WWe can discuss which John Steinbeck novel is the best. Some might choose The Grapes of Wrath, an epic about the working class, about migration. Others might say Tortilla Flat, about a group of unemployed countrymen living from one small party to another. Or maybe Of Mice and Men, a tragedy about what it means and how to be human.
But if I had to choose the most important Steinbeck novel of my life, both as a reader and a writer, Cannery Row would say. Published in 1945, the novel is freely about a group of unemployed people living in the Sardine Canning District of Monterey, California, and trying to throw a party for their friend. Perhaps other books have affected my life to some degree, but this book changed me in a completely different way.
I discovered it at a time when I was new to serious literature. I was still a university student at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, which I came from a small coastal town, Pangandaran. Before I set foot on campus, I’d only read collections of silat (martial arts fantasy) and horror novels by local writers, with the occasional addition of a hacky romance. When I imagined what “literature” meant in those years, novels like that were what came to mind.
Yogyakarta may not be a big city, although it was briefly the capital of the Indonesian Republic, but it actually seemed very big to a small-town boy, especially when it came to his books. I easily found the bookstores, from the very large stores to the small stalls that lined the roadsides, as well as the numerous libraries. It was during this period that I became acquainted not only with the Indonesian canon but also with the literary masters of the rest of the world. It was a moment when, full of curiosity, I got drunk with books in foreign languages. I explored these new jobs as a treasure hunter and finally discovered a cave full of gold – English.
Actually, I had read a book in English when I was in high school. But it was forgettable. This time, I engaged in a more serious effort to expand my knowledge combined with a deep curiosity about something strange. English opened a window in my mind, especially when I found jobs that were not available in translation at the time.
How could these writers produce such works? And how could I write like them? I often made short summaries of these books after reading them. Sometimes I rewrote them in my own language, just to understand the structure and movement of the stories. But I felt it was not enough. I really wanted to sit in the chairs of these writers, imagine being them and write the same works word for word. There were only two ways to do it. Rewrite them verbatim or translate.
With a modest experience under my belt, I decided the second with Cannery Row. The book, which I bought used, was one of the first that I was determined to translate, and it was a truly extraordinary experience. Not only did I feel like I was sitting in Steinbeck’s chair, my fingers writing as if they were his fingers, but I was also forced to explore various possibilities within the Indonesian language.
This novel, as I learned later, shared a lot with its other novels: it invites us to see the world from a humble and sometimes very narrow perspective. From the engine of a damaged Ford Model T to the cash register of a grocery store owned by a Chinese immigrant, even to a brothel. The world in this novel was certainly different from the one I lived in, but at the same time, as a small town boy, I could feel a connection to it.
The most challenging thing, of course, was the language. We know that Steinbeck often uses conversational language and dialect, but there was something more important than that. In Cannery Row, use a satirical and ironic tone. The poor of this novel, with their simple language, try to speak and understand the world as intellectuals. Supermarkets dealing daily with people who cannot pay their modest bills speak of their problems as if they are talking about the state of the world economy. This creates a very powerful comedy.
I would not say that the results of my translation were good. Far from there. Years later, when an editor obtained the translation rights to the novel, I was contacted to use my intent. I gave it to him, although I had to re-edit it in what was almost a completely new translation. But I can feel the feeling embedded in that original translation to this day. The adventures of Mac and his friends, Doc with his laboratory, his adventures in a dilapidated car, a drinking party that ends in chaos: everything seems to have come from my own fingers. The book opened a window to the world for a young reader and also, mysteriously, revealed the secrets of authorship.
• Eka Kurniawan’s novels include Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger
Translated from Indonesian by Krithika Varagur