Words of the Old Man Opòton: the problem of the other/ The other as a problem

Guzmán Moncada, Carlos
Revista Literatures Núm. 1 i 2 1998

It is no longer possible to continue reading about the conquest from a single point of view. Without recognition of and valuing the vanquished, it is not possible to understand the complex linguistic, racial and cultural composition of the societies born of that violence, nor that of the present uneasy coexistence of numerous identities brought together in a single "national" space.
In the narrative of contemporary fiction, there are quite a few novels where the other is almost always the vanquished, the object of the gaze of the one who describes and tells but not the one who speaks. There are two basic narrative positions: that which assumes the eccentricity of the other and deals only with the problems of the narrator with the other, not from a position which might permit reintegrating the other as a subject into a more just relation of otherness but from which the narrator tries to negate the other as such, assimilating this other into his or her own system of values. Then there is the other position which inverts the sense of this opposition and places the other at the centre, not merely as a character or narrative voice, but as the key for discussing, from a problematic point of view, the question of otherness, converting the relationship into a problem of knowledge, interpretation and language.
Works like Paraules d´Opòton el vell/Palabras de Opoton el viejo (Words of the Old Man Opòton), two versions, Catalan and Castilian, of the same book by the Catalan writer and cartoonist Avel.lí Artís-Gener, offer a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate the implications and difficulties of this second narrative option. In both books, Tísner does not limit himself merely to justifying an anecdote (the fiction of the voyage of an Aztec to the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the XVth century) but obeys the intrinsic pronouncement of the author on the theme of the other as a problem, this being expressed in different ways, but which may be related, in the Catalan and Mexican texts.
The long process of writing Words of the Old man Opòton was constructed upon another parallel process, that of the author´s studying the Nàhuatl language, the documental sources about the conquest, the customs and particularities of a different society where the author was doubly foreign through his condition of being in exile and a writer in the Catalan language. Another question is related with the fact of how these conditions forced him to define a personal and artistic position around the matter of the military and cultural imposition, which is clearly present in the anecdote of a conquest told in reverse.
The translation into Castilian by Angelina Gatell, published by Ediciones 29, dates from 1977 while the Siglo XXI Mexican edition appeared in 1992. The former is a literal translation from the Catalan edition while in the second, Tísner wrote the story as he saw and felt it during his long years of exile. Angelina Gatell´s version does not incorporate any significant structural modification. However, the Mexican version shows numerous additions, both in the introduction and within the chapters. There is an additional element which seems to make a radical differentiation: the use of linguistic registers with connotations which shift the reader to totally different cultural and historic contexts.
Between the Catalan version first published as a book in 1968 and the Castilian version which appeared in Mexico almost 25 years later, more complex relations are established than is at first apparent, which require a critical reading of the whole and which, although they obey the same process of writing, or in other words, though they were born of the same question, they are, in fact, different responses. The Catalan version, constructed on the basis of a standardised Catalan, on which are applied the syntactic distortions and other strategies of verisimilitude with an eminently parodied and critical charge, may be read lineally. However, in the Mexican edition, it is the narrator who has moved out of his own tradition and from his immediate references and who has had to adapt them in order to create a voice which is recognised as credible and not just some imposture or simplistic vulgarisation of living speech. Tísner succeeded: he created a voice which is alive, full of nuances and intimate references and without affectation.
It may be said that in these two works there is the same intention of understanding an "other" reality, with different linguistic means and results. In the prologues he clearly reveals the orientation: Catalan novel, written in Catalan, aimed at Catalan readers who can read his own immediate story between the lines. However, the 1992 edition assimilates the experience of Catalan otherness, reconstructing it and inverting it in terms of a Mexican discussion.
In the Mexican sphere, this narrative experience recounted by Tísner, first in Catalan and then in our Castilian, has enriched us with an image which is doubly ours: because he speaks of and with us, in our tongue and because doing it like this is the best way a writer can show his love and understanding of the other.