The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney). Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, September 2015. 192 Pages. $16.95, paper.
Translations are often beautiful and alluring for myriad reasons. They offer a glimpse of a different language and structure, they are between two worlds: meaning and thought. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney is the true definition of collaboration. It is a work of art meant to be viewed front and back, up and down, backward and forward. It should be the level of translation that the future looks forward to, it is truly a rare treat that continues to give a sort of mysterious sweetness one gets the longer they dedicate themselves to the savoring of it. The Story of My Teeth follows the story of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a man who spends his life in search of stories to tell and sell, of teeth with their own histories.
“Highway” is incredibly forthcoming with the past, present, and future of the story at hand and that of his own life. He himself, much like Luiselli, is a master craftsman of the word and the canvas of the story. With the kind of honesty often lacking in contemporary fiction, “Highway” is unique:
This is the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegories, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and, finally, postmortem fame. At that point it will no longer be my place to say anything in the first person. I will be a dead man, a happy, enviable man.
There is no deception in this book, no flair to overexpose Luiselli’s rather visible talents. We are told a beautiful and quick moving story on the scenic route. We’re supposed to enjoy little details because they are intricate and beautiful. “Highway” is the guide for our journey, and one of the most original characters of the year. After years of jobs for the sake of jobs, he finds a passion in being an auctioneer, with his eyes on being the greatest ever. He then collects teeth that survive through their stories, Marilyn Monroe to Virginia Woolf, Pluto to Petrarch. Each story grows as Highway tells them.
The deeper the reader gets into this story, the better an understanding they get. This isn’t metafiction; this is a social commentary on the art of storytelling and the value we put it in. The entire story consists of Highway in search of value, in search of meaning. Once he realizes the power he can have discussing ordinary objects, the story really begins to jump from the page:
I explained that what I meant was that I could tell stories whose degree of deviation from the value of the conic section of their related objects was greater than zero. In other words, as the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through “an elegant surpassing of the truth.” This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.
Luiselli makes some bold explorations into the art of value and storytelling, and it’s something that shouldn’t go quietly into the night. We need to reflect, we need to explore. Many books have come and gone that have tried to make sense of the power of fiction, and A Story of My Teeth may be the closest we’ll get.
The story doesn’t end at the last scene of our faithful Highway; it ends with a timeline both real and historical, fantastical and fictional joining forces to tell a different story, something akin to seeing the wool of multiple timelines in a mad scientist’s bedroom. It’s a change of pace; it’s rewinding an old VHS tape and seeing new scenes. Everything adds up. It’s important to know that the value of any, and every, story comes from it’s past, present, and possible future. If anything else, and there are many good things included in this book, Luiselli and company remind us of the important nature of stories and that their value can, and most certainly will, grow over time. As stated earlier, translations are a different breed. They are living conversations between languages, and this was the perfect medium, the perfect place, to remind the reader of that value.
The more the reader thinks about this, the more they will see it as a mosaic. Luiselli reminds us at the perfect times that this story, this “collection of teeth,” is a physical product created by her with collaborations from the Jumex Collection and a juice factory, with the added twist from her incredibly diligent translator. This, right here, is writing for a new era. Luiselli and McSweeney might just be onto something here. It would be a disservice to call this a novel or a collection. It’s a gallery of thought. It’s meant to be appreciated part for part. This is writing illuminated.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.