Eduard Màrquez’s Zugzwang: Cosmpolitanism, Minority, Translation

Written in the wake of the Barcelona Olympics, Eduard Màrquez’s Zugzwang reflects the tensions of a culture straining against its minor status with aspirations toward a cosmopolitan outlook. It mines the rich vein of experimental narrative in the United States to make something wholly—and weirdly—Catalan.

Eduard Màrquez
Eduard Màrquez. Photo by Toni Coll Tort

Today, to advocate cosmopolitanism in the strong sense, to posit a human community of global proportions, is likely to seem idealistic or merely wishful. Humanity is riven by divisions. On the one hand lie so many chauvinisms—ethnic, religious, and nationalistic—while on the other hand lie so many hierarchies, relations of domination within and between languages and cultures, classes and regions, economies and states. Sometimes, moreover, these two hands join in multiple conflicts. And when citizenship is everywhere defined in terms of political categories like municipality, province, and nation, how can any person credibly be considered a citizen of the world?

When citizenship is everywhere defined in terms of political categories like municipality, province, and nation, how can any person credibly be considered a citizen of the world?

As a result, notions of cosmopolitanism can seem more persuasive if they take weaker yet more material forms such as transnational institutions, diasporic communities, and travel abroad. But even these cases fall short of an unfettered global reach. Neither the United Nations nor the European Union have been free of ideological oppositions or hesitant to institute repressive policies. Immigrants cannot be treated as evidence of multiculturalism without misrepresenting the circumstances of their relocation, usually financial straits or political persecution in their country of origin and cultural assimilation in their host country. Although tourism may diversify taste, it can readily lead to little more than a superficial penchant for exoticism or an elite sampling of fashion and food enabled by affluence.

Cosmopolitanism is best defined as an attitude of openness to linguistic and cultural differences. Given the impossibility of truly encompassing the globe, a cosmopolitan attitude is fundamentally utopian, bound up with a hopeful dream of human harmony that has yet to materialize. Nonetheless, it rests on an experience in a local situation, namely the perception of a lack, a feeling of dissatisfaction or sheer boredom, which searches for compensation in the foreign.

Hence cosmopolitanism can vary according to the location where it originates. In major cultures like the United States—those that rank high in the unequal distribution of power and prestige around the world, mindful of their self-sufficiency and superiority—a touristic approach predominates: it gives little or no attention to learning foreign languages, focuses on a narrow selection of foreign cultural forms and practices, and subjects them to an appreciation that ranges between superficiality and assimilation. Minor cultures like Catalonia, ranking low in the global hierarchy and mindful of their relative insufficiency and inferiority, tend to favor a pragmatic approach: they cultivate polylingualism by incorporating the use of a major language, seek to expand and develop domestic cultural resources with foreign imports, and explore social and political solutions that have been adopted in other minor situations. 

Yet should not the term cosmopolitan be reserved for an attitude toward different languages and cultures that is unremittingly receptive? Should not an encounter with the foreign question the domestic, challenging the norms that define and limit any culture, whether the complacencies of majority or the insecurities of minority? Should not a global ambition issuing from a local situation redraw the distinction between what is global and what is local so as to result in cultural innovation? 


Perhaps the cosmopolite should be reimagined as the translator who maintains a commitment to both source and translating cultures but aims to interrogate and thereby transform them beyond recognition, feeling at home in neither.

Translation can be a key practice in fostering this no-holds-barred cosmopolitanism. In selecting uncustomary works for translation, in devising unexpected strategies to translate them, a translator can stimulate new developments in the translating culture by revising its reception of foreign literatures to admit new forms and themes. Perhaps the cosmopolite should be reimagined as the translator who maintains a commitment to both source and translating cultures but aims to interrogate and thereby transform them beyond recognition, feeling at home in neither.

