco Ibáñez begins with Julio Desnoyers, a young man about town who has no greater ambitions than to have a good time–to the despair of his parents. Then Blasco Ibáñez goes further back, showing us how Julio’s father, Marcelo, ran away from France during the Franco-Prussian War to Argentina. The author then goes even further back in time to show us Julio’s grandfather’s life. We get to learn all about the Desnoyers clan. The serious older generations made a lot of money, then despair of their children when the children turn out to be, honestly, jerks.
When the war does break out, Blasco Ibáñez gives such a vivid description of the run up to the war. It reads as though everyone is spoiling for a fight. The diplomats are shown as giving lip service to trying to preventing a war that I was reminded of the line from Blackadder Goes Forth, where Blackadder says that they’re having a war because “it was too much effort not to have a war” (Episode Six, “Goodbyeee”). I was also reminded of this scene from Joyeux Noël:
Only the older generation have any idea what war is like, although Marcelo fells guilty for his flight back in 1870. Julio, because he’s not a French citizen, initially doesn’t go to war. He’s guilted into it after his divorced girlfriend goes back to her dreadfully wounded war hero husband.
From the descriptions I’d read, I would have thought that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was about Julio Desnoyers. It’s an easy mistake to make, since the book starts opens on him. But as I read on, Marcelo Desnoyers became the main character. Blasco Ibáñez devotes a lot of time to this character. We watch Paris empty of men along with him. We watch his castle (an actual castle) get looted by soldiers and then blown to bits by artillery along with Marcelo. And then the worst happens, and we visit Julio’s grave with Marcelo and his surviving family.
I think this book might still be with us if a better translation were more widely available. Seriously, Brewster Jordan’s work turns this story into a chore to slog through. There are parts where you can see Blasco Ibáñez’ original language shining though, especially when the Desnoyers’ chateau is destroyed or when the Russian exile describes the coming of the Four Horsemen. But by translating word for word, Brewster Jordan trades the spirit of the language for dead accuracy. As Richard Pevear, half of the Pevear/Volokhonsky team that’s been creating such amazing translations of Russian literature, said in this feature from Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities, when you try for a literal translation you can end up with something “worthless and dull.” But when you try to capture the spirit of the work, you can end up with something that “sings the wrong song, but it sings.” It’s “the ironies of translation.”
I wonder what might have happened if Blasco Ibáñez had written this book a few years later, after the war ended. There is a lot of dialogue in which the characters repeat their belief (read hope) that the war will be over soon. But it would go on until 1918 after hundred of men had died. There’s little sense of resolution in this book because you know that the war will continue for two more years after this story ends.