Book Review

CURIOSITY

Language. Memoir. Travelogue…

The book Curiosity doesn’t fit in any one literary genre. The central point is language, a life-long love for words. It is an autobiographic sketch — embarrassing considering I have achieved not much worth memorizing except baring witness to the 20th and 21st centuries through the prism of words. Curiosity, thus, resembles a cultural history and a travelogue focused on the life of a citizen of the second smallest country in South America, Ecuador, and a local at various American cities, including New York, Washington, and Miami.

Of course, the tale of even the smallest social unit, the self, is a tale of the entire world and all time, as the tale of a toe can’t be divorced from the human body. One bridge from the self to the big picture is genetics, all those generations preceding and succeeding us, hence, the book also can approximate a genealogical tree. And enters the scene the force of habit, also known as an occupation — journalism, teaching, the memoirist, the novelist and the lover.

Curiosity is the story of a man who loved words and women, not sure in which order.

Is it fiction or nonfiction? The 20th century gave us the nebulous classification creative non-fiction: the applying of literary style and technics to factual narratives.

Architecture

It is divided into two parts. Part 1, in Spanish: 12 essays and a short story. Part 2, in English, 12 essays, and an excerpt from a novel. It is a bilingual book, not in the traditional sense of juxtaposing the original text and a translation. All the essays, though related, are independent.

The book is ideal for Spanish speakers, English speakers, and bilinguals. The one requisite to read it is curiosity, a desire to know.

Excerpt

I wrote to Brigitte from the Library about the word job, having secured one teaching Spanish to businessmen. In the 1970’ we had no cell phones, so correspondence had to travel by the Post Office’s fleet from 5th Avenue to her bookstore downtown:

Job is a synonym of work, albeit lacking the tortuous history of work. In Spanish work is trabajo; from the Latin trespalium, “torture, inflict pain, agony”. Trespalium, comes from tres, “three”, and palus, “stake.” This tree-stake instrument was used for torture. Form the Latin trepalium derives the French travailler, “to torment”. Much later, travailler softened to trouble, difficult journey. In the 13th century, English borrowed the noun traveil, from which travel derives. The English traveil never lost the sense of hardship, pain. The Merriam Webster defines ‘traveil’ as work, especially of a painful or laborious nature. And provides the synonyms: affliction and agony.

The painful connotation is present also in other languages. The German arbeit, “hardship, suffering, forced labor.” Labor, too, connotes pain. From the Latin labrare, “ploughing or tilling the earth,” an arduous and painful occupation, and, of course, the epitome of pain, birthing, expressed by labor.

And you might ask, okay, but what about the word work? Does it have pain in its history?

Work from Old English wyrcan, “prepare, perform, do, make, construct, produce…” From the Proto Germanic wurjjanan, “operate, function, and set in motion”. Old English also had the sense of physical work, and the sense of creative power, to be a creator, “manipulate physical substances into a desired state.” In 13th century middle-English, work also referred to sexual performance.

Can we infer, from the history of these words, that the American love of work comes from the old wyrcan, while the contemplative and festive nature of Mediterranean cultures, including Latin America, is a repudiation of torture?

Greetings,

Raul.