* * *

For anglophone readers, a translation of Catalan writer Eduard Màrquez’s Zugzwang (1995) is likely to be haunted by an uncanny familiarity. The weirdness starts with the form, the short-short fiction, classifying the book as what Robert Coover called “minute stories” in a 1976 issue of the journal TriQuarterly. Zugzwang contains forty-three such pieces, all under one thousand words. Yet the resemblance runs deeper. Although Màrquez’s fascination with the vagaries of identity recalls German-language writers like Franz Kafka and Max Frisch, his heaviest debt is to narrative experimentalists in the United States from the 1960s onward. In interviews, he has expressed his admiration not only for Coover but for John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Paul Auster. Their influence is sometimes direct. Màrquez’s piece “General Restructuring,” where a character wakes one morning to find his bedroom unrecognizable, reworks the premise of Coover’s story “The Marker” (1969), where a character prepares for bed one night but after switching off the light cannot find his way through his bedroom. Other, related influences can be discerned. The pieces in which characters follow strangers seem imprinted by the detectives’ movements in Auster’s New York Trilogy (1985–86), but they also reflect the projects of the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, a sometime collaborator of Auster’s, whose 1983 book, Suite vénitienne, meticulously details her surveillance of a stranger in Venice.

Clearly, a reader must be immersed in recent fiction to recognize these affiliations. The marvel of Màrquez’s book is to make any such recognition unnecessary: it conveys the sense—regardless—that you have read this sort of thing before. The pieces amount to a veritable compendium of fantastic premises that can be found in a variety of literatures. They are also generic hybrids, containing elements of the gothic and the absurd, noir and magic realism, metafiction and the academic treatise, erotica and satire. As stories they are fragmentary, sketching the slenderest of plots, and the recurrence of certain characters, allusions, and motifs ends up foregrounding the discontinuous quality of the text. The reader soon comes to realize that Zugzwang belongs to an international wave of postmodernism, dismantling the conventions of realistic fiction to critique literary representation but using familiar experimental techniques to carry out the critique and to extend the speculative power of narrative.

It would be misguided, however, to dismiss Màrquez’s book as simply derivative. The postmodern aesthetic he has adopted forces the reader to rethink the very idea of originality. Like other writers in minor languages, he looked abroad for literary models and found them in major languages, primarily English, although he read most of the anglophone writers in Spanish translations. We should rather ask what kind of difference his writing makes, both to the innovative fiction that he deploys and to the Catalan narrative traditions in which his project is situated. How does he transform his models? What innovation does he introduce into Catalan literature?

* * *

Màrquez’s curious title is German in origin. The word zugzwang is defined in English dictionaries as a position in chess where any move is disadvantageous. In an interview with the Catalan newspaper Avui, Màrquez applied the term to his characters, most of whom, he observed, “are subjected to forces and situations that prove too great for them and in most cases wind up leaving them injured” (this English translation, like the others in this essay, is mine).

When asked whether zugzwang was his “vision of reality,” Màrquez agreed and linked it to a technique devised by the Spanish modernist Ramón María del Valle-Inclán. In his 1920 play, Luces de Bohemia (Eng. Bohemian Lights, 1976), Valle-Inclán coined the term esperpento to describe a systematic distortion of characters and situations in the service of social criticism. Only esperpento, he believed, could represent “the tragic sense of Spanish life.” Màrquez similarly explained to his interviewer that “it is useful to reduce reality to this extreme so as to explain it at another level.” He went no further, but his remark obviously invites the inference that he is commenting on Catalonia by staging a succession of zugzwangs or, in his words, “limit situations that are turned against the characters.”

The evidence for a Catalonian target is difficult to deny. It starts with the language in which the text is written, identifying the primary readership as Catalan. In “Phantasmagoria,” Catalan cuisine appears in a photograph at a bar, typical dishes like croquettes and grilled hake. Several pieces are set in an urban locale that bears a strong resemblance to Barcelona, particularly its characteristic architecture. Buildings have portals and porter’s lodges. In “Osmosis,” an apartment block is designed with a central air shaft that transports household sounds and cooking smells while functioning as a space where clothes are hung out to dry. Not only are many references made to the metro, but “Facts” alludes to the coin-operated fortune-telling machines that were a fixture of Barcelona metro platforms from roughly the 1890s to the 1930s.

The characters’ names are recognizably Catalan. To the anglophone, some can evoke the wittily suggestive names in Pynchon’s novels, such as McClintic Sphere in V (1963) and Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Hence Bercari Sampsor, who is transformed into an aged corpse during a sexual act, conjures up Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. But “Sampsor” also suggests Prats y Sampsor, a town in the Catalonian province of Lleida. In fact, most of the characters’ surnames are the names of towns in Catalan-speaking regions. Thus Cogul, Florejacs, Mafet, Nalec, Nyus, Riner, and Surp are also towns in Lleida; Age, Dosquers, Garbet, Isòvol, Saus, and Vilaür are located in the province of Girona; Das, Massalfassar, Murla, Mutxamel, Náquera, and Polop are in the Valencian Community; and Búger, Llubí, and Sineu are on the Balearic island of Mallorca. Màrquez has even used the names of towns in neighboring Aragón, such as Castilgaleu, where Catalan is spoken by some inhabitants.

These correspondences prompt an informed reader to treat the pieces as satires of Catalonia. Insofar as the characters’ predicaments repeatedly hinge on the theme of identity, whether they lose or reinvent their own or appropriate another’s, Màrquez appears to be questioning an ongoing process of Catalonian self-definition. Other, more specific targets include affluence, celebrity, academia, even the complacency of passers-by confronted by poverty. “Ararat, or Salvation through Art,” for instance, ridicules a musical performance as an exercise in self-promotion enabled by sheer wealth. Since the wealth derives from real estate (“skyscrapers”), the Catalonian industry that grew rapidly after the 1980s only to crash with the recent financial crisis, the piece evidently takes aim at the Barcelona bourgeoisie. 

Yet Màrquez would object. In our correspondence, he has denied any social commentary. “It is not a book about Catalonia or Barcelona,” he has insisted.

Barcelona merely forms the backdrop. And that is because it is my backdrop, and it is easier to situate things and events in places that you know. The concept “zugzwang” possesses only an individual, existential dimension, not collective.

In view of the evidence, should we regard Màrquez’s demurral as deliberate evasion, typical of an author who is unwilling to fix the meaning of his text, or as repression, an unconscious exclusion of a meaning with which he has yet to come to terms? But then can any evasion be sharply distinguished from repression?

Màrquez’s use of Catalonian place names has so far gone unnoticed. The reviewer for the Catalan newspaper El Punt was unique in glancing at the characters’ names, but he did little more than call attention to their “eccentricity,” offering no explanation. Catalan readers seem not to perceive the local references. Does this failure signal a collective repression that highlights what is cosmopolitan about Màrquez’s work, its international influences? Or if in their lack of recognition Catalan readers follow Màrquez in seeing zugzwang as an “existential dimension,” are they not universalizing a Catalonian experience? Such responses overcome the minor status of Catalan culture by transforming it into something greater—world literature, for example, or humanity.

* * *

To write in Catalan constitutes a profound and decisive move for any writer in Catalonia, native as well as immigrant. The nationalist ideology of Franco’s dictatorship (1939–75) fastened on the Spanish language, Castilian, as a cultural means of unifying the nation. Regional languages like Catalan were suppressed because they were considered potential sources of division. After the Spanish civil war, teaching Catalan, publishing Catalan books and periodicals, broadcasting radio and television programs in Catalan, even the public use of Catalan were prohibited. The suppression grew less severe in the later years of the dictatorship, and when it ended, the regional languages reemerged, usually with a deep nationalist investment of their own. Catalans imagined themselves as a national community, although a nation without a state. By the 1980s the Generalitat, the autonomous government of Catalonia, had taken measures to put Catalan on an equal footing with Spanish, elevating it to an official language, making it the language of instruction in primary and secondary schools, and restoring it in print and electronic media.

Born in Barcelona in 1960, Màrquez is proficient in both Spanish and Catalan. Whereas most fiction writers of his generation made their debut with realistic or humorous narratives in Catalan, exploring Catalonian life past and present, he began writing in Spanish, publishing two collections of poems in the early 1990s. He wrote Zugzwang in Catalan, however, and when asked by interviewers about the abrupt shift of language in his writing, he could not account for it:

One day the first story came out, and it came out in Catalan. It doesn’t have more of an explanation. It wasn’t a problem, and I continued writing in Catalan. Now I suppose I will continue writing in Catalan, but I don’t know and it doesn’t worry me. It isn’t a decision that I took rationally.

Màrquez has written in Catalan ever since. To date, he has published over twenty-five books in the language, including short fiction, novels, children’s literature, and adaptations from various European languages, the work of authors like the Grimm brothers, Collodi, and Shakespeare.

This turn of events inevitably raises the question of whether Màrquez’s unconscious investment in the language is not just personal, a consequence of his upbringing, but ideological, a continuing resistance against the hegemony of Spanish.

Yet Màrquez’s shift to Catalan occurred not merely without deliberation but without his awareness. It was “more automatic,” in his view, than “the leap to narrative,” which he had often contemplated before writing Zugzwang. This turn of events inevitably raises the question of whether his unconscious investment in the language is not just personal, a consequence of his upbringing, but ideological, a continuing resistance against the hegemony of Spanish. Given the politicized nature of Catalan, has Màrquez repressed the nationalistic impulse that drives the writing of so many of his contemporaries? Is it this repression that allowed him to remain open to various non-Catalan influences, Spanish as well as English?

Màrquez’s recourse to Catalan names complicates these questions while making them all the more insistent. Franco’s regime forbade the use of non-Castilian names, whether for streets and towns or for newborns, so that many Catalan names were Castilianized. It was not until 1998 that the Generalitat passed a law providing that “the citizens of Catalonia have the right to use the proper regulation of their Catalan names and surnames.” In naming his characters after Catalonian towns, has Màrquez made possible a return of the suppressed?

* * *

By the 1990s, writes Joan Ramon Resina in his provocative study, Barcelona’s Vocation of Modernity (2008), Barcelona had “irrevocably lost its Catalan identity.” Through waves of immigration, particularly Latin American and North African, through urban planning that ignored native architectural traditions in favor of foreign models and accelerated real estate development, and through municipal investment in public spectacles aimed at both residents and tourists, the capital of Catalonia became the site of a “hybrid identity designed for a fragmented population that is loosely unified through consumption of the city’s image.” Resina laments that the decades after Franco’s regime saw Catalan nationalism give way to a “Barcelonism” that combines “cosmopolitan snobbery and colonial shame.” He regards the 1992 Olympics as a culminating event in this trend: “nothing was spared to lift the city out of its provincial cocoon into the glory of universal image,” which, however, concealed the fact that Barcelona’s “primary connection to Catalonia is no longer kinship, history, or language, but the motorway and the weekend residence.” 

Written in the same period, Zugzwang presents a different, competing view that is not grounded in a nationalistic concern with the continuity of Catalan traditions. In Màrquez’s treatment, identity is far beyond unsettled: it is unstable and metamorphic. This mirrors the uncertain position of Catalonia, an autonomous region seeking to maintain the international recognition that its language and culture had received during the Barcelona Olympics but still very much aware of its minority, whether construed politically in relation to the central government in Madrid or culturally in relation to the dominance of the Spanish language in the Iberian peninsula and in Latin America. The dilemma faced by Catalans was—and still is—a zugzwang: whether to embrace regionalism, a tendency that can preserve the language and culture but at the risk of stagnating provinciality and self-absorption, or to promote cosmopolitanism, a tendency that can encourage the assimilation of groundbreaking foreign influences and the transformation of native traditions while simultaneously threatening linguistic and cultural preservation.

Zugzwang bends the styles and discourses of American postmodern fiction into a new, Catalan shape, which shows that their expressiveness has been limited by the exclusive concerns of a dominant culture.

Màrquez’s book, in effect, provides a resolution to this zugzwang, although in purely imaginary terms by consolidating a set of disparate literary materials. It holds in uneasy tension its Catalan-named characters and Barcelona settings with a stylistic technique characteristic of Spanish modernism and the narrative experimentalism of postmodernists in the United States. Even so, the literatures that Zugzwang brings together do not remain intact or unquestioned. It exposes a limitation in Catalan narrative traditions, where the dominance of realism has excluded or marginalized fantasy and experimentalism. It bends the styles and discourses of American postmodern fiction into a new, Catalan shape, which shows that their expressiveness has been limited by the exclusive concerns of a dominant culture. And it reveals how Catalan literature can profit from Spanish influence, which in turn is made to address social developments in a regional situation. Seen from a Catalan point of view, the great merit of Màrquez’s project is to give voice to a political unconscious that emerged in the 1990s but continues to figure in Catalonian cultural debates. 

* * *

Màrquez’s style is precise yet elliptical, chiseled yet evocative. It bears all the marks of his previous work, which includes years of copyediting and ghostwriting as well as poetic composition. As a result, he explained to an interviewer, the prose of Zugzwang “possesses a poetic dimension that is deliberately contaminated by other registers.” His intention was to elicit a particular response: “The language must surprise constantly,” he remarked. “It needs to prevent the reader from running on automatic pilot by moving from one surprise to the next, either on the narrative or the stylistic level.” 

Since Màrquez created this effect partly through deviations from standard Catalan, I sought to imitate it by resorting to comparable deviations in my English version. I followed his abrupt lexical shifts. Colloquialisms abound: “ple de gom a gom” (crammed full), “tros” (chunk), “tipus” (guy), “la pell de galina” (goose bumps), “bocafluix” (blabbermouth), “tafaners” (noseybodies). Jargon is drawn from a variety of fields, such as biology (“tibantor a l’escrot” / scrotal tension), medicine (“mononucleosis vírica” / infectious mononucleosis), law (“clàusula testamentària” / testamentary clause), and communications (“repetidors” / transponders). At points, the language turns poetical, as when eyes resemble “deus calmes” (calm streams) and a dress is “perlejat de coques de llum” (sequined with fireflies), and occasionally the imagery relies on synesthesia, as with eyes that “auscultaven” (listened) and “tuf rebregat” (crumpled stench). The jargon, too, is sometimes poeticized, as when a smile is “fugaç com l’escat d’una nou” (fleeting as the blaze of a nova) and the sun is said to have “marcit com un holograma tèrbol” (shriveled like a cloudy hologram). The sheer heterogeneity of Màrquez’s lexicon is heightened by his syntax, which mixes carefully phrased sentences with fragmentary constructions but remains extremely fluent, unwinding with an elegant economy. This feature is perhaps more pronounced in the translation because although I adhered closely to his word order, I aimed for a high degree of readability that necessitated departures. 

Màrquez’s prose style can surprise segments of his Catalan audience if they anticipate a fairly conventional version of the language—an expectation that is quite likely to be shared by many of his readers. They may have been educated in standard Catalan, they may have absorbed the linguistic norm through the media and contemporary literature, and they may be deeply invested in the vernacular nationalism that has fueled Catalonian politics after Franco. These factors, like the cultural and social context of Màrquez’s book, can be communicated only in a separate statement such as the essay you are reading, never through a translation itself. 

Nor can a translation preserve Màrquez’s style intact. What my English version offers is a stylistic approximation. Whatever surprise it may cause in anglophone readers will occur for a reason that has nothing to do with the Catalan context: my effort to frustrate the general expectation that translations should be cast in the most familiar and therefore the most invisible form of the translating language, namely the standard dialect. Thus I sometimes used nonstandard items when Màrquez’s Catalan was standard. His choice of “escrit” (written) became “scrawled”; for “fugir” (flee or escape), I used “make your getaway”; and I replaced “viure amb algú altre” (live with another man) with “shack up with another guy.”

Màrquez’s reliance on postmodern fiction is not difficult to convey—at least not to an anglophone audience which already knows that writing. Maintaining a semantic correspondence that re-creates the narratives allows the knowing reader to perceive the affiliations. Even for this reader, however, I underscored the generic hybridity of the book through resonant choices. In “Pandemic I: Boredom,” to take one example, the English is more colloquial than the Catalan, verging on hard-boiled, and so the style is more suggestive of noir in line with the narrator’s strange appropriation of another character’s life. Where Màrquez used standard words and phrases like “seguir” (follow), “conèixer” (recognize), “es tanca” (locked or shut up), “lívid” (furious), and “excuses inversemblants” (implausible excuses), I chose “tail,” “catch on,” “holed up,” “fit to be tied,” and “excuses that didn’t wash.” This strategy can bring to the fore any resemblances to the work of Paul Auster or Sophie Calle, as well as to noir conventions in general, and at the same time call attention to what is different in Màrquez’s project. After reading Zugzwang, postmodern fiction is unlikely to look the same.

Temple University


Lawrence Venuti is, most recently, the author of Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice (Routledge) and the translator of Ernest Farrés’s Edward Hopper: Poems (Graywolf), which won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. He guest-edited the September 2009 cover feature of WLT devoted to Catalan literature. Click here to read a review of Translation Changes Everything